Robert Fisk’s World: Suicide as spectator sport – what does that say about us?

One guy bawled at the man on the crane. ‘Come on! Jump! I haven’t got all day!’

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

He was 10 storeys up an industrial crane, right on the seafront, leaning over the side with just one hand, no rope, no tin hat, quite unprotected, swaying and shouting and screaming, and at first the crowds on the Beirut Corniche ignored him.

Far to the north, Turkey lay across the pale blue sea, Israel 60 miles to the south, behind the Beirut peninsula upon which this young man had decided to demonstrate his fearlessness of death – or his anger – or his despair or, maybe, just his alcoholic illusions.

There was an unfinished 16-floor apartment block behind the crane, all concrete platforms and wire and Asian workers, some of whom yelled at the young man from above. It was just 7am, the beginning of the Beirut rush hour. I was walking from my home to the Nasser statue in Ain Mreisseh – oh heady memory of Egyptian socialism from the civil war – to buy a cheese manouche for breakfast and at first I thought the guy was joking, making fun of fellow workers. But they didn't know him. Some kept shaking their heads, unable to understand his words. He was a Palestinian, they said. It was political.

Then he yelled down to us. "I'm going to jump." Several Lebanese looked upwards, laughing. A woman turned up with a cup of coffee in her hand and leaned against the Corniche railings, back to the sea, shading her eyes as she looked to the top of the yellow crane. "What does he want?" she asked her friends. It was a strange question. People who climb cranes and say they are going to jump must "want" something. There were now 30 or more gathered on the pavement and the road. After all, it wasn't every day that your morning could be brightened up with a harmless suicide.

One guy was gabbling into his mobile. Then he bawled up at the man on the crane. "Come on! Jump! I haven't got all day!" Then a grinning youth joined in. "We've got to get to work! Don't waste time! Jump now if you're going to jump!" Of course, we were all complicit in this obscenity. I was also now standing beside a palm tree, unwilling to leave, anxious to watch the end of this little seaside drama. It was cinema, wide-screen, free of charge, reality TV. Indeed, two camera crews had already turned up.

Only then did the cops arrive. Three of them, grey uniformed, grey berets, lighting cigarettes, staring up at the man on the crane, joking among themselves, joshing with the crowd, laughing, briefly the centre of attention. Drivers were now slowing to take pictures with their mobiles, the traffic backing up along the Corniche. A few foreign tourists were watching the police. Some hope. The cops worked their mobiles, laughed again – and drove off. More people were screaming, "Jump!"

I pulled out my own phone and called a relative of a police colonel. I explained briefly what was happening, the location, and added that it was a pretty shameless scene, the Lebanese jeering at this lost soul up the crane, the police losing interest, the foreigners appalled at the Lebanese behaviour (there being no calls to "jump" when suiciders pop up on London roofs, of course). The colonel took the call as he was driving up to the Chouf mountains for the weekend. Seven minutes later – the crane-man now dangling his legs off his perch and holding his hands in the air – two brand new Volvo fire trucks arrived with a civil defence crew (black berets, camouflage uniform), hooting their way through the traffic, shouting at some newly arrived paramilitary police (camouflage clothes, but red berets this time) to clear the people off the road.

One young fire officer ordered the fire engine ladder extended against the crane – it was four storeys short – but shinned up the rungs then climbed the outside of the crane. The crowd fell silent. After demanding that the young man commit suicide as quickly as possible, they were now enthralled in a Hollywood drama. Would the brave fireman rescue the youth in distress? Far from willing the crazed man to die, they now wanted to see him rescued. Or did they want to watch the fireman slip and fall? Waitresses from a nearby coffee shop turned up with mugs of coffee and sandwiches for the fire crews and police. Then the plainclothes guys began their infiltration.

They chatted to the crowd, to me. Know this man? What did he shout? Anything political? Two cops in jeans walked on to the building site and I could see them questioning the workers in the unfinished apartments. They didn't care about the man. If he was demanding higher wages, so what? If he was drunk – and this was the line now being peddled on the Corniche – then he was of no interest to the security authorities. "Pissed out of his mind," one of the plainclothes men confided to me in flawless English – a good cop who's often given me information at the scene of bomb explosions – and the word went through the crowd, that the crane-man was drunk because Palestinians don't drink and are always political and the Lebanese like to enjoy themselves.

I didn't think the crane-man was enjoying himself and he fought viciously when his rescuer clambered on to his platform, kicking him on the legs and trying to break free and jump as we all held our breath; until the fireman threw a rope around crane-man and tied him up and called over to the driver of another crane to winch him up to safety on the roof of the apartments.

And that was the last we saw of crane-man. The fire crews packed up. An ambulance arrived. Yes, a hospital doctor told me later, the guy was "over the limit" (three daiquiris, an unknown number of Bloody Marys and far too many beers in a well-known Gemaizeh club) and, yes, he was Lebanese. And when the Lebanese fireman-hero eventually emerged from the gate below the crane, we all clapped and applauded our hero. Ghouls all, we made do with a happy ending.

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