Beirut - A Year Later
I visited Beirut twice this month. The first visit, which lasted exactly one week, was to satisfy my deep curiosity about the city in which I had so many anonymous virtual friends - Lebanese bloggers and message board addicts with whom I have been in contact since before the Hezbollah-Israel war of the summer of 2006. In retrospect, I think I was also looking for closure - a salve for the still-raw emotional scar left by the war.
I covered that war on my blog, and for the mainstream media, and after it was all over, I wrote a very personal essay about how that conflict affected my friendships with Lebanese bloggers - especially with a certain Lebanese blogger who had visited Israel before the war.
But it took me a few weeks to write that piece. After the ceasefire was declared, I became a temporary hermit. I spent four days holed up in my apartment, my mobile phone and computer turned off, as I lay in my bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to recover from post-war emotional exhaustion, and to come to terms with the verbal and physical violence that had affected me so strongly.
It took me more than six months to start feeling like myself again, but the war changed me permanently in some ways. I was more cynical about human nature, and a lot less hopeful about the future. I continued to follow the Lebanese blogosphere, reading with great interest as pro-government bloggers lashed out at Al Jazeera for its "biased' reporting on the conflict between the Lebanese army and Fatah el Islam fighters in Nahr-el-Barad, a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon. I couldn't help smiling cynically when I read those Lebanese blog posts, because they expressed criticism that was very similar to the Israeli bloggers' criticism of Western media attitudes toward Israel. I also continued to strengthen my friendships with various Lebanese - as they, too, recovered from the emotional trauma of the war.
I traveled to Beirut together with a friend who, like me, is an Israeli citizen with a second passport. We were both terribly nervous about getting through Lebanese customs: we had spent the final hours before our flight carefully cutting out any Hebrew labels from our clothes, and we left our Israeli passports, ID cards and mobile phones with a friend in Amman. The last thing I did before arriving at Amman's airport was to cover the Hebrew letters on my laptop keyboard with stickers that showed Arabic letters instead. But I needn't have worried: the Lebanese customs official smiled at me warmly, stamped my passport, wished me a pleasant stay and informed me that I could extend my one month visa without leaving the country.
As soon as we arrived in Beirut, my friend and I our separate ways - she was there to produce a series of articles for a South American television station; since I was paying my own way, I stayed at a much cheaper hotel in a different neighbourhood, and I wandered the city on my own - on foot and by taxi. I had a vague idea of writing a few human-interest stories after I returned to Tel Aviv, about the people I met, the things I saw and the places I explored.
My experiences over that week caused me to develop a sort of unrequited affection for Beirut. Unrequited, because Beirut is the capital of a state that is at war with my country, Israel, so technically speaking, my presence there was illegal. That meant that I had to hide my nationality from all but a very few, trusted friends. Those Lebanese acquaintances that did know my secret told me explicitly that I must be extremely careful never to reveal their identities to anyone.
After returning to Israel, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to go back. My second trip was a 36 hour, whirlwind visit for the purpose of putting together a report for Israel's Channel 10 news, which broadcast a special segment called "One Year After the War," and, after learning of my first trip, dispatched me back.
As I took the now-familiar taxi ride into downtown Beirut, I chatted with my driver, Ahmed. "There are no tourists in Beirut," Ahmed he informed me sadly.
"Only journalists," I responded, and he agreed. "Yes."
The journey downtown only took 15 minutes but I learned a lot from Ahmed about what's going on in Lebanon during that short trip.
"Many of our boys and girls just want to get passports and leave the country. There's no work here," said Ahmed, who just happened to live in Dahiyeh, Nasrallah's neighborhood and Hezbollah headquarters. His mother refused to leave the family's apartment in the Dahiyeh during the war, and he stayed with her. I asked him whether any damage was cause to his home by the Israeli bombardment, and he said no. This was a pretty surprising response: according to most of the reports in the Western media, the Dahiyeh was basically a parking lot after the Israeli Air Force finished with it. I particularly remember the BBC's hourly reports during the war, each one beginning with the following (paraphrased) sentence: "As Israel continues its relentless pounding of southern Beirut..." But according to Ahmed, and also to several other residents of the Dahiyeh with whom I spoke during my two visits to Beirut over the last month, the Israeli air strikes were actually very much pinpointed on an area in the center of the Dahiyeh that is called the "security square" - the area where the senior Hezbollah leaders lived. Of course many of those destroyed apartment blocks were also occupied by people who were not connected to the Hezbollah; unfortunately, there is no technology that allows a single apartment building in a multi-dwelling building to be destroyed, while leaving the rest intact. And so, as in all wars, innocent bystanders saw their property destroyed and their loved ones killed in a conflict that they did not start - and quite possibly did not support.
