<!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>

(So the following actually took place a few weeks ago, but by request, I’ve written an exceedingly long account of everything that happened. Certainly not a typical Lebanese experience, but an unfortunate twist of living in a strange land…)

I think my first thought when they shut the cell door was something along the lines of “Oh. Okay. So that’s what happens when they put you in jail… Crap.” And I’m not a smoker. I don’t smoke cigarettes. But I clearly remember my second thought being “Man, I need a cigarette.” It had been a long day.

The story really begins the day before. I believe my last post actually referenced this marathon of bureaucracy and I think I gave some grand advice about never loosing your passport in Lebanon, which I stand by. I also made the connection between the folks I was dealing with at the Lebanese General Security office and the insufferable French commander from the movie The Battle of Algiers, Colonel Mathieu. Unfortunately, I didn’t know just how accurate that comparison was. The only difference may have been that for all his authoritarianism, at least Colonel Mathieu had a real solid sense of humor.

On Tuesday I went back to one of the Lebanese General Security buildings as instructed at 9am, hoping to get the simple police report that my embassy hold told me I needed to show them and that a dozen Lebanese officials of various rank were unable to produce without signatures from the Prime Minister, Waldo (Where is he?), and Batman himself (Christian Bale would not suffice, I would have to find the Batcave). What I learned from the day before, and from my first two weeks in this country as a whole, was that generally speaking you can’t accomplish much unless you are assertive and refuse to let people step on you. This mantra served me well on Monday and when I came to the military wing of the GS Office on Tues, I was convinced of my tactics. I was sticking to my guns. Unfortunately- and there are a lot of unfortunately’s in this tale- I did not factor in the simple truth that military men are not civilians and do not take kindly to assertiveness. They had bigger guns than I did. After getting the run-around for a solid three hours, I was terrified that my application for a police report would get lost amidst the literally thousands of papers and carbon copies piled on desks throughout the building– not a single computer, photocopy machine, or even filing cabinet for that matter in sight. I told a few people that I wasn’t leaving until I got my police report and was pretty satisfied when I was brought to the office of an important-looking guy in new fatigues and shiny boots who was wearing his beret indoors. The man sat me down and told me, “I think… eh, you might have to pay 70,000 Lebanese pounds [just over $25] in order to get this processed immediately.” Given his hushed tone and seeming uncertainty with the truth of his statement, I was convinced this man was asking for a bribe. I would later be told by higher authorities that this was not a bribe at all, so in hindsight I clearly made a poor judgment. But at the time I was sure of my impression, and reacting as much to the insanity of the whole situation as to what was just told to me, I cracked an incredulous smile. The general’s face went blank and showed that he had no idea why I was smiling. “He really expects me to grease his palms for this,” I thought to myself. My smile broke into a chuckle, and for a few solid seconds the chuckle gave way to a deep, Santa Clause, belly rumbling guffaw. This time the general’s face was not skeptical nor inquisitive, it was flush with rage. I was directed to get out of his sight immediately, and I complied, only to realize that I didn’t know where to go next. Finding myself in another sticky situation, I returned a few minutes later to ask what I could do. I ran into even more angry words and curses, this time in English. After standing in the hall of the fourth floor of the General Security building for a good twenty minutes as a few military guys stared and others tried their hardest to ignore me, I took out my pen and started writing down the names on the doors of the various offices. I thought just in case I finally met someone who was helpful, I could explain where I’ve been. Or at the very least it would improve my Arabic handwriting. The bystanders were apparently not aware that I was a student of the language, and assumed I was getting ready to tattle on the aforementioned angry important-looking guy. It was about when he found out about this that my fate was sealed I think. There were more rooms and more generals and more signatures, and along the way I picked up one and then another escort with guns, but since they were carrying around an official-looking report I thought perhaps I was nearing the end of my journey. Unfortunately (there’s another one), that wasn’t my police report, it was my receipt. For jail.

Things started to feel wrong when I was sitting in one nondescript office next to my new entourage and a soldier came over and told me to put on some handcuffs. I had a brief moment of panic, but when I refused, everyone in the room had a good laugh, and I gathered they were just trying to lighten the mood a bit. They didn’t push the issue and although I thought the joke in poor taste, I let it slide. After this pit stop, we were off to a police jeep which was parked outside. I happily bounded into the back seat like a puppy on his first trip to the park. Thinking back, these guys must have never had an easier time transporting someone to prison. Of course I asked where the field trip was headed, but the only response from the driver and his accomplice up front was that we were headed to “Chez le directeur.” I thought perhaps this was finally it. I had figured out how to speak to the head honcho. I was going right to the top. The director. In a jeep. Fantastic. I would be on my way back to the embassy for my new passport in no time. Unfortunately, my dreams began to fall apart when the police jeep made a hard turn into what appeared to be a tremendous cement parking garage beneath an overpass. Led from the truck down a dark, wet stairway with several armed guards standing sentinel it seemed an inauspicious home for a directeur, and it was unlikely we had stopped there for coffee and donuts on the way. Still, when the clanking of doors became audible, then dozens of jail cells became visible, and then a man with a large manifesto before him demanded my name, I gave the boys the benefit of the doubt. Wasn’t it possible the prison warden was the one I needed to speak to? In a flash as the door of the holding cell slammed shut, however, I finally put the pieces together with all the excitement of a foreigner who has just found out he is going to jail. “Does anyone have a cigarette?”


About the author