Beirut, Lebanon — February 2015
We arrived at around 1:00 AM.
Lebanon had long been on my wishlist of places to visit. It’s crown jewel, Beirut, waited for me just on the other side of the customs line. Beirut is a playground for explorers, I was told. I struck up a conversation with the two French dames ahead of me who happened to be staying at the same hostel. When they reached the front of the line, they were pointed to a room at the side of the terminal. Two minutes later, I was led into the same room.
I should mention that I tend to be a magnet for extra screenings at airports and borders. I had trouble with the immigrations and customs lines in Los Angeles, despite my US passport and being born and raised in California. Things generally move fast though. Walking into the new room, I was convinced that this would be no more than a five or 10 minute detour.
The official inside looked at my passport and motioned to me to sit down on a chair against the wall. The two French girls from the line were sitting in a chair in front of his desk, speaking with him in French. He looked towards me again a minute later and asked the girls something. It sounded familiar: I thought he asked if they knew me, so I said no.
He paused for five or six seconds, shifted his chair, and focused solely on me.
“Do you speak French?,” he asked me in English. “Does the American speak French?” I told him I did not. “Are you sure? Because I was speaking French with them and you answered, so you must speak French.” I apologized for interrupting their conversation. He kept on. “Maybe you don’t understand me because I am speaking English. Should I ask you this in French?” I said no, and apologized again for interrupting him. He asked me if it would be alright if he continued speaking with the girls, and informed me that he would speak English and use my name when he wanted to speak with me. I nodded silently. Any juvenile idea of being sarcastic or defiant in the face of authority quickly disappears when dealing with someone who can kick you out of his country.
He had in fact asked them if they knew me. The French word for “to know” is connaître, which sounds very similar to its Spanish equivalent, conocer. I was right. Regardless, I sat back quietly for the next five minutes as he finished his interview with them
The girls left the office and I was alone with the officer. He looked at me, then back at his computer and typed for a couple of minutes. He looked back up and told me to sit down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. After I did so, he glanced at me with furrowed eyebrows and went back to his computer. He then made a photocopy of my passport and sent me out of the office for a minute.
He summoned me back using my full name. Most people raised outside of former British colonies have trouble pronouncing everything, but he nailed it. He asked me what I was doing in Lebanon and I told him that I just wanted to see Beirut for a couple of days. He asked if I had a ticket to my next destination and I told him that I did. He then asked to see it. I didn’t physically have it, I explained, but I had purchased it. He demanded I show him the confirmation email. So I did.
He then launched into another line of questioning about my plans in Lebanon. He asked if I planned to attend protests. If I had friends in Lebanon. If I would leave Beirut. No, no, and no. He continued to ask if I was planning on staying in Lebanon or trying to volunteer there. This was, of course, exactly what I had hoped to do. I told him no.
He then asked me, awkwardly, how much money I had with me.
I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at. I was not above greasing the wheels and he didn’t appear to be either. When I pulled out my wallet, he scowled at me and asked how much money I had in my account. I considered explaining what his initial choice of words implied in English, but nah. He sent me to an ATM outside the office to print an account balance. I returned three minutes later to see him talking to another couple. I waited for five minutes for their conversation to finish, then handed him the ATM receipt.
He looked at it, threw it away, and asked what hostel I was staying at. I was suddenly grateful that I had reserved one the night before, I typically prefer to figure things out when I arrive. He looked up the hostel online and called the phone number listed. It rang and rang. It was after 2:00 AM after all. When someone picked up on the other end, the conversation was in Arabic and I didn’t understand a word.
He told me to go to the hostel. And that if I wasn’t on my departing flight five days later that he would be my personal escort.
I grabbed my bag and went to the machine where they X-rayed the bags. The man running the machine signaled for my backpack to be searched. The gloved man who had been opening and sorting through backpacks looked at me, then shrugged his eyebrows towards the office where I had been questioned. I nodded and rolled my eyes.
I was intensely nervous but tried not to let on. I had previously served in the US military and had a Veterans Affairs identification card in my backpack should I need medical care. I also had six bottles of epilepsy medication (more on travelling with epilepsy here), each having it’s VA affiliation on the label. I didn’t want to answer questions about why I am carrying six months worth of medication around. I especially didn’t want to answer questions about my military service, which included stints as an interrogator.
The bag searcher responded to my rolling eyes with a smile, then waved me through without looking through my bag. An anti-climatic ending after my one hour date with the security officer. A much welcome ending.
Five minutes later, I was in a cab heading to the hostel.
Truth be told, I don’t blame the officer. He was in his early forties. He spoke three languages fluently and with no strong accent. Physically, he was in great shape. Mentally, he was sharp and quick-witted. As an intelligence or security officer, this should have been the prime of his career. While his peers were doing important investigations, he was checking passports at 2:00 AM. You would be moody too.
The local news that next day focused on two Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers and UN Peacekeeper who had been killed by Israeli soldiers within hours of my flight arriving.