October 31, 2005

Internet Hell

Call me crazy, but I figured that going from the Middle East to a European Union country would improve my Internet situation. It didn't. Cyprus is Internet hell. Internet access here consists, for the most part, of coin-operated terminals that cost twenty dollars an hour. These things aren't even real computers. They look like video poker machines from a distance. Lebanon is a high-tech Japan by comparison. At least Beirut has wi-fi, even if it isn't great. Portland, Oregon, seems like the 23rd Century from where I'm sitting right now.

I have some photos of the Atilla Line (the line of partition created by the Turkish military in 1974). I also have photos of a modern Greek urban ghost town south of Famagusta on the Turkish side. There are medium-height buildings that form a skyline on the coast, houses, stores, business districts, etc. - all of them sealed off with barbed wire and left uninhabited for the past 31 years. Almost all the windows have been blown out in the meantime, and some buildings are collapsing on unmaintained foundations. It is stranger by far than any of Beirut's physical "casualties" of war.

Taking photos is forbidden, but I took some anyway. I accidentally took a picture just as a Turkish military patrol rounded a corner. The soldiers saw me and got out of the jeep, looking in my direction as they did so. I hightailed it away from the forbidden zone as fast as I could without running. They did not come after me, so I still have the pictures.

I would like to post those photos right now. But that isn't possible. Like I said, Cyprus is Internet hell.

Soon I will post something real, something other than a complaint, probably Wednesday when I have at least half-assed access to technology when I return to Beirut.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:22 PM

October 28, 2005

Rogue States

The Syrians have left Beirut alone since I got here. But they have been smuggling people and weapons into Lebanon for weeks. Yesterday their proxies known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine kidnapped six Lebanese soldiers in the Bekaa Valley. I assure you the so-called “popular front” is not at all popular in this country.

Just in time for me to take a forced break. I need a fresh visa stamp, so I’m going to Cyprus.

As tiny as Cyprus is, it isn’t one place. Since 1974 the island has been divided into two separate countries.

The southern Greek Cypriot half recently joined the E.U. So it’s “Europe,” even though it’s on an island off the coast of the Middle East.

The northern Turkish Cypriot half is a rogue state recognized by only one single country in the entire world. The Turks partitioned the island by force in an invasion in 1974, then ethnically and culturally “cleansed” the northern half of its Greek Cypriot citizens.

The city of Nicosia is the capital of both countries. It is the only divided capital left in the world. The Green Line (with its walls, razor wire, guard towers, and land mines) cuts right through the heart of it.

Until last year it was not possible to cross the Green Line. If you wanted to visit Cyprus you had to ask yourself which sounded more interesting: Europe, or Turkish-backed rogue state? Almost everyone chose Europe. Once you visited one side, you were banned from the other.

Fortunately, though, the Green Line is now open. You can walk and even drive right across. So I don’t have to make the choice. I’m going to both sides.

Cyprus is simultaneously European and Middle Eastern. One half is a liberal democracy. The other half is something else. Its inhabitants are “Turkish” and “Greek,” both of which are European ethnicities. But it is physically closer to the Middle East than it is to Europe. And its history makes me think of the Middle East. It was a British colony until the 70s. And its bloody tale of sectarian war and partition echo, in different ways and to a certain extent, both Lebanon and Palestine.

As I pack my bags for the 30-minute flight, I’ll leave you with this poem by Turkish Cypriot writer Mehmet Yassin called The Myth Of Our Own Cat.
When I was a small child I wondered if she was Greek,
the cat of our Greek neighbor.
One day I asked my mother
if cats are Turkish
and dogs are Greek.
Their dogs had snarled at our kittens.
Days later
I saw
our cat
eat the very kittens that she’d given birth to.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:25 AM

October 26, 2005

Who’s Afraid of the Pig?

When you’re safe and sound in your snug house in the West, the Middle East can look totally whacked when you pick up the newspaper. But guess what else is true? When you’re in the Middle East, the West looks absolutley bonkers sometimes as well.

Here are two examples. (Hat tip: Instapundit.)

First, pig stories are banned in some schools in Britain.
A West Yorkshire head teacher has banned books containing stories about pigs from the classroom in case they offend Muslim children. The literature has been removed from classes for under-sevens at Park Road Junior Infant and Nursery School in Batley. [Emphasis added.]
Some banks are now frightened of “piggy banks.”
The Koran forbids the eating of "the flesh of swine", and as a result, NatWest and Halifax have taken down promotional posters which feature piggy banks.
Can I make a new rule? Anyone who is in a position of power and who will make policies relating to Muslims is first required to visit Muslim countries.

Look. I’m in Lebanon. Somewhere around 35 or 40 percent of the people who live here are Christian. Except for around 60 Jews, the rest are Muslims. This is a Muslim-majority country. Muslims outnumber Christians approximately two to one. And yet pork – pork – is all over this place. I had a pizza for lunch today. My pizza had ham on it. Not fake halal “ham,” but actual pig meat. The restaurant that served me this pizza is on the Muslim side of the city.

I have sliced ham in my refridgerator. Guess where I bought it? I bought it at a regular grocery store on the Muslim side of the city.

I guess it’s possible that religious Muslims are offended that Christians, liberal Muslims, and atheist “Muslims” eat pork. Some vegetarians are offended. Some Jews probably are too. So? Onions offend me. That’s my problem, not your problem. So I don’t eat them. End of problem.

I wonder how many Muslims are actually offended by the fact that I can buy pork in restaurants and stores in the Muslim parts of Beirut. Not enough to make any difference, apparently, because pig meat is and has been readily available.

Don’t tell me “oh, that’s just Beirut.” It’s not just Beirut. I also saw plenty of pork in Tunisia. I’m not just talking about the hotels either. Tunisia is 99 percent Sunni Muslim Arab. And if you want pork in Tunisia, just go to a French restaurant. They are everywhere in that country. French food is that nation’s second cuisine. And it has pork in it. Big deal. Somehow Tunisian society manages to hold itself together without tearing itself to pieces over some imaginary “pork problem.”

If Muslims in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East can handle pig meat, I think Muslims in Britain can handle plastic piggy banks and The Three Little Pigs. If they can’t handle those things they need to learn how to handle those things. Tolerance is not only for the majority.

But I don’t think I’m wrong.
[O]ne of Britain's four Muslim MPs, Khalid Mahmoud, said: "A piggybank is just an ornament. Muslims would never be seriously offended."
Listen to that man, stop condescending to minorities, and put the piggy banks back.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:31 AM

October 25, 2005

Things Don’t Work Right

Some things just aren’t right in this country.

If I want to make an international phone call to the United States, it costs me several dollars per minute. I don’t even want to think about how much it costs per hour. So I don’t call anyone. Ever. The two Lebanese cell phone companies, Alfa and MTC Touch, could make a lot more money from me if they came up with a price point that isn’t completely offensive. So far they've made exactly zero from me on long-distance.

The average Lebanese salary is 800 dollars per month. And yet it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call to your friend across the street. Per capita GDP here is only a fourth of what it is in the United States. Imagine if you had to pay two dollars per minute just to call to the pizza delivery place.

