After awhile, they began referring to him as "L'enfant." The young one. The little boy. "L'enfant called 20 times today," they'd say. "That was L'enfant on the phone."
It was a way to maintain sanity, a weird sense of levity, in the midst of an insane situation. Even today, almost a decade after the thousands of phone calls began, no one at the Marrakesh Restaurant knows who L'enfant is. All they know is nearly every day since 1983, someone--and perhaps more than one person--has called this popular Moroccan spot and harassed its employees.
L'enfant demands money. He threatens people with death, screams obscenities and babbles in pornographic terms. In the mid- to late-'80s, when the calls were at their height, they took an especially bizarre turn. L'enfant would call, imitating a range of voices: a young girl, a small black child, adults with Middle Eastern accents. Sometimes the callers would carry on crude conversations or begin abusing whomever answered.
Employees came and went, terrorized by the atmosphere the harassment created. One even checked into a hospital for a month for nervous tension.
But no one suffered like Bashir Kouchacji (coo-SHOCK-gee), the Armenian-Catholic then-manager of the Marrakesh. The harassment triggered a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, an unwanted reminder of the days in 1974 when he had been kidnaped and tortured in Lebanon by the PLO.
Were the calls an offshoot of this experience? A warning? Kouchacji became convinced they were, that someone was out to get him.
Certainly there was a pattern of personal intimidation: Kouchacji's pregnant lover at the time was threatened with death. Kouchacji's Mercedes was found with Stars of David scratched on it. He would visit the Marrakesh's sister restaurant in Philadelphia; the calls would follow him. As soon as he walked into the D.C. Marrakesh, the phone would ring.
Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and the FBI put a trace on the line for more than two years. They could not identify the caller except to say that a large number of pay phones in the Washington metropolitan area were involved--an indication there was some sort of organized plot.
Kouchacji became edgy, suspicious. He barely slept, and often had nightmares. He lost his appetite and developed psychosomatic disorders. In 1987, he checked into the psychiatric ward of Sibley Memorial Hospital here.
He has been there, on and off, ever since.
Kouchacji's story is so bizarre, it would be easy to dismiss him. Easy, that is, except that many key points have been corroborated by his doctors and lawyers, friends and relatives, State Department documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and by the FBI, which in a rare move, looked into, but has since closed his case.
"At some point you have to make a judgment call," says Frank Scafidi, an FBI spokesman. "Is it worth the money to continue the investigation because you have more a harassing situation than a threatening one?"
According to an agreement made with the phone company, the restaurant maintained records of the harassing calls. They are chilling in their frequency. On July 14, 1987, for example, calls came in at 9:53 a.m. (twice), 9:54 a.m. (twice), 11:23 a.m., 11:24 a.m., 11:32 a.m., 1:19 p.m., 1:32 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:12 p.m., 4:12 p.m. (twice), 4:13 p.m., 4:16 p.m., 4:58 p.m. and 9:25 p.m.
Bashir Kouchacji sits in his cubbyhole of a room in a locked ward at Sibley that has become his home away from home. Classical music plays softly on a radio while Kouchacji--short, slim, curly-haired--looks through two large folders of legal documents and letters.
Kouchacji, 47, is an outgoing, cultured man--he speaks five languages. He exhibits occasional signs of melancholy. He can launch into an extended discourse on his case that smacks of obsessive behavior and paranoid fantasy. But he is no wild-eyed lunatic. Kouchacji, who once was known for his sense of humor and schmoozy friendliness that comes with successfully managing a popular eatery--is simply afraid; afraid that whoever is making the calls wants to drive him crazy, even kill him.
"He has been fearful to be outside of a protective environment, and has attached himself to Sibley as a place he trusts," says Dr. John Wiley, Kouchacji's psychiatrist, who spoke with permission from his patient. "He does go outside, but it's the idea of being able to come back--he sleeps there and spends a lot of time there. It's like a safe haven."
The story begins in the Middle East. Kouchacji was born in Syria and raised in Lebanon. In the early '70s, he was working as an entertainment writer for a French-language weekly in Beirut when he married an American singer.
After moving to the United States, where he became a citizen, Kouchacji worked as a sommelier for Disney World and several New York area restaurants.
On the evening of June 30, 1974, Kouchacji and his wife were in Beirut, where she had been booked for an extended engagement. She had been invited to a women-only party thrown by a Saudi princess, and Kouchacji had agreed to pick her up at 11:30. But the time came and went, and she didn't appear. After waiting until 1 a.m., Kouchacji decided he had the wrong address, and left.
According to Kouchacji, this is what happened next:
Turning the corner, he found his way blocked by a small vehicle. Four men with machine guns jumped out. They dragged him out of his Mercedes, bound him, threw him into their auto and drove away.
Fifteen minutes later, Kouchacji found himself inside a Palestinian refugee camp. He was actually relieved. He had feared that his kidnapers were robbers. But now they would learn that he was a non-political person--and neither Arab nor Jew--and would quickly clear up a case of mistaken identity.
His captors had other ideas. They asked his identity but refused to accept his explanations and he was thrown into a windowless basement with only one light and a blanket on the floor. Over the next five days, he was interrogated every two hours, beaten severely and threatened by an endless series of men and young boys waving automatic weapons in his face.
Convinced he was going to die, Kouchacji attempted suicide by taking a small plastic bowl and scratching his wrist with it. Tearing away at the cut with his teeth, he opened a large wound.
His captors found him lying in a pool of blood. They rushed him to a hospital, where a doctor patched him up. While in the hospital, Kouchacji managed to contact his mother through a sympathetic orderly. She alerted the American embassy that, along with the Lebanese government, interceded on his behalf and obtained his release.
