All I know about Lebanon I picked up from watching the news. So, as David Foster Wallace would say, What I know about Lebanon “…could be written on the rim of a shot glass with a blunt crayon.” I know there was a long and terrible Civil War in my lifetime, and I watched the news in horror when the general strike last week lead to fighting and loss of life. I wasn’t just horrified because I had non-refundable tickets, but because it seems to me that they are headed for another long and awful Civil War. But I really don’t know, and I decided I should go and see this country for myself while there is a brief pause in the conflict.
A lady lent me her Beirut map and a 2001 edition of the Lonely Planet to take with me. Here is a quote from the LP under the Dangers & Annoyances section: "Currently, the main danger to visitors wandering through the Lebanese countryside are land mines and unexploded ordnance." The guide went on to explain that Lebanon is remarkably safe for a country that endured so much violence in the past. Oh, how quickly things can change. So rather than make too many predictions, let me just tell you what I saw and you can decide. Better yet, you can tell me what you think will happen.
I flew from Amman to Beirut early in the morning. As soon as we took off I could see snow-covered mountains off in the distance. After about 30 minutes we turned left and flew over them. It reminded me a lot of Southern California. Warm beaches are an hour drive from skiing. We headed south and flew over the water into the airport I saw on TV this summer. As we skirted Beirut I could see a lot of new construction. From the sky and from the ground Beirut is a beautiful city. On the plane was me, a woman from Miami, and a Lebanese soccer team. When I got off the plane I exchanged some dinars for the Lebanese currency: the US dollar. I saw a sign instructing me to purchase my visa from the same man, and he asked me where I’m from. I told him, and he said, “No, just go ahead.” At the same time my three friends from Denmark were coming to Lebanon by bus via Damascus, and I was curious if they would have to pay for a visa or not. So I just got a little boring stamp in my passport. Maybe free visas will encourage tourism?
Perhaps this is a sign of what my days are like, but I didn’t feel nervous about going alone to Beirut except for one thing. I read in the LP that the taxis don’t have meters, and I was nervous about arguing with these guys the way we did in Egypt. I didn’t want that to be my Welcome to Beirut. I walked outside and three men approached me. I told them where I wanted to go and they each said 35$. I said 10$, and they all said Ok. There was no argument. They seemed so broken. Two men went with me, one the driver and the other an English speaker. I chatted with the English speaker very briefly, and then he said to the driver that I’m Australian. They spent the drive talking about how much they dislike Americans and Israelis. In Jordan I’m used to hearing the “we like Americans, we just dislike your government” speech. I think they are too tired for the lip service in Lebanon right now. Fair enough. The two were really helpful. I expected the taxi service to be Ammani-style (i.e. I can’t find your hotel, but get out anyway and tip well), but they found the hotel and the English-speaker walked me to the elevator and wished me a good stay.
I went up to the hotel and an old woman was behind the desk. She spoke no English or French, and she patiently put up with my Arabic. She showed me two rooms and I asked her how much they would cost. She stepped forward and clasped my face and kissed my cheeks and thanked me for learning some Arabic. If what I was mangling counts as Arabic, I’m flattered. I took a nap.
I woke up to my phone. S sent me a message telling me that they were not leaving Damascus until 1 in the afternoon. I wasn’t going to sit in a dingy hotel, so I went outside. Our hotel was a few blocks from the water, so I walked that way. I saw several buildings that were near-rubble. They were pock-marked by ordinance and one was caving in on itself. The area was cordoned off, and this was the first time I saw the heavy military presence in Beirut. There were tanks at most major intersections between where we stayed and downtown. There were pairs of soldiers with big-ass rifles on every corner. There was razor wire and there were Jersey fences all over the place making traveling by foot somewhat difficult. I don’t know how to put into perspective what I saw. There was a Hard Rock Café down the block from a strip of blown up buildings, all of which was surrounded by tanks and Lebanese soldiers.
The three Danes arrived at around 6 in the evening and we started walking in search of food. We walked away from the water, and walked, and walked, but every thing is closed. Eventually we found a man standing on the corner smoking and we asked him where we could eat. He sent us south (?) toward a place where he said we’d find American food. Bluck. We found a shopping center of some sort, but ruled that out. As we stood looking at the LP for a suggestion and woman and her daughter asked us if we needed help. We told them we wanted good food, and not American fast food. She told us to get into her Mercedes and she would take us to a good Italian place. We talked along the way. She is Syrian, married to a Lebanese man. Her and her daughter speak Arabic, French and English. She and her daughter were kind, and when we got out of her car and said good-bye the Danes remarked that kindness like that would never be found in their country. I told them that this kind of hospitality is de rigueur in the States, and we all laughed. In this neighborhood I realized for the first time that I was back in the States. Everyone was drinking beer, people were dressed like Americans, and everyone was speaking English. Weird.
