Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Beirut, Lebanon

I got myself into a share taxi from Damascus and got promptly adopted by 2 Palestinian Lebanese women who kept me fed and coffeed during the 3 hour trip. This made for a pleasant journey where, in between shoving snacks into my mouth they gave me advice to stay away from anywhere that Hezbolah dominates and never to show fear if I happen to run across one of the "ninja turtles".

The border crossing got me a bit edgy as the Lebanese visa man wanted to refuse me entry. Middle Eastern officials like crisp and intact passports and don't like putting their precious stamps on the shoddy and barely legible sponge I carry. A combination of grovelling (me) and shouting (my new Lebanese mums) eventually managed to secure my entry to the land of the Cedars. We were on our merry way to Beirut with no incidents except a bit of shouting as we drove through Sabra and one of the ladies decided to give our Syrian driver some viewpoints about what Syria is up to in Lebanon.

Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. In a way I can see how this lazy cliche works. The Paris side can be seen in the omnipreesnce of French street names, swanky eateries, grandiose buildings and hordes of annoyingly fashionable people. The Middle Eastern aspect is revealed by the odd bullet riddled building, armed soldiers on the streets and a smattering of tanks and APCs. It takes about 2 hours for the newcomer to stop marvelleing at the common sight of some new shiny building next to one that has had the machine gun and rocket urban renovation treatment. Some of these buildings display patched up holes next to more fresh ones courtesy of the IAF in 2006.

Another sport the tourist has to try in Beirut is hassling the locals as to where it is safe to go in the city or elsewhere. This sounds, and is, a bit pathetic but it is not completly useless. A couple of days ago there was a protest in a Shia area about electricity cuts that ended in gunshots and some arsehole lobbing a grenade and killing 7 people. What constitutes too much risk is up to the individual backpacker to decide. My personal benchmark was that the moment I heard gunfire over the din of my fellow drinkers I would skedaddle to the safety of Syria. So far, so good.

Lebanon is smaller than some American cars and just as expensive to be in so my time here is short. The plus side is that you can daytrip nearly everywher from Beirut. Wikitravel has an excessively paranoid warning about some parts of Lebanon. It even advises an armed guard. This is complete tosh but it makes me feel all brave about heading down south.

After a brief lookse at the ancient cities of Sidon and Tyre it was time to enter the Party of God's stomping ground. Neocons and other rightwing fools might portray the Hezbolah controlled parts of Lebanon as the Heart of Darkness but to me it seems almost banal. Almost.

There are a few signs that the South is a smidgeon different. The first one is that you need permission from the Lebanese Army to go there. You can also spot some subtle differences in the roadside literature. Gone are the sales promotions and billboards with scantily clad models. It's all black flags, yellow flags, Nasralla's chubby face and posters of deceased martyrs. Beyond that the locals are nice and the snacks are good.

One interesting sight in the UNIFIL area is the prison of Al Khiam, a detention center once run by the IDF and their Lebanese miltias. It is now run by Hezbollah as some weird tourist sight. Most of it is rubble and the tales of Zionist cruelty must be taken with a pinch of salt though they shouldn't be written off as complete bullshit either. One strange display comes Hezbollah's bright idea to put fake (hopefully) Khaibar rockets on a site a few miles away form the border. Makes for fun photos but you can't help but wonder if today is the days the other side is going to make sure these are not a threat.

Slightly more moving are the plaques with the names of the 4 UN peacekeepers killed by an Israeli bomb in 2006. The Hezbollah guys see this as a testimony of Israel's contempt for international law and human life. I saw these plaques as yet another result of the UN's complete inability to grow a pair and have real clout. There are still blue helmets around and I wondered what it feels like being a peacekeeper knowing that the UN did fuck all in 2006 even after 4 of their own got killed.

A really strange sight outside the camp is a bullet riddled BMW. Someone really went to town on the car but I could get no explanation as to why this example of Lebanese tuning was there. It looks somewhat recent though as the bullet holes had only started to rust. BMWs are a wanker's car so maybe the locals did their equivalent of keying the doorpanels.

