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Robert Fisk: Lessons in humanity from a Libyan family, a tale of Dickens from Cairo - and the wrong shark

Middle East Notebook

Robert Fisk
Saturday 22 October 2011 00:00 BST

It's an ill wind, etc. Today my thoughts are not with the Gaddafi family but with Bassam and Saniya al-Ghossain, whose daughter Raafat was killed in Libya on 15 April 1986.

She was the victim of President Reagan's insane air raids on Tripoli – in revenge for the killing of an American serviceman in Berlin, by a bomb planted by one of Gaddafi's lunatics. I was present at her funeral in Libya and have got to know her parents very well over the years since then. They are among my best friends in Beirut. I had lunch with them yesterday. And do you know what Saniya said about Gaddafi's violent demise? "I am against these things. I am against all murder and killing."

A pity that La Clinton could not bring herself to say something so humane. But she might – if she cares (which I doubt) – ask what happened to the $300m (£188m) which the Americans handed over to Gaddafi as a "final settlement" of scores when the US decided to re-open relations with the old rogue in 2008. The Libyans coughed up $1.5bn to settle accounts (Lockerbie, etc), the American cash was for the dead and wounded of their 1986 air raid. The al-Ghossains got not a cent from Gaddafi. They brought up their other daughter Kinda, who married and has had her first child, so Bassam and Saniya are now grandparents. It would be good to think that La Clinton could spare them a few seconds of her precious time, perhaps by reminding the boys in the Libyan "transitional" government that they have a debt to pay.

The other day in Cairo, I returned to The House on The Corner. That's what I called the crumbling fin-de-siècle mansion in my story during the Egyptian revolution – we actually used "the House on The Corner" in the headline. It was – and is – a real ruin, broken marble staircases, silk on the walls, a roof that sagged and shook when we ran across it, a place to watch tanks and duck from snipers, a real front line, all stuccoed windows and reeking with history and not a soul to tell you who lived there a hundred years ago. So back goes Fisk to The House on The Corner. A lot of busy young men with attaché cases were walking past. Nope. Not a clue who owned the building. Then I found an old "boab", a housekeeper down the road with just one tooth – believe me, just one – in his mouth, and I asked him who owned The House on The Corner. With his finger he made the sign of a cross on his hand, which Arabs do when they talk of Christians. And this is what he said in Arabic: "The man who lived here was Yussef Koudiam. He was a Christian man who died and went to heaven and is sleeping there."

Straight out of Dickens, I thought. Literature. Of course, I am trying to find the Koudiam family among the Copts of Egypt.

Another bit of old Beirut crumbles to the ground; Ottoman, red-roofed Beirut which Lawrence of Arabia loved. This time it's the Azar palace, wrecked and recently torn apart (inside) by unknown hands, a wonderful "House on The Corner" in Lebanon that is now, I fear, doomed. The minister of tourism is deeply concerned (of course) and policemen now patrol the place (equally concerned) to prevent further damage. But the winter rains have started and so a bit more of Lebanon's patrimoine is about to die. That's what happens when land is worth more than property.

On The (pre-Murdoch) Times I used to have a foreign editor called Ivan Barnes upon whom I would foist endless reports of animals for what I called the "animal brief" column. This was based on my conviction that the average Times reader will bucket tears over broken-legged Labradors rather than homeless Palestinians. So on a brief visit to Russia (Shaun Walker, our man in Moscow – a devastatingly fluent Russian-speaker with my own black sense of humour – has to be thanked for looking after me), I came across three wonderful stories for Ivan. First was a Russian army officer, Warrant Officer Vyacheslav Gerzog, who fed dog food to his soldiers instead of canned beef and was ordered to pay 202,000 roubles (around £4,000) by way of a fine. He slapped "quality beef" labels on the cans. Well, why not? Needless to say, the man who was imprisoned for four years over this was Major Igor Matveyev, who exposed the scandal on YouTube.

Then there were the shark hunters of Telyakovsky Bay (near Vladivostok) who grabbed a shark that had allegedly bitten off the hands of Denis Udovenko. It took 19 boats and 60 fishermen to bring the beast to shore. Only it was the wrong shark.

But wait, the best of the lot. The news agency Vecherniye Vesti reported that – I quote The Moscow Times – "Runaway Albino Ostrich Captured". It had escaped from a travelling circus in Siberia and threatened to kick local residents in the town of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky after its pen was left open. A circus official, according to the paper, "warned locals from approaching (the ostrich), saying it was stupid, aggressive and could maim a human". I must say if I was an ostrich, I wouldn't want to be owned by that particular circus official. Anyway, a man walking his dog spotted the ostrich – an albino one presumably not a usual sight in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky – and called the circus hotline. The ostrich trainer then turned up. But here's the killer final paragraph of the story: "The trainer said the ostrich was rain-soaked, but otherwise healthy, and the two took a taxi back to the circus." I can't wait to see the movie.

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