The following story faded from the news a couple of weeks ago, but it’s one of the many posts I was thinking about but not blogging about during my long (and gratifyingly lamented!) silence. I won’t bore you with the usual apologies -that gets tired pretty quickly.
Some of you may remember a rather odd story about Daniel Sharon, an Israeli-German citizen who was arrested in Beirut in late September. The media reported that he was accused of involvement in a murder and that he was suspected of espionage. The reports included all sorts of titillating details – that Sharon had converted to Islam more than a decade ago, that he spoke flawless, unaccented Arabic, that he was gay and had a bizarre penchant for Lebanese men, which was why he had visited Lebanon 11 times over the past two years.
Sharon was detained by the Lebanese authorities for nearly a month, while the German consulate worked to obtain his release.
In the days immediately following his arrest, Yedioth Ahronot dug up and re-published an interview Sharon gave to the newspaper in 1996, when he was 19 years old. In that interview he made all sorts of trying-to-be-controversial statements: that he had converted to Islam; that he opposed the Israeli government’s policies in the occupied territories; that he had been jailed five months into his compulsory army service for refusing to follow orders, and then discharged from the army; that he had traveled to Jordan as soon as the peace treaty with Israel was signed, and from Jordan he had traveled to Beirut; and that he loved Arab culture. He was photograped wearing a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck.
Otherwise, the Israeli media was pretty circumspect – probably at the request of Sharon’s parents, who didn’t want the German authorities’ efforts to obtain his release sabotaged by speculation and rumours – but also, I think, because there wasn’t much information to report. Sharon’s biography was mildly interesting, but not really controversial. He was born in Munich to Israeli parents who moved back to Israel when he was two years old. After his parents’ divorce, he lived with his mother in Australia for several years. He had lived and worked for several years in the Gulf region. His father lived with his second wife in northern Israel, where he ran a posh bed and breakfast and owned several assisted living facilities for retirees.
Twenty-two days after his arrest, Sharon was released and allowed to leave Lebanon. One day later, he was interviewed in Frankfurt by reporters for Maariv and Yedioth. I translated both interviews into English for a friend who lives in Beirut. Maariv’s Or Heller interviewed Sharon in his Frankfurt hotel room, and Yedioth’s Eldad Beck interviewed him later that day at the airport, before Sharon flew to Thailand. There are some information overlaps in the interviews, but each one has unique details that complete an interesting picture so I’m posting both. In his own voice, Sharon sets the record straight – including the revelations he’s not gay, he does not identify as a Muslim and he still loves Lebanon. Read on…
Daniel Sharon/Or Heller, Maariv
Interview with Daniel Sharon
Or Heller for Maariv newspaper, 14 October 2007
When Daniel Sharon opened the door of his small hotel room in Frankfurt, he was wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. With a shy smile, he urged me to take a date ma’amoul. “This is my sweet memory from Beirut. They don’t have ma’amouls like this in Israel.” At that moment I wondered how any Lebanese intelligence officer could suspect this young man of being a spy.
Daniel speaks fluent Hebrew, although he sometimes becomes irritated when he has to search for a word. During our conversation the phone in his room rang constantly. Arab friends from the Gulf States who had heard the news of his release called to confirm that he was really safe, and friends and family from Israel called too. The meal Daniel ate to celebrate his freedom was not exactly what one would expect for someone who had spent 22 days in a Lebanese jail: two tomatoes, bread and cheese. Meanwhile, he is busy dealing with the overwhelming attention from the media. “Look at my hair! How can I be photographed like this?” he asks worriedly, as he commandeers my laptop in order to read what is being written about him in the Israeli and Lebanese media. His brown German passport rests on a table, and Daniel shows me the visas from Lebanon and various countries in the Gulf region. The only Middle Eastern countries he has not visited are Syria and Iran. But after we break the ice, Daniel sits down and tells me about the difficult days he experienced and what, in fact, brought him to Lebanon.
How it all began
“My trip to Beirut was not unusual. I travel frequently to Beirut because I have friends there and I really love the city and its nightlife. In general I love Lebanon because it has something that is difficult to describe. It’s a beautiful country – the food is fantastic, the girls are beautiful and so is the sea. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best country in the world. I am an Israeli citizen but my case is different from that of the average Israeli. I did not serve in the army and my Arabic is completely fluent – perhaps even more fluent than my Hebrew. I lived in the Gulf region for several years. I usually fly to Beirut from Dubai or Cyprus; this time I flew from Cyprus. I just had a free weekend and I wanted to travel to Beirut for three or four days. To my sorrow someone was murdered or committed suicide, and I knew the guy who was his flatmate, and that’s what put the whole series of events in motion.”
