I was deep in Hezbollah country in Southern Lebanon after the war with Israel in 2006. Our friend, driver and fixer, I'll call him Ahmed, was our only way through safely. Hidden throughout the beautiful rolling green hills and blood red poppies, were caches of arms and fighters watching. But we never saw any sign.
At times Ahmed would look left and right and change his mind about the road we were on. He'd turn the car around and insist in Arabic that this route was too dangerous, and that we'd find another way.
Rolling into destroyed town after destroyed town, we were first greeted by people who were extremely nervous and agitated about our presence. Just months before their towns had been leveled with the assistance of the United States in the form of weapons and intelligence provided to Israel. And here we were: three US citizens to photograph, film and write about the damage. But Ahmed would talk with them, and they would soon smile and welcome us into their communities.
Ahmed was just the kind of person you want on your side in a war zone.
The UN at the time was in Southern Lebanon. They were ineffectively attempting to disarm and remove the one million bits of Israeli unexploded ordinance (including hundreds of thousands of cluster bomblets) scattered across the towns, farms, and the landscape. These unexploded munitions will be causing indiscriminate deaths and dismemberment for decades as civilians would wander across them.
We watched them do a mine sweep on an area the size of a football field. It would take them weeks to finish just this area. Given the size of the area bombed, this was futile. This function of the UN here in Southern Lebanon seemed more theatre than anything.
Mostly, the UN was here to monitor the Lebanese and keep them disarmed. The UN was clearly not neutral in the conflict. The people in Southern Lebanon wondered aloud why the UN wasn't in Israel. It was Israel which had attacked. Shouldn't the UN be there to try to prevent another attack?
During the tense days we traveled thorugh Southern Lebanon, Ahmed always pretended he didn't understand English. But when we spoke among ourselves I could see him listening. If you want to hear conversations not intended for you, convince people that you don't speak the language. It is an easy old trick. He was both our protector and an evesdropper. For Hezbollah? For whom? It didn't really matter. The important thing was that he was getting us safely where we needed to go. If I were he, I'd be eves dropping as well bringing potentially dangerous foreigners into my homeland.
One day he and I were walking out of a UN compound together to retrieve some recording equipment from the car. The UN forces made him understandably nervous. We walked past the barbed wire, sandbags and armed guards at the gate and retrieved the equipment. As we walked back towards the guns and barbed wire at the entrance I could tell that Ahmed was agitated. Before when we had entered the UN compound we had an escort, and now it was just him and me.
Even if I were to try to reassure Ahmed that the guards know us and will let us in - Ahmed claimed to not understand English. And I certainly couldn't convey the point in Arabic. All of a sudden this was fun: I might see where his breaking point was on his language ruse. So I kept walking toward the gate, looking up at the guards, the sandbags and the guns. Ahmed became even more agitated. He would pause and then speed up to catch me, wanting to say something to me, hoping he wouldn't be shot as we approached the compound gates. I continued walking steadily towards the entrance.
Finally, Ahmed could take no more and said, "don't you think we should check in with the guards first?"
Let's see: an English contraction, and enough verbs, subjects and modifiers to clearly demonstrate fluency in the English language beyond a doubt.
I gleefully smiled at a new secret I now shared with my friend. "Nah, they know that it is us." After nearly two weeks, the language ruse was thankfully over, and our trust that much greater.