Supposedly you can call anyone in the world for free if you use Skype or Yahoo Messenger with Voice. But you can’t do it from Lebanon. I’ve tried calling my wife this way several times. I can hear her perfectly. But the upload speed is so slow she can’t understand a word I say.

That’s because the Internet connection in my apartment is as slow as a slug on Quaaludes. And I'm paying extra for the "high-speed" option. It’s only 60 percent reliable. And it costs twice as much as my ultra-fast cable modem connection at home. I’m paying twice as much money, and I get nothing for that extra money but frustration and headaches.

I don’t know if it’s true or if it isn’t, but I’ve been told the government here regulates the Internet and forbids high speed access because they want people to use their phones. Excuse me, but my phone is such a goddamn rip-off there isn’t a chance that’s going to happen. And I make way more money than the average Lebanese person.

This horrible extortionist Internet and telephone “service” got knocked out, along with all the electricity, by one thunderstorm last week. There wasn’t even very much lightning. There was not enough lightning for me to think cool, lightning - and I love a good thunderstorm. The infrastructure was zotted so badly one Lebanese person told me he thought we were under attack. I figured, no, it’s just Lebanon. And I was right.

If you ever come to Lebanon and need to send an international fax, let me tell you right now you can forget it.

I spent four hours yesterday and today trying to find a place that will send a fax for me. I went from one copy shop and Internet café and bookstore to another. None have this capability. Some of the clerks looked at me as though I had asked if they have any hookers in the back. Everywhere I went I asked if they can recommend a place that does send international faxes. Some had no idea. Others suggested places that I could try. Not one of the recommended places could send a fax.

I finally just went to a five-star hotel. At first I felt silly for not having thought of that sooner. Surely a five-star hotel can send a fax!

Not necessarily. I found one and went up to the desk.

“Yes, we can send international faxes,” the woman said from behind the counter. “It costs six dollars per minute.”

“Fine,” I said, even though it was a total rip-off.

I handed her my document and she went into another room. She came back three minutes later. “It isn’t working,” she said.

Big surprise. I braced for her to say “that will be eighteen dollars, please,” but she took mercy on me and didn’t charge me a thing.

I guess I’ll scan my document and email it. That should only take three hours to pull off in this country – Inshallah.

In the meantime, for the love of God, please do not ask me to send you a fax for any reason. It is not going to happen.

When I go home in March, I imagine I’ll feel like I’ve just landed in Tokyo in the year 2050.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 07:33 AM

October 24, 2005

The Source of the Chaos

I have a new piece up at Tech Central Station about Syria and Lebanon after the Mehlis report: The Source of the Chaos.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:53 AM

It's Not All About the U.S.

Some people insist on viewing the conflict between Syria and Lebanon strictly through the prism of U.S. foreign policy in the region. I understand why it’s tempting to do this if you’re an American who doesn’t like U.S. policy. That goes double if you’re a Syrian Baathist.

My friend and anonymous blogger Lebanon.Profile over at the Lebanese Political Journal isn’t happy about it.

UPDATE: See also Tony Badran at Across the Bay for more on the same problem.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:48 AM

October 22, 2005

Mehlis Day

Fear and apprehension turned to anger and relief in Beirut after the Mehlis report named Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law as the chief suspect, and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud as a possible accomplice, in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

The city didn’t explode. I didn’t think it would, but a lot of Lebanese thought it best to stay home. The army heavily deployed into the streets. It is mostly comforting, but also slightly unsettling, to see scenes like this one.

Army on Mehlis Day.jpg

The city could always explode tomorrow or even today. But, again, I’m not particularly worried that it will. Beirut felt like it was going to explode when I was here in April. The fear was that the war would start up again. It didn’t. I think Lebanon has matured more than some Lebanese realize. And Syria is not exactly feeling confident and strong at the moment.

I do sometimes wonder, though, if I am being naïve because I haven’t experienced for myself just how bad things can get here. I also wonder if this entire culture is still wracked with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and is accordingly paranoid about worst case scenarios. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Other times, Lebanese people seem war-hardened and completely unflappable. The mixed signals are hard to sort out. I’m less confident than I would like to be. But for what it’s worth I feel no fear whatsoever walking these streets. Things are totally normal almost always and everywhere.

I found a group of students at the American University of Beirut sitting on the steps near the gate reading copies of the Mehlis report in English.

Mehlis Report at AUB.jpg

I walked up to them and asked where they found copies. Was someone on campus distributing them, as was rumored?

“Go to Tayyar.org,” one of them said to me.

“Okay,” I said and turned to walk away.

“Wait,” he said. “Do you want a copy?”

“Yes, please,” I said. “Do you have one?”

“I am going to make a copy right now for myself. I will come back with two.”

“Thank you,” I said and put my hand over my heart.

He came back with two copies.

“How much do I owe you?” I said.

“No, no, it’s okay,” he said as he handed me dozens of typed pages.

Automobile traffic and foot traffic picked up throughout the day. The pall of fear over the city slowly was lifted. I only managed to find one single person who was convinced more violence would follow. But I suppose those most fearful stayed home and were impossible for me to talk to.

There was a rally that night at Martyr’s Square and across the street at the grave site of Rafik Hariri.

Thousands gathered, sang patriotic songs, and shouted “Down with Assad!” and “Down with Lahoud!”

Mehlis Day Rally.jpg

A group of young Druze men took over the Martyr’s Square statue.

Druze at Martyrs Square.jpg

Dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, carried or wore signs that said Justice in Arabic.

Justice Sign on Mehlis Day.jpg

More messages were added to the wall in memory of Rafik Hariri. The young man below is writing And the truth shall set you free.

Writing on the Wall.jpg

One young woman carried a sign that said Lahoud is a big ugly fat bitch and Bachar [Assad] is fucked by our people. Emile Lahoud is still president of Lebanon. This is not your typical Middle East country.

Lahoud is a Bitch.jpg

Not everyone at the rally seemed happy or defiant. Some just looked sad, as though they were reliving the painful day of the assassination all over again.

Sadness at Rally.jpg

But for the most part the mood was jubilant. The truth was out after 250 days. U.N. special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis is a hero in Lebanon.

I Love Mehlis.jpg

The Truth.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:09 AM

October 21, 2005

Assad’s Brother-in-law Named

U.N. special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis named Ashef Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief and President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, as the chief suspect in the assassination plot against Rafik Hariri.

Lebanon this morning was quiet and subdued in the wake of the news. Automobile traffic is down. Foot traffic is down even more. Downtown Beirut is eerily silent. Military checkpoints have been beefed up substantially. Armored vehicles and heavy artillery are set up in front of potential targets. I noticed some hotels won’t allow cars to enter their parking lots without first having bomb squads check under the chassis with mirrors for bombs. But I saw that last time I was in Lebanon, in April, and I’m unsure if this is a resumed policy or if it has been in place the whole time. I will say that I haven’t noticed it on this trip until now.

