BEIRUT, LEBANON — So I’m now officially a member of the United Nations. I was signed-up yesterday. Innumerable misgivings about the organisation accepted, this kind of thing is what they do well: the specialised agencies that organise aid and do not try at international politics. The badge allows me a certain movement and access around the country, starting tomorrow with a trip to the south to visit one of the tent settlements around Saida. In Lebanon, the Syrian refugees are not in camps—the government will not allow them to be set up, unlike Zaatari in Jordan—so they have set up their own informal settlements.
It’s been much warmer here starting about Friday. I’d heard from home that Britain had been having something of a heat-wave last week, while here is was very mild—absolutely no more than 20 Centigrade (70 Fahrenheit). It has not been in any sense unbearable though and—perhaps because it is a coastal city—there is always a breeze, which means driving is okay because you can just open the window, and I brought a fan with me that ensures the room stays the right side of tolerable.
On Saturday I went to do my week’s shop at the mall I have now found is called Park Avenue. It’s in the Minet el-Hosn district, one over from mine which is Ain el-Mreissi, but it’s not too far—maybe a fifteen minute walk. I used my money much better this week and even got some cookable food, namely pasta. My plan to save money (and calories) on lunches—at this point about $5 every day, even if they’ve been extremely kind most days and not let me pay for my own—was to get a loaf and make myself sandwiches. I did get the loaf but it cost £6.50! (16,500 Lebanese pounds; $11.) And it wasn’t even a full one: it was a two-thirds brown loaf. Even so, this will theoretically this will still save—and I have noticed that I have barely spent anything since Saturday.
Since I got here the most obviously missing thing from my diet has been meat: I just can’t find anywhere that sells even raw chicken—yet it is a ubiquitous staple of the likewise-ubiquitous take-out places. Now I’m not going to bother searching: if bread is at that price, meat just isn’t worth it. Eggs have been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in my diet since I’ve been here, as have bananas and nuts. Cereal has been another big one. One luxury that got put back was avocado: at more than £3 (8,500 Lebanese pounds) it seemed an extravagance.
I took Sunday to travel to Jnah, which is near where I work with the IOM. It’s a bit more of a run-down place and it’s further south so it strays into the Shi’a zones—west Beirut is Sunni and the east is dominated by Christians—and the Shi’a predominantly support the Hizballah (Party of God). The main evidence of this was the presence of an Iranian “cultural centre,” numerous flags and symbols of the party, and (see below) a young man on a motorcycle flying this flag and driving with even less care for other drivers and pedestrians than the rest of the Lebanese motorist “community”. But the beach-front is very nice, and while there were some girls and women trying to enjoy a day at the beach in a burka, most were not and many men seemed to consider t-shirts optional, something those who would like to fashion Lebanon as a “sister republic” to Iran would certainly crack down on if they thought they could; they evidently don’t have enough support here to impose these aspects of their rule.
There have been quite a lot of reports of the army restoring order (we get sent them in a daily email on the security situation) and there is evidence of this even in districts like mine where there is not actually any trouble. The army is more visible, and in walking down the main road behind my apartment to get to the shops at the weekend I was stopped on the way there because I was taking pictures of the surrounding area and was asked to delete them and then I was stopped on the way back because that road had effectively a checkpoint and they needed to check my bags. They checked all cars—which could not just drive through because they had an iron barrier across the street—and indeed all civilians with bags of any kind. I maintain what I’ve said though about the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF): whatever they lack in willingness, they are professional and decent. The two soldiers who stopped me were extremely courteous (basically apologetic), spoke to me in English, and tried to explain that it was a security measure and the rest.
Politics is obviously a tricky subject even in the office but the Lebanese staff are willing to talk about it if asked. The overwhelming impression is a hatred for the Hizballah. The guy who took me to get my U.N. badge yesterday is a Christian, so this might be expected, but actually Lebanon’s Christians have been aligned with these Shi’a zealots. And the Hizballah’s rhetoric of “resistance,” especially against Israel, had made them successful across sectarian lines. This stark decline in popularity comes from Syria: Hizballah have thrown their men into that war on the side of the regime, and the blowback has been felt in Lebanon. The gentleman said: “There wouldn’t be a single bombing in Lebanon if Hizballah minded their own business.” He’s probably correct. It is also pleasing that the Palestinian card has worn very thin. This man drew attention to the irony of Hizballah having stored their weapons in the Palestinian camps in Southern Lebanon when they attacked Israel, ostensibly as a favour to these Palestinians, in 2006, but now the Salafi-jihadists are emerging from these very camps to attack the Hizballah. Pictures emerge day after day of Palestinian men and even babies being starved to death by the Syrian regime—one boy was reduced to trying to milk a dog to provide food for his baby brother—which makes it a little difficult, even in a conspiracy-laden culture, for the Hizballah to say its fighting for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation when it’s fighting for a regime that is murdering the Palestinians whose lives it can actually affect. I would say this is progress.