Beirut Arrival | A Matter of Security

Mid-November 1977

The Olympic Airlines flight landed at Beirut International Airport at close to ten p.m. The quiet on the tarmac soon gave way to chaos.

<Feature photo by theimageworks.com

Inside the terminal, passport control screamed of verbal abuses initiated by immigration officials who acted more like military. Weary passengers used physical gestures to support their arrival claims. In my case the grizzly bearded official stamped my diplomatic passport (like he had swatted a fly) accompanied by an unwelcoming sneer.

If passport control was mental abuse then the arrivals hall was the snake pit where the inmates were told they could leave at any time, but knew the dire consequences if they did. That’s how I felt under the watchful eyes of airport security guards wielding AK-47’s.

After an hour wait, I came to the conclusion that the American Embassy Beirut hadn’t received my arrival telegram. No way would I play the role of an inmate here longer, much less spend the night. I had no contact information for the embassy. After asking so-called airport officials for the phone number for the American Embassy telephone number, their shell-shocked expressions caused me to cease further questions.

A well-dressed European fellow and his wife and daughter seemed to have the same problem. They huddled next to a large stanchion that helped keep the lid on this cauldron of tension. I had heard them speaking French. The man had glanced over a few times.

The Frenchman’s handsome wife gave me a furtive glance and muttered something in his ear. He put on a smile and dodged some incoming passengers before introducing himself to me as Doctor Andre Ricard (I’m guessing the spelling of his last name). I gave him my name and told him that I was an American engineer on business here, and that my driver hadn’t shown up. I wouldn’t reveal my ties to the American Embassy Beirut yet.

“We have a similar problem,” he said. “Is this your first visit to Beirut?”

I said, “Yes, and your first visit, too?”

The Frenchman nodded and replied, “We have a reservation at the Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel on the Corniche. I’m sure they have spare rooms.”

A comfortable bed with room service sounded very inviting.

“The Pan Am stewardesses stay there,” he added, to dispel any doubts I might have.

What would RSO Childress (Cairo) do? This was definitely a matter of security—mine. OK, the RSO would have had sense enough to bring embassy contact info, but what if he didn’t? Yeah, but he would have beforehand knowledge about Beirut and the various military/political factions that we would be required to traverse. What if he didn’t? Childress would have stood firm until tomorrow morning or however long it took.

The Frenchman said, “Would you like to share a taxi?”

I gazed around me at the insanity. Could it be worse outside? The Pan Am stewardesses stayed there. They must take taxis to the hotel. No, the airlines usually had their own vans. Still, no one harmed them.

“Monsieur?”

Incredibly, I heard myself reply, “Thank you. Are we ready to leave?”

intercon-beirut-pinterest
1970’s: The Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel, Beirut courtesy pinterest.com

I helped them with their luggage. We were just one happy family heading to the Intercontinental Hotel resort on The Corniche (The sound of the word “Corniche” waxed of ease and charm).

The doctor explained that French would be more likely understood than English. It made sense. I’d let him negotiate with the taxi driver.

We drove along the airport road north toward downtown Beirut. I figured the International Airport was kind of like a neutral island between the Christian and Muslins zones. Maybe I was wrong. What I did know was that Beirut had been divided up the middle by another “Green Line.” I had already witnessed a Green Line in Cyprus (maybe “Red Line” would be a better choice).

The International Airport was south of the green line. The Muslims resided on one side and the Christians on the other. RCO Roberson had explained it briefly before I left Karachi on my first Middle East trip, but why had I been thinking about Moussaka and the Acropolis?

The taxi slowed as we approached a barricade of some sort. Armed men stood on guard. They were poorly dressed, definitely not associated with any military.

“What do they want?” I said to the Frenchman, to allay my fear.

“It’s a militia check point. To get to the Phoenicia [Intercontinental Hotel] we must pass through this check point to get to the hotel.”

beirut-chkpt
photo by pinterest.com ( labaneh-lover.tumblr.co)

“Passports!” the taxi driver barked out as his arm reached out behind. His fingers wiggled.

The Frenchman immediately handed him the family’s passports.

The driver stole a glance of me in the rear view mirror. “Passport!”

My diplomatic passport could be my downfall. I had no choice… RSO Childress (Cairo) would have surrendered his passport, wouldn’t he?

I held my black passport up. The driver snatched it away and held it out the window. One of the guards grabbed it.

We waited nervously. The Frenchman had seen my passport. He gazed at me in the rearview.

“You are a diplomat?” the Frenchman uttered in a lowered voice, as if I hadn’t notified him that I had small pox.

“Americani, Americani,” the guards kept repeating, along with snippets from whatever language they spoke (Lebanese?). I’m sure, as was the Frenchman, that they were discussing my passport.

The taxi driver lifted his hands and complained of the delay in their language. Vehicles lined up behind us.

Oh shit, I thought, suddenly feeling nauseous. Could they arrest me? Abduct me and hold me for ransom with the embassy? Or God knows what…

The circumstances at hand and the chilly night had already rattled me when I heard the banging on the window next to my head.

I lowered the window enough to see the guard.

“Where you go?” He barked at me.

He wore a checked scarf over his head, but I could see his piercing dark eyes. A weapon hung at his side.

“Where!”

“Intercontinental Hotel… We’re all together.”

“Why you come here?”

My mind raced. “I… I’m a technician. I work at the U.S. Embassy… tomorrow.”

The guard stared at me for what seemed like the longest time. His firearm pointed at the ground like a walking cane. I waited for him to reach for the door handle with the other hand that I could not see.

When he shoved my passport through the window, I grabbed it like a hungry fish. I tried not to show my overwhelming relief. The taxi driver pushed the Frenchman’s passports into his hand.

The barricade gate open. I rolled up the window. The annoyed taxi driver gave some kind of hand signal before he cranked the transmission into first gear, and sped off.

The silence in the back seat of the silence didn’t release the tension.

“Are there anymore check points before we reach the hotel?” I said.

The Frenchman rattled off some words to the taxi driver in French. The driver shrugged and replied in what I surmised was broken French.

“He said there may be another checkpoint, but it shouldn’t be any problem.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear.

(To be continued)

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