Jul. 17, 2007 - Issue #613: The State of the Scene
Going back to the Paris of the Middle East
At the customs gate, 200 United Nations peacekeepers awaited to help with the admission of refugees, an unfriendly reminder of last summer’s conflict. But still, the arrivals on my flight, mostly woman and children, were willing to risk their lives to see their families and spend another summer in Lebanon.
On Jul 12, 2006, Hezbollah, a Shi’a political party and militia,
fired missiles into Israel and illegally crossed the border, killing three
Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two. The plan was not a new one: Hezbollah
has successfully used hostages as tokens for decades, and it can even be said
that their movement would’ve never taken off it they used other
tactics. But Israel retaliated heavily from the sky, first taking out the
bridge to the airport, then Hezbollah strongholds and other buildings and
houses suspected to be harbouring the enemy. After 34 days of consistent
bombing and shelling from both sides, Israel retreated without their soldiers
and Hezbollah arrogantly emerged as the saviours of Lebanon. Hezbollah had
not received this much notoriety since driving out the Israeli occupation in
Although their support among the Lebanese population has waned in the last 12 months, many people still revere Hezbollah. As a result, many Lebanese—not just Shi’a, but of all religions—are supporting the Hezbollah cause. On the anniversary of what they declared a “victory” against Israel, Hezbollah held a weeklong street festival in the Shi’a town of Baalbeck. At the face of the famous Roman ruins, there was a trade fair with weapons and insider photography. Outside the famous tourist sight, merchants aggressively peddled Hezbollah shirts, hats, and flags.
But to say that the Shi’a themselves are on a power trip is not fair. For centuries they were an oppressed minority, forced into slums that didn’t even have electricity until the mid-1980s. For the first time ever, they are being taken seriously.
In an East Beirut suburb, the faces of Hezbollah martyrs killed in 2006 are erected below every streetlight, reminding people of who fought back. But, of course, there are no posters of the 1000-plus civilians who died as a result of their war. Those pictures would stretch from East to West Beirut.
Regardless of Hezbollah’s renewed popularity, no face is more frequent than that former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who met his death in 2005 when either a suicide bomber or a wireless car bomb (authorities remain uncertain) killed him. Aside from the thousands of posters in car and shop windows and those used as curtains in many homes, his gentle face adorns the public roads and highways. In preparation for the UN commission’s upcoming trial for the suspected killers, the parliamentary government has erected thousands of billboards next to mineral water and designer jeans advertisements. In Arabic, they say, “The trial of a Lebanon.”
At the airport, I hopped into a taxi and headed to the hotel. Like always,
cars recklessly slid back and forth between lanes, manoeuvering in ways that
would get their licenses revoked in Canada. Now, however, their steering was
constrained by congested roads. With the Airport Bridge being reconstructed,
cars detour around the rubble and cement trucks slowly rebuilding.
Any traveler to Lebanon in the last 30 years knows the sights of collapsed and dilapidated buildings preserved as a civil war reminder. However, this time I required the cabbie to remind me which buildings were mementoes of the civil war, and which were mementoes of last summer.
At the Hotel Grande Versailes, I saw where Lebanon was hit hardest. Since the Golden Age of the ’50s and ’60s, when cruise ships “discovered” Beirut’s East-meets-West virtues, Beirut’s best infrastructure was tourism. The industry vanished during the ’80s but reemerged in the ’90s; before last year’s war it was thriving. As one woman told me, “Two days before they started [fighting], my family went to Beirut. And in all of downtown, and we couldn’t find a single table for eight!”
A week later the tourists scrambled on boats to Cyprus or roads to Syria.
Now the four-star Grande Versailes was empty. I was the only guest in a 14-floor building. I was happy to have saved 50 per cent, but disappointed to learn my cable and telephone wasn’t functioning. I asked the receptionist-cum-owner and he shamefully admitted they couldn’t afford to keep the phone and cable lines. Also, the classy restaurant that once served eaters from every continent was shut down, the empty, dusty seats starved of customers.
With so much time to pass, I contacted my friend Nour and we hit the
popular Hamara Street to shop and smoke nargila (a hookah, for the
uninitiated). I sensed a general apathy from Nour. Born in the last throes of
the civil war, war is, to her, as Lebanese as the cedar on the
country’s flag. As with the locals who still marched up the streets
with shopping bags in hand, this was life, and it must go on. Embedded in the
laissez-faire economy of Lebanon is this insurmountable desire to spend money
no war could ever stop.
