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.


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

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

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

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

November 23, 2005


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.


(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

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

November 20, 2005


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

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

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.


“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

November 14, 2005

Change of Plans

My mom and my brother were scheduled to arrive in Beirut from Madrid at 5:30 AM Tuesday morning. My plan was to stay up all night so I could pick them up from the airport. There was no chance I was going to get up at 5:00 in the morning. This is Beirut. Beirut is all about night life. It isn’t possible to go to bed at 9:00 in the evening. That’s before dinner time in this city.

But I just found out their flight was cancelled. They will arrive tomorrow instead of today. So my blogging plans also are cancelled. I was going to spend the wee hours blogging, but now I must spend them sleeping. I don’t particularly want to be on a vampire schedule when my mother shows up if I don’t have to.

More blog posts are coming. More articles are coming, too. I have completed five that hopefully will be published soon…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:45 PM

November 12, 2005

It’s Not All About the U.S.

New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh thinks someone other than the Syrian Baath regime assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Hat tip: Michael Young)

I'm exceedingly skeptical, and I have been all along, of the point of view of what happened to Hariri. The American point of view is that it was Syria with the aid of some people in Lebanon. Despite all the back and forth about how the American press corps was totally manipulated, to its embarrassment, about WMD, I would still argue, we're still being totally manipulated by this administration about Syria and Lebanese involvement.
What Hersh decries as the “American point of view” is not the American point of view. It is the Lebanese point of view. It is the French point of view. It is the United Nations' point of view. It is pretty much The World’s point of view. The American point of view happens to line up with The World’s point of view in large part because America is part of the world.

I have met a grand total of two people in Lebanon who told me they think someone other than Syria, with the help of its Lebanese goon squad, assassinated Hariri.

The first was a right-wing Christian who thought the United States did it. After he accused the United States of whacking Hariri he stuck out his hand, as if he wanted to shake mine, and said “Thank you for killing Hariri. It got Syria out of our country.” The Lebanese Christian community does not share his view. He speaks for himself. (And, just so we’re clear, I did not shake his hand.)

The second person who thought someone other than the Syrian regime killed Hariri was Mohammad Afif, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau. (Syria, like Iran, is and has been a patron of Hezbollah.)

If those named in the report by U.N. Special Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis do, in fact, turn out to be innocent, that will make one hell of a story. Perhaps Hersh is the man to investigate it and write it. If so, he will need to get out of his office and come to Beirut. No matter what he might end up writing on the subject in the end, he will certainly find, once he gets here, that the notion “Syria killed Hariri” isn’t American.

UPDATE: See also Tony Badran and Roger L. Simon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:07 AM

November 11, 2005

One Degree of Separation

Amman, Jordan, is only a few hours away from Beirut by car. By plane it is only minutes away.

A Lebanese-American woman I know of Palestinian descent told me her uncle and his daughter were murdered two days ago in one of the attacks on the hotels.

As it turns out, my friend Roger L. Simon has a guest post up on his blog today by Andrew Breitbart about these same two individuals, Mustapha and Rima Akkad. He, too, was their friend.

The world is a small place. The Middle East is even smaller. Sometimes it feels like a neighborhood more than a region that includes many countries.

Al Qaeda – and I think this ought to go without saying at this point – isn’t very popular in this traumatized neighborhood. They can't hit their intended infidel target, and they end up killing “their own” people instead.

Sincere condolences to their family and friends, one of whom, Roula, is my friend and another of whom, Hala, helped me look for a Beirut apartment.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:55 AM

November 10, 2005

Back Shortly

Sorry for the light posting. Beirut can be incredibly, and I mean incredibly, distracting. I mean that in a good way.

I'll be back directly…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:41 PM

November 9, 2005

Hotels Bombed in Amman

My mother is going to visit me in Beirut next week and I was thinking of taking her to Jordan to see Petra and Wadi Rum. But three hotels were attacked there today. I suspect we'll be discussing other plans.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:06 PM

November 8, 2005

The Stranger from Damascus

Syria is only 28 miles from my apartment. Yet I’m as far from Syria as I can get inside Lebanon without wading into the Mediterranean. That’s how small this country is. Metropolitan Portland, Oregon, by contrast, is more than 28 miles across.

For the most part the hyper-near presence of Syria is an abstraction. Mount Lebanon, the (tiny) Bekaa Valley, and the Anti-Lebanon range stand between me and it. But every once in a while I can feel Syria over the mountains as though it’s breathing on us.

While I was walking alone through downtown Beirut, a young man tapped my shoulder from behind.

“Salam Aleikum,” he said as I turned around. Then he said something else in Arabic I did not understand.

“Do you speak English?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Do you know where Monot Street is?”

Obviously he was not from around here. Everyone in Beirut knows Monot Street. It’s the former Green Line where most of the best night clubs are found.

