Beirut, Lebanon – written on May 27, 2007
Today was my first day in Beirut. I went for a walk along the Corniche onwards to Raouché. At some point I thought I had everything wrong and that Raouché was at the opposite direction. And then, I came across a family; I asked them whether they spoke French, and two of them replied yes, enthusiastically. They told me I was heading for the right direction and as we said goodbye the man said: “Vous êtes le bienvenu ici!” . That must have been the most heartwarming welcome I have ever heard. I smiled.
On my second day, I moved to a hotel closer to the heart of Beirut, the Hamra district. In the taxi bringing me to the hotel at Hamra, the driver was telling me how he’d liked to be my guide around the place etc. I shifted the conversation to other topics until we came to the subject of traffic in Beirut. Oh you see, it’s Sunday today… it is very relaxing to drive in this area, he said. A few minutes later, our car crashed with another one on an intersection. I was in complete shock. I was on the back seat and I was fine, I just hit my knee against the seat in front and it was somewhat sore. The driver seemed unharmed as well but he was in complete shock too. A few seconds later we were surrounded by people on the streets.
I got off the car and saw that the front of the car got folded. Luckily, no windows got smashed. The airbag didn’t deploy, a man said in Arabic. I guessed the meaning of what he said and I acquiesced. Then I saw an ambulance coming, on the other side was the car that we hit. The other person seemed ok , but I dared not look… I was afraid. My hands were trembling. A medic asked if I were ok, I said yes I’m ok… but I felt so bad… so sad about what was happening. Another car picked me up… I said goodbye to the driver and told him I felt sorry . He smiled and said he’s going to be ok. Up to now I feel so bad about this. I know it could have happened anywhere, but I can’t help it.
In recent years I have been visiting countries around the Mediterranean basin with great interest in their role in the Antiquity down towards the Renaissance. And so it has become a staple, that in each of my visit in these countries I check out their main Archeological Museum. I can see progress in the way I appreciate these Museum as time pass. The Beirut National Museum has served as a “Clef de voûte” to the Museums that I’ve seen – I’ve been able to cross link what I’ve learned in other places. The Museum displays Archeological items found in Lebanon from Pre-history to the “Phoenician Period, Hellenistic Period, Roman Period, Byzantine Period, and Memluk Period during the Arab conquests”(Wikipedia): it quite simply is one of the main crossroads of History.
Crossroads, it is. When you are in Beirut you neither feel you’re in the West, East, South or North. You feel that you’re in a liberal society, but after some time you notice that it is liberal in a singular way. Poverty can be seen in Lebanon, but it is not as extreme as in Egypt, yet one cannot say that its poverty level is the same as that of typical European countries.
When I got out of the Museum, I oriented myself to the place so that I could point out where downtown’s direction is, this would make me appear less stupid if I flag a Taxi-Service( flagging one on the wrong side of the road for example) . Contrary to normal taxis, Taxi-service can group one or more clients heading towards the same direction. If you’re a foreigner you better brush out your negotiating skills because you’ve got to have the price and the place setup before boarding those cars – there are no taxi-meters. Now this can be complicated if the driver doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand you and so you’re better off learning how to pronounce the places that you are going to in Arabic.
“Downtown, 1000 pounds”, I said to the driver. He acquiesced and I got inside. What I wasn’t expecting was when he asked “Where in downtown?” . Martyr’s Square, I replied. What? I can show it to you in a map, I added. It is at this moment that the other client sitting on the front seat intervened. I pointed to him Martyr’s Square but in a second I changed my mind and pointed out Mohamed El-Amine Mosque. He promptly gave the Arabic name of the mosque and we all came into an understanding. The other client was young, he spoke good English, and we had a short talk until he stopped at his destination. From the way he acted, I‘d say he was a student at one of Beirut’s prime Universities.
The driver took relay of the conversation. As we pass by some streets, checkpoints could be seen beside tanks and military personnel. Aren’t you afraid to be here, he asked. I told him: “You know I come from the Philippines, and in some places there we have pretty much the same situation”. I could feel he was pretty much amused with me; he started playing the tourist guide as soon as he saw a glimpse of downtown.
I’ll tell you where to go, see that building over there that is the Parliament, and that one, the Mosque of Mohamed al-Almine, now I can’t drop you there as the roads are closed, but as you can see it’s a short walk from here. I like you very much, my friend. Be careful in the area! I got down and waved goodbye.
From afar I could see the pitched tents just beside this beautiful new Mosque; I was wondering who occupied these tents. Is this a refugee camp? … A protest? I started taking pictures of the scene, and keeping some distance to this gathering. Suddenly a young man from the group of people camping near the Mosque came towards me and uttered some words. I couldn’t understand what he was saying and so I just tapped his shoulders and smiled. Yeah, photos, photos go, he said … I could feel he wanted to tell me something else but the language barrier made him think that it would probably be useless. A few hours later, I would realise that these campers were not refugees but partisans of Hezbollah who have been doing a sit-in downtown ever since last year. They in part explain why downtown has been sealed to traffic and heavily guarded by Military man.
I walked around taking pictures of Martyr’s square this time, which really gave the center a ghost town appearance. The clearing gave a view of the vast empty streets on the centre. I looked at my map trying to orient myself, when a military man approached me and asked can I help you? Yes, would you know which direction is Hamra?
He looked at the map, and promptly told me where each of the landmarks were. There you can go to Virgin Mega store, it is open today. You also have restaurants around, but here they are very expensive. Then he added can I have your number we could perhaps party here. I gave my number and he gave his. Send me an e-mail, just say it’s Paul from Beirut and I will definitely remember! Then we bid goodbye, he told me to go on and don’t hesitate when walking by checkpoints. In one of these checkpoints, I had my bag searched. I was asked if I were a journalist.
Later, I reached place de l’Etoile, I was greeted by the sound of children playing around at this famous round-about. It was a pleasant surprise! There were families all around the place, enjoying the sun, enjoying the sealed streets of downtown Beirut.