Two and a half hours later, just as I am beginning to think that I might be spending the night at the border, my saviour arrives.
A battered yellow Syrian taxicab draws in, flashes its headlights and drives towards me.
Beaming, the driver rolls down the widow and asks if I am looking for a ride. Without even asking how much he wants, I grab my case, dump it into the trunk and hop into the front set before he can get away.
“I’m Warren,” I say, sticking out my hand, and pumping his with the excited relief of someone who has just been told he’s going to live. “I need to get to Beirut. Going all the way?”
As we coast towards the Lebanese border post at Masna’a, I ask the driver, whose name is Mahmoud, why he’s still making the trip. Isn’t he worried about the missile strikes?
“Of course,” he replies. “But there’s too much money to be made to worry. Anyway, our lives are in God’s hands. If it’s my time, there’s nothing I can do about it. Right now, I’m going to pick up a guy who called an hour ago. He’s promised $1500, if I’ll take him and his family from Beirut to Damascus.”
That’s quite a sum. Momentarily, I blanche. Mahmoud laughs.
“Don’t worry, khaweja. You are a bonus. I thought maybe I would not have any passengers. People aren’t really travelling to Beirut these days, so you get a good price.” It’s the second time that day I’ve heard someone refer to me using the polite term for term for ‘foreigner’. I suppose I should ask what that ‘good price’ might be but as I’m already in the car and I really don’t have any other choice, I figure it’s best to leave any potential disagreements until we arrive.
It may be old truism, but there’s definitely profit in war. Three days into this one, Mahmoud is making money hand over fist. A journey that cost $15 a head a few days ago now runs to a minimum of $100.
“Yesterday when it got bad, one Kuwaiti guy offered me $2000 to take him, his wife and daughter to Damascus. I told him he had to pay up front and then I picked up four more people on the way.” Mahmoud’s eyes crinkle. “He started to shout and threaten but when I told him I’d be happy to return his money and leave him by the road to go with someone else, he quickly stopped yelling. That was a really good trip.”
Not that the others have been bad, either. By cramming seven or eight passengers into the cab, he’s been making upwards of $1000 a run. Multiply that by the three or four runs he’s been making a day and it’s little wonder Mahmoud hasn’t had time to bathe. He’s making more in a day than he normally makes in a month, probably longer.
“That,” he says, nodding at his feet with a cheeky grin, “is the smell of money.”
On the edge of Masna’a, we pass the still smoking remains of the cars hit earlier that day, and the unshakable resolve I’ve felt since Thursday, wavers. Suddenly, I find myself to wondering why the hell I am going back to Beirut. I am a journalist, but I rarely write about politics or war. I’ve made my living from the lighter stuff; features on architecture, art, design, travel and the odd social issue from time to time. I have reported from conflict zones, southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, the West Bank and briefly, Iraq, but by no stretch of the imagination am I a war journalist. I’m not even sure whether I will cover this one, once I get back. Truth be told, I’m not really sure why I’m going back at all. I just know that watching the city I love being destroyed on television makes me feel like I am dying.
Mahmoud starts cracking jokes. They aren’t particularly funny but they keep me from thinking about what I’m doing. Him too, I imagine. My intestines, locked in stony constipation from the moment I’d seen those missiles slam into Beirut International on Thursday morning, begin to roil and my stomach feels like it’s trying to digest itself.
By way of distraction, I run through the route home in my head. The Beirut-Damascus highway, which cuts straight across the Beka’a Valley and up over the mountains is closed because the new bridge at Mdeirej, the highest in the Middle East, was bombed earlier in the day. That leaves the old road, which zigzags across the valley, through the vineyards of Zahle and then up and over the mountains to the Mediterranean, a narrow, twisting ribbon of poorly-lit, pot-holed tarmac best navigated by day.
The Lebanese border post is similarly deserted. I get out and walk towards Immigration. It’s so dark and so quiet that from the car park, I can hear the sound of some nearby television broadcasting details of the latest airstrikes. As if to underscore the news, the dull thud of explosions echoes across the Beka’a.
On normal days, Masna’a is a circus of honking horns and people clamouring to get in or out but once again, I’m alone. There’s no one at Immigration, so I call out for assistance. A few seconds later, a trio of rather bemused border police pop their heads around a door. Adjusting his belt and smoothing his hair back into place, as though he’s just woken from a nap, one of them ambles over and takes my passport.
“Where did you fly from today? Dubai? Journalist? Ah, yes. Bien sûr. Hamdillah as-salemeh. Welcome home.”
With a flourish, he stamps me in and hands my passport back. He doesn’t even bother asking for my residency permit.
“You know there’s a war, right? Yes? Well, OK then. Allah ma’ak.”
Passport in hand, I get back into the cab. Mahmoud slaps the steering wheel.
“Ready?” he says, starting the engine.
I’m not, really. I peer out the window and up at the night sky. It’s cloudless, a carpet of gently twinkling lights. I check to see if any of them are moving. Or flashing. The way I imagine fighter planes would probably look from the ground at night. Thankfully, the heavens appear to be stationary. My head, however, feels like it is spinning. So, no bombers. Well, none I can see, anyway.
We roll slowly towards the exit. Mahmoud turns off the headlights “so the planes won’t see us”. For a minute, I’m really impressed. Then I remember that modern missiles are heat-seeking. Even with the lights off, the car’s engine will probably be hot enough to home in on, especially if, as now seems likely, there is no other traffic on the road.
I squeeze my eyes shut and hope the Israeli air force won’t notice us. Or that if they do, they’ll leave us alone. Or that if they don’t, at least we don’t see the missiles coming.
I think of Joseph, a sweet, generous and kind-hearted man, my Lebanese brother, who is waiting anxiously (and angrily) for me in Beirut. He has packed his family off to his brother-in-law’s house in the mountains in the north of Lebanon and was preparing to leave himself, when I called him that morning to say I was on my way back.
“What? Why in God’s name would you do that? ” Joseph had shouted after a moment of stunned silence, his voice rising by several decibels in the process. “Anyway, you can’t. There’s no airport. It’s blown up. How are you going to get in?”
I told him that I was about to get on a plane to Damascus, take a taxi across the Beka’a and that I’d be home by the evening. Even before I finished explaining, he’d begun swearing.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The Israelis are bombing everywhere. The Beka’a too. Do you want to die? Stay there. You don’t need to come back. I can’t believe it! Stay in stupid Dubai. It’s safe there. Do you hear me? Do not come back to Beirut! Ya Allah, is this boy stupid, or just crazy?”
We get cut off. I try to redial but I can’t get through. The lines are busy. Or down. Or blown-up. I wish I could have told Joseph that I am coming back because Beirut is my home, that it is the place where some of the people that matter the most to me live, that it is part of my heart and that I can’t bear to be away while the place and the people I care about are in danger, but his anger, born of concern, makes such rationalisation seem flimsy. Why was I going back to a country that hundreds of thousands of people were busy trying to flee? What the hell was I doing? Maybe I was mad.
The car stops. I must look a bit green because Mahmoud reaches over and taps me on the chest.
“Don’t worry, English. No planes,” he says, looking up and out of the window and then tapping himself on the chest. “Heart of iron, my friend, heart of iron.”
As the gate opens, I flash my passport at the guard. He couldn’t possibly be less interested. Abdicating any and all responsibility, he waves us through wearily. Mahmoud guns the engine. And then, at 160 kilometres an hour, we shoot across the border into darkness, straight into a war.
Next instalment Friday December 7th