Tag: Lebanon

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?”

Another day in limbo

Adad looks despairing when I ask him about the future. Stuck in Lebanon for 6 months half-way between his home in Syria and his dream of living ‘a free life’ in Europe he now lives by night and sleeps by day.

Each night he is locked next to his wife Lilith facing into their laptops entranced by ‘the Facebook revolution’ which holds them to the fringes of what seems like a faltering Syrian Spring, but despite their despair it offers the only meaning to their lives these days..

Asu aged 5, is used to playing alone, Adad and Lilith both know they should spend more time with him. If Asu is lucky he gets to play with his friends down the road but today like most days he play alone inside the cramped flat they now call home. Adad worries about being 2 months behind with the rent, he also needs a further $100 to get his increasingly serious heart condition checked-out but that, like the rent, must wait. Meanwhile, like many in this neck of the woods, he puffs away on his 40 a day habit, Lilith too is a heavy smoker. A year ago all seemed rosy with the revolution but now Adad has become gloomy about it all, believing that there is a real danger of the Islamist’s stealing the revolution from them the longer it takes.

Sargon was just a boy when I first filmed him some 3 or 4 years ago, he is now 16 and looking all the part an adult. Unable to find a school to continue his studies he’s taken a part-time job in a shop, at first they offered him 6 hours a day but now he’s working 12 hours a day 7 days a week for $300 (plus tips from his deliveries.)

“I feel positive and hopeful for the first time in my life” he tells me. I’ve seen this boy in some sticky situations in Syria, last year he was arrested with his father during street protests trying to get his mother out of prison – he succeeded, only to lose both his parents to the revolution and in the process lose the family life he cherished so much growing-up in Tatous. The new hope he has found in Lebanon comes not just from finding work but also from finding friends in the Jehovah Witnesses – a Christian group banned but still tolerated in The Lebanon. Sargon once dreamed of being political just like his mother but now he hates politics and says he has found new a meaning to his life, but his atheist parents don’t like it and have stopped him attending the Jehovah’s meetings.

I took Sargon for a pizza by the sea the other night, we both had a swim, it was a rare treat for us both “You know Sean I’ve moved house 10 times since I met you, I just want some stability” he confided in me “I haven’t had the chance to be a teenager… I went straight from child to adult”. Sargon looks and acts the adult these days but now and again, fleetingly, I am reminded that he isn’t when he cracks his wonderful childlike jokes, jokes that his father has no time for… he expects him to be an adult now.

After the swim I allow him a bottle of Smirnoff ice – well if he must carry some of the burdens of adult life he certainly deserves the odd drink like an adult. Sargon really is a good boy, smart, honest, and witty despite his difficult life. Even his dream pair of Nike trainer shoes must wait another month as the money he set aside for them has gone to buy food for the family again, just like the rest of his salary. But he doesn’t complain, “We are a family and I must help contribute to it” it is a wonderfully generous statement and quite typical of the boy – Sargon has spent his life putting his family first.

His parents have struggled as the Syrian regime has taken one and then the other to prison. But now, hopefully, they are one step closer to some sort of stability. They are in limbo in Lebanon but relatively safe so long as Adad keeps his head down, as a ‘stateless’ Palestinian he has no papers or passport, Syria has been his temporary home until the issue of Palestine is resolved!

But with this stability comes the pain of being outside of the revolution – it was too much for Lilith, recently she took-off back to Damascus, smuggled herself back into Syria and stayed in-hiding for a month setting up her new revolutionary Youth Organization, but it is all a terrible strain on the family and kids, Adad would like to turn his back on it all and leave for Europe but Lilith cannot leave the fight. And now their existence in Lebanon is made much more dangerous as fighting breaks out in the northern town of Tripoli between Alawite loyalists of the Assad regime and opposition rebels, some news report are suggesting that this “Threatens the stability in the whole country, and could come to Beirut” rekindling old factional enmities and reigniting the civil war.

In the meantime Adad and the family struggles to get-by on Sargon’s wages plus money sent by his relatives in Syria, and some help from charities in the west. His heart-scare is on his mind, as is the unpaid rent, putting the food on the table each week, whether or not the Islamist s are winning the revolution in Syria, and if the street fighting in Tripoli will bring war to Beirut. Outside, the walls of his house are spattered with bullet holes, a reminder of the bitter civil war he was caught up in in his youth and which is now once again so desperately trying to escape from.

Tonight Lilith hears of yet more rapes in Hom’s, and more new videos emerge of tortured corpses, Asu plays on alone in the background, and Sargon returns home from work.

Another ordinary day in the life of a family in limbo, wondering where their place is in the world, wondering how and when it will all end.

The heavy price of freedom… and whisky

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!

World Cup war

A cacophony of gun fire and cries for help, screaming voices of Americans and Brits, pleading “Save us, save us”. I opened my eyes and saw the rotating fan, top-lit by a dim bulb, the smell was Arabic, a balcony shimmered in the distance, sweating and shaking I sat up, it was like the opening scene in ‘Apocalypse Now’. But all was calm, moments later I realised I must have fallen asleep with the telly on. A news item about western hostages being killed in Iraq had woken me, a graphic re-construction had thrust me back to Iraq for a nightmarish moment, but here I am again waking in peaceful Syria.

Peaceful? well so it seems most of the time, as I push my way though the thousands of tourists in the old city of Damascus. Tourism is big business, despite the world-wide recession tourism is up 12% in Syria making it a billion dollar industry. The last thing Syria needs now is a war, but the more international news I read from the region the more it looks like it, the papers predict a war between Israel and Lebanon where this time Syria will get involved. In the past Syria has sat on the sidelines fuelling and funding (along with Iran) Hezbollah – the freedom fighters of south Lebanon. As I wander through the old city posters of Hezbollah leader are clear to be seen everywhere, their support it seems comes from the people as well as the government.

But how likely is it to happen? Bashar al-Assad the Syrian president said in a recent interview here that if there is a 1% possibility of averting a war he will find it. But other reports say that bigger and more sophisticated weapons have already been sent to Lebanon from Syria in preparation for any fighting.

The blockade of Gaza, the Israeli attack on the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ aid ship and the killing of nine volunteers has raised tensions in the region and now new fears of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear plants next year puts war high on the news agenda. Not that it seems to bother the tourists here in bustling Damascus, in the hot sweaty souks where old men play backgammon whilst sipping on tiny cups of Arabic coffee, a bigger news story has won the hearts and minds of locals and tourists alike… the World Cup in South Africa!