The News from Lebanon

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Herewith Paul du Quenoy’s most recent missive from Beirut, sent a few hours ago:

The settlement is touch and go. I slept very late today. Beirut seemed quiet, but there was word of fighting continuing in the northern part of the country, in Tripoli and Halba. The Sunnis are strong in the north and were out for revenge on the local Hezbollah forces. Gun battles had broken out in Aley and some of the other smaller towns in the hills to the southeast of Beirut. Those areas are populated by the Druzes, a religious group that derives from Islam but has an ancient influence of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Their leader Walid Jumblatt has been a Hariri ally, but some of the Druze community is allied with Nasrallah. By late afternoon the army was reported to have imposed order in the north. Jumblatt is said to have agreed to have his forces disarmed by the army in exchange for a cease fire. In Beirut the airport road and port are still closed. The road to Damascus is reported to be open some of the time but not in any reliable way.

My own experience today suggests that the army solution might not be the last word. I decided to walk the opposite direction of yesterday, toward the coast road and Beirut’s famous Pigeon Rocks. That part of town is called Rawshe, or Raouche. It was heavily in contention on Thursday because Hariri’s television station, Future TV, is there. In the fighting the station had been damaged but left intact on the condition that the army take it over but prevent it from broadcasting. The block around the station showed much evidence of battle. A police booth had been shot up. A café across the street had lost its windows. The station itself was a wreck. I saw concrete blackened with fire damage, bullet holes, broken windows, and a shattered water main on the second or third floor of the building still spouting water. Despite all the reports, there was no sign of the army anywhere near it. Plainclothes men were milling around on foot, watching carefully. Others were zooming around on mopeds in a way that looked much less than intimidating. Some of the mopeds carried two guys. In different circumstances they could have passed for gay couples. I took a couple of pictures of the charred TV station, and a man approached me. I asked him if photography was a problem. He said no. I asked him who he was and he explained he was in the Hope (“Amal”) group – one of whose members shot up the Sunni funeral procession yesterday — and that they are big friends with Hezbollah. I pointed to the giant picture of Rafik Hariri on the TV station (this has been on the news a lot) and asked his opinion. He, like virtually everyone, thinks Rafik was a great man. I asked if he thinks Saad Hariri is CIA, like that tape in the cab yesterday claimed, and he said “Yes, absolutely.” The other men out and around in Raouche, he said, were also from his group and other militias. Hezbollah has very loudly declared its intention to withdraw from West Beirut, but these guys are still in place. In apparent compliance with the army’s order yesterday, though, no one appeared to have firearms. I thought it would be ok to get closer to the TV station, so I walked the length of the building. One block up I ran into a few more of the “Hope” guys. They said I couldn’t go down one street, but could continue the direction I was going. That didn’t look very interesting, so I retraced my steps back toward Pigeon Rocks. On the walk back a pair of them stopped me again and asked for my documents. I had left my passport at home. They seemed satisfied with my health club paperwork from the Gefinor hotel, which I still had in my pocket from the other day. They wanted to know who I was, so I reprised my Polish engineer guise. They let me through, one of them happily telling me he had just qualified as a dentist.

As I got back to the TV station area, some militants were on its roof tearing down the giant Rafik Hariri picture. I took a photo. Before I could say “Shi’ite,” two young men in fake Diesel and Adidas t-shirts and jeans seized me by the arms and dragged me away. I didn’t much like that and struggled with them, landing a satisfying blow on one of their jaws. An older man ran up and told them to let me go. He, the two guys who had grabbed me, and some more of their buddies – a total of eight — formed a group around me and demanded my passport. I explained I didn’t have it on me and had left it at home. One didn’t seem to believe me and angrily insisted. Another asked me if I had anything else. I moved to pull out my Gefinor hotel health club papers again. The eyes of young man I had slugged popped out of his head, possibly in fear of what I might have had in my pocket. I put up my hands to show that I meant no harm and slowly took out the papers. They were vigorously examined. Then they demanded my camera. This time they took no chances, and one the men removed it from of my pants pocket himself while two other guys held me. They asked me to show them the photos I had taken. I turned on the camera, but the function to show the pictures in the memory didn’t work fast enough for one of the more hostile guys and he snatched it away from me. At that point they said, “you come now.” I was escorted – with no physicality — a half block to their headquarters, a makeshift stand in an alley between apartment buildings, and asked to wait silently (“No talk,” two of them kept saying). During this time I made careful observations of the men. I still had my sunglasses on, so they couldn’t notice me doing it. My impression was that they were really scared, especially the younger guys, who looked like they weren’t much older than 20 or 25. They weren’t afraid of me, but of their general situation. They looked worried, stressed out, hungry, tired, and dirty. Later in the day I noticed greasy black stains on the arms and back of the beige silk shirt I was wearing. The army was just over the hill, two blocks away, and obviously much more numerous and better armed. I had an adrenaline rush from the street confrontation but wasn’t afraid. The militiamen had no visible weapons, no reason to kill me given their goals and interests, and, in their overall condition, no logical reason to keep me prisoner. And they looked really scared.

