Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Corniche, Beirut
Lebanon, then and now

Beirut has changed substantially when compared to my last trip there.  That’s to be expected, given that I first visited the city 15 years ago.  And while I knew that it had changed, it wasn’t until I got there that I realised how much.  It was brought home to be from the first day I was there, as I walked from my accommodation on Rue Gemmayze to the American University of Beirut (AUB).  Back in 1997 I recall seeing the bombed out Holiday Inn standing amid a pile of rubble where a whole neighbourhood once stood.  On Monday I recognised the same building, presumably standing as a memorial to the civil war.  But I didn’t recognise anything else around it.  It was hemmed in by all sorts of new buildings, of different shapes and colours, although many of them harking back self-consciously to the past.

There also appeared to be less soldiers on the streets than before.  That said, it may well be that I’m used to a more securitised environment in the West Bank than I was when I first visited the region and Beirut as a callow 21 year old.  Certainly, the soldiers one sees now are all Lebanese; that wasn’t the case 15 years ago, when there were Syrian checkpoints, often further down the same road from a Lebanese one.  And just to show how times have changed, whereas the Syrians were top dogs during my first visit, the current conflict there means that Syrians are now fleeing to Lebanon as refugees.  I shared a cab with a young Syrian on my last night in the city, who said that he had left the country two months ago.  His father has been arrested and the family has no idea where he’s being kept.  He recently got a call from the Syrian authorities who advised him to stay out of the country.  So he will remain in Lebanon until the end of the year.  I also read that some Lebanese see the situation in Syria as a way of exacting revenge for the havoc their country faced in the past; they’re supporting (including arming) some of the factions involved in the fighting.

On Wednesday I made a trip down to Tyre (Sour), where the Roman ruins are.  Besides the lushness of the green grass sprouting between the columns (not something one sees much of in the summer when I was last there), the thing that most struck me where the posters spaced at regular intervals down the roadside of Hezbollah leaders.  Perhaps they were there before, but I wouldn’t have known at the time.  But perhaps the most incongruous of them all was the one of both Hezbollah’s spiritual leader and its militia head outside the entrance to a theme park.  I’m sure it was a coincidence, but it almost seemed to be inviting people into ‘Hezbollah Land’!

One final point: this trip to Lebanon has to be marked as a success on at least one count.  Compared to the last time I visited, I managed to avoid getting arrested during the four days I was there.  With a lot fewer soldiers and tanks to be photographed, I was able to avoid being detained for most of a morning as happened on my first day last time.

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