In the Shadow of Cedars

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The small country of Lebanon has long been a rose between thorns--wedged in the middle of all sorts of politcal and religious tensions. This recently was exemplified in the 2006 Lebanon war, which is the focus of this historical fiction account describing the adventures of a single American reporter, and the Lebanese family that help see him through even in the midst of chaos.

Submitted: March 24, 2011

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Submitted: March 24, 2011

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IN THE SHADOW OF CEDARS

By

CP Dawson

No explosion is a good explosion, when you’re that close, whether it be on familiar territory or upon the moon. The American journalist ran like there was no tomorrow, and indeed there may not have been, had circumstances been the slightest bit different. He had been treading foreign soil now, (it may as well have been the moon), for just a week, in the south of Lebanon, in Beirut. Things had been pretty quiet, but now, there was this explosion at his housing near the American embassy, and there could be no doubt he was being chased by an armed and firing guerilla.

And so Larry “Loop” Barrows made a run for it. A mad dash for his very life, on unfamiliar footing, and into an uncertain destiny. He could only wish his feet might lead him back to Chicago, but wish as he might, his hometown was over a different horizon. Trying to contain himself––from tripping or having his feet fall out from under him at this ‘break neck’ running speed––Loop wiped a bead of sweat from his eyes as he ate up more ground, all of it seeming to bounce and shake before him as his feet plundered on. He heard the rapid gunfire behind him, evidently an A.K. 47, and even saw some of the bullets zing by him into the rocky soil, far too close. It had become apparent that he had now found himself outside city limits.

The old saying was never more appropriate. Never look behind you for someone might be gaining. Loop didn’t make the mistake until now. Looking over his shoulder, his assailant was in sight and gaining. The turban-clad figure was, in fact, in the process of aiming and firing his weapon. Loop uttered an expletive, covered his head and turned to run a different way. The shot was fired. Curiously, a single shot. For a moment he thought he was dead. He fell to the dirt….exhausted. When he opened his eyes, there were olive colored military boots in front of him. Looking up, a man of medium height stood, late fifties, a bushed out mustache, a pistol in one hand, no turban upon his head.

“Got him,” he said, offering his free hand. “Get in with the wrong crowd, American?”

Loop Barrows, now standing, dusted himself off. “Guess I picked the wrong person to interview.”

“Can’t be too careful these days,” the other man said, and Loop saw now that his rescuer was of the Lebanese persuasion. “Names Najwa,” he said, offering his hand. “Samir Najwa.”

“Oh no,” Loop corrected, laughing. “This calls for the whole deal.” So systematically, a shaken up Loop Barrows proceeded to give the Lebanese man that had just saved his life a kiss on each cheek and one helluva hug.

“We gotta look into getting you a traveling companion,” Najwa said as he drove his new found American friend back to the city of his business, Tripoli.

“What do you mean?”

But he guessed he knew as the car came to a stop in front of a small gun store several miles away and in the mountains. Both men stepped out of the car, and Samir made an open gesture with his arms. “I present to you…The Good Shot. This is my business.”

Loop studied the small place, the natural rock design, the sign with the Arabic writing that apparently spelled out the name.“Nice,” he said. “Nice.”

Samir thrust his arm around the reporter’s shoulder. “Come. Let’s go inside. We’ll fix you up, yes?”

Stepping inside, the American could not believe his eyes. It was more of a museum than a shop. Guns of all makes and sizes hung everywhere. On shelves, on the walls, and from the ceiling different makes and sizes could be found: new guns, old guns, and everything in between. They lay atop the glass case, behind it, inside it. Behind the counter, the boss’s assistant, Sarat Malmoud, as he was introduced, stood, waiting to serve. “Sarat’s minding the store while I vacation.”

Samir noticed Loop looking around, mesmerized at the collection.

“My gun is your gun,” the Lebanese man offered.

“You’ve gotta be kidd…”

“This one,” and the store owner spun the barrel, “should keep the camel jockeys at bay.”

