‘So this guy from Texas has a motorcycle and we’re sitting there in Cairo hatching a plan to ride it to Lebanon,” says Jamie Furniss.
The tale sounds like the opening sentence in a spy novel.
But it is coming from the lips of a skinny 23-year-old guy with curly red hair and glasses, who’s fresh out of university.
Furniss was born and raised in the Yukon.
But, as he talks in Whitehorse, he weaves incredible stories of Hezbollah fighters, Israeli bombs, minefields at the Jordan-Syrian border and dead babies held up before cameras in Beirut.
“I seem to have this attraction to calamities,” Furniss says humbly, recalling his summer in Lebanon as an impromptu war correspondent, and of his work in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
“At some point it gets to you, seeing dead corpses and crying children,” Furniss says.
Well at least his summer started rather average.
Furniss, who just graduated with a bachelor of laws from the University of Ottawa, had just finished up articling at the Supreme Court in June.
Literally a day after that work ended, he traveled to the American University in Cairo, Egypt, on a scholarship from the Yukon Rotary Club.
In Cairo he was surrounded by “a lot of future spy types — guys who say, ‘I’m working for the government in Washington’ and things like that,” he says.
He met a Texan with an adventurous streak, Jonathan, who had ridden his motorcycle through the Yukon to Alaska, and then all the way to Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.
“We just sort of hit it off,” Furniss says.
And then Israel started bombing Lebanon.
Furniss had come to the Middle East to study, but also with hopes to visit his former roommate from boarding school, now living outside Beirut.
When Israel began bombing, that visit took on a new dimension.
His friend was documenting the war on his blog, www.bloggingBeirut.com, and the site was receiving attention from readers and from the New York Times, CNN, BBC and SkyNews, says Furniss.
“When the war started, this thing took on a whole new direction,” he says.
“It became an independent news source and a war journal.”
The two decided they would document the war together.
“I said, ‘Why don’t I come up in spite of it all and help with the blog and be a witness to what’s happening?’”
Enter the motorcycle.
Jonathan not only happened to be a photographer interested in going to Lebanon, he had also shipped his trusty motorcycle to Cairo.
“We said to each other, ‘We’ve got this motorcycle and it’s a great vehicle to drive on roads with craters in them,” Furniss recalls of the decision to head to Lebanon.
“It still had its Texas licence plates on it.”
The two headed north through Egypt’s Sinai desert, then into Jordan, Syria, and finally entered Lebanon on August 4th.
His friend was based in Brumanna, a town high in the mountains that frame Beirut, which sits on the coast of the Mediterranean.
The predominantly Christian town was not being bombed.
While his friend remained by the computer, Furniss and Jonathan set out to see war firsthand.
And on the first day they found it.
The two found themselves peering down a Beirut road that was destroyed by bombing.
As they considered whether to move in closer, Jonathan started taking pictures.
That attracted the attention of nearby Hezbollah fighters, who swooped in on scooters and began asking questions.
They demanded press identification: Neither man had any.
“I said, we don’t have any. I was really nervous. I kept thinking about Iraq and all of the kidnappings there,” Furniss says.
Then fate struck.
A man in a Mercedes suddenly hit one of the men in the group.
The driver fled the scene, diverting attention away from Furniss and Jonathan.
And then fate struck again.
“A bomb dropped right on the street we were looking down,” Furniss says.
Buildings around him vibrated, the glass in them pulsating with the waves of the explosion from the Israeli bomb, he recalls.
In the terror, Furniss met eyes with one of the Hezbollah fighters.
The worry about press credentials was replaced with a mutual fear.
“We just kind of understood each other,” he says. “We wanted to live.”
“I ran with them to the middle of the street, away from the buildings. They know what it’s like to be under fire and I trusted their instincts.”
After the bomb exploded, the Hezbollah fighters quickly left leaving Furniss and Jonathan to reconcile with what had just happened.
“And that was our first day,” he says.
Press credentials were never a problem afterwards —Furniss carried a letter from Yukon News editor Richard Mostyn saying he was writing about the war for the paper.
“They didn’t know the difference,” he says. “Unless you’re with the BBC, they’ve never heard of you.”
Hezbollah members were using scooters to get around during the war and were being targeted by Israel as a result.
While riding around on Jonathan’s motorcycle, Furniss feared they too would be in the Israeli crosshairs.
“The motorcycle was cool, but I was a little bit freaked out,” he says. “I was a little bit less eager to do things than Jonathan was.”
While Jonathan pressed on getting photographs, Furniss visited schools, which had become makeshift shelters for displaced people.
He helped out in any way he could.
“I’d kick a soccer ball around with the kids and chat with them,” he says.
He and Jonathan ventured into Beirut on several occasions, and also into the heavily bombed southern Lebanese towns of Tyre and Sidon.
As a journalist reporting on the war, Furniss was confronted with the moral quandaries of its aftermath.
Hezbollah fighters would allow some things to be photographed and not others.
“They were loving it if you take pictures of young people killed or destroyed buildings, but taking a picture of a guy with a Kalishnikov was different,” he says.
One day he happened upon a pile of rubble where dead bodies were being removed.
As Furniss watched, a dead man and a woman were pulled out, covered in shrouds and taken away.
But the dead body of a young boy was removed and held up, his mangled head pulled back for photographers to take pictures of.
“It was a disgusting spectacle,” Furniss says.
“I thought they were using these shrouds as a gesture of respect for the bodies, but I realized when they held up the boy, having covered up the other two, what their purpose was.”
Despite it all, the Hezbollah members were always “courteous and very polite,” he says.
Furniss was born and raised in Whitehorse, and recently graduated from the University of Ottawa.
He is now a Rhodes Scholar, set to begin a masters degree in international development studies at Oxford University in October.
Furniss also studied French in France for six months in his early teens and was a page in the House of Commons.
He is quickly achieving more than many of us can dream of.
But war still presents a moral dilemma he finds impossible to comprehend.
“I know more about it now, but I can’t say I understand it more,” he says.
“I don’t have praise of Hezbollah trying to manipulate the media,” he says, alluding to the dead boy held up for cameras to see.
“But I also realized that the country’s entire economy was destroyed.”
“The ‘terrorists’ I met were basically normal people who wanted to go about their lives,” Furniss says.
“They were poor until this leader named Nasrallah (now head of Hezbollah) came with cash, built schools and told them he’d kick Israel off their land.
“And they said, ‘Sounds good to me.’”