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Letters From Lebanon


Rockets to Ruins

Outsiders have meddled in Lebanon for centuries, and the signs are everywhere: Crusader castles, Syrian agents, Häagen-Dazs. Our writer surveys larger Beirut, from Roman ruins to Hezbollah’s museum exhibits.

The woman ahead of me in line was making a small scene into her cell phone, speaking in frantic French.

“I don’t have the address of where I’m staying! And if I don’t write down the address they’re going to put me in jail. You have to hurry and call me back!”

I hadn’t written an address down either—my mother insisted there wasn’t one, that her apartment was simply the one across the street from Civil Defense in the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut. No building number, no street name, and there on the form the Lebanese government had cryptically warned, “the address must be accurately specified under threat of legal pursuit.” I’d written down her cell phone number just to fill the empty space.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” a middle-aged man in front of me leaned over to the French woman. To calm her down, he offered to let her copy his form.

“It’s just that it’s my first time here,” she said. “And I don’t know what to expect.”

My greatest fear wasn’t that I would see violence, but that I would see nothing at all.I thought of asking to copy his form as well—but then, hadn’t I based my visit on the faith that this guy was right, that official warnings were more theater than substance, that Lebanon really wasn’t as menacing a tourist destination as the U.S. State Department insists it is? Then I was next in line and it didn’t matter.

The border guard behind the counter looked through every page of my passport, turned back to the front and rifled through it again. He examined the airplane stubs that fell out and the reciprocity receipt the Chilean government had once stapled to the back cover. Maybe the address on the immigration form wasn’t really that important, but this part is: If your passport reveals that you’ve ever been inside Israel, Lebanese policy says you won’t make it through the airport here.

“What is this?” he asked of the number I had scribbled in lieu of an address.

“My mother’s cell phone number.”

“What is her name?” he asked. I wasn’t sure why this mattered, but apparently her name didn’t sound too Zionist, or Palestinian: he stamped my passport and jotted in it that I could stay for one month, never asking how long I had intended to visit. The French woman had already disappeared into the receiving hall, where half of Lebanon seemed to be reuniting with its expats.


* * *

Everything I knew about Lebanese history I’d read in two days before my visit in Sandra Mackey’s book, Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict. Here, we have the Maronite Christians who have variously allied themselves with Israel, France, and the U.S.; the Druze, a little-understood Muslim spin-off community that went to war with the Maronites in 1860; the Sunnis, who led the push to end Syrian occupation in 2005; and the Shia, who splintered in the last two decades into those who support the unarmed political party Amal, and the followers of Hezbollah, a political party/armed militia encouraged by Iran to establish a Mediterranean front for the fundamentalist Islamic revolution. And then there are the Palestinians, who have stayed much longer than anyone expected when they first arrived as refugees in 1948—and for all this time in the exact, same sequestered camps.

Further, all of these groups fought a free-for-all 15-year civil war that ended, in theory, in 1990, and collectively they bore the brunt of a disastrous (for all sides) 34-day war with Israel in 2006. Lebanese today will tell you that much of their conflict has been caused (and continues to be caused) by proxy wars fought between other countries on Lebanese soil—between Israel and Syria, Iran and the U.S., Israel and Iran. Fifteen years of civil war, according to Mackey, didn’t change much of anything in Lebanon (except driving a vast diaspora out into the rest of the world). And so the threat that war could spontaneously break out is as real today as it was 20 years ago.

My greatest fear, though, as I walked with my mother out of the airport—named for Rafik Hariri, the former primer minister who was assassinated in 2005—wasn’t that I would see violence, but that I would see nothing at all, that mysterious Lebanon would turn out to have Starbucks and sitcoms and English-language McDonalds menus like everywhere else.

Beirut today is a cosmopolitan city with some women in hijab and others in leopard-print (and a few in both).Turns out there was a Häagen-Dazs in Beirut’s downtown Saifi district, but, on a large poster outside, it was encouraging customers to “taste the reconciliation” with a special-occasion “Doha Agreement cone,” a scoop of raspberries and meringue with whipped cream and raspberry coulis.

Tony, who runs the small grocery store across the street from my mother’s apartment, explained to me that the Doha Agreement was the settlement reached after Hezbollah took control of West Beirut in a surge of fighting that killed dozens of people. This was in May.

“I am surprised you didn’t hear about this,” Tony said.

A few days after we noticed the Häagen-Dazs banner, my mother, her roommate, Kara, and I went back to see what the reconciliation tasted like.

“Doha cone?” I asked the teenager behind the counter, pointing at the banner.

“Doha cone?” he repeated.

“Yes,” I said.

“No,” he responded. “No Doha. Over.”

We weren’t sure if he meant the reconciliation or the ice cream special. Or if this was due to excessive demand or lack of interest.


* * *

The three of us drove in my mother’s rental car over Mount Lebanon into the Bekaa Valley on the Syrian border, a Hezbollah stronghold that Americans, if they ignore the warnings not to come to Lebanon in the first place, are really, seriously not supposed to visit. The Bekaa, though, is home to the Baalbek Roman ruins (which are famous, according to my mother’s memory of her eighth-grade history textbook cover; I hadn’t heard of them). Lebanon, in fact, is covered with Roman ruins, many of which were later repurposed as Crusader castles and then outposts of the Ottoman Empire—attesting to a history of outsider meddling here that long predates the French sphere of influence following World War I.

