I FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN ISA Abdullah Ali in 1984. I was reporting about the rescue of two Western hostages by Shiite Amal militia in south Beirut and was astounded to learn it had been directed by a mysterious black American Moslem. After confirming the story, I set out to find this man called Isa.
Within hours, I started receiving warnings, then threats from members of the Amal militia, who told me repeatedly not to ask questions about the American. But the story seemed too sensational to set aside.
Which may be how I ended up being chased through the streets of West Beirut shortly past midnight on October 1, 1984.
I was riding my motorcycle back from the Reuter bureau when a car carrying three gunmen attempted to ram me. Terrified, I tried every possible Steve McQueen maneuver, but I couldn't shake them. When I suddenly slammed on the brakes, hoping to evade them, they pulled up right beside me, guns drawn. One of them jumped out, waving a pistol, and ordered me to dismount. He sped off on the motorcycle. A thickly bearded man shoved an AK-47 in my back and pushed me into the car.
Speeding through empty streets, the bearded man remained silent, keeping the AK-47 trained on me, his finger on the trigger.
I didn't know how to say in Arabic, "Are you kidnapping me or just stealing my motorcycle?" so I simply asked: "Moto-cycle bye-bye?"
"No. Moto-cycle no bye-bye," the bearded man responded. "YOU bye-bye!"
Soon we were stopped at an Amal checkpoint where about 10 militiamen began questioning my captors: It is well past midnight. Why are you driving this frightened-looking American around in the back of your car?
Our driver's agitated response: We are Hezbollah.
I was being held by members of the Party of God, the militia widely believed responsible for kidnapping half a dozen other Westerners, whose abductions were condemned by Amal. But the sus- picious nature of this scenario was somehow lost on the Amal militiamen, who waved us through.
Within minutes, the car stopped on a side street near the "green line" that divides Christian and Moslem Beirut. The bearded man ordered me out, and followed me into a small field. He pointed toward a wall about 40 feet away. "You go," he said, nudging me with the rifle.
I was convinced he was going to shoot me, firing-squad style. He kept pushing me with the rifle muzzle, and I kept refusing to budge. I pleaded with him in Arabic that I was a journalist, a friend. I stalled every way I could, but he kept nudging me. Suddenly, without any apparent reason, he shrugged his shoulders, returned to the car and drove away, leaving me trembling in the middle of nowhere. But at least I was alive.
Some Western journalists thought my abduction was merely a motorcycle theft, but others said they had heard it was arranged to frighten me away from Isa. But I didn't know for sure.
Five years later, I finally tracked down Isa in Washington and persuaded him to talk. We began a series of interviews in my living room, the only place we both felt relaxed and safe.
At first, Isa denied any knowledge of my abduction. Then one day, after a par- ticularly intense four-hour session, I turned off my tape recorder, and he stood up.
"I have something to tell you," he said. "I knew about your kidnapping all along. I told them to do it." He watched my face as if he expected me to attack him. But I didn't react, in part because I wasn't sure whether to believe him.
My heart started racing, and I began feeling the same way I had when the bearded man pushed me with his rifle. But I also felt relief. For five years, I had been consumed with finding out why those men in Beirut had abducted me. Finally, it looked like I had my answer.
"How do you feel about that?" Isa asked.
"Well," I said, trying not to sound nervous, "it's a relief to finally confirm what I always suspected."
Then this strange man -- a man I feared, respected, pitied and, at the same time, liked -- let his hulking shoulders slump. His head dropped and he apologized, right there in my living room.
As if this weren't surreal enough, he then asked: "Are you mad at me?" -- T.R.