As I came back to my flat yesterday evening I had the distinct displeasure of hearing a speech made by Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, piped over loudspeakers at the corner shop here in Ain el-Mreissi. This is a mild improvement over Jnah, from where I’d just come, where people with radios and devices to broadcast them are doing so while driving around on motorcycles.
Nasrallah has taken to the airwaves again—and he’d been going at it for nearly an hour by this point—to celebrate the “victory” of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, in the “election,” staged/fabricated/enforced at gunpoint on the people of Syria on Tuesday.
I had gathered that the particular area of Ain el-Mreissi I’m in is, if not exactly pro-Hizballah, rather sympathetic, and by extension supportive of the Syrian dictatorship. The mosque at the top of the road, for example, prominently displays the picture of Musa as-Sadr, the founder and slightly saintly martyr of the first Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, AMAL, that is now a close ally of Hizballah. But it was still with more disgust than I felt in a long time that I watched—and heard—the celebrations in this area on Wednesday night when the “result” of a prefabricated piece of intimidation and propaganda (this so-called “election”) was announced.
It has been a sordid and depressing few days politically. The “election,” quite unbelievably, was also staged here in Lebanon. There were innumerable reports of intimidation and coercion from the Hizballah and other Syrian assets inside Lebanon. I managed to get in touch with a reporter for one of the major papers—or rather they got in touch with me when I “tweeted” something about the voting process in the south—who was watching the thing in Beirut and if anything the most depressing aspect was that it was not only the pro-regime people and those who had been frightened and bullied into voting who were taking part—though these were a considerable number, especially when the regime put it about here that not voting meant that such a person would never be allowed to go back to Syria, and with the regime seemingly winning this had some impact. But there were some credulous people who genuinely believed that a regime vote might offer a way forward, and there was a contingent who had simply wearied of the war and would accept the regime since it has re-established control over large tracts of the Damascus area; they just wanted to go home and thought this might do it.
It definitely does feel as if I’m wrapping up now but oddly the last three days here are set to be some of the busiest. I went down to Saida, the third city (after Beirut and Tripoli) in the south, on Thursday for a meeting of all the humanitarian organisations operating in the area. It was very interesting in its own right and it allowed me to meet a couple of people who I’m going to interview in my last couple of days. I’m also constantly transcribing interviews. And most importantly I’m trying to keep up with the progress of the war in Syria. Tricky times.
I think I’ve become immune to the Hizballah flags that adorn the road to Saida and other areas controlled by the “Party of God” at this point but I still haven’t gotten used to the pictures of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the roadside on the way back. It’s not wholly surprising: in regional terms he is in Iran’s column and provides them overflight rights to re-supply the Syrian dictatorship. But still, he has no charisma of any kind and he is not able to present himself as the front-line of “resistance” or any of this other nonsense. It was also particularly vertiginous to see Maliki bedeck one of the road—picture after picture after picture of his solemn visage—matched image for image on the other side by Cristiano Ronaldo, who was advertising fast-food (I think it was KFC).
Lebanon is like that though: full of contradictions; one thing and its opposite co-existing side-by-side. Massive posters with barely-clad women advertising spa days at the very entrance to Hizballahland, and no end of modernising efforts alongside bullet-riddled buildings that have been there for twenty years.
This contrast has struck me a lot in some of the primitiveness of my living arrangements. It’s a modern enough flat; it has an electric lift and a heavy metal front-door to the building that’s entirely digitised, but the cooking arrangements are not much above Afghan. There is one cooking hob, which is actually a physically light camping-style thing with a gas canister attached. This means that making a cup of tea is something of a rigmarole—not least because the taps don’t have drinking water, so you have to get that out of the drums, which are delivered once-a-week—but it also means that when we get our three-hour per day power cut, you make tea in exactly the same way as when the apparatus of modernity is available to you. Swings and roundabouts.
As it turns out I had already found the Down Town area: it is the mall complex and surrounding high-street where I’ve been going to the supermarket. Having been recently rebuilt, it is maligned locally for not having any character. I think this is unfair, but then I would say that. I don’t agree with Ayn Rand on much but I thought she was correct that human achievements like sky scrapers are good measures of progress. I managed to find my way to “Martyrs’ Square,” which is the central concourse in the city not far from the parliament and adjacent to a massive mosque. In the centre is Martyrs’ Statue commemorating those Lebanese who were hanged after rebelling against the Turks during World War One. It was here in 2005 that the Lebanese gathered to kick the Syrian occupation forces out. The lasting impact of the Syrian presence—not least because the Syrian intelligence apparatus never did actually leave, even though her soldiers were forced to—is mostly that the Lebanese have a great resentment against their neighbour and not a little schadenfreude at what has overtaken that country.
I had been planning to take a trip around Lebanon with a company that does trips. There are some things to see: the cedars (Lebanon’s national tree; it’s on the flag) and Beiteddine, a palace left-over from Ottoman times in the Druze mountain. (A small aside. I’d been looking out for Druze since I got here. They’re maybe a quarter-million population, an offshoot of an offshoot of Shi’ism and no longer really able to claim affinity to Islam. They’re secular, though they do have a religion—it’s just secret from most of them. It transpired that one of the people I’ve been working with was a Druze. He conforms exactly: open-minded with a total horror of fanaticism—and no hostility to alcohol. I found we got on.) As it happens though internet trouble over the last few days meant I haven’t booked it in time. I’m not too concerned: I’m honestly not sure I have the energy for a full day of this kind of thing. I’m going to complete my tour of the local area tomorrow, visiting the Ashrafiya section of the city. It’s a Christian area and there are some sights to visit and decent restaurants. I haven’t been to many restaurants since I’ve been here, mostly for health reasons (had I really applied myself the facilities are available to have gained several stone in four weeks.) I might make an exception since it’s my last Sunday here though.