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Last month in Beirut I was caught up in a physical attack on Christopher Hitchens, the Anglo-American journalist, by pro-Syrian thugs. It was my first visit to the Lebanese capital - as the guest of the New Opinion Group, an anti-Syrian NGO. The violence came as a surprise, partly because we were walking down one of the city's smartest streets, but mostly because one of the most striking things about the city is the way it looks and feels so calmly Western European, so civilised and so very much recovered from the civil war of 1975-90.

Yes, you can see many buildings pockmarked with bullet holes or scarred by shrapnel and yes, the Holiday Inn's shattered hulk still stands forlornly above the Corniche. But there are new skyscrapers along the beach and the central area is all but completely rebuilt. The streets, even in the relatively poor southern suburbs, are much cleaner than London's. You do see soldiers and Lebanese army troop carriers at key roundabouts but the overall atmosphere is dominated by commerce, by nightlife, by construction and by civilians, who clearly spend much of their disposable income following the latest fashions.

It was mid-afternoon when the attack happened. Hitchens, Michael Totten (Middle East blogger and Standpoint contributor) and I left our West Beirut hotel to walk off our lunch and do some shopping. We had spent a sunlit morning with the rest of an international and localmedia delegation at an exhilarating political rally in Martyrs' Square and were due to meet a leading politician from the anti-Syrian ruling coalition for drinks that evening.

We turned on to Hamra Street, which although a little faded these days - and like much of the city, a victim of grey modern architecture - is still the smartest stretch of West Beirut and one of the most cosmopolitan and least sectarian areas of the whole city. Totten, who knows the city well, had promised us we would quickly find good coffee and places to buy a shirt and shoes.

He was in the middle of explaining how in May 2008 West Beirut had been taken over for several days by Hizbollah gunmen and their allies, when we came upon a signpost showing a red swastika-like device and a photograph of a man with a moustache.


The sign that started all the trouble

Totten explained that the red device was the symbol of the "Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party", whose cadres had fought alongside Hizbollah in May. Hitchens knew something of the SSNP - which is Lebanese despite its name-from his visits to Lebanon during the civil war (it was the SSNP who assassinated President Bashir Gemayel in 1982). Totten said that during the May 2008 takeover of West Beirut, the SSNP's masked gunmen had hung its black, white and red banners all along Hamra Street, while their comrades burned a nearby pro-government TV station. Though a small party-cum-militia with only a few hundred members, the SSNP has an intimidating reputation, and even six months after the takeover the local people - who are mostly middle-class Sunnis with little sympathy for the Shia Hizbollah and its allies - had been too frightened to remove the flags. "They only came down when the Prime Minister ordered it himself," Totten explained.

By this point, Christopher already had his rollerball pen out. "No swastika can go unchallenged" he announced before reaching up and writing "No, No, No, F**k You," across the bottom of the sign. "I hope this is indelible ink" he said as he finished. Totten looked stricken. Hitch had hardly put the cap back on when a young man in a leather coat appeared and grabbed his sleeve with one hand while talking into a mobile phone on the other. Christopher pulled his arm away.

The young man remained calm and continued to talk insistently into his mobile. Totten averred that we should get away quickly. As we walked swiftly down the almost deserted street - it was a holiday because of the political rally - the young man caught up with us and grabbed Hitch's arm again, ignoring demands that he leave us alone.

It was then that we saw a policeman standing on a nearby corner in a blue camouflage-pattern uniform. We asked him for help in English, saying that we were foreign journalists being harassed. The young man said something to the policeman in Arabic that we couldn't understand - all three of us have only a few words of the language - and the officer seemed to back away.