I did see a number of large old white people with hats and cameras wandering around downtown. Perhaps a cruise ship just deposited them blissfully unaware into a frying pan.

But it doesn’t feel like a frying pan here, at least not to me. It’s a nice day, actually. The weather is glorious. The air is crisp and clear. The sky is so hard and so blue you could scratch your fingernails on it. For the first time since I got here I can see the peaks of Mount Lebanon unobscured by clouds or humid haze. I can see all the way up the coast, in fact, with perfect clarity. As long as everything remains as calm as it is now, today is likely the best day in months to arrive as a tourist.

I had conversations with a handful of people this morning and none were particularly worried about what is going to happen. Don’t assume, though, that that’s the general consensus just yet. I’ve only talked to a handful. And those who are scared are holed up in their houses where I cannot so easily talk to them.

For what it’s worth, I’m not worried. I’ll be out on the street all day today, talking to people, reading the temperature, and taking photos of anything interesting I happen to see. There may be a demonstration in Martyr’s Square later today, but I haven’t been able to confirm that just yet.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:43 AM

October 20, 2005

The Eve of the Mehlis Report

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you. - Eric Hoffer (Via Lebanese blogger Ramzi)

Tomorrow the U.N.’s special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis will release his long-awaited report on the results of his investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Saddam Hussein’s trial may have begun yesterday, but Lebanon is more concerned with the other Baath Party, the one that’s still in power in Syria. The question, at this point, is not whether the Syrian regime will be implicated. It will be. The question is: how high up in the regime are those Mehlis will name?

The U.S. and France are already geared up to punish Bashar Assad. They’re just waiting for Mehlis to say “go.” Assad has already lost plenty of face. When he lost Lebanon so fast and so furiously, his weakness was revealed for all the world to see. If the U.N. indicts him, or men close enough to him, whatever legitimacy his government has left in the eyes of the international community may fall to its level of legitimacy inside Lebanon.

Many Lebanese worry not so much about what the report will say. They worry about what Syria will do about what the report says. Syria could violently lash out inside Lebanon. It’s possible. But I don’t expect it will happen. Assad has had a rough year. It looks like his year is about to get worse. He will not be able to save himself by turning Lebanon into Iraq.

Few people in the world have the nerve to call for Assad’s head. They don’t want Syria to turn into another Iraq. Syria really does look like an Iraq waiting to happen. But Assad would have to be dumber than his harshest critics insist if he thinks the world would prefer the Iraqification of the region to the Iraqification of Syria. He has his reluctant defenders because he looks like the least bad option for now. He will be wise to keep it that way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:07 AM

October 19, 2005

Stranger’s Awareness

Stranger’s awareness is a funny thing. It’s so right and so wrong at the same time.

When you land in a strange place where you don’t know your way around, where you don’t speak the language very well or at all, where you can only see the unnuanced surfaces of things without knowing what came before or what lies behind…you will not be able to properly understand what you’re looking at. You will not be able to stop yourself from comparing it to the world you do know and seeing it in your own alien frame of reference and in terms that do not apply. It’s unavoidable. Seeing is not the same as understanding. It takes time and effort to get past this. I’m working on it as fast as I can.

Then again, strangers do notice things that locals do not. They see things fresh without having their observations dulled by routine and repetition. What may seem universal to the local may be obviously provincial to the stranger. The strength of a stranger’s perception is his ability to vividly compare two separate places. Two separate places loom large in his mind and in his short-term memory at the same time. This is why home looks different after a long trip abroad.

The first time I walked past Beirut’s Holiday Inn I was thunderstruck.

Holiday Inn.jpg

Decades before I ever arrived in Beirut I knew what kind of damage both locals and foreigners had done to this place. And I’ve seen far worse urban destruction than this. I stood at the rim of Ground Zero in New York City just after September 11, 2001, when the pit was still burning and the stench still stretched to Central Park and beyond.

What struck me about Beirut’s Holiday Inn (and by no means is it the only war damage still visible in this city) is that it’s so obvious and that no one bothered to take it down yet. It’s not hidden on a side street. It looms over the city like a monument, even after 15 years of peace, and no one who lives here seems remotely disturbed by it. No building that looks like this would be allowed to stand in Europe or the United States.

I understand why it’s not a big deal to Beirutis. I’ve set eyes on it hundreds of times now myself. It no longer shocks me, not in the slightest. I don’t even notice it, really. It’s just another building, just a part of the scenery. I’m losing my stranger’s awareness.

Some Westerners I meet around here have been in the Middle East so long they’re used to even the worst things about it. My friend David Enders, who spent a year and a half in Iraq covering insurgency, terrorism, and war for Mother Jones and The Nation, talks about car bombs as though they are normal.

Car bombs aren’t normal. Car bombs are car bombs. They are weapons of murder, mayhem, and terror. However many people they kill, they wound entire societies.

Beirut has car bombs, although not a single one has yet exploded while I have been here. Lebanon may be physically close to Iraq, but it’s not at all the same kind of place. At least it isn’t right now. The Holiday Inn is a reminder - for those who still "see" it - of what Lebanon recently was.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:39 AM

October 18, 2005

Old School Terrorism in Lebanon

My first Tech Central Station column filed from Beirut is up: Old School Terrorism in Lebanon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 07:44 AM

October 17, 2005

No More Comments

Comments are closed for six months.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:19 AM

Moving In

If you want to find an apartment in Beirut, choose the neighborhood you want to live in, find a coffee shop or bar, and pull up a seat. Then announce to the bartender that you’re looking for a place to live. Someone within earshot is bound to know someone who knows someone who has an apartment for rent. Fellow patrons will hand you phone numbers and names.

Every time I used this method to find landlords it worked, even though I always worried the bartender would say “why are you telling me this?” Few apartments are advertised for rent in the Daily Star or anywhere else. For the most part, real estate “listings” travel by word of mouth.

This system wore me out after a couple of days. One of two things would happen. Either the landlord was out of town and couldn’t show me the apartment until several days later. Or I did see an apartment and I thought it was grim or too far from downtown. It is possible to find a decent apartment on my modest budget. But I quickly learned that furnished apartments almost uniformly have depressing furniture. Why should the landlords care if the furniture looks good or not? They don’t have to live with it themselves.

So I decided to use a real estate agent. He was a bit expensive, but time was money. If he could find me a place to live faster I would save money on my hotel bill.

His name was Michel. He drove me around Beirut in his red sports car. He said he was 79 years old, which I refused to believe. (He couldn’t have been a day over 60.) He served me coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes in his salon every day before we started our hunt. “You must come to my house and eat dinner sometime,” he said. “If you have a problem, day or night, just come on over. We never close.”

We looked at 20 or so apartments all over Gemmayze and Achrafieh. The routine was the same as before: the landlord was nowhere to be found, or the furniture was gruesome even to look at.

There was an exception, though. An old man was turning a 1980s office building in Gemmayze into apartments. It sounds like it wouldn’t work. Who wants to live in an office building? But the man was doing a fantastic job of it. It didn’t look anything like an office building inside. He did what he could to make each unit look like a home that had never been used as anything else. The floors were made of polished gray and white marble. He promised to provide brand-new furniture in every apartment. He hadn’t even bought the furniture yet, that’s how new it was going to be.

