The task seemed impossible. For the fifth time, I read the letter again. It was from a British NI reader who had been following my ‘letters from Lebanon’. His name was William Birch and he was asking me to trace the whereabouts of a little girl he once knew when he had been stationed with the British Navy in northern Lebanon in 1942.
Included with the letter were three pictures. Two of them of the girl as a child and another as a teenager. The girl’s name was Attidel Fallah and she lived with her family in the northern coastal city of Tripoli.
‘The mother used to do the washing at the naval base for the men and so earned a little towards the upkeep of her family,’ the letter said. ‘I never knew the father. They had five children.’
Ten-year-old Attidel was the favourite among the staff and officers. Although she had no schooling ‘she was very bright, cheerful and intelligent,’ Birch continued. ‘In our spare moments, my friend and I (teachers before the Second World War) taught her English and how to write it. She picked it up very quickly. She was an excellent pupil, easy to teach.’
After his return to Britain, Birch continued to correspond with the girl and that’s when she sent him her photograph as a teenager. But the two soon lost touch.
And now, almost 60 years later, Birch wanted to locate her. ‘She was a delightful girl,’ he wrote. ‘I’ll never forget her.’
I assumed that Birch was about 80 and Attidel probably 70. And after a 16-year civil war which created hundreds of thousands of refugees, finding Attidel seemed impossible.
But there was a genuine plea in Birch’s letter which I couldn’t ignore. And so, armed with the three black-and-white photographs, I set off for Tripoli. The first task was to find where the British sailors were stationed in the 1940s. Several elderly men pointed to what looked to be a run-down old building. A closer look, however, revealed a majestic two-storey sandstone structure set in a semicircle. It was a khan – an inn – where hundreds of years ago, travellers used to lodge their horses and shelter in the rooms above. An old, beautifully carved wooden door, filthy and almost off its hinges, opened into it. I doubted I would find a clue to Attidel’s whereabouts but I went in anyway.
The khan was littered with debris and filth. A walk through it revealed that more than a hundred poverty-stricken families were living in its crowded rooms. Not surprisingly, they knew nothing of the naval base. All were squatters who had taken over the rooms during the civil war. And even if they did, who was going to remember a little girl from 1942?
I wandered aimlessly around the town and stopped every elderly person I saw in the streets. They looked at the pictures politely and shook their heads. By this time, word of my search had spread quickly through the town and I had a small curious crowd following me around.
Hours passed and I wasn’t any closer to finding who or where Attidel Fallah was. As I was about to give up, I came across a pharmacy. On its door a sign said Fallah Pharmacy.
It was the last chance. No sooner had I shown the pictures to the pharmacist than she declared: ‘That’s my aunt Attidel.’
She listened to my story and read Birch’s letter with great interest. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘Aunt Attidel is married but lives in Jordan.’
And then quite suddenly she became quiet. My questions about the name of Attidel’s husband and a contact number in Jordan went unanswered.
‘I don’t know,’ she repeated stubbornly.
Annoyed, I tried to contact the rest of the family. But the answer was the same. ‘We don’t know.’
A call to the Lebanese Embassy in Jordan went nowhere. Yes, they said, they have a file on an Attidel Fallah, but the file is empty. ‘We don’t know the husband’s name so we can’t trace him,’ they said.
Weeks would pass before I found out the reason. I had stumbled on a very traditional family who were shocked that a man was asking after a woman – albeit a 70-year-old woman. Attidel would not be told about our quest.
With great regret, I had to inform William Birch that Attidel was alive but unreachable.
A year has passed since then and I still wonder about Attidel. She never knew that her childhood friend and teacher was asking about her. Sadly, being a woman in a traditional society had denied her the right to renew an old friendship.