We broke into a trot in the opposite direction. "We have to get out of here. This could be very bad," Totten said. The young man was clearly an SSNP "spotter" and had summoned his comrades. So we were relieved to see a Mercedes cab coming down the street. We piled into the back and told the driver to just drive. Before the cabbie could get going, the young man opened the front door and sat down in the passenger seat. He said something quietly to the cab driver that prompted the man to take his hands off the wheel. Then, to my horror, he turned to face us and started reaching deep into the hip pocket of his coat. We jumped out of the cab and ran down the street to a corner where two more cabs were parked just outside a Costa coffee shop with a busy pavement terrace. However, the young man quickly caught up with us, as calm and determined as ever. Each time we spoke to one of the taxi drivers in his car, the youth in the leather jacket would come over and say something that would make the cabbie look scared and lock his doors against us. Then the young man's friends arrived.

There were six or seven of them; it all happened too quickly to be sure. They were mostly young men in dark clothes or leather jackets. As they arrived, Totten asked the café manager for help. He was told to get out. An older man in a blazer asked me in English: "What did you write?"

Then the beating began. One of the new arrivals punched Christopher hard in the face. Two others grabbed his arm and started dragging him across the street. Totten tried to pull Christopher's arm away, without success, and was shoved back. For the first time Hitch looked scared. He shouted for help: "We are American journalists!" Nobody came to our aid. With mounting horror, it struck me that they might push Christopher into a car and take him away. Instead, he was thrown to the ground, landing hard between two parked cars and one of the young men went after him, kicking him. The sight of a 60-year-old man - and my friend - being kicked was sickening. I went up with my hands held high and shouted at them to stop. A youth with a furious expression on his face ran up and kicked me while someone else punched me in the cheek from behind.

No one from the café moved to help us. The policeman we had spoken to earlier was no longer in sight. Then a squat middle-aged man in a sweatshirt and open leather jacket, who seemed to be the leader of the attackers, said something to the youth kicking Christopher. He backed off. Christopher climbed uneasily to his feet, blood staining the arm of his blue shirt, just as another taxi pulled up to the intersection. The three of us jumped in with Hitch in the front seat. This time, when we asked the cabbie to "just drive", he did so. Fortunately, the street was clear ahead. As we accelerated past the gang, one of them reached in an open window to punch Hitch once more in the face. Fearful of being followed, we had the driver take us to a big international hotel in another part of town.

While the incident was frightening enough in itself, the aftermath was almost more so, as we realised that we had provoked the anger of people who have killed for much less. It was dismaying enough to find out that the SSNP is widely believed to be the culprit in the country's car bomb assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. It was worse to be told by our hosts that if we had been Lebanese or if we had not been so recognisable as foreigners, then the three of us would probably have been bundled into cars and taken off to some basement dungeon, never to be seen again or shot on the spot. A local Sunni journalist who had the temerity to film municipal workers removing the SSNP's flags on Hamra Street last year was given a vicious public beating that landed him in intensive care. Christopher had desecrated a sign marking a kind of shrine for the SSNP's cadres, the spot where one of the party's heroes shot two Israeli soldiers sitting at a café in 1982.

In retrospect, Hitch's defacing of the sign seemed even more foolhardy. After all, it would not be a good idea to write over paramilitary murals in Belfast or extremist political graffiti in France or for that matter gang tags in an American city. And this was Lebanon. It is a country in which every family is said to keep an automatic rifle at home, and in which the disarming of the militias (other than Hizbollah) under Syrian occupation really only meant the surrendering of heavy weapons. On the other hand, to be fair to Christopher, the elegance of Hamra Street made it feel deceptively safer than any rough corner of Belfast, Paris or LA.

Our hotel now had to increase its security and we had to consider moving our delegation to predominantly Christian East Beirut, a part of the city in which the pro-Syrian, Hizbollah-linked fighters of the SSNP could not operate without provoking civil war. As with so much of Lebanese politics, there was a twisted irony to this in that the SSNP was founded by a member of Lebanon's small (and traditionally pan-Arabist) Greek Orthodox Christian minority, who also happened to admire Hitler and to dream of a Greater Syria covering the entire fertile crescent from Iraq to Palestine. The reason why the SSNP can operate in mostly Sunni West Beirut is that Lebanon's Sunnis are the least martial of the country's sects. As a result, when Hizbollah, its less fundamentalist Shia ally Amal and the SSNP invaded West Beirut last May, the gunmen were quickly able to overwhelm the armed security guards defending the headquarters of the main Sunni political party.

