November 29, 2005

The Lebanese/Israeli Border

As promised yesterday, here are my photos of the Lebanese-Israeli border –- a renewed hot zone in the Arab-Isareli conflict. If you want more complete descriptions of what’s going on in this region and what some of these pictures are all about, read yesterday’s article No Peace Without Syria.

All photos shown below were taken inside the Hezbollah-controlled zone in South Lebanon.

Israel 1.jpg

Like I said in the article, you can walk right up to Israeli houses without leaving Lebanon. This town pictured above, Metulla, is inside Israel. Look closely at the bottom of the picture and you can see the little fence that demarcates the border.


Israel House.jpg

That house is inside Israel. Hezbollah controls the territory I stood on when I snapped the picture.


Down Into Israel.jpg

Everything you see in this picture is inside Israel, taken from a Lebanese road along the fence.


Israel and Lebanon.jpg

Here’s how crazy the border is. The town in the foreground is inside Israel. The town in the background is in Lebanon. You might think you would have to stand inside Israel to take a picture such as this one. How else would you get a picture of a Lebanese town behind an Israeli town? But you can, because I did. That Israeli town is inside a “penninsula,” or a finger, that juts into Lebanon. It is surrounded by Hezbollah-controlled territory on three sides.


Khomeini in South.jpg

Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini makes repeated appearances in the south.


Propaganda Billboard in South.jpg

On the road beneath Beaufort Castle, which looks down into Israel, the story of suicide bomber Haitham Dbouq is told next to his portrait. "Haitham stormed into the convoy -- that had 30 occupation troops in its ranks -- blowing up his car amidst the vehicles that turned into fireballs and scattered bodies on the ground. Thirty Zionist casualties was the size of the material shock that hit the occupation army; the morale shock was much larger and more dangerous."


Martyr Poster in South.jpg

Portraits of "martyrs" killed in battle with Israel line the streets and the roads.


Border Poster.jpg

Hezbollah says they love peace. Yet they erect billboards like this one all over the south.


Border.jpg

The border. Israel is on the left side. Lebanon is on the right side.


Israel from Road.jpg

The road pictured above is inside Lebanon. The scenery in the background is all inside Israel.


Walking Toward Fatima Gate.jpg

Walking toward Fatima’s Gate, the place where tourists from all across the Middle East go and throw rocks into Israel.


Fatima Gate.jpg

The old Israeli custom’s house at Fatima’s Gate. It was open five years ago when Israel still occupied South Lebanon. Lebanese commuted to jobs inside Israel through this gate. It has been closed since 2000.


Israel Through Fence.jpg

Israel through the fence near Fatima’s Gate.


Two Satans.jpg

”Monuments” of sorts to the two Satans. The United States is the Great Satan. Israel is the Little Satan.


Charity Donation Box.jpg

Here is where you donate money to Hezbollah’s charity operations.


Resistance Donation Box.jpg

Here is where you donate money to Hezbollah’s military operations.


Khiam 2.jpg

Near the entrance to Khiam prison. Until the year 2000, the prison was run by the South Lebanese Army, a Lebanese Christian ally of Israel, inside the occupation zone.


Khiam 1.jpg

Khiam is a “tourist” destination of sorts. But don’t go there if you aren’t in a grim mood already. It ain’t Disneyland.


Khiam 3.jpg

A lovely exercise yard at Khiam.


Khiam 4.jpg

This ought to be self-explanatory.


Split Village from Distance.jpg

The Alawite village of Al-Ghajar. This is where last week’s round of fighting erupted. The left side of the village is in Israel. The right side of the village is in Lebanon. Both sides of the village formerly belonged to Syria.


Split Village.jpg

The Israeli side of Al-Ghajar. The Lebanese side is a wreck. I mistakenly neglected to take pictures of it.


Border Tomb.jpg

The tomb of the disputed dead man. Lebanon says Sheik Abbad is buried there. Israel says, no, Rabbi Ashi is buried there. The border runs right down the center of his tomb. That’s an Isareli military compound just on the other side of it


Border Posts.jpg

On the right side is an Israeli listening and watch post. On the left side is Hezbollah’s feeble imitation.


Hezbollah Billboard Directed Toward Israel.jpg

This billboard was erected by Hezbollah three feet from the border. The text is in Hebrew, and it faces directly into Israel. It says: "Sharon Don't Forget. Your Soldiers Are Still in Lebanon."