Like a stunned kid, Loop accepted the gift. There was a moment of silence and then: “Come, Mr. Barrows. We have to get back before supper or Mrs. Najwa will break my bones.” And once again, the generous man gripped the American’s shoulder.

“My home is your home.”

That home, it turned out, was located high in the mountains to the North, in the village called Ehden. The short drive there was a marvel of nature, and Loop noticed the changes in elevation, scurrying animals and wildlife he had never seen before.

“There’s one, just in case you were wondering,” Samir pointed out the window as he drove. “The famous Cedar Tree.”

Yes indeed. It grew, majestically, seemingly partially uprooted out of the chalky soil. A large condor, Loop noticed, was perched high in one of its branches.

“Legend has it that if a black crow, a Horeb, lands in a Cedar, there’ll be unsettled times in the near future,” Samir told.

They passed the tree and Loop turned to look at it.As fate would have it, what he neglected to tell his good-Samaritan native was that as he watched, three crows had just chased the condor away, claiming it’s spot in the tree. Loop turned back around slack-jawed, and continued to quietly stare out the window at the fine scenery.

“You’re certainly blessed with a lovely country,” Loop changed the subject.

“Thank you. It’s true what they say. You can be sun-bathing on the beach in the morning, and by afternoon, be skiing in the mountains. People have enjoyed our little ‘Pearl of the Middle East’ for over 5,000 years.”

Loop laughed. “Yeah. Speaking of the people, I’ve noticed they seem about as diverse as the countryside.”

Samir veered the car just then, to avoid hitting what looked like some kind of striped jackal crossing the sparse road.“Christians, Muslims, Greeks, Romans, you name it. We’ve been populated by everyone from the Phoenicians, like you’ve heard about in history books, to just plain ‘phonies’ like the one you ran from today.”

“Ouch.”

Loop had done his own research before he took off from Chicago. Lebanon had a sweeping and fascinating history­­––from its Independence in 1943 from France, to all its political and religious strife since, all the way up to the recent assassination of their Prime Minister and its outcry––Loop Barrows had done his research. Here they now were, seemingly peaceful, still always in the shadow of some unforeseen yet ever-present conflict. It was July 3, 2006. What could possibly behold them? They passed a large statue of Jesus Christ, and for the moment, Loop was comforted from these unpleasant distractions. The terrain was becoming more mountainous, evident as Loop’s ears popped unexpectedly.

“Ehden is the fine resort town of Lebanon,” Samir explained. “It means the mountain’s base and slope,” he pointed to two distinct formations. “Many people live up here for the cool summers and down in Zgharta in the winter. We cross ourselves when we move down and then celebrate when we move up,” as the old saying goes.

They laughed. “Yeah, I just finished doing both at the same time!” Loop quipped.

“Well, welcome to Ehden, kid.”

The resort community offered a pleasant reprieve from the rough and tumble sector he had just left––here was a peaceful, friendly place, tucked innocently within the shelter of the mountains. Vendors of all sorts were arrayed on the streets, happy locals and tourists danced and sang and ate and shopped in small boutiques, seemingly oblivious to the outside world, oblivious to the dangerous world Loop was more than happy to have been rescued from.

During this last leg of their journey, Samir was speaking on his cell phone, presumably to his wife, presumably about Loop, and most definitely in the Arabic tongue. Marked by a rather angry sounding crescendo at the end of the conversation, he closed the cell with a pained expression.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Asmahan and I both welcome guests. Of course. But…well, I didn’t give her much notice.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Samir said, “you’ll sleep well, but chances are I won’t.” Together they laughed themselves to town.

Their villa was actually just outside Ehden, in a forested area within the property of what his host identified as the Horsh Nature Reserve. Loop Barrows was taking it all in with awe. “Beautiful place. I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

“Or the Gaden of Ehden,” Samir suggested.