After a few minutes a couple of older men, maybe in their 40s or 50s and vaguely charismatic in the way radical militia leaders are said to be, came in. They asked me to take off my sunglasses and tried to stare me down. I have a great record of winning staring contests, so we looked each other in the eye for a while. They asked me who I was four or five times, in what I took to be a feeble effort to trip me up or uncover my foul lies. One of them asked me why I was taking pictures. I told them pictures of the TV station were all over the BBC and the whole world had seen them and thus thought it would be all right. This seemed to be news to him, and his jaw dropped in apparent concern. My eyes at that point fell on the first “Hope” militiaman I had seen, the one who thought Saad Hariri is CIA and told me I could take pictures. I gestured toward him and said “He told me it was OK.” One of the older men dressed him down in Arabic. I didn’t get much of it, but distinctly heard “ibn kalb” (“son of a bitch”). After the older men inspected my camera and health club papers, one told me in English that they were going to delete the pictures I had taken in their area, but only those pictures and nothing else. I said that would be fine and thanked him. He handed the camera to the guy I slugged on the street, who looked at me somewhat sadly and shook his head. That fellow and a colleague figured out how to delete the photos and with exaggerated seriousness and sense of purpose wiped them out. My inner monologue told me I was in a modern parody of the scene early in the first Godfather movie, when a photographer takes an unwelcome picture of Don Barzini and the offended mobster tears the film out of his camera. It was funny, even at that moment. One of the older men became apologetic. “We don’t want our faces to be seen,” he said with concern. Clearly they are very afraid for themselves and their futures. They were much less concerned with me – they didn’t even look at my wallet, in which I later found I had left my Florida driver’s license and had about $200 and maybe another $50 in Lebanese currency. Once the pictures were deleted, they handed back my camera and health club papers and said I was free to go. They even gave me directions to Pigeon Rocks but admonished me politely (they said “please” four or five times) to keep my camera off while in the area. Despite their grime, there was a round of handshaking, the warmest coming from the guy I had hit. The newly graduated dentist who had stopped me earlier asked if I was all right and if the other men had returned everything to me. I said yes and we shook hands. One of the younger men ran up, said his name, and asked me to tell people in my country that I had seen him here in Lebanon. I nodded a yes and he seemed very proud of himself. I must say that after my initial detention on the street, which left no permanent damage (my hand hurt for a while, but that was my own doing), I was not at all mistreated. The militiamen spoke to me politely, they kept their hands off me the whole rest of the time, and I realized they are experiencing a lot more fear and confusion than I am.

I didn’t want to go home, so I continued on to Pigeon Rocks. The coast road just above them is blocked off by militiamen. The restaurants nearby, which I like and have striking views of the rocks and the sea, are closed down. I resisted the temptation to take any more photos and returned to the more secure parts of West Beirut. A friendly receptionist from the Crowne Plaza was out for a smoke break. We had a short conversation and he confessed his disbelief in the Lebanese army. I moved on to Bliss Street to get some take out for lunch. After washing my hands very thoroughly after my “Hope” experience, I ate atop the Gefinor and went for a swim. The pool attendants were still nervous. One said he had known one of the men killed in yesterday’s funeral procession shooting. He is worried for the future. “In Dubai,” he told me, “they had a desert and made a paradise. Here we have a paradise and will make a desert.” He is not planning to come back to work for a few days. One of the other health club members, a young AUB computer science grad who now works in business, was in the pool and we started talking. I told him what happened earlier in the day. We had a good laugh about it and he emphasized that foreigners like me are just in the way of a larger political struggle and neither of much interest nor in any special danger. He confirmed my speculation that the remaining militiamen are very afraid and low on ammunition and supplies. Ironically, with the port, airport (Beirut’s is the only functional airport in all Lebanon), and most roads closed, the opposition can’t get resupplied from Syria or other countries friendly to it. Syria has backed off anyway, undoubtedly adding to the nervousness of the pro-Syrian militiamen still out in the streets. My new friend told me he was pretty sure things would be OK and that life would at least go on. During the 2006 war with Israel, he recalled, people were very scared for the first few days but then started going out to have fun again. I said I thought that was brave of them and he replied “the Lebanese people aren’t brave, they just get bored very quickly and can’t stay home.” He also told me that there’s probably a way to “undelete” my deleted photos, but the camera user’s manual says that once they’re deleted, they’re gone (if anyone knows more about this, I would appreciate some help…)

I started home, meeting the Gefinor’s general manager in the lobby on my way out. Most of the hotel guests have left, presumably for the Christian part of town or elsewhere. He had spent the day up in Byblos and on the way back saw militiamen, still armed, not too far from the hotel. They had waved his car through, but their guns are more evidence that the situation isn’t as stable as the news may tell us. The hotel’s senior staff still seems to be around. We agreed to meet for cocktails tomorrow evening and I left. The delicious ice cream stand on Bliss Street was still open. I thought I deserved it after today, so I got a nice three scoop cone. It was reassuring to see a couple of families with kids there, but with all the reports of continuing fighting, I didn’t know what to expect on the walk home and thought I would look a lot less threatening with an ice cream. The walk back was uneventful, but I did see a gang of young toughs armed with clubs (the army’s anti-weapons decree applies only to firearms, so they have improvised). We walked past each other without comment. The Qoms, the pro-Syrian leftists, have planted their flag (black with a four-pointed red star inside a white circle) in a barrel in an intersection about three blocks away from home. Pictures of Saad Hariri have started to reappear, though, and the army is around. I got home without any problems and am glad to be writing you all safe and sound. Cheers, PdQ

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