Severed Head.jpg

Look closely. That’s a severed Israeli head held up by its hair.


Military Stuff in South.jpg

Hezbollah places military museum pieces all over the towns in the south just to show it off.


Children on Tank.jpg

Children play on one of the tanks.


Hezbollah Jeep.jpg

A blasted truck placed ten feet from the border.


Hezbollah Logo.jpg

The Hezbollah logo and flag is placed on the front of the truck.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:09 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 28, 2005

No Peace Without Syria

I have written a number of articles from Beirut lately that are held up in editing limbo. But my most recent was published right away at Tech Central Station because it’s time-sensitive.

Like I mentioned recently on the blog, I did manage to get all the way to the Lebanese/Israeli border when my family wasn’t traveling with me. And, as you know, last week it exploded in the worst round of violence since Israel’s withdrawal in the year 2000. This article is about the recent bout of conflict and the bizarre Hezbollah-controlled border region in general. The title is the second half of an old Middle East saying: No War Without Egypt. No Peace Without Syria.

Tomorrow I will post photos.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:07 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 25, 2005

Border Clashes Continue

More fighting erupted on the Lebanese-Israeli border this week. This after I recently recommended to resident writer Lee Smith that he visit South Lebanon because, unlike Beirut, it is relaxing, rural, and quiet. I won’t say that anymore.

An Israeli paraglider crossed the border, whether intentionally or on accident, and landed in Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters fired at him. Israeli soldiers cut a hole in the border fence and pulled the man through to safety, also under fire by Hezbollah. The Israelis, naturally enough, fired back at Hezbollah positions. The paraglider was immediately arrested by the Israelis.

Hezbollah claims he was a soldier. Israel claims he was a civilian.

This incident may have happened regardless of the general political situation in the Middle East. Hezbollah fighters will shoot anyone they see crossing the border for any reason.

One of my American friends in Beirut lived in the West Bank for a while. He foolishly tried to cross the border from Israel into Lebanon. He had been to Lebanon before and knew a place where a gate in the fence is often left open – presumably for cross-border smuggling. He thought it would be safe to drive a rental car through that gate.

It was one of the craziest things he could have done. Hezbollah guerillas opened fire on him. They put several bullet holes in the hood of his car. He slammed the car into reverse, ducked his head beneath the dash, and drove blindly backwards at top speed through the gate. Hezbollah stopped firing as soon as he was back on the Israeli side. But he crashed the car just inside Israel because he could not see where he was going.

These clashes were spurred by breaches of the border from the Israeli side. Earlier this week, though, Hezbollah crossed into Israel and set off a long string of battles along the border.

I think it’s obvious what’s going on here.

The international community is gearing up to punish the Syrian regime for assassinating Rafik Hariri and exploding terrorist bombs in Beirut. Setting the southern border with Israel on fire could have been a terrific distraction from all that. Syria doesn’t exactly control Hezbollah. But Syria does help fund and arm Hezbollah, as does Iran. Syria naturally wants the heat and the spotlight somewhere else, and it makes sense that Hezbollah should be willing to go along. Hezbollah needs a strong Syria.

Syria – and Hezbollah – will be dealt with regardless. The U.N. Security Council, hardly a hotbed of sympathy for the “Zionist Entity,” explicitly blames Hezbollah for starting it.

Israeli planes dropped leaflets along the southern border and over Beirut.

Hizbullah brings a strong prejudice to Lebanon. It is an instrument in the hands of its Syrian and Iranian masters. The state of Israel is watching over the protection of its citizens and sovereignty...Who is protecting Lebanon, who lies to you? Who throws your sons into a battle for which they are not prepared? Who wants the return of destruction?
I did not see a single leaflet in my neighborhood. I assume they dropped them over the Shia neighborhoods in the southern suburbs rather than in the Christian and Sunni areas in the north. That, or they didn’t drop very many.

None of this seems to have affected public opinion in Beirut one way or another. Border clashes with Israel are ho-hum at this point. Almost every Lebanese person I know still thinks of the Syrian regime as their most immediate problem.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:28 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in America.

Why are you surfing the Internet? It's a holiday! Go eat some turkey or something.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:08 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 23, 2005

War

I can never quite decide whether I’m in a country at war or in a country at peace. Lebanese people argue amongst themselves, sometimes in front of me, which is really the case. If there is a state in between, this is it. Overwhelmingly Lebanon looks and feels like a country at peace. Other times, though, things are different.

