After the second scariest flight of my life

Beirut after the civil war
Beirut 2001: Photo by author

Our lives are full of thousands and thou … OK, TRILLIONS of incidents, conversations, interactions, experiences, sights, smells, tastes, thoughts, reactions, impressions etc …

Some incidents we forget. Others become stories

The more spectacular the incident, the more it challenges our sense of the status quo – the more it interferes with the balance in our lives – the more it creates tension – the more it stands out and Super Glues itself to our memory.

We are our stories

I’m no psychiatrist so I don’t want to pretend I know what shapes our behaviour today because of what Uncle Doug did to us, or with us, or for us, or because of us, on our 7th birthday. Good, bad or unremarkable, it might or might not have contributed to what or who you are today.

I always say though that we are the sum total of our REACTIONS to our stories, either stories we took part in or stories we heard from others. Each one triggered a reaction and that reaction became the real story – the one we tell ourselves today.

Some are hard to tell. Some are still terrifying to us. Some are sad. Some are funny – now!

My Beirut story is a doozie

You might have read my story about leaving Christchurch New Zealand by plane, about 6 hours after the September 11, 2001 Twin Towers attack. You know, the one about passenger Muhammad scaring us all to an NDE by being hailed to come forward and get the sunnies he’d left in the men’s toilet. Read it here if you haven’t seen it.

Well, my week of terror didn’t end there.

Five days later I flew to Beirut to speak at a conference. Every friend and colleague belted me with warnings and advice in the few days before-hand:
> ‘Beirut! You’re an idiot. They kidnap you there!’
> ‘Moron! Beirut is in the Middle East. That’s where the Twin Towers bombers came from.’
> ‘If you get captured and killed we are not paying the ransom.’
> ‘If you get on that plane I will come on and grab you off.’
> ‘By the time you get there, the Yanks will drop nuclear bombs on every Arab country in the world.’

It was not a sane time if you remember.

Safe but lonely trip.

The Lovely Christine had encouraged me to go. She said it would be good for my speaking practice. A newspaper headline kept flashing in my mind, ‘Brave speaker faces death in Lebanon!’

There was hardly anyone on the flight. I had business class to myself. WhenI looked out the window as we flew over Iraq, I was sure I could see SAMs being fired at me. The steward told me it was the sun reflecting off left-over American beer cans in the sand. I wasn’t convinced and said another prayer.

So we landed and my heart stopped.

I was sure that international war had started while I had been flying for 20 hours.
Getting off the plane was nervy but OK.
Walking into the baggage claim was kind of alright.
Waiting in the claim area was a bit edgy because of all the soldiers fitted out with nine guns and fifteen hand grenades each.
Then I heard my name. It was being called very LOUDLY.

‘Misterrr Colinnnn Pirrrrrss. Misterrr Colinnnn Pirrrrrss.’
Death by firing squad loomed. I wondered if I’d get to make a final video to tell my family I loved them.

A soldier appeared in full battle gear.
He was still shouting my name and as there was no-where to run or hide I stood still and shook.

I sort of waved my hand to show I was willing to die without any fuss.
He approached me and got right up to my face and shouted:

مرحبا السيد كولين بيرس. مرحبًا بكم في بيروت. لقد أرسلني مضيفوك للمساعدة في حقائبك ولإخراجك سريعًا من الجمارك. انهم ينتظرون خارج مع ليموزين الخاص بك. أرجوك تعال معي.

Marhaban al sayid Kolin Pearce
Lakad arsalani moodifoka lilmoosaada fi haka’eebika wa li eekrajik sariaan mina ljamarik.
Eenahon yantaziroun karijan maa’ l limouzin al kasa bika.
Arjouka ta’aala ma’aai
aismi aljhad

The death sentence

He ended his tirade with the only word I could understand, ‘Jihad’.
Yep. I heard him say out of his own mouth, ‘Mr Colin Pearce you are charged with being a collaborator with the American Satan and we know you have come here disguised as a professional speaker in order to infiltrate certain factions and destroy them, so we have declared on you a Holy Jihad.

Some timely advice

I heard laughing.
I turned to see who was so amused by my imminent destruction and a very dark haired, swarthy skinned chap standing near me said, ‘Mate you ought to see your face. You’re as white as a sheet. I’m a Lebbo from Sydney and he just said,

Hello Mr Colin Pearce.
Welcome to Beirut.
Your hosts sent me to help with your bags and to get you through customs quickly.
They are waiting outside with your limousine.
Please come with me.

‘Well why did he declare a Jihad on me?’

‘That’s his name!’

I gave old Jihad a sweaty hand to shake, thanked my new ‘Lebbo’ mate and tottered out of the terminal. Every time Jihad passed one of his mates I could see him telling the story of the idiot Australian he had ‘captured’, much to their amusement.

Happy ending

I had the best four days of my life in beautiful Beirut with some of the funniest, loudest, easiest people I’ve ever met and was always sad I had to wait 7 years to get back. I love it.

But why has it stuck in so much detail?

I’ve been in hundreds of airports. Hundreds. I couldn’t recall more than five of them. However, any disruptive event has the chance to stick in the glue-pot we call a memory. How you recall it, how you interpret it and how you tell it (either to yourself or others) bakes a little brick in the wall we call ‘You’. I hope your wall is full of high quality, life-enhancing and funny bricks.

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