He showed me several apartments and I found the one I wanted. We settled on five hundred dollars a month for a spacious two-bedroom, three-bathroom place.

“When will the apartment be ready?” I asked the old man through one his younger employees, Jad, who translated for us.

“It depends on how much work you want us to do. Do you want us to buff the floors?”

The floors looked great, and I didn’t want to wait. “Please just paint the walls and put some furniture in. I won’t need anything else.”

“We can do that in three days,” he said.

My agent Michel said he would go over the contract with me and the old man. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be overcharged for utilities. (Electricity should cost around 10 dollars per month, but foreigners sometimes get screwed out of 100 dollars per month.) Michel also said he would lobby the old man to change anything about the apartment I was not happy with before he would permit any money to change hands.

It sounded fantastic to me. Michel was earning his money.

But then I learned what “tomorrow” means in Lebanese.

Three days later, as I was crossing my fingers and hoping I could really move in, Michel called me.

“Michael” he said. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow.”

Sigh. I had a feeling that’s what he would say. Something was bound to go wrong. Perhaps the painter didn’t turn up. Maybe the furniture delivery guys were delayed for whatever reason. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. It was not a big deal. I was just a bit disappointed.

The next day Michel called again. “Michael,” he said. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow.”

Now I was getting annoyed. My hotel cost three times as much as the apartment and I do not have unlimited funds.

The next day it was the same. “Michael,” Michel said on the phone. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow. But this man…this man, I know him. He is not correct. He speaks just to speak.”

I asked Michel to show me some more apartments in Achrafieh and Gemmayze. Obviously the old man couldn’t be trusted. When he says “tomorrow” he clearly does not mean tomorrow.

So the next day Michel took me to see some more apartments. I found a place I considered taking all the way at the far end of Achrafieh for 500 dollars. The furniture was gruesome as usual, but perhaps I could replace it with some of my own. The apartment was ready to move into immediately, and the landlord was a genuine pleasure to meet.

“Let me think about it for a day,” I said to the landlord and to Michel. “I really like the other place. Maybe it really will be ready tomorrow. It has to be ready at some point.”

The next day Michel called again. “The apartment still is not ready, Michael. But it will be ready tomorrow at 6:00.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “That’s what he always says.”

“He called me twice today to tell me it will be ready tomorrow. He never did that before. He swears it will be ready tomorrow. I never believed him before. He speaks just to speak. But I do believe him this time. The apartment is completely finished and painted. He bought all the furniture. He is only waiting for it to be delivered.”

Okay, I thought. Maybe I believed it a little bit too. I needed to believe it. I had spent so many hours looking for a place that I could have been spent traveling around, researching, writing, and blogging.

The next day at 3:00 in the afternoon, three hours before the place was supposed to be ready, I went to the apartment building myself. I wanted to check on the progress. I wanted to see for myself what was happening instead of hearing about it through other people.

I went up the stairs to the third floor where my flat-to-be was. The door was open. I heard a huge ruckus inside that sounded like a saw cutting through wood.

I knocked. “Hello,” I said. Jad, the old man’s employee who had translated for us before, was shocked to see my face.

“Hello,” he said. “We are buffing the floors.”

I asked them not to buff the floors. The floors did not need to be buffed. I only wanted to wait for them to paint. No one had painted the walls yet. I was dealing with liars.

“Why is there no paint on the walls?” I said. “The landlord said he already painted.”

Jad did not answer my question.

“How much did you say you would pay for this apartment?” he said.

“Five hundred dollars a month.”

His eyes turned to saucers. “Five hundred dollars a month! No way. Who quoted you five hundred dollars a month?”

“You did,” I said.

“No, I did not,” he said. “We would never rent this apartment for only five hundred dollars a month.”

“We agreed to five hundred dollars per month. We shook hands on the deal. You were there. You said five hundred dollars, not me. All I did was agree to the price. I tried to haggle you down to four hundred. Remember?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“But I agreed to five hundred.”

I took another look around. Obviously there was no furniture inside the place yet.

“When will this place be ready?” I asked.

“Four days,” he said.

“Four days!” I said.

“Maybe five,” he said and shrugged.

“Good bye,” I said. “I’m not waiting five days.”

“As you wish,” he said.

I turned to go, then turned around to face him again.

“Why was I told the apartment would be ready ‘tomorrow’ for four days in a row when it clearly would not be ready tomorrow?”

“You never paid us any money,” he said. “How did we know you really wanted it?”

“I told you I wanted it,” I said. “Michel and I called every day. I held up my end of the bargain. You didn’t. So now you lose five hundred dollars a month.”

He shrugged. The old man probably paid him an exploitive wage anyway. It looked like that kind of place.

I was 350 dollars poorer in hotel bills because I trusted him and because I trusted that “tomorrow” actually meant tomorrow rather than later.

I finally found an apartment. It is in the center of Achrafieh, not at all a long walk to downtown.

I bought an entire set of furniture from someone who left the country for a new job. The furniture isn’t exciting. But it isn’t grim, either. The person who first bought it two years ago is the same person who had to live with it. My landlord is terrific. I spoke to one of his Western tenants who has known him for years and counts the man as a dear friend.

So I’m finally settled into Beirut. I can finally relax, finally cook my own meals, finally sleep in my own bed, and finally focus on work.

I haven’t felt this good since I got here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:17 AM

Addendum to New Comments Policy

I deleted every single last comment in the so-called "discussion" beneath yesterday's post. Clearly my new comments policy is not sufficient.

From here on out, if you respond to a troll or let trolls seize control of the discussion on my Web site I will delete the offending comments and your responses.

If my comments box does not markedly improve within 48 hours I will shut it down for the entire duration of my trip in the Middle East and will not even consider opening it up again until I get home.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:52 AM | Comments (1)

October 16, 2005

New Comments Policy

Sorry about the tone of my last post. I had a bad day and needed to vent. I also needed to keep the details to myself – for the moment. If you’re Lebanese, please don’t take offense. It is a pleasure meeting most people in this country.

Everything is peachy here now and I finally moved into a nice apartment. I did get accused of being a spy again last night, but it didn’t bother me. It’s just one of those things that happens. (Shrug.) I also like the guy who said it to me, and he was mostly just teasing.

Regardless of the tone of my posts, the comments box has become a bit of a sewer lately. Since I’m the only person who can do anything about that, here’s the deal.

I don’t have the kind of Internet access I am used to having at home. So I have less time to moderate the comments. And since the comments in general are more rude and obnoxious than usual, I will no longer ask rude people to be nice. (It rarely works anyway.) I will simply ban such people and delete their posts without warning. I am prepared to be ruthless about it if that’s what it takes to clean this place up. Once a year or so the comments need a good purging, and this is one of those times. This is always a popular move. We all know who the trolls are. Even the trolls themselves know who they are.