The family villa was not unlike many of the other residences, a simple adobe structure with an arched fascade and red, thatched roof. Their particular position on the hill, however, touched by the greenery of the additional pine, gave an otherwise ordinary home a quaint, set-apart quality. A ‘better home and garden’ for sure, Loop thought, and walking up the little lane with his host to the front door, he imagined for a moment he was in the Sherwood Forest and that at any moment Robin Hood might walk out to greet them. Instead, as if anticipating the time of his return to the minute, a short woman in a cooking apron answered. Samir introduced his American guest, and the threesome continued down the hall and toward the living room. Instantly, Loop found himself immersed and carried along by a waft of heavenly, soothing cooking coming from the kitchen.It was distinct yet somehow just outside of his familiarity. Once in the living room, Asmahan Najwa made a welcoming gesture with her arms. “Ah Lan wa Suh Lan!”

Loop turned to Samir for help.

“From us to you, a hearty and sincere Lebanese welcome to our home,” he translated.

There was an awkward moment of silence before Samir slapped his unsuspecting guest across the back. “Come. I’d like you to meet my girl.”

Araya Najwa was in the back yard kicking a soccer ball (Foot ball regionally) into a net. Loop figured her to be in her early twenties, probably twenty-one or two. She had a thin, athletic build, though not overly tall, with short brown hair.

“Araya, come ‘ere a minute. I’d like you to meet someone.”

With soccer ball tucked under one arm, the young woman shook the hand of his new live-in guest.To Loop’s perception, she was either shy or didn’t care for the idea of this sudden stranger’s extended stay. Either way, for now Loop shrugged it off. He knew in his own heart of hearts, he wouldn’t be staying long––anyhow, soon he’d have to let the folks at the Chicago Tribune know about his situation––he’d have to talk to an American consulate and….

“You’re welcome here as long as you need,” Samir said as if tuned into his thoughts. “I’ll help you with long term arrangements later. For now,” he rubbed his stomach, “I’m hungry. Let us akil.” Loop noticed that Samir like many others in this far off land, tended to mix his English with his Arabic.

Loop was famished, and dinner was scrumptious. Kafta was a native dish, and consisted of a kind of rolled beef mixed with mint leaves, potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes and rice. They enjoyed it with flat bread and plum wine, aged, he was told, right there in Samir’sprivate cellar. The meal was topped off with a desert called Smiddy, a delicacy with a honey sauce that reminded Loop vaguely of custard. He yawed. Looked at his watch. It was only half past six. It had been a helluva day, and for Loop Barrows, he could honestly say he liked the way it was ending far more than the way it had begun. It probably hadn’t been since he was a child that he went to bed right after dinner. He apologized.“Here’s to being a child again,” and he raised his plum wine glass, yawning. Soon after, Samir showed him to his room. The kid, he noticed, wasted no time grabbing the soccer ball now resting on the couch. Heading the other way, she showed herself to the door that led outside to the Najwa family soccer field.

Loop awoke to breakfast in bed­­––a flowery tray featuring eggs and toast and propped on a stand before him. “Wow,” he managed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Mrs. Najwa was there, saying something to him in her native tongue.

In response, he just smiled. There was an unspoken camaraderie there––an understanding between the lines. He just nodded at the breakfast. “Thank you. Thank you. Wasn’t expecting.” She returned the smile when in ran the daughter. She, like his father, was fluid in English. “My Dad wants to see you right after breakfast….and he said make sure you bring the gun.” Once again she possessed the soccer ball as she spoke, showing it off, bouncing it off parts of her arm and head with fine motor control.

“The gun, huh? why….” But the kid had already fled. Now alone, he ate his breakfast in merry wonderment.

Samir and Araya were already waiting for him in the van on the drive by the time he finished breakfast, got ready, and joined them. Peering inside the open windows, in the back storage area behind Araya, Loop witnessed the unbelievable. There, arrayed in all their glory, sat a hundred soccer balls, filling the back of the van like some overstuffed, old-fashioned popcorn popper. Suddenly, staring at them, Loop jumped. Some hidden kernel in the mix must have popped. He heard a bang. “I hope that was a firecracker!” today, he recalled, was the Fourth of July. “You know, it’s our Independence Day back home, but for once I don’t want to see any fireworks!”

