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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!