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A Beirut Diary

Photos by Michael J. TottenBeirut, Lebanon — Just as the last Syrian troops were ending their 30-year occupation, I traveled with three young leaders of the Cedar Revolution on their campaign up the coast to the ancient Christian stronghold of Mount Lebanon. As we got to the gates of the Lebanese American University, in the hills above Byblos, we were met with a scene that suggested democracy was, nevertheless, still not quite at hand. We came upon not only photo murals and monuments to Christian war criminals Samir Geagea and Bashir Gemayel but a surly mob of students — all of them men — arranged before us in a phalanx. All wore the same brown shirts with a picture of Geagea on the front and a black Christian cross on the back. They loudly chanted Christian war songs, raised their right hands and aped the Nazi salute. Others, behind the phalanx, banged drums. Someone rang the church bells furiously and violently. Far from a celebration in the new Lebanon, it looked more like a political pep rally in General Franco’s Spain. The three activists from the democracy movement I was traveling with — Ribal, Michel and Alaa — ran up to the mob of radical Christians and hugged them. I felt sick to my stomach. What on earth were so-called democracy activists doing buddying up with sectarian ethnic chauvinists? I snapped some digital pictures because I didn’t know what else to do.

...cozy cafes - anddreams of unity.

Just then a bald university administrator wearing a suit and a tie got in my face. “Where are you from?” he screamed. It was the first and only time anyone yelled at me in Lebanon. “You erase those pictures,” he said. “And you erase them right now.” I pushed some buttons at random, pretending to comply. The angry administrator went off to yell at some students as one of the brown-shirted radical Christian nut jobs ran up to me. I braced myself for whatever nonsense was coming next. “I’m the campus president of the Lebanese Armed Forces — the Christian resistance party that is staging this rally,” he said. “This university is oppressing us. It’s dominated by the opposition, and they are kicking our asses.” Good, I thought. These guys needed to have their asses kicked. But I still couldn’t understand why the democracy activists — who were also supposed to stand for national unity — greeted them warmly. “That man who just told you to erase the pictures,” he said. “He belongs to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.” The SSNP was modeled after Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. Its emblem — a spinning red swastika — can be found bolted to telephone poles in towns around the region. “He and the rest of the thugs at the school are trying to prevent us from building a new Lebanon, a Lebanon without bloodshed,” said a brown shirt. Suddenly I had no idea what was happening or who I was dealing with. Was the young man in front of me who had been flipping off the straight-arm salute a moment ago just one more face of Lebanon’s ancient tribal hate fest — or was he one of the good guys in the Cedar Revolution? In my pocket was a necklace with a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent moon fused together as one. It was Lebanon’s unofficial new symbol of national unity. I fished it out and showed it to him. A real Christian extremist would want to spit on it or knock it out of my hand. “That is exactly what we are fighting for,” he said, pointing to the necklace. It was? Never in my life have I so severely misjudged what I was looking at. I would have initially better understood what was happening if I were literally blind. A black Mercedes rumbled up to us. The young man I was interviewing said “intelligence agents” and ran behind a building. I slowly walked away in the other direction and snapped some innocent photos of mountains. My three activist traveling companions came up behind me. “Let’s get out of here,” Alaa said as they led me back to the car. “What happened back there?” I said. “Who were those guys at the rally?” “They are our friends,” Ribal said. “Are they part of the democracy movement?” I said. “Are they in favor of Christian and Muslim unity?” “Yessss,” he said, as if I were some kind of idiot. Those kids back at the college weren’t fascists. They were national-unity democrats. The outward trappings of their rally were simply holdovers from another era. They went through the motions of tribalism because they didn’t know what else to do with themselves. Their minds were racing far ahead of their habits. That’s what happens in a country when history swings on its hinges. But a darkness lurks in the heart of this place that’s impossible to dismiss or ignore. The entire city is riddled with bullet holes. A war-ravaged Holiday Inn with gaping 15-foot holes blasted into the side of it rises above brand-new construction on the shore of the Mediterranean. A crescent of shattered buildings encircles downtown on the western, Muslim side. From 1975 to 1990 an inferno of hate and sectarian violence burned Lebanon down. The formerly cosmopolitan metropolis of Beirut was dismembered into besieged ethnic cantons. The city center was pulverized into powder. Eerie swaths of empty space still remain. The civil war made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like the Summer of Love by comparison. A Muslim from West Beirut caught in Christian East Beirut could be summarily shot in the head for nothing more than what was printed on his identity card. The same went for Christians who ventured across the Green Line into West Beirut. Every single adult in this country, even the young ones, remembers it vividly. It ended, in historical terms, only yesterday. Some people aren’t sure it ended at all. “You are crazy to be here right now. Crazy,” said a young man sitting next to me in a bar on Monot Street, which during the war straddled the Green Line. It was a deathly silent no man’s land between East and West Beirut where nothing lived except weeds and wild grass. “You really think so?” I said. He opened his