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Improvised Sea Passage to Beirut, for a Price

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008

BEIRUT -- There was no road from Damascus. A spat over a story the Syrian government deemed unfair back in 2005 precluded a visa there. The Beirut airport remained shut, as it was a week ago, when armed men, some with beards still wispy, their faces sweaty from adrenaline and fires they stoked along barricades, shut the highway tying it to the capital.

That left the 150-mile journey from the Cypriot port of Larnaca by sea as the only way into Lebanon, a country that, in more ways than not, was embroiled in a civil war.

Colleagues like to say that logistics are no less important in journalism than actual reporting and writing. That's undoubtedly true. But more often than not, there's a jazzlike quality in getting from one place to another. Some people are lucky. I'm usually not.

By Monday, trying to return to Lebanon, my home for three years, I had changed my plane ticket five times. By Tuesday morning, I was finally in Rome, where by chance, I met a colleague and former Washington Post correspondent, Dan Williams, en route to Lebanon as well. By Tuesday evening, we were together in Larnaca, sharing watermelon and halloumi cheese with Angelos Assiotis.

Assiotis, a beefy, 43-year-old Cypriot sea captain, had the boats to get to Lebanon.

"Put the halloumi in the microwave for 30 seconds!" he shouted at his maid.

Watermelon and halloumi was the eastern Mediterranean equivalent of Viagra, he kept insisting, with a knowing man-to-man look. His maid brought out shriveled black olives. The best in the region, he declared with certainty, a contentious claim in a region famous for them. More watermelon and halloumi would follow before we got down to business -- the fastest, cheapest way home -- along with more instructions from Assiotis.

"Just 30 seconds in the microwave!" he barked again.

Assiotis was a veteran. For 22 years, he had captained boats. For six years, he had run Cyprus VIP Services, with a fleet of yachts that he said catered to "king, queens and actors." He paused for a second, eager not to offend his guests. "And journalists, too."

But on this day, Assiotis, his sun-seared brow furrowed, lacked optimism. He had been told by Cypriot authorities, Lebanese officials, both or neither -- it was never clear -- that no passengers were allowed into Lebanon. The instructions had come earlier in the day. He quickly raised his hand to calm a journalist's fear of being stranded far from the story. Of course, he said, in the best mercantile tradition of the Mediterranean, an official "no" meant an unofficial "maybe." There was the Levantine scent of profit, after all. And his take would be calculated by intuition, an elaborate and elastic game of subtle hints.

"First, what is my risk?" he asked us. "Second, what is the captain's risk?"

He let that suggestion simmer, then proceeded to the logistics. He could take us outside Cypriot territorial waters and put us on another boat headed to Lebanon. "You jump to the other boat," he said. He was quick to offer reassurances: "But not into the water." He joked about sharks. There are 350 species, he said, and only four are dangerous to man. "Of course, if you jab a hook into my mouth, I might bite you, too."

"We do this thing for escaped prisoners," he said confidently. He would leave it to us to persuade the Lebanese captain that we were not criminals, convicts or drug runners.

"Like a James Bond film," Assiotis said, his dry wit giving way to a rare smile.

Williams, who had made a similar journey in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, offered a retort. "Without the women," he said.

The plan was in place until Assiotis called Captain Michel, the Lebanese end of the bargain. Captain Michel deemed it too risky, or perhaps our budgets too meager.

The most generous description of what followed might be persistence. To an outsider, it would have seemed a petulant display of deluded obstinacy. Calls were made, a little desperately -- to the Lebanese tourism minister, two advisers, the Lebanese ambassador in Cyprus, the Cypriot government spokesman, the deputy to the Lebanese transportation minister and the transportation minister himself. In turn, they made more calls, trying to earn us an exception to leave officially. A Cypriot policeman who looked uncannily like Cheech Marin was subjected to abject groveling. Appeals to a common God followed.

And at 11:30 p.m., an anonymous call came. We could leave.

Assiotis was woken up. In the six hours since we had talked, the price of passage had almost doubled, to an exorbitant 1,400 euros, or nearly $2,200, the calculation of risk never clear.

"I don't suppose that's for the two of us," Williams asked. It wasn't.

By 5 a.m., we were on the boat, the gleaming Azimuth 75. And by 10 a.m., we were at a yacht club in a Beirut suburb. A dozen worried passengers waited to depart, as a deckhand treated us to Turkish coffee and, of course, a requisite cigarette.

"Breakfast," Williams said, satisfied.

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