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Personal Histories

Once Upon a Time in the Middle East

Driving from Lebanon toward Syria, across the Saudi Arabian desert to Dammam, in a taxi among the refugees of Beirut—quickly becomes the Wild West.

Credit: "My Kuwait Car," 1982, Dennis Sylvester Hurd

There was one day near the end, when I took a taxi up a hill, to see a man. We sliced through canyons, making our way into the mountains north of Beirut, riding a black strip of asphalt upon which no lines were drawn. The span of tar was sometimes wide enough for two cars, sometimes one. We drove fast, nearly hitting someone when the road narrowed, nearly hit by another car ourselves when we bisected a second road—no stop signs, no stoplight—and then I realized: Nowhere at any point had a sign indicated a sharp curve or steep drop-off. We were on our own. When we finally stopped, four black dogs came running. 

In the spring of 2011, protests that began in Tunisia spread to Egypt and Yemen and finally made their way to a town in Syria called Daraa. By the time the marching in the streets went nationwide, in April, it was still rare in Beirut to see that many cars with Syrian plates. Then the protests became bloodbaths, and as Bashar Al-Assad’s soldiers fired more and more on unarmed young men, the surviving ones started to pick up guns. Beirut filled with refugees. You could try to pretend it wasn’t happening. I’d walk my daughter to school, and on a single block, I’d pass one or two Syrian cars. Then I might see five or six. The next month, nearly every car on a leafy block overhung with bougainvillea had plates from across the border: Homs, Hama, Aleppo. At a single glance, you could tell where each was from, from a tiny code on the license plate. The empty apartment in our building was snatched up by a man who arrived with his wife, a son, a maid, and two cars. Both vehicles had plates from Damascus.

There were wrecks every few miles; nearly half the cars seemed to have burst into flames.

Each time I flew into Beirut, I was struck by the darkness of the sea, the way the city hugged the water, a string of lights like a necklace, this bright spot before the tendrils of color snaked up the canyons, all those roads up into the mountains, a few more hours to Syria. When we first moved to Lebanon, people predicted Assad would fall within a month or two. Then it was a year, then more. Syria was being changed daily by guns and blood, and some of it was flowing our way. Returning each time became more and more intense. Settling into a taxi, I’d ask the driver if things were OK. Tires on fire? Any roadblocks? Should I buy extra milk? Back at home, the call to prayer rang out, from three different mosques, and people bent to pray as the power cut.

I never wanted to drive in Lebanon, scarred as I was by my experience in Saudi Arabia, where we’d lived for a few years, and where the only rule of the road seemed to be gravity. There, women were forbidden from driving, and would instead deputize 14-year-old sons or cousins to pilot the family car, often a massive SUV, and it was because of this, and the Wild West feel that gripped the edge of a desert, that passenger fatalities were higher in Saudi Arabia than in any other country in the world. Additionally, if you struck and killed someone, a family could demand blood money. The first time we drove to the eastern town of Dammam, where all the oil was, we spent four terrifying hours gritting our teeth on the desert highway, astonished to see everyone blasting by us at 120 mph. It seemed like a death wish. There were wrecks every few miles; nearly half the cars seemed to have burst into flames. We drove through an ocean of sand and after a while I pushed the pedal all the way down.

Then we moved to Lebanon, where driving on some of the roads required special permission from the UN, which managed the border with Israel; or from Hezbollah, which was a de facto government in other parts of the country; or by a phone call to one of the guys people knew among the random Sunni power brokers in the north, which had become the site of something not unlike a proxy war. In the capital, only the rich people who lived in the staggering condo buildings or their security guards might block you. I preferred to get around on foot, quickly finding evidence of old gunshots, or that bomb blast, or that place where an RPG struck. On a single day in September 1982, more than 700 civilians were slaughtered in two refugee camps. My daughter went to school a few blocks from the Marine barracks blast site, where nearly 300 soldiers were killed on a bright morning in 1983. Our house was around the road from the Saudi embassy, charred during a hostile takeover. Every now and then, I’d come upon the shot-up hulk of the notorious old Holiday Inn, which opened in 1974 and operated for only one year before it was overrun during the so-called battle of the hotels, when the war’s rival factions began slaughtering each other from rooms in various downtown towers. Now a gutted shell, the Holiday Inn building was topped by a revolving restaurant that lately hosted only birds and trees. 

There were rules. Occasionally you might break them. In a place like Beirut, when everyone was living so close together, order could feel beside the point, secondary to the little compromises that actually governed a life in a city. After another car bomb or execution, when everyone rolled down their security gates and the streets became ghostly, you could begin to see community as an organism predisposed to letting people doing bad things. Instead, all that seemed to matter was money and power, habit and who you knew. There were a few public parks, but in general the idea of sharing was preposterous. Better to have tall walls and strong bars. In battered Senaya Park, near the old green line that separated the east of Beirut from the west, the first playground I took my daughter to was until recently a place to sleep for people whose homes had been blown up.

To become a passenger, to begin any journey acknowledging I needed help, that I was a guest, that everything might go wrong—that felt right.

