The Seige of Beirut is Lifted

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My professor acquaintance Paul du Quenoy sent this Saturday. To those who have enjoyed his dispatches from Beirut, my apologies for not posting this one sooner. An even more recent one, from today, will be posted soon. Here’s Saturday’s, with the subject line “The Seige is Lifted”:

I am happy to report the situation is much better today. During the night Hezbollah and the other Shi’ite militias occupying West Beirut largely disappeared. No one is exactly sure why, but the best guess seems to be that their forces did not have the resources to continue their occupation or siege of the government buildings (and my neighborhood), which they failed to storm or cow into surrender. Yesterday the president of Syria, which backs Hezbollah and its allies and has intervened heavily in Lebanon in the past, declared the situation purely an internal matter. The governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which support the current Lebanese government, and the UN called for an immediate end to the conflict. Nasrallah shot his whole bolt, but it didn’t go far enough.
The city has returned to a tentative calm. The government troops in place around my neighborhood are still there, but, while not exactly bustling, the streets were populated. In Hamra, at the center of West Beirut where I am, there were kids on bikes and mothers with toddlers and strollers. Food shops have reopened and are doing brisk business. I stopped in at one in my neighborhood. It was very crowded and the staff seemed overwhelmed, but I managed to get some things. Most other businesses remain closed, though a few shopkeepers reappeared to check in on their stores.

I walked down Hamra Street, the district’s main shopping way, toward the center of Beirut. Government buildings and the Red Cross headquarters are heavily guarded by troops and tanks. Giant battlefield-style razor wire surrounded the sensitive places. The central districts are almost deserted. The area around the Serail, the seat of parliament, is heavily defended. Not even pedestrians were being allowed in. Just south of Place d’Etoile, an historic circle surrounded by an arcade of shops and restaurants, I saw some troops accosting a group of three teenagers with suitcases. They did what I assumed was a bomb check, inspected their documents, and then brusquely ordered them to cross the street. I walked up the arcade to Place d’Etoile. On my first visit to Beirut in January 2006, this was a busy commercial area. Since the collapse of the coalition government, however, Hezbollah has maintained a presence nearby and most of the shops and cafes there went out of business. Hezbollah’s encampment consists of a parking lot full of shoddy tents across from the huge, colorful Mohammed Al-Amin mosque that Rafik Hariri had endowed before his assassination. This area has been surprisingly quiet through the past few days, and it looked like a lot of the tents had been taken down since my last visit here in March. I was the only person on the street. The Hezbollah militants inside the tent area pointed at me, so I pointed at them. We left it at that.

I wanted to cross Place des Martyrs and go to the Christian section of Beirut, but all the roads leading from the central part of the city were blocked even to foot traffic. Rafik Hariri’s large memorial museum is completely shut down, but only lightly guarded. I would have to have gone far out of my way to reach the Christian area, so I started back toward Place d’Etoile. Rather than simply return the way I came, I walked toward the Corniche by the port, which is closed. There had been some fighting around there and the troops profiled me carefully as I approached. In general, though, they seem much more relaxed. It was about 75 and sunny today (the weather has been great throughout this, with the exception of the huge thunderstorm a couple of nights ago) and a few of them, still in uniform, were sunbathing and getting some rest.

By this point I had been walking for a couple of hours and didn’t feel like walking the whole way back to Hamra along the Corniche. I stopped a car for a lift. It wasn’t an official taxi, but I thought what the hell and told the driver I wanted to go to the American University of Beirut. It was only after I sat in the back seat that I noticed his yellow and green Hezbollah banner neatly folded between the two front seats. The flag has a yellow background ornamented with green letters spelling “Hezbollah.” The Arabic letter “l” in the word extends up to form a fist clutching a machine gun. The bullet clip of the machine gun rests on top a globe of the world (Wikipedia has pictures if you want to see it). Above that striking image is usually the slogan, “We Hezbollah are the majority.” Beneath it is another, sometimes, “Our Blood is the Defense” and sometimes, “The Guardian of Islam in Lebanon.” Naturally my Hezbollah driver asked who I was and what I do. I wanted to talk with him as openly as possible, so I lied and told him I was a Polish engineer. He seemed to accept that and we talked about the crisis. My driver strongly supports Hezbollah (“is very, very, very good,” he said in broken English I pretended to half understand) and had participated in some of the recent militia activity. On the car radio he was playing a cassette tape of either a sermon or a political lecture (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference), but turned it down right after the recorded voice said with disturbing conviction that the current Lebanese government is a tool of the CIA. In the course of our conversation, I asked him what he thought of Hariri. He answered that he has great respect for the late Rafik Hariri, but that he thinks Saad, Rafik’s son, the current parliamentary leader, and my neighbor in the West Beirut siege zone, is not so good. I asked his opinion of the army. He replied that the army is great and should take over. He wanted to know what I thought of Hezbollah. I said I was very sad about the situation, and he told me Poland is a great country. We had by then reached the university, so I asked him to stop, paid him 5,000 Lebanese pounds (about $3.30, the standard fare anywhere in downtown Beirut), and got out. The restaurants on Bliss Street (Daniel Bliss was the founder of AUB, or the Syrian Protestant College, as it was originally known) were mostly open. I got a Philly cheese steak and a Diet Coke and walked back to the Gefinor hotel, where I had been swimming on the rooftop when the fighting broke out.

