Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 1)

First post in a while. This may seem a bit scattered because I wrote different parts at different times.

Part 1:

I am in Beirut...

I feel so confused.

I arrived at the Syrian/Lebanese frontier in the early afternoon on the last day of my Syrian visa. After the Syrians let me go I crossed the small bridge to the Lebanese side. This crossing, over a small river by the sea, reminded me of my crossing from Mauritania to Senegal a few years ago. Well I suppose the Lebanese side felt more like West Africa. The Syrians were surprisingly composed and relatively orderly. Crossing the bridge brought me into a border post of razorwire, commandos, potholes, French language and Mercedes.

When I finally passed the border, I drove hard for Tripoli (Tarablus). Ahead I could see the green mountains rising near the sea. For a moment everything looked idyllic. But closer examination revealed brutal reality. The entire countryside was coated in debris; both food wrappers and abandoned industrial materials. The fancy cars heading for the border did not seem to fit with the poor rural houses they zoomed past. Before I knew it I was suddenly cycling past a Palestinian refugee camp (the site of the 2007 battles). The shacks on the beach reminded me more of the slums of Dakar, Senegal than anything I imagined to be Lebanese. Hitting my first large town was equally as jarring; many people were dressed in quite sharp clothing and there were more advertisements than I saw in the whole of Syria, yet the road needed repair and many buildings looked abandoned.

I entered the jungle of bulletscarred buildings that is Tripoli through a series of military checkpoints. My first impression was of a city under occupation. I reached my hotel after a ride through a confusing blend of designer clothing shops and crumbling buildings. Once I had showered, I came out to the balcony to a crackling sound similar to gunfire. I tried in my best Arabic to ask what it was but could not understand the response other that it was "good." I took to the streets and discovered a large wedding party down tucked behind some French colonial buildings. The bride and groom were just getting into their convertible porsche, while drummers in traditional Arabic dress played over the noise created by others setting off fireworks.

(This post was interrupted. Now I'm in the Bekaa Valley a week later.)

Alright... back to Tripoli. There I met a Norwegian political scientist/sociologist who explained to me much of the political situation in the north. She was reseaching Sunni mobilization in the city (Tripoli is mostly Sunni while the surrounding areas are mostly Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians). We took a day to escape from the humidity of the coast and went up into the mountains looming over the city. Lebanon is quite stunning from the giant Virgin Mary statue high above Ehden.

I passed a few more days in the region exploring, meeting friendly locals and repairing a broken bicycle spoke. With the bike rideable again, I set off down the coast. This was quite possibly the strangest cycle day I have ever had. Abandoned contruction projects and chic stores, stunning coastline and industrial mining, mansions and shacks, headscarves and sexy bikinis. Huh? And this was after just maybe 20kms. I passed a field of high grass near Byblos (Jbail). I noticed turrets poking out of the vegetation and realized that it was a field of abandoned tanks and armoured personel carriers by a military base. Ten minutes later I was in jetset Byblos eavesdropping on some rich French people complaining about their lives and their yachts while I grabbed a shwarma. An hour later and I was invited in by a Maronite Christian family for a meal. We talked in a hastily invented English/French/Arabic creole as we sat by the sea. I napped on their couch for an hour and woke to more food and an invitation to stay for the night. As we ate the conversation turned to politics and religion which at first was fine. Then a deep gash in Lebanese society again reared its ugly head. "The Muslims are no good" Damnit, I really was in no mood for intolerance. The old man went off on the Muslims, specifically the Palestinians and the Shia Lebanese. As he spewed hatred I examined the tattoos on his arms and pieced together the story. The guy was a Phalangist militiaman during the civil war.

I backed out of the invitation to stay the night, explaining how I misunderstood because I needed to meet a friend in Beirut that night. Cycling away with a package of food and cold water bottles prepared by the old woman, I was deeply saddened. This sadness turned to a feeling of sickness as I passed Jounieh and into Beirut. I don't think I have ever before seen such a disgusting and blatant gap between rich and poor. Well actually I probably have but what makes Lebanon feel different is that it is not a small elite but rather a large group of super wealthy that seem to disregard the rest of the country. I suppose I am just frustrated right now and can't really make a coherent comment on the situation.

Anyway, after passing through a small part of Jounieh where everything was written in Russian and signs for Moldovan travel agencies and "Super Night Clubs" outnumbered all other advertisements I came towards the outskirts of Beirut. I was immediately repulsed by the city (though I loved it deeply by the time I left a week later). Seeing advertisements for alcohol showing a woman saying "plastic surgery made me fabulous" pretty much summed up the initial superficial vibe the bulletridden city presented.

Having survived the drivers, I grabbed a cheap dorm bed and relaxed. Lebanese drivers have to be the worst I have ever encountered outside India. Its not that they driver just badly, they driver as if they don't want to live. You see crazy driving tactics elsewhere but I have never seen so many accidents on the roads. Entering Beirut, I was passed by motorcycles pulling wheelies while weaving in and out of traffic like the beginning of the movie Akira. What compounds the problem is that Lebanese tend to drive huge, gas guzzling vehicles that take up a lot of space on the road. I had one sweet moment of payback for the bad drivers. One woman came up behind me in a brand new Mercedes on a narrow street and began honking. Instead of wait 15 second for the street to widen, she tried to push passed me. She brushed me with the entire length of her car. Unfortunately for her, I was still carrying the ixeace from Georgia and, with a sound like nails on a chalkboard, it left a long scrape down the entire length of her expensive vehicle.

The next day I wandered from East (Christian) Beirut to the West (Sunni) part. The downtown is oddly immaculate while a short walk takes you to the largest monument of the civil war: the Holiday Inn. This hulking skeleton towers over much of Beirut. It seems that nearly every square foot has at least a single bullet hole.

(Fuck it's really hard to write with children screaming and everyone coming up to ask you questions and look over your shoulder. Plus it's Ramadan and I haven't eaten since before sunrise at 4:25 and its now 4:00 which is incredibly difficult considering I biked over a mountain range yesterday so I am obviously a bit cranky.)

That night was quite nice. I met up with two French girls and a Lebanese guy I met in Aleppo and stayed with them .

(Post interrupted again)

Wow I am way behind. I am in Damascus now. I'll go ahead and post this as part 1 and write the rest in part 2.

1 comment:

  1. good to hear you're still alive; you've seen quite a bit in this last trip. i'm couch surfing in Chico (still without a house), but that should change soon. Call me when you get back to the states.