Beirut

Tag: Beirut

Freedom and a normal life

“Sean they are shooting people in the streets of Beirut” said Adad’s message, written to me from the cramped flat I’d visited him in just a couple of days before. The gunfight that had killed 8 in Tripoli had spread ominously to the streets of Beirut just as he had predicted / feared it would.

After being forced to flee from Syria and Assad’s onslaught he thought he had found some sort of safety in the Lebanon, though he always knew it was a relative, delicate safety which could end any-time. His and his family’s situation is made more all the more precarious because he doesn’t have a passport or any papers – if he were to be caught living there he we probably be sent back to Syria and to an end I don’t wish to think about.

But for now Asad keeps to the shadows as he looks for work and money to help feed the family. He locks the gate to his flat keeping Asu inside, the sound of gun crackle seeps in from the distance as Sargon arrives home late from work again. Adad finally settles Asu into his bed but he cannot sleep, disturbed by the rocket propelled grenades exploding in the distance. As if this family (like many other’s all over the region) hadn’t already seen enough danger and death in their desire for freedom and a normal life. “Some days we don’t even have enough money for bread” his message continues… “And now this is happening, where will it all end?”

Safe in my dentists chair

31 August 2010

My trip to Beirut gave me a chance to think about Syria again and remind myself just exactly what it is that I find so fascinating about the place, a chance to stand back and peer in from its more glamorous neighbour Lebanon, where the Paris-like prices nearly killed me, but god I loved the sea!

I missed my appointment on Sunday with dentist Rima and couldn’t call to tell her from Beirut because I’d left her number at the hotel By the time I called on Tuesday she was in a panic, ‘”Where are you? What has happened! are you OK?” In one of my loneliest moments in this arid desert land it seemed that the brave ‘McAllister of Arabia’ had found himself an Arabic mother in his veiled dentist Rima.

I was back in her chair the following morning. “No needles today Sean, it all seems to be healing up well. Did you enjoy Lebanon?” She asked. “Yes I did” I replied, and, with dentist Rima poking around in my mouth I continued “It was great to begin to understand how people see the conflict in the region, I met many who loved Hezbollah and others that didn’t, some who felt that Syria was having a proxy war with Israel on Lebanon’s land by funding Hezbollah, and others who believed that if Israel really wanted peace they could have it tomorrow, but for some reason they don’t want it.”

Loyal and fierce in her patriotism dentist Rima sighs as if she’s heard this a thousand times, “It is all connected to Israel Sean, until the issue surrounding Israel is resolved there will never be peace in the Middle East.”

In the countryside of Syria I have spoken to many of the older generation who refuse point blank to accept the land of Israel. “The Jews can live there but the land has to be called Palestine” said one, another says “No Jews, only Arabs in our Palestine”. I suggest that realistically speaking Israel with the backing of America is going nowhere so isn’t it better to do a deal for peace, maybe get the Golan Heights back and divide Israel in 2 parts?

No compromise I am constantly told by the older generation; the ones that lived through the creation of Israel and the following displacement of million of Palestinians, they seem as uncompromising as do the current Israeli government, no wonder any peace deal seems so far away. I am told that the crusaders occupied this land for 200 years and were eventually kicked out, that Israel is still young only 60 years old, that there is plenty of time for the Jews to be kicked out, that as the American economy collapses in the recession it won’t be able to continue propping it up.

Dentist Rima like many here puts much of this in the hands of god, “One day we will get the land back” she says, “Oh and the good news is root canal is healed”. If it wasn’t for my veiled Arabic mother what would I do?

The heavy price of freedom… and whisky

29 August 2010

So just what is it that makes us feel “free” I think to myself as we race through the desert – I am leaving Damascus to renew my visa in Beirut, “It is the Paris of the Middle East, famous for all kinds of things” Roula says with a naughty smile.

As soon as we cross the border Roula removes her long-sleeved top to reveal her shoulders, a small freedom not allowed in Syria (secular but still a predominantly Muslim country), and now it is also Ramadan which makes some aspects of life even more restrictive, “It’s great to be free” Roula jokes as we cross the border.

Before long I am in Lebanon bathing in its beautiful blue sea and ogling the scantily clad women as they play on the beach. Is it the unrestricted conversations or the lack of veils that make me feel more free here? I love the cafe and restaurant filled streets – it feels so modern and alive after a month in Damascus.

I miss the sea a lot when I am in hot dusty Damascus, and I wonder if a part of me also misses the familiarity of the big American chains such as Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, names that I am so used to seeing as part of the landscape of the West. In a way I hate them as much as I miss them, but love them or loathe them Beirut has them all.

In Beirut people are not always on-guard about what to say to each other about politics or the war, you can be and say as you like. But ‘freedom’ often comes with a price as Roula points out, “Watch your bag on the beach” she reminds me – In Syria I’ve got used to leaving my bag wide open, my phone and wallet there for all to see.

Suddenly I feel the need to be security conscious and it feels like a pressure I don’t want, but a pressure which we are forced into and which we get used to in the West – I cannot explain how liberating it is not to have to worry about such things when I am in Syria; quite possibly one of the safest places I have visited.

But of course is this ‘freedom’ is simply a result of dictatorship, or if there is more to it than that… and which is more important, the freedom not to be robbed or the freedom to say what you think?

As night falls we hit the glitzy Beirut streets to enjoy Western ‘freedoms’ such as cocktails in the endless noisy bars that are open until the early hours – though it is only when we get the bill that I realise all this freedom comes with such a heavy price, 12 dollars a drink, wow, I don’t even pay that for one nights’ hotel accommodation in Damascus!

Next morning I wake with a whiskey hangover in the humid heat dripping with sweat having spent more money than I care to think about.

“Quick” I say to Roula “Let’s get the hell out of this westernised Arabic democracy – freedom is too expensive! Let’s get back to that safe cheap dictatorship where we can drink and eat for a month in Damascus for what we spent last night”.

As we cross the border back into Syria Roula once again pulls on her long-sleeve shirt once more to conceal her shoulders, but at least we know we won’t be robbed or mugged while we are here, and that I can enjoy a meal at a top restaurant with a bottle of the best Lebanese wine for the price of one whisky in Beirut!