HONEYMOON IN BEIRUT

(June 1975)




It had been a small wedding.  Living in Tehran, we had planned to just go down to the US Embassy and sort of "sign up" but when we tried we were told that they had no jurisdiction and that we had to go through official Iranian channels.  That meant that we had to pick one of the then four official religions in Iran: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism and register with a respective state-appointed lawyer. 

In Iran, the state mandates that there be six official witnesses to a marriage.  We had only invited two couples from the office but they, along with the Baptist minister and the Government's Marriage Lawyer, made up the six.  I guess our driver and housekeeper were also peeking in around the corner during the brief ceremony.  We all enjoyed a marriage dinner at one of Tehran's fine restaurants but that was the extent of any festivities, as we were flying for Beirut early the next morning. 

Beirut had long been the most cosmopolitan and progressive city in the Middle East, situated on the water at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.  Yes, there had been sporadic outbreaks of fighting and shelling there that Spring between the rival militias, but the Lebanon still was not on the list of "off-limits" countries considered too unsafe for Americans.  At least, I hadn't heard that it was by the time I made our reservations. 

We arrived at the beautiful Coral Beach Hotel south of the city, spent the first day swimming, sightseeing, and shopping, and the evening at the casino north of town.  Le Casino du Liban was world reknown, offering an energetic and entertaining show, a true challenge to whatever might be expected in Las Vegas or Paris. 

The next morning dawned beautifully and still.  Too still, we soon discovered as we drove through the city to visit caverns north of town.  By the time we reached the east side of the city we had seen several pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the rear.  We ran into one somewhat spontaneous checkpoint, run by some teenagers with a general attitude of irresponsibility but also AK-47s, along with one gruff leader who looked at our US passports and told us to go back to our hotel.  We were turned around, but we decided to cut across the mountains and head up country to the ancient ruins of Baalbek.  This we did, making many a detour whenever we encountered armed factions, listening now to the BBC describing in their typically reserved tones how all hell had broken out in Beirut the night before. 

But we meandered our way through various back roads and finally the main north/south highway, reaching Baalbek by early afternoon.  People there were surprised to see tourists; unbelieving when we told them we had just driven up from Beirut.  They'd been listened to the BBC too, or at least some local Arabic stations. 

We traipsed through the impressive ruins of Baalbek, Roman temples that had been built on the site of previous worship of Baal, snapping pictures, half-listening to the patois of some would-be guide who mixed Arabic, French, and English in an attempt to reach us, but finally gave up when our own patois of Farsi, Dutch, and Hungarian discouraged him. 

We drove back on the main highway, continuing south completely past the troubled city and airport area, before cutting west to the sea and back north up the coastline to our hotel.  We cleaned up to go out for dinner, the new wife taking longer and thereby giving me the opportunity to go out and catch a few snapshots of the sunset.  I walked passed the pool, across the beach, and out onto a long L-shaped dock.  My hopes of a colorful sunset seemed to be fading out, so I turned my camera back landward.  There was a dilapidated radar truck and tent sitting high on the hill just to the left of the hotel.  The juxtapositon of war and luxurious relaxation seemed like a good picture and I snapped off a couple. 

Presently, two soldiers, armed with rifles, start to work their way down the hill, along the beach, and out onto the hotel dock.  They eventually come up to me and it becomes apparent that I have no choice but to return with them.  So we three retrace their steps up to their tent atop the hill where some officer briefly interrogates me, but then finally dumps me in the back of a truck, under the watchful eyes of the two guys with the rifles, and we take off completely across town to Army Headquarters on the east side. 

We finally arrive there and are shown into an office with a uniformed major and two captains in civilian clothes, obviously intelligence officers.  I'm pretty steamed by this time, so I start in on this guy wanting to know "what right, blah, blah, blah...".  This is all cut rather short by his "*I* ask the questions; you shut up until you are asked a specific question."  O--K.  I settle down into a slow boil, but keep my mouth shut as they go through all my papers.  They finally ask what I'm doing in Beirut and they get the whole story about my honeymoon and us visiting Baalbek, which they don't believe either.  They like the part about me being a "civilian" in Viet Nam, but they don't seem to buy the fact that I'm only a computer programmer.  They also like the fact that I work for Grumman, apparently being aware that Grumman had done work for Israel in the past. 

