The International Writers Magazine: Guy Burton in Lebanon -
serialised in Hacktreks
Kebabs and Invitations
"Although soap, toothpaste and other toiletries are readily
obtainable, in the more backward areas toilet paper is unknown.
So unless you can adapt to the Middle Eastern watering can and left-hand
method, bring along some loo rolls."
Lonely Planet, 1997
The kebab was bad.
After a heavy night of drinking in London Id introduced Marcel
to the dubious delights of a night-time kebab. He liked it so much he
went back the next day for another. But this time he was sober; he didnt
realise it should only be eaten after drinking lots of alcohol. He promptly
threw up and spent the rest of the day in bed.
The next day I came home after a long and difficult day taking an exam
at university. I was exhausted and slightly irritable. Marcel had made
a partial recovery. A dirty plate and assorted pots and pans were testimony
to the fact he felt well enough to cook, if not to clean.
"You know you can clean your dinner plates after youve used
them," I snapped.
Marcel sized me up, trying to work out whether I was genuinely upset.
His face broke out in a smile. He laughed. Hed guessed incorrectly.
But my silence made him stop. "Im not joking, Marcel. I am
not your maid."
"I cant believe you said that," he replied. He sounded
wounded. I had shone a light on to him which he didnt like. "If
you were in my house, I would treat you as my guest."
"Im sorry. Im tired. I didnt mean to get angry."
"Well, you know I mean it. Youre welcome to visit. Anytime."
Hed been saying this ever since I first got to know him a few
years earlier and before he took a job in New York. He was staying with
me for a few days before returning back to his parents home in
Marcel had been extending his invitation for some time. I usually nodded,
to let him know Id heard, before going back to whatever it was
I was doing at the time. But this time it was different. I did not have
anything planned for the summer. I was on the verge of breaking up with
my girlfriend; she wanted to find herself and not feel as
if she was being held back. If I had the money, what was
there to keep me in England over the coming months?
"I may well hold you to that."
I hadnt liked Marcel when I first met him. Perhaps it was his
loudness, his rudeness, which was stripped away the more you got to
know him. But as I spent more time in his company through the pressure
of mutual friends, I came to realise my first impression was mistaken.
Yes, he had a booming voice and he often said what he thought, but these
were traits which I eventually came to accept. Besides, he had an international
background, having been born in one place and grown up in another. Like
me, he was rootless.
But whereas I had been born in Brazil and then moved from one country
to another as a result of my fathers work, I learnt Marcel had
moved away from Lebanon because of a war which had dominated most of
his childhood. Others had lived the same experience, including a girl,
Nadine, who Marcel had introduced me to.
Id been interested in Marcel and Nadines experiences, although
I didnt want to ask them too many questions. Every time the subject
was broached it invariably was linked to that of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli
conflict, which gave rise to mounting passions. Since I didnt
know very much about the subject I avoided speaking too often about
it, even I did want to know more. But it wasnt a passion; merely
a matter of passing interest.
As the weeks and months passed, I soon found other distractions. One
year, soon before starting university a friend invited me to join her
in a trip around Eastern Europe. We went as winter was setting in and
as the regions hostels began the slow drift into enforced seasonal
hibernation. We hitchhiked around Poland looking for the cheapest places
to stay. We ate only bread and butter and drank nothing more than water.
I hadnt known what to expect but when I returned two months I
did know one thing: I had fallen in love with the idea of backpacking.
Even the cold nights spent sitting in train stations, inhaling the fumes
of peoples socks in dormitories and eating food which tasted of
cardboard couldnt dampen the appeal. I knew I wanted to do it
And now Marcel had repeated his offer to me of visiting Lebanon. The
invitation was really only for a week, but already I was thinking beyond
the time I might spend with him and his family. As the days passed after
Marcels departure, I mulled over his invitation. I read about
the country and learned it was full of rugged mountains, rising steeply
out of the Mediterranean Sea, atop which massive cedar trees grow. In
ancient times it was called Phoenicia; its traders journeyed across
the Mediterranean bringing the wares of different provinces and towns.
I came to realise to realise it would be a perfect launch pad for a
journey around the region, although I wasnt yet sure where exactly
I would go afterwards. I knew I would have to travel through Syria,
since Lebanons only open border was to that country. I also knew
I could only go for two months, since I would need to be back for the
start of my final year of university.
I definitely knew I wanted to see as much as possible. And I knew I
wanted to learn something of the regions culture. I knew many
of the countries there were Muslim, but the realisation Lebanon had
a large Christian population was news to me. I wondered whether it was
present in other parts of the Middle East too. I had learned of the
debt Europe owed the region for keeping the knowledge of ancient Greek
philosophy alive during the medieval period. And Id read about
the ruins left by the Greeks and Romans and wanted to see them.