After my modest lunch I had a pristine and uninterrupted swim. For a while I was the only person there. The attendants were nervously watching the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, who was in the middle of a defiant televised speech. I stopped in to watch some of it on my way to the steam room. Siniora denounced the attack as a “bloody coup” and called on the army to restore order. I was feeling tired, so I got dressed and started home. The streets were almost deserted, but free of the masked gunmen I saw two days ago. As I approached my neighborhood, I looked for signs of the fighting. Some of the sidewalks were broken and a lot of garbage lay in the streets. The omnipresent pictures of Rafik Hariri pasted on the walls were untouched, but every one of Saad Hariri had been defaced or torn down. In outlying areas the damage is far, far worse. The army pickets around the presidential palace were still in place. I passed through and got heavily profiled again, but reached home safely. In my unconquered neighborhood all the Saad Hariri pictures were still up.

My concierge Emad had the news on. During my walk home the army announced that it would restore order, as Siniora had asked it to, but also that it would revoke the government decrees that ordered the shut down of Hezbollah’s communications network (subject to “investigation”) and the dismissal of the pro-Shi’ite airport security chief. It has ordered all armed militiamen off the streets, but nothing has been said about disarming them. It also wants a general return to the status quo before Wednesday’s general strike. The announcement had only just come through, but I heard that many of the roadblocks were still in place. Emad was under the impression that Hezbollah and its allies were regrouping in their South Beirut stronghold and building more barricades there. There are reports that fighting between rival militias in Sidon, in Halba in the north of the country, and in the Bekaa Valley, another Hezbollah stronghold where, as I found during my March trip, they sell t-shirts. In Beirut itself a militant belonging to an ironically named pro-Nasrallah group called “Hope” (“Amal”) fired on a Sunni funeral procession earlier in the afternoon and killed several people. The army arrested the gunman. Angry Sunnis then sacked and burned his shop. I heard sporadic gunfire into the early evening.

Nasrallah has signaled his agreement to respect the army’s takeover and compromise. The next step will probably be the mediation that Hariri had originally wanted. Everyone thinks, probably rightly, that the army commander Michel Suleiman will become the head of state, ending the long deadlock over the presidency. Siniora’s government is nominally still in place, but if, as we say in my profession, Prussia was an army with a state, Lebanon would appear to be an army without one.

In his afternoon speech Siniora accused Hezbollah of relying on fear to try to get its way. To me this underscored a very important point about the nature of terrorism and much of what is going on now in and as a result of conditions in the Middle East. Fear, both their own and ours, is all militants like these ever really have. If they could take and hold power and win the proverbial hearts and minds with real strength, discipline, appealing ideas, and popular sympathy, they wouldn’t need fear or terror. They win, psychologically and sometimes politically, when people feel afraid in situations like the one I have found myself in these past few days. Fear wrenches people’s emotions in a way that, as Gandhi observed, simple violence never can. It stops them from doing things they would otherwise like to do for years and years after events like September 11. It makes them terrified to travel, especially to this beautiful part of the world, possibly for their whole lives. It disrupts their existences and frustrates their plans, as anyone who has flown in the US this century can attest. It reduces their choices and lessens their freedom, often without a shot being fired. It is intended to. The best thing to do is not to give in.

So, my friends, travel to the Middle East. Visit Beirut. See the Pyramids. Party in Dubai. Hike in Yemen. Scuba dive in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Camp out in Wadi Rum. Bask in the glory of Palmyra. Realize that most of the people here are good, honest, and well meaning. If people stare at you, smile at them. If they tell you they don’t like your country, tell them you love theirs. Go where you want when you want and have fun. Little else will make those masked gunmen a few streets away more powerless. I am proud to say that through all of this I have not felt a second of fear. I can speak only for myself, but many of Lebanese I observed did not seem to, either. That makes them great. It explains why despite all that has happened in this tragic country real estate prices are through the roof and luxury hotels and condos are going up all over downtown Beirut. I didn’t fear the masked gunmen. I didn’t fear the bullets and explosions. I didn’t fear starvation or deprivation when I was surrounded and cut off. I didn’t fear the Hezbollah cab driver or his comic opera flag. I haven’t feared death, though I have probably never been closer to it. I have no plans to leave Lebanon until I have a reason or a desire to go elsewhere. On the contrary, I’ll probably travel less than I had planned this summer so that I can spend more time here. I haven’t even called the US embassy again to see if someone is answering the phone. When I see pictures of Nasrallah, I feel neither fear nor hate. I don’t even see an enemy. I see the ninth son of a poor East Beirut vegetable seller whose desperate parents probably didn’t pay enough attention to him. When I hear the name of his movement, I think of the last scene in Duck Soup. In my own quiet way, I beat him.