Chapter 18: Of Double Agents and Deceitful Weather

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Dinner gathers us together, but it’s a muted affair, as everyone is exhausted.

The day’s walk hasn’t been particularly tough, especially after the marathon slog that was Day One and Two of the walk, but the cumulative effect of hiking long distances every day is taking a toll. 

Apart from aching knees and a sore back and backside, which are all par for the course, my feet are a bloody mess and my toes have been pounded so often against the toecap of my boots during the long, rocky descents that five of my toenails have turned an ominous shade of black. Obviously, I am going to lose them at some point, but this worries me less than the fact that three of them are also as plump and puffy as a suckling pig on market day, and hurt to the touch. 

I consult Joseph, who confirms my suspicion that they are infected. It’s too late to pop out to the chemist, as the shops are all shut, but one of the other walkers, an older American woman in her 70s called Judy, kindly offers me a tube of antiseptic ointment, which I subsequently apply conscientiously morning and night, until the inflammation subsides and my nails drop off.

Quiet and self-possessed, Judy gives the impression of being rather shy but turns out to be one of the more interesting people I will meet on the trail, which she is hiking for the first ten days.

Although she now lives in Hawai’i and is obviously a graduate of the Flower Power generation, as we get to chatting, I discover that she briefly lived in Lebanon in the early 1970’s, just before the civil war. For reasons that she never fully explains, she was studying Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, the infamous language school first opened by the British Army in Jerusalem in 1944 and later moved to the mixed Druze-Christian mountain town of Shemlan, which overlooks Beirut, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1947.

Given its close ties to the British government and original mission of training army officers to speak Arabic, MECAS was known locally as the ‘School for Spies’, especially after Kamal Joumblatt, father of Druze chieftain Walid, accused the school of training MI6 and CIA agents. 

Whether or not this was true – and it seems unlikely that intelligence operatives would not have studied there with or without the school’s connivance, British spy, George Blake certainly did. 

Born George Behar - his father was an Egyptian Jew – Blake was summoned to London from his studies in Shemlan in 1961 to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Soviet double agent. Under interrogation, he confessed to having switched sides during the Korean War, during which he was captured by the Korean Peoples’ Army and detained for three years in Pyongyang. 

He had been passing the names of British and American agents to the Soviets for years. As many of them had been eliminated by the KGB as a result, he was sentenced to 42 years in prison, the longest ever handed down by a British court at the time.

But Blake wasn’t the only Soviet double agent working in Beirut during the 50’s and 60’s, which as an ‘open’ city was overflowing with single, double and who knows, maybe even triple agents of all kind and creed at the time, nor was he the most famous. 

That distinction belongs to Kim Philby, one of the key members of the Cambridge Five spy ring, who defected from Beirut on a Soviet ship bound for Odessa one stormy January night in 1963, two years after Blake’s arrest.

The son of St. John Philby, a Sri Lankan-born British colonial civil servant, who served in India and what was then known as Mesopotamia before converting to Islam and becoming advisor to Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, Philby had been living in Beirut since 1956, where he worked ostensibly as a correspondent for The Observer.

If his father had been a life-long Arabist and Orientalist, a term that had greater cachet before Edward Said turned it into a synonym for bigotry, and led a life that can only be described as ‘large’, Harold Adrian Russell (he was nicknamed ‘Kim’ after the famous Kipling character, a somewhat prescient choice), was drawn more towards the Communist World, and studied Russian at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies before becoming a spy. 

Philby had been a double agent almost from the start of his career in espionage in the 1930’s, although he doesn’t appear to have been especially highly regarded by the KGB as an agent. 

His career almost ended in the mid-50’s, when he was fingered in the investigation into fellow Cambridge Fivers, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. While Philby was exonerated, the taint of suspicion was enough for him to be cut loose by both MI6 and the KGB, and it was only after he moved to Beirut as a journalist that he eventually resumed working for MI6 before coming under renewed suspicion in 1962, and defecting to Moscow the following year.