eyes wide, nodded emphatically and laughed grimly. “I am ready to pick up my machine gun and kill Muslims,” he said. He was an Arab, a Christian, with a French name: Claude. “Let me show you something,” he said. Saved on his cell phone were photographs of his heroes Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea — the same war criminals whose ghosts I ran into at the university. Both were shown wearing military camo fatigues and holding machine guns. I silently groaned to myself. The well-dressed young businessman by day was a militia werewolf by night. It was one of those perfect Lebanon-in-a-nutshell moments. “What do you think about what’s happening now, with the protests?” I said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy activists who had been filling the streets for the past couple of months. He nodded with satisfaction. “It is good,” he said. “We need democracy.” So far so good, I thought. He may have been ready to blow holes in his old enemies, but at least he talked the talk of democracy. Perhaps he was like those I had already misunderstood on the mountain. “And what about the national-unity drive?” I said. The Cedar Revolutionaries weren’t the only ones pushing for national unity. A similar campaign was under way by city officials and community leaders to break the spell of fear cast over the city by a series of car bombs in Christian neighborhoods that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The streets had been largely empty for weeks. Restaurants were closing early. Hotels were laying off workers. Beirut was not itself. “The national-unity drive,” Claude said. “That’s why I came out tonight. We are getting close to the war. That’s why the city government is asking us all to come out and return to the nightlife. It pushes the war away.” He took a sip from his martini. “But I don’t believe in it. I want a federal system in Lebanon where Christians are not allowed to enter Muslim areas and Muslims cannot enter Christian areas.” “That’s not going to happen,” I said. “I know, I know,” he said. “It is not reality. It is my dream.” He still waged his own personal war with Muslims in his head. But he was also at war with himself, precariously perched between an ethnic-nationalist fantasy and another, better hope for freedom and democracy for all of Lebanon — including Lebanon’s Muslims. He offered to give me a ride back to my hotel. “I have to do it,” he said. “It is required.” Arab hospitality is alive and well even in the most modern of the Middle East’s largest cities. “But I want to,” he said. “I want to.” We drove into West Beirut, the Muslim side of the city. He was instantly lost and had to stop for directions. “You are crazy to stay in West Beirut,” he said when he got back in the car. “I never come over here. The Muslims are everywhere. I can smell them.” Such is Beirut — the Paris of the Middle East, as it is called — tolerant and cosmopolitan but sometimes ugly and monstrous. I had a blast in the city, but at times I quite frankly despaired of the place. It was all too easy to imagine the liberal dream of a free united country driven underground yet again by the rough beast of old Lebanon. That rough beast still fully possesses Hezbollah in its terrorist-ruled state-within-a-state in the south of the country. Another handful of well-placed car bombs could bring it back to East and West Beirut as well. The restaurants and nightlife spots weren’t empty because the Lebanese were afraid of the bombs. Tumbleweeds blew through the streets because the people of Lebanon were scared to death of themselves. Fifteen years ago, when the civil war ended, every single person in Lebanon was still deeply traumatized. Anyone not from your tight-knit sect might kill you for no reason. Your own ethnic warlord was the only one who hadn’t marked you for death. Even the most tolerant were driven to join one or another fascist militia just for self-preservation. Add into that fear the pain of friends and family massacred or killed by random explosions and bombs. Rejoining a peaceful, integrated community with recent former enemies such as these requires a galactic-size leap of faith few of us can even imagine. Would you step off the edge of a building and trust the person who murdered your sister to catch you? “I want you to call me,” Claude said as he dropped me off at my hotel. “I don’t want you to feel all alone here.” A week later I called him back, and Claude took me to a hot new nightclub downtown. He was a different man. The exhilarating rush of the Cedar Revolution was rapidly eroding the Berlin Wall in people’s minds. Everyone was talking about the possibility of a new era in Lebanon’s history whether they liked what they sensed might be coming or not. “You know what I like about Lebanon?” Claude said. “If you take 100 balls and you put them together, you will just have a big ball. If you take 100 pediments and you put them together, you will just have a big pediment. But if you take 50 balls and put them with 50 pediments, you will have something brand-new. That is what I like about Lebanon. Christians and Muslims together.” It was an amazing, transformational moment of the sort that reproduced itself daily thousands, if not millions, of times in Lebanon among Christians, Sunni, Shia and Druze. Hezbollah is still armed and dangerous. But Syrian troops have now evacuated the country. Four car bombs in two weeks were followed by no car bombs for four weeks. The Lebanese government called for free and fair elections on time. Iran’s President Khatami recently warned Lebanon that a civil war may be brewing again. But he sounds like no more than a desperate foreign dictator who is worried that the disarmament of his country’s Lebanese client militia — Hezbollah — is next on the agenda. Whether Syria and Iran like it or not, the rough beast of Lebanon slouches toward the graveyard. Michael J. Totten is a columnist at Tech Central Station and is in Lebanon blogging the Cedar Revolution. Visit his daily Web log at http://www.michaeltotten.com .


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