Two Visits to a Fast-Changing Lebanon

The first time I visited Beirut, it was as a blogger and a photographer, documenting a city in the midst of an attempted putsch. When I revisited the city this August, it was as a tourist, visiting friends.

Unfortunately, many of the Lebanese bloggers I knew had left Beirut. Most people were leaving for better economic opportunities in the Gulf, Europe, or America. For those who stayed in Lebanon, goodbye parties were frequent, almost weekly social gatherings.

In August, Hezbollah's creepy tent city, which was used to economically cripple Beirut, had been dismantled. That was the good news. The bad news: it was dismantled because, in May 2008, Hezbollah -- who call themselves the "liberators of Lebanon" -- and their militia friends from Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) used their weapons to terrorize Beirut and kill Lebanese civilians. Their goal was to finish the job of extorting concessions from the Lebanese government. Their extortion succeeded. In May, Beirut's streets were filled with the spinning swastika logo of Hezbollah's allies, the fascist mad bombers of the SSNP.

I first encountered the SSNP while photographing Hezbollah's December 10 rally and wrote about them in a post titled with a quote from the SSNP: "We use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives."

Back in 2006, the Lebanese government had the power to crack down on this violent group. But now, the SSNP feels free to come out of the shadows. The flying swastika graffiti and flags were all over Beirut's Hamra district. Few people were willing to remove them.

Acceptance of the empowerment of Hezbollah and related fascist militias was most evident in July 2008, when the Lebanese president, the prime minister, heads of all branches of Lebanese security and intelligence services, Druze leader and former supporter of March 14 Walid Jumblatt, the German ambassador, and the commander of UNIFIL honored Samir Kuntar, the recently released terrorist/murderer of a four-year-old Israeli girl. Hezbollah proved to the world -- as if this needed proving -- that relative might makes right and that political crime pays.

However, when I was back on those sun-drenched Mediterranean streets, back in the crowded pubs eating delicious cafe fare, it was easy not to think of the changes that had taken place. I had some of the best arak around and became addicted to double espressos. Friends and taxis helped me see more of Lebanon than Beirut. We tasted wine in the Bekaa valley and saw the Roman ruins at Baalbeck. We drove into the northern mountains to dine with a local family who prepared a feast of roasted chicken, spinach, and a dish of rice, yoghurt, and kibbeh that I must try to make at home. As the sun set over the mountains, our host showed us his architectural sketches for improvements he planned to make on his already beautiful home. I mentioned that I had just had new wood flooring installed in my home, which was a fairly stressful and time-consuming process. I wondered if he'd be bothered by the noise and general disruption that the new work would require.

He said that redesigning his house, seeing the improvements he designed come to life, was what kept him sane. He couldn't make his country what he wanted it to be, but he could perfect his home.

During my recent visit, Beirut reminded me more of Barcelona, a city I'd just visited, than Paris. Seeing the beaches, the nightlife, and the cafe culture, it was hard to believe that the anarchic, fun-loving Spanish people could have lived under Franco's long-running authoritarian regime for decades. It was hard to imagine how the world could be so tolerant of fascism when it arose in Europe. Walking past Barcelona and Beirut's beautiful but crumbling Mediterranean streets, I wondered how much of history would repeat itself.