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The bitter harvest that came from having too much money.
A long time ago (when those of us in our sixties were young and the Great Extinction of newspapers and magazines was still somewhere off in the future), I wrote a letter to Bill Kroger, then the chief of correspondents of Business Week. In it I suggested that he make me his man in Beirut — opening a bureau in that exotic city and putting me in charge.
Kroger turned me down — citing my inexperience. If he wanted to open a bureau in Beirut, he said, he would look for someone who was worldly and sophisticated, and well versed in economics, finance, and oil.
Britain’s Economist once had a Beirut bureau chief who fit this description. His name was Kim Philby — a daring, dashing, and brilliant man. Unfortunately for the Economist (and still more for the British secret service), he disappeared one night — picked up by a Russian trawler in Beirut harbor and whisked off to spend the rest of his life as one of the heroes of the Soviet Union.
For better or worse, I was no Philby. At the age of 27, I had never set foot outside of North America. I spoke no Arabic. And I had only been “stringing,” or freelancing, for Business Week for a couple of years. My full-time job was with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Kroger said one thing that gave me a flicker of hope. He admitted the magazine should have a full-time staffer in the Middle East. As I had argued in my letter, how could Business Week call itself one of the world’s leading business magazines and not have a bureau somewhere in the Middle East — given the billions upon billions of “petro-dollars” that were pouring into the region as a result of the Arab oil embargo and the sudden quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 and 1974?
All of that was money taken from the pockets of consumers in the United States and other advanced countries. As a result of this sudden loss of purchasing power, the developed world fell into a deep recession. People stopped buying cars and the housing market cratered. Business Week and other big New York-based publications shared in the all-pervasive misery. They stopped hiring and they weren’t opening new offices — in the Middle East or anywhere else.
As I pondered the situation, I had a sudden inspiration: I would get a jump on everyone else and send myself to Beirut. There was nothing to stop me from going on my own.
So I phoned Kroger with a new plan. This time I asked for nothing more than the opportunity to act as the magazine’s “stringer” in Beirut, just as I was already doing in St. Louis. That meant working on piecework basis, paid so much per column inch — with no salary or benefits to offset the substantially higher cost of living in Beirut, a watering hole for the super rich. This put all the risk on my shoulders. How could Kroger refuse such an offer? He couldn’t (knowing I could make the same offer to competing publications). And he didn’t.
On this basis, my wife and I quit our jobs in St. Louis, sold almost everything we owned, and prepared to move half way around the world. At a going-away party, a friend gave our four-year-old daughter a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Beirut or Bust.”
WE ARRIVED IN BEIRUT just 10 days before the city erupted in violence. The trouble began on April 13, 1975, a day that lives in infamy for all Lebanese, solemnly commemorated every spring as the saddest day in their collective history.
On that day Christian gunmen stopped a bus filled with Palestinian workers and opened fire — slaughtering all on the bus. This was the start of the Lebanese Civil War — a prolonged and messy conflict involving Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze, and Palestinian refugees from Israel and Jordan who lived under United Nations supervision in large camps on the outskirts of the city.
Did the sudden enrichment of the oil-producing states have anything to do with the swirling storm of violence in Lebanon? As a matter of fact, it did. To show their devotion to the Palestinian cause, the Saudis and others sent money to the PLO (then encamped in Lebanon) to buy weapons to use against Israel. However, as the Lebanese Christians saw it, the growing cache of weapons held by the Palestinians could equally well be used against them. The Christians — or heavily armed elements among the Christians — became obsessed with the fear that the Palestinians would tilt the balance of power within Lebanon decisively in favor of the Muslims. This is what led them to take the first step in precipitating a war that left more than 40,000 dead and 100,000 wounded in its first three years.
There was intermittent heavy fighting in and around Beirut in the spring of 1975, followed by a lull in hostilities during the summer, and renewed, and far worse, violence in the fall, when the fighting was more like Stalingrad than Belfast — with pitched battles to control key buildings and a daily death toll that sometimes exceeded 100.
If only briefly, Beirut became the center of world attention and — from my narrow perspective as neophyte foreign correspondent — this counted as a lucky break. From the start, I had a big and continuing story to write about as I made the rounds of banks, businesses, and embassies in Beirut. In working for a business magazine, I did not have to untangle the causes of the war or dive into the labyrinth of Lebanese politics. For me, the story was much simpler: Would Beirut survive as a regional center, and, if not, what would replace it?
I watched the recent television scenes of fleeing expatriates gathered at airports in Cairo and Tripoli with a sense of déjà vu. In late October 1975, we were part of a general evacuation of expatriates from Beirut. Various embassies around the city activated phone chains and pooled their minivans and buses into a ragtag convoy, which stopped to collect people from hotels and other gathering points and took them out to the airport. The most striking figure in our van was a majestic-looking Maronite priest, a black-bearded bear of man. He was dressed in a white cassock with a red sash, with a pearl-handled revolver tucked into the sash. Three Japanese businessmen sat in the back of the bus, with our daughter’s wicker doll basket lying sideways across their legs.
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