Although he is largely unknown in Beirut these days, Philby rented an apartment on Rue Spears and had a beach hut in Saint Simon. While the hut (and the beach) are long gone, swallowed up by the growth of Beirut’s southern suburbs during the war, the apartment survived. Like much of the surrounding neighbourhood, it lay empty for decades after the war and intrigued by his story, I tried to visit it on several occasions but was always denied permission by the landlord, although I did see glimpses of it in surreptitious footage shot as part of a documentary about Philby produced by the BBC a few years back.

Never the most successful of spies, moving to the USSR must have been hard, as he traded life in the Middle East’s most freewheeling city for virtual imprisonment in a cramped apartment in Moscow, where he discovered that he was not, in fact, the high-ranking KGB officer he’d been led to believe but rather, was a bit of an embarrassment. 

He appears to have led a mostly desultory life in Moscow, convinced in his final years that his Russo-Polish wife was also reporting on him, but his reputation was somewhat rehabilitated after his death, enough at least for him to be honoured on a Soviet stamp shortly before the collapse of the USSR.

Judy could not have known either Blake or Philby. She arrived in Beirut almost a decade after Kim’s defection, and claimed that she only heard the rumours about her school after she had left, herself. Despite this, she seemed remarkably well-informed about MECAS’ association with espionage and the way she spoke about her time in Lebanon made me rather suspect there was much more to the determined septuagenarian than was permitted to meet the eye. 

Feet slathered in antiseptic and boots tied using a method I found on YouTube, which promised to minimise slippage inside the boot, we set off from Barouk to Ain Zhalta, home of a gallerist friend in Beirut, who together with his wife has been transforming his sleepy Shouf mountain village into an artistic retreat, complete with printing press, engraving centre and annual residencies for expatriate Lebanese painters.

The trail begins with a long, and in places, fairly steep climb out of town. We’ve begun at about 600 metres and the goal is to wend our way back up to about 1800 metres, where we will remain until the descent to Ain Zhalta later.

The trail meanders through patches of pine and young cedar forest but a couple of hours in, the skies darken ominously and as it begins to rain, the wind picks up. It seems we’re in for a storm and as not all of the Sunday hikers have brought appropriate clothing, Joseph and Robin decide that it will be safer to take a lower track, instead. 

As we are now three or four hundred metres above that track, we are forced to make a very steep descent along the very rocky bed of a river, which is dry, but slippery as a result of the rain. Never the steadiest person on my feet, I manage to fall three times, twisting my arm quite badly. 

There’s a lot of grumbling from some of the long-distance walkers and the more serious weekenders about ‘part-timers’ mucking up the trek. This discontent intensifies later when the storm fails to materialise, and so after another round of consultation, Joseph leads us back up to the original trail. 

The sun has now come out, so this early afternoon climb is hot and gruelling. Thankfully, our surroundings are delightful, a thick forest full of towering, centenarian trees, whose branches dapple the ground with shimmering patterns of light. As clouds scud across the sky at high speed, the air is heavy with the fragrance of cedar and pine, the silence underscored by birdsong and the crunch of boots on ground. 

Emerging from the forest weary and sweaty, we finally stop for lunch at nearly 3pm beside a camouflaged concrete box that is known rather whimsically as the ‘Japanese Room’. This small bird watch funded by the Japanese government overlooks a seasonal meltwater lake fringed in lush, waist-high flower meadows. Neither lake nor meadows last much more than a couple of months, a brief explosion of glory before the summer turns the grass to straw and the lake to a sun-baked expanse of thick mud.

But for now, it is paradise.

Long fingers of silvery-blue snow are nestled in the hollows around the lake, which glitters golden in the afternoon sun. Of Japanese and birds, there is nary a trace, though we do see signs of boar activity, with evidence of rooting around the trees. After a hard day’s climb, the pause is a welcome opportunity to shuck boots and shed socks and allow the warm sun, cool grass and gentle breeze to soothe battered feet and morale.