Life in Beirut

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Another update from Paul du Quenoy in Beirut — sent last night:

Hints of normal life are appearing. Yesterday and today more – I would even say most — shops were open. I walked down Joan of Arc Street toward the university. People were walking with real purpose instead of the nervous curiosity that possessed them for the previous few days. I felt I was in a somewhat precarious situation when I walked past the nearby filling station: it was being resupplied and two big gas trucks were parked across the street from each other. They blocked the sidewalks, so I had to walk between them knowing that only a few days ago bullets had been flying there. The florist, the barber shop, the athletic supply store, an electronics business, and other places I passed were all open. Yesterday I changed over a C-note at a small storefront that does this at the official rate of 1500:1. The smiling guy working there was selling lottery tickets again. It is the closest business to the intersection where the SSNP (Qom) flag is still fluttering from a barrel. They’re an odd group. Originally the communist party but now something rather different, their membership comes from all the different elements in Lebanon. I suppose they’re an interfaith initiative.

For the first time since the day I arrived last week, I did not feel like I was in Grand Theft Auto, the only video game I still play. The conceit is not so far-fetched – for several days there were regular troops, police, and plainclothes men with guns walking around and sometimes fighting, not unlike the rival gang members, cops, and, if you really get into trouble, military in the game series. Civilians were walking about with no apparent purpose or destination, just like the digital bystanders. The older model cars that dominate Beirut streets seemed to fit, as Grand Theft Auto is retro, with the action in all of the games happening in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as in the GTA universe, the buildings here are mostly next to each other and had been wholly inaccessible, as they almost always are in the games. The urban geography of broad streets, narrow alleys, dead ends, and occasional obstacles to traffic suggests a potential new module for the programmers.

Yesterday afternoon I met a Belgian UN development consultant at the Gefinor. He is one of the few remaining guests there. This is his first trip to Lebanon, for meetings with government officials about how to tackle rural poverty. Naturally very few of the meetings had taken place, and those weren’t too productive. He confessed that he doesn’t know very much about the politics of the situation, but had an idea that Hezbollah could be what he calls a “progressive” force in terms of economic development. I disagree.

I swam, steamed, and walked to the university. It has been closed throughout the unrest. Most of the students were evacuated at the beginning of hostilities. Hezbollah occupied one of the campus’s side gates (“Medical Gate”), but the Main Gate remained free. The Qoms function just south of the campus (i.e. between it and where I live), and Amal holds ground to the east of it, down the street from the Gefinor, but I haven’t heard anything about militants trespassing on university grounds. Small groups of students were hanging out and talking. It’s a beautiful campus – lush, flowers, handsome mandate-style architecture with Eastern flourishes, sweeping views of the Mediterranean, great air (at the American University in Cairo, from which I’m now in the process of resigning, I used to walk on campus thinking how bad the air was). The steep incline from the main part of campus toward the impressive new athletic complex and the sea reminds me of Southern California. A few people were playing tennis. The university’s cats still seemed to be cared for. AUB was supposed to have had its career fair for graduating students last Thursday and Friday. The booths had been set up for what I was later told were 250 participating firms, but after several days of neglect they were falling apart. It is unclear when the university will reopen, but the students’ dreams of working for Ernst and Young and Proctor and Gamble and so on are on hold.

On my way home I stopped to talk with an older man I know, Mohammed. He’s a Sunni of about 60 and running low on teeth. I told him about my brief detention by the militants on Sunday, and he traded back an even more harrowing story. One of his sons, who works for the Finance Ministry, had been stopped by the Qoms on Thursday during the fighting. They stole his government car and dragged him off to some dungeon. There they stole his wallet, watch, and cell phone, as well as his official ID, which is a very hard document to replace. He was handcuffed and then severely beaten by a woman militant who used the butt of her AK-47 for the job, screaming that he was a traitor and an Israeli agent the whole time. He was released when the fighting ended, but had some bad injuries. But now he is back to work and has replaced his phone and watch. He even bought an extra new watch for Mohammed, telling him that everything will be all right and that he should not be afraid for him.

Mohammed hates the Qoms and anyone who perpetrates violence. He elaborated that he has no uniform hatred for any group or country, but confessed he’s not too fond of America for having supplied Israel with weapons. I thought of the fighting up north, where the Sunnis had been attacking the local Hezbollah forces. They may be for Hariri’s government and against Nasrallah, but there are rumors that they nevertheless have Al Qaeda links. Not everyone is anti-US. This afternoon I stopped in a small shop of household goods where the Qoms had been. A television was on and I wanted a look at the news. The old lady running the shop asked who I was. She had pictures of both Saad and Rafik – and she was an old lady — so I felt safe telling her I was with the American University. She smilingly approved. I asked her where the militants were and she pointed to the gutter. No one seems to care about the Arab League initiative to broker a peace deal, and no one I have talked to has mentioned President Bush’s warnings to Iran and Syria or commented on his visit to the Middle East. The international dimensions of the crisis don’t seem to be a part of the reality on the ground.