Borderwar.JPG

(Photo courtesy of Beirut’s Daily Star.)

Even though Lebanon and Israel are technically at war, Lebanese soldiers and Israeli soldiers have never once fired at each other across the border. But that’s not enough to keep the border a calm one. Hezbollah, not the army, controls Lebanon’s side.

On Monday the border erupted in violence yet again. Hezbollah fighters stormed into Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and engaged the Israeli army in battle. They also fired mortars and rockets at Israel’s Abbassiyeh post. Israel retaliated with air strikes against the villages of Shebaa and Kfar Shouba, the Al-Mari Valley, and at Hezbollah positions outside Khiam and southeast of the coastal city of Tyre. More than 250 explosions were reported.

On Sunday I drove my mother and my brother (who went home this morning) as close to that border as the army would allow.

Say what you will about the wisdom of going down there at all, let alone taking my family with me. But I warned them that the border sometimes heats up, and they were willing to take the small risk. It doesn’t look or feel dangerous, even though clearly it is. At least neither Hezbollah nor the Israelis target civilians on either side. So there’s that to be said for the relative “safety” if you want to visit.

We didn’t see any conflict on the day we went down there. We were a day early for that, not that we were looking for conflict. The Lebanese army didn’t allow us into Monday’s hot zone in any case. (We were about five or so miles from where the conflict later erupted.) The army has set up checkpoints at what they call the border between government-controlled Lebanon and the Hezbollah-controlled belt in the south. They wouldn’t let us go all the way to the fence. They did, however, let us pass the first checkpoint where we were allowed to reach Beaufort Castle. From there you can look down into Israel.

Below is a shot of Israel in the background and the warning of land mines in the foreground.

Stop Mine.jpg

Behind us was the castle. Although it is worth seeing, it is not a tourist destination. Hezbollah uses it as a post to watch the border. They fly the flag from what remains of its towers. And they were there with us. We saw Hezbollah guerillas on the tops of the walls and their propaganda right next to the walls on the outside.

Hezbollah Castle.jpg

Beaufort Outpost.jpg

Military Media.jpg

Today I’m writing an article about the conflict in the south and the border region in general - I did get all the way down there by myself a little while ago. The region is, from a political-historical point of view, one of the most interesting places in Lebanon. The article should appear just after the Thanksgiving holiday. Watch for it, along with a lot more photos (I will time them to coincide) on this page.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:45 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 22, 2005

Technical Difficulties

This blog is having technical difficulties. Stay tuned, because it should be fixed soon...

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:18 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 20, 2005

Driving

When I first arrived in Beirut I thought Lebanese drivers must be among the worst in the world. They don’t stop at red lights. They drive the wrong way down one-ways. Seat belts are verboten, and the concept of lanes is utterly alien. Speed limits? No way. Traffic circles are unbelievable clusterfucks. Stop signs are suggestions that translate into “slow down just a tad if it’s not too much trouble.” The soundtrack of the city is an unending cacophony of blaring car horns and screeching tires. Busses take up two lanes by themselves, and trucks pass slow cars in oncoming traffic around blind corners. It’s terrifying at times and maddening the rest of the time. Driving on icy mountain roads in January must really be something.

Then something new happened. The whole system just clicked. Rent a car and drive these streets yourself for a while and all of a sudden you can predict what first seemed like deranged and psychotic behavior. Behind every seemingly-crazy driving maneuver is a purpose. The key to predicting what other drivers will do is to ask yourself what you would do if there weren’t any rules and you were guaranteed not to hit anybody. Then you can relax and play the game.

It is a game, really. There are winners and losers. You must drive offensively. If you don’t you’ll be a hazard because others will have no idea what you’re going to do. You have to fight for space. There’s a point when both you and the other driver knows who has the right of way. It’s he or she who has the most guts.

You have to trap people. That’s how it works. To fight for space you position your car in such a way that if your opponent doesn’t tap on his brakes he will hit you. Then you win. Then you get to go. Your reaction time – and therefore your driving skill – grows exponentially after you’ve played this game for a while.

I’ve been driving my mother and my brother all over this country for several days in a row. I grok Lebanon’s traffic flow now. I’m cool with it. I’m one with it. It’s much more fun than driving in orderly Oregon.