After dinner we decided to head to a place in downtown that allegedly had many pubs. I finally understand the expression “drunk as a Dane;” those boys can drink. S flagged a taxi down and did a terrible job negotiating a rate to go a few kilometers. We passed the tent city for the first time and the driver directed our attention to the spectacle. He said, “See this? Siniora is a bad man. They are there for change because we love Lebanon. Everything is for Lebanon.” I was surprised at the candor. I’m guessing that Lebanon doesn’t have the speech restrictions that Jordan has because many people told me that Siniora should go, but I just can’t imagine anyone in Jordan telling a stranger that the King is bad. Our pub crawl began on a street that would run into where the tents are if it were not shut down. Amid tanks and soldiers we walked up and down a street that could have been in Paris. In fact, several times over the last 4 days I forgot where I was and thought I was in Paris. I was only reminded of being in Beirut when I walked out to cross a street and suddenly faced Middle East traffic. The buildings in this area are part of a large redevelopment project undertaken after the Civil War (I was told). They are largely faithful reproductions of the shot-out buildings that stood there before. In the airport last night I looked at photographs lining the walls in the terminal. Someone had a good idea with this. The photos are the kind that shift images depending on where the viewer is standing. So, as passengers walk along they see a Before and an After both taken from the same spot. One of the photographs was even of the airport runway. The shops and apartments in this district are beautiful, and the woodwork is Art Noveau. There are cafés on the cobble stone streets just like those in Paris. We went into a restaurant and ordered beers and nargilas. There was live music, and the waiters were friendly and amused at our attempts to speak Arabic. About 5 minutes after we ordered our second round of drinks the music stopped, and the waiters descended on us. They whisked away our nargilas and told us it was time to go. Yella, now! I don’t know if this is how last call works in Beirut, or if there was still a curfew there. We were turned out onto the street, and it was abandoned but for the military. None of us was ready to head back to the hotel, and besides we really didn’t know where it was. We stood just off of the street thinking it would buy us some time to plan before the soldiers told us to move on. We were spotted and told to walk. We walked slowly and S spotted a small bar that had the roll-down shutter mostly closed. We pushed it up a bit and asked if we could come in. A man at the door asked us where we were from and S told him that we’re from Denmark. The man yelled “Shabab Denmarke” at the bar tender who then gave us the nod. We were in, and the shutter was put back down so the bar looked closed from the outside. This was my first time drinking at a Speakeasy! We drank beer and chatted with the bar tender who asked me if I could get him a visa. We walked back at about 2 am. The city was abandoned except for the military and their tanks. We were a little lost, but eventually we found the hotel. I learned later that the road we walked on between the bars and our hotel is the Green Line.
Friday was our first full day in Beirut. After filling up on aspirin, falafel sandwiches and espresso we headed for downtown. As we’d learned wandering around the previous evening, the upscale bars and diamond shops give way to the tent city that had occupied Beirut for 62 days at the time of our first visit. One thing that has clearly been impacted by the protesters is the expensive commerce that once took place there but is now completely dried up. We passed through a Jersey fence and a Lebanese soldier searched our bags. F is an aspiring reporter and he had audio recording equipment that gave them pause. Eventually and with surprisingly little fuss we were behind the razor wire and concrete barriers. Of course, what I failed to understand at that time was that we’d only made it past the Lebanese military who seem to be there only to contain the protests.
When we emerged from the shops into an open space crammed with tents and posters I felt overwhelmed. Have you seen images of the tents on TV? I walked though there. I felt a wave of emotion, but I’m not sure what it was. As an anarchist, I was thrilled to see a revolution taking place, and to walk thorough and share the sentiment of hope that is palpable there. As a human, I was sad to see so much struggle. Photographs were strictly banned, so you have to rely on my memory. I saw a billboard-sized poster of a sneering Condoleezza Rice. I couldn’t read the writing on the poster, it was too small, but I think the image says what it needed to. I saw many images of the Israeli flag merging into the US flag. An old standard. I saw many flags from all the parties there. The first part we walked through seemed to have been populated mostly by Hezbollah guys. I saw mostly men, and they were young, maybe 20 years old on average. They have tents and nargilas, some even have TV. They have posters of Che Guevara, and posters of a stupid-looking Bush. They have Hezbollah key chains, t-shirts, posters featuring Nasrallah, Hugo Chavez, and another person I didn’t recognize. They sell cigarette lighters that have tiny flashlights built in that project godly images of Nasrallah. I saw yurts filled with furniture. I saw young people doing dishes at a communal water distribution area. I saw people sharing coffee, and I saw two men fight over a remote control. I’ve never seen such urgent camping before. By this time we’d attracted the attention of someone who approached us and informed us that we had accidentally walked into a restricted area. You don’t say! The man asked us what we were doing and S told him that F is a reporter. The man told us that to stay we would need to “purchase a press pass.” We paid the bribe and walked on.
