Letter from Beirut

For two months, Massoud A. Derhally has witnessed first hand extraordinary events in Lebanon. He looks back at his unique experiences in reporting from the region.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  April 17, 2005

Letter from Beirut|~|WHEN-THE-DOVES-CRY-200.jpg|~|WHEN THE DOVES CRY: Hariri’s grave and that of his bodyguards in Martyrs’ Square.|~|IT’S HARD not to feel the tension in the air when you arrive in Beirut. Still, when I set out for Lebanon in early March the situation was not as bad as I had expected. Albeit former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed, and the episode was all too common to the Lebanese people who had endured a 15-year civil war, the situation on the ground had not reached the point of no return. It seemed there was no symmetry between what was broadcast on TV and what was actually happening on the ground — at least not entirely. Surprisingly the plane from Dubai to Beirut was relatively full. In some respects, it was a surreal experience as passengers waited to board. It had only been three weeks since 1000 kilograms of TNT tore through Hariri’s motorcade killing 20 people and wounding more than 200. At a glance the passengers seemed indifferent. Very few were dressed in black. Women wore vibrant colours; a man was sucking on a Cuban cigar, another was talking into his mobile phone. Faces weren’t drawn. People were laughing. And, unexpectedly, there were Europeans and other foreigners who were flying to vacation in Lebanon. In a way, the setting was testimony to “the life goes on” attitude that characterises Lebanon and its people. After being airborne for some three hours the plane touched down in Beirut. It took no less than an hour to get through passport control as hundreds of people stood in line, only to be briefly interrogated by the immigration officer who, on noticing I was a journalist, wanted to know whom I worked for and what I wrote. Waiting for me outside was my driver, Boutros, who seemed uncannily optimistic yet quite astute in his analysis of events. “The country reached a boiling point and Hariri’s killing galvanised people to [take] to the street,” he said. After checking in at my hotel in the Hamra quarter, a stroll from the American University of Beirut, I met up with Kamel, a Saudi banker who had been living in Beirut for over 10 years. We made our way to Paul, a French bakery in Gemaizeh — arguably Beirut’s most socially dynamic neighbourhood — which lies east of Beirut’s downtown district and the Place des Martyrs (Martyrs’ Square), where images of Lebanese protestors have been broadcast to the world since the killing of Hariri. Unlike the loud bar and nightclub-infested Monot Street, Gemaizeh is a quiet, charming area reminiscent of a street one might walk down in Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris. Many of the buildings that line the main street date back to the 1930s and the area is home to the English Daily Star newspaper, by far the freest of all papers in the Arab world, as well as various restaurants and cafés. It attracts a different, older crowd of Lebanese; businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, fashion victims, the occasional hippy and various other colourful individuals. As we sit down to have a light dinner, Kamel begins by pointing to some of the women at the adjacent tables. Many of them carried Lebanese flags or had them by their side. Virtually all of them in addition to many others in the café wore a blue ribbon with a picture of Hariri bearing the words “The Truth”, in support of the campaign to find out who killed the former premier. “Many of these people were at Martyrs’ Square before,” says Kamel. “They go demonstrate, then [when they] take a break, [they] come here, then they head back.” Martyrs' Square, which lies in the heart of Beirut, is steeped in history; from as far back as the Middle Ages, it endured various periods of occupation and repression throughout Lebanon’s history. The square got its name when in 1918 the Ottoman Turks executed any Lebanese that dared to call for independence. It was late. As I looked around it was still hard to make out whether those in the café were there to escape the hustle and bustle of the demonstrations or if this was a routine Sunday evening dinner. The scene was quite ironic; on the one hand you had people, just 400 metres away, screaming for freedom, sovereignty and independence, yet here life seemed completely uninterrupted. No doubt this was anthropomorphised by what Kamel told me next; a week after Hariri was killed, a Mexican restaurant called Pacifico on Monot Street had a drink named le martyr in