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Part Two: Crossing the line

Read here part one of the story: One day in 1985, in Beirut (part one)

On Wednesday morning I woke up at 6:00 a.m., the sun was already bright in the sky.  I was thinking: “this is the day I have waited for, since months.”

I was so excited and jumped out of my bed.  My sister Patricia was still asleep.  Looking at her, I felt so guilty not to have told her where was my real destination that day.  I felt guilty that I was going to conquer the West without her, and that I will have the adventure of my life without her knowing about it.

My sister and I shared everything from clothes to secrets, but not my crazy sense of adventure.  Patricia was 4 and half years younger than me, she was a minor back then, and I felt responsible for her. That morning, I thought that I could be a bad influence if I told her that I wasn’t really going to university.  Not to mention that I would make her worry about me all day long, until I came back home in the evening.  So the best thing was not to say a word.

That day I chose my clothes carefully.  I didn’t want to look too casual or too fancy.  Hey, come on, let us be rational here: I had to cross some minefield, so my clothes had to better be practical! On the other hand, I didn’t want to look too casual, because I knew that if my mom had saw me dressed in a negligent way, she would have never let me leave the house.

My mom was a very fashionable, beautiful, elegant, lady.  She was born a brunette and then, she became a blond for the majority of her life.  Beside the beautiful dresses she owned, she had the best collection of jewelry and scarves.  Unfortunately for me she wanted me to be dressed up all the time, Jeans were not acceptable for the future young lawyer I was about to become.

Fortunately for me that morning, she was still asleep.  So was my brother, in his closed-door room.  Only my dad was awake.

My dad always rose before dawn.  He fiercely believed that sleeping was for losers, and he praised me for heading so early to university.  But as I was saying goodbye to him, I sadly wished I could share my big secret.  He probably would have loved the idea that I was going to the past, his past, where he was still friend with the Muslims.  And not to mention that I was making a historical move, and he loved History.  My dad was a professor of History.  He had written many books, with titles like: The Events of the 20th Century, The Civilization, and the Pharaohs… but had never wrote anything about the Lebanese war.  When asked about why he didn’t write about Lebanon, he always replied: “it is still too early”, “things are still not clear”, “one should wait at least 10 years for the entire game and players to be revealed”.

As years went by, dad wrote a book about the war between Iran and Iraq, and in a month, his book became history, because it was outdated by the Iraq/Kuwait war, that was consecutively outdated by Iraq/US war.  Wars came and went away, except for the Lebanese war.  My dad, and many History writers in Lebanon, weren’t able to write about the Lebanese war without stirring old feelings and making new enemies.  Since, through the years, the enemies in Lebanon kept changing faces, and the borders kept moving.

Nada and I met at the university parking lot.  She had parked her white Skoda next to my red Renault.  The red Renault was my first car.  I loved it so much and called it Cocci, an abbreviation for Coccinelle, which means ladybug in French.

After I gave a brief aurevoir to my Cocci, and took a quick look at the university entrance, where students had started to gather, I joined Nada at the corner of the street, where we took the taxi to the Mathaf.

As we were hopping inside the cab, I said: “to the Mathaf please?”

It was more of a question that meant: “are you willing to go to Mathaf area today sir?”

The taxi driver looked quickly at us, and nodded.  In his mind he was evaluating the circumstances that led us to go to this macabre place.  In fact all he cared about was to find the shortest and safest road to Mathaf.  Also, he wanted to be as far as possible from the range of visions of the snipers.

Snipers, by definition, are the nut cases who randomly shoot people on the streets.  But during the war in Lebanon, snipers had a job description.  They were hired to keep people away from the borderline between East Beirut and West Beirut.  The borders had only to be crossed through the designated passages, controlled by the militia on each end.  So the war snipers, were the city urban designers, who built the virtual wall, that separated the two parts of the city.  Since building a concrete wall was unfeasible for Lebanon, and, at the time, worked only for Berlin.

After taking few winding streets, covered away from the snipers, we finally arrived to the Mathaf area.


The Mathaf Passage

In Arabic Mathaf means museum, and this is where the Lebanese National Museum was and still is located.  The museum was standing at the corner of a big roundabout, where four boulevards intersected.  The horizontal boulevard used to link East Beirut with the west part of the city and the vertical boulevard had become the Green Line, or the borderline between the two worlds.

Looking outside the taxi’s windows we were in shock!

The scene was surreal. An apocalypse!

Destruction and ruins everywhere!

The entire area had, obviously, been destroyed not once, but over and over again throughout the years.  Nothing lived there.  Nothing was still standing, other than the pillar of the Mathaf.

Buildings, on both sides of the road, were destroyed to the ground.  Some of them were still standing but were cut opened. Yes, cut opened.  As if a big saw sliced the front side of the building, and we could see the rooms with beds and linens hanging on the edges.  Their walls had big holes in them.  They looked like a big Gruyère cheese, or Swiss cheese.

It made me think: “there is certainly more ruins outside the museum than inside of it”,  because it was known that our national museum was looted at the beginning of the war.

Despite the horror show we were witnessing,  Nada and I shared a big smile of satisfaction, as we stepped out of the cab.  We were finally there!

A strange feeling of fear and joy was filling our heart, however we were not scared.  Not at all! How could we be scared when we realized that we were not alone.  It was crowded! Yes, crowded! People were everywhere on the passage.  We were surrounded by a crowd who were just like us attempting to cross the border that day.

Nada said to me: “who could have imagined that this place was so popular?”

In fact hundred of people traveled back and forth from one side to the other, and doing so every day.  But of course, when there was no bombings.

All kind of people were on that passage: men, women, kids, old people, and they were all civilians; probably some spies were thrown among them, here and there.

