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From Beirut To Basra

By: Elizabeth Noble, Harwich, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

I wouldn' t make this journey today. I couldn' t. But in 1968, “terrorism” was not in my vocabulary so I traveled overland alone  after the Arab-Israeli 6-day war.

Aged just 23, with an Australian passport that opened many doors, nothing could dampen my optimism and curiosity about the Middle East.

But some orders were still closed, significantly the short route from Beirut to Damascus. Hamid, a Christian student at the American University, offered to take me into Syria through the north to visit his family. Our taxi brought us to the frontier late at night but without my passport! We returned to Tripoli to sleep at his cousin' s home.

While Hamid and Issam went to a café to play backgammon, I answered the doorbell. A glamorous woman with thick eyebrows almost bridging her nose glared menacingly. Since we couldn' t communicate, and I was busy looking for my passport (later retrieved behind a sofa) I forgot about her until Hamid and I had already left Lebanon.

Hamid tensed when I mentioned her visit. For sure, he exclaimed, this jealous woman would assume that I was Issam' s new - and foreign - lover, and she might kill him! Although I' d been told many Lebanese carried guns (one date in Beirut had casually showed me his) I scoffed in disbelief.

In Hamid' s mountain village, established by Catholic nuns, the women baked pita bread on outdoor wood-fired oven. Every night the villagers assembled, bringing their own chairs, to hear Hamid' s stories of Beirut - a dazzling, cosmopolitan city at that time. The gathering always departed in its entirety at a given moment- no lingering guests as in my culture.

A few days after our arrival in this remote valley, a black Mercedes with a Beirut license plate glided imperiously along the only street, astonishing the villagers who were either on foot or on donkeys. It was she, the monobrow who answered the bell, who drove both ways for several hours to verify that I was with Hamid, and not her lover.

Damascus had always been #1 on my list of Fascinating Cities to Visit since devouring T.E. Lawrence' s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  (Beirut, however, captured first place as “city that had it all, and remains so even today, in my memories).

My stay in Damascus was difficult for Hamid' s cousin who flew Russian MIGs. I was suspected of being a foreign journalist. After noticing men in raincoats tailing us, and clicks during phone calls, Hamid and I decided to meet the family either at destinations, or to walk a hundred yards behind them. Due to the recent war, I had not glimpsed a single other Westerner as I explored archeological sites, museums, and enjoyed ice-cream with pistachios in the Grand Bazaar.

Daily excursions were easier after I arrived in Amman where I stayed with Jordanian owners of a shoe store franchise. They arranged a date with a nephew who spoke functional English. Beginning when the hummus was served, and continuing through each course of the meal, he fingered a different piece of my clothing, to identify the fabric (for lack of a better way to approach a foreign girl). As we left the restaurant, this medical student boldly asked, What would you do if I raped you on the way back to Uncle Ahmed' s?” I replied: “Since you are have divulged your intentions I doubt you are serious” and the evening fortunately ended without incident.

I was accustomed to traveling in old diesel Mercedes sedans that set off for a destination (barked by the driver at the transport terminus) after the last passenger was squeezed in. The trip from Amman to Baghdad was to be the longest- overnight, and at least 15 hours on rough roads.

Youssef, the Syrian driver, spoke some French and invited me to sit in front between him and an Arab, also dressed in Western clothes. I declined, preferring the back seat beside two devout old Muslims. Youssef translated their complaints about my exposed knees (which I thought was a ruse to get me beside him) until one of the holy men threw his prayer rug over my offending flesh.

Rest rooms did not exist in that desert and women did not travel alone. I would quickly squat behind something like a large water urn, hiding from the curious men who followed me - for water, of course!

During Ramadan, from sunrise to sundown, the two fasting men spat into ornately engraved silver boxes, since it is forbidden to swallow even their own saliva. I needed strength for whatever challenges lay ahead which meant discreetly eating the bread, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit I had brought.

In addition to prayer stops, when the two observant Muslims faced Mecca for their rituals, there were frequent military roadblocks. Most times, both front and back seats were tugged out of place to search for weapons. I was viewed with deep suspicion, but as I later learned, foreign girls were assumed to be prostitutes rather than spies.

The starless night wrapped around our lone transport, and the road stretched ahead with scarcely a curve, like Australia' s Nullabor Plain. I was determined fight my fatigue and stay awake, but not the way Youssef intended.

