Robert Fisk: Vision of an imaginary memory lane

Antoine fondly imagines these stations must lie in the sleepy folds of rural England
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The Independent Online

Something was strangely familiar when my Beirut optician put me through my latest eye test. Antoine Bechir is a Chaldean - yes, as in "Ur" of the Chaldees, that ancient Mesopotamian race - and he must be the only Chaldean I know. His family business was started by his dad, Alphonse, and it was he who initiated the family eye test album. And it reads like this: "Waterloo-Staines-Reading Wednesdays - Afternoon. Waterloo 1.20, Vauxhall 1.23, Queen's Road 1.26, Clapham Junction 1.28..." Yes, it really is a Southern Railways timetable, circa 1948, and Antoine tells me he has many times stood lovingly reading out the name of each station which - he fondly imagines - must lie in the sleepy folds of rural England. "One day I shall travel to your country and go to all these places," he says. "Wandsworth, Clapham, Putney, Hounslow, Ashford... Aren't they beautiful?"

Checking my vision is therefore a ramble down an imaginary memory lane in which viewers are firmly recommended to visit Theodore Hamblin, Dispensing Opticians at 15 Wigmore Street (Phone: Langham 4343) and practise their eye capabilities with this wonderful text: "The streets of London are better paved and better lighted than those of any metropolis in Europe. There are lamps on both sides of every street, in the mean proportion of one lamp to three doors..."

Or try the following extract for those with myopia: Water Cresses are sold in small bunches, one penny each, or three bunches for twopence. The Crier of Water Cresses frequently travels seven or eight miles before the hour of breakfast to gather them fresh; but there is generally a pretty good supply of them in Covent Garden..." Was post-war London really so well lit? And how did you qualify as a Crier of Water Cresses?

Old Alphonse Bechir, however, not only collected London railway timetables. He was also a buyer of spectacles in bulk and this is how he came to have a little problem in the Second World War. Indeed, when Antoine produces his father's passport - issued by the "High Commissioner of the French Republic in Syria and Lebanon" (under the terms of the old League of Nations French mandate) - I immediately spot the snag: three bloody great German eagles on page 29, each clutching an evil little swastika in its claws. It's a real Nazi visa, issued by the German consulate in neutral Turkey in July of 1941.

Alphonse had decided to bulk-buy hundreds of new spectacles in wartime Germany - but he chose the wrong moment to travel and got caught up in a truly Lebanese mess. For when France fell in 1940, Lebanon became part of Vichy territory and the Bechir family, like every Lebanese at the time, found themselves allied with the Nazis. In theory, this should have made Alphonse's journey easy. Or so he must have thought.

However, just a few days before he collected his visa in Istanbul, the British and Australian armies invaded Lebanon from Palestine and "liberated" its people from the Vichy French after a brutal and costly campaign south of Beirut. Under a ceasefire signed at Acre, all French troops in Lebanon were given a choice: join De Gaulle's Free French or head back to metropolitan France to fight for Pétain. Miserably, that's what most of them did, waving a large flag at the Beirut docks with "Vive Pétain" written across it.

It was only a few days later that the luckless Alphonse Bechir headed back to Lebanon with his hundreds of brand new German spectacles, only to find that things had changed while he was away. On the Syrian border, the new French authorities did not take kindly to page 29 of the passport and those governessy eagles with their swastikas. So along with up to a hundred fascist suspects, he was bundled off to the Mieh Mieh prison camp above Sidon. By cruel irony, Mieh Mieh is today a Palestinian refugee camp housing the descendants of those Arabs who fled northern Palestine in 1948, crossing the same Lebanese border that the Allies had traversed seven years earlier. Their fate was still unknown, of course, when Alphonse arrived behind the prison wire near Sidon.

It remains a mystery to me - and to Antoine - why his father should have risked a wartime trip to Nazi Germany, profitable though it was to turn out to be. The RAF was raiding Berlin by night and the Germans were preparing their vast armies for the invasion of the Soviet Union. He was lucky to have made it back to Lebanon.

"My father spent eight months in the camp before he could persuade the authorities that he was just an innocent optician," Antoine says. "Can you imagine being locked up for having the wrong visa in your passport?" Actually I could well imagine just such a scenario in wartime Lebanon. But like so few Lebanese tales, this one has a happy ending.

"While he was locked up, there was a huge spectacle shortage in the Middle East and when he eventually persuaded the military that he wasn't a Nazi spy, they gave him all his spectacles back - and they increased in value by 800 per cent. That's the money he used to set up our optician's business."

Which is why, every year, I study Alphonse's Southern Railways timetable, wonder at the Criers of Water Cresses and cringe at the sight of that wretched visa.