Ali paces back and forth, nervous energy palpable in his movement. He scratches his shortly cropped hair and spits into the Meditteranean.
“Have you got a Lebanese mobile,” he enquires with a certain urgency. “Can I use it when we get to Lebanon?”
Before I have time to reply Ali turns to a friend. I overhear him saying he’ll throw me overboard if I don’t let him use my phone. His friend laughs, Ali laughs too. I also laugh. They are joking.
“I can’t swim,” says Ali delivering the closing piece de resistance of his joke before bursting into hysterics.
Ali, 24, from the city of Raqaa near the Iraqi border is one of 200 Syrian refugees upon the commercial ferry from the unremarkable Turkish port of Tasacuc heading to Lebanon in search of job opportunities and a standard of living unavailable at home. On arrival he will become one of over 650,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Syrian and Palestinian refugees now account for over a quarter of the Lebanese population.
I overhear him saying he’ll throw me overboard if I don’t let him use my phone. His friend laughs, Ali laughs too. I also laugh. They are joking.
The ferry route opened up following the start of Syria’s civil conflict to meet demand as travel within Syria became increasingly dangerous. Pretty much all the passengers are Syrian, with a handful of Turks, and William, a slightly strange hitch-hiking French farmer.
Ali explains that he left Syria a month ago, headed to Istanbul and struggled to find work and settle in. Quickly running out of money he decided Beirut was a better bet. He has a cousin that lives in the Tarek Jdeideh neighbourhood and works as a labourer round the capital. Ali’s quietly confident he’s got work lined up.
Standing beside Ali, Amr, 25, from the Aleppo countryside, is less confident. Like Ali he inquires whether he can use my mobile. He has three phone numbers scribbled on a piece of paper. Strangely two of them have Cypriot area codes. Amr is counting on the third though he doesn’t seem completely sure who the owner of the number is or whether they are expecting him.
“Can I call Cyprus on your phone?” asks Amr, with a hint of desperation visible on his angular, tanned face.
The awkward silence is broken by the arrival of a limping man with deep set features clad in a black adidas tracksuit. As a lighter is exchanged Ali explains that “Abu Samra” fought with the FSA in Aleppo province. A bullet to the ankle sustained under sniper fire three months ago explains the limp. Abu Samra is not really in the mood for talking. He lights his cigarette, says his peace, and limps off.
“Fuck Bashar. You fucking Iranian Dog,” says Ali in a momentary outburst of rage as Abu Samra heads out of view.
“Amr got hit by shrapnel.”
Amr lifts up his t-shirt to reveal a set of shallow lacerations across his belly sustained during government shelling that claimed the life of one of his younger sisters in his home town in the Aleppo countryside.
He speaks about the loss with a composure that seems to verge on clinical detachment. The lack of an emotive response seems poignant. People in Syria have become accustomed to loss – its part of everyday life.
Standing at the counter of the boat’s cafeteria Wisam, 46, from Deir elZour, looks almost apoplectic with rage.
“My dick in your sister’s pussy, you son of a bitch,” he says directing a volley of abuse at the non-plussed Turkish employee behind the counter. “Five dollars for a can of apricot juice! Do they have no mercy?” he says turning to me. “We are refugees!”
“My dick in your sister’s pussy, you son of a bitch,” he says directing a volley of abuse at the non-plussed Turkish employee behind the counter.
“Five dollars for a can of apricot juice! Do they have no mercy?” he says turning to me. “We are refugees!”
Sitting down round a table in the cafeteria Wisam explains that he, Mahmud, and Abdul Rahman (owner of an impressively bushy moustache and rocking a baggy brown leather timberland jacket that wouldn’t look out of place in an early Wu-Tang cypher) work as long-haul lorry drivers, passing through Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan on their round trips. The dangers of travelling through some of Syria’s more severe conflict zones has made the ferry a necessity.
The group are keen to talk about the international dimensions of the Syrian conflict.
“The West interfered in Libya because there is oil but there is no oil for them in Syria so they are not interested,” says Wisam with a shake of the head, “plus America has her friends in Israel to think about – they want a weak Syria.”
