The Word from Beirut

  • Share
  • Read Later

I received a vivid email this morning from someone I know who finds himself in Beirut amid the escalating clashes between pro-Hezbollah and pro-government forces. Paul du Quenoy is a professor, most recently at the American University in Cairo, who is moving to teach at the American University in Beirut in the fall, conditions permitting. Here’s what he wrote:


I don’t know what you are getting on the news, but things got a lot worse here yesterday after the general strike and Hezbollah riot, events which shut down the airport and most city services. I felt lucky to have arrived a day before, the last day the airport received flights. It was nice earlier on – more people were out than were the previous day. Cell phone stores reopened, but nothing else apart from cafes, restaurants, and food shops. I stopped into a couple. The salesmen were really nervous. One kept all his store’s phones in a knapsack in case he had to leave in a hurry. The other one had Nasrallah on TV and expressed his complete disgust with the man. Then I stopped at the Gefinor hotel. I met the British general manager there who invited me for a cocktail in their bar. Then I joined their rooftop gym/spa/pool and went for a swim. On my way up I met a Cyprus Airlines pilot who is stranded here. He was talking about going to Damascus, but the Damascus road is blocked. Nasrallah’s speech ended at about the time I hit the water. He was as you might expect defiant. He called the government attempt to seize the Hezbollah phone network (they used land lines in the ’06 conflict with Israel) a declaration of war and called for armed resistance. Within about 10 minutes, I started hearing machine gun fire and explosions from what I was told were RPGs. I said “Da harb” (“It’s war”) to one of the pool guys and he laughed and said “Mafii harb – fii hafla!” (“That’s not the war, that’s a party!”) There is a lot of fighting out by the airport and there were some clashes on the corniche. Army helicopters overflew the hotel a few times and I thought it best to get home before dark. The streets were deserted on the way back except for me and small groups of masked militia men with AK-47s hanging out on street corners. I couldn’t tell who they were, but they ignored me most of the time. One group about three blocks from my apartment building waved me through and said it would be ok. The soldiers posted at the roadblocks around the neighborhood were crouching in doorways. I had the distinct feeling that I had passed through a front line. Everything in my neighborhood was closed and shuttered except for one produce joint and they looked scared and were about to go home. I stocked up in case Beirut is closed for a few days. The word on the street was that the usual mechanisms for keeping the violence under control aren’t working now. I stayed home with the drapes drawn and heard the crackle of automatic weapons fire and the occasional explosion. Casualties are said to be light, but several civilians have been killed in the fighting. At about 2am a massive and totally unpredicted thunderstorm — unlike any I have ever seen — broke out and poured rain down on the whole situation. The fighting seems to have died down this morning. Hezbollah appears to have routed the Sunni militias and occupied most of the Muslim part of Beirut. The Sunni party’s TV station is off the air and its newspaper’s offices are in flames. The parliament building is now under siege. The army is staying neutral but has a heavy and reassuring presence in my neighborhood near the university. I haven’t felt afraid. It’s more surreal than anything else. And very exciting, but very sad. As far as I know there are no evacuation plans for foreign nationals. The US embassy isn’t answering its phone, so I have no contact or information from it. My planned continuing travel to Thailand is of couse out of the question now. There’s really no way to leave, but I’ve decided to stay in Beirut and see it through. Much cheer, PdQ