Then came the moment when Nada and I had to take the realm of our trip in our hand, and try to find our way, by looking less as tourists and more like those people who looked like they knew what they came here for.

Unfortunately, driven by our reckless and impulsive behavior, Nada and I haven’t had planed our road trip.  Well, not only because Google map was nonexistent back then, but also the information desk at the Lebanese tourist bureau had closed years ago.  After a brief consultation between us, and armed with our beginner’s luck, we decided to follow the crowd.

What we didn’t expect that day, was to make friends.  As we hit the first thresholds of our adventure, we had a very nice company.  A mature good-looking man, very well dressed, was walking next to us.  Since we were walking too slowly and sighing as we saw more destroyed buildings, it was easy for him to guess that it was our first time.

So he started the conversation:

“Do you have family in West Beirut?”

He did seem concern that two young ladies were crossing alone, for the first time, with no safe haven to look forward to at the end.

“Oh, no” Nada replied, “we are going shopping.”

And suddenly his face changed, obviously this answer shocked him.  He looked somehow upset.  He probably was thinking: “who risk their life to go shopping!”

But he didn’t say a word and kept his worries to himself.  After our answer hit him, he suddenly start walking away and he gradually tried to distant himself from us.

And then, he looked one last time in our direction, trying to find some answers to his questions.  He seemed to be asking himself:

“Are they dumb? or too clever?” “Are they really going shopping?”

In either case he didn’t look eager to deal with us anymore.

Nada and I felt it.  Carried by our survival instinct, we knew that this man could probably help us, so we decided to regain his trust.  After all, he looked decent, and his reaction to our ultimate shopping goal seemed some how familiar among the adult of his age, who genuinely cared about us.  So we tried to keep his pace, and once we got close to him, we engage him in conversation.

He finally started chatting again. He told us that he is from east Beirut where he worked for a bank, but since the headquarters were down in Hamra, he had to cross the border at least once a week, to go to the general board meetings.

When he said Hamra, we started liking him again, we had so many things in common, or at least two things: we are from East Beirut and we are all going to Hamra!

But this friendship didn’t last long.

After 10 minutes of walk, our Mathaf-passage companion turned and said: “ok, now, we are getting closer to the border, get your ID ready.”

“What ID?” I said.

Then, I could see again the annoyed look on his face, and he replied:

“What do you mean what ID? you don’t have IDs on you?”

And Nada quickly replied: ”yes we do, we have our students ID!”

But, we all knew it wasn’t the same.

During the war IDs played a major role in the political division of the country. The Lebanese ID had the most important information about the citizens: their religion.  So if your ID said Christian, it meant that you belonged to the east side of Beirut and specifically to a certain political affiliation.  People were killed because of their ID, and some were kidnapped or taken hostages.  It was a very serious document.  When misused Lebanese IDs were deadly weapons that turned against their holders.

Then we realized that probably it is not a bad idea not to have an ID on us, since they will never know what was our religion.  But at the same time we knew that we were taking the risk of being send back, before we get the chance to step in West Beirut.

Our fellow companion stopped talking to us again, and started acting as if he wasn’t with us.  Obviously, we had ruined the second chance with him, and we had lost him for good this time. Who could blame him anyway?  He wouldn’t risk connecting his fate to some silly young ladies who seem to take the situation for granted.

Beside, if at the checkpoint we turned to be not what we claimed we were, he was going to suffer as much trouble as we would.  So he decided to be on his own and increased his speed.

At this point Nada and I were on our own, and we started getting very worried and annoyed.  But instead of putting the blame on each other, we held hands and kept going without saying a word.  We tried to save our breath to explain, to whomever was going to give us a hard time at the checkpoint, what on earth we were trying to do, by entering West Beirut without an ID.

The border was getting closer and closer and our heartbeat was getting faster and faster.  We started seeing the road narrowing down and ending at a bunker used as a checkpoint.

The bunker was made of a metal roof set on a bed of sand bags. The sand bags were put carefully next to each other, except in the middle, where they were held by a wooden stick to form a window.  A big Kalashnikov was pointing out of the window.

When we approach the checkpoint, following a big line of people, we saw a big guy, in a green outfit, stopping randomly some men and searching them.  He was holding in his hand a long rifle on which there was a picture of a martyr.  Probably the picture of a relative whom he lost for the christian militia.

When our turn came, Nada and I were as pale as a light bulb (energy saving light bulb).

The gunman looked at us, very amused, as he saw the fear in our eyes, and then, he said in a very soft voice:

“IDs?”

I stood still there for a moment, and then froze.  Nada had a better reflex; she grabbed her purse, and start faking a scene where she looked as if she was looking for the IDs.

“Oh, I got them here, someplace” said Nada.

I was so scared at this point, I couldn’t move. And I kept staring at the picture of the martyr on his rifle.

I was regretting the moment I decided to venture in this nightmare and put my fate in some gunman’s hand.  As much as I was angry at myself, I was angry at this big guy who knew that he was the sole judge of our destiny, and he seemed to be sadistically enjoying his power.

But, finally the gunman smiled at us, and said: “ok, khallas, you can go, yalla.”

We were so surprised and relieved at the same time.  We soon found out that we weren’t subject to a thorough investigation, because, luckily that day, it was code orange security level. Which meant that the political parties and the militia were relaxed, and the borders were opened without restriction, which translated in letting all the people cross to West Beirut without checking them.

What a relief! We didn’t have to explain or justify why we didn’t have ID on us!

At this point, we realized that we officially made it through the toughest part of our journey and into the West!!!!

To be continued…

Read here part three of the story: One day in 1985, in Beirut (part three)