But the native’s response was not particularly reassuring as his guest stepped into the truck. “Come, I’ll show you my own brand of fireworks,” was all he said.

That ‘brand’ presented itself after twenty minutes of scenic driving as an un-named, family owned all outdoor handgun shooting range on the other side of the preserve. Followed by Samir and his daughter, Loop exited the van. He kept thinking about the story that had been explained to him on the way out about all the soccer balls. How the girl’s uncle, Samir’s brother, was vice president of Lebanon’s football league and how he always gave his niece all the old footballs, the imperfect footballs, the cast outs. More staggering yet, was the girl’s other use for them. “Oh, yes, target practice,” Samir had said. “Wait’ll ya see the contraption I built for her. Here, take these.” Protective earmuffs were handed to him.

He saw it. Believing his girl not yet ready for traditional skeet and trap, Samir had rigged a sort of giant catapult––a giant soccer ball flinging fun shoot for Araya’s target practice. The ensuing demonstration was fascinating, if bombastically crude, and the slung soccer balls were seen blown to smithereens in the distance by the trigger finger of the proud young woman.

Weird family, thought Loop, but he hadn’t seen anything yet. “I call it ‘Camel Jockey on a Coil’, Samir explained, and they walked to another part of the range. At the end of a hundred yard alley, a six-foot target sat, perched on a spring. Loop did a double-take. Made, he would later learn, of a sturdy, plastic coreflute, the cartoonish camel and equally cartoonish Arab rider, would certainly find a place in his human interest column. The shot was fired. The crazy thing jiggled around almost beckoningly, like some sort of clownish bronco of the Middle East.

“Bulls eye,” Samir winked. “Or should I say…camel’s eye.”

“Can I quote that?”

“Off the record. Wanna give it a try?”

Loop had little experience with guns; he pulled free the revolver Samir had so generously given him from his shop.

Samir nodded to the peculiar target. “Give it a shot.”

Clumsily, he tried to aim, the handgun feeling like a foreign entity. Closing one eye, he pulled the trigger, jolting his arms up as he fired. The bullet clinked off something metal in the distance, then found its way into the dirt embankment behind the target. It was a clean miss.

“Shoot.”

But Samir’s hand was on the American’s shoulder. “We’ll work on it.”

For a week they traveled about, showing Loop the sights, enjoying the festivities Ehden, nearby Tripoli, and the surrounding area had to offer. One night, in particular, there was a popular singing sensation at a dance hall in Tripoli. It was quite a gala, Loop thought, a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ and waving white flags around. And, of course, dancing. Loop was not much of an American dancer, much less a troubadour of the Lebanese step––the Depke––but, ready or not, he was thrown into the mix of this circular ritual. Trying at first to get the steps right as they circled around an oak table and chairs, he finally gave up and crashed into one of the chairs. Suddenly, to his dismay, he found his gravity compromised, for even here he wasn’t safe. There was a holler somewhere and he almost lost his balance as he and his chair were unsteadily lifted high above the other dancers. Big fun in river city. But then…they dropped him. Dammit. Above him, to his surprise, the girl, Araya stood looking down at him. He caught her smile and wink. Where was his pen and pad?

It was the morning of July 11th that Samir had to make a run into Beirut for groceries and to settle the matter of Loop’s departure. Loop was talking with Araya about her college plans with the foot ball team. Though teams were not cross-gender, she explained how she was not intimidated in the least to compete with any boy in the sport.Samir walked by them. “She’s also a practicing pilot,” her proud father added. “By trade. She’s going to make us all proud one day.”

“ I should be back by evening,” the girl’s father assured them. But ‘should’ it would turn out, was the operative word.

***

Samir’s first order of business was to swing by Tripoli and check on things at the store. There, Sarat had a handle on things. The turban-clad Egyptian had said so––the place looked unharmed. “Taking care of some business for that American, Sarat,” and from a drawer in his desk in back, the boss grabbed a small sleeve gun and skillfully affixed it under his sports coat. “Yes sir,” he told his employee in parting, “everytime I come to the city these days, I mix business with pleasure,” he reveled with a wink. It was on to Beirut.

