Published On: Tue, Sep 11th, 2012

Dancing the night away while bombs exploded, then a walk in a minefield

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With Syria in the news, it is worth getting a historical perspective of what was going on in 1958.  Extract from Fleeting Moments by Gordon Fischer, my father:

JUNE 1958:  After I had been expelled from the Syrian part of the short-lived odd couple called the United Arab Republic (the other party was Nasser’s Egypt), I caught a Panam flight from Damascus to Beirut. Twenty minutes later, I landed in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbour to the west, only to discover that new dangers lurked. Lebanon was involved in a full-scale civil war.  The Christian clans were pitted against various radical Moslem fundamentalist groups.  The latter had the support of Syria, whose armies had occupied the eastern part of Lebanon, including the famous ruins of Baalbek, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world.  A symbol of power and wealth, Baalbek remains as one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee.

Nasser in 1958

During the Roman period (64 BC-312 AD), Baalbek was known as Heliopolis (‘City of the Sun’).  Baalbek means ‘God (Baal) of the Beqaa,’ a reference to the surrounding fertile plain, through which a major trade route ran from Damascus to Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, south of Beirut. In 15 BC Julius Cesar made the site a Roman colony and established a legion there. At Baalbek, a gigantic temple, the largest religious building in the entire Roman Empire, was built and dedicated to Jupiter. Later, other smaller temples were built to complete the massive temple complex and were dedicated to Bacchus, Venus and Mercury.

As soon as I was installed in the St George’s Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, I called the British Embassy and spoke to a close friend of Anthea Leslie, my English fiancée in Bangkok.  She promptly invited me to a dinner dance at the French Embassy that same evening.  But what could I do in the afternoon?  Clearly, I should go water-skiing. So I hired a mono-ski and a fast speedboat that was docked in the harbour near my hotel.  The bay was clogged up with dozens of ships from the American Sixth Fleet, whose unsubtle presence was to display U.S. military might and to encourage a political settlement of the civil war.  Gliding behind the speedboat, I practiced my turns and weaved in and out around destroyers, frigates and even a gigantic aircraft carrier.  I waved to the sailors of the American Sixth Fleet, who were amused by my silly antics; they waved back and cheered.

How could I have been so frivolous amidst a civil war?   Didn’t I know that scores of innocent people were dying every day?  When I discovered the reaction of the diplomatic community to the internecine fighting, my conscience was a less disturbed. The diplomats whom I met considered the civil war as a silly inconvenience, a nuisance, which required them to make minor adjustments in their lifestyle.

For instance, the dinner dance that night was called a ‘curfew party.’  The premise was clearly stated: between ten in the evening and four in the morning, anyone strolling the streets of Beirut would be shot on sight.  So the main idea of the party was to enjoy oneself, and to go nowhere until the curfew was over. Among the guests I detected an extraordinary blasé attitude.  I remember while dancing cheek-to-cheek to Cole Porter’s It’s Just one of Those Things, I suddenly heard a deafening BOOM, as a bomb went off near the exterior wall of the grounds of the embassy residence.  Ho, hum; no one seemed to care.  The dancing continued, as if the bomb was merely an integral part of the host’s attempt to entertain the guests.  When an exchange of gunshots broke out in the street, the band played on and on, and the guests acted as if nothing had happened outside the hallowed embassy grounds.  Ho, hum.  Only when the curfew was over did we realise what had transpired in the brutal, real world.  On the way back to my luxury hotel, as dawn was about to break, I noticed a dozen or corpses littered in the streets and on the pavements.

During the dinner dance, I made several inquiries about Baalbek.  The consensus of diplomats at the dinner dance was unequivocal:  ‘Beirut is not safe. Baalbek is even worse; it’s a fortified area that the Syrians control.  Don’t even thing of going there.   Baalbek is a no-go area.’  But I made my own decision, rash as it was at the time: I would see the Roman ruins the next morning, and take my chances.  And it was only 85 kilometres from Beirut.

After an early breakfast, I went to the front of my hotel and spoke to a taxi driver who was parked in the queue.  ‘I want to go to Baalbek.  How much?’

The driver shook his head.  Obviously, he thought it was a crazy idea.  He said he was ready to drive almost anywhere, but not to Baalbek.  ‘Thanks, but no thanks.  I don’t want to get shot.  It’s bad enough to live in Beirut.’

All the more reason, I thought, why I shouldn’t miss seeing Baalbek.  I rather doubted that it would be overcrowded with foreign tourists.  I could enjoy the tranquillity of an ancient Roman site and inspect the ruins.

Eventually, I found a driver who agreed would take me close to Baalbek, up to the barrier that separated the good guys from the bad guys. (At that point it was difficult to discern who was who.)  But I would have to walk the rest of the way through a no man’s land of about one mile. At the entrance of the Roman ruins, I noted that the booth that normally sold entry tickets had been ripped to pieces by bullets and smashed by mortar fire.  A soldier offered to let me in, as long as I paid him a nominal bribe.  I did.  Inside I wandered through the underground tunnels, which I discovered the occupying Syrian soldiers were using as a bivouac facility.  I passed out cigarettes to the Syrian soldiers, who were very friendly.  I told them I had a fascinating time while I was in their beautiful capital Damascus, and managed to avoid any discussion of Algerian independence. I had evidently learned the hard way to keep my mouth shut and to avoid any further hints that my sentiments were on the side of the French imperialists.

Later in the afternoon, I left Baalbek and walked back to the side of the demarcation line that the Christian militia controlled.  I stopped for a sandwich at a local café and chatted with the owner.  I told him about my excursion to the Syrian-controlled zone and about my visit to Baalbek.

His response was complete disbelief.  ‘But, Monsieur, how could you walk back and forth to Baalbek?   Across no man’s land?  That’s impossible!  The road is impassable.’

I asked, ‘Why is it impassable?  I just did it.’

He shook his head and raised his arms in the air.  Then he said, ‘How amazing!  Monsieur, don’t you know?  The road is full of deadly land mines.’

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