American Embassy Beirut | A Night on the Town

November 1977

Communications & Records Officer Ryan B. cruised the deserted streets of Beirut at close to midnight. I thought I was pushing the envelope of Norm Bates’ 60/40 Hypothesis, which stated that 60% of our Foreign Service job was technical and 40% involved… Well, other stuff.

Ryan had slipped an eight-track tape into the console. The Moody Blues sang, “Ride My See-Saw.”

Ride, ride my see-saw,
Take this place
On this trip
Just for me. 

Ride, take a free ride,
Take my place
Have my seat
It’s for free. 

I worked like a slave for years,
Sweat so hard just to end my fears.
Not to end my life a poor man,
But by now, I know I should have run.

moody blues-see saw
album photo by music


Ryan’s head bobbed with the twang of the  guitars while his old Saab raced down the lonely avenue patrolled only by the spirits cast aside by the Lebanese civil war.

Behind, shadows catered to the whims of the reflections of the vehicle’s dim lights.

Although I trusted Ryan, it seemed odd to be driving the deserted streets of Beirut in his old Saab when the State Department had issued travel warnings, which I’m sure refrained from tooling around the streets at midnight. Was he crazy, brave, or like me, just too curious? In my short stay in the Middle East and South Asia I had learned that there was no danger until it became personal. Ryan felt comfortable on the edge. Al told me that Ryan had been a captain in the US Army Security Agency in Viet Nam. Like most VN vets I imagined he would probably have a hard time back in the states.

hotel normandy-beirut
1960’s photo of Hotel Normandy Beirut by

He pulled up at a hotel named The Normandy, down by the waterfront. Ryan waved to a guard who opened a gate for him. He parked, gave the guard some “funny money” and said to me, “Let’s go get a beer.”

The Normandy, a shadow of a rounded turret above a palm tree lined avenue, presented itself as a friendly fortress. Inside, it showed its frivolous side. A stately staircase was right out of the MGM film,  An American in Paris. It only lacked George Gershwin’s music (“Stairway to Paradise”). Numerous mirrors reflected everyone and everything, exposing all and nothing.

We sat at a table in the bar. Ryan ordered four beers.

Is this where the two dark eyed sultry Lebanese babes show up?

“I like the atmosphere here,” Ryan said, like he had arrived at his safe haven. “I double order; the waiters can take forever.”

The staff all greeted him. Again, my imagination soared, resurrecting Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca.

Ryan said to me, “Ever hear of the double-agent spy, Kim Philby?”

kim philby
photo of Kim Philby by

“Vaguely. I remember reading articles about Graham Green and Philby. The newspapers seemed to imply that Green was a spy because the two worked together during World War Two for the British Secret Service… M—”

“MI6,” Ryan said. “Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Their motto was Semper Occultus (always secret), although I’m not sure Philby got the memo on that.”

He gazed at me with newfound respect and said, “I’ve never met a tech who has read Graham Greene… or who knows much about WWII history. By the way, Graham Green was no spy.”

“Greene is one of the reasons why I’m here,” I said, quite honestly. “The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter, The Honorary Consul and my favorite, The Third Man. His stories got me curious about spies, diplomats, and such things.”

“Kim Philby was probably the most famous traitor since Benedict Arnold,” Ryan said, and pointed to the corner table. “One of the waiters told me that Philby used to hang out at that table right over there. The Normandy was his headquarters. He had a room here. When he found out we were going to arrest him Philby fled to Moscow in ‘63.”

I wasn’t sure if we referred to the Brits or the U.S. Government. Caught up in the excitement of Ryan’s voice, I said, “How did they eventually catch him?”

Ryan shook his head and said, “They didn’t. He’s still in Moscow.”

While Ryan went on to tell Philby’s story I couldn’t help wondering why we were the only two in the bar. Quite frankly, I wondered: Was Ryan a spy? Did he work for the CIA? And what about George?
Book cover photo by letter

Ryan said, “Kim Philby was the third to defect after Agents Burgess and McLean. Philby was often referred to as The Third Man, hence the title of Greene’s masterpiece that took place in post WWII Vienna.”

I had no idea about that. “You must have a great interest in spies.”

“Hey, if you lived on the beach you’d be pretty interested in all the babes in bikinis, huh?”

“Yeah, I see your point.”

After several beers and listening to Ryan’s war stories (he had been assigned to the American embassy before the fall of Saigon) he said, “Your visit’s not complete until you see Beirut’s red light district.”

We walked down pothole marked dark streets and dimly lit paths. I felt like I had been touring some bizarre theme park. We had visited Dangerland and Secretland. Now we were headed to Forbiddenland. The fearless Ryan always knew where he was going, like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam: “We’re close to the waterfront, not far from the Corniche.”

third man-vienna
photo The Third Man by

He came upon the area of dimly lit neon lights and blacked out windows like a blind man approaching his front door. I could hear the muffled sound of music inside. When Ryan opened the door trombones blared through invisible speakers as Earth, Wind, and Fire sang, “September.”

When we sat down at the bar two older girls immediately approached us. Ryan held up his hand.

I hoped these weren’t the two Lebanese babes he had mentioned back at the hotel.

Ryan handed them some funny money and said, “You girls go buy yourself a cup of tea, okay?”

The girls smiled. Ryan turned to me and said, “They’re just trying to make a living. Sometimes they’re too forward though. Those two have been around the track a few laps.”

He nodded at some expats at the end of the bar playing cards with two girls that might have been from anywhere. Ryan said to the female Asian bartender, “Hey, Ana, how about two beers down this way?”

Having spent time in the U.S. Army I had seen the inside of bars, in particular in Ethiopia. You couldn’t paint a picture of the military without including a scene of a soldier sitting next to bargirl as the music blared. I said, “You think the spy Kim Philby would have come to a place like this?”

Ryan shook his head and said, “Philby was a ‘Martini’ kind of guy. I heard he would have a few cocktails daily at the St. George Hotel not far from here. It sustained a lot of damage during the war. Used to be one hell of high-class place way back when… Movie stars, famous personalities… You name it.”

When Ryan went to the toilet, an Eritrean girl (from Ethiopia) sat down beside me. I told her I had been in stationed in Asmara for two years with the US Army. She said she had to leave there because of the fighting—a civil war had broken out after Haile Selassie was deposed. Her parents had been killed. How ironic that she had fled Asmara for Beirut? I didn’t even want to know what her sad story was about.

When Ryan returned I advised him I was ready to head back to the hotel.

The Eritrean girl escorted us to door, holding my arm. By the muted light above the door the girl’s eyes admitted the damage done to her. I said, “Goodbye,” in Tigrinya, the Eritrean dialect.

Ryan dropped me off at the hotel. As he sped off in the Saab I wondered where he would go after Beirut. What aftermath would beckon him? I could easily picture him driving around like Harry Lime (Graham Greene’s novel, The Third Man) on the dark streets of a decimated European capital right after the end of World War two. Fortunately for Ryan he wouldn’t be fleeing pursuers in the sewers of Vienna.

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