We headed to the Hezbollah information booth. I’m not kidding. There were 4 young men there who indulged us in questions and sold cigarette lighters to the Danes. I was happy just to listen to F interview them. He asked them what they wanted. They told us that they wanted 5 more seats in parliament which would give them a majority. They said that this would be “more fair for Lebanon” because it is the will of the people. They said that if an election were held right now Siniora would be out in a minute. They said that Hezbollah has the best interests for all Lebanese, and that as a political movement they are rather secular. (Pause for my disbelief.) If they have their demands met, then what? I heard answers like, “Lebanon will have a better future,” and “Things are not good right now, so we need a change,” and “It’s very difficult and there is a lot of work to do.” Does this sound familiar to you? I was taken back to the empty rhetoric of the US Ambassador to Jordan who said things like, “The Middle East is at a crossroads and blah, blah, blah.” Again, I have to reiterate that I really don’t know anything about this conflict, but I left that day under the impression that they are there to seize power, and then they will take it from there. No one was able to tell us what Lebanon under Hezbollah will be like. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t know. Two of the Danes and I left F to speak with the Communist Part fellows. There are impromptu cafes set up along the outskirts of the tent city. The three of us had espressos from a little cart that sold coffee, water, and Hezbollah merchandise. We sat and sipped coffee while we overlooked the tents. One Dane remarked that the experience of walking though there was colonial. An interesting observation; it was rather like we came to observe the natives in their tents and to catch any exotic ritual we might be lucky enough to see. The majority of the tents are down in a flat open space that is surrounded by buildings and a road that travels over the space. Thus, they are at a low part and are easily viewed from up high which I think heightens (no pun intended) the colonial experience.
The three of us decided to go see Hamra, a ritzy neighborhood near our hotel. We found a restaurant called Barbar. Very good food. They have the standard variety of Arabic food, and a big selection of fresh juices. They have different concotions of juice and ice creams each evidently named after important social figures. One Dane orderd the Hitler, I ordered the Noriega, but S just asked for orange juice. Boring! The Hitler, you might be interested to know, is made of pineapple, strawberries, flavored whiped cream, and two cookies. Resistance through ice cream! The food kicks ass, though, and we ate there many times over the next few days.
Being in Hamra made me feel underdressed. Everyone is beautiful. It’s also expensive. Sucktastic beer ranges between 6 and 10 dollars, and even a falafel sandwich is 2 dollars. ATMs dispense your choice of Lebanese Lira or US dollars. Everyone takes both. At a bookstore near downtown S asked the woman why US dollars are so universal, and she replied, “Look at our situation.”
On our third day we explored Hamra more. Again, I kept forgetting that I was not in Paris. There are old lady’s who walk little dogs around and chain smoke. People wear berets. We window shopped and had beers and coffees.
In the late afternoon we haled a taxi and asked the driver to spend 90 minutes showing us his city. F was talking to the Communist Party guys more, so the three of us got into the Mercedes and we were off. The first thing the driver wanted to show us was a place at the water where he told us people kill themselves. He told us that last month a man brought his daughter here to kill her, but the joke was on him as she managed to take her father with her. The driver thought this was really funny. Next he took us to see where Hariri was killed. So, remember when I told you on my first day I walked around and saw buildings reduced to rubble? Turns out our hotel was about a block from where Hariri was assassinated. The area is shut down, and there are soldiers posted there. We looked over the barrier and saw parts of charred cars. The driver said that the bomb was more than 1000 kilos big. We asked him if he thought Syria was responsible for this and he said No, he thinks Israel is behind it. He said Syria takes more than 1 million dollars a day from Lebanon; Syrian soldiers go into any hotel or restaurant and take what they want for free, so why would Syria do such a thing when, implicitly, their needs are being met? He drove us past a place on the waterfront that he said used to be the American Embassy. This was blown up, he said. Then we headed toward the Green Line. This is the road we wandered down on our first night trying to find the hotel. We continued toward the tent city and the driver said we would go see Hariri’s memorial. Turns out he’s right next to the [former] Martyr’s Square. Martyr’s Square is now a bullet-riddled statue surrounded by mud. Next to this were several large banquet tents, like people have at outdoor weddings. There was a sign outside that said “720.” Inside there are tapestries, posters, flowers, marble inscriptions, and an abundance of photographs. We walked into an adjacent tent which appeared to have memorials or graves to other martyrs. Amazing. From here we went to a poor Shia’ neighborhood. The driver told us that people only make about 200 USD a month who live there. There were Nasrallah posters everywhere. There was one nice marble building with black flags all around it. The driver told us that this building was for Hezbollah martyrs. He said that in rich parts of town people of all religions mix without problems. He said that the poor are segregated. Then he told us that right next to the poor Shia’ neighborhood was a very ritzy shopping district. We emerged from the poor part to see upscale restaurants right across the street. He said, “On this side of the street coffee is 50 cents; on this side it’s 5 dollars.”
