Beirut rules

When people heard that I was planning to travel to Beirut, their reaction was the same – they said “You’re going – where??”

hard rock cafe

Hard Rock Cafe, Beirut

Despite March 14th’s outpouring of pro-democracy fervor, despite the images of more than a million Lebanese (in a nation of 4 million) championing freedom, despite the very real similarities between Beirut, Italy and Paris, “Beirut”,
the word and the city, have become synonymous with urban warfare, snipers and car bombs. In the movies, whenever an American wanders into Beirut, he winds up dumped in the back of a car with hood over his head. This happened in Syriana, a movie I fortunately only saw after I returned from my trip. In a pivotal scene, George Clooney’s CIA agent threatens a James Bakeresque government official with what he calls “Beirut Rules” – “if anything happens to me, my friends will kill your children, your wife, then you..”

coffee with ronald

Coffee with Ronald, Beirut

Those are the “Beirut rules” we hear about in the west.

bus driver sunni neighborhood

Bus Driver, Sunni neighborhood, West Beirut

The week before the trip was spent trying to make and rearrange flights to both Beirut and Israel (for the Herzliyya conference), a process that’s difficult at best considering that there are no flights from Beirut to Israel.

The week before the trip I tried tell myself that I was not worried, but I barely ate anything at all. Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money kept running through my head.

building wrecked assassination hariri

The result of the 600 pounds of explosives used to assassinate former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri

Soon after this shooting occurred, I got an email from Michael Totten saying “Things are dicey here, and could get worse.” Since my complete lack of knowledge about Beirut or the Middle East would make me a real liability in an emergency, I responded by offering to call off my trip. But he wrote back, saying the situation wasn’t as bad as it originally seemed.

snipers tower

Sniper’s Tower, downtown Beirut

holiday inn

Holiday Inn, downtown Beirut

Still, news reports kept the Beirut/warzone image alive. There were the rumors that Hezbollah was going to storm the Beirut airport. I tried to pack for warzone conditions, choosing camping clothes – things that didn’t show dirt, that you could wash in a ditch. As a result, I was seriously frumpy in fashionable Beirut.

My first day there, as we walked down towards the rally, past scores of soldiers lining the streets, pockmarked buildings (were those bullet holes?) and a kitchen knife that lay, incongruously clean, across the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, Michael did a quick overview of the situation in Beirut, delivered with a kinetic enthusiasm for the city and the people who lived there.

His alternative Beirut rules: Beirut is entreprenurial, urbane and democratic. They’re not leaning towards fascism – if anything, (epecially traffic-wise) the city leans towards anarchy. Sunnis, Christians and Shia all hang out at the same bars. Nobody, including Hezbollah, wants to impose sharia laws on this place. No one would stand for that. And no one wants civil war.

fruit stand

Fruit stand

traffic

Midday traffic

Street crime wasn’t a problem in Beirut- basically, the real robbers work for the phone company and the goverment. In that sort of corrupt economy, petty crime isn’t tolerated. Beirut was starting to sound more like Hoboken, a Hoboken with tanks in the street and barbarians at the gate.

tank starbucks

I had hoped to visit Southern Lebanon, but Michael’s contacts, the people who work for the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, decided that this wouldn’t be prudent. I’d also hoped to drive to Mount Lebanon but my poor planning, limited daylight hours and rumors floating of another Hezobllah-led airport takeover made that unworkable.

So, I spent most of my time doing what I usually do in a new city, walking everywhere, taking pictures.

view of the mountains

view of the mountains

beirut balloon

Balloon rides offered downtown

Given how easy it is to travel by taxi in Beirut, a random walking tour turned out to be the best option. When my feet got tired, I could grab a cheap ($1.50) “service” taxi. But, before I could do that, I had to learn the name of the closest landmark to the hotel, a place the mostly arabic-speaking drivers could easily find. The closest landmark was the Saint George Medical center. In Arabic, the Hospital was called ‘Moostache Fa-Room”. The incongruity of a hospital whose name sounded like a comic-book bad guy made the phrase easy to remember.

slippers

Socks and slippers

While taking pictures of a mosque in West Beirut I bumped into another woman who was taking the same picture, who was also dressed for a camping and/or a warzone. I guessed that she was a fellow American and said hello.

She was an American, a film producer who had grown up in Lebanon during the civil war. She was amazed by the improvements they’d made, the new buildings, the reconstruction and repairs. As we walked in search of the American University of Beirut and the nearby crepe shops, she talked about growing up here, a childhood that sounded surprisingly normal. She wasn’t sure about how she felt, coming back, but the weather was certainly an improvement over Washington, DC.

mural

Mural, Beirut

Another day, in a Sunni neighborhood that seemed to be more conservative than most (most of the women were veiled, signs were in Arabic, not English), I stopped by a bakery and ordered using my excruciatingly bad Arabic (plus hand signals) figuring that they wouldn’t speak English. I was wrong – their English was about as good as mine and their chocolate croissants and petit fours were geniuinely French.

downtown shops
hezbollah vs. christmas

No tourism, no Christmas shoppers, razor wire

The reconstructed Downtown shopping district was ringed with razor wire, patrolled by soldiers and police. At the height of the holiday season, the stores are open, but they’re empty as a result of Hezbollah’s encampment downtown. Just one more way that Hezbollah’s Putsch is ruining Beirut’s economy.

damaged building downtown

Unreconstructed building, downtown

near the downtown

Although I was warned away from the areas controlled by Hezbollah, I did decide to wander into their downtown emcampment. Unfortunately I decided to do this at night. The area under the overpass was filled with garbage and roaming dogs.The propaganda stands were neglected, kalishnikov flags and hammer and sickle were both grey in the moonlight. A little kid, about 5 years old, was wandering alone, stumbling, apparently high or drunk. Older men sitting near the edges of curbs, a few groups of teenagers watched him and me with an expression that couldn’t be called sympathetic.

