A GREEK, A COMET AND A PARROT
In the 1960s I was running an airline handling agency at Benina, Benghazi’s airport in Cyrenaica. I had been posted there to replace an Englishman who, though excellent at his job, lacked the flexibility and diplomatic skills to operate in the volatile environment then prevailing in the province. He had been so incensed by a policeman’s tendency to offer gratuitous advice that he punched him and quickly found he had outstayed his welcome. Perhaps there was a connection. There had been some unrest caused by his original appointment which had led to the sacking of a young Greek who was thereafter vengeful and dangerous. My own appointment to replace the Englishman was said to have incensed the Greek even further. He had assumed that he would get the job for which he believed himself better qualified.
My main customer was East African Airways which operated a small fleet of de Havilland Comets between Nairobi and London. Benghazi was a convenient and cheap staging post with a hotel, the Berenice, in which the ‘slip crews’ were accommodated.
The East African aircraft staged through Benina during the night. The airport was usually sleepy at this time, except during Ramadan when people became nocturnal and generally sought an outlet for the frustrations caused by fasting in a difficult climate. That is why I was not surprised to be called on such a night to the airport where a troublesome incident was afoot.
I found that an East African aircraft had completed its refuelling, crew changes, cleaning and so on. The passengers had been returned to their seats and the engines were starting up when the Greek appeared, accompanied by his friend, a major in the Libyan Federal Police. The Greeks’ wife was said to be the glue which cemented this useful friendship. The Federal Police were very powerful indeed.
The major had peremptorily ordered the aircraft’s engines shut down and the passengers taken off so that he might inspect its ‘log book’ to see if it had ever been to Israel. There was no log book of course, a point which will not have escaped his Greek friend. When I reached the airport I found everyone in some distress, the Greek out of sight and the major sitting alone in the aircraft cockpit refusing to move. I joined him there, aware that his aim was to provoke me to do something which might allow him to deport me and create a job vacancy.
There is a technique for dealing with this sort of incident. It amounts to taking the problem seriously, behaving calmly and differentially and talking persistently and quietly until some way of solving it emerges. The solution was found when it became clear that the major wanted a parrot. We both assumed that East African Airways would send us one from Nairobi. There are, however, no wild parrots in East Africa; a fact which did not matter at the time since neither of us knew that.
Dawn began to threaten our tedious negotiations. With his Ramadan fast due to start the major traded my assurance that the aircraft had never been to Israel against the promise of a parrot and left the aircraft. He had demonstrated the Greek’s power over me sufficiently for his purposes. The passengers, deprived of sleep and somewhat bemused, were ‘reloaded’ and the aircraft allowed to depart. Sadly, I never found a parrot for the major. He may have been rewarded elsewhere.