COPYRIGHT 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Byline: O.K. Carter
Jul. 27--Charles Peeler's 10-day adventure in rescuing his fiancee from Lebanon has convinced him that an old saying -- all politics is local -- is absolutely true. The 43-year-old former Arlington planning and zoning and parks board member and one-time City Council candidate -- Lana Wolff prevailed in the 2003 matchup -- had previously been a resolute bachelor. That resolution slipped and then disappeared when he met Sonitta Dawood a year ago. She's a 35-year-old multilingual (Swedish, English and Arabic) computer engineer working for Deutsche Bank on Wall Street. She's also a Swedish citizen. Peeler lives in Arlington, but since his relationship with Dawood blossomed, he's essentially been a 50-50 commuter, working on his insurance business half the time in Arlington, half in Manhattan. "Fortunately, a lot of my business can be handled either over the Internet or by the phone, and I try to schedule my other appointments for the time I'm in Arlington," Peeler said. When Peeler penciled himself in to attend an insurance workshop for a few days, Dawood decided that it was a good time to visit her parents in Gothenburg, Sweden, and to drop in on an old girlfriend in the Beirut suburb of Jounieh, Lebanon.
She was in Lebanon a single day when Israeli aircraft began bombing suspected Hezbollah strongholds. As the strikes moved north, Dawood could hear the blasts. "When she first called and said 'They're bombing here,' I thought the solution was simple enough," Peeler said. "Catch a plane and fly out." But the runway had been cratered and Lebanon had become what amounted to a civilian no-fly zone. "No problem, I told her. We'll catch a boat," Peeler said. "But Israel had also established a blockade and only a limited number of ships were allowed in." Dawood also narrowly missed catching a bus headed for Syria. And so began Peeler's double life. He soon discovered that night here was day there, which meant that if he was to extricate his fiancee, he'd have to hammer the phone lines during evenings.
"I think maybe for a week or better, I averaged at best a couple of hours' sleep a day," he said. Peeler is not well-traveled. He speaks only English, has no passport and has never been out of the U.S. except for an occasional Caribbean vacation. But he's also a relentless salesman. He began a barrage of calls and e-mails to consulates, embassies and anybody else remotely connected to events in Lebanon. Maybe a couple of hundred international calls. Another couple of hundred e-mails.
Oddly, Peeler was one of the first Arlington politicos to make extensive use of a sophisticated, computer-driven, multiline phone-campaigning system that featured canned messages. It was a skill that proved useless in a situation where only one-on-one communication would work. "I haven't received my phone bill yet, but when it comes I suspect it's going to be fearsome," he said. "Most of the people I talked to were polite but less than helpful. Others were outright jerks." Swedish officials initially dismissed his calls for assistance, claiming that Jounieh was safe, and, besides, the government was only giving precedence to Priority 1 citizens, those whose lives might be at risk because of health problems, for example. That "health problems" consideration rang a bell with Peeler because Dawood had resolved a heart circulation problem two years earlier with a procedure involving a stent, a device that helps maintain blood flow through an artery or vein. Trouble was, none of the people in a position to do anything about getting Dawood out of Lebanon bought it. "I went to plan 10, maybe plan 20, I don't know," Peeler said. "I'm something of a politician, and so I knew if I could get media attention that maybe I could persuade the Swedish government to upgrade her to Priority 1." Mostly the media ignored Peeler as well, but then he came across a Swedish paper called The Local, which prints Swedish news in English. One of the reporters was looking to localize the Lebanon situation, and Peeler was able to get the reporter and his fiancee connected for a phone conversation. "We're hearing distant explosions constantly," Dawood was quoted as saying. "And there are two huge military ships off the coast. We've been watching them coming closer and then moving back again. I know it's a difficult situation, but it feels like every other country is talking about doing something except Sweden." The article -- which also noted that Dawood had a heart problem -- was picked up by other Swedish newspapers. Best of all, The Local reporter gave Peeler the phone number of the Swedish director of foreign services.
Peeler forwarded the articles to the director and began making phone calls. Dawood's status was upgraded to Priority 1 nine days after the bombing began, and she was given permission to board a rescue ship. Even that almost didn't work out because a contingent of armed men showed up to disrupt loading at the last minute. That problem was resolved, Dawood said, when some of the men -- apparently Swedish citizens of Lebanese origin -- were allowed to board the ship. From there it was on to Cyprus, then a long flight back to the U.S.
The wedding is planned for January. The future Peeler family plans to live in Arlington full time. A honeymoon to Lebanon -- or for that matter anywhere out of the country -- is definitely not in the game plan. ------------ O.K. Carter's column appears Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Carter also co-hosts P3: People, Politics and Possibilities at 9:30 nightly on Comcast cable Channel 16. 817-548-5428, email@example.com
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