Wisam’s comments are met with a nod of assent from Abdul Rahman. Whilst the otherwise silent Mahmud imparts his own piece of wisdom.
“There was no way Obama was going to intervene – especially last year with the American elections. That would have been political suicide.”
Over a dinner of tinned tuna, goat’s cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and kiwi’s – fresh from Iraq – retrieved from his truck by Abdul Rahman, William, the French farmer is beckoned over to the table by calls of “Bonjour” from Wissam.
Upon arrival William explains that his journey to date has been largely a smooth one with the exception of an awkward encounter with a Turkish truck-driver who thought that he wanted a ride in more ways than one.
“When he took down his trousers I just asked him to pull over and I got out,” says William – reflecting matter-of-factly on the experience before breaking into a mildly disturbing high-pitch giggle.
Heading into the small hours of the night an affluent few settle down in cabins. The majority make do with sprawling out on the cafeteria floor, others lie on benches on the main deck comforted by a gentle breeze coming off the Mediterranean.
Come morning I am woken up by Wisam accidentally stepping on my foot as I lie in a corner of the cafeteria. He apologizes profusely. Looking to kill some time I turn on an episode of Game of Thrones. Wisam, Mahmud, and Abdul Rahman congregate round the laptop screen, quickly followed by Ali and Amr and an incredibly friendly man with a goatee and a black suit who I’d seen bum rushing photo opportunities on Tasacuc’s main peer prior to departure.
Things don’t go smoothly. Unable to follow the hammy dialogue and only occasionally entertained by the appearance of a dragon, the assembled group begin to talk loudly over the top. Then after 10 minutes the laptop is closed after objection is raised to the appearance of a couple of tits on screen. Ali looks crestfallen. So does the man in the suit.
“I hear the nightlife in Beirut is very good,” he says turning to me before breaking into a few dance steps to his own rendition of what I think is a Kylie Minogue number.
Around 1pm the outline of the Syrian coastline comes into view around the cities of Latakia, Tartus, and Banias - often referred to as the “Alawite heartland” of the Syrian regime. Out on deck I see Ali hurling abuse directed at the Syrian regime landwards whilst Abu Samra reclines in the midday sun.
By 3 we have arrived in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city but it’s a full three hours before anyone gets off. Rumours swell that those with stamps from the Free Syrian Army in their passports may be denied entry due to the presence of pro-Assad elements within the Lebanese customs authorities – a fear by no means unfounded.
Ali has already made contact with his cousin who is waiting at the other end of customs. Amr is less fortunate. His calls have yet to elicit a response.
Two hours into the wait an engine malfunction sends plumes of noxious smoke billowing through the cafeteria.
“Sawarikh qimawiye (chemical weapons), they are using chemical weapons,” shouts Ali adding his particular brand of dark humour as the cafeteria is emptied of passengers seeking respite from the smoke out on deck.
Around 5:30 my phone starts ringing. It’s a man enquiring after Amr. I pass him the phone and as the conversation proceeds the release of tension and anxiety becomes palpable in Amr’s body language. When the conversation ends, he smiles and passes me back the phone before embracing me in a hug.
“Thankyou,” says Amr. “He’s waiting for me at the cola junction in Beirut. You have his number now – you can contact me on it. Let’s keep in touch.”
Half an hour later having successfully navigated through customs I see Ali, Amr, and Abu Samra flagging down a taxi. As I wave goodbye Abu Samra shouts that there is room for one more.
I walk over to the taxi before noticing William standing by the side of the road with his rucksack in the fading sunlight. He strikes a lonely, lost fingure and I don’t think he will be making it to the Chouf this evening.
Amr catches my gaze. “Don’t worry – you have our numbers. Speak soon my friend.” With a look of optimism on his face he shuts the car door. I walk over to William and together we board a bus to Beirut. He can sleep on the sofa tonight.
A few days later I got a phone call from Amr asking to meet up. I explained that I was busy that day but we arranged to meet the next week. The next day travelling from East to West Beirut I lost the phone in a taxi.
Follow Martin Armstrong on Twitter here @scotinbeirut