Of course there was the question of money, but that was resolved a few
months later when I boarded my plane to Beirut. Following my final exam
I spent the next weeks working in my hometown. I also had some money
left over from the university year which had just ended. It wasnt
a large amount, between £500 and £600 after paying for the
airplane ticket. According to the guidebook it would be feasible to
live, sightsee, eat simply and use transport if I stuck to a budget
of £6-£10 per day.
The first thing was of course of the flight. The cheapest flight was
via Bucharest. And so several weeks later I found myself checking in
at the airport, a rucksack on my back with the bare minimum needed to
get around for two months. I had already divided in half the clothes
Id planned to take, and I was carrying a tube of detergent paste
with which I would do my washing. Luckily because it was summer I wouldnt
need any warm clothing, other than a sweater and a long sleeved shirt.
Trousers would be needed though, since I couldnt go into a mosque
or church without them. Having done some research, Id been warned
I might need to carry my own toilet paper, so several rolls filled my
side pockets. Along with a sleeping bag, some shorts, sandals and five
pairs of T-shirts, I thought I would have enough. Except I had to also
bring all my paraphernalia associated with my contact lenses. Several
canisters of saline solution duly made their way in, ensuring the weight
nearly doubled, while the few books and cassette tapes I brought to
play in my Walkman also didnt help.
The day was already proving to be long. Despite having arrived in Bucharest
several hours earlier, at midday, my connecting flight to Beirut would
not leave for another four hours. I looked at the money Id brought
with me: I had around $1000 in cash and travellers cheques and a credit
card if I needed to bail myself out. But if it was to avoid using it
and I didnt think it would be particularly easy to find
an ATM in Syria which linked up with my bank in England I would
need to impose tight budgetary restrictions on myself. I was therefore
determined to make the hot chocolate Id bought nearly 45 minutes
ago last for as long as possible. I was even prepared to accept the
grudging looks from the gloomy Cold War waitress who wiped the nearby
tables and glanced at me with contempt. In a few hours time, I
thought, I will be out of Eastern Europe and in a whole new place.
Several hours later I stepped off the airplane flight in the hot still
air of a dark Beirut night. I paused at the door and looked at sight
before me. It wasnt hard to miss. The building opposite loomed
above us and was dimly lit by the lamps which appeared to skulk at the
edges of the airport. It was an aircraft hanger riddled in machine gun
fire. I felt a knot in my stomach and a sense of trepidation. Have I
made the right choice, I wondered? Where on earth have I come to?
Beirut Soldiers and Cameras Dont Mix
this chaos, and partly because of it, Beirut has lost none of its
vibrancy and retains a certain charm, due mainly to the warmth and
hospitality of its citizens. Though theres not much left to
see in Beirut itself, its a good base for travellers, as its
the countrys transport hub, and the more distant part of Lebanon
is no more than three hours drive away."
Lonely Planet, 1997
I dont recall
much of either the drive back to Marcels or the city through which
we passed. All I did remember was the strong military presence on the
tarmac, by the entrance to the airport terminal. As I walked through,
my movements were closely watched by the Lebanese and Syrian soldiers
standing next to the swing door. There was something unsettling about
the armys visibility, the matter-of-fact way in which they strolled
along the airport concourse and on the streets outside, their rifles
being swayed from side to side.
The following day I woke to a bright and clear July day: my first in
Lebanon. Marcel had dropped me off in the centre of Beirut. I was free
to explore the city for a few hours while he went to his summer job
at a bank in what passed for the citys financial district. Later
we would meet up and have lunch with his parents by the sea. "Dont
get into any trouble while Im gone," he laughed as he drove
off in his 4x4 a necessity on Beiruts unpaved and bombed
It took me all of one hour to find it. Having walked along the Corniche
admiring the dark sea waves which crashed against the rocks, Id
turned back into the city. Although the civil war had officially ended
years ago, its presence continued to hang. Building upon building carried
the pockmarked scars of battle from the guns from different warring
factions, as the front line shifted invisibly forwards and backwards
across the city.
It was then that I came upon it. Parked by the side of a war-torn and
seemingly empty building was a dusty tank, sandbags hanging limply along
its side. Further up the same street were a series of bars, with men
sitting outside sipping tea and puffing contentedly on nargilah, or
water pipes. Without thinking I pulled out my camera. This was one for
the album, I thought, and snapped.