But “the 24-hour city” seems vapid in comparison to previous summers. Not even an optimist could call these streets half-full; they are half-empty. Although it was a Tuesday, weekdays are no excuse to sleep on the city’s nightlife, a scene that once attracted such disparate party goers as 50 Cent and Osama bin Laden (in his adolescence, of course, before he traded bellbottoms for a Kalashnakov).
Lebanon’s economy has been unthreaded. As always, a big fraction of their GDP comes from émigrés wiring money back to their families. Middle-class working men like my uncle Nasser don’t know where their next job is coming from. A second-generation house painter, Nasser has worked, between March and June, a total of eight days. To compensate, he bought a small school bus. But there’s no school in the summer.
With a failing economy and a stagnant government with two branches refusing cooperation, it seems inevitable that Lebanon will be thrust into another civil war. For Nour, her sisters, and mother, they are on constant standby to move to Nigeria with her father. “Just in case,” she said.
The next morning, Nour and I drank overpriced Nescafé at a beach
restaurant on the Manara Strip, a part of Beirut known to many as a safe
zone. Safety or not, it attracted few people. The swimming pools were dry,
and the water slides thirsty. Save a few elderly fishermen at shore, we ruled
the beautiful landscape.
Afterwards, I checked out of the hotel and boarded a bus to Kab Elias, where my family awaited my arrival. Kab Elias is a Sunni-Muslim and Maronite-Chistian community untouched by last year’s war and barely grazed during the civil war. Small but densely populated, conservative and family-oriented, it is the epitome of a Lebanese community. But even they have their war stories.
Khadeja Mourad was nine months pregnant last July. Fearing the situation would worsen by the time she went into labour, she arranged for a cesarean operation at the closest competent hospital, out of town. Travelling through closed roads, she finally made it. “There I was on the hospital bed while my husband and little brother are on the rooftop watching the bombs.”
Her 15-year-old brother remembers the war in a strange, fond way. “It was cool,” he said. “Everyone was in the streets smoking nargila.” With the roads to the regular party towns blockaded, the citizens could not put to rest their social urges and took to the streets and rooftops. They watched the spectacle as if they were taking place on the other side of the world.
My friend Hassein described the scene as looking like “reverse fireworks.”
“You’d see the lights drop, wait, then boom!"
Upon arriving in Kab Elias, my family and I ate sweets and drank Turkish
coffee so strong it uppercutted my insides. The muted TV was a background
image in the living room until the program was interrupted for breaking news,
when it became the centerpiece.
The videographer aimed his lens at a chunk of burnt flesh on the concrete. He panned up and, through the haze, pointed to a yellow and black billboard. It read NEJMEH SPORTING CLUB. My heart sank.
Not seven hours ago, Nour parked her car across from that billboard, and we climbed out. We walked down the now-lacerated pathway to where we drank Nescafé on the shore, while the waves faintly spit on us from over the rocks.
The explosion was from a wireless bomb placed on the SUV of anti-Syrian MP Walid Eido. It killed him, his son, two of his bodyguards and six civilians. On top of the 10 deaths, 21 more were wounded.
The blast was big and not contained to just the car itself. It took out the cars around it and a rental store for fishing equipment, spilling fire and cement onto the bumper cars behind it. The general opinion is that Syrian Intelligence, in cahoots with President Lahoud, were responsible.
Within days, billboards of Eido and his son were propped across the highways. Outside Aalal, a Shi’a town, the Eidos’ faces were vandalized with spray paint, cow manure and bullet holes.
The divisiveness of Lebanon is nothing new. Rooted in conflicts between
families, tribes, religions, militias and political parties, the only thing
that makes it different now is how upfront they are about it. On Mar 8, 2005,
Hezbollah and two pro-Syrian parties merged to form “March 8.”
Six days later, the Future party (headed by Rafik Hariri’s son Saad)
merged two allies to make “March 14.” This has made it incredibly
easy for Lebanese to take a side. So they have, and those sides are now
There was a time when people said, “Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East” and “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East.” But “is” became “was”: Lebanon’s Golden Age lays forever in the past tense. With the files on Hariri’s death now opened and investigated and another presidential election in September, it is the common belief that things will only get worse before they get better. V
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