You see, it seems that a year or two before, the Israelis had landed a sea-borne attack via this same beach; they had gone into one of the PLO headquarters and kidnapped one of their leaders and the Lebanese were still a bit embarrassed about the whole business.  "But, hey, how was I to know about that?! I was just out on my hotel dock hoping for a nice picture of the sunset." I might just have well have said I had recently arrived from Jupiter, from the looks they gave me.  Oh well, eventually (2-3 hours) they come to realize that I'm harmless and that they can, somewhat reluctantly, let me go. 

Two little problems, though. 

First, they decide to keep my two rolls of film, which contain all my pictures of Baalbek and, more importantly, of our wedding.  I explain all this very carefully to them and they finally promise that they'll develop the pictures and, if they are indeed what I say they are, the one captain will personally see to it that I receive them.  I offer money for the developing and postage, but the captain, now gallant, is offended and won't take it, insisting that it is their responsibility to take care of everything.  [Of course, I never get my pictures.  One of Grumman's International Sales guys travels through Beirut a few months later and I have him call the number given me by the captain.  The message he returns is that the captain has been killed and no one knows anything about any pictures, which lose further significance in light of the first half of the message]. 

The second problem, more immediate, is that with nightfall, all hell has broken loose in Beirut again.  The army decides that there is no way that they can safely transport me back to the hotel under the circumstances.  It is therefore decided that I am to be put up in the adjoining Military Hospital.  I'm given a bunk and left there for an uneasy night, the small arms fire and mortars making me feel like I'm living back in Sai Gon. 

Meanwhile, back at the hotel...  The wife had finally gotten herself ready and comes out looking for me.  With me not in sight, she asks of my whereabouts from one of the waiters who suggests that the army took me away.  This news she takes to the front desk where, this being Lebanon, the immediate response is, "Which army?" There is then some scurrying around with the waiters and the military detachment up on the hill and it is finally discovered that the good news is that it is the official Lebanese army; the bad news, of course, is that the bride is now husbandless on her honeymoon and no one knows really what to do about it until tomorrow when the US Embassy opens. 

The next day the Embassy gets involved and various negotiations are carried on between them, the hotel, and the army.  The army had called the hotel the night before, if for no other reason than to ascertain that I was indeed a guest there.  They get an earful from the hotel management who verify the whole honeymoon business.  Looking back, I guess that that may have been what finally convinced the army to let me go.  Anyway, by morning everybody is quite respectful, they are very upset to hear that my small change was stolen from my bedside during the night, and they promise me and the guy who calls from the Embassy that they will get me back to the hotel as soon as it is safe. 

This is still a bit problematic, however, as all the shooting, while having diminshed a bit from the night, nonetheless keeps breaking out.  By 4pm I am *REAL* antsy, and they decide that they might better just get rid of me, one place not necessarily being a hell of a lot safer than any other.  We pile into a jeep, they load themselves up with M-16s, and we head off, following roughly the same circuitous route of nearly 24-hours ago down to the south, way past the airport and the Palestinian refugee camps, and back up along the coast toward the hotel.  Too bad I have no film for my camera. 

We finally reach the hotel and my bride and I are reunited where everbody treats us very well.  All day she had been trying to sneak out of the hotel to pick up some Damascan linens that we had ordered, but each time the hotel management had intercepted her, apparently afraid that she was off to the Embassy or army headquarters or somesuch.  We made a few phone calls the next day and managed to sneak up into town long enough to pick up our goods from the shuttered shop before heading to the airport.  The town was pretty quiet, with quite a bit of rubble here and there from the mortars.  Everything seemed deserted, at least on the west side. 

We made it to the airport, and the plane, somewhat surprisingly, even showed up -- it parked way off in the middle of the runway to keep out of the way of small arms fire.  We finally just parked the rental car out on the street, everything being closed up tight, of course, and I left the car keys and a note with the airline ticket agent.  Surprisingly, the bill eventually came through American Express for just what it should have been -- they didn't even charge us extra for the flat tire we'd picked up on the way back from Baalbek.


ADDENDUM

I recently received EMail from a woman in Toronto Canada claiming that she was the ticket agent who passed the car keys along to the rental car company.  I've told her that I'm not going to believe her until she sends me a picture of herself taken around that time! I've promised her an old picture in return, should she rise to the challenge.  Stand by. 

It truly is a small world some times.



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