Glarius “Glam Job”Freneaux, a.k.a. ‘the Frenchman Henchman’ was Samir’s primary ‘go-to’ guy whenever he needed back door transportation out of Lebanon. A retired play actor, the flamboyant ‘wheeler-dealer’ was outside by the pier waxing down his equally flamboyant yacht when Samir found him an hour later. “Holy shit, Frenchy!” he yelled in the language from a distance, the expletive in reference to the gaudy purple blazer with gold trim he sported. “You look like some kind of Riviera Magi-pimp! how the hell are ya!”

The Frenchman whipped gaily around, noticing only after a lag his old friend, responding finally with a wide, exaggerated, toothy, Cheshire cat smile.In French: “I’ll be damned if it isn’t Samir Najwa! merci, merci. What brings you my way, old fart?”

After the formalities, Samir got to the point, explaining the situation of Barrows, and how he had become a mark for Hezbollah. “I’ve got him temporarily under my wing,” he further explained, pulling at his mustache, “but I don’t want to risk the airlines.” Samir turned to the yacht. “I need a smuggle job to Cyprus.”

Glam Job snarled a nasal laugh, his wide mouth moving all over the place. “Well, zee Francaise Femme, she’s ready for sail, but, ehhh…” he was rubbing his goatie, romancing the yacht with his eyes. “She don’t come cheap.”

“Name the price,” Samir sighed.

“Be $2,000, American.”

Samir, grumbling, fished for the cash, paid, received the ticket. Then, under his breath: “She don’t come cheap. Asshole.”

From Samir’s perspective, the first strike seemed little more than a vague rumbling following a dull thud. He had been in his car heading back home along the Beirut Damascus Highway. The second strike, however, was anything but vague, anything but dull. The explosion had taken him by complete surprise, indeed, causing a yank of the steering wheel so far to the left his hands felt it break, whilst his eyes saw the entire car slide helplessly across the collapsing bridge he was currently crossing.

“Oh my God!”

The out of control car suddenly became a tin canopy sealing his fate––a skidding chamber of death, jolting his body lengthwise across the passenger seat. He kicked frantically at a door that at first would not budge, consciously aware that all the while he was sliding into oblivion. Through the window a long drop was imminent.“Shit!” he kicked again. No luck. Clumsily repositioning himself he tried something foolish. In a last ditch effort with his hands he tried to open the door latch. Success! he jumped out, but the fall was still imminent. Too close to the edge of the collapsing bridge to secure any balance, he and his car, separately, found themselves plummeting into the Litani River below. He wasn’t sure whether the next sound he heard was the great splash of the car to his side, or another rocket strike upon his mother-land. Either way, completely spent, glad to be alive, he let the river carry him to he knew not where. Unidentifiable ashen debris rained down on all sides of him as he floated downstream, inadvertently, he had taken in great, rancid gulps of river. Nearly passed out, he found himself no more than a floundering driftwood. Then he saw it.Directly ahead. A blanket of total blackness. He shook his head to consciousness. There it was, an event horizon of impenetrable terror. An inky, creeping blot. Panicking, he tried to swim around it, but he was already upon it–– an oil spill, a great sucking black hole. Closing his eyes, drawing a deep breath in the moments before, he dipped into the darkness, found himself submerged in the inkwell from hell. Flutter…kick…flutter…kick, flutter, kick, f..lu..tter…k…ick, in his blind attitude of ‘never say die’ he was somehow released into regular waters, and with his hand, felt the shoreline of his freedom. Tar black, he staggered out of the water. Where was he? He had no way of immediately knowing. He knew only that his country was under very real attack. He had no more than tried to wipe the sooty tar from his eyes, when a figure came in to focus fifty yards upshore. Friend or foe? In case of the latter, he felt for his sleeve gun. It was still in place. The man appeared to be in a black uniform. The two continued to walk toward each other casually until: “Oh shit!” the shoreline stranger was raising a semi-automatic weapon. By instinct, Samir pulled the trigger of the sleeve gun, fired it quickly and confidently at the others’ head. The man whirled around, fired the repeater listlessly into space, his attempt to lower and aim the weapon a struggled failure. In a moment he fell to the sand. Samir ran to the scene.The waves now were lapping up near them, off in the distance, the tar spill loomed.Searching the uniform, Samir saw all he needed. The identifying marks of Hezbollah. A high ranking one at that. He looked around.