his memory I made my way to Martyrs' Square that evening with Sami, a friend who had flown in from New York the night before. We walked among the protesters who had erected a village of tents in the square since Hariri’s assassination. I snapped away with my camera only to be approached by a suspicious-looking man in his late twenties asking who I was, for whom I worked and to show my press credentials. Bewildered, I flashed my card and moved on. There were plenty of Lebanese flags and an array of placards stuck to tents reading; “Syria out”, “Syria killing regime get out”, red stickers reading “Independence 05, crescents and crosses drawn side by side as a symbol of wahdeh wataniyah (national unity). It seemed endless. The crowd around the square was relatively small that Sunday evening, less than a hundred-strong; a day after Syria’s president Bashar Assad addressed parliament and announced the redeployment of Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley, but with no set timetable for withdrawal. Music was blasting in the background. Had circumstances been different, the setting could have been at Woodstock or the winding down of a rock concert. Metres away from the statue at the centre of Martyrs' Square lay the grave of Rafik Hariri and his bodyguards, just outside the towering downtown Mohammed Al Amin mosque he built. His grave had become a shrine where Lebanese from all walks of life paid homage to the former prime minister. The grave was swamped with flowers; notes from admirers, candles, crosses, rosaries, miniature Quran’s as some 30 doves tottered around. It was a very sobering sight, yet somehow unreal at the same time to comprehend the loss of a larger-than-life figure. Expressions of sorrow on people’s faces were more than revealing as was the nearby wall surrounding the mosque, which I dubbed ‘the wall of truth’, because of the messages written on it by Lebanese from all walks of life. There were messages in English, Arabic and French. Many eulogise Hariri: “Your spirit lives in us forever”. Others lament the future of the country in his absence: “They killed you and they killed the country, what of Lebanon after the martyr?” And some are basic, ranging from “Syria out” to “XXXX off Syria.” Unlike last summer, when I visited Lebanon and some of the Lebanese I met criticised Hariri, blaming him for the country’s US$35 billion debt — conveniently overlooking all that he did for the country — Lebanon was today awash with praise for the fallen leader. There are many stories of how Hariri was able to unify the Lebanese in his death. A friend who attended the funeral of Hariri spoke of when her Muslim cousin was reading the Fatiha verse from the Quran, her Christian friend turned to her and asked: “Please teach me the verse?” In stark contrast, as I turned in that evening, the news after midnight wasn’t quite as uplifting. Not far from where Kamel and I dined that night an 18-year-old was shot in the hip, the first incident of its kind since Hariri’s killing. The next morning after interviewing Riad Salameh, the Central Bank governor, I made my way to an opposition demonstration that started at Hariri’s grave and made its way to the scene of the crime and back to Martyrs' Square. No less than 200,000 demonstrators poured into the square to participate, most armed with banners and Lebanese flags to commemorate three weeks since Hariri’s killing. Walking among the demonstrators felt like being in a revolution. The chanting, the shouting, the slogans, the momentum on the street was unlike anything I had ever seen in the Arab world. The Lebanese people were making a stand and they weren’t afraid to speak out. And they were doing it under the Lebanese flag without a hint of the confessionalism that hurled their country into three civil wars in 1860, 1958, and from1975 to 1990. In his speech to the Syrian parliament, president Assad said he wished cameras would zoom out their lenses to show that there were just a few protestors and nothing wide scale. In response many demonstrators carried banners saying: “Zoom out your cameras, Bashar.” Others shouted: “Freedom, Sovereignty, Independence!” More protesters added: “We don’t want an army in Lebanon except the Lebanese army.” There were repeated calls for Lahoud to resign, for Syria “to get out”. As the demonstrators passed through the heart of the Beirut Central District referred to as Solidere, shop owners and businessmen came out to watched. All was well until the protestors reached the waterfront where heavy construction is under way, most of it carried out by Syrian workers. It was at this point that some in the crowd, mainly teenagers and those in their