His 22 days in jail began, according to Daniel, with an afternoon out in the company of a friend. “I went out with my friend, Mohammed, to eat at a very well-known restaurant called Barbar. It’s like Aboulafia [a popular Tel Aviv eatery], where you eat pita with labneh and zaatar while sitting outside. It was Ramadan so we went out to eat at around 11 or 11.30 in the evening. There were tons of people, but there was no waiter who could identify us. Suddenly Mohammed’s mobile phone rang and someone informed him that there had been a murder or a suicide, so I immediately accompanied him to the police station in order to testify that we had been together, because there was no-one else who could provide an alibi.”
At the police station, Daniel was compelled for the first time to reveal his Israeli identity. “They asked me if I was a citizen of any other country so I said yes – that I have Israeli citizenship, and I told them that I had visited Lebanon for the first time with a visa that I acquired at the Lebanese consulate in Amman, Jordan. What happened is that the guy was murdered with Mohammed’s gun, and that’s what made them suspicious. Mohammed was a border guard at the airport, which is why he had a gun. Because he was a policeman with the border guard he’d committed a crime because he’s forbidden to allow anyone access to his weapon and he’d simply left it at home. The thing is, I just went to the police station in order to protect my friend.”
The first week
“When I first arrived at the police station I didn’t realize that I had screwed myself big time, because I simply did not believe that the Lebanese government would interrogate me the way they did, or that they would try to frame me. I believe in Lebanon and in its democracy. It never occurred to me that they would treat me the way they did; I thought they would ask me a few questions in a courteous manner. When I began to understand that I was in a place where people were tortured and beaten systematically, I began to be afraid. The first week was a nightmare. They took me 20 meters underground and I saw horrible things there. I saw people on the receiving end of murderous beatings. Luckily I am a German citizen and the German embassy helped me enormously. That is why they did not hit me; they just interrogated me intensively.
“At first the interrogators thought I was an agent of the Mossad. Then they accused me of being an agent of Jordanian intelligence. Only after that did they move on to the issue of homosexuality. “They said, ‘Ah, you’re connected to the mafia that tries to expose homosexuals and murder them.’ They decided that I knew the guy who was murdered, even though I’d never seen him in my life. But I didn’t even know that homosexuality was a criminal offence in Lebanon. How is it possible to think I’m a homosexual? I have a Thai girlfriend and I’m going to marry her soon in Thailand. But it didn’t matter what I said – they didn’t believe me, and they covered my eyes so I wouldn’t see the person who was interrogating me. Afterward they shackled my wrists, as well. For 24 hours I was kept in a corridor where they were torturing people. People were being beaten and pleading for mercy. The routine was very difficult. We went to sleep at 1 a.m. and were woken at 6 a.m. and given breakfast – pita and halvah. After that I just waited. I sat against the wall with my eyes closed and just waited for someone to talk to me.”
The army prison
“But those difficult conditions only lasted for six days. After that they moved me to a military prison for 12 days and it was just like the army jail I served time in in Israel. The Lebanese there were very nice. I wasn’t allowed to buy food from outside, but I ate very well because the guys there were incredibly nice about sharing the food they received from their families with me. Overall, it was a really good experience.”
Daniel even had political discussions in the army prison. “We were Sunnis, Shi’a, Druze and Maronites, and I contributed the point of view of someone who is both Israeli and Arab. The subjects we discussed included the Second Lebanon War. For the Lebanese it’s very painful that so many civilians were killed during that war. The war caused a lot of damage to their beautiful country, which they are trying to rehabilitate.”
“Overall, those 12 days in the army prison were restful. The prisoners there were soldiers who were serving sentences for drug use or being AWOL from the army, and they were all very nice to me.”
“After that they moved me to the Lebanese border police, and that’s when I realized that I was going to be released. The German embassy was very helpful. They sent me food and a lawyer and did everything in their power to obtain my release.”
“I was with the border police for three days but I would like to make it clear that I was not expelled from Lebanon.” Daniel insists upon showing me that he entered and left Lebanon honorably. “See, I entered the country on 18 September, was arrested on 20 September and left on 11 October. I was not served with an expulsion order from Lebanon and I was not convicted of any offence. At the border police I simply waited. Suddenly I was told that my flight would depart in two hours. It’s impossible to describe my feelings. All at once you understand that that’s it – you are no longer in danger, no one is going to accuse you of anything anymore. It’s a feeling of security, of being reborn. On the other hand, I had a moment of deep sorrow over the fact that a country like Lebanon, which is so unique, and is a democracy despite all its problems, had come to the point of subjecting me to that interrogation. They took off my handcuffs when we arrived at the airport. I was allowed to go shopping at duty free, although a policeman escorted me at all times. From there I flew to Bahrain and then to Frankfurt. And here I am.”