I turned to go, only to hear a whistle. I looked behind. A soldier was
waving, beckoning me to him.
"Camera," he said.
I pulled it out. He took it from my hands and looked at it. Evidently,
this was going to be tricky. He didnt speak English, while my
French was limited, my Arabic non-existent.
He gesticulated at the tank and then at the camera. "Why?"
he asked, his camouflage fatigues and worn rifle making themselves evident
to me. For the first time I noticed the beret he was wearing was black.
That meant he was Lebanese. Had he been Syrian, it would have been red.
I considered the question. How could I explain to him I was a tourist
in his country, that this was my first day and that with soldiers and
sentries on every street corner I assumed they formed part of the scene?
All this I would have said had my new found friend and I been able to
talk to each other. This was going to be tricky.
"Bassbort," he said.
"Bassbort? Sorry, what do you mean?"
"Bassbort. Bassbort," he said, miming the opening of a book.
Oh, I thought, my passport. I handed it over and he flicked through
it and went though my bag as well for good measure.
"Ingleesi?" he asked. "No problem. Come, come."
He waved his hand in the direction of the building behind the tank.
Did I really have a choice? I felt my mouth turn dry; my knees began
to tremble. What was going to happen? Walking past the tank we entered
what remained of the building. Inside were a number of stern looking
officers. I was presented to the commanding officer at the desk and
invited to sit. Looking around I saw a camp bed and planted myself down.
Taking my bag they brought me forward, to a large table where the contents
of my bag were pulled out and documented, one by one, down to the last
pen and pencil. So this will all go on my criminal record, I thought.
What sort of convict will I make with a guidebook on the Middle East,
a notepad and a few pens and pencils? As a felon I was an embarrassment.
So what went through my mind? The prospect of a trial and prison? Worse
still, a kangaroo court, shot at dawn? No, none of that. Instead, I
idly wondered whether I would be out in time to meet Marcel and his
parents for lunch.
Flies buzzed around in the still and dusty heat. Next door a soldier
could be heard chewing nuts. The occasional car passed by. Suddenly
another vehicle could be heard, slowing down and pulling up outside.
Moments later a large middle-aged man with a paunch stepped into the
room. His stare persuaded me to think this might be a little more serious
than Id previously thought. Perhaps Id interrupted his early
afternoon nap, because he didnt look pleased. If Id been
an insect I would have been crushed under his boot, his eyes seemed
to say. I sat up like a bolt.
The man left the room there which was followed by a few minutes of animated
discussion. Eventually there was silence; maybe they were going to let
me go? Another, younger soldier appeared in the dusty room. Going to
the other side of the room, he pulled the mattress off a camp bed nearby,
uncovering a stash of revolvers and rifles. Availing himself of a pistol,
he clipped in a cartridge and beckoned me to follow him. Outside was
the colonels jeep, along with his driver. I didnt want to
get in, but there wasnt anyone I could speak to. It certainly
didnt look like I was going free. Where were they going to take
me? Wherever it was, I wasnt looking forward to it. I got in the
back; the soldier jumped in with another, young one, joined me. The
jeep reversed, held up oncoming traffic and we were away.
Speeding across Beiruts potholed roads and past buildings which
had seen better days, I attempted to make conversation. In a mixture
of French and English I asked where we were going. "Another soldier,
another place. But why," he asked, "did you take a picture
of the tank?"
Because it was there? But I didnt think that would provide an
adequate explanation and it could only have led towards a discussion
about the nature of man and existence. But that might not be the smartest
thing to say to a bunch of gun-wielding soldiers. It was just as well
I wasnt thinking; there wasnt anything in my mind.
We pulled up outside a nondescript building on the north side of the
city centre near. It was in an area close to the old square known as
Solidaire. As we walked across the courtyard and through the entrance,
I realised this had been a shopping mall. The tiles on the floor still
spelled out the name of the franchise, although some were now missing.
The shop displays offered nothing, other than fragments of window presumably
shot out by a battle which had taken place through the building or from
the vibrations of nearby mortar shells.
The soldier wed come to see was surrounded by his men, amid the
rubble of this former monument to consumer spending. In the dimness
of the shopping centre lit only by the holes dotting the walls, I was
prodded forward. There sat one of Lebanons finest, with a bandaged
leg and dressed in shorts which would have been more in keeping with
the beach than an army outpost. He was young and couldnt have
been more than twenty five years old. Pale in complexion he had sharp,
"Why did you take a picture of our tanks?" he asked, in a
strong American accent. I trotted out the first thing which came into
my head. "I didnt realise this wasnt allowed. I have
been in your country for less than a day and thought it was like photographing
"Did you take a picture of the building next to the tank?"
he asked. I admitted I had. He whistled. "This is bad," he
said, "Very bad. We want to help you, but in this country it is
a crime to photograph the military."