Even at night, I insisted on walking everywhere, leaving for a party 90 minutes early, pounding down old streets, arriving in sweat. I simply wasn’t ready to go any faster. When we had to take a taxi, instead of sitting in the passenger seat like most men in Beirut, I’d find a spot in the back, as far away from the driver’s seat as possible. To become a passenger, to begin any journey acknowledging I needed help, that I was a guest, that everything might go wrong—that felt right.

Then there was a seven-hour shoot-out on our block, when the army rolled up. My wife, a journalist, put on her battle helmet, grabbed her press pass, and ran toward the shooting. Stealthy men in leather jackets and waist-holstered pistols appeared, demanding identification. Meanwhile, others emerged from the shoe repair shop on the corner, which we always knew was more than shoe repair shop. They held AK-47s in the air. Young soldiers stood uneasily on an armored personnel carrier, watching it all, waiting. You never knew, exactly, what was at stake. Later that night, someone threw a grenade. Then seven more.

This past summer, all of Beirut’s foreign journalists were on a beach south of the city, when a barrage of rockets hit a suburb. It had been a season of explosions, and what were a few more? More than a dozen guests were in town from America, gathering for a wedding between the photographer and the Kabul correspondent. The hammocks were strong, the sea was blue. Let them enjoy themselves. But everyone could see the smoke, that the damage was close—maybe just five minutes away by the six-lane highway. Yet, to spare them the truth, everyone focused on what was known: That the beach was un-hit. Then someone ordered another cocktail. Whatever it might cost in other ways, in dollars at least, a ride to the center of town was still $13.

 

In August, we returned to the United States. A new job beckoned, in Los Angeles. First, I needed to drive from Boston to California. I hopped in the car, threw on the radio, and every station was discussing chemical weapons.

Grinding gears, I was back behind the wheel, heading west, when I began to ache for the dense and dangerous city we’d left behind, shuddering to imagine the slow spread of sarin gas next door. On the eve of apparent strikes, as much as we all wanted Assad gone, I couldn’t help feeling like America missiles would simply layer more blood upon blood. Setting the cruise control, I thought about the roads in America and the way people get around in the Middle East. I thought about the limits of kindness, and the way we assert power and prerogative. Then I started to go faster.

Nearly into California, I found an abandoned whorehouse called The Cottontail Ranch. In the parking lot I encountered a family of Kuwaitis. A lonely mountain road had been washed out up ahead, dashing both our plans. They were trying to get to Yosemite. I was trying to get to a place on the map called Deep Springs. We were all screwed.

I brandished my atlas, trying to explain a northerly bypass through Tonopah, a path I myself did not want to take. They nodded, uncomprehending, overwhelmed by all the options. I told them I’d just left the Middle East, that I missed it, that maybe I wanted to go back. They looked at me like I was insane. I suddenly realized I was standing in front of an old whorehouse, caught between the place I’d been trying to flee and the place I wasn’t yet ready to go.

I decided I’d break into the Cottontail. Behind the old bar, there was a drift of plastic champagne glasses and a pile of approximately 100 tongue depressors. It was hard to imagine this working out well for anyone involved.

I leaned on their white van, sticking my head through the window, suddenly voluminous in my desire to explain all our options. The atlas sat in the lap of a Kuwaiti woman. Her husband looked at me with sympathy, or maybe it was horror, or perhaps it was thanks, and in the back, a car-load of men in their 20s argued sharply in Arabic. One, his black eyebrows furrowed, leaned in and pointed at a spot in the woman’s lap.

“What is this?”

“That,” I said, “is the border.”

“Can we follow you?” the woman asked, her eyes pleading. I told her I don’t know yet where I was going, that I might stick around and think. In reality, I just couldn’t believe the road was washed out, that I couldn’t do things the way I wanted. I imagined driving around the barricades, settling in to a long mountain drive, only to slip down into a giant, yawning chasm.

After they left, I decided I’d break into the Cottontail. Behind the old bar, there was a drift of plastic champagne glasses and a pile of approximately 100 tongue depressors. It was hard to imagine this working out well for anyone involved. Old mattresses were stacked in a corner. A long hallway was lined by tiny bedrooms. I poked my head into one, and then I quickly shut the door. Outside, a flood of sunshine hit the car. I was glad to be back in America, to have space to roam. But a part of me would always be stuck in a taxi in the Middle East, bracing for something I hoped wouldn’t come. I pressed the pedal again.

On the radio, a host was talking about a bullet-proof insert available for kids’ backpacks. Battleships in the Mediterranean from Russia and the U.S. were pretending they didn’t see each other. In Kansas (or was it Missouri?) I had passed a decommissioned war plane, the camo paint flaking off, this machine from the last time we decided to aid a country in need, or maybe it’s from the time before that? On the radio, someone said an A-10 fighter jet had accidentally dropped an inert practice bomb on the parking lot of a bar in Maryland. The barkeep said she knew precisely what time the bomb struck because her outdoor surveillance camera had caught the impact. No one had noticed. Customers were too busy, she said, and the music was too loud.