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Jail in Beirut wasn’t really a high-security sort of place. Most of the “prisoners” were being led around without handcuffs, and no one was carrying a weapon. People were actually fairly friendly. My holding cell had only a few people in it when I arrived: two women who had apparently had a longer day than myself, and two men who had clearly over-dressed for the occasion by my standards. Ahmad had seemingly called ahead for a reservation, because he arrived with pita bread and labneh cheese in a shopping bag. He offered me some, but I wasn’t really in the mood to eat. He was there for some sort of immigration issue. The other guy whose name I didn’t catch said he was there “for cocaine.” With me, I had my folder of useless paperwork, my handy planner, keys, wallet, cellphone. When I finished my cigarette, I fished around in my pocket for my used and gently abused cell that I had just acquired for ten dollars the day before and flipped through my planner for a helpful number. The first one I came upon was a colleague at work, who I managed to get through to. The warden saw me on the phone– I made no sincere efforts to hide my call– and decided it was time to process me. That meant saying goodbye to the phone, my belt, shoelaces, money and my pen. I had a real mammoth of a metal pen at the time and understandably they wanted to take it away– it was definitely passable as a weapon. Not certain how long I would be there, I protested enough to at least keep the ink cartridge so I could write to pass the time… I already had a grandiose plan in the works to record my memoirs by matchlight and sneak them out of jail with the guards inside hollowed out cigarettes. I also insisted that I get my phone call. For a good twenty minutes I had a yelling match with the warden, refusing to move an inch until I got my phone call. I don’t think the Lebanese typically get one, but I had a terrible feeling that if I didn’t get in touch with the embassy, it would be awfully easy to get lost for a while down there. Begging and pleading finally won out and I was allowed my call to the embassy. I had enough time for a quick “Here’s my name, I’m in jail, please get me out of here” before the phone was snatched away and I was led down a long corridor to meet my new cellmates.

I spoke to some of the prison guards (They weren’t exactly guards, more like custodians. They had no billyclubs or handcuffs and from what I could tell spent most of their time sweeping the place.) who showed me around and found out they were almost all from Sudan and here in Lebanon on working papers from the U.N.. Really nice guys. We walked by cell after cell, each one filled with maybe 30- 35 prisoners, each one maybe 10×20 meters in size. Some were more crowded than others, but there seemed to be enough space to at least sit comfortably. The cells were covered on the far wall inside with prisoner’s dirty plastic shopping bags filled with clothes and toothpaste. The hallway had fluorescent lights hanging down from the low ceiling which dimly lit the passage with a hazy yellow glow. Huge fans blew around hot, damp, salty air, and there was a shelf for shoes outside of each cell. By the time we reached my cell, number 12, the last one at the end of the hall, I had made friends with a jovial guard, Hadool, who was happy to learn that I was from New York. Hadool had a sister living in Queens and gave me a pack of cigarettes as a welcome present “If you need anything, let me know” he whispered to me through the bars as the door was shut anew.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I say that I stuck out a bit. My cellmates were all gathered in circles in their respective corners, many not wearing shirts, talking amongst themselves and sneaking glances over to the new guy. I quickly found out that these divisions were by homeland– the Sri Lankans in one corner, Indians in another, Palestinians, Iraqis, Thai; they all had their own enclave. I was welcomed by an Iraqi man wearing nice jeans who immediately started my inquisition. I got the impression he was the enforcer. He asked why I was there, and I said I really wasn’t sure, and he asked where I was from, and all I could manage was a feeble “Eh, far away.” Not content to leave it at that, his friends pressed on- “What, like from Australia?” Now I’ve never in all my travels misled people about where I’m from. Those who have traveled around a bit know that it’s tough sometimes, particularly recently, to say you’re American. Not just out of fear of a degree of embarrassment, but in some cases, out of fear for your safety. But I honestly think it’s kind of a responsibility of those who can travel to be totally honest and represent our country well. That said, in this situation, surrounded by imprisoned men from places where America isn’t exactly a nice word, and not knowing how long I would be spending with these guys, I admitted that yes, I was from Australia. The enforcer caught a knowing grin, “Welcome,” he said, “Welcome to Lebanon.” I felt a faint tinge of regret as I let out a sigh of relief and returned his greetings.

I struck up a conversation with a man sitting to my left on the sleeping pads who I learned was a doctor from Iraq who had been imprisoned for 54 days after being detained for immigration issues at a border crossing into Lebanon. At this, I swallowed hard, but he assured me that I would be out in a few days at worst. Countries that have embassies, he explained, always send people down to help. The guys from Thailand and Saudi Arabia got fresh clothes and food every morning. He was not so lucky.

I was only there for maybe half an hour when a military officer came to get me. I was hoping this was my ticket out, but my respite was brief. I handed him some documents and back I went. Another hour went by, and I was let out again. This time I was led past all the cells to an office where I sat counting the minutes as I watched the officers clock out one by one, grab their jackets and berets, and head out the door. My chances of leaving seemed increasingly grim as time passed, but at what seemed like the last possible moment, ‘le directeur’ emerged from his office. He came over to me, asked another officer who I was, tossed me a quick wink as if to say “Yella, let’s go” and we headed out the door. I don’t think I’ve ever be so happy to breath fresh air in my life.

In all, I was only in jail for the day. And to be honest, it wasn’t all bad. I was a bit concerned what spending the night would be like, but I met some interesting folks and learned an important lesson. I never really did find out why I was put in jail, but it doesn’t much matter, and I can assume it had a lot to do with the approach I took toward dealing with the military officers at General Security. I was quite sure based on my experience living here so far that assertiveness was the right tactic, but looking back, I was clearly mistaken. It was foolish to assume that I knew beyond doubt what I was doing, and I obviously should have shown some more deference to people who had a lot more power than I did.

Reaching into my pocket as I left the General Security compound, it occurred to me that after everything, at the very least, I had gotten a free pack of cigarettes out of the deal from my Sudanese friend. I think I’ll be saving those as a souvenir. Now how to explain this to my mother…


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