“Haret Hreik,” he said to himself. He now knew his unfortunate location. The renowned hangout district of the enemy.The very headquarters of Hezbollah. The wind began to stir up, and black tears of sin began falling from the sky, down-wind tar-rain from the spill, and Samir shed his blackened clothes in favor of those of the downed enemy. Soon the identity change was on. He stiffened his arms, rolled his shoulders to complete the fit. Sleeve gun and AK 47. Should make him potent enough. He had some knowledge of the enemy––he just hoped that would be enough. Clearing his throat, he made his way inland.Here, he took note of the destruction littering his path, as well as the shelling overhead currently underway. The storied buildings of drab white fell like shattered cubes of dirty ice amidst the great din of destruction, while citizens fled this way and that in utter confusion––utter turmoil. It was after watching a plain-clothed Hezbollah sacrifice a citizen as a human shield in a close range combat that he heard it from behind:

“Colonel!”

He turned to see another high ranking officer approach him dressed rather like himself. Only certain soldiers wore uniforms, Samir had learned. Most did not in order to mesh with the crowd.

The newcomer was visibly stunned. In Arabic: “Where’s Colonel Malmoud?”

“Dead. Killed in action. I was sent to replace him: Ikreaad Muhammed.”

The General seemed to size him up. But before he could speak:

“What’s the status, General?”

“Israel is responding loud and clear,” he put his hands up as if to catch some rain drops, “as you might have noticed. Cluster bombs mostly. They’re onto the dahiyeh,” the term referring to the self-same region of the city they now stood.

“Counteraction?”

The other smiled. Replying again in Arabic: “Our Katyusha’s will crush them like….grapes.” And into his mouth he tossed one.

“And? Ground forces?”

“The letters have it, colonel. ATGM. RPG.” Samir knew what they meant, of course, Anti tank guided missiles and rocket propelled grenades. Just looking around, he was seeing plenty of it firsthand. One such ATGM, in front of his very eyes, had just decimated an oncoming Israeli tank.

“And,” the general continued, “the ambush in which you are soon to play an integral role in, colonel….uh,”

“Muhammed.”

“Muhammed. Follow me.” And through the barrage of the IAF’s oncoming cluster bombs, the two men made their march to one of the still standing drab white buildings in the middle of trouble.

There was a brusque call to order and two dozen soldiers, all in plainclothes, came immediately to attention in the barren lobby of the building.

“I will be commanding the next ambush operation,” the general began sternly, displaying a large aerial map from an overhead projector onto a screen. With a long pointer, he tapped a portion of the geography. “The Israelis have ground troops that will have to come through this pass. Five miles from here,” he cleared his throat. “The ‘kill zone.’ We’ll set up a linear ambush at dusk.”

Samir took it all in with interest. There were to be two firing units on each side of the pass, rear and front defense, and carefully timed and planned execution.Samir, understood to be a colonel, was to be the front man ‘cut-off unit’ to initially report to the commander and signal the Israelis approach.

“When they cross the trip wire mine,” the commander continued, “we’ll know they’re in the killing zone. You may fire. When the battalion is demolished….” He pointed to another road highlighted in yellow, “we will quickly disengage here.”

And when Samir was handed his infrared binoculars and walkie talkie, and the rigid little team deployed to the kill zone, the Lebanese gun shop owner felt at once empowered and terrified beyond belief.

(To be Continued...)


© Copyright 2019 CP Dawson. All rights reserved.

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