Though we chose to stay at our original hotel, Hamra Street became out of bounds for the three of us. Later in the week, the local newspapers reported the attack. The SSNP duly denied that any such incident had taken place, adding that if it had done, surely the foreigners in question would have alerted the police, as any SSNP member would have done.

The incident put a slight dampener on a day that began with the sight of a million Lebanese people of all faiths cheerfully demonstrating in favour of independence from Syria and in memory of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister assassinated in February 2005. There had been speakers from all the parties of the 14 March Alliance, named after the date of the "Cedar Revolution" that began a month after Hariri's death and which culminated in the withdrawal of Syria's 40,000 troops from Lebanon a month later. After three hours of speeches from Sunni, Christian, Druze, communist and anti-Hizbollah Shia leaders within the M14 movement, interspersed with pop songs and a rendition of Schubert's Ave Maria, there was a moment of silence at 12:55, the time of Hariri's assassination. Then church bells rang while the muezzin called Muslims to prayer from the huge mosque that Hariri had built. It felt heartwarming given Lebanon's peculiar system of "confessional democracy" and recent history of sectarian warfare.

The pro-Syrian March 8 group includes Hizbollah, the older, less fundamentalist Amal, the SSNP, plus Christians loyal to Michel Aoun, the general who was once Syria's fiercest opponent in Lebanon but is now Damascus's friend, apparently in hope of becoming Prime Minister. Such shifts seem par for the course. The Druze clans led by Walid Jumblatt used to be Syria's closest allies-even after the assassination of his father, Kamal - but are now allied to the anti-Syrian Maronite Christians against whom they fought the brutal "Mountain War" of 1983. The southern Shia, the backbone of Hizbollah, fought against the PLO in the late 1970s and welcomed Israeli troops in 1982.

Amid this complex landscape it also seems as if these days there is little or no ideological content in Lebanon's political parties, even though some foreign journalists still call the predominantly Maronite Kataeb, or Phalangist party, right-wing and Amal leftist. A party may have a name like the Progressive Socialist Party, but then it turns out to be just a party representing the Druze communities of Lebanon and their leader Walid Jumblatt.


Walid Jumblatt

We had lunch with Jumblatt the day after the incident on Hamra Street, driving up to his fortress in Mukhtara, the capital of the Chouf Mountains, where most of Lebanon's Druze live. An hour's SUV race from Beirut, we came to what looked like a fortified 15th-century Italian manor house at the top of a steep drive. Before we could drive through its gates, tough-looking men in civilian clothes but carrying AK47s searched our vehicles. For a moment it looked like one of the scenes in The Godfather when the Mafia family "goes to the mattresses". There are few places in Lebanon where Hitchens, Totten and myself could be safer from the SSNP and its allies. Last May, Hizbollah attempted an invasion of Jumblatt's valleys and was soundly defeated, even though the Druze leader's outnumbered fighters no longer possess the kind of heavy weapons that Hizbollah has in large quantities. The Druze, like the Kurds from whom they may be descended, are a mountain people with a martial tradition that has served them well.


Jumblatt's castle at Mukhtara in Lebanon's Chouf mountains

Jumblatt himself was waiting for us on a stone staircase above a courtyard that overlooked the valley. Rail thin and wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, the Druze leader looked like an Oxbridge don. A large white German shepherd dog followed at his heel as he escorted us past gardens and fountains into high-ceilinged, light-bathed rooms filled with his father's Asian art collection or lined with old maps and ancient muskets. We saw the room where he holds court, receiving petitions from the 300,000 Druze whose fate has depended on his leadership and ability to shift sides at the right moment. He also took us into the spacious library he had built, with its bound volumes of Foreign Affairs magazine and shelves filled with French novels.


