By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar Straus Giroux (New York)
Copyright 1989 Thomas L. Friedman
In the winter of 1983, my friends David Zucchino of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Bill Barrett of the Dallas Times Herald hopped into a taxicab in West Beirut and rushed up to the Druse village of Hammana in the Shouf Mountains to track down some senior Druse officers who had just defected from the Lebanese army. At the time, their defection was big story—a big story which my two colleagues wanted to get firsthand. When they arrived in their taxi at the outskirts of Hammana, David told me later, their driver just sped headlong into town, not noticing a dilapidated Druse checkpoint that they whizzed right through.
“The Druze went beserk,” recalled David, “but our taxi driver just kept driving along, and we were saying to ourselves, ‘Hey, this place looks interesting.’ Then all of a sudden we see in the rearview mirror this car coming after us filled with all these guys with big beards flapping and guns poking out the windows. They cut us off. We pulled our car cover and they all surrounded us, shouting and shaking their fists, yapping away in Arabic, and sticking their guns into the car. We though, Oh shit, we are in deep trouble. We immediately began screaming ‘Sahafi, Sahafi’ [Arabic for journalist] and flashed our Druse press credentials.”
The Druze militamen examined the press cards, read them every which way, and then entered into a long discussion among themselves.
“I started to get real nervous—I mean, real nervous,” said David. “I though maybe they were discussing who gets the honor of putting a bullet through our heads first. Then suddenly the one with the biggest beard sticks his head back into the car and says, “Which one of you is from Dallas?”
Barrett said, “I am.”
At that point the bearded militiaman, his eyes flashing fury, stuck his AK-47 rifle into the car, pointed it toward Barrett, and asked with a perfectly straight face, “Who shot J.R.?”
A second later the gunman all erupted into howls of laughter and told the two reporters, “Welcome, welcome to our town.”
[After a description of Yasser Arafat trapped in Tripoli, Lebanon, between Syrian and Israel forces]
Arafat talked about making Tripoli his “Stalingrad,” just as he had about Beirut, but when the ships came to take him and 4,000 guerrillas to safety—this time under French protection—Arafat opted for life as a symbol rather than death as a martyr. My colleague Bill Barrett, then the Middle East correspondent for the Dallas Times Herald, interviewed Arafat shortly before his evacuation from the northern Lebanese port.
“I asked the chairman if he had ever heard of the Alamo,” recalled Barrett. “ ‘Yes, yes, he replied, ‘that famous castle in Texas.’ Then I asked if he saw any similarities between the Alamo and his current plight. ‘Yes, indeed,’ the chairman replied, and then he proceeded to talk about bravery and being surrounded by enemies and the importance of fighting for a cause and all that stuff. He was really warming to the topic. Then I asked the chairman if he was aware that almost everyone at the Alamo died. There was a pause—a very long pause. ‘Come to think of it,’ Arafat said, ‘the Alamo really isn’t that similar,’ and then he went off to another topic.
Indeed, shortly after the Israeli army trapped the PLO in Beirut during the summer of ‘82 and the Palestinian issue became headline news around the globe, my colleague Bill Barrett, then the correspondent of the Dallas Times Herald, received a telex at the Commodore Hotel from his foreign editor in Texas. The telex read, “Why can’t the Palestinians go back to Palestine? Is there a problem with their papers or something?”
Bill’s one-sentence reply was: “Because their mothers are not Jewish.”
Bill remarked to me later that his answer seemed to confuse his editor even more. “I was a bit surprised,” said Bill, “that a foreign editor would not know any of this, although I suppose his ignorance simply mirrored that of the American public. A few months later my editor quit, left journalism and became a real estate agent.”