Nearby there is the hilltop fortrees of Beaufort castle. Hezbollah kindly put up an informative sign with a brief history of the place. It starts off quite normally with the usual history of the place (since Roman times, Arabs, Crusaders etc...) but then goes off on a long spiel with piccies about the operations ran against the IDF who were the last to use this place and its fantastic views over the area. One again Lebanon provided some symbolic overload to the effect that foreign belligerents have been using this area as a playground for centuries.

Conflict tourism done it was time to return to Beirut for more daytrips, visits to my new Lebanese mum and her family and lots of boozing. Syria makes pissartists hunt for their tipple but not so here. There are many trendy bars and the hostels don't have an issue with pre-barcrawl bevvies iether. The bars are more Paris than the Middle East as the beer is pricey, the music ethnic and the patrons trendy and blase. They even outdo Paris in the totty department. Lebanese girls out on the town are one of nature's greatest sights.

The flip side of this leery coin, as some local lads bitterly explained, is that it's all show and no go. The cruel irony is that, with marriage, the headscarved chicks are attainable but the drool inducing bar babes of Beirut have made it their mission to make menfolk understand just how much they are below them. So cruel yet so luscious.

I have already pointed out the difficulty of being bladdered and getting home in Damascus. Not so Beirut. The omnipresent soldiers are a really sound bunch who will direct you and guide you at any time and regardless of the state you are in. To me these lads were also a very interesting sight in themsleves.

I had noticed that some were armed with the ubiquitous AK while others toted the all American M16 rifle. When you see this it becomes tempting to dismiss the Lebanese miltary as a fucko outfit who can't even get their small arms supply sorted. The problem with this is that it ignores what these chaps are there for. It's painfully clear that they cannot fulfil the traditional miltary role of keeping foreign khaki wearers out. They know full well that they haven't got a prayer against the Syrians or the Israelis. What they really are is a guarantor of stability.

The army is here to avoid a repeat of the 80's when Beirut was a synonym of chaos, destruction and death. Worldwide, soldiers have to bear many burdens but the Lebanese troops are tasked with nothing less than keeping the lid on Pandora's box. The old rivalries are still there and bigger neighbours are still all too willing to use the place as a battleground by proxy or otherwise. The politicisation of religion is, if anything, much stronger than the bad old days and the recent spate of killings of politicians show that the ballot hasn't completely replaced the bullet as a method of gaining power. With this is mind, the squaddies get some serious respect from this tourist especially as they still manage to be nice to wandering pissed-up idiots.

The above shows that politics are not some bar counter abstraction in Lebanon. Over here, lenghty discussions about the state of the Middle East are a bit like the food; of very high quality, unavoidable and part of the experience. Lazy journos might claim to know what the Lebanese street is thinking. Less idle but equally misleading ones wil try and categorize the opinions of Lebanese people in a few neat categories.

In the short time I have been here I have chatted over beers with Lebanese Christians and secular Muslims, I have drank coffee in the homes of Palestinian refugees, I have swapped ciggies with guys from Hezbolah and I have killed time chinwagging with various expats. Politics was always discussed and, suprisingly, the opinions differed from individual to individual. I tend to feel uncomfortable when reading about the state of mind of the Lebanese. Putting people into categories and assigning viewpoints makes this place look quasi tribal when it is anything but

The journalistic instinct to simplify things and the complicit desire of readers/viewers for easy answers have led to a slightly patronising redux of this place. The politics of Lebanon are unbelievably complex and, unless you want to read a dozen heavy books, the best thing you can do is accept that you can't fully undertand it. You can also assume that these well-educated multilinguists can use their brains and make up their ownmind regardless of what subsection of Lebanese society they nominally belong to.

As for the tourist in all this? What should he do beyond shooting the shit? In this case nothing. Frankly I have nothing to add to the debate. No viewpoint of mine is going to be fresh and radical in this place. No fact brought forth will be unnown to the locals. I have decided to treat Lebanese politics as a lapdance. It's what you are here for so relax and enjoy what you get. However, as tempting it might be, do not get involved.

Lebanon has been fantastic and I will certainly return here. Hopefully, other nations will leave it the fuck alone. It's about time.

My next stop is again undecided but, due to budgetary constrainst, I am going turn Japanese. Not in the sense of wanking over seriously fucked-up cartoon porn but in the sense of seeing a lot of places in a short amount of time.

Take care,



Anonymous lebanon chat said...

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Thursday, March 07, 2013 12:30:00 PM  

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