Beirut, Part One: Hangin' with Hizbullah
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
38Trip End Jul 19, 2008
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Having hired a taxi to take us, the three hour (ish) journey from Damascus to Beirut was thankfully straight-forward. We had worried that, with only one border-crossing left open after the recent fighting in Lebanon, we might get held up in long queues. However, having gotten across to the Lebanese side with minimal fuss, I sat back in my ample seat (the Damascus-Beirut taxis are giant American cars from the 60s, 70s and 80s), and savoured my new surroundings.
It was a fascinating drive from the border to Beirut. In a purely geographic sense, the route offered some gorgeous mountain vistas. Both our driver and every other car on the road, however, drove like total madmen and so one couldn't fully appreciated the views, as fear-of-death seemed to taint their serenity. Then, after an hour or so of suicidal driving through the mountains, Beirut finally revealed herself amid her stunning backdrop. Over her back towered the mountains, some still stubbornly wearing the glistening white of the winter snows; at her feet lay the still blue of the Mediterranean, its waters lapping softly along the miles of shoreline; and above, a full sun threw down warm colour from a cloudless sky and Beirut basked graciously in it.
It was, however, the man-made elements that made the drive fascinating. Gone were the ubiquitous banners and billboards of Syrian President al-Assad, replaced instead by similarly ubiquitous billboards of Rafiq Hariri (former Lebanese Prime Minister) and fellow high-profile anti-Syrian politicians who've been assassinated over the last two years or so. One billboard even showed the mangled remains of the car in which one such politician was assassinated. It seemed to be a deliberate two-fingers-up to the Syrian regime we had just left behind. After a while we came to a large bridge, one of the main arteries connecting Lebanon and Syria, which had been bombed by Israel during last year's war with Hizbullah. It had still yet to be repaired, and the sight of giant metal poles hanging down like mere thread from the concrete left me with a much greater appreciation of the destruction caused (having seen the same images on TV last year). As we finally reached Beirut and drove along the main shore-side road through an area that is clearly swimming in money and investment, we drove past the still-present remains of the hotel in which Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in a huge car bomb in 2005. The hotel's empty, crumbling shell seemed somewhat incongruous amid the many luxury apartments, hotels and plush glass-fronted restaurants, but it stood as a graphic book-mark to this painful chapter in Lebanon's fraught history. The billboards, the bridge, the bombed-out hotel - it was a little morbid perhaps, but profound with it, and emphasised just how immensely strong and volatile politics are in Lebanon. And I for one was intrigued and excited by it!
Having dumped our bags at the hotel and changed into something lighter - the humidity in Beirut was quite oppressive - we headed on out in search of lunch. As we walked down Sharia al-Hamra (Red Street), one of the main strips in Beirut, we were bombarded by Western franchises; every other shop seemed to be a McDonald's or a Starbuck's or a Burger King. Ordinarily my heart would sink at seeing such brands, as, outside of their natural Western environment, they usually indicate the erosion of indigenous culture; but, after almost five months in a pariah state, our collective bellies were shamefully craving staple Western junk. We started out with Nando's then headed to Starbuck's for coffee and dessert - Western crap has never tasted so good!
Bellies full, we took a taxi to the extensively redeveloped downtown area. Once there, it really became apparent for the first time that Beirut is still feeling the effects of last year's war between Israel and Hizbullah. Though the Israeli bombing campaign targeted Hizbullah-controlled south Beirut and, as such, there was no physical evidence of war here in the affluent northern suburbs, these impeccable and chic streets were almost entirely deserted; businesses clearly still feeling the squeeze of continual political tensions in this volatile country. The newly cobbled streets were lined on both sides with attractive (but somewhat fake) buildings, some of which housed luxury Western brand names such as Rolex and Versace, others were home to fashionable bars and restaurants with many tables and chairs laid out along the causeway. Yet, for all its elegance, there was barely another soul in sight and it all felt a bit surreal knowing that these streets should be bustling with Beirut's rich and fashionable.
A little beyond the chic downtown streets we came to a huge set of tents that made up one of the Hizbullah protest camps. Around it lay uninviting barbed wire fencing along with Lebanese flags and obligatory pictures of Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah. It felt so strange to see such a sight literally within a hundred metres of the ultra-affluent downtown area. Nearby lay another tent, this time home to the Hariri Shrine. As we entered we were greeted by a giant electronic board that bore simply a number: 873 - the number of days since Hariri's assassination. The imagery used in this shrine was a little much for my taste - pictures essentially portraying Hariri as a god or prophet - but it just emphasised how important he was to his people and how profound an effect his murder has had on this country.