I will never ban anyone simply for arguing or disagreeing with me. I’m not right about everything. Plenty of people know more than me, and everyone has a different knowledge base and set of experiences. I welcome politely contrary comments. I want polite contrary comments.

However, anyone who makes racist comments will be banned. Anyone who accuses others of being racists (or fascists, or terrorists, or whatever) for no good reason whatsoever will be banned. Anyone who hurls personal insults of any kind at me or at others will be banned. Anyone who is not an established commenter and proves to be a jerk in the first post will be immediately banned.

Think of it this way: If I have a party at my house and someone shows up and picks a fight with me or my friends, they will be kicked out of my house. A good host could not do anything less. I expect commenters on my Web site to behave as though they would behave in my house. Everyone is welcome to argue with me and with others. Plenty of people find a way to disagree with me on a regular basis without being jerks about it. I have forged real-world friendships with people who first introduced themselves by arguing with me in the comments. Those who have a hard time with this concept are poorly socialized and need to go somewhere else.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:37 AM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2005

I Am Not a Spy

Okay, it isn’t funny anymore. Let’s just get this out in public and out of the way once and for all.

I am not a spy. Got that? I. Am. Not. A. Spy.

Almost every frigging day in this country someone accuses me and/or one of the other Westerners in my presence of being a spy. When Christians make that accusation I get the sense that they’re half-joking. (Emphasis here on half rather than joking.) When Muslims do it the sense of humor in their voice is notably lacking. When Hezbollah does it I know good and goddamn well they aren’t joking. The flaming eyes, the screaming, and the physical belligerence kinda sorta gives that away.

So let’s get a couple of things straight.

Spies speak Arabic fluently. They know classical Koranic Arabic and the local dialect.

Spies don’t carry around $500 digital cameras from Circuit City.

Spies don’t pretend to be journalists.

How about all my Lebanese readers tell their friends and family that accusing every foreigner they see of being a spy is only funny the first 29 or 30 times that it happens. After that it’s stupid. After that it’s offensive. After that it makes your country look barking mad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:26 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2005

Syria’s Interior Minister “Kills Himself”

Syria’s Interior Minister “killed himself” in his office today in Damascus. He was questioned by Mehlis’ in the U.N. probe into the assassination of Rafik Hariri. He ruled Lebanon as military intelligence chief for more than 20 years.

I talked to several Muslims and several Christians in Lebanon about this today. None believe he actually killed himself. This country is rife with conspiracy theories, but I’m inclined to agree with them this time. The Syrian regime is a mafia with an army, and it acts like it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2005

Blackened Foundations

I’ve spent enough time in Lebanon now that I’ve developed a real affection for this place. I worry about this country, but not for my own sake because I am here. Any time I want, I can return to my city, my family, and my house on the other side of the world.

There are good people here in Lebanon; modern, forward-looking, liberally-minded people from every sect and ethnicity and religious confession. People who worry about the same things I would worry about if I were stuck here forever. They hate war and dictatorship. They hate hate itself. They distance themselves from the fanatics in their own communities who spew bile and bombast at the Others. They feel a sinking sense of dread over the Arab-Israeli conflict – not necessarily because they hate Israel, but because they yearn so badly for peace and normalcy.

The reason these little bombs are so frightening is not because the bombs themselves are so dangerous. They aren’t. They are more Irish Republican Army than Al Qaeda. The bombs, while rarely killing anybody, terrify so much because there are sizeable minorities across sectarian lines who can turn under the right conditions. They have M-16s in their closets, and they know how to use them. No one worries that Madrid will turn if Al Qaeda bombs it again.

Few people really want to use their M-16s. But they’re willing and ready if they feel it’s necessary.

I hate to say this, but sometimes I get the sense, when I speak to the worst of the Christians, that they are itching for an excuse to kill Muslims. The post-war culture keeps them in check. Perhaps some of the Muslims feel the same way about the Christians. If so, they are polite and discrete enough to keep their bigotry from me. Even Hezbollah doesn’t talk like some of the Christians.

The haunting words of Rebecca West in her travel book Black Lamb, Gray Falcon about Yugoslavia in the 1930s come to mind often here in Beirut.
Only part of us is sane. Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
If Beirut burns itself down again, chisel those words on its tombstone. Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. It is also its Sarajevo.

While driving around with my real estate agent in his sports car he asked me out of the blue: “Do you think Lebanon will be okay?” His voice cracked when he said “okay.” It was the first time since I met him that he spoke to me as though I knew more than he.

Did I come to Lebanon because I think it won’t be okay and I want a good story? Or is my temporary residence here proof of my optimism? I have asked myself this question more than once.

“I think Lebanon will be okay,” I said. “I hope so,” I said – and boy did I mean it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:21 PM | Comments (0)

Postcards

I’ve been spending almost all my time looking for an apartment and gathering information for a Hezbollah story. I’ll have more to write soon. In the meantime, here are some postcards from Lebanon.

Gemmayze 1.jpg

Gemmayze, East Beirut


Hamra 1.jpg

Hamra, West Beirut


Civil War Memorial.jpg

Civil War Memorial


Druze Rock.jpg

Druze territory, Chouf Mountains


Bekaa Valley 1.jpg

Bekaa Valley


Jounieh 1.jpg

The port city of Jounieh


Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2005

The Wall

In downtown Beirut there is a quarter mile-long wall. On this wall are messages from the people of Lebanon to Rafik Hariri, the Syrian regime, and their fellow citizens. They are hand-written in permanent black marker. Most of the messages are in Arabic, naturally. Some are in English and French.

The wall was erected after Hariri was assassinated. It extends to his grave site across the street from Martyr’s Square. I first saw the wall during the revolution in April. It’s still there.

Wall0.jpg

Wall1.jpg

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:35 AM | Comments (0)

October 08, 2005

Palestinians and Weapons Smuggled Into Lebanon

Beirut is tense. Almost every Lebanese person I’ve talked to says they fear a massive bombing campaign across the country after the U.N.’s Mehlis report on the assassination of Rafik Hariri is released in December. The Arabic-language media is reporting daily on the smuggling of Palestinian guerillas and heavy artillery across the Syrian border into Lebanon. Reports in the English-language press are fewer and farther between, but they do trickle in.

Beirut, Lebanon- The Lebanese authorities have been alarmed by a massive influx of arms and Palestinian guerrillas from Syria to Lebanon in recent days and army troops reinforced by police and state intelligence units deployed at key passes on the common border to curb the incursion, An Nahar reported on Sunday.

The infiltrators belong to Syrian-backed Palestinian factions, mainly Ahmed Jibreel's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which maintains border bases in Deir Al Ashaer and Sultan Yacoub in the Bekaa as well as the Naameh hills south of Beirut, An Nahar said.

The army has intercepted dozens of PFLP-GC fighters trying to sneak illegally across the Bekaa with arms shipments to the Deir al Ashaer and Sultan Yacoub strongholds, the two main spots that remain a focal point of sovereignty dispute in the wake of Syria's evacuation of Lebanon in April.