He turned to the men who had brought me and spoke in Arabic with them.
"I will call our commander," he said. "If you give us
the film we will take that, but otherwise we will have to hand you over
to someone who will arrest you for this."
That didnt sound too bad. I only hoped the commander was not like
the colonel, who would be most unhappy if he had to have his siesta
interrupted. The American-accented soldier got up unsteadily and walked
through to the back of one of the empty shop offices. There sat a camp
telephone, through which he was patched to the commanders officer.
Apparently he was out, at a meeting. We would have to wait.
The telephone went. The solider listened intently before replying. He
put the phone down. I looked at him expectantly. No, it was just his
wife wanting to know what he wanted for supper. I wanted to ask him
where he had learnt such good English and why an American accent. But
I did not have a chance to: one of his colleagues sat down next to me.
He was the only other English speaker and spoke with a thick Lebanese
accent. He asked about where I was from, who I was and why I had come
to his country.
I asked him why, if the war was over, were there so many soldiers still
on the streets of Beirut. "Because we are peace keepers,"
he said. I considered the reply and thought of the two checkpoints Marcel
and I had driven through earlier that morning on the way into Beirut.
The first had been Lebanese, the second Syrian, just yards further along
the road. I remembered Marcels words said through gritted teeth
of the presence of so many soldiers, especially Syrian, along Beiruts
streets. Things couldnt be normal while the army still made its
presence felt. Looking around me, I remembered where I was. I decided
not to explore this line of thinking.
The phone rang again. The soldier in the shorts picked it up. Again
he listened. He put it down and looked at me, a large smile across his
face. What was he smiling about? I didnt want to know.
"We have decided to arrest the film," he said, nearly giving
me a coronary. And then I felt relief. My body, which had felt so tense
for the last few hours, now relaxed. Like a runner who just finishes
a marathon, my brain became flooded with chemicals as elation began
Well, at least I will be able to meet Marcel on time, I thought.
The news had to be translated to his soldiers, none of whom spoke English.
The soldiers, having gotten wind of the situation, broke into wide open
grins, slapping me on the back. Whereas before I was public enemy number
one with whom no one would talk, I was now the toast of the town. I
seemed to be in good company.
"Where do you want to go?" asked the soldier in the Bermuda
shorts. "Well give you a lift into town."
With that I was hoisted into the back of the jeep with several pairs
of helping hands and given a heros send off from a crowd of waving
soldiers before heading off to the corner of Solidaire.
An hour later I was sitting in the Hard Rock Café, waiting for
Marcel to arrive. Sitting in the icebox surroundings of the bar, I considered
the contrast. All around me were well-dressed young people, waiting
for generous helpings of hamburgers and chips, to be washed down with
a large Coke. The interior was decorated in the style for which the
chain is well-known; records and photographs of American celebrities
adorned the walls. Outside, life seemed bleaker, harsher even. On one
side of Solidaire, a vast and prominent square in earlier life stood
what remained of the Intercontinental Hotel. Bullet holes and spaces
caused by mortar shells slamming into the side disguised what had once
been one of the most well known establishments in downtown Beirut.
Yet even amongst the ruined buildings, the unmarked roads, the lack
of street signs and traffic lights, there appeared hope. Rebuilding
was taking place at a slow pace. The recently appointed Prime Minister
was preparing to send in the bulldozers and trucks into Solidaire, to
begin shifting away the debris and then rebuild and restore the square
and the surrounding area to its former glory. Shiny new Mercedes and
BMWs competed for space with the beaten up hulks of older cars from
But there was no mixed feeling with me. Nothing could get me down. I
felt good, ecstatic even. I had had a run-in and come through. As I
knocked back the last of my beer, Marcel bounded up to me. "How
was your first day? Did you do anything interesting?" he asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact, yes," I said. "I met some
of your soldiers. They seemed quite nice."
"Really?" said Marcel, wide-eyed. "Im surprised.
We never talk to them. You have to tell my father. What did you have
to talk about?"
© Guy Burton October 2004
Guy Burton" <firstname.lastname@example.org
As a postgraduate politics student Guy contributed academic fieldwork
to Gianpaolo Baiocchi¹s Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003) and
book reviews to Liberator magazine. Recently I was made a columnist
on Brazzil magazine, which is available online.
Journeys in Hacktreks
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