We left Beirut, today a cosmopolitan city with some women in hijab and others in leopard-print (and a few in both). There are Palestinian refugee camps on the southern edge of town, and many buildings are still ambiguously suspended between destruction and reconstruction. But, in many respects, the city still could be the “Paris of the East,” with its waterfront corniche promenade, bass-bumping clubs, and upscale European delis.

The Bekaa, though—separated from Beirut by mountains and military checkpoints—is dusty and dour, with the blank faces of local Hezbollah martyrs staring down from banners hung on all the median lightposts.

The kid gave up and went back to loitering around the entrance/gift shop, where you can buy CDs of speeches as well as yellow Hezbollah T-shirts, though only in children’s sizes.Hezbollah is, according to the U.S., a terrorist organization, a label that vastly oversimplifies the activities of an extremely efficient political party. Local mayors are Hezbollah by political affiliation. It was Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese government, that rebuilt homes destroyed in the 2006 bombing. There is even the tourism and public information arm.

Wedged between a ticket office and the exit from an attached museum, local officials maintain a semi-permanent Hezbollah exhibit at the heart of the Baalbak ruins. Western tourists are invited in, either on their way up to see the great Temple of Jupiter, or on their way out from the archeological museum. No charge.

This place was—more than the Coliseum, the Grand Canyon, the Normandy beaches—the craziest thing I have ever seen.

One room of the exhibit was devoted to large-scale installation anti-Israeli art: machetes pointing at the star of David; rockets shredding Israeli buildings; Hezbollah fighters stomping on the heads of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Another, more somber room, was lined with the faces of “martyred” Hezbollah fighters. There was an exhibit devoted to the 34-day war with Israel, with damning photographs documenting the destruction of Israel’s bombing campaign in a methodical day-by-day timeline.

Another room—by far the spookiest—had been turned into a life-size diorama of the battlefield, with mannequin fighters launching shoulder-mounted rockets into an unseen Israel. A boy, about 12 years old, was hanging out in the exhibit, marching around like a small soldier, singing along to the deep-throated Hezbollah anthems that were blaring over the speakers. He had seized on a French tourist and was now dragging the guy through the diorama, pointing out his favorite weapons and the most infuriating evidence against the evil invaders.

“No, I have to go, I have to go,” the tourist pulled away from him, speaking in French. “My tour group is leaving.”

The kid gave up and went back to loitering around the entrance/gift shop, where you can buy CDs of speeches as well as yellow Hezbollah T-shirts, though only in children’s sizes.

I walked out feeling oddly calmed about the whole Hezbollah thing. As a self-conscious Westerner with pale skin and blue eyes, I would rather be targeted with propaganda than car bombs.


* * *

You cannot play the clueless tourist in Lebanon (whether in search of gelato or I-was-there photos of Roman ruins) without being educated in the country’s history of conflict and its simmering tensions. We drove through the mountains and had to bypass a sprawling bridge still under reconstruction from the 2006 Israeli bombing. We wandered into a film festival and wound up watching a documentary on the catastrophic oil spill that resulted when, during the same war, a waterfront power plant was destroyed. I inquired of Tony why Beirut had the most aggressive, lawless, cabbie-like drivers I had ever seen, and he told me this:

“It is because of the civil war. It’s like if you’re a child and you grow up without rules. They are always saying now on television, ‘you stop at the red light.’ But after years of war, war is messy, there was a lot of confusion. It won’t be like the U.S. in a day.”

I spent one evening hanging out with Tony in his grocery store, as he exchanged dinner ingredients for any number of currencies—the Lebanese pound, the dollar, the Euro (“sometimes Syrian money too!” he laughed). One of his regulars walked in, noticed our conversation in English, and told me he had lived for 10 years in California.

“Why did you come back?” I asked.

“I was like salmon fish,” he said. “Go back where you’re from.”

Then he laughed and walked out the door.

“We are Arab, but we’re totally different from all other Muslim countries,” Tony said. “The idea that we’re the same—we’re not. We’re open to Europe, to the American community, we don’t have this hatred.”

In other words, according to my mother’s grocer, the State Department may not want you to visit (a great irony considering many of the local English-language tourist brochures were produced with aid money from the United States Agency for International Development), but the locals are happy to play host.

When I landed back in Chicago, via Warsaw, the Delta check-in woman on my domestic connection couldn’t believe where my baggage had come from.

“Beirut?” she asked, awed. “What’s it like there?”

I wish I had said something more articulate, relayed Tony’s message that the place was not what Westerners think; that Lebanon is a realistic tourist destination for the brave, though with enough of its former conflict still visible for the curious to examine first-hand. But I was fried, and—I’m sorry, Lebanon—but I think I said something like “it was…. strange.”

Emily Badger is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about public policy, urbanism, and sustainability. She’s a contributing writer to Miller-McCune and The Atlantic Cities and has also written for GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. More by Emily Badger