The Sounder

Paradise City A recollection by Ramsay Short
No way out. Photo: Tanya Traboulsi, Beirut 2006
The soldier jabbed his rifle at me as I descended the ramp stairs from the plane to the tarmac.

“Your mother can't afford clothes for you?” he said grinning. It’s 1987, I’ve just landed in Beirut from London for the summer, Appetite for Destruction is the global number one album and I’m a 13-year-old Axl Rose wannabe wearing stonewash jeans so ripped they look like the scrap clothes of a post-apocalyptic London Oliver Twist.

Prick, I think. Where the fuck's this anyway and what do you know about fashion? I am coming from civilisation, fucking London, centre of the world.

I was a dick with a mouth in a bandana and bangles but boy did I think I was the bee’s knees. My crush on the girl next door was working out - she definitely thought I was cool and would keep hitting tennis balls over the wall to my folks' garden to attract my attention. I could sing Paradise City with the best of them, and play the drums too. So who in hell was this jumped-up excuse for a fighter in unwashed military fatigues to laugh at me? I almost went at him but my mother held me back and told me to ignore him. He was barely 18. He smirked at me as I clambered on to the bus to Arrivals. Everyone else was wary of men with guns in Civil War-era Beirut. I probably should have been too.

The early 90s, post-war in the concrete city, were mad. Smoking green hash that tasted like ambrosia, hanging out on the quad at AUB. The sunshine. The rave parties that popped up in random bombed out locations organised by some Acid House foreigners in town for a few months and on to a good thing. It was freedom, escapism unbound. I adored Beirut. The original BO18, and everyone clamouring with Naji to get in – not his chalet in Maalmetein, but the venue in Sin El Fil. The kids like us looked for hedonism and sex and whisky on the rocks, blind to the politicians raping the nation's resources. But it was walking through Beirut’s streets that always got me. There was nothing like it. My grandmother lived in Zarif in a fancy crumbling mandate period apartment block at the time, knocked down now like so many others. I used to stay with her. I would find myself outside wandering around the packed traffic clogged roads so alien to my London hood, listening for the call to prayer, scenting the Mediterranean on the breeze. If I closed my eyes and listened the city took me away. It was so alive. Music from servis (sic) radios. The smell of home cooked food from open doors. Shops selling vegetables. The potholes in the asphalted streets. Traffic police smoking nonchalantly. It was like a swirling vortex of unseen borders interacting, bumping up against each other, some dark, some intimate, unique little universes interlinked. And the summers were so hot. I loved the fact that when I'd go to buy milk or an English paper from the neighbourhood dekaneh I'd pay with Lebanese notes and the man would never have coins so he'd give me chewing gum for change, a transaction that would not have happened back in England.

T'bourni,” my grandmother would say to me, “What is England anyhow, the food is terrible there. You don’t even have olive oil. Come and eat lunch. I have sayideh and molokhiehi and frites.”

It was always lunch at my grandmother’s in Zarif.

When the bomb struck in the last week of July in 2006 I wasn't far away. In a now-defunct restaurant named Fennel, in Clemenceau where they had reliable wartime Wi-Fi, writing, waiting for a lead, a story I could scoop before the other papers got there. Now here that story was. Adrenalin pumping this was what I cared about. Today it was foolish. My editor at The Telegraph was keen. I heard it first, then got a call. You don't hear Israeli bombs till they hit. But when they hit they are as loud as kingdom come. I jumped in my car, a leased black Kia Picanto, and drove to Chiah. The streets were empty and dark. At the entrance to Dahieh at the Tayouneh roundabout, there was the ringing aftermath of a huge explosion, choking dust in the air, everything pitch black. The electricity was out, the generators down. I drove further inside the narrow streets to ground zero. I followed the smoke swishing in my headlights. And then I saw it. I parked as close as I could. The only other vehicles there were Red Cross ambulances. It wasn’t my first bomb. But it was one of the worst, a scene of complete carnage. A single building, reduced to rubble. As if an earthquake had hit, brutal, indiscriminate, tragic. The bodies of children dragged from underneath slabs of concrete. I run to help. I take hold of a lifeless hand. Blood and dust and screams. I am numb. Then…

…Then a punch to the side of my head, a kick to my gut. And I double over, dazed. My arms are being pulled, my pockets rifled, my phone taken and more punches landing, to my ribs, to my face, to my back. And I hit the ground. “Hes a spy. Hes a spy,” someone is saying.

I was nothing of the sort. But it didn’t matter. During this period many Lebanese had been uncovered as informers for the IDF, indicating to them on which buildings to drop their barrel bombs in attempts to destroy the Hizbollah hierarchy. How they did this I was unclear.

Maybe I looked different. Maybe I shouldn't have been on my own. Though I had my papers. But my combat-zone journalist training was no good here. A gun thrust in my stomach. Another in my back. Pulled, dragged into the entrance of a nearby building that was still standing. Hurt, rushing, I shout, “I am on your fucking side.” A battery of hits in response. I shut up. They check my details. They don't really care. Who are they? Residents. Resistance. Residue. Fear and adrenalin have a funny way of slamming you into sharp focus. In slow-mo. I'm pulled away, beaten further, taken deep into Dahieh away from the bomb. I'm told to face the wall of the corner of an apartment block. Who knows what happens next? I overhear two men. Militia. Not clear from which group. Ones I didn’t want to be with. But I'm lucky. So fucking lucky.

Guys with machine guns and blue-grey camo jumpsuits turn up. Someone’s told them a foreign reporter’s been abducted. They argue with the balaclava-clad men pinning my arms to my side. Camo-guys grab me and try to pull me away. Balaclavas don't let go. I am like a toy soldier being ripped apart in a school playground tussle. It goes on for several minutes. At least it feels like minutes. It could have been mere seconds. I wasn’t in a state to judge.

Camo-guys prevail. I am dragged, arms held behind me, presumed guilty. Balaclavas are still arguing. They want blood. Proof or no proof. Eventually camos bundle me into a blacked-out jeep. Two in first, then me, handcuffed behind my back in the middle, two in next. I try to say ‘call this person’ but I can’t get it out. I am bleeding. My nose and eye are swelling up. My lip is busted. My chest and legs are badly bruised. Later I find myself up against another wall in a cop shop, secret police. Baabdat apparently. My cousin, a fixer, who knows people who know people somehow turns up. I am questioned for hours. Phone calls are made. Finally, I am released. My jeans are shredded, my skin scabbing over. The soldier on the door jabs his gun at me.

“You look like shit,” he says.

I really want to deck him. But I don’t – this time I hold myself back – and find myself humming as I stumble out into the dawn light: “Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Oh, won’t you please take me home…”

Written on location at Papercup, Mar Mikhael, Beirut, 2017
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