“I know where it is,” I said. “It isn’t far. Where are you from?”

“Damascus,” he said. Syria.

“Are you working in Lebanon or are you on vacation?”

“I’m on vacation,” he said. “Would you like to sit and have coffee at Dunkin Donuts?”

“Um, no,” I said. “I am going to meet a friend. But I can show you where Monot Street is. It’s on my way.” So we started walking.

I didn’t know why he asked me to join him at Dunkin Donuts. I’m told that’s where gay men go to meet other gay men. The stranger from Damascus was young, good looking, and, according to my not-so-hot “gay-dar,” potentially gay. Then again, if he were Syrian and didn’t know where Monot Street was, he might have no idea what it meant that he asked me to Dunkin Donuts. Plenty of straight people hang out at Dunkin Donuts. And I’ve been asked out to coffee by strangers enough times in this part of the world that it by itself doesn’t feel forward at all to me anymore. It might not have meant anything. It was just an ambiguous moment between two foreigners in a third country.

Since I had the attention of someone from Syria, I couldn’t resist asking: “What do you think of Bashar al-Assad?”

What?” he said, as though I had said something totally crazy like I’m going to kick your ass.

“What do you think of Bashar al-Assad?”

His face flushed red, his lips opened just slightly, and his eyes darted rapidly back and forth. He then tried, but failed, to laugh.

“Come on,” I said. “You can tell me. We’re in Lebanon.”

He looked pained, like I was hurting him and he was gearing up to whine about it.

“Assad is good,” he was finally able to say.

I felt like a jerk now for asking. I wasn’t trying to torment the poor guy. But since I had started, I needed to ask one more question.

“If you didn’t think he was good, would you be able to tell me?”

“Yes,” he said as his eyes darted rapidly back and forth once again.

Okay, I thought. Time to put the poor kid out of his misery. He looked like he was afraid mukhabarat agents were about to snatch both of us, even though we were in free Lebanon. If I had had any doubt, for whatever reason, whether or not he was really from Syria, that would have settled in. I have yet to meet a single Lebanese person who shows fear when any political subject comes up in conversation.

“Monot Street is just on the other side of that Armenian church,” I said as I pointed up the street. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, as we walked, if I was the first person who ever asked him in public what he thought about Bashar al-Assad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:50 PM

November 7, 2005

Paris: The Beirut of Europe

They say Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. Does that mean Paris is the Beirut of Europe? Or is that an insult to Beirut?

Paris has been on fire for 11 days now. The violence is out of control and it’s spreading. Some are calling this the French Intifada.

Meanwhile, Beirut is peaceful and calm. And Beirut has and has had a lot more political problems than Paris.

The Lebanese people threw off the yoke of Syrian occupation, oppression, and de facto annexation while committing no violence. The Western model of civil disobedience and protest worked beautifully and, more important, it worked rapidly.

The disgruntled of Paris, on the other hand, are inviting a brutal crackdown from a state infinitely less oppressive that the Syrian Baath regime. While some parts of the Middle East import liberal “Western” political ideas into their culture, some parts of Europe import pathologies from the illiberal places in the Middle East and North Africa. Ah, the ironies of globalization.

My mother is going to visit me next week. For months I've been trying to convince her that Lebanon is much safer than it appears from a distance, that it's actually safer here than in Europe. That runs directly counter to what most Westerners understandably think. And it seems, from my discussions with her, that she only half believes me. But last night she emailed and said she is glad she's not stopping in Paris on her way to Beirut. I'll bet she never imagined she would say such a thing, but she did.

It’s slightly bizarre to watch Europe explode from the tranquility of Beirut. But I’m getting used to it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:49 AM

November 5, 2005

On the Corniche

I’m happy to be out of Cyprus and back in Lebanon, even though this place sometimes gets to me. The rude traffic, the honking drivers, the leg-busting holes in the sidewalks, the extortionist telephone and Internet system, the corrupt and often deranged politics, war-shattered buildings, machine guns and even tanks in the streets, the whiff of war from across both of Lebanon’s borders with Israel and Syria — sometimes it’s all a bit much. Sometimes I yearn for the boring tranquility of my home in the Pacific Northwest.

But tonight I walked along Beirut’s Corniche at sunset. The Mediterranean surged against the sea wall, still roiling from a rain storm the day before. Teenagers rode skateboards and bicycles. Old men sat on folding chairs and drank coffee and tea. Children lit fireworks in celebration of Eid, the end of Ramadan, Islam’s most holy of holidays. Middle aged men dropped fishing lines into the water. Couples stood intimately close together along the railing. Mothers pushed babies in strollers while husbands doted on their big-eyed young ones.

