This is Michael Howell’s story and he tells most of it himself. I think that he should have told all of it.
He may not be the most persuasive of advocates in his own cause, and, as the central figure in what has come to be known as The Green Circle Incident, he is very much the defendant; but he alone can answer the charges and give the necessary explanations. It is upon his own words that he will be judged. In his sort of predicament declarations of sympathy and understanding from outsiders are apt to sound like pleas in mitigation. Instead of strengthening his case, my contributions could very well weaken it. I told him so.
He, however, did not agree.
“Supporting evidence, Mr. Prescott,” he said earnestly; “that’s what I need from you. Tell them what you know about Ghaled. Give it to them thick and strong. I can tell them what happened to me, but they have to understand what I was up against. They’ll believe you.”
“My opinion of a man like Ghaled formed in the course of a single interview isn’t evidence.”
“It will have the weight of evidence. I don’t expect you openly to side with me, Mr. Prescott—that would be asking too much—but don’t, I beg you, play into the hands of my enemies.”
Fruity and false; this was the Levanter speaking. I gave him a bleak look.
“I am not playing into anybody’s hands, Mr. Howell, least of all your enemies. I would have thought I had made that sufficiently clear.”
“To me, yes.” He held up a finger. “But what about the public and the news media? How can I vindicate myself, and the Agence Howell, when important independent witnesses, those who know the truth, choose to remain silent?”
“I wrote a three-thousand-word feature on the subject, Mr. Howell,” I reminded him. “I don’t call that remaining silent.”
“With respect, Mr. Prescott, your Green Circle article gave only a smattering of the truth.” He began wagging the raised finger at me. “If I am to be believed, I must tell it all. In that telling I need your help. I ask you to stand up with me and be counted.”
I paused before replying: “You may find yourself wishing that I had remained seated.”
“I am prepared to take that risk. What we have to do between us, Mr. Prescott, is to tell the whole truth. That is all, the whole truth.”
He made the telling of the whole truth sound very simple. He may even have believed that, in his case, it was.
For the record: at the time of which I am now writing I had neither met Mr. Howell nor even heard of his existence.
As a senior foreign correspondent working for the Post- Tribune syndicated news service, I am based in Paris. Two months prior to the Incident I had been assigned temporarily to the Middle-East to cover the visit of a U.S. Secretary of State making yet another attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The tour had ended in Beirut and it had been there that I had encountered Melanie Hammad.
My wife and I had met her originally in Paris at the apartment of mutual friends. Knowing her to be a freelance contributor to French and American fashion magazines, I had been surprised to find her sitting next to me at a Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference.
“A little off your usual beat, aren’t you?” I asked after we had exchanged greetings.
She raised her eyebrows. “This is my home. Didn’t you know that I was an Arab?”
“I knew that you were from the Lebanon.”
In Paris she had been an attractive young woman with sultry eyes who dressed well, spoke several languages and knew the high-fashion people. She had been helpful to my wife in the matter of getting special discounts on perfume, I remembered.
“Here,” she said firmly, “I am an Arab first and a Lebanese second.”
“Muslim or Christian?”
“My parents are Maronite Christian, so I suppose I am too.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “At present I am observing for the Palestinian Action Force.”
“I see.” I assumed that she was joking and added with a smile: “Unofficially, I take it.”
“I could scarcely do so officially.” She did not return the smile. “We could talk about it later if you wish.” Her fine eyes became intense. “I think you might be interested, Mr. Prescott.”
I hesitated. She seemed to be serious; but the only Palestinian Action Force I knew of was a splinter guerilla group led by a man named Salah Ghaled with a gangster reputation. It was difficult to think of the elegant Miss Hammad as in any way connected with him. Still, I was intrigued.
“All right,” I said. “I’m at the St Georges. If you’re free we might have lunch.”
The syndicate’s Middle East bureau has an office in Beirut. The man in charge is an Englishman named Frank Edwards who also acts as a stringer for one or two British newspapers. Before meeting Miss Hammad for lunch I made some inquiries.
Edwards laughed. “So, our Melanie’s picked on you, has she? I thought she was after the New York Times man.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s press agent for the Palestinian Action Force.”
