Thursday, October 18, 2012

Road Babe Dispatch From Beirut Lebanon

These days, news about the Middle East is often dominated by the war in Syria, the fallout from last year’s Arab Spring, and the turmoil surrounding a YouTube video depicting the prophet Mohammed as both a tyrant and a homosexual.

In Beirut, we read all these stories, while having a cup of coffee in a trendy café or tanning under the warm autumn sun in one of Beirut’s beach clubs. For three months now, I have called this city my home, after moving here from Switzerland, where all news of war and crisis seemed so far away. By the time I arrived in Lebanon, Kofi Annan had ended his diplomatic mission in Syria, and the signs of civil war began spreading over the border into Lebanon. Ever since, I have tread a thin line between buying furniture to get settled into my new apartment and leaving a suitcase packed for leaving on a moment's notice, just in case.

I was in a restaurant one evening a few weeks ago, when news spread that one of Lebanon’s most powerful families (who have their own militia) had blocked the road to the airport and was abducting foreigners (mostly Syrians), in retaliation for their son being kidnapped in Syria. “Do not take a taxi or leave the city tonight,” a friend texted me. Was this a sign to call off my plans to stay in the Middle East and learn Arabic? I looked around and saw all the locals enjoying their meals as usual. If this was a signal to pack my things and go, it was a very quiet one. I decided to stay calm and wait.

Gradually, I internalized that minor skirmishes like this are a regular occurrence in Lebanon. Between 1975 and 1990, the country suffered a religiously-motivated civil war with the marks of it still visible everywhere today. The best (or rather worst) example is the former Holiday Inn: a tall bombed-out building near the seafront, where snipers used to hide during the war to shoot at the ill-defined enemy across the street. In front of the Defense Ministry, the French artist Arman has installed a sculpture of piled-up tanks, recycled after their use in the war.

However, it’s not just the legacy of a long brutal conflict that Lebanon has to deal with. Ongoing political problems between various religious groups, serious poverty, and environmental issues make progress extremely challenging, not to mention the decades of strife with Israel to the south, which last erupted in a military strike on Lebanon in 2006.

Faced with all this, Beirutis seem to need a way to forget about war wounds and ongoing troubles. Whatever the explanation, they simply love to party. One gets the impression that Beirut invented rooftop bars, as most upscale clubs are outdoors or at least have a convertible roof. They are only open during the summer months. Once you manage to pass the bouncers, an elevator takes you right up under the sky where magnum bottles of champagne and vodka are repeatedly delivered to reserved tables. The men, dressed in suits or Ralph Lauren shirts, clink their glasses with girls wearing high heels and short designer dresses while showing off new lips or breasts. No joke – Lebanese women are fond of plastic surgery. This is the only country I know of where it is possible to take out a loan specifically for such procedures.

Yet, it’s not easy for most middle-class Lebanese to maintain this lifestyle. The average worker's salary is far from sufficient, given that standard expenses like housing, entertaining, food and petrol are quite costly. Unless coming from money, Lebanese need two jobs to cover everyday life. One may work as a manager in a production company by day and as a taxi driver by night. Only such efforts allow ordinary people to obtain Lebanese status symbols like cars, fashionable brands, and invitations to social gatherings where everyone wants to be seen as generous with money. Therefore, fighting over who pays an expensive dinner bill has become a national sport.

Lebanese society is still divided politically (and often geographically) into 17 religious groups. Two decades have passed since the civil war was declared over, but the peaceful religious coexistence that the country knew before 1975 has never been totally reestablished. Recently, I met a 17-year-old student, from a political party called the Lebanese Forces. The party is quite strongly associated with the Christian community and had its own army in the civil war. It's now more like a gang than an army. Although he was born after the armed sectarian conflicts officially ended, this young man strongly believes their political views are the only valid ones. A chill ran down my back as he showed me videos of their private army during wartime, glorifying their strength. How will conflicts in this traumatized area ever end, if the society never learns from the struggles of the past?

As time passes by, I am adapting to the Beiruti way of cherishing the moment and living without concern for future plights. I am beginning to feel safe in the capital, trusting the war will not reach us and that the occasional riots will not hit the area where I live. I still enjoy dinner in the lustrous garden of my favourite French restaurant. I would not want to miss experiencing life in this place, with its tough but fascinating cultural history. Despite all this, there remains a nagging fear that when conflict returns to Lebanon, I may miss the final exit call.

Vanessa Kellerhals is a travel writer from Switzerland who lives in Lebanon. As long as she is able, she plans to be out there, focusing her energy on one more adventure, one more mountain, one more dream. Her inclusion in the Road Babe Dispatches column reflects only the view of Lyn's "editorial staff."

Publisher's note: Less than 24 hours after the publication of this piece, a bomb blast exploded in Beirut. Some people died and others face the rest of their lives with crippling injuries. Blind and deaf Helen Keller said, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it." We must live everyday with gratitude, finding peace not in financial security (or cosmetic surgery) but in embracing our destiny. We must make peace with our maker, because we really start living when we lose the fear of dying. John Donne's most famous poem suggests that when we hear church bells tolling a funeral, we shouldn't send to find out who died, because the real message is the reminder of our own mortality. "Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Our hearts are with those in Beirut who lost their lives or their loved ones today. We wish them the peace that we their human brothers and sisters also struggle to find. As Dickens' poor and crippled but spiritual child said, "God bless us every one."

1 comment:

  1. Very informative, Vanessa! It's a part of the world I'll be coming back to in writing periodically, and the country has fascinated me for a long time.