Many infiltrators were sent back to Syria, but An Nahar spoke of reports that undetected infiltrators managed to bring fresh arms supplies to the Naameh base as well as the Beirut Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps.

There were earlier media reports that Jibreel's guerrillas were reactivating their Lebanon strongholds, bringing in arms and reinforcements under the guise of a rotation operation.

Jibreel, who served as a captain in the Syrian army and acquired a dual Syrian citizenship, is the most trusted Palestinian ally of the Assad regime in Damascus. All his moves are coordinated with the Syrian military intelligence apparatus, which makes the ongoing influx look like a prelude for uglier terrorist operations in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese, perhaps the outright majority, blame the Palestinians for starting the 1975-1990 civil war that killed 150,000 people in a country of less than four million. Residents of some (but not all) of the camps have become so violent and radicalized they threaten to murder any Lebanese person who dares set foot inside. (The infamous camps of Sabra and Chatilla are still relatively “safe.” I visited Sabra myself and no one bothered me.)

The Daily Star reports (sorry, no link, dead-tree version only) a Syrian military base has been set up outside the Hilweh camp in South Lebanon – a clear breach of this country’s sovereignty.

The Daily Star also reports that Parliament has recommended a military state of emergency, Palestinian camps are being blockaded by the army, and the leader for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has ordered “all PFLP-GC officials in Lebanon's refugee camps to be on full alert and ready for mobilization at any time.”

It doesn’t look good. The situation here in this country isn’t precisely the rosiest I can imagine. Syria’s Bashar Assad did threaten to “burn Lebanon” if he was forced out. And he was forced out. But Lebanon hasn’t burned yet - not much anyway. A total of four people have been killed here since February. I for one don’t see why a massive terror campaign would start up after the U.N.’s report is released. I don’t see what Syria could possibly gain. Syria, on the contrary, could lose everything.

My sense is that bad memories and the usual Middle Eastern paranoia (which is understandable to an extent) is exagerrating most people’s dread of the worst case scenario. In April the fear on the street was that the Lebanese civil war would restart. It didn’t.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:32 AM | Comments (0)

October 07, 2005

Meeting Hezbollah

I met with Hezbollah in person today.

The goons picked me up at my hotel. They stuffed me in the back of the car, blindfolded me, drove me around in circles, then took me (I think) into the mountains to a “safe house” to talk to the sheik.

Actually, that's not what happened at all. What really happened is I took a taxi down to the Beirut suburb of Dahye with photojournalist Dan. There we met with Mr. Slick Media Man. Nice guy. Affable. Sharply dressed. Firm handshake. I would love to hang out with him over some beers and argue about politics. We wouldn't agree about much, but he doesn't threaten or yell. He also probably doesn't drink beer. His loss.

He did live in New York, though, and he seems to have a decent understanding of American culture. Said he’s tired of Larry King: “We need someone more fresh.” I asked him if he’s seen The Daily Show with John Stewart. “That’s what the kids are watching these days,” I said. But he hadn’t caught an episode yet.

There’s a lot more where this came from, I assure you. But I’m saving it up for something longer. Just wanted to let everyone know that Hezbollah’s “No Snatch” policy is still operative, and that I am still in one piece.

I’d like to turn the rest of this post over to “Lebanon.Profile,” my friend who blogs at the Lebanese Political Journal. He wrote the folllowing in the comments thread beneath the last post where several people worried I would get my head cut off if I went down and met with the Party of God.
I knew the reactions would be like this.

I am very happy I took Michael down to Dahieh a few months ago. The area south of Beirut that Hezbollah controls is one of the most international areas in Lebanon. The Europeans and Americans all live in Hamra and Ashrafieh. But many Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and Iraqis live in Dahieh and get along quite well. In fact, the area is so peaceful that I know a few Americans who lived there, and I know an Irishman who still lives there [no heads came off].

…Hezbollah's primary purpose is to "resist" the "Zionists." They aren't in Lebanon to harass the foreigners. If they were, the Lebanese government and international community would be forced to crack down on them. Hezbollah walks a tight rope in creating its internal policy, but few who haven't studied the group know this.

Hezbollah knows that Jews come to Lebanon, and they are highly suspicious of them. I helped set up a meeting between a pro-Likud European Jew and a mid-level Hezbollah member. The meeting was incredibly awkward, and we brought a gaggle of large men (including my 95k, 185cm self), but it was productive.

Interestingly enough for all of you irrational types, the Hezbollah guy learned a lot. He was very surprised to hear the beliefs of my friend, who was a pro-Likud Jew from Europe.

Did we learn anything from him? No. He gave the same packaged garbage that Hezbollah always spews. However, the important part was that he was effected.

Hezbollah likes Westerners. That's why they give English language tours. They are trying to get Westerners on their side. Hezbollah has museums at prison and massacre sites. Michael has been to the museum at Qana where Israel killed UN officers and refugees.

Their stuff is quite obviously political propaganda. They don't yet know that they are shooting themselves in the foot when they say, "The Holocaust at Qana." But they are becoming savvier.

We know that Hezbollah is undermining Lebanon. We know Hezbollah carries out atrocious operations to kidnap and kill Israel soldiers defending an international recognized border, which even the Lebanese and Syrian governments recognize. We know that Israel has a right to exist. But that's not the issue here.

The issue is Michael's visit to Hezbollah press officers. Ask yourselves this, Why would an organization intent on killing random foreign journalists have an English language press office? To lure them in? Or to try to indocrinate them and have them write pro-Hezbollah articles in the Western press?

Hezbollah was very successful with Helena Cobban. Why shouldn't they try to recruit more Western cheerleaders?

A gay Bostonian will do a better job convincing Americans that Hezbollah is okay than a Lebanese guy in a beard and glasses. Then, that person will argue with me claiming that Hezbollah is a wonderful organization that represents 70% of Lebanese opinion. It really, really infuriates me.

I hated when all of the Western liberals wrote on my blog after March 14th that we were not really the voice of Lebanon because Hezbollah is. Their statements were idiotic.

Don't be like them.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:28 AM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2005

Hezbollah: First Contact

Hezbollah Roadside Propaganda.jpg

I got the phone number for Hezbollah’s press and propaganda office. So I called them.

(Ring ring.)

Hezbollah: Alloe?

Me: Yes, hello sir, may I please speak with Mr. Hussein ________?

Hezbollah: He is not here.

Me: Do you know when he will be in, please?

Hezbollah: I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW!

Me: I am an American journalist and I would like to make an appointment with him.

Hezbollah: What is your name?

Me: Michael.

Hezbollah: Mr. Michael, he is not here.

Me: Will he be in later today?

Hezbollah: I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. Call back later. I will kindly tell him you would like to speak with him.

Later…

(Ring ring.)

Hezbollah: Alloe?

Me: Yes, hello sir, may I please speak with Mr. Hussein ________?

Hezbollah: One moment please.

(Click.)

(Cheesy 19th Century American Wild West saloon music played in my ear while I was on hold.)

Hezbollah: Alloe?

Me: Yes, hello sir, is this Mr. Hussein ________?