“But my wife and I know her. She’s one of the Paris fashion girls.”
“In Paris she may be a fashion girl, but in this part of the world she’s a Palestinian activist. Ghaled recruited her when she was a student at the Sorbonne and he was still with El Fatah. Her old man’s rich, of course, or the police would be leaning on her. He owns that new office building you can see from the St Georges and a few more like it as well. She doesn’t have to work for a living, and, anyway, where Ghaled is concerned it’s love. We’ve got loads of stuff on them both. Do you want me to get it out?”
“I think I’ll see what sort of a pitch she makes first.”
“I can tell you that now. Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice. Moderation is another name for weakness. I’m told that she can be very persuasive. You get handed an expurgated version of the PAF manifesto and, to warm the cockles of your heart, a mimeographed copy of the ‘Thoughts of Salah Ghaled.’ ”
“She could have given me that in Paris.”
“There you weren’t writing about the Middle East.”
However, in one thing Edwards had been mistaken. Melanie Hammad had more to offer than pamphlets.
“You have,” she informed me, “a reputation for being truly objective and independent, of not accepting uncritically a consensus of opinion, even when it would be prudent to do so.”
“That’s very flattering, Miss Hammad, but I hope you’re not suggesting that I am in any way unique.”
“I am not so stupid. There are other Americans like you, of course. But they are not often here, and when they are, they have no time to listen. I know what is said about the Palestinian Action Force. It is said that they are criminals using the Palestinian cause for their own ends, that Salah Ghaled deserted El Fatah when they were under attack, that he is no fighter for freedom but a mere gangster. You may be inclined to believe these things. You will at least have taken note of them. But you may also question and wonder if this received view, this consensus may be wrong. Given the chance, I think that you would prefer to form your own opinion.”
“But since nobody has asked me to form an opinion about Mr. Ghaled and his Palestinian Action Force . . .” I left the rest of the sentence in the air.
“I am asking you.”
“Unfortunately you are not my New York editor.”
“You have wide discretion. Your wife told me so. I am speaking of an important personal interview by you, Lewis Prescott. It would be exclusive, of course.”
I thought for a moment.
“Where would this exclusive interview take place?”
“Here in Lebanon. In secret naturally. Great discretion would have to be observed.”
“When would it take place?”
“If you agree today, I think I can arrange it within twenty-four hours.”
“Does Mr. Ghaled speak English or French?”
“Not well. I would be the interpreter. You have only to say the word, Mr. Prescott.”
“I see. Well, I’ll let you know later today.”
Edwards whistled when I told him of the proposal. “So Ghaled wants to come out of the woodwork!”
“Has he been interviewed much before? Hammad mentioned that she had done pieces on him.”
“That was when he was an El Fatah man. Since he started the PAF caper he’s been underground most of the time. The Jordanians put a price on his head and the PLO people in Cairo tried to persuade the Syrians to crack down on him. The Syrians wouldn’t quite go along with them on that, but he’s had to keep his nose clean there and be careful. Though he’s based in Syria he never sends his goon squads into action on Syrian territory. He’s poison here, of course. He could use an improved image, a little respectability.”
“Frank, you’re not suggesting, I hope, that, to please pretty Miss Melanie Hammad, I’d do a clean-up job on him.”
Edwards held his hands up defensively. “No, Lew, but I am reminding you that a personal interview of the kind you do tends to become a profile of the institution with which the person interviewed is generally identified. If you were to do a job like that in this case you’d be giving Ghaled a lift, the sort of international identity that he doesn’t at present have.”
“If I were out to do a piece on the Palestinian guerilla movement, which I am not, would I choose Ghaled as representative of it?”
“Representative?” He looked blank for a moment, then shrugged. “There are ten separate Palestinian guerilla movements, more if you include groups like the PAF. You might do worse than choose Ghaled. He’s been in one or other of the movements since he was a boy.”
“Isn’t he a maverick, though, a far-out fanatic?”
“They’re all far-out fanatics. By hatred out of illusion, the lot of them. They have to be. They couldn’t have survived otherwise.”
“No moderates at all? What about Yassir Arafat?”
Excerpted from The Levanter by Eric Ambler. Copyright © 2012 by Eric Ambler. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.