That was weird.
BEIRUT, Lebanon- I’m going to tell this story because this has happened before. While something happening two times in nineteen years isn’t really much cause for concern or even a high enough frequency to warrant preparation, it is still, none the less,something that you should probably be aware of when traveling.
Beirut was going well. The projects were falling in line, I was making friends — work and fun were blending nicely together. I was also really liking the place; it was a mess of cars, people, and stuff everywhere. Pulsating and undulating, but not chaotic or overwhelming. It was a place that I could go from cafe to bar to cafe, talk with people, and learn something.
In terms of perceived safety, I was feeling in the range of 9/10 — as in, more secure than anywhere in the USA by far. In the Middle East people are in the streets, everywhere, all the time. Eyes (and smartphones) are everywhere, neighborhoods are still in-tact, and the traveler here faces remarkably few hazards in terms of violence or theft. This is what makes what happened next so askance.
I was walking down Hamra, one of the main commercial streets in Beirut around eight pm. It was dark but early in the evening — people were around everywhere, everything was brightly lit, it was prime shopping / dining hour. For the past few days I became aware of a group of men who would always be standing together in a group in the entrance of parking garage for a residential building who gave off the appearance of being involved in something illicit. They were shifty, and sometimes they would make eye contact and give that tell-tale raise of the eyebrows that universally means, “You looking for something, bro?” So far, so normal — there was nothing to be concerned about.
But on this night I walked by them looking for a place to eat and one of them followed me. He called out from behind, I turned, expecting to exchange a quick, “No thank you, man,” and then go on my way. But instead of some kind of proposition the guy pulled out his walled, briefly pulled up the top part of some kind of ID card, and told me that he was the police and needed to see my passport.
That’s not going to happen.
I refused. He made the same demand with more urgency, showing me the top part of the ID a second time and reiterating that he was the police.
That was extremely doubtful — the guy was rough looking, his hands had dirt beneath the fingernails — however, we were in the middle of a prime commercial area at prime time in a country with a relatively low crime rate. If this guy’s a crook, could he really be so brazen? But if he’s a cop, could he really be so sketchy? I had a reason to doubt because in 2002 I had this exact same scenario play out in Uruguay:
The cops in Uruguay were undercover, so there was no way of knowing then that they were police. They walked up to me and demanded my passport. When I refused they tried to tackle me to the ground, whereupon I resisted and got away. I reported the incident at a police station, and they informed me that the men were cops working undercover.
Regardless, I wasn’t going to comply. I made to turn and leave. He grabbed my arm and yanked it hard. This was getting for real. I told him that if he was a cop to call over a car and other police in uniform. He appeared to be getting angry. Then another guy came up to help him; said that he was the police. I had to get out of there. We had a scuffle that poured out into the street, putting on a show for a cafe full of people eating kebabs. I was able to pin him against a parked car and spin loose. I walked through traffic down the road. They didn’t follow.
I turned a corner and shook it off, more irritated than afraid — I just wanted to get a f’ing kebab. But my lack of concern sort of surprised me — what if they were the police? When this happened in Uruguay I freaked out, rapidly packing my rucksack and getting on the next bus out of town. I guess I’m too old to be bothered now. If they’re after me they can find me at the bar, having a blast with a pharmaceutical salesman, a lesbian biker gang, and whoever else would go on to tell me stories throughout that night.