Near Medias Res

Trip Start Jan 06, 2006
Trip End Sep 02, 2008

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Friday, February 17, 2006

"Believe it or not, I didn't get killed in Lebanon."

This entry has been slow in making its appearance, and the above line is what I first thought up. Despite its flippancy in playing on the common stereotype that the Middle East is dangerous, it does propogate that stereotype. In my experience, I was as safe as I could have been. But for all my safety, I am going to stick with that line of introduction. See my disclaimer at the bottom before you close the browser window in disgust.

Musings of danger hovered above my thoughts from time to time for the week that I was in Lebanon. It seemed that on every street corner stood a soldier with an automatic weapon. While that may not have been the case at every single intersection in Beirut, it certainly was true in the more built up areas. I found myself oogling a lot more guns than I am used to.

I had seen guns in Syria, and to a lesser extent Turkey. Soldiers in Syria carry the Soviet model AK-47 automatic rifle (no surprise because Syria was aligned with the Soviets in the cold war, there even were Syrian cosmonaughts!). But the Lebanese seem to be aligned with the Americans. In Lebanon, soldiers tout the M-16 and wear the 1990s American pattern of cammo uniforms. The militarized police carry the same guns, but they wear berets and a white/grey/black (urban) cammo pattern.

For example, in the Solidere (downtown) district, reconstructed to look like downtown Bruxelles because it was razed during the civil war, I must have seen three APCs with 50 cal. guns (APC = armoured personnel carrier), and as many armed soldiers and police as there were street corners. There were actually even more privately contracted guards, but those from private security companies don't carry guns.

But the Solidere district would be a great target - it looks as chic as Paris but as clean as a germophobe's dinner table. Every building is an arcitectural masterpiece. But they are expensive and it seems that few of the upper floors in these buildings are rented.

I made the mistake of drinking a tea at a Solidere restaurant without checking the price in advance. It was four dollars! What am I complaining about? I buy at Starbucks sometimes. But after fifty cent tea in Syria, I am spoiled and I have forgotten the price of drinks in chic establishments.

Some people here can afford such luxuries. They fled during the civil war they made fortunes elsewhere. Now they've moved back and they live glamourously and drive automobiles of costly manufacture. I met an English teacher from South Africa who has dated a number of these types of local boys.

"They're so dull. They sleep in until two o'clock in the afternoon. Then they go to the gym and work out. They would pick me up in the most expensive cars on the market, like Mercedes or Hummer... They're twenty six years old. What are they doing driving these sorts of expensive cars? Their parents pay for it all... What are they doing with their lives? Absolutely nothing."

Much of this Solidere district was built with the help of Saudi loans. A former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, was tight with the house of Sauds and he was also a large stakeholder in the Solidere corporation. Some say that Hariri helped them get all of these loans.

On Valentine's day 2005 he was blown up. Much evidence suggests that either members of the Syrian government or the Syrian government itself ordered the assassination. His death sparked what has been called the "Cedar Revolution" (Lebanon is known for its cedars - like the maple leaf, there is a cedar tree on the Lebanese flag). Following his death, mass demonstrations and international pressure forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon. They had been keeping the peace (and running the country) since the end of the civil war.

Therefore, had I arrived a year earlier, I would have seen Syrians with AK-47s instead of Lebanese with M-16s. Two days before I arrived, 100 000 people showed up on the "Place des Martyrs" to remember Hariri and to show that the spirit of the revolution is still alive in the populace (if not in the minds of the politicans, who, many claim, are bickering about partisan issues). At at the moment, next to the "Place des Martyrs" is a pavillion full of flowers and memorials to Hariri and the eight other politically active people who were blown up in the last year. So perhaps the police presence is merited, and as a result the soldiers are not just around the Solidere district.

Armed beings are all over the numerous government agency buildings south of the Green line (the no man's land in the civil war). And there were scores of others with their APCs just to the East of the Green Line along the trendy streets where monied Beirutis buy their jewleries and Italian clothes* Even in the less rich areas, there were policemen every few blocks. At least one armed offical can be found at pretty much any high traffic area.

I suppose that if I saw enough of these gun wielding policemen, it wouldn't be worth mentionning. But apparently I need to see a lot of guns before I am so saturated that I ignore it. The exact purpose of these guards has been debated by those at the pension Al Nazih. Some said that they are harmless and just for show. Others said that something just may go off. I am not educated enough to fathom a guess. Nevertheless, what an exhilerating feeling "in medias res."**

The "in Medias Res" feeling only increased from the things I heard from expats I met.
Two photographers, Stewart and Sheryl, who stayed at my pension had come to Lebanon to cover the anniversary demonstrations of Hariri's assassination. When I first met these two, they were frantically trying to upload their photos to their server, so that news editors worldwide could publish them. They are career photographers - they had both covered part of Iraq. Stewart showed me photos from a week or so back when he "bushwacked" the current leader of Hamas, in Gaza, to take his photo as he left a mosque after Friday prayers.

At a well known bar with a name similar to the city that is currently hosting the Olympics, I met other people with stories to tell. Prairie, an NGO worker, had a friend at the Raddisson when it was blown up last fall. That friend, who escaped injury, was in the lobby of the hotel when the suicide bomber walked right past and blew up a wedding party. Another expat named Mitch, a war photographer, has been embedded both with the Americans in Iraq and the Iraqi mujahadeen fighting those Americans(but not Al Qaeda because they have killed friends of his!). He had been covering the Beirut embassy protests (Danish cartoons), and he told me that the demonstrator who had been killed landed just next to him. The body landed so close, he said, that if he had been a foot over he would have been struck and killed. Mitch has also covered Kandahar in Afghanistan and wishes our Canadian troops there good luck. He says the Taliban are tough bastards.

I think I may have met a future Taliban while riding in a van from Sidon to Beirut. Hezbollah chants played on the stereo system: It was like Team America: World Police, because all I could understand was the chanting of "Hezbollah" and "Mujahadeen."

I sat next to a guy who talked to me halting English. We had a typical conversation for two people who don't speak the same language. Nevertheless, he managed to tell me that he loved Osama B. and wanted to know what I thought of him. He also said that he was going to Syria, and then Afghanistan. He didn't say why, but tell me why a 19 year old guy who loves Osama bin Laden would go to Afghanistan. Someone else later told me that people here tend to say all sorts of things and that I should hear everything with a grain of salt. Still, what a colourful part of the world.

As a serious and most important disclaimer, there is a lot more than guns in Lebanon. I had a conversation with a fellow Edmontonian, Jon, who has worked in the Middle East for a few years. We discussed western perceptions of the M E as portrayed by the news media, and we are both well aware that the local level of danger is seriously overexaggerated by journalists, sometimes just so that they have something to say.

Now I know that I may have a tendency to make things interesting - see my lousy entry for Adana if you want an example - and I do not mean to hype a danger to extreme proportions. It's just that I feel a bit exhilerated to be in an area where things are happening in the world, unlike the news backwater that is Alberta. As a result, I choose to write about these things because they interest me. There is indeed a lot more to Lebanon than "the News" like elements that I have described above. So be patient and wait for my next entry.

*I could have bought a suit for 1,120,000 Lira (that's actually a lot of money, about $CND 1000) And had I pulled out enough money to buy it, there would be a barcode on every banknote above the lowest denomination(1000 LP = 80 cents)!

** Latin for "in the thick of things." While I realise that this is not completely true, I am as close to "things" as I have ever been.
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