After he discovered I had a driver' s license he vacated the driver' s seat, and fell instantly asleep at my side.

That nap was no forty winks! I chauffeured the taxi through the rest of the night, reaching the edge of Baghdad around dawn. No more grumbling from the back seat- bare knees or not- their lives were in my hands!

Youssef rubbed his eyes, startled by a babbling soldier who was rifling my handbag. I' d noticed that this illiterate ruffian had flapped through my passport pages- upside down! When he shoved my purse back in the car and waved us on, I asked what he had hoped to find. 

“A camera, because photos are prohibited. I pulled out my camera to show Youssef: the solider, in his frenzy, had missed it!

The man who switched seats with me, invited Youssef and me for breakfast in his home of unleavened bread, honey, yoghurt and the first bitter cup of coffee with cardamon that is the traditional Arab gesture of hospitality.

I had spent time in the Middle East already, with African students. This unplanned diversion (which lasted a full year) began when I met Costa, a handsome, humorous, Nigerian student of architecture on the ship from Marseilles. He was returning from England and easily coaxed me to disembark with him and explore Cairo.

Thus began my view of Arab life through African eyes.

Despite common pretence that night clubs in Cairo did not exist, my African friends - who loved to dance - knew them all. However, blacks rarely gained admittance! This was both complicated and facilitated by my being white. Passports seemed to be required always, and only, of us!

Costa had arranged for his cousin Kayode to be my escort in Baghdad. However, unbeknown to me, my host in Amman had asked his daughter' s fiancé in Baghdad to meet me, as well. My dilemma, after arriving exhausted in that chaotic city, was whom to choose?

Both men were at the taxi station, both waiting to take me to their homes!

The Amman family was cultured and charming; I regretted rejecting their daughter' s future husband. But remembering their nephew, I trusted my intuition as I scrutinized in turn, the face of the Arab and the African.

With the Africans I' d met, I shared the ties of the former British Commonwealth and the English language. Experienced travelers, they treated women as equals and discussed any obstacles posed by their new milieu with great hilarity.

Kayode and three other male students from West Africa rented a house with marginal furnishings. No sooner had we arrived from the downtown taxi terminus, than the “police” were banging on the metal gate. They demanded entry to arrest “the foreign prostitute! Luckily, one of the Africans, looking ferocious with tribal scars on his cheeks, sent them away.

My new friends all spoke Arabic, of course, since they were studying in Baghdad. I was glad to have one or more of them always at my side, although I never accommodated the stares, and remarks they translated to me, since I was a white woman with a black man.

Baghdad in 1968 had few attractions for me. Again, I felt like the only foreigner in town. No nightclubs, belly-dancing, inviting shops or appealing restaurants as in Beirut, or even Cairo. Instead, we partied in the private homes of African students where I was not the only female to dance with all the guys like in Cairo!

I did not wear slacks in those days. I considered myself more respectably dressed in my French fashions from Beirut: a knee-length wool skirt and jacket, long socks (almost to my knees) and loafers.

Hamid had encouraged me to contact his dear friend from the University who now managed one of Baghdad' s hotels. After a long wait, I was escorted up upstairs to the Board Room. Inside, a dour, mustached man in a jacket and tie sat at the far end of a long table. Remaining seated, he hissed through clenched teeth for me to leave his hotel immediately, and never to contact him again.

I felt insulted and hurt until I remembered the Belle of Beirut! Of course, his wife, family, and the hotel staff would now wonder about his student life in the Paris of the Middle East!

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were hanging no more and there was nothing to detain me in the dreary, dusty capital. Two British journalists had disappeared…it was time to leave.

I had hoped to continue to Iran, through the winter with my raincoat for warmth, but it was stolen from Kayode' s clothesline. That theft changed my route: I dropped my plans to visit Isfahan and instead headed south to Basra on the Persian Gulf to board a freighter for Bombay.

When the sinking sun allowed the men in the streets of Basra to break their fast, I decided one night in this town would be one too many. Although my ship was not due to sail for two more days, the British captain welcomed me on board. I was glad to observe the mobs on the docks below from the security of the decks above.

I still think sneakers are for the tennis court and jeans for yard work, and both mark one as a tourist. But if I were to make that voyage again, it would be easier to dress in pantsuits like Laura Bush!

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