Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lebanon for a Day

Crossing international borders is one of the great attractions of traveling. For all the necessary bureaucratic drudgery, the satisfaction of entering new territory combined with the cool passport stamp will always be sought after by the independent traveler. When I slipped over into Lebanon on Friday June 5, the border crossing was especially appealing because only four years ago the border between the two countries was a barrier in name only. I am all for the free flow of goods and people. But territorial sovereignty still has a place in today's world. Especially when it is enforced through the will of the people, as was the case in the spring of 2005 when Syria was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon in the face of mass protests in Beirut.

Those protests were on my mind when I set off for Beirut with Andre, another SAIS student. Our goal was to size up the pulse of the country as Lebanon went to the polls on Sunday June 7. The international media was billing the election as a critical showdown between the pro-Western March 17 alliance and the coalition of parties led by Hezbollah. No one could say for sure how the losing side would react to the election results. Everyone we spoke to in Syria and Lebanon though, was sure that our plan to return to Damascus on Sunday evening would be impossible. The first guy we spoke with upon arriving in Beirut even insisted us that our only option would be to return to Syria on Saturday night. The alternative, he warned, would be risking our necks on street that would be taken over by protestors and militias after the polls closed.

While our return leg remained shrouded in doubt, the road to Beirut from Damascus is simpler than anything you can imagine. As long as your visas are in order, the actual drive in a shared taxi takes less than three hours. Throw in an hour for customs on either side of the border, and in four hours I went from haggling with taxi drivers on the outskirts of Damascus to watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from a hotel balcony two blocks from Martyrs Square in Beirut.

Martyrs Square is where nearly two million Lebanese, over a quarter of the country’s entire population, rallied on March 14 2005 to demand Syria leave Lebanon. The site is far smaller than I expected, perhaps a tenth the size of Tiananmen Square. On one side of the square, or parking lot considering how many cars are splayed out over the concrete grounds, looms the blue and tan, and surreally Disneyesque, Al Amin Mosque. Initiated by Rafik Hariri in the years before his death, it now houses his tomb. With the Mediterranean on the northern edge of the square, the only other thing to see when Lebanese are not protesting by the thousands is a dramatic monument to the “martyrs” of the Lebanese Civil War. It is far from clear whether the stirring stone portraits of dying civilians are Shia, Sunni, Christian or Druze. Perhaps that is exactly the point.

On Friday night Andre and I headed out with some of his friends to tackle Beirut’s vaunted club scene. His friends chose a fairly subdued bar and so nothing I saw quite matched the madness of a night out in Beijing or Shanghai. To be fair, perhaps I did not see what I was not in the mood to appreciate. I am never very comfortable spending Friday nights away from the comfort of a Shabbat table. And as anyone who knows me well can attest, I am as hot and cold when it comes to dancing as they come. With the right company and music, I can go all night. But faced with unimaginative techno, cigarette smoke, an empty dance floor and memories of the friends I wished were by my side, I was colder than the Titanic.

On Saturday I wrapped up my prayers early in the morning so Andre and I could spend the day walking around Beirut. The city gets called the Paris of the East and all sorts of vampy names that seek to capture its liberal vibe (my two cents are for referring to Beirut as the Qingdao of West Asia). No doubt Beirut is far more liberal than any other Arab city. Having come from Damascus, the contrasts could not have been stronger. A free press! Outspoken citizenry! And of all things, a contested election!

But the northern stretches of Beirut are also empty. Not just of soul, though critics have described the rebuilt downtown area as lacking quite a bit in the character department. No, Beirut is empty of people. Even with sharply dressed soldiers deployed at every intersection, the capital resembled a western where nothing but whirling hay and the occasional slammed door greets the hero as he strides down main street on his trusty steed. The few Lebanese we had a chance to speak to on Saturday explained the empty streets as a result of the election. Although everyone in Beirut will tell you they come from the city, much of the urban population remains registered in their home villages. And so when the polls open on Sunday, that is where they must vote. Perhaps. But I have a strong suspicion that the spanking new downtown area always looks fairly empty. The human waves that surge through the streets of downtown Cairo and Damascus simply have not yet had a chance to come to terms with the wide avenues and glass office buildings of downtown Beirut. When they do, I can only imagine what new direction this most liberal of Arab capitals will be heading.

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