A crescent moon with a planet right next to it rose along the outline of a mosque’s minaret – how perfect for the Middle East. City lights along the foothills of Mount Lebanon stretched as far as I could see, halfway to the Syrian coast in the north. I saw palm tree silhouettes against the dazzling lights of the Hard Rock Café, and the Vendome and Phoenicia Intercontinental hotels. The temperature was pleasantly moderate – it was coat-optional weather, the best there is in the world. I could smell sea foam and salt blowing in off the water. Hipsters played popular techno music from the West on their car speakers. Somehow it added just the right touch.

The only thing missing was my wife who is at home in the United States. If she had been there with me, I suspect I would have felt I could stay here a long time and be perfectly happy with that.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:01 AM

November 3, 2005

The Last Divided Capital in the World

Cyprus is not the most happening travel spot in the Mediterranean unless you want to get drunk and party with loutish middle class Brits. It’s quiet, culturally blank, and underdeveloped. Its archeological sites are profoundly underwhelming. Most places on the south side of the island feel like North Dakota with Greeks. With the exception of the genuinely charming port town of Kyrenia (aka Girne), the north side of the island feels like North Dakota with Turks.

But the capital of Nicosia is interesting because it is troubled. It is, I believe, the last divided capital in the world. The partition across the island is called the Attila Line. But in Nicosia it’s called the Green Line. It slashes right through the heart of the old city. Turkish Cypriots built a modern city to the north of it. Greek Cypriots built a modern city to the south. It’s not a fun place to visit, but if you go there you will find some drama – a refreshing change for the kind of person who gets bored by the dreary and stultifying resort towns on the coast.

Cyprus is a member of the European Union. But the E.U. only “controls” the southern half. The Turkish military prevents the internationally recognized government (which is supposed to be Cypriot, not “Greek Cypriot”) from governing the whole thing. It has been this way since the invasion - which was backed by Nixon and Kissinger - in 1974.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that only the Turks are to blame. They aren’t. Cyprus was seized in a coup sponsored by the military junta that ruled Greece in the late sixties and early seventies. The junta aimed to annex Cyprus to Greece. Prior to Cyprus’s independence, EOKA fighters waged war against the occupying British soldiers and also against Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot civilians opposed to enosis, or union, with Greece. Before and during the reign of the junta, EOKA was resurrected as EOKA-B and continued its war (this time in a nastier form) against both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot civilians.

The junta collapsed in Greece, which triggered the collapse of the Cyprus junta later that day. But the Turks invaded anyway (a bit late, one could say) ostensibly to protect Turkish Cypriot civilians from oppression and terror. An ethnic population exchange followed Turkey’s imposition of apartheid.

I am going to write about this at more length and in detail. This hotspot is completely ignored by almost everyone in the West, even though two NATO members use Cyprus against each other in their own private cold war. But first I want to show you what it looks like. Most of the photos shown below were taken illegally.

Rehabilitation of Old Nicosia.jpg

This, right here, is what one border of the E.U. looks like. I took this shot from the “Greek” side. The enemy, if that is the word, on the other side is a member of NATO and hopes to join the E.U.

Lookout Point Greek Side.jpg

The Greek Cypriot government set up a propaganda lookout point for tourists. I would have taken a photo from the platform, but as you can see a soldier stands guard. From the platform you can look out onto a long street in the buffer zone ruined by war and 31 years of neglect. Abandoned homes and businesses are inside the zone. You can still read the old store signs.

Greek Cypriot Photos 1.jpg

Greek Cypriot Photos 2.jpg

Right next to the lookout point are photos of Greek Cypriot civilians after the invasion waving pictures of missing loved ones.

EOKA Museum.jpg

But the Greek Cypriots lose credibility when they glorify an organization that committed terrorism and wanted to annex Cyprus to Greece rather than let it remain independent. Turkey isn’t the only country that needs to make some adjustments. EOKA was also a national liberation movement, to be sure. They were more than just terrorists. But the Turkish Cypriots understandably don’t trust them nor the intentions of those who uphold them.

Abandoned Interior.jpg

I found an abandoned house near the Green Line on the Greek side. No lights were on (obviously) and I could not see a thing inside. I held my camera up to the window, turned on the flash, and snapped this picture.

Chair in Ruins.jpg

One chair is all that remains of this house destroyed, most likely, during the invasion.

Empty Post Greek Side.jpg

Here is a temporarily unstaffed military post on the Greek side of the line.

House on Atilla Line.jpg

An abandoned house on the Green Line, Greek side.

Oil Drums.jpg

Oil drums filled with concrete mark out one part of the Green Line next to a parking lot at the entrance to the old city.

Sandbags in Windows.jpg

Sandbags in windows on the Green Line.

Turkish Cypriots on Atilla Line.jpg

The only “Turks” the “Greeks” are allowed to see walk the line at this point. I took this photo from the Greek side.