Jumblatt's library in a converted stable block

Only Jumblatt's study reminded us that we were in Lebanon rather than Tuscany, and that our charming cultivated host was also a warlord. There were portraits of Marshal Zhukov and other Soviet heroes, and a Soviet naval uniform. Then, we saw the automatic pistol and loaded clip lying on top of the New York Review of Books on his desk, the three other loaded automatics in a case within easy reach and the revolver used as a paperweight on a side table. Leaning casually in a corner were three rifles. Jumblatt knows that he will not be forgiven by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his role in the Cedar Revolution or by Hizbollah for his condemnation of the existence of its armed state within a state. His father was killed by the Syrians on the road from this house to Beirut - we passed the stone memorial to him, one of so many assassination markers in Lebanon - and Walid Jumblatt himself has been referred to as a "dead man waiting".


Paperweights on Walid Jumblatt's desk

The presence of a private army, however small, still felt comforting a few days later when we visited Samir Geagea (pronounced jaja), one of the leading Maronite leaders, at his equally fortified headquarters in the mountains further north. Geagea's redoubt, a bleak modernist block from which you could see the coast, seemed to echo in its barrenness the cell in which the Lebanese Forces leader spent 11 years during Syria's rule of Lebanon. During his imprisonment, the former medical student-turned-warlord-turned-democratic politician immersed himself in the world's mystical spiritual traditions and emerged an austere devotee of the Desert Fathers. His security, like Jumblatt's, actually seemed much more impressive than that of the Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora, even though Siniora's office in Beirut was besieged for months by Hizbollah a couple of years ago.

Geagea is not a feudal or hereditary leader of his party, though like Jumblatt and so many other leaders here (but unlike Rafik Hariri or his son and successor Saad) he has blood on his hands from the civil war. Some of the worst fighting his men took part in was against fellow Christians led by Michel Aoun. You can still see scars of it in East Beirut. The Christian infighting mirrored the Palestinian-on-Palestinian fighting in Tripoli and the war between the Shias of Amal and those of Hizbollah. Many of the worst massacres of the civil war period - and there were many, even though Westerners tend to have heard only of those at Sabra and Chatila - were carried out by former or future allies.

At other times the sense of being in a state on the edge of civil war, the impact of being shown one memorial after another to assassinations and martyrdoms and the physical scars of bullets and bombs, evaporated as other, happier or more pleasantly eccentric aspects of Lebaneseness asserted themselves.

One of the first things I noticed in Beirut, other than the sad dearth of traditional Ottoman or even French mandate architecture, was the almost total absence of working traffic lights and the disrespect of Lebanese drivers for any and all traffic laws. One of my American colleagues, delighted by this and by the much-exercised freedom to smoke when and where you like, observed that Lebanon is a kind of libertarian paradise. It seems to be a place where people cannot or will not knuckle down to anybody's rules. Even Hizbollah understands this: as you can see if you visit Beirut's southern suburbs or the south of the country, it has more or less given up its efforts to make Shia women cover up (at one point it even offered cash to women who covered their heads). When you do see a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf, this modesty is often in dramatic contrast to the effect of spray-on jeans, boots and a skin-tight sweater, as if the scarf were a grudging concession to an alarmed father.


Sunni Muslim Lebanese women at the February 14th rally in Martyr's Square, Beirut

Most bizarre, and unexpected, was the extraordinary presence of lingerie shops everywhere we visited. At the smart ABC mall in Beirut's Ashrafieh neighborhood, I counted six of them next door to each other. But their garish wares were also on display in small towns on the road to Mount Lebanon and in predominantly Shia Tyre, on the edge of Hizbollah's mini-state in the south. Lingerie, even if worn underneath black robes, is apparently almost as big a Lebanese obsession as fast, expensive cars and guns, though much safer than either.

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