The driver, who was maybe late 40s/early 50s divided his understanding and description of Beirut both geographically and temporally between the pre-War and post-War periods. Though I really know nothing of Lebanon, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that there is no more significant a defining time for men and women his age.
He said that before the war no one asked about religious affiliation. But since, it has become a common question. This is a bit strange to me living in Jordan; no one really needs to ask since the odds are overwhelmingly that people are Sunni here. Original national affiliation is the political question in Jordan, but in Lebanon it seems to be more about current religious affiliation. The driver told us that this question is important now because Israel and the US interfere in Lebanon [but not Syria?!?]. I didn’t understand why religious alignment is key because of Western interference. I guess it should have been obvious to me that, as in the US, religion and politics are the same. He said that Lebanon was proud because this past summer Arabs finally defeated the Israelis for the first time. He said that Bush wants Hezbollah to put down their guns, but that this won’t happen until people know that the US/Israel are not a threat. “Then, no problem!” he said. As our time together was coming to an end S asked him about his religious affiliation. He told us that he’s Muslim. S asked him which sect. He said, “They are all the same; we all say Allaho Akbar when we pray, but the difference is with the Christians,” then he finally added, “I am Shia’ Hezbollah!” (Note the collision of religion and politics.) Then he reached into the glove box and pulled out three cassette tapes with Nasrallah on them. He put one in and played it for us. It sounded like Cold War Eastern European military music. He said that this is what people listen to before they go to war “…to strengthen their blood for battle. You need to feel good as you’re going off to die. That’s what this is for.” Finally, we asked him if he thought Lebanon was headed for another Civil War and he said, “I don’t know; do you want a cigarette?”
We went downtown again and met with F. We talked with the young men from the Communist Party. I sat under a bridge and smoked with about 10 guys who were excited to be a part of the change they saw coming in Lebanon. Again, though, that change was needed seemed clear, but what comes next was not as clear. All the people I spoke with suggested that a coalition government of some sort was in order, and that there is a lot of inequity in Lebanon based mainly on sectarian issues. The Communists have no problem with getting rid of religion. I can’t imagine such a thing happening in Lebanon, but I also can’t help but think that is the only way Lebanon will be at peace. Yikes. Also, it seems like there are a lot of groups involved in the protests, each with different religious affiliations, and with slightly different objectives (such as those exist) for Lebanon. How can the Communists come to an agreement with Hezbollah on anything? Yet, there they were all camped out together waiting to bring down Siniora. What these folks have in common is that they are prepared to live under a bridge until a power vacuum is created. And then…
On Sunday the Danes left early and I had another day alone. We had an early breakfast at Barbar while the Danes sat silent and regretted drinking the night before, and then they went to the bus station. (BTW, they did have to pay for a visa to enter Lebanon from Syria.) I just walked around Hamra, mostly closed on Sunday. When it was time to go to the airport I haled a taxi and the driver and I chatted the whole way. The driver asked me where I’m from and I told him. He told me he was born and raised in Beirut. He said that during the War in August the bombing was about 2-3 kilometers from his mother’s house. Since then, he said, his mother won’t go outside because she is frightened. He has 2 sisters that work at the American Hospital. I asked him how he learned English and he told me that he’s a lawyer, and learned it at University. What a world. I take it their economy is as strong as Jordan’s. The driver asked me what I saw during my visit. I told him, and he said that wasn’t enough. He said that I need to come back and see Baalbak (sp?). He said that if there were peace, Lebanon would be the most beautiful country in the world. I would have to agree with that. He said that the Lebanese are more free than the Americans in many ways. I would have to agree with that too. He said that America/Israel and Syria/Iran are fighting a war with each other in Lebanon. I think that’s well-put. As we approached the airport he told me that during the War in August he drove at 200 an hour (kilometers, I reckon) down the road because he could.
A and a friend of his picked me up at the airport at 2 this morning. It was good to see them. It was really good to have friends waiting for me. I learned on the drive that A is a back-seat driver. He nagged his friend the entire time!