Back in Beirut, 30 years later
The blogger, in his press pass photo as NBC's Beirut Bureau Chief in 1976, left, and today, as an NBC News producer based in Los Angeles.
The immigration officer at Damascus airport opened my 48-page passport full of stamps from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Vietnam, Pakistan and Afghanistan and immediately spotted the ink that read Ben Gurion. "Whoops," I thought, "after 30 years working the Middle East story I should have known better."
"Come with me, Mister," the officer said, and escorted me to his superior.
Rule number one for working the Middle East story is always keep a clean passport. An Israeli stamp in your passport can mean you will be denied entrance into some Arab nations. So if your work calls you to visit Israel, you better get a second passport or ask the Israeli immigration officer not to stamp your document. They usually comply. If you remember to ask.
If anyone should know this rule, I should. I've worked many chapters of this story since the 1973 Arab/Israeli war when I was a foreign exchange student in Cairo and had a part time job at the local newspaper. Then I attended the American University in Cairo to study Arabic and had ambitions to work in diplomacy or banking, but an opportunity to work part time as a soundman for the new NBC News bureau came along. All I had to do was point the microphone in the right direction whenever Henry Kissinger came calling.
The bigger story in the region soon became the civil strife that was beginning in the Beirut suburbs. John Palmer was the NBC News correspondent there and he needed a soundman because his local soundman was Palestinian and Christian and decided that a better choice than to try to work both sides of the Beirut Street was to immigrate to Canada. What Palmer found more useful than my limited soundman skills was that I could speak just enough of the language to help him work on the streets.
At that time, Americans were still very welcome in the Arab world and we could feel pretty secure that whichever side we chose to film on any day, a Palestinian or Phalangist (Christian) militia would get us out of whatever mess they got into. As long as we just did our filming and didn't get in their way.
When Palmer moved to NBC Paris in 1976, I graduated from soundman to Beirut bureau chief and moved into the Commodore hotel in West Beirut for the next four years to cover what had become a civil war. I was 25 years old and it was a great job and stepping stone toward a career with NBC News.
Now, 28 years later, I work in our Los Angeles bureau and this assignment to Beirut means the opportunity to see how things have changed here and to work with Richard Engel. I admire his work in the region. Richard speaks fluent Arabic and knows the different dialects.
I've found my language is really rusty, but it was enough to help me out of that mess at the Damascus airport. I mustered up just enough Arabic to convince the immigration officers that I had forgotten to get a clean passport after an assignment to cover Yasser Arafat's funeral (with Brian Williams) on the West Bank in Palestinian territory. It worked. A couple phone calls were made up the chain of command and it was decided I could stay three days in Syria, if I wanted to, and I could transit to Lebanon. The immigration chief was cordial and I learned a lesson: Even after 28 years some rules never change in the Arab world. For the most part, Americans are still welcome here even during very difficult times.
Read more from Mike Mosher, Posts on the Mideast
Early Nightly is up
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