Hezbollah: (Suspiciously) Yes.

Me: Hello sir, how are you doing?

Hezbollah: Fine.

Me: My name is Michael. I am an American journalist and I would like set up an appointment for an interview and a press tour if that would be possible.

Hezbollah: I cannot talk to you. I do not have permission to talk to the press.

Me: I’m sorry. Someone gave me this number and told me you were the person I needed to talk to.

Hezbollah: (Silence.)

Me: Can you please direct me to the right person?

Hezbollah: WHO ARE YOU? WHAT DO YOU WANT?

Me: I would like to set up an appointment for an interview and a press tour if that would be possible. I am interested in Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s projects in the suburbs south of Beirut.

Hezbollah: Who do you work for?

Me: I work for ________.

Hezbollah: What do you want?

Me: I would like to set up an appointment for an interview and a press tour. I am very interested in Hezbollah.

Hezbollah: When do you expect to arrive in Lebanon?

Me: I am in Beirut right now.

Hezbollah: (Silence)

Me: Can I make an appointment?

Hezbollah: I do not have permission to speak to you. I do not know who you are. Can you come down to my office?

Me: Yes, of course, I would love to.

Hezbollah: You have to come here RIGHT NOW.

Me: I’m sorry, sir, I cannot come down there right now. Would it be possible for me to see you tomorrow?

(Tomorrow is the Muslim day of prayer, and Ramadan just started.)

Hezbollah: Yes, of course, please call me tomorrow.

Me: Thank you so much. I look forward to speaking with you tomorrow.

Hezbollah: Okay, bye-bye.

(Click.)

UPDATE: I sincerely appreciate the concern for my safety in the comments. But please understand that Hezbollah has an explicit No Kidnapping policy. They have had that policy for many years, and they stick to it. Journalists go down there all the time. Hezbollahland a creepy place. I wouldn't want to rent an apartment down there. (!) But it's not a head-chopping place. They have a press office. I am not going to get myself killed walking into that office unless I wave a gun in somebody's face.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:42 AM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2005

Hitchhiking the Chouf

If you aren’t used to the climate, Beirut can be unbearably hot even in October. The Mediterranean is a steam bath. Mount Lebanon, which normally dominates the view to the east, is obscured behind a thick humid haze. I feel like I’ve opened the oven when I step out of my air-conditioned hotel in the afternoon.

So when photojournalist Dan invited me to go hiking with him in the Chouf mountains, homeland of Walid Jumblatt and the Druze, I couldn’t resist.

Dan has been to Afghanistan. Dan has been to Darfur. Dan has been to Iraq. Dan cannot bring himself to feel that Beirut is dangerous.

We took a taxi down to the Cola intersection to pick up a bus. Cola is in south Beirut, which is nothing at all like the north. It’s poorer. Buildings are blocky, sand-colored, architectural zeroes. It feels hotter somehow down there, and more generically Middle Eastern. Cola could stand in for any number of Middle Eastern locales in a movie.

“Have you ever taken one of these cross-country busses?” I asked Dan.

“No,” he said.

“I wonder if they’re air-conditioned.”

“They have to be,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I took a ten-hour bus ride into the Tunisian Sahara in summer. No air-conditioning there.”

The bus driver waved us aboard and we found our seats near the back. The air-conditioning pumped hot air into our faces. So much for comfort. But at $1.33 a ride into the mountains, who can complain?

We rolled south past Hezbollahland along the Mediterranean coast. My shirt stuck to my skin. It felt like ants crawled down my back. Two Lebanese army soldiers, who looked almost like twins, slept open-mouthed in a row of seats behind me. They had a long hard day standing around in the heat with machine guns on corners.

The young man sitting in front of Dan turned around and faced him. Medium-length black hair curled under his ears. His beard and glasses made him look vaguely intellectual.

“Hello,” he said. “You are from America?”

“Yes,” Dan said.

The young man produced a sheet of paper from a language institute with some dates on it. “I have to take this test,” he said, “to certify that I speak English. Is it hard?”

“Is what hard?” Dan said.

“The test,” the man said.

I chuckled.

“We don’t take that test,” Dan said.

“English is our first language,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” the young man said.

“The test is probably hard,” I said. “But you speak English well.”

After twenty minutes of slogging through heat, haze, and honking traffic, the bus driver turned toward the mountain. Sweet Jesus, it was hot as a bastard. It felt like East Texas there on that bus, and not a single window would open.

Lebanon is less than fifty miles wide, and a mountain range – which is covered with snow in the winter - runs right down the middle of it. It doesn’t take long at all to climb elevation after turning away from the sea.

The bus began the steep incline up the Chouf. Small clusters of apartment towers followed the road all the way up. The hills rioted green with small trees and Mediterranean scrub. It almost looked like the south of France, only with stranger trees and taller mountains.

Chouf 1.jpg

The driver’s assistant ceremoniously threw open the back door of the bus. Crisp mountain air blew throughout, instantly replaced the atmosphere, and scrubbed the heat off my skin. The man deserved an applause. In a few short minutes we had traveled, in climate terms, from Texas to British Columbia.

The Druze villages kept coming, and every single one of them was tidy, modern, and prosperous. Lebanon is no Third World disaster zone. In fact, this is the first county I’ve been to where the countryside looks richer than the city.

Druze Village.jpg

It isn’t true. There is a great deal of money in Beirut. The city is the economic engine of Lebanon. The port, the financial services sector, the tourism industry, all generate tremendous amounts of wealth. (There is no oil here in this country, and few natural resources.) But Beirut is still heavily war-damaged. Bullet holes are ubiquitous. Shattered buildings are slung from one end to the other. Some of the worst are along the former Green Line that divided the Muslim west side of the city from the Christian east.

Green Line Damage.jpg

Vast empty spaces remain in the center where entire sectors were annihilated. You’ve seen pictures of the million-person demonstrations in Beirut in March? Buildings formerly filled up that space.

The countryside is genuinely prosperous, though, and visible war damage is not easy to come by. This is somewhat surprising. The Chouf was the site of a pitched war of ethnic-cleansing between Christians and Druze in the 1980s. Villages were burnt. Populations were transferred. Chains were hooked up to jeeps and used to pull captured soldiers around by the nose.

Christians and Druze get along much better now. They remember the past, but they don’t act on that past.

Hotels, news stands, snack bars, a wide variety of restaurants, and fully-stocked sleek modern stores are literally everywhere. The streets and sidewalks are swept clean. Most of the cars look brand new, though drivers still screech around corners. Plenty of uncovered women are out and about. “Village” is too quaint a term to describe these places, but the word choice is theirs and not mine.

Druze Village 2.jpg

“The homeland of the Druze,” Dan said.

“Druzistan!” I said.

“It does remind me of Kurdistan,” Dan said. “It’s modern, mountainous, and the people aren’t very religious.”

We came to the end of the bus line next to an amusement park. Soldiers with machine guns stood guard in front of the ferris wheel. Our destination – the Chouf Cedar Reserve, a 2000-year old forest that covers five percent of the country - was further down the road.