Our walk had been interesting, but we wanted to get a more comprehensive picture of Beirut. So, hailing down a taxi, we headed off to south Beirut. As we entered the southern suburbs it felt like we'd entered a different country. In some ways we had, as the south is controlled by Hizbullah rather than the elected Lebanese government. Gone were the affluent buildings and pristine new development projects, replaced instead by manifest poverty. In a strange way it reminded me of a car ride I'd once taken from the rich north to the ghettoised south side of Chicago, the same depressing feeling washing over me as I witnessed before my own eyes two different worlds in one city.
Yet that comparison only took me so far and, as we entered deeper into the Hizbullah strongholds, what we saw was not poverty alone; this was a war zone, and I had never seen anything like it. Around streetlights hung placards bearing the faces of Hizbullah martyrs; scores of buildings (mostly high-rise civilian apartment blocks) lay gutted and empty, riddled with bullet holes; others were completely destroyed, the dusty rubble still lingering one year on from the war; bridges lay half-destroyed, the mangled wrecks of crushed cars still half-visible under the ruins; massive craters, two storeys deep, pockmarked the roads of entirely residential areas. It was utter destruction, mostly civilian destruction, the likes of which cannot be expressed through a TV screen, and it only reinforced my view of how egregiously disproportionate the Israeli bombing campaign was, and I felt angered and embarrassed as a Briton to think that Tony Blair had refused to condemn the attacks. And now he's the new Middle East Quartet envoy - it would be laughable if it wasn't so insulting. Whoops, getting all political for a moment.
Back to the story. Having been in the taxi for a while we decided to get out and have a walk around to better appreciate the scale of destruction. No sooner had we taken out our cameras we were accosted by two guys who demanded to know who we were and what the hell we thought we were doing. Before we had chance to retort, they escorted us to a nearby shop outside of which we sat and waited anxiously for the situation to unfold. A few minutes and a couple of phone calls later, we were joined by another set of guys who we soon established were local Hizbullah officials in charge of patrolling the area. Most of them seemed fairly friendly except for a couple. The first, cutting a large, war-beaten figure, had a giant scar running the length of his arm. Throughout the whole experience he held in his hand a used-looking baton which he swung malevolently from side to side. The second wore a look of resentful suspicion almost as comfortably as the comically-inapt Adidas shell-suit that hugged his corpulent figure. He seemed to be the most senior official among the ranks and he was entirely unimpressed by our presence on his turf.
Having taken from us some initial details such as our names, they then began to take us aside one by one for further questioning. Luckily we had left our passports at the hotel and so were able to give fake names just in case. That said, apart from the two aforementioned men, the rest seemed friendly enough and were more just interested in why we wished to study Arabic and whether we liked Beirut. We got the impression they were probably just bored and were detaining us for their own amusement more than anything else. Yet, despite the general good-natured spirit of the experience, there was always an underlying uneasiness. We were, after all, in an officially ungoverned, unpoliced state within a state where Hizbullah control all, including what to do with us.
Then they demanded each of our cameras. With no real choice we handed them over reluctantly and they went about systematically deleting all of the pictures we had taken in Hizbullah-controlled Beirut. It was a shame they deleted them because, as we tried to explain to the Hizbullah officials, it is surely in the interests of both them and the Lebanese people for Western tourists to take photos to bring back home and draw attention to the plight of these people, which is not reported on by the Western media.
Anyway, after an hour or so of detention outside this shop, they brought along some shisha for themselves. I was starting to get rather bored of the whole situation by this point and so enquired as to whether I might partake in a smoke. They were only too happy to oblige and handed me the shisha at once. So, there I was puffing away on a shisha pipe with about six Hizbullah officials, discussing life and politics, looking out onto a scene of former carnage with a destroyed bridge on my left, a destroyed apartment block on my right and the burnt-out wreck of an exploded car in front of me. It was certainly the most memorable shisha-smoking session I've ever had. Eventually, after about two hours they escorted us to a main street and put us in a taxi back to the civilisation of the north. As we left they said simply, and without a trace of irony, "we hope you liked south Beirut"!
And with that we headed back to the hotel.