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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 1 August, 2014

Extract: Black humour, Scud-Burgers, bitter coffee – life in the Lebanon

In his new book, Tom Clonan details the ups and downs of his tour of peacekeeping duty in Lebanon in the 1990s and how ‘Mary Robinson wears no knickers’ becomes a common greeting…

Tom Clonan

Irish troops have served 40,000 individual tours of duty over four decades in Lebanon. Tom Clonan was on tour of duty in Lebanon from 1995 to 1996. This extract from his new book, Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Irish Soldier’s Story of Love and Loss, gives a first-hand account about the life of a soldier, the highs and the lows. He writes:

HAVING EXHAUSTED ALL of the routes in Irishbatt – and having exhausted me in the process – Spud Murphy decides to direct our familiarisation patrol into the neighbouring Ghanaian Battalion area. I have never felt further from home in this alien environment. Like the Wild Geese and millions of Irish before me, I have to adjust to a new and strange country. So we proceed beyond Irishbatt towards Tyre. The Ghanaian Battalion – or Ghanbatt – Area of Operations lies just to the north of Irishbatt. As the BMR regularly passes through Ghanbatt on convoy escorts to the coastal cities of Tyre and Beirut, Spud reckons it is a good idea to continue our familiarisation patrol towards Deir Ntar. Apparently Deir Ntar also has very good coffee.

We pass through a major Ghanaian checkpoint. As we rumble through the chicane and bounce over the dusty speed ramps, the Ghanaians smile broadly at us. There is a very good relationship it seems between the Irish and the ‘Ghans’, as they are affectionately known by the Paddies. The checkpoint commander reaches up to high-five myself and Spud Murphy. He roars up at us, ‘On the Big Irish Ball,’ whilst tracing a circular motion with his index finger. Spud shouts into his mouthpiece and I hear his crackly voice in my ears over the noise of the engines. ‘Watch this, Tommy.’

Spud leans over the side of the APC and shouts, ‘Azumah Nelson is a woman!’ Azumah is one of Ghana’s most famous sporting heroes – a boxer and role model for millions of Ghanaian men. The Ghanaian soldier freezes. He is rooted to the spot by Spud’s declaration. I hear Spud cackling in my headset. The Ghanaian recovers quickly though and sprints to catch up with us before we exit the checkpoint. ‘Mary Robinson wears no knickers!’ he screeches in response. We laugh until we cry. Unfortunately however, ‘Mary Robinson wears no knickers’ becomes a universal greeting for the Irish that spreads among the other contingents. The Ghans have had the last laugh.

Camp Shamrock

We have coffee in Deir Ntar. The first of many hundreds of bitter black coffees I will have in Lebanon. The beginning of an addiction. As we make our way back to Al Yatun, Spud points out the ‘shops’ that have sprung up around Irishbatt’s positions. I use the term ‘shops’ loosely. Just outside Camp Shamrock there is a collection of ramshackle concrete lean-tos with corrugated iron roofs. Irish soldiers, weapons slung over their backs, are gathered around one called ‘Saddam Burger’. It advertises ‘Very Beautiful Burger’. There is also apparently a ‘Dunnes Stores’ in the vicinity of Total.

We pass by another collection of sheds bearing a huge sign which reads, somewhat dubiously, ‘Ilac Centre’. The ‘Mingy Shops’ as they are known, supply the Irish troops with a bewildering array of goods and services. From laundry and ironing, to toothpaste, chocolate, ‘Scud-Burgers’ – don’task – to jewellery, exotic lingerie and a comprehensive and slightly frightening library of pornographic movies. They also sell ‘pharmaceutical products’ that are popular with the troops. These include ‘Al Zobra – Penis Enlargment Pils [sic]’ to ‘Fat-Busters Pils [sic]’.

The ‘Mingy Men’ who run the shops are larger-than-life characters. Since Ireland’s first deployment to the Lebanon in the 1970s, the Mingy Men have become intimately acquainted with the odd shopping habits of the Irish male. Over the decades, the Mingy Men have observed the quirky purchasing patterns of bored,cash-rich Irish soldiers who – sometimes fuelled by guilt, loneliness or drink, or all three – buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crap in their shops each year. By and large, the Mingy Men will have the measure of most Irishmen within seconds of meeting them. I was to find that I was no exception in this regard.

The magnificently titled ‘Ali Strawballs’ is the proprietor of the Mingy shop outside B Company Headquarters in Haddathah. Rosie runs the shop outside C Company HQ in Brashit. I am told – by dozens of ‘concerned’ soldiers over the coming months – that ‘unfortunately’ Rosie does not sell porno movies.

In Al Yatun, we have Hafif. He has been nicknamed ‘Hafif the Thief’ by the Dubs in position 6-40. Hafif doesn’t like this. On more than one occasion during my tour of duty he asks me to get the troops to call him, ‘Hafif the Honest Man’. This proves impossible and provokes much loud and ribald speculation as to Hafif ’s moral and ethical orientation.

