Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Holidays in Hell

by P. J. O’Rourke

“A spin with P.J. O’Rourke is like a ride in the back of an old pickup over unpaved roads. You get where you’re going fast, with exhilarating views–but not without a few bruises.” –The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 272
  • Publication Date July 17, 2000
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3701-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

P.J. O’Rourke travels to hellholes around the globe in Holidays in Hell, looking for trouble, the truth, and a good time. After casually sight-seeing in war-torn Lebanon and being pepper-gassed in Korea, P.J. checks out the night life in communist Poland and spends Christmas vacation in El Salvador. Taking a long look at Nicaragua, P.J. asks, “Is Nicaragua a Bulgaria with marimba bands or just a misunderstood Massachusetts with Cuban military advisors?”; has a close encounter with a Philippine army officer he describes as powerful-looking in a short, compressed way, like an attack hamster”; and concludes, “Some people are worried about the difference between right and wrong. I’m worried about the difference between wrong and fun.”

“Whether you agree with him or not…he writes a helluva piece.” –Richard Nixon

Tags Journalism


“A spin with P.J. O’Rourke is like a ride in the back of an old pickup over unpaved roads. You get where you’re going fast, with exhilarating views–but not without a few bruises.” –The New York Times Book Review


A Ramble Through Lebanon


I visited Lebanon in the fall of “84, which turned out to be pretty much the last time an American could travel in that country with only a risk (rather than a certainty) of being kidnapped. I was just taking a vacation. Somehow I had convinced Vanity Fair magazine to let me do a piece on the holiday pleasures of Beirut and its environs. What follows is, with a few parenthetical addenda, the article I wrote for Vanity Fair, an article that they–wisely, I think–decided was much too weird to publish.

“Bassboat.” “Bizport.” “Passboot.” “Pisspot.” It’s the one English word every Lebanese understands and no Lebanese can say. The first, deepest and most enduring impression from a visit to Lebanon is an endless series of faces, with gun barrels, poking through the car window and mispronouncing your travel documents.
Some of these faces belong to the Lebanese Army, some to the Christian Phalange, some to angry Shiites or blustering Druse or grumpy Syrian draftees or Scarsdale-looking Israeli reservists.