The atmosphere wasn’t Phish concert at night, it was more like the South Bronx, 1984. The shivers running down my spine told me to put my camera away, to refrain from wandering up to the tents to ask questions. I walked towards the street and stood in front of a bakery, looking for a taxi.

Another Beirut rule that applies to urban areas worldwide: When you’re not looking for a taxi, they’re always in your face – when you actually want one, they’re never around.

The baker was closing up shop, bringing in a cart of breadloaves. For some reason, he handed me a loaf of bread, and he refused to let me pay for it.

That sort of kindness was the “Beirut rule” that I saw in most of the neighborhoods I wandered through.

A taxi appeared. With a quick incantation of “Moostache Fa-Room”, I was on my way home.

* Charles Malik describes his walk through the camps at night.

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About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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13 Responses to Beirut rules

  1. T says:

    More, more!
    Very interesting, especially after reading M.Totten’s post you linked to – and the thread there.

  2. T says:

    More, more!
    Very interesting, especially after reading M.Totten’s post you linked to – and the thread there.

  3. mary says:

    Those posts at MJT’s site are just the beginning – he talked to some very interesting people in Southern Lebanon.

    Unfortunately, Hezbollah was making threatening noises around the time I was there.

    I’m seriously beginning to regret not taking advantage of the taxi driver’s offer to show me Southern Lebanon. Yes, it would have been a pro-Hezbollah tour and he probably would have overcharged me, but I would have at least gotten a chance to see the place.

  4. mary says:

    Those posts at MJT’s site are just the beginning – he talked to some very interesting people in Southern Lebanon.

    Unfortunately, Hezbollah was making threatening noises around the time I was there.

    I’m seriously beginning to regret not taking advantage of the taxi driver’s offer to show me Southern Lebanon. Yes, it would have been a pro-Hezbollah tour and he probably would have overcharged me, but I would have at least gotten a chance to see the place.

  5. mary says:

    Those posts at MJT’s site are just the beginning – he talked to some very interesting people in Southern Lebanon.

    Unfortunately, Hezbollah was making threatening noises around the time I was there.

    I’m seriously beginning to regret not taking advantage of the taxi driver’s offer to show me Southern Lebanon. Yes, it would have been a pro-Hezbollah tour and he probably would have overcharged me, but I would have at least gotten a chance to see the place.

  6. Jeha says:

    Welcome to Lebanon!

    I hope you have a nice stay there. Enjoy the sites. It looks like you are close to “Lala chicken” in the “H-Roum” area; try a chicken sandwich there. They kinda push up the calories, but they are really good.

    Also, there are some nice sites to visit in Mount Lebanon; it is not all death and destruction there, you know. The view from some locations is really breathtaking, and there are some really nice seashore cafes to visit. I sound like a tourist guide, but there is more to Lebanon than politics, otherwise we’d all go Loco…

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already.

  7. Jeha says:

    Welcome to Lebanon!

    I hope you have a nice stay there. Enjoy the sites. It looks like you are close to “Lala chicken” in the “H-Roum” area; try a chicken sandwich there. They kinda push up the calories, but they are really good.

    Also, there are some nice sites to visit in Mount Lebanon; it is not all death and destruction there, you know. The view from some locations is really breathtaking, and there are some really nice seashore cafes to visit. I sound like a tourist guide, but there is more to Lebanon than politics, otherwise we’d all go Loco…

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already.

  8. Jeha says:

    Welcome to Lebanon!

    I hope you have a nice stay there. Enjoy the sites. It looks like you are close to “Lala chicken” in the “H-Roum” area; try a chicken sandwich there. They kinda push up the calories, but they are really good.

    Also, there are some nice sites to visit in Mount Lebanon; it is not all death and destruction there, you know. The view from some locations is really breathtaking, and there are some really nice seashore cafes to visit. I sound like a tourist guide, but there is more to Lebanon than politics, otherwise we’d all go Loco…

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already.

  9. Jeha says:

    Welcome to Lebanon!

    I hope you have a nice stay there. Enjoy the sites. It looks like you are close to “Lala chicken” in the “H-Roum” area; try a chicken sandwich there. They kinda push up the calories, but they are really good.

    Also, there are some nice sites to visit in Mount Lebanon; it is not all death and destruction there, you know. The view from some locations is really breathtaking, and there are some really nice seashore cafes to visit. I sound like a tourist guide, but there is more to Lebanon than politics, otherwise we’d all go Loco…

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already.

  10. mary says:

    Unfortunately, I was only in Lebanon for about 5 days. I was hoping to do a lot of touristy things, like driving to Mount Lebanon, touring Baalbeck, visiting Byblos. I didn’t even get a chance to try the crepes (or the chicken) If I ever get a chance to go back, I’ll try to plan things better.

    Still, it was nice to just walk around and see the city. This post is kind of a jumble of a couple of long walks combined. I hope I didn’t get the locations mixed up.

  11. mary says:

    Unfortunately, I was only in Lebanon for about 5 days. I was hoping to do a lot of touristy things, like driving to Mount Lebanon, touring Baalbeck, visiting Byblos. I didn’t even get a chance to try the crepes (or the chicken) If I ever get a chance to go back, I’ll try to plan things better.

    Still, it was nice to just walk around and see the city. This post is kind of a jumble of a couple of long walks combined. I hope I didn’t get the locations mixed up.

  12. mary says:

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already

    Not compared to New Yorkers. Of all the places I’ve visited, I think we’re the nuttiest on the planet.

  13. mary says:

    come to think of it, we’re all kinda loco already

    Not compared to New Yorkers. Of all the places I’ve visited, I think we’re the nuttiest on the planet.

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