Stop Turkish Inhumanity.jpg

I snapped this photo across the street from the Greek Embassy right next to the buffer zone. The Greek Cypriots love to wave the bloody shirt. They have plenty of genuine grievances, to be sure. But I saw no anti-Greek propaganda on the Turkish side. Note the Greek flag. Greek Cyprus is not part of Greece.

Turkish Flags Over Greek Side.jpg

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus may not wave the bloody shirt. But it does love to fly its flag, along with the Turkish flag, above Greek neighborhoods in Nicosia.

Turkish Cypriot Flag on Mountain.jpg

Here’s the ultimate example of the Turkish side waving its flag in the face of the Greeks. They painted it on a mountain side where it’s clearly visible from Nicosia and during the long drive into the city.

Walking the Buffer Zone.jpg

A pedestrian crossing point is open next to the old Ledra Palace Hotel in the U.N. controlled buffer zone.

UN Tower in Buffer Zone.jpg

A U.N. watch tower in the buffer zone.

Bullet Holes.jpg

Bullet holes in a dormitory for U.N. soldiers inside the buffer zone.

Taxi Stand in Buffer Zone.jpg

A taxi stand in the shattered buffer zone for pedestrians coming in from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Atilla Line Turkish Side.jpg

The Green Line on the Turkish side is not as ugly or “photogenic” as the Green Line on the Greek side. This is what it tends to look like. (I get the sense that the Greek side makes the line ugly on purpose to punch up its propaganda value.)

Turkish Girl on Atilla Line.jpg

A young Turkish Cypriot girl watches me take a picture of the Green Line from the Turkish side.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:58 AM

November 2, 2005

The Ghost City of Cyprus

Just on the north side of the Attila Line that partitions the island of Cyprus, the ghost city of Varosha (a suburb of Famagusta) is surrounded with barbed wire.

Barbed Wire Skyline.jpg

In 1974 the Turkish military invaded and carved up the island. Greek Cypriots in the north were forced to move south side of the line. Turkish Cypriots from the south were forced to move north. Greek Cypriot citizens in Varosha fled the Turkish invasion in terror. They expected to return to their homes within days. Instead, the Turks seized the empty city and wrapped it in fencing and wire. They forbid anyone from entering it to this day.

Forbidden Zone.jpg

You can walk right up to it, though, and take a look. Photographing the dead city is not permitted. But if no one is watching there is nothing to physically stop you.

It’s a beach-front city. At least it was when it was alive. Part of that beach is still open. You can walk along that beach and literally reach out and touch some of the ghost buildings. (All the buildings pictured below are empty and off-limits.)

Ghost City and Sand.jpg

Right next to the northernmost ghost hotel inside Varosha is an open Turkish resort. Except for the freakish backdrop behind the beach on the Greek side, it’s a nice place. The sand is soft and golden. The water is shallow and turquoise. Beach umbrellas are set up just above the high tide line.

I wanted to take a photo of those beach umbrellas in the foreground with the haunting buildings behind them. The juxtaposition is out of this world. But just as I snapped a picture of the skyline of Varosha, a Turkish military patrol came around the corner on the other side of the fence and saw me with my camera. The driver of the jeep slammed on his brakes just on the other side of the building pictured below.

Famagusta Patrol Site.jpg

A soldier got out of the passenger side and turned aggressively toward me. I had to get out of there fast before they confiscated my camera. As I was leaving the area, I held the camera down at my side and took a few remaining pictures – more or less blindly – as I walked briskly away. Those photos are tilted because I could not look at the view screen or steady the camera.

Below are two old Greek hotels, both rotting and missing windows, that face the part of the beach that is still open. You can walk all the way up the sand and touch the buildings with your hand if you want to. I would have done so had the army not chased me away.

Ghost Towers.jpg

Here is someone’s house that sits just inside the forbidden zone.

House Behind Line.jpg

Take a look at the charming neighborhood pictured below. Turkish Cypriots live on one side of the street. You can see their parked cars in the foreground. Directly across the street is the edge of the Varosha ghost city. That crane in the upper-left corner has been idle for 31 years. Supposedly, according to Lonely Planet, there is a car dealership somewhere in the city that still has 1974 models in the showroom.

Ghost City Neighborhood.jpg

In some places the fence would have been easy to cross. In some places the fence showed obvious signs that it had been crossed repeatedly. But since the Turkish military patrols the inside of the zone, I thought it best to stay on my side of the line.

Ghost City Road.jpg

For 31 years Varosha has been uninhabited. Turkey ought to be ashamed of itself. Since the military won’t let me take pictures, I imagine that on some level they are ashamed – or at least a bit embarrassed – by what they have done and are doing. They did not want you to see this.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:31 AM