Ahmed said, "Nobody knows where Nasrallah is, only God. I am not from Hezbollah but I like him very much. Look, the people in Israel they believe Nasrallah more than their leaders because he told them the truth. When he said he was going to stop the war, he stopped the war!"
On one hand, despite the lack of tourists, everything looks very summery and Mediterranean. Beirut is a secular, modern and Western-oriented city populated largely by people whose style of dress is indistinguishable from that of the trendy residents of Tel Aviv.
There were beautiful, elegantly dressed people on the streets, the atmosphere was secular, western and modern. All in all, Beirut really reminded me of Tel Aviv - with its fashionable people, cafes and beach culture. I didn't see any damage caused by last summer's war, although a very noticeable percentage of the buildings were still heavily scarred by the shrapnel and bullet holes left from the 1975 - 1990 civil war.
It was impossible to ignore the political tension in Beirut, though. There were army checkpoints everywhere, even in the quietest neighborhoods, and soldiers often stopped people who looked suspicious, checked their ID cards and the contents of their bags. On several occasions I was asked to stop taking photographs, even though I was using a simple digital camera to photograph innocuous street life scenes in residential areas.
The tension is something that I was familiar with in Israel, but it's fairly new to the Lebanese - although they are rapidly becoming accustomed to having their purses and backpacks opened for inspection before they enter elegant shopping malls in upscale neighbourhoods.
In most of the city, except for the downtown area, where the Hezbollah protest camp still stands - albeit nearly empty of people - there is almost no evidence of Hezbollah presence. Occasionally I saw posters of Nasrallah, or a Hezbollah flag, but not in upscale areas like Hamra or Achrafiyeh.
But just ten minutes away from those areas is the Dahiyeh, which is a different world. Even from a distance, the Hezbollah flags and huge pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, waving his hand and smiling are visible. You know that there, the scars of war are still physically evident.
It looks like another world completely - and it is. When I asked people who live in the more upscale neighborhoods if they ever went to Dahiyeh, they looked at me completely shocked - why in the world would I want to go there - they asked me.
As for me, safety concerns outweighed journalistic curiousity and I didn't try to go to Dahiyah. There is a checkpoint at the main entrance to the neighborhood manned by Hezbollah security people who aren't stupid, Any time a foreigner wants to enter, they would ask for ID and immediately check them out in Google, where they would have found out immediately I was Israeli and I wasn't interested in taking that risk.
Before we arrived at the hotel, Ahmed the taxi driver pointed out the spot that triggered the country's most recent crisis. "This is the place where they killed Prime Minister Hariri."
And that's where we got to today's situation, a frustrating status quo between Hezbollah supporters and the anti-Syrian government.
At a caf√© called Torino Express in Gemmayzeh, Beirut's trendiest neighbourhood, I met Majed, a 28 year-old Shi'a who grew up in Dahiyeh. He moved to Gemmayzeh a few years ago, and has managed the caf√© for years. He told me proudly that Torino's was the only caf√© that stayed open during the war.
"When I opened the place, millions of people came "Yay, Torino is open!"
He knows his old neighborhood of Dahiyeh well - describing the area hit hardest by Israel during the war.
"In Dahiyeh, there is a square. There is a security square for Hezbollah. Israel was just pointing in this area. Besides that, they didn't hit the rest of the Dahiyeh. But those 500 buildings in the security zone, they look as though they were hit by an earthquake that registered 9 on the Richter scale.
Majed, who studied architecture, explained his theory to me as to why Hezbollah hasn't rehabilitated the neighborhood and it still stands in ruins.
"Now they are waiting."
For what? "Maybe because they already know there will be another war."
Like other Beirut residents, he remains convinced that war will return this summer.
"It's already planned in their book, the holy book for the Jewish," he explained to me solemnly. "They said 2000 years ago there is a plan to make the big country of Israel starting from the Nile River to the Euphrates River in Iraq."
And you think that Israel is going to attack again?
"I think so because in the last war they failed in their plans."