Sometimes it just makes more sense. If you’re sitting at a red light and there is no cross traffic at all, why must you sit there and wait for the green? Only because a cop will bust your ass if you don’t. There is no other reason. But here the cops couldn’t care less. If it’s safe, just go. Other drivers don’t mind. They’ll honk at you and they’ll yell at you if you just sit there. You’re blocking traffic! That’s not efficient.

Today we drove along the six-lane coastal highway north toward Beirut during a rain storm. Some of the deeper dips in the road were totally flooded. So the drivers ahead of us turned around and came at us in our own lane. (They couldn’t make u-turns because the highway is divided.) All of a sudden I saw headlights coming straight at us – and fast. Okay then. I stopped the car and turned around in an instant. Drivers behind me saw what I did and did the same. The entire highway did a perfectly safe about-face and started moving in the reverse direction toward the nearest exit. We all got off the flooded highway and took a higher and drier road on the side. Traffic kept flowing. Nobody got hurt. The same situation in the United States would have started a traffic jam that backed up for miles and lasted for hours. Even during the evacuation of New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina people only drove on one side of the Interstates. Nothing like that would ever happen in Lebanon. In Lebanon such fates are averted. It’s efficient. It’s safer than you think. And it’s fun.

My brother thinks it’s fun, too. “I know how to drive in this country,” he said before he ever sat behind the wheel of a car in this country. I handed him the keys and he drove perfectly without needing even a minute of practice. That’s because he rented a car and drove all over Argentina, where driving works much the same as it does here.

My mother nearly has several heart attacks on the road every day. “If I lived here I guess I just wouldn’t drive,” she said more than once.

“Sure you would,” I said. “Once you get used to it, it’s totally fine. I prefer this system of driving, to be honest.”

And I do. I really do. Sometimes I still shake my head at some of the crazier moves I see some drivers make. Other times I can’t help but laugh out loud at their audacity. That probably won’t change. All cultures have their outliers, after all, people who push things too far. I have no doubt, though, that when I get back to the States and get stuck at a red light when I’m the only one on the road, I’ll feel like a sucker and a sheep oppressed by the police.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:52 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 17, 2005

“Bring a Flak Jacket”

I’m having a great time showing my visiting mother and brother around Lebanon.

When I asked my brother if this place is what he expected he said “After listening to you talk about it and reading you write about it, it is exactly what I expected.”

My mom, though, is in a constant state of amazement.

Their first night out we went to Brooke’s restaurant in Gemmayze, a classy bohemian joint run by a British expat friend from the English countryside. The floor is wall-to-wall hardwood. Each chair is handsomely carved and stained dark like mahogany. A candle burns in a glass in the center of every table. I introduced mom and my brother to the bartender Elie and asked him to bring us a bottle of Bordeaux. The DJ played cool contemporary rock music over the sound system. The ambience, somehow, is pitch perfect. Brooke's, like so many haunts in Beirut, has an X Factor.

“This is surreal,” mom said. “What a great place!” We hadn’t even ordered yet. “I know you told me there are great restaurants in Beirut, but I never expected anything like this.”

Hardly anyone ever does. Beirut always seems to take first-time visitors by surprise. “Beirut,” for those who don’t follow the Middle East, conjures up images of bombs, burkhas, and camels. Much of the real Beirut, though, is light, clean, hip, modern, classy, and glamorous.

My brother said half his co-workers told him to bring a flak jacket before he came out here to visit. He knew he wouldn’t need any such a thing, but the idea is all the more hilarious when you’re actually in Beirut instead of just thinking about it from the other side of the world.

“I feel completely at ease,” mom told me today after we went for a road trip to the Beiteddine Palace in the Chouf mountains. “My friends couldn’t understand why I would come here to visit. ‘Why don’t you meet him in Spain?’ they wanted to know. I can hardly believe I’m actually here, but I’m glad I came.”

I’m glad she came, too. Of course, it's nice to see my mother. But I'm glad for other reasons, too. The West’s idea of Lebanon is terribly skewed by the civil war, even though it ended 15 years ago. It doesn’t help that Beirut is in the news again because Syrian intelligence agents keep planting car bombs. But it has been months since a bomb exploded anywhere in this country. In any case, bombs have nothing to do with what Beirut is really about.

Someday – hopefully soon – Iraq can trade its current problems for Lebanon’s problems. There are worse things, certainly, than having an undeserved bad reputation in other countries. Someday – hopefully soon – I’ll go to Iraq and say “hey, it’s a nice place and you should visit.” Hardly anyone will believe me, even years after the violence calms down – whenever that finally happens. But my mom might believe me now that she has seen this place for herself.

