Arrested in Beirut
Jul 06, 2007
My first night in Beirut, I head to bed a bit drunk at 1am. I'm awoken at 3am with a mosquito buzzing in my ear, and I'm shivering a bit from the cold air-conditioning. It isn't all that cold, but I've grown accustomed to the 100+ (38C+) degree days in Syria. At 5am, I'm woken up again as the guy in the next bed gets up, carefully organizes all of his possessions on his bed, goes out to pray, and then comes back 20 minutes later. At 7:30am, I'm awoken again as everyone else gets up. The Japanese guy is checking out. Everyone else is heading up to Tripoli to see and photograph the funeral for the two Palestinian protestors who were killed. My plan for the day is a bit tamer - I'm just going sightseeing. I can't get back to sleep, so it's time to start my day.
I walk all over West Beirut, out as far as Pigeon Rocks, so far as I can tell, the one site of natural beauty in Beirut. Again, it's a city of crazy contrasts. I walk past bullet-ridden remains from the civil war - most notably the Holiday Inn that was once a favorite spot for snipers. I walk through downtown, which is brand new and polished, though it looks like a model of a city, rather than a real one. It's perfectly completed; there just aren't any people in it yet. It's completely empty. The shops downtown are insanely expensive with Rolex watches and $500 shirts. But next to these shops are the tanks and razor wire blocking off the opposition party's camp. I walk past the university and all of the trendy cafes and restaurants. At every major intersection are big guns and armored personal carriers.
After 3 hours of walking, I return to the hotel exhausted and slightly sunburned. I try to catch a nap, but can't seem to fall asleep. The power is out, so there is no air conditioner or fan. While I'm lying there, the people start coming back from Tripoli. The guy who woke up at 5, is a Frenchman who converted to Islam. He's showing off all of these Hamas posters he collected. My neighbor on the other side is also named Adam, and he's a photojournalist - one of the very few people who have ever photographed Joseph Kony - the brutal leader of the LRA in Uganda. Adam and I are talking about travel, and the political situation in Lebanon when suddenly 4 people storm into the room shouting. One of them has a pistol in his hand.
"Where are the guns? Where are the bombs?" they shout.
"Shut up! Don't move!"
They have each of us sit on a bed, and start searching through our bags. The Frenchman is heavily questioned. Adam is less so. I'm basically ignored after I tell them that I just arrived yesterday.
Adam keeps asking them who they are at every opportunity. Eventually they answer "State Security" and show him some id. Later, I'd learn that State Security is a group of secret police, a branch of the military.
The questions for the Frenchman continue - "Why shi'ite books? Why terrorist propaganda?"
One of the secret police is dressed pretty well with sunglasses, and he speaks good English. I wish that I remembered his name, but let's call him "Slick".
I don't scare easily anymore. I'm a bit concerned, but not really scared. Maybe I'm just too tired to be scared. At one point, Slick asks if they can let me go, as I obviously have no part in whatever is going on. He's overruled. But after this, I'm not longer concerned at all. They seem to be whom they say they are, police, and don't seem to be out to cause any harm.
They check the photos on my camera. Earlier in the day I had photographed some soldiers and armored personnel carriers to show the feeling of what it's like in Beirut. Photographing soldiers like that is a big "no no". Thank god I had copied my photos to my laptop when I arrived at the hotel, and they didn't bother checking the laptop. The only photos remaining on the camera were a couple of harmless ones of the building next door.
We're all handcuffed and led through the hotel downstairs to waiting cars. Thankfully, they didn't over tighten my handcuffs. Adam and I are put into the back of an old Toyota. Pierre, I got his name now, is put into a non-descript SUV. We're then driven in a circuitous route around Beirut to some unmarked building.
We're led inside and put up against a wall. My handcuffs are removed and the questions begin again. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" I tell them that I'm a tourist who arrived yesterday. Those were the only questions that they had for me. They sent me into another room to hang out, wait, and watch TV.
A guy with an AK47 comes into the room and sits in a chair across from me. He starts in with some casual questions. "Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long have you been here?" After continuing these questions for a while Slick comes in and tells me that I had bad luck in choosing the wrong room, and that I can go in 5 minutes. AK47 guy relaxes a bit, takes the extra clips of ammo from his bullet proof vest, and the questions get even more casual. Mostly he wants to know if the women in Egypt are hot, and how much sex I was getting.
Another guy comes in and sits behind the desk. He changes the channel. Now we've gone from a bad movie, to the Lebanese equivalent of MTV. First is a bad Middle Eastern singer, and then Pamela Anderson comes on. Not what'd I'd expect to see while under arrest in Beirut. I wait and wait, and eventually AK47 guy wanders off. So much for leaving in 5 minutes.