At this point in the conversation we moved on to discuss Daniel’s responses to the rumors that spread in Israel, and about the concerns caused by the news of his arrest. “I am not a Muslim,” says Daniel. “My conversion to Islam 10 or 11 years ago was a childish, in-your-face expression of opposition to Israeli government policies. I believe that our country should be a part of the Arab world, while maintaining its unique character. I do not believe in the Jewish religion, but I am proud of my Jewish roots. I have a lot of sympathy for Islam, and I read about Islam just as I read about other religions. But I am not a Muslim and I did not identify myself as a Muslim during the interrogations.”
“I am connected to Israel just like every person who is an Israeli citizen, and my place of work is in Israel. I own a home for old people in Nahariya. But I also feel very Arab and very Anglo-Saxon because I lived in Australia for many years. I make an effort to avoid defining myself with a single identity. I try to be a good person, and to take the best of every place I travel to. But it’s important to me that Israelis understand I was never looking for adventures. I have been living in the Arab world and doing business in the Gulf region for five years, so it’s impossible to claim I was some adventure-seeker who decided to take his foreign passport and travel to an Arab country. That is not my story. I have been traveling in Arab countries for 12 years with my Israeli name. If anyone had wanted to interrogate me – tfadal. But until now, no-one asked me and I didn’t volunteer any information. I feel for everyone in Israel who was worried about me, but it seems that I became a little complacent because for so many years no-one asked me any questions.”
Interview with Daniel Sharon
Eldad Beck for Yedioth Ahronoth, 14 October 2007
“There are those who think that I’m some crazy thrill-seeker. I am not just some eccentric guy. My travels to Lebanon and the life I led in the Arab world were a statement. I chose to live in Arab society, which I love very much. My only mistake was my frequent visits to Lebanon.”
“In Beirut, if you are in the safe neighborhoods, there is no reason to be afraid as long as they don’t recognize you. No-one knew that I was Israeli until I informed the police of the fact. In Lebanon there is a Druze village that is called Shaaron. Many Lebanese thought that I was named Sharon because my family came from that village. It never occurred to them that I was Israeli.”
“I have a friend who works for the border police at the airport in Beirut. We met at a well-known bar during one of my trips to Beirut. He shares an apartment with another guy, who committed suicide or was murdered. Either way, his death was caused by my friend’s gun – which is why the police suspected that he was the murderer. He asked me to be a witness to the fact that we had been together at the time of the guy’s death. I was my friend’s alibi, because on the evening of the murder we went out together to eat at Barbar, a restaurant in Hamra, after the breaking of the Ramadan fast.”
“At the police station they asked me what my religion was and I said ‘Jewish.’ It’s true that I converted to Islam when I was 19, but that conversion was a childish, in-your-face act that was meant to re-define my identity. It’s like the Israelis who decide that they’re Buddhists.”
“They asked me if I had another passport, and I answered that I have an Israeli passport in addition to my German passport. This was a murder investigation, and I didn’t want to play games. I told them nothing but the truth. I wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, because I received my first visa to Lebanon in 1996, at the Lebanese embassy in Amman.”
“The police station was in a Shi’a neighborhood, the Dahiyeh. The senior officer who did the initial investigation was a Christian, but the rest of the officers were Shi’a. When they heard that I was an Israeli Jew, that’s when the party started. They tried to bear pressure on the senior officer in order to have me transferred to Lebanese Intelligence. There was a huge argument about what to do with me.”
“They brought people who knew the dead man, in order to identify me. Of course, none of them knew me. After that they brought things that were found in the dead guy’s room. There were 250 DVD’s of gay porno, as well as sex magazines and photos. They claimed that I gave him those things.”
“Then they called army intelligence. I was in the room next door, so I didn’t hear what happened. I was afraid they would turn me over to Hezbollah. A Jeep arrived. They blindfolded me, and put me in the Jeep. They forced me to stay bent over throughout the journey, and someone sitting behind me hit me occasionally on the back.”
“At 7 in the morning we arrived at some kind of building and I was taken inside. Opposite me sat the guy in charge, and he was smoking a cigarette during Ramadan. That’s how I understood that I was not in the hands of Hezbollah, and that’s when I experienced the greatest sense of joy during the whole period of my detention.”