Such speculation is rife – coming as it does from the brutal and licentious soldiery of A Company and the BMR – as to Hafif ’s sexual orientation and preferred methods of torture in the event of one’s inability to pay one’s bill or in the event of a Hizbullah invasion of our position. ‘Hafif ’d ride ye all the way to Tyre and back for a fiver.’

After our orientation patrol, we retire to the officer’s mess for a debrief. The whitewashed villa also houses the operations cell and our communications centre. There is a machine gun post on the roof which overlooks the checkpoint at the entrance to the post. It is manned 24/7 by troops from A Company. Meanwhile, below, the communications centre is manned by Corporal ‘Psycho’ Dunne. He is completely bald, and bears a remarkable and unsettling resemblance to Nosferatu.

Apparently, he never leaves the gloomy interior of the communications centre. Psycho also operates the public address system in Al Yatun. He does this in his own inimitable style. All messages are delivered deadpan in his distinctive flat Dublin accent. ‘Attention all personnel – the so called Muktar has arrived to meet and greet with the green, I mean, new, officers.’

The Muktar

Spud pushes me out the door. ‘You have to meet the Muktar.’ We cross to the vehicle park where a large black Mercedes is parked. A group of curious A Company troops have gathered to observe the formalities. The Muktar – Rafik Haydar Hazimi – emerges from the Merc. He is ancient and has about him a retinue of heavily bearded and rather aggressive looking men from the village. Spud motions me forward. I offer my hand to the Muktar. But he does not respond. Instead, he is staring at me openmouthed. He looks to his entourage and speaks Arabic in a low, urgent voice. Then he addresses me.

‘You are Captain Cloonan?’ he asks incredulously.

‘Err, Lieutenant Clonan,’ I correct him.

His eyes narrow. ‘But, Lieutenant Spud Murphy is big man. Very big man.’ Spud nods in agreement. The Muktar continues. ‘Lieutenant McCarthy was very big man. Lieutenant O’Connor was big man. And, Lieutenant O’Brien was very big man – with red hair.’ As he lists what seems like every Irish officer posted to Al Yatun over the previous decade – the troops are pushing closer, enjoying the discussion immensely. One of the A Company privates is particularly helpful.

‘Muktar – do ya remember Lieutenant Ryan, he was six foot six.’

The Muktar wheels around and points his bony finger in the air. ‘Yes, Lieutenant Ryan was very big man.’

At this point the Muktar fixes his gaze on me once more. ‘But, you – you are very small man.’ ‘Smallest Lieutenant in Al Yatun – ever,’ he adds for emphasis. There is silence. The troops watch me expectantly. Then the Muktar seems to relent. Perhaps he feels that he has committed some social faux pas. He approaches me – and in a scene straight out of Laurence of Arabia – grabs me in a sudden embrace. He kisses me on both cheeks and grabs my wrist. Gripping my hand triumphantly overhead – he shouts to all those assembled. ‘Lieutenant Clonan is small man. Yes. This is the will of Allah. But. I tell you truthfully. He is very beautiful.’ There is an enthusiastic round of applause from the troops accompanied by loud whistles. Pleased with himself, the Muktar then joins us for coffee.

For months afterwards, every time I roll out the gates of Al Yatun on patrol, the comedians on the checkpoint shout up at me, ‘Are ye off to the Muktar’s house for coffee?’ BS Begley interrupts on the headset. ‘Ignore them emptyheads, Sir. Forgive them. For they know not what they do.’

That evening we have dinner in the mess. A local boy Khalid Hakim acts as our waiter and general factotum. We each make a contribution towards his wages. Khalid is saving his dollars to go to the Technical University in Beirut where he hopes to become a mobile telephone engineer. We eat the same rations as the troops – our meals come directly from the cook house. However, we also contribute to a cash pool for bottles of Chateau Kafraya or Chateau Musar – Lebanese wines. The Lebanese wine is excellent. It will also help to take the edge off the all-male, brutal environment that is Al Yatun.

Khalid announces the evening’s menu. ‘Chicken in a flak jacket’ is breaded chicken. ‘Chicken with thing’ is stuffed chicken. ‘Not chicken’ is any other meat. ‘Red thing’ is carrots. ‘Green thing’ is any other vegetable. ‘Spuds’ is potatoes. ‘White thing’ is pasta or rice. Tonight, Khalid announces, ‘Not Chicken, Red thing, White thing and Cook Corporal says dessert is that fucking rice thing.’ There goes our Michelin Star.

As darkness descends on Al Yatun, those troops that are not on checkpoints, observation posts or patrols retire to the pre-fabs and their bunks. Many write letters. Others read. All are lonely.

Tom Clonan served as an Irish Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. He was on tour of duty in Lebanon from 1995 to 1996. Today, he is Security Analyst with The Irish Times and a lecturer in DIT. His new book, Blood, Sweat and Tears, is out now and published by Liberties Press.

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