“Time to hitchhike,” Dan said.

Druze Road.jpg

We stuck out our thumbs. (Actually, we stuck out our fingers and waved toward the ground as cars approached on the road.) The tenth or twelfth car – a sky-blue beaten-up piece of crap with ripped interior – decided to stop for us. Those with the nice cars couldn’t be bothered.

Two Druze men, one who wore the traditional white knit hat, rode in the front. Dan and I hopped in the back.

“Marhaban!” I said. “Salam Aleikum.” The Druze guys, all smiles now, returned our greetings. Handshakes and introductions all around. They spoke no English or French, but it didn’t matter. Everyone trusts everyone here in the villages. You couldn’t find a safer place in this world if you tried.

And then we were off, cruising the Chouf with two mountain men who felt completely at ease with foreign strangers in the back.

Hitchhiking the Chouf.jpg

They yammered at us in Arabic. Dan – to my surprise, since he had earlier told me he does not speak the language – yammered back at them in Arabic. This went on for some minutes, Dan occasionally laughing and nodding.

“How much of this are you understanding?” I said.

“About six percent,” he said.

My own comprehension was less than two.

We passed a sign that – we thought – said the Cedar Reserve was somewhere near where we were at the outskirts of a village. Dan signaled the driver to stop, and we were out.

Now what? I thought. Into the village, I guessed, to figure out where we were supposed to go next.

(More to follow.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:16 AM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2005

Death Had No Echo

In the comments thread below yesterday’s post on Lebanese martyrs, someone mentioned the “death cult” in the Middle East. Another person said he thought it was creepy that martyrs are celebrities.

I’m inclined to agree, but I don’t quite.

First of all, Rafik Hariri, Samir Kassir, and May Chidiac did not blow themselves up for glory. They were murdered and maimed by others, almost certainly by Syrian intelligence agents. The ever-popular phrase “death cult” was coined to describe troubled Palestinian teenagers who yearn for the respect of their peers through self-detonation and murder.

Second, Samir Kassir and May Chidiac were already celebrities before they became targets. Samir wrote for An-Nahar, Lebanon’s most prestigious newspaper. May was (and hopefully still will be) a talk show host.

But the biggest reason I’m not repulsed by this public display of anger and grief and remembrance is because it is very much the opposite of the way things used to be in this country. Thomas Friedman in From Beirut to Jerusalem explains how it was during the war.
It was the ever-present prospect of dying a random senseless death that made Beirut so frightening to me. Ever since the start of the Lebanese civil war, much of the fighting in Beirut has consisted of sniping or shelling from great distances; those doing the fighting often have no idea where where their bullets or shells with land, and they care even less. When car bombs came into vogue in the late 1970s, life on the Beirut streets became even more terrifying, since you never knew whether the car you were about to walk past, lean on, or park behind was going to burst into a fireball from two hundred pounds of dynamite packed under its hood by some crazed militiaman…

Death had no echo in Beirut. No one’s life seemed to leave any mark on the city or reverberate in its ear.

Hana Abu Salman, a young psychology researcher whom I got to know at the American University of Beirut, once did a project interviewing her classmates about their deepest anxieties. Among their greatest fears, she found, was this fear of dying in a city without echoes, where you knew that your tombstone could end up as someone else’s doorstep before the grass had even grown over your grave.

“In the United States if you die in a car accident, at least your name gets mentioned on television,” Hana remarked. “Here they don’t even mention your name anymore. They just say ‘thirty people died.’ Well, what thirty people? They don’t even bother to give their names. At least say their names. I want to feel that I was something more than a body when I die.”
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:13 PM | Comments (35)

Gemmayze

Not every nice place in Beirut looks like the Middle Eastern amusement park downtown. Much more my style is a scruffy old gentrifying bohemian quarter known as Gemmayze (pronounced Juh-MAY-zee). It’s the “Greenwich Village” of Beirut. Here are some night shots.

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Gemmayze Bar at Night.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:04 PM | Comments (6)

October 03, 2005

Martyrs

“The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” – Milan Kundera

The Lebanese remember their dead.

The streets of Hezbollahland are lined with portraits of Islamists killed in battle with Israel. The walls of Beirut are papered over with martyrs of a more liberal variety.

Five months ago I could hardly look anywhere without seeing the face of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who recently had been assassinated with a 650 pound car bomb. The people of Lebanon put his portrait up everywhere, and they did it without being ordered to do so. I knew right away when I arrived here in April that this Middle Eastern country was not like the others. The likes of Moammar Ghaddafi and Bashar Assad, whose portraits are omnipresent by gunpoint decree, only dream they could be loved as was Hariri.

Things are different now in October. The ghost of Rafik Hariri does not hover over the city in quite the same way. Many of the portraits are down. Some are replaced with those of Hariri’s son Saad.

The first time I saw photos of Lebanon’s most recent martyr I stopped cold in my tracks on the sidewalk.

Samir Kassir Poster.jpg

Samir Kassir was a journalist, an activist in the Movement of the Democratic Left, a most articulate opponent of Syrian occupation, and a most articulate proponent of freedom for people in Syria. I met him three times when I was here in April. Shortly after I went home to the States, the goons killed him with a car bomb.

May Chidiac is alive. But she’s an almost-martyr in Lebanon, too, and I’m seeing her portrait around in quite a few places. She, like Samir, is an anti-Syrian journalist. And she, like Samir, was car bombed.

May Chidiac Poster.jpg

She’s lucky to be alive. A bomb was placed directly under the driver’s seat of her car. Somehow she “only” lost one leg below her knee.

The first time I came to Beirut the martyr portraits (of Rafik Hariri) made me feel better. I felt safe here seeing omnipresent photos of a decent man who did good instead of portraits of a tyrant.

It’s different now. Middle Eastern martyrs are supposed to be dead presidents, dead guerilla fighters, and dead terrorists. They aren’t supposed to be people I know. They aren’t supposed to be people like me. I cannot – not yet – walk past photos of May and Samir without shuddering.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:52 AM | Comments (25)

Martyr’s Square

Martyrs Square Statue.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:37 AM | Comments (16)

October 02, 2005

Bashir

You know you’re in a Christian part of Lebanon when you see a photograph of Bashir Gemayel on a wall.

Bashir Gemayel Poster.jpg

He was a Christian, a warlord, the head of the Phalange, a bit of a Franco-type fascist, and briefly the President of Lebanon in 1982.

If you appreciate black humor, here are two fun quotes from Bashir:

First, about Lebanon during the civil war: “This is not Norway here, and it is not Denmark.”

And this, one of the last things he ever said in his life: “To all those who don’t like the idea of me as President, I say: they will get used to it.” Just a few moments later - BOOM. He was assassinated with a bomb planted by Syrian agents.

UPDATE: I have quite a few Lebanese readers already, and they're slugging it out in the comments. (Welcome to Lebanon, indeed. Politics is the national sport here.) Bashir Gemayel is a real lightning rod in this country. Usually my comments are filled with Americans slugging it out. This is a refreshing change...I think.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:06 AM | Comments (79)