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Siren city

india Updated: Aug 24, 2006 03:55 IST
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The air raid sirens in Beirut that we heard on TV during the present conflict in Lebanon reminded me of an incident in 1943 during World War II. Mansoor Khan — MK for short — and I first met at Army HQ in Baghdad. We were both captains and had been selected to attend an Army Staff College course near Tel Aviv. MK was a Pathan from Peshawar with rugged good looks and an athletic physique. He was quick tempered and impetuous, but could also turn on his charm, especially with the opposite sex.

The only means of transportation from Baghdad to Damascus then was a 24-hour ride in a civilian bus across the desert. With shifting sands and no distinctive landmarks, it was impressive how the driver navigated the route. Somehow, we reached Damascus, changed buses and after crossing two cedar-covered mountain ranges, checked into Beirut’s famous Normandie Hotel. For fear of German air raids, there was complete blackout after dark. Later, at dinner, MK nudged me. “Look at the girl entering on your left. What a beauty and what a figure,” he exclaimed. Fascinated, we watched every move of this Lebanese girl as she sat down a few tables away, studied the menu and ordered her meal in French.

“Forget about her,” I said, “she probably belongs to the smart set and has a lot of boyfriends.” My comment seemed to stir up MK’s Pathan blood even further and he swore in Pushto and Punjabi that he would make her his special friend. As the army saying goes, time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. So we gathered as much information about the person and a suitably worded note was sent to her (lonely Indian officer in a strange city, etc). An anxious wait later, the bellhop appeared with an envelope and what looked like a book. The two-page reply was in French and the ‘book’ was a French-English dictionary. Half an hour’s labour on my part showed the answer to be a polite regret.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to the wail of air raid sirens. There was no sign of MK. I dashed out to find panic-stricken guests, in various stage of undress, rushing down to the basement shelters. Just as the sirens stopped, I was flabbergasted to see MK entering the basement, carrying the Lebanese girl in his arms. “How the hell did you do it?”

I asked MK when the excitement died down. “No problem,” he answered. “The nearest air raid warden was most cooperative — for a consideration, of course — and a practice alert was sounded at a predetermined time when I happened to be outside her room. She shouted for help and like a gallant army officer, I was there at a moment’s notice!”

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