Abed and me
David Smith recalls past conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and a special friend who kept him alive
You surely remember someone who saved your life more times than you care to admit.
His name was Abed, pint-sized, puckish, feisty, invariably with an impish grin on his face, and forever limping. A Syrian soldier had shot him in the leg a few years before, during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s. “I tried to tell him to take care, but he shot me anyway,” Abed explained, his tone so matter of fact, the first day we worked together in 1982. “He laughed as he fired his gun at me.”
Abed, window down, cigarette in mouth, would lean out and check for F-16 fighter planes above us
The years teach much which the days never do. The years that followed, dominated by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, then another round of war embroiling the Lebanese, the Palestinians, the Iranians, inevitably the Israelis too, and the kidnapping of Western hostages, well the years taught me to place my life in Abed’s hands. And, always, to listen to him.
Four decades have passed. But the memory bank is deep, somehow exhilarating and terrifying in the same moment. We could be driving down a road in West Beirut, during the dog days of August 1982, when the Israelis bombed from dawn to dusk in a relentless air campaign to force Palestinian fighters to leave Lebanon. Abed, window down, cigarette in mouth, would lean out and check for F-16 fighter planes above us, his instincts uncanny. “Mr David, we go no further,” he would declare, bringing his ageing Mercedes to a grinding halt, then slam into reverse. “No further.” So often, a bomb dropped, yes further down the road, our escape made in a plume of smoke and fire.
We could travel up country, to the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, as we did in October 1983, to see Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat in his heavily-defended hideout. Arafat faced rebellion within his own Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the PLO, and was digging in. “I will survive this fight, I promise you,” Arafat told me, for once wearing a simple helmet, not his trademark head-dress, the chequered Palestinian keffiyah. Abed coughed loudly, even as Arafat spoke, and jerked his head, as if telling me : “we need to get out. Now!” I interrupted Arafat, to say thanks for his time and the interview, standing up, the PLO chief was not amused. That was the last interview Arafat gave before a furious assault on his bunker two hours later. We drove just as furiously south, riding checkpoints set up by his enemies. Weeks of bloody fighting followed.
Then came the day when Abed challenged me to leave, and never come back
And then came the day when Abed challenged me to leave, and never come back. It was 1986, by then Lebanon’s wars had become commonplace almost, tribal factions fighting for power in a country devastated, and exhausted, by conflict. I had stayed on, working Beirut for ITN and C4News, when others fled after the kidnapping of Western journalists, Terry Anderson of the Associated Press the lead example. I might like to portray this primarily as a sense of responsibility, to report a conflict otherwise ignored. In truth, I’d become something of a war junkie, addicted somewhat to danger, not to mention the stiff glass or two that went with it.
Abed saw that. He identified it. And one morning he used a weapon of rare choice, seeing as his livelihood depended on our work, to force me to leave.
I had gone downstairs early, at the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut that had served as HQ for the foreign press forever, now home to a handful, if that, of correspondents. The concierge, a young fellow with better French than English, stared me in the eye as he said : “prendre une pause, Monsieur.” My poor French took that to mean, “take a vacation.” I just noticed the lobby looked more deserted than ever. Maybe he was telling me something, I was tired, but I thought nothing more of it as I sat down to breakfast, and some strong coffee.
Then Abed appeared, fingering his prayer-beads as always, no puckish grin that morning. “Mr David, there’s a flight out at 11, take it, we can be at the airport in 30 minutes,” he said, an edge in his voice. I shook my head. “I want to go to Sidon today,” I replied, thinking of the port city south of Beirut, home to major Palestinian refugee camps, and a source of recent fighting.
Abed stood up, shaking his head, his voice raised, as he delivered one whammy of a thought, punching me in the gut. “Mr David, I can’t work with you any more,” he declared, almost slamming those worry-beads down on the table. “You are a danger to yourself, and you don’t see the danger.” He turned away. “Now too dangerous for me to work with you.” My head hurt, too much wine from the Bekaa valley, I thought. But my heart broke just a little too, at the thought of losing Abed.
“What are you telling me, Habibi?” I asked, using the a favourite word in Lebanon, literally “darling,” but an everyday term of affection on the street. “Habibi, tell me.”
Abed kept it short : “You have to get out of Lebanon. Now. Today. This morning.” The cloud in my brain cleared. Abed knew something. The concierge knew something. I was just waking up to their fear for me.
I’d become something of a war junkie, addicted to danger, not to mention the stiff glass or two that went with it
We left within minutes, me leaving a false trail with the concierge, just in case, saying I was going to East Beirut, back tomorrow, save me my favourite room blabla, then we drove in a roundabout way to the airport, because Abed insisted on a route that was high on little traffic, low on checkpoints. I thrust all the dollars I had at him, as I bought a ticket on a flight to Cyprus. We gave each other multiple hugs, and he winked at me, that wonderful grin of his creasing his face for the first time that morning.
A few days later a colleague working at an ITN sister company, John McCarthy, was kidnapped in West Beirut, on his way to the airport, and a flight home to London. He was held hostage for five years, by Islamic jihadists, much of the time in solitary confinement.
Abed and I stayed in touch, my boss at ITN always understanding when I said we needed to find a way to send him some cash. The last time we met, I travelled with a Syrian government team, on a “press visit” from Damascus, the only safe way in to Beirut, quickly filmed the basics of a story that showed the city’s plight under the Syrians, then left to find Abed.
“Ahlaan wasahlaan, Habibi!” he shouted, seeing me across the road outside a rather fancy tennis club, down by the beach, where he then worked as a driver. I just remember thinking that his peace welcome was such music to my head and heart. Just as my debt to him was eternal.
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