INNOCENTS ABROAD By Axel Conradi (article)


Axel Conradi

For well over a century the Middle East has been full of foreign meddling, political intrigue, treachery and shifting allegiances. One year into my time with the Canadian diplomatic service, I would become a shocked witness to the latest chapter in this never ending drama.

Millie and I were on our first overseas posting to Algeria when in 1973 my superiors decided I needed further education in the ways of the Arab world. I was to spend a week in Beirut studying at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, better known as MECAS. We would stay at the Hotel Saint Georges.

Back then Beirut was labelled the “Paris of the Middle East“. It was the region’s most important financial centre and had a throbbing night life to which the sheiks and magnates from more conservative Arab regimes flocked to escape the Koranic strictures of home. The Saint Georges was at the centre of it all and more than a hotel. It was legendary. Perched on a peninsula surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Fortune magazine called it one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. Its guests included King Hussein of Jordan, the Shah of Iran, Brigitte Bardot, Charles Aznavour and Catherine Deneuve.

Its bar was home to foreign correspondents looking for a scoop, MECAS instructors and students, leading Lebanese politicians manoeuvering for advantage, diplomats trying to stay on top of things and businessmen such as David Rockefeller and John Paul Getty looking to cut a deal. Infamous British spy, Kim Philby, then a reporter for The Economist was seen in the bar just before he disappeared for Moscow in 1963.

MECAS has a storied history to rival that of The Saint Georges. Overlooking Beirut from the hilly Christian enclave of Shemlan, MECAS was founded in 1947 by the British government as a centre for study of the Arabic language, culture and history. Students from private institutions and the foreign services of the world flocked there to study under some of the most accomplished Arab scholars anywhere. But it was always looked upon with suspicion by Lebanese politicians as a “school for spies“, and not without reason. Many of its graduates went on to serve in the CIA and the British Foreign Office. Indeed in 1961 , George Blake, a MECAS student and MI6 agent was summoned home from Lebanon and exposed as a double agent of the Soviet Union.

Arab suspicion of British diplomats owes much to the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement with France that secretly carved up much of the Middle East. Under this agreement, somewhat amended at the Versailles peace conference at the end of WWI Britain in rough terms accorded itself “mandates“ over what we know today as Iraq, Jordan and Palestine while France got Syria and Lebanon. The national boundaries of these new nations were drawn with little regard to traditional tribal or religious divides.

In so dismantling the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Britain betrayed the Arab nationalist movements which their own spies (most famously T.E. Lawrence of Arabia) encouraged to revolt against the Turks in return for promises of post-War independence. The Arab sense of betrayal was further heightened when in 1917 British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour made clear that “Her Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people“.

Much of this I learned on days one and two at MECAS. On day three the streets of Beirut offered up their own unique history lesson. I was awoken not by my alarm clock but by the sound of gunfire in the streets. By nighttime, a curfew was declared, armed militias set up barricades in their sectarian strongholds and armoured personnel carriers rumbled through the streets. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian constitutional balance, inherited from the French, was tipping over thanks to the presence, in two enormous camps, of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Twenty-three thousand were heavily armed members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) who needed a home after their failure to overthrow King Hussein of Jordan, whose assassinated father King Abdullah I, a Hashemite outsider from Saudi Arabia, had been placed on the throne by the British. At the heart of the PLO’s membership were Palestinians, displaced from their homeland by the 1948 creation of the state of Israel and the confiscation of their family homes.

Hours before the curfew was declared Millie and a friend were on their way to Damascus for a day of tourism. All of a sudden, two frantically gesturing men in uniform and brandishing AK-47s, pulled over their VW Beetle and told them they had to return to Beirut. The words were barely out of their mouths, when with alarm in their eyes, they jerked open the car doors and hustled the two women, crouching and running, into a nearby supermarket. Millie and her friend were pushed and dove for cover under a counter. As they did so their police escorts turned and opened fire. An armed man, not ten metres away, lay dead, his blood gushing on the floor. A shaken Millie returned to Beirut.

That same evening, in defiance of the curfew, the Canadian ambassador insisted on hosting a reception for the visiting president of a Canadian crown corporation. An embassy car was dispatched to pick us up, its diplomatic plates our sole protection from the unfolding anarchy. Through pitch black streets, we slowly wended our way towards the ambassadorial residence, gingerly approaching the numerous barricades for laissez-passer and muffled conversations to determine who controlled which neighbourhoods. The ambassador’s penthouse balcony was the perfect place to gather further intelligence. With canapes and drinks in hand, we watched rocket fire being exchanged from one high rise to the next.

For the next five days we were quarantined at our hotel. We passed the time reading in lounge chairs at the Saint Georges swimming pool where liveried men in black pants and crisp, short white jackets brought us coffee or gin and tonics while we listened to machine gun fire and the distant echoing of artillery rounds in the nearby Bekaa Valley, the biblical Road to Damascus.

It was a bizarre introduction to what became the poisonous stew of death, torture and sectarian violence known as the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990. It was a war that in mind bogglingly complex and constantly shifting alliances pitted Sunnis, Christians, Shiites and Kurds against each other variously aided by Syria, Israel and Iran. It was a war that introduced the world to car bombings and political kidnappings of foreign diplomats, journalists, academics and priests, some held for up to six years. It was a war that killed 144,000 people, displaced 800,000 and led to 950,000 people leaving the country.

Sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it?

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