It’s April 2011 and I’m sitting in a minibus on the decrepit road that connects Beirut and the ancient town of Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. It’s a hot afternoon and I’ve got a bastard behind the eyes that no amount of paracetamol or water is going to fix.
My mouth is dry, my head is pounding, and a sweet Lebanese boy of about six has turned around from the seat in front of me to chat. He speaks no English but has decided to teach me to count to ten in Arabic, using a combination of sign language and smiles. He’s an adorable little boy, and I should be grateful for the opportunity to learn, but right now I just want him to shut up and leave me to my self-inflicted misery.
“Waheed, Ithnayn, Thalata…”
I want to die. Things, however, are about to get worse.
The bus grinds to a sudden halt, bumping over the rocky roadside and sending plumes of dust flying up to obscure the windows. When the dust clears, I can see a soldier outside, his arm still raised to flag us down. He’s tall, broad shouldered and totes a black rifle of the kind I’ve hitherto only seen in films.
The soldier opens the door and boards the bus. I’m expecting a security check and ready my passport, only to realise that he’s flagged us down because, like us, he’s a passenger. The bus, however, is full to bursting. He casts his eye around, looking for a spot.
We make eye contact and he smiles, a broad grin that says “budge up, pal.” It appears that we’re going to be sharing a seat. He squeezes in next to me, resting the rifle against his knee. The gears of the bus grind and we’re off.
The soldier turns and fixes me with a stare that I can’t make out, a mixture of what appears to be curiosity and pity. The same kind of look you’d give a badger that you’d accidentally run over, before finishing it off with a tire iron. I return his gaze with a nervous smile and a nod.
Men, at the best of times, terrify and confuse me. I never got the memo about masculinity - about cars, football or, I don’t know, DIY. Just what the hell am I supposed to do with a six foot two Lebanese soldier holding a 33-inch, gas operated, 700 rounds-per-minute penis extension that can take off a man’s head at 500 yards?
I reach for my copy of Middlemarch and stroke it for reassurance.
“English?” he says.
“Yes!” I reply with enthusiasm, assuming that he’s spotted Eliot’s seminal portrayal of 19th-Century rural English life in my lap. He grunts and gestures, as if reaching for a word.
“Errr — sorry!” he says, pointing at the two of us wedged into the seat and laughing. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a packet of Marlboro Reds, thrusts one into my hand and lights us up.
I wonder what to say next, as the silence stretches out between us like a desert highway. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and is content to occasionally look across and smile, laugh or make a silly face with his cigarette in his mouth. Being English, however, I find the whole experience excruciating. I’m just about to comment on the weather when he finishes his cigarette and, mercifully, falls fast asleep.
Thinking that I might do the same, I reach down into my rucksack to rummage around for some paracetamol. While I’m down there, I feel something oily and sharp against my cheek. I sit back up. The soldier’s rifle is still resting against his knee. The butt is on the floor of the bus, but the business end is pointing directly at my face.
This, I think to myself, is just typical.
So begins the most nerve-wracking few hours of my short, possibly terminally short, life. My travelling companion, Chris, seated on my left, finds the whole thing hilarious. He’s giggling at the sight until I remind him that should the gun go off, he’s the one who will be picking bits of my skull and brain out of his hair. He thinks for a moment.
“Yea, but at least I won’t be dead, though.”
I concede the point.
I try various strategies for dealing with the gun. First by reading with the book directly covering my face. If there is one thing that can be said for Middlemarch, it is a hefty tome, weighing in at a substantial 316,059 words. After ten minutes, however, I have only been able to imagine my last sight being a flurry of exploding pages as the fates of Dorothea, Mr Casaubon and Rosamond Vincy are injected further into my brain than any of my erstwhile university lecturers could dream of.
Second, I consider moving the gun. This, clearly, would be suicide. Either the gun goes off, and I die, or the soldier wakes up to find me apparently stealing his gun — and I die.
Finally, I try sitting with my head out of the gun’s line of sight. I succeed only in gaining a stiff neck and some strange looks from the other passengers on the bus.
Sore, miserable and defeated, I settle in for the journey ahead, acutely aware of every bump in the road and every twitch of the soldier’s knee. Eventually we make it to Baalbek.
That night in a Baalbek bar, I laughed about it all with Chris. It’s a funny little story that I’ve retold many times to new friends in new places — how I’d spent an afternoon trapped in a minibus with a gun to my head and a bumpy road on the trigger.
The safety catch was on, of course. I wasn’t in any real danger.
The horrors just across the border in Syria had barely started then, or at least we in the West were still blind to them. The Arab spring was in full flow. It felt like change was coming, and we, from our cloistered world, would be witness to it. There are refugee camps in the Bekaa valley now.
That night in Baalbek, we were just two boys getting drunk on holiday, blissfully unaware of the real world around us. A world with no safety catch, that was beginning to spin faster and faster out of control.