State Department documents that Kouchacji has obtained under the FOIA indicate he was kidnaped by a rogue faction of the PLO which mistakenly believed he was a CIA agent--a foreigner driving a Mercedes with Belgian plates in a neighborhood where he didn't belong.
It was, as Kouchacji knew all along, a mistake. But it changed his life, both "psychologically and maybe even physiologically," says Wiley, his psychiatrist. Kouchacji became convinced he had to clear his name: "You know, kidnaped in Lebanon by the PLO, which leaves the immediate impression that I am an Israeli agent," he says.
Kouchacji began feeling paranoid and guilty because he thought other people believed he had done something wrong. He knew there were factions within factions in the Middle Eastern maelstrom, that betrayal and distrust were the norm. He became convinced that people thought he was an agent of some sort--the Mossad (the Israeli secret police), the CIA, who knew? He even questioned if his wife had any part in this. When he asked where she was that evening, her answers were vague, he says. (He will not give his former wife's name and does not know where she is living.)
Looking back, Kouchacji believes if he had received psychological counseling immediately after his kidnaping, he might have been able to deal better with the trauma.
"That would have taken the guilt and fear off," he says, "because when they (fester) a long time, every action that comes later--from an innocent guy who says hello in the street, to a phone call that is a hang-up, or from anybody or anything who looks Arab and wants to talk to you--it's a threat. It's somebody who wants to hurt you."
Kouchacji stayed in Lebanon for a few months, hoping his continued presence would convince people he was not a political threat. Then he moved to Los Angeles in 1974, where he became the manager of the Dar Maghreb Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Still he was fearful. He suffered from extreme mood swings and bursts of paranoia.
He eventually moved to Atlantic City, where he managed a restaurant. Then he and his sister, Viviane, opened the first Marrakesh Restaurant in Philadelphia in 1977.
The years in Philadelphia were good--the restaurant was a hit. More importantly, the city had a relatively small Middle Eastern population, which offered a kind of therapy for him. He could ignore the past and just work.
But redemption was always in the back of his mind. In the early 1980s, he and Viviane decided to open the Marrakesh in northwest D.C. They saw Washington as a sophisticated step up, and, says Kouchacji, "I thought maybe by managing an Arabic restaurant, in a city with all those Arab diplomats, I will clear myself with the Arabic community."
Then the calls began.
A phone was installed in the D.C. Marrakesh during construction, and when Kouchacji came down from Philadelphia to supervise the work, the phone would ring and there would be no answer at the other end. When he decided to hook up an answering machine, he found messages consisting of weird laughter and tsk, tsk sounds.
With the opening of the restaurant, the calling escalated. L'enfant became a fixture. Employees were threatened. Kouchacji's longtime lover was terrified.
And slowly but surely, Kouchacji began to change. Edginess replaced the cordiality that had been his trademark. Nightmares about beatings and torture overwhelmed sleep.
"The most significant change to me," says Kouchacji's former lover, who prefers to remain anonymous, "is that I became aware that no one was above suspicion to him. That was very unnerving to me. He was very angry. He never got physical with anyone, but he would erupt in rage." (She and Kouchacji broke up in 1987 after five years.)
That rage, and the debilitating nature of an estimated 7,000 abusive phone calls over a three- to four-year period, drove him to seek psychiatric help.
Kouchacji has been in Sibley Hospital since 1987. He has been discharged on several occasions, but two or three weeks outside his haven are enough time for the nightmares, the sleeplessness and the paranoia to return. He has had some success with treatments at the Swiss clinic where he has been hospitalized several times.
Kouchacji has also been through a seemingly endless series of legal confrontations. He has hired several lawyers to intercede on his behalf with the FBI and the phone company. Three are working on various aspects of the case, including attempts to obtain FOIA data.
An FBI spokesman confirms that when the agency was called in, the phone company did have a trace on the line, starting in early 1987. The FBI, which started its own trace in May, 1988, has never been able to identify the caller.
The phone company will not comment on the case, but said that out of 13,700 complaints in 1991 for harassing calls, traps or traces were put on 6,750 lines in the sprawling Washington metropolitan area, lasting one to two weeks. They say it is rare that the FBI is called in--and only then it is at the request of the customer.
In the meantime, Kouchacji has won a $436,000 workers compensation judgment from his insurer, because the nature of his job--which involved a lot of phone time--was the primary cause of his illness.
Kouchacji has decided to fight back in a highly visible way, both against L'enfant and to repair his reputation. Beginning in January, he and the restaurant have placed a series of ads in the Sunday opinion sections of the Washington Post and Washington Times. Most of the ads feature a large "USA!" headline, with copy leaning toward exhortative political homilies on the order of "only the United States can ensure that the new world order will be truly responsive to the rights and needs of the oppressed."
Kouchacji sees the ads, which cost about $13,000 each in the Post, as "therapeutic," but says they also fulfill a specific agenda: "The only way I can go back to work is if I leave behind a trail of notoriety, it puts everybody on the spot if something happens . . . I'm telling the terrorists, listen, Bashir is an important person in Washington, he's known."
And the phone calls? Kouchacji thinks he might have seen some faces during those days in Lebanon he wasn't meant to see. The calls and harassment might be a warning he should keep quiet.
Relatives and employees tend to agree the kidnaping is at the bottom of the harassment.
"What else would it be?" says Nina Frangieh, a niece who runs the Philadelphia Marrakesh. "Why else would it be happening?"
Nine years after L'enfant first called the Marrakesh, the restaurants' business has been affected because of abnormally high employee turnover. The calls aren't as frequent--three days can go by without a buzz--but L'enfant hasn't forgotten his friends.
"This L'enfant should have grown up by now," says a long-time employee of the restaurant, "but it's the same voice."