Travel is a far better teacher than the nightly news. "If it bleeds, it leads," does not apply.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:03 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 15, 2005

Street People

While hanging out at a sidewalk café in downtown Beirut, a Lebanese-American friend of mine shocked me when he abruptly and forcefully dismissed a woman who walked up and said something to him in Arabic. Whoa, I thought. There was a side to his personality that I hadn’t seen yet.

I understand now what he did and why he did it. There was nothing at all rude about it.

If you’re on the street in Beirut (eating at a sidewalk café counts as being on the street) and a stranger comes up to you for any reason other than to ask for directions, watch out. You have an instant problem and it could easily turn into a big one.

If strangers talk to you at a bar, at a café, at a party, at a club, in a hotel lobby, in the countryside, or in a village, they almost certainly are normal people who are just being friendly. On the street in the city, though, chances are they want something from you. Maybe they just want directions. And that’s fine. Twice people have asked me for directions. I guess I look like I know where I’m going. But if someone doesn’t instantly tell you exactly, precisely, what they want, get away from them immediately.

“Americans have to learn this the hard way,” my friend told me. He’s right. I know he is. I had already half learned my lesson. I tried half measures yesterday and it wasn’t enough.

I sat alone at an Italian restaurant downtown at a table outside on the sidewalk. A 50 year-old fat woman walked up to me and said something in French.

“Je ne pas parle francais,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it.

She smiled broadly and said “I speak English,” as though that was supposed to make me happy. It didn’t. She had marked me, and I knew I was in for it. And I was in the middle of lunch at an expensive restaurant while contentedly reading a book.

“Are you British?” she said.

“No, American,” I said.

“I have many questions about America,” she said.

It was not socially acceptable for her to do that to me while I was sitting at a restaurant minding my own business and trying to eat. I should have told her to get the hell away from me at once. But I didn’t want to be a jerk about it, so I tried to get rid of her politely.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have time to talk right now. After I finish eating I have to meet a friend.”

“Where are you meeting your friend?” she said. That meant she wanted to come with me. I had been down that road with other street people before.

“Somewhere else,” I said.

It wasn’t true. After I finished eating I wanted to order an espresso and read another chapter in my book.

“Please,” she said. “I have many questions.”

I should have said Leave me alone. But I didn’t. Like my friend said, Americans have to learn this the hard way.

“Look,” I said. “I’m eating right now. Why don’t you wait for me at the clock tower. After I finish eating, I will meet you for a minute and answer your question.”

I had no intention of meeting her at the clock tower. I just needed to get her away from me. I was 99 percent certain one of her questions would be “Will you give me some money?” And when Lebanese street people ask for money, they don’t want your spare change. They want your “spare” dollars.

But I was wrong. She didn’t want money. She wanted a lot more than that.

“I will wait for you here,” she said and put her hand on the back of the chair on the opposite side of my table.

“No,” I said. “Wait for me at the clock tower.”

“I will wait for you here,” she said and pulled out the chair as though she was going to join me for lunch.

“No,” I said. “Wait for me at the clock tower.”

She half took the hint, not that it was much of a hint. So she pulled up a chair at the next table instead.

I sighed. A waitress came over to her table and the two of them had a long talk in Arabic.

Please, I thought. Tell this lady to go away if she’s not going to order anything. Don’t let her ruin my afternoon. But the lady did order something. She ordered a coffee.

I finished eating and asked for the check. After I paid the bill I finally turned toward her and asked her “What is your question?” I was hoping I could keep this conversation under two minutes, but alas that wasn’t possible.

“Come over here,” she said and beckoned me to her table.

“What is your question?” I said.

“Come over here,” she said, feigning pain, as though I were being rude. The waitress saw this exchange and looked at me with obvious sympathy. I knew I was being a sucker, but I caved in and moved myself to her table. I felt defeat wash over me.

“I want to leave Lebanon,” she said. “And I can’t get a visa. Do you know any single American men?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know any single men. I’m sorry.”

“Do you know any single British men? French? German? Canadian? Australian?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Why don’t you have any friends?”

“Of course I have friends,” I said. “But all my single friends are Lebanese. All my Western friends are married.”

She didn’t believe me. But what was I supposed to say?

“You are married?” she said.

“Yes,” I said and showed her my wedding ring.