And who knows what the rest of them belong to. Everybody with a gun has a checkpoint in Lebanon. And in Lebanon you’d be crazy not to have a gun. Though, I assure you, all the crazy people have guns, too.
You fumble for passes and credentials thinking, “Is this Progressive Socialist or Syrian Socialist National Party territory? Will the Amal militia kill me if I give them a Lebanese Army press card? And what’s Arabic, anyway, for ‘me? American? Don’t make me laugh”?”
The gun barrels all have the bluing worn off the ends as though from being rubbed against people’s noses. The interesting thing about staring down a gun barrel is how small the hole is where the bullet comes out, yet what a big difference it would make in your social schedule. Not that people shoot you very often, but the way they flip those weapons around and bang them on the pavement and poke them in the dirt and scratch their ears with the muzzle sights ” Gun safety merit badges must go begging in the Lebanese Boy Scouts.
On the other hand, Lebanon is notably free of tour groups and Nikon-toting Japanese. The beaches, though shell-pocked and occasionally mined, are not crowded. Ruins of historical interest abound, in fact, block most streets. Hotel rooms are plentiful. No reservation is necessary at even the most popular restaurant (though it is advisable to ask around and find out if the place is likely to be bombed later). And what could be more unvarnished and authentic than a native culture armed to the teeth and bent on murder, pillage and rape?
One minor difficulty with travel to Lebanon is you can’t. There’s no such thing as a tourist visa. Unless you’re a journalist, diplomat or arms salesman, they won’t let you in. And if you believe that, you’ll never understand the Orient. Type a letter saying you’re an American economist studying stabilization of the Lebanese pound or something. (Sound currency is one thing all factions agree on. The Central Bank is the best guarded and least shelled building in Beirut.) I had a letter saying I was studying the tourism industry in Lebanon.
“The tourism industry?” said the pretty young woman at the Lebanese Consulate.
“Yes,” I said.
I nodded.
She shrugged. “Well, be sure to go see my village of Beit Mery. It’s very beautiful. If you make it.”
Middle East Airlines is the principal carrier to Beirut. They fly from London, Paris, Frankfurt and Rome–sometimes. When the airport’s being shelled, you can take a boat from Larnaca, Cyprus.
There are a number of Beirut hotels still operating. The best is the Commodore in West Beirut’s El Hamra district. This is the headquarters for the international press corps. There are plenty of rooms available during lulls in the fighting. If combat is intense, telex Beirut 20595 for reservations. The Commodore’s basement is an excellent bomb shelter. The staff is cheerful, efficient and will try to get you back if you’re kidnapped.
There’s a parrot in the bar at the Commodore that does an imitation of an in-coming howitzer shell and also whistles the Marseillaise. Only once in ten years of civil war has this bar been shot up by any of the pro-temperance Shiite militias. Even then the management was forewarned so only some Pepsi bottles and maybe a stray BBC stringer were damaged. Get a room away from the pool. It’s harder to hit that side of the building with artillery. Rates are about fifty dollars per night. They’ll convert your bar bill to laundry charges if you’re on an expense account.
Beirut, at a glance, lacks charm. The garbage has not been picked up since 1975. The ocean is thick with raw sewage, and trash dots the surf. Do not drink the water. Leeches have been known to pop out the tap. Electricity is intermittent.
It is a noisy town. Most shops have portable gasoline generators set out on the sidewalk. The racket from these combines with incessant horn-honking, scattered gunfire, loud Arab music from pushcart cassette vendors, much yelling among the natives and occasional car bombs. Israeli jets also come in from the sea most afternoons, breaking the sound barrier on their way to targets in the Bek”a Valley. A dense brown haze from dump fires and car exhaust covers the city. Air pollution probably approaches a million parts per million. This, however, dulls the sense of smell.
There are taxis always available outside the Commodore. I asked one of the drivers, Najib, to show me the sights. I wanted to see the National Museum, the Great Mosque, the Place des Martyrs, the Bois de Pins, the Corniche and Hotel Row. Perhaps Najib misunderstood or maybe he had his own ideas about sight-seeing. He took me to the Green Line. The Green Line’s four crossings were occupied by the Lebanese Army–the Moslem Sixth Brigade on one side, the Christian Fifth Brigade on the other. Though under unified command, their guns were pointed at each other. This probably augurs ill for political stability in the region.
The wise traveler will pack shirts or blouses with ample breast pockets. Reaching inside a jacket for your passport looks too much like going for the draw and puts armed men out of continence.
