A few weeks ago I had promised my wife and kids a weekend on the beach in Cyprus, which is 40 minutes away by plane from Beirut. But I could not deliver on that promise because of my busy work schedule, until we were evacuated on board a Royal Navy vessel, the HMS Gloucester, courtesy of Islam and Zionism battling it out in my backyard.
I am not complaining and I am deeply indebted to the British government for rescuing my little British hooligans, their beautiful British mother and my "shocked and awed" self, but the journey was no Disney cruise.
The British Embassy told us to be at the Forum of Beirut, a large concert hall by the port, between 9:30 am and 2:30 pm. My plan was to drop my wife and kids and stand tall in Lebanon. And then my kids cried, "don't leave us daddy", my wife cried, "I will not leave without you" and my business cried, "we are going to go bankrupt if you stay".
On the morning of Wednesday 19 July 2006, I filled my "standard evacuation" Gap backpack with shaving kit and toothbrush, a few work documents, a couple of t-shirts and boxer shorts and lots of precious personal items, like the deed to my house, the birth certificates of my kids, my wife's jewelry and lots of regrets for leaving my father and mother, who are safe so far in their house in the mountains.
My parents, who were faced with the same dilemma during the 15 year civil war, have a "too old for this ####" attitude today and refuse to leave Lebanon again. Before heading to the ship, my mother hugged me and said with tears in her eyes:"don't go to Europe, it is too close to Lebanon. Immigrate to the US, Canada or Australia, leave this cursed country for good. Build your children a new life far away."
We took a taxi and got to the British appointed hangar, where Paul Anka and Julio and Enrique Iglesias performed in recent years, at noon. We then waited under the watchful eyes of the Lebanese police and the British military, until it was our turn to be registered by the local Embassy staff.
A lady in her eighties, held by her Ethiopian nurse, was at a counter near us. Although her nurse had a valid British visa, the civil servant refused her entry to the ship, which was only for British citizens and their direct dependents. The old woman had no choice but to head home.
Four hours later, we boarded the air-condition free buses and headed for the Beirut port, that Israel bombed the previous morning. An apologetic and sweaty Lebanese immigration officer boarded the ovens on wheels and checked everyone's passport and we simmered at 40 C for another hour.
We then headed to the batch three Type 42 destroyer of the Royal Navy and were escorted by groups to our quarters. My kids were impressed by the merry-go-round motions of the ship's radar, her machine guns and Sea Dart missiles that shot down an Iraqi Silkworm missile that was threatening the USS Missouri during the 1991 Gulf War.
We went down the ship's hull, a labyrinth of tight corridors and steep ladders, until we got to our assigned windowless room. We were about 80 evacuees in that 50 square meter space and my wife, kids and I sat on our backpacks and made friends with our newly discovered Siamese brothers and sisters.
During the next couple of hours the ship's crew offered us sandwiches and chocolates which I whole-heartedly ate, considering that my diet was not appropriate at such troubled times. And then the Gloucester departed; destination: Limassol, Cyprus.
My next arm to arm neighbour, Toufic, 65, asked the sailor in charge of our room in a loud voice:"When can I have a smoke and scotch on the deck, captain?"
"You can have a smoke in about 20 minutes when we get passed the Israeli blockade, but I'm afraid we're not offering any alcohol today."
While I got comfortable with my awkward sitting position on the floor, a nurse tread carefully in between our hands and feet and told the part English part German family sitting above me to make place for a semi-blind elderly woman. The wife in a heavy German accent protested, the nurse insisted until a British-Lebanese middle aged man got up and sat in the corridor.
When the time came, we were allowed on the front deck of the destroyer and my kids and I were impressed at the speed of this rather large ship and its stability. Indeed, the trip took five hours and very few people felt sea sick. We were processed again by the British in the port of Limassol and then moved by buses to the RAF airbase in Akrotiri.
By 3 O' Clock AM, my wife and children who had managed less than an hour of sleep that day, rushed to their stretchers with the sheets and pillow that the very helpful British military staff had provided us with, took a sip of water, and slept.
Although I had not slept that day, my priorities were different. I felt sweaty and dirty and all I could see were the toilets and the showers and the soap and the towel that were also provided for us evacuees at the base.
Clean again, I had some tea and slept on the stretcher, which felt, after the 5 hour yoga session on the ship, like a water bed.
I managed an hour of sleep and got up to join a group of Toufic with a group of British-Lebanese men. One of them had spoken to his family back home, (international phone calls and internet access were provided for free), and informed us that the Israelis had dropped 29 tons of bombs in the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut next to the Palestinian camp of Burj al Barajneh.
A pumped up and shaven man shouted in Arabic a desperate "Ya Allah!" (Oh God!). And when I asked him what is the matter, he said that he had moved a few months ago from England and opened a body building club next to this area. He informed us that he had won several body building competitions in Britain and he showed us his oil and muscles pictures that he kept on his mobile phone, admitting that he shot himself with muscle enhancing drugs to get that big.
We all praised the British military for their excellent logistics and humane treatment. There was a play area for kids, a tent for mothers who breastfeed and special beds and mattresses for injured people. I must admit that if evacuations were rated, I would give this one five stars. The British military had certainly more manners, more respect and more desire to serve than the staff of any hotel in Paris.
By 1:30 PM we were taken to the base airport where an Air Caraibe Airbus, chartered by the British government, waited for us. Toufic begged and slimed for a first class seat with the right authorities and got it. But before we got on the plane, the military asked for our permission to let the press in and none of us objected.
Journalists, cameramen, photographers, radio and newspaper interviewers flooded the waiting room and in ten minutes photographed, filmed and interviewed many of us. We were news material and that made me feel like a victim and I did not like it. But all those feelings disappeared as soon as we got on the plane whose ownership and French speaking and suntanned crew were Caribbean based. And I told my kids to forget about Lebanon and to think that they were back from a trip in the French Martinique.
We landed in Gatwick in no time, we took a taxi and headed to my in laws house in Central London and I called my parents back in Lebanon and told them that we had arrived and as I was about to end the conversation, my mother said once again: "Go to the far end of the world my son. Take your family as far as you can from Lebanon and do not look back."