“Afterward they took me into the basement. Emotionally, that trip down into the bowels of the earth was very difficult and frightening. I felt though I were being made to disappear, as if no-one would know where I was anymore.”
“There 20-30 people in the basement, most of them young guys, Syrian and Palestinian. The interrogators beat them day and night. I could hear their screams, and when they returned from the interrogations they told me what was done to them: they were strung up from their hands and whipped. The atmosphere there was horrible. But no-one touched me.”
“Every time a new shift came on, the staff was told that Number 19, in other words me, had to be treated specially – they were forbidden to talk to me, to come near or to hit me. That made me feel very safe.”
“Nonetheless, the interrogations were very difficult, at least for the first few days. They told me that I was a Mossad agent, that I came to Lebanon in order to murder people and that they had a lot of evidence to support that fact. I felt as though I had to fight for my life. This wasn’t a children’s game. The truth was my only chance of getting out of that situation.”
“I was subjected to daily, rapid-fire interrogations that lasted for two to three hours. Sometimes I was interrogated twice in one day. They asked me who I knew in Lebanon, if I had ever met Mossad agents, if I had received instructions from them. Five or six men participated in the interrogations, representatives of all the major religions. Based on the questions and the tone of voice, I knew the religious group and political views of each interrogator.”
“For the first few days I was in a pretty difficult emotional state. I thought they were trying to frame me for murder. I understood there were some figures of authority who had an interest in doing so. The government and the Hezbollah are entangled in a serious confrontation because of the presidential elections. The fact that I remained calm during the interrogations drove them crazy. I simply had nothing to hide.”
“After the first three days of interrogation, which were official and tough, they started to treat me with more respect. They let me shower, and we even talked about politics. I told them that I thought the Lebanese government was making a lot of mistakes and putting Lebanon in danger.”
“On the sixth day a representative of the German embassy came to visit me – she was an attorney from the consulate. During my 22 days of detention I met four times with German representatives, who also brought me greetings from my parents. They were the ones who told me that in the end I was going to be charged with homosexual activity, which would make it possible to release me.”
“The reason for this baseless charge was that the Lebanese government had a problem with the Hezbollah, and they didn’t know how to extract themselves from the complicated situation created by my arrest. The solution was to frame me on charges that no-one in Lebanon would understand. They told me to sign documents that I wasn’t given an opportunity to read. Afterward they told me that I had signed a confession in which I declared that I was gay, and that I brought the sexual material to the guy who died.”
“At any rate, after the first meeting with the German consular attorney I was transferred to a special section of the military jail in Beirut, where I was put with soldiers from good families. There was a television there. Families of the prisoners came to visit. There was almost no security, just one guard. I Israel I served time in a military jail for refusing to serve in the army, and the prisoner food in the IDF jail was monotonous and tasteless. In Lebanon they treat the jailed soldiers much better.”
“There were prisoners there from all the religious groups – I used to mediate between them and try to calm them down. There was one soldier from Jezzine who said that Lebanon had to make peace with Israel and shut up Nasrallah. The Shi’a guys attacked him. I didn’t participate in that argument.”
“After 11 days they transferred me to a detention facility in Ba’abda, and brought me before a judge. The trial took place without witnesses, and lasted about 8 minutes. It was amusing. Then they transferred me to a border police detention facility. I don’t know when that was exactly, but by then I understand that I was going to be allowed to leave Lebanon.”
“A Lebanese police officer escorted me as far as the plane. Before I boarded the flight to Bahrain, where I caught a connecting flight to Frankfurt, I had time to buy some Lebanese cookies at duty-free. When the flight lifted for takeoff I felt relief, but also enormous grief. I understood that I would not be able to return to Lebanon for many years – perhaps not ever. And I won’t try to return. Why should I risk my life? But I will miss Beirut.”
“Now I’m on my way to Istanbul, and from there to Thailand, to my girlfriend of three years, Mai. In Istanbul I’ll contact the Israeli embassy and I’ll tell them the whole story of what happened. I feel the need to do that. In hindsight, the whole experience was a good one. A wake-up call. Over the years I became too complacent regarding my travels in the Arab world. It was time for all that to end.”
“I have no intention of traveling anymore to Arab countries. There are hostile elements who might wish to hurt me. I don’t feel safe there anymore. But I do feel Arab, even though most of the Arab countries have become a garbage dump of history due to the absence of democracy. I will really miss the Arab world. Actually, I feel as though I have been cast into exile.”