At the Port Crossing, on the street where all the best whorehouses were, the destruction is perfectly theatrical. Just enough remains of the old buildings to give an impression of erstwhile grandeur. Mortars, howitzers and rocket-propelled grenades have not left a superfluous brush stroke on the scrim. Turn the corner into the old marketplace, the Souk, however, and the set is a Hollywood back lot. Small arms and sniper fire have left perfectly detailed havoc. Every square inch is painstakingly bullet-nibbled. Rubble spills artfully out of doorways. Roofs and cornices have been deftly crenulated by explosion. Everything is ready for Ernest Borgnine, John Cassavetes and Lee Marvin in a remake of The Dirty Dozen, except the Lebanese can’t figure out how to remove the land mines.
We went back and forth across the Green Line six times, then drove into Beirut’s south suburbs. This area was once filled with apartment buildings housing the Moslem middle class. The buildings were destroyed by Israeli air strikes during the invasion of 1982. Modern construction techniques and modern war planes create a different kind of ruin. Balconies, windows and curtain walls disintegrate completely. Reinforced concrete floors fold like Venetian-blind slats and hang by their steel rebars from the buildings’ utility cores. Or they land in a giant card-house tumble. Shiite squatter families are living in the triangles and trapezoids formed by the fallen slabs. There’s a terrible lack of unreality to this part of the city.
Outside the areas controlled by the Lebanese Army the checkpoints are more numerous, less organized and manned by teenagers in jeans, T-shirts and Adidas running shoes. They carry Russian instead of U.S. weapons. Some belong to the Shiite Amal militia, others to the even more radical Hezbullah. All have strong feelings about America. Fortunately, they can’t read. One even held my Arabic press credentials upside down, picture and all, and tipped his head like a parakeet to see if I matched my inverted photo. At the most dangerous-looking checkpoints, Najib said something that made the guards laugh and wave us through.
“Najib,” I said, “what are you telling them?”
He said, “I tell them you travel for pleasure.”
Finally, we got to a place where we could go no further. Down the street the Sunni Moslem Mourabitoun militia was having it out with the Shiite Amal militia–part of the long-standing Sunni/Shiite dispute about whether Muhammad’s uncle Abbas or Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali should have succeeded the Prophet and, also, about who gets the take from the south-side gambling joints.
West Beirut can also be toured on foot. You’ll find the city is full of surprises–a sacking of the Saudi embassy because of long lines for visas to Mecca, for instance, or shelling of the lower town by an unidentified gunboat or car bombs several times a day. Renaults are the favored vehicles. Avoid double-parked Le Cars. Do not, however, expect the population to be moping around glassy-eyed. There’s lots of jewelry and make-up and the silliest Italian designer jeans on earth. The streets are jammed. Everyone’s very busy, though not exactly working. They’re rushing from one place to another in order to sit around drinking hundreds of tiny cups of Turkish coffee and chat at the top of their lungs. The entire economy is fueled, as far as I could see, by everyone selling cartons of smuggled Marlboros to each other.
It turns out I didn’t miss much on Najib’s style of guided tour. The Bois de Pins, planted in the 1600s by Emir Fakhr ed Din to protect Beirut from encroaching sand dunes, had all its foliage blown off by Israeli jets and looks like a phone-pole farm. The Place des Martyrs, so-called because eleven nationalists were hanged there by the Turks in 1915, is right on the Green line and now all that much more aptly named. Most of the buildings on the Corniche have literally been face-lifted. The old American Embassy is here, in the same state as U.S. Middle East policy. The British Embassy down the street is completely draped in anti-bomb nets imported from Belfast. Hotel Row was ravaged at the beginning of the civil war in 1975. The high-rise Holiday Inn is a delight to the eye. Who, when traveling around the earth faced with endless Holiday Inns, has not fantasized blowing one to flinders? The National Museum is bricked up and surrounded with tanks–no nagging sense of cultural obligation to tour this historical treasure trove. I couldn’t find the Great Mosque at all.
A surprising lot of Beirut stands, however. A building with a missing story here, a lot with a missing building there, shattered this next to untouched that–all the usual ironies of war except with great restaurants.
The Summerland Hotel, on the beach in the ruined south suburbs, has good hamburgers. The wealthy Moslems, including Shiites, go here. All Shiites are not stern zealots. Some have string bikinis. And, like an American ethnic group with origins nearby, they wear their jewelry in the pool. (It was at the Summerland where the Amal militia feted its American captives during the 1985 TWA hostage crisis.)
Downtown on the Corniche you can lunch at the St. Georges Hotel, once Beirut’s best. The hotel building is now a burned shell, but the pool club is still open. You can go waterskiing here, even during the worst fighting.