Adam is brought in, and he seems fine. Slick comes in and starts telling us what's going on. "Pierre is a very bad man". Slick has been following him for a month. Two days ago Pierre brought Noah, an American kid staying at our hotel to Dahiya (the Hezbollah run area in South Beirut) so that Hezbollah could kidnap him. Hezbollah did indeed grab both of them at gunpoint, threw bags over their heads and drove them off in the back of an old Mercedes. This was the very first that I'd heard of this. Adam fills in more details for the story. Apparently the Hezbollah militia arrested them (not unlike we're being arrested now). Pierre and Noah were questioned for 2 hours about who they were and what they were doing in Hezbollah territory, and then let go.
Slick tells us more about what he knows, or thinks he knows, about Pierre. Pierre has apparently been studying in Pakistan. He has 5 passports; we saw two of them while they were searching his bag in the hotel room. And Pierre has been hanging out in all sorts of strange places - Shia mosques, Sunni mosques, churches. What's he doing?
Then we wait some more. World Wrestling Federation comes on, and we're forced to suffer through that. After a bit, Noah is brought in. We see him walk through the hallway in handcuffs, but he's smiling.
We've back on to the bad movies again. Slick comes in and tells us not to worry; we'll be released in just a minute. They have funny minutes here in the Middle East. We wait hours more.
Eventually Pierre is brought in, he's still in handcuffs. We're told not to talk to him. I guess they just wanted to see how we would react to having him there, or how he would react to us there. They question Pierre, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic, which he insists he doesn't understand. Pierre is taken away again. There are more questions for Adam now - but questions about what he knows about Pierre and Pierre's activities.
Later Noah is brought in. Now Slick tells us that they have found heroin among Pierre's possessions. This just rings false, but now they have an excuse to keep him for 10 years if they want.
We're told to wait. Then we're, yet again, told that we can leave in 5 minutes. Noah is taken away again.
Now to keep us entertained, they put soft porn on the TV. Of all of the things that I might imagine being arrested in Lebanon might be like, it wouldn't be this.
They offer to order food for us - at our expense. I decline, thinking that waiting for food will just keep us there longer.
At one point, one of the guys tells me that they "have problems with the Jews", speaking of Israel. I just nod and agree.
There is one final set of questions for me. "Where did you go in Lebanon?" "Pigeon Rocks", I tell them. That's the most harmless touristy thing in the entire country.
That seemed to be it. They finally start filling out the paperwork to release us. There are a thousand little questions about who I am, where I was born, what work I do, what my family's names are, and what work they do.
Noah comes back, and he's chatting and joking with them casually in good Arabic. I'd taken the attitude the entire time of immense stoicism. Neither smiling nor frowning. Only speaking when spoken to. I didn't want to give them any excuse to cause more problems. I suspect that they didn't like that Noah wasn't taking this seriously enough. On his paperwork, his $500 income wasn't enough to cover his $20 room. There is a slamming of doors, and they're shouting "liar" at Noah. At first it seems like they're joking, but then it goes on for a bit too long.
Eventually, Noah, Adam and I are fingerprinted. We're sent to a back room to wash our hands. From there we can hear Pierre calling to us "What's going on?" But we're told not to talk to him.
Just before we're released, we're all "invited" to come back Monday morning and visit with the general. It's much more of a demand, then an invitation. But I manage to skip out on it, telling them that I have a flight out of the country on Monday.
At 1:30am, after more than 5 hours of being under arrest, we're driven back to our hotel. Pierre remains under arrest. The three remaining arrestees have a couple of beers at the hotel. While we're drinking our first beer, Noah checks his pocket and finds a slip of paper with Hebrew writing on it that hadn't been there before. Apparently, it had been planted, giving the secret police an excuse to hold Noah as a spy if they wished. Now we're sure that the heroin had been planted on Pierre.
I head over to Stewart's bar to tell him the story and to drink more. When I arrive, I tell him that I was arrested, and he laughs "Oh, that was you who was arrested."
I keep drinking until well past sunrise.
Was Pierre a "bad guy"? He certainly was odd. There seemed to be some unanswered questions about why he had extra passports. The simple answer is I don't know. I certainly don't think he was a terrorist. But he may have hooked up with the wrong people and have been helping them.
In the morning over breakfast, I see two of the secret policeman hanging out on the street corner. They're still watching us.
Well... Beirut is definitely not boring.
Leave a comment! I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading.
Wow - how frightening.
Have you considered reporting this incident to the US Embassy/Consulate in Beirut?
Pierre - Feb 26, 2008
I'm not the Pierre in the story but it got my attention...
kumi - Mar 02, 2008
hey there. long time no see, but this is the Japanese girl you met in Amman & Alleppo :)
love this article, it was very interesting!
I think I met the same Adam while I was in Beirut too... he likes to keep the room FREEZING!
and I think the owner of the GH showed me a movie of the french guy on his cell phone. he was really bizzarre..