Twenty-five years ago, in a windowless Levantine oubliette, my wrist and ankle were bound with chains, but my imagination soared. Among my many daydreams was a reunion a quarter-century hence. The guests at this illusory affair were to have been my captors. There were times when I envisaged our encounter as real, and others as a piece of theatre. Either way, 25 years on, it hasn’t happened. Nor has anything else I expected before I escaped from Hezbollah in Beirut in August 1987.
The rendezvous was to take place at the Grand Hotel Kadri in Zahle, a Christian village where the foothills of Mount Lebanon descend into the Bekaa Valley. At that time, the United States government declared Bekaa the ‘world capital of terror’, an attribution subsequently transferred to Iraq, Afghanistan and, latterly, northwest Pakistan. The Kadri, a stone edifice with elegant ogival arches in the late Ottoman manner, provided a tranquil setting beside the river Berdawni, removed from the confusion and violence of Beirut’s southern outskirts. (Some time after my escape, decorators vandalised the hotel interior, but that did not figure in my vision of its future.) The first act of this impossible drama was set early in the morning. My wife would be sleeping upstairs, while I paced the stone terrace waiting for my former jailers. How, I wondered, would I recognise them? They had kept me blindfolded — no bad thing. If they let you see their faces, they were going to kill you.
I would listen for their voices at the breakfast table and hear the hoarse rasp of Mohammed, one of the few guards who had shown me kindness. (Midway through my 62 days as Hezbollah’s guest, he had taken a letter to a friend of mine asking him for money to tell Mohammed where I was. Mohammed told me he had left the letter with my friend’s secretary. It turned out he was telling the truth. My friend had been out of town when Mohammed delivered the letter, but he had gone anyway with a large sum in cash to the meeting place Mohammed had indicated. He was a day late.) Shortly afterwards, someone from Hezbollah must have noticed that Mohammed had become too friendly and sent him elsewhere.
In my reverie, Mohammed and his mates would invite me to their breakfast. We would talk about the kidnapping as if it had been a play and we the players who had now removed our make-up and costumes. War thrusts the most unlikely people into heroic or demonic roles, then casts them back into the tedium of mundane existence. What, I would ask, had become of this guard and that interrogator? Where was the one who beat me with a rifle butt and a spanner? They would say he’d been killed in some battle or other. There had been so many clashes they weren’t sure which.
Twenty-five years ago, Lebanon was in chaos. Syria was a bastion of stability, the rock on which most Lebanese factions and the United States depended to restore order to the country. So many wars were fought in Lebanon then that I occasionally forget they took place at all. Iranians and Iraqis blew up each other’s embassies and funded Lebanese rivals to keep the war at fever pitch. They were in the seventh year of their own eight-year war that killed two million people. Lebanon was also a theatre of the Cold War, with the Soviets (remember them?) and Americans backing antagonistic militias as they confronted each other more meaningfully in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, holy warriors funded and supplied by Washington bled the Red Army white. Lebanon hosted the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio for almost 20 years, until it was transformed into the much more deadly struggle between the Israeli army and a Shiite Muslim guerrilla group that came into existence from the ashes of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. At the same time, the Arab dictators surrounding Lebanon enjoyed serenity to the degree that they repressed their subjects.
It is as hard, when living any reality, to imagine the ways things will be different. In 1987, I could not foresee what my own life would be like 25 years hence. What little I did assume was proved wrong, and I did not expect Washington to follow Hezbollah into the kidnapping business — seizing and holding people without jurisdiction, charge or trial all over the world. It came as a shock to see in 2011 the first Guantanamo inmates dressed in the same tracksuits Hezbollah had imposed on its western hostages. Few of us foresaw the transformations of the past quarter century — the collapse of the Soviet empire, peace in Lebanon, Hezbollah abandoning hostage-taking to win elections in coalition with a Christian party headed by a former general who made his name waging war against Hezbollah’s benefactors in Syria, Iraq’s idiotic invasion of Kuwait, the American invasions (despite Ronald Reagan’s burnt fingers in Lebanon) of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disparate revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The return of Turkey to Arab affairs, after nearly a century of determined Ataturkist absence from the old empire, has been as surprising as Saudi Arabia declaring itself a champion of free speech and democracy in Syria. Best to put our predicto-meters away.
My dull drama at the Kadri Hotel evolved in different forms with each imagining, depending on my mood. Sometimes, the police waited in the wings to arrest the retired kidnappers. In one version, my new friends attempted to kill me as punishment for my escape. In another, my children or my wife took revenge for the greater suffering they had endured. I was not in favour of that, because I knew what the war, the Israeli occupation and the bombardments had done to them and theirs. The ending of the play changed often: someone or no one killed, the seeking of redress or the abandonment of hatred, a dramatic resolution or no resolution at all. The kidnapping, after all, was never personal. It had been, as the Godfather’s henchmen said, only business.