BEIRUT, LEBANON — As my second day draws to a close the major impression is that the whole place appears to be in a quite serious rush. I’m sure this is true of most major cities, especially capitals. The difference here is that what few traffic laws Lebanon’s less-than-iron-fisted government has managed to get onto the books are considered optional. This is apparently especially true of the laws against drink-driving. Added to this, not unlike Istanbul, there is a large number of motorcycles, which are even worse. Often with two people on, they weave between the traffic at great speed—with great deftness it has to be said—and exactly zero concern for pedestrians, other motorcycles, cars, or red lights.
In appearance—especially architecture—there is a close resemblance with Istanbul and the Arab areas of Israel. The street vendors are more professional than in Acre—among other things they have actual shops rather than carts—and the billboards and female dress-sense (I’ve seen exactly one full-face covering; shorts and tight jeans seem to be the norm) tells of an area more emancipated than Turkey. By the time I got to Turkey the laws against the niqab had been dismantled, as had the racy advertising boards. But there is still a very similar “feel”.
I was told that when I landed I needed to register my mobile telephone to allow it to work at all on the Lebanese grid. Duly reporting to the phone kiosk at the airport I was told that this was no longer the case. The assumption has to be that it was a counter-terrorism measure but why it was ever in place, and why and how it has failed, remain a mystery (at least to me). A further discombobulating factor is the revelation that in Lebanon lavatory paper cannot be flushed: the system simply can’t take it. And then there are the power-cuts: between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. there is a three-hour power-cut, rotated in time and district—everyone gets one every day but at a different time. The main advice is not to take a lift before the allotted time otherwise it will be a long, long trip. In the place I am working while I’m here this has been rectified by some kind of in-house generator.
To the Syrian refugees whose health-care provisions I am here to study: the evidence of their presence is everywhere. This is to be expected: tiny Lebanon, with four million people, has absorbed one million people—officially. God alone knows what the real number is. Some of them try to make ends meet by polishing shoes on the street; others have resorted to more hidden, if entirely predictable, means.
I had expected a bit more to be made of yesterday’s anniversary of the nakba (catastrophe) as the Arabs call their defeat in Palestine in 1948. There was celebratory-type gun-fire today but I have no idea what it was for. The cause of Palestine has taken rather a back-seat recently as first Syria and now the wider Fertile Crescent drown in blood. There have also been some second-thoughts as that great hero of “resistance,” Bashar al-Assad, the upright ruler who would never make his peace with the Zionist project and would fight to restore all Palestinians to their homes, now starves the people of Palestinian descent within his reach to death and attacks them in front of the United Nations. Add to that that the other member of the “axis of resistance” in the Levant, Hizballah, has plunged its troops into Syria on the side of the tyrant, and it’s a real headache for many Sunnis, who until recently cheered this murderous duo—they did after all stick it to the United States and Israel—to now adjust their opinions without quite admitting that’s what they’ve done.
One major difference between here and Turkey—at least so far—is the lack of mosques. They are here, and I happen to be close to one, but they don’t dominate the skyline in the way they do Istanbul: they are less numerous, less ornate, and less large. The adhan (call to prayer) had somewhat annoyed me in Turkey, but, perhaps because I can’t hear it in the room here, it seemed quite moving when I heard it yesterday.
There is not so much political/religious propaganda about as I had expected—though that might be to do with the area of the city. I have seen some pictures of Hassan Nasrallah and particularly of Musa as-Sadr (see below). Sadr comes not only from the great Shi’a dynasty but he was the unlikely man who organised the militias to take care of the (Sunni) Palestinian gunmen who imposed themselves on the Shi’ite South of Lebanon after their insane attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. His murder by Colonel Qaddafi in 1978 has never been forgiven by the Shi’ites and the saintly aura that surrounds him—the inevitable “sightings” of the “Vanished Imam” that have been claimed down the years—has been added to his very secular achievements, in the eyes of his community, and his legacy has been annexed by Hizballah and its allies, and it has a special relevance in this time of hateful sectarianism in the region. The killing was sectarian, quite possibly a favour to the Palestinians and especially their leader, Yasser Arafat, and Qaddafi always defended himself in such terms. “I am told Musa as-Sadr is an Iranian; is he not?” Qaddafi once answered when asked where the Imam had gone.
The security briefing today made clear that while the city has all the usual forms of criminality—especially those afflicting foreigners like pick-pocketting and dodgy black-market money changers—there was nothing particularly worrying if one has travelled before; just stay aware. On the terrorism side this has all been in areas well clear of here. Also, these attacks have been limited to strikes on sectarian targets (the Iranian Embassy, for example).
It’s apparently relatively expensive here: it’s too early for me to say. But there is a distinct lack of choice in types of food. There’s take-out places aplenty, and every manner of chicken and lamb, but supermarkets with food you have to cook yourself are in very short supply. I’m staying in the Ain em-Mreisseh district in north-west Beirut—theoretically in the Sunni area; the Christians have the east and Hizballah (the Shi’ites) have the southern suburbs—and this is only one district over from Hamra, where the central boulevard is said to be the “most chic” and modern and international bit of the city, so since I’m off on weekends I shall probably wander down there and see if something like a shop cannot be done. It’s either that or a vastly more intensive work-out regimen, and I was unhappy enough with the initial one.