“Do you know any single American men in America?” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “I will give you my phone number and you can have them call me.”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

“Yes, you can,” she said. “You can tell them I am a doctor.”

She wasn’t a doctor. Her clothes, her hair, her makeup, her composure, everything about her said “poor and unemployed.”

“I don’t know any single men who are looking to meet foreign women,” I said.

“Do you know why I want single American men?” she said.

“I think so,” I said. Wasn’t it obvious?

“Why?” she said.

“So you can get married and get a green card,” I said.

“Yes!” she said as if that made me some kind of a genius.

“I will marry him only as long as it takes to get a green card. Then, if I don’t like him, ciao.”

“I can’t help you with that,” I said. "I'm really sorry." I did feel bad for the lady. I know it's hard to get a resident visa for the United States. Some Lebanese people have told me they can't get tourist visas to visit their families, which embarrasses me every time. Is it really necessary for the U.S. government to make it such a pain in the ass for some Lebanese guy to visit his sister for Christmas?

“Are you racist?” she said.

What?”

“I think you don’t like Arabic people.”

“Of course I like Arabic people. I live in Beirut. But I don’t know any single men who are looking to marry a Lebanese woman right now.”

“You can tell your friend that you met me!” she said. “Tell him you met a beautiful doctor who wants to meet a nice man. Then he can come here to Lebanon.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Are you Shakespeare?” she said.

“Am I Shakespeare?” I said. “You mean Hamlet? Hamlet who can’t act?”

“Yes,” she said. “I think you are Hamlet.”

“I’m not Hamlet,” I said. “I just can’t set you up with any of my friends. They live very far away.”

“But your friend can come here.”

We argued about this for an hour. Why I put up with it, I have no idea. I had far better things I could have done in that hour. I knew instantly something like this was going to happen. It always does when total strangers walk up to me on the sidewalk downtown.

Imagine if I had actually done what she told me to do. I’d call one of my American friends: Hey, buddy. I have a solution to your girlfriend problem. I met a fifty year-old fat unemployed lady in Beirut. She lies and says she’s a doctor. She’s looking to use a man, any man, just to get a green card. She doesn’t care who he is or what he looks like. Then she’ll dump him. Interested? Get on a plane.

“Come with me to the embassy,” she said. “You can tell the ambassador that you know me and he will give me a green card.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I said.

“But you are American,” she said.

“The ambassador doesn’t know me,” I said. “I have no wasta with the American government. And if I did, it wouldn’t matter. The American government doesn’t work like the Lebanese government.” In Lebanon if you have enough wasta, or high up connections, you can make anything happen.

“Then give my phone number to your friends in America,” she said.

“No!” I said, finally fed up. I was no longer willing to say I could not help her. “I will not help you,” I said. I no longer cared if she thought I was rude. How rude is it to bother a total stranger during his lunch and harangue him for an hour, a full hour, about something like this?

“I am leaving now,” I said and picked up my things.

This doesn’t happen very often in Beirut. It only happens to me once every few weeks or so, rarely enough that when it does happen my guard is totally down. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met and talked to are genuinely friendly and don’t want anything from me except conversation. No one has ever cornered me like that in the countryside. Strangers on the street in a village are likely to invite me into their home for coffee or dinner. They don’t bill me for it, and they don’t ask for a green card.

But it does happen in Beirut. I argued with one guy downtown for an hour about whether or not I was going to give him 10,000 Lebanese lira. (That’s six dollars plus change.) I told him I didn’t have any cash on me, that all I had was a credit card, which was true. “No problem,” he said. “I will go with you to the bank.” No doubt if I said yes he would have bumped it up to 20,000 by the time we got there.

I guess I’m going to have to do what my Lebanese-American friend does and abruptly dismiss people who walk up to me cold on the street. It feels like the wrong thing to do, especially in a friendly city like this one. I would hate to be mistakenly rude to a stranger who isn’t trying to extract something from me. But my own sense of privacy and time preservation requires it.

If you come to Beirut, talk to people in bars. Talk to people in coffeeshops. Talk to the bartender, the barista, the taxi driver, and the waiter at your hotel. Talk to people in villages, on busses, and in line at the grocery store if you want. You can talk to people at political events. Almost all of them are friendly. Almost all of them are a joy to meet – especially in the villages. Just watch out for the strangers who come up to you on the street. Odds are high they saw you as a mark from far away and honed in on you. Unless they want directions (and that happens, too) if you give them one second they’ll take an hour.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:11 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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