Just before that I visited my future department (History and Archeology) at the university and had lunch with a colleague. He had just finished reading one of my bulletins in Time when I arrived at his office. Someone had sent it to him and he recalled having done some narrative journalism during the 2006 war, when he stayed in Beirut. We traded stories from the past week. He is friends with a couple who live close to where I was held the other day. Their proximity to Future TV put them much more in harm’s way than I had been and they were under much more direct and much heavier fire. The husband had been wounded by shrapnel but is OK. My colleague had taken some pictures there, too, but had only been yelled at from a distance and walked on.

The university community has melted away. Only my colleague and one other professor were in this afternoon. The dean had sent around an e-mail message to find out who was left. Our chairman and another colleague were stranded in Istanbul while at a conference and are taking a circuitous land route back. The trek involves flying to Damascus and then traveling overland to the northern part of Lebanon. The Tripoli road is still dangerous, so they might have to come through the Bekaa Valley and then over the mountains that separate it from Beirut. Whether that path will be safe and clear is another question.

We lunched at a small café not far from campus. The owner is an English-speaking lady who told us with justifiable pride that she had come there from her distant neighborhood every day during the insurrection. Over salad and a potato dish we swapped academic gossip and more stories about the situation. Some of this discussion overlapped, for it seems Lebanon’s sectarian differences are well represented at AUB, many of whose faculty are Lebanese academics educated in the West. In some cases the break down is along departmental lines. The History and Archeology Department, which I will be in, is pretty friendly and laid back, but some departments have strong pro-Hezbollah contingents. One of the political science professors just got elected to parliament (I don’t know which party).

My colleague and I had a great laugh about the US embassy’s advice to American citizens. Purely out of curiosity I had checked its website today. According to the latest warden message – now three days old — the done thing is to stay home all the time, preferably with plenty of food and water. What made us laugh was that simultaneously one is also supposed to try to charter a private boat – at your initiative and expense, of course – and sail to Cyprus. How to do this while staying at home all the time was not explained, but the marinas and yacht club are said to have members who will do this for a high price (fuel is expensive and Cyprus is far away). We have heard that the embassy compound itself is being resupplied by helicopter. I have no idea where the helicopters would come from (Cyprus? An aircraft carrier? Israel?) or what they are bringing (someone suggested Velveeta cheese), but my morbid thought was that people who really want to get out might be allowed to hold on to one as it flies away.

The “escape” stories are pretty dramatic, so I’m not sure that’s such an enormous exaggeration. My colleague, who had stayed for the war, thinks people who flee invariably have a much worse time than those who stay. A colleague of a friend in the US managed to make the second to last plane out by paying a cab driver 500 euros to take him to the airport before Hezbollah blocked the road. The normal cab fare is about $13 (dollars, mind you, not even euros). Needless to say, the man in question is an academic. A group of AUB faculty tried to get to Syria only to be held for several hours at the border. The Syrians are tough about letting people in on a good day, but our people were stuck there long enough to call back to see if would be a better idea to return to Beirut. Eventually they did get into Syria. I do want to travel there (and got a visa at their embassy in Washington so I won’t have to deal with border problems), but it’s not my exact idea of a safe haven. One of the problems at the few accessible border crossings is that Syrian workers are swamping them. Although the demonstrations that followed Rafik Hariri’s assassination three years ago were mostly peaceful, dozens of Syrian nationals were killed, so those here now are pretty nervous and are racing to leave. I have heard that one of my AUC colleagues is in town. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who now lives in exile in the Gulf because Egypt has become unsafe for him, is a sociologist and democratic activist who every spring takes a bunch of college kids on hippy trips to contentious places in the Middle East. He spoke to my colleague’s class about democracy last Tuesday – I wonder what they think now — and must be stuck here with his group.

At least the fighting is over. The army has disarmed the Druzes in the hills and restored order in the north. It seems pretty confident and is certainly well armed and equipped. Yesterday I did a little test in the neighborhood. I said hello to all the soldiers I passed on the street and to all the men I pegged as Qom militants. The soldiers all said hello back and usually smiled. The Qom guys stared nervously. They don’t have much training, they’re all unarmed now (not even clubs), and a lot of them seem to be in their 40s and bored and annoyed with having to stand around trying to look scary with no guns.