I asked the bartender at the pool club, ‘don’t the waterskiers worry about sniper fire?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” he said, “the snipers are mostly armed with automatic weapons–these are not very accurate.”
Down the quay, pristine among the ruins, Chez Temporal serves excellent food. A short but careful walk through a heavily armed Druse neighborhood brings you to Le Grenier, once a jet-set mob scene, now a quiet hideaway with splendid native dishes. Next door there’s first-rate Italian fare at Quo Vadis. Be sure to tip the man who insists, at gunpoint, on guarding your car.
Spaghetteria is a favorite with the foreign press. The Italian specials are good, and there’s a spectacular view of military patrols and nighttime skirmishing along the beachfront. Sit near the window if you feel lucky.
Addresses are unnecessary. Taxi drivers know the way and when it’s safe to go there. Service at all these establishments is good, more than good. You may find ten or a dozen waiters hovering at your side. If trouble breaks out, the management will have one or two employees escort you home. When ordering, avoid most native wines, particularly the whites. Mousar “75, however, is an excellent red. Do not let the waiters serve you Cypriot brandy after the meal. It’s vile.
The Commodore also has restaurants. These are recommended during fighting. The Commodore always manages to get food delivered no matter what the situation outdoors.
Nightlife begins late in Beirut. Cocktail hour at the Commodore is eight P.M., when U.S. editors and network executives are safely at lunch (there’s a seven-hour time difference). The Commodore is strictly neutral territory with only one rule. No guns at the bar. All sorts of raffish characters hang about, expatriates from Palestine, Libya and Iran, officers in mufti from both sides of the Lebanese Army, and combatants of other stripes. I overheard one black Vietnam veteran loudly describe to two British girls how he teaches orthodox Moslem women to fight with knives. And there are diplomats, spooks and dealers in gold, arms and other things. At least that’s what they seem to be. No one exactly announces his occupation–except the journalists, of course.
I met one young lady from Atlanta who worked on a CNN camera crew. She was twenty-six, cute, slightly plump and looked like she should have been head of the Georgia State pep squad. I sat next to her at the Commodore bar and watched her drink twenty-five gin and tonics in a row. She never got drunk, never slurred a word, but along about G&T number twenty-two out came the stories about dismembered babies and dead bodies flying all over the place and the Red Cross picking up hands and feet and heads from bomb blasts and putting them all in a trash dumpster. ‘so I asked the Red Cross people,” she said, in the same sweet Dixie accent, “like, what’s this? Save “em, collect “em, trade “em with your friends?”
Everyone in Beirut can hold his or her liquor. If you get queasy, Muhammad, the Commodore bartender, has a remedy rivaling Jeeves’s in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. It will steady your stomach so you can drink more. You’ll want to. No one in this part of the world is without a horror story, and, at the Commodore bar, you’ll hear most of them.
Dinner, if anyone remembers to have it, is at ten or so. People go out in groups. It’s not a good idea to be alone and blonde after dark. Kidnapping is the one great innovation of the Lebanese civil war. And Reuters correspondent, Johnathan Wright, had disappeared thus on his way to the Bek”a Valley a few days before I arrived.
If nabbed, make as much noise as possible. Do not get in anyone’s car. If forced in, attack the driver. At least this is what I’m told.
Be circumspect when driving at night. Other cars should be given a wide berth. Flick headlights off and on to indicate friendly approach. Turn on the dome light when arriving at checkpoints. Militiamen will fire a couple of bursts in your direction if they want you to slow down.
Clubs, such as the Backstreet near the Australian Embassy, keep going as late as you can stand it. There’s some dancing, much drinking and, if you yell at the management, they’ll keep the Arab music off the tape deck. Cocaine is available at about fifty dollars a gram and is no worse than what you get in New York.
Beirut nightlife is not elaborate, but it is amusing. When danger waits the tables and death is the busboy, it adds zest to the simple pleasures of life. There’s poignant satisfaction in every puff of a cigarette or sip of a martini. The jokes are funnier, the drinks are stronger, the bonds of affection more powerfully felt than they’ll ever be at Club Med.
East Beirut is said to also have good restaurants and night-clubs. But the visitor staying on the West side probably won’t see them. No one likes to cross the Green Line at night. And, frankly, the East isn’t popular with the West-side crowd. All the window glass is taped, and the storefronts are sandbagged over there. It gives the place a gloomy look. No one would think of doing this in the West. It would be an insult to the tradition of Oriental fatalism, and nobody would be able to see all the cartons of smuggled Marlboros stacked in the window. Anyway, the East-side Christians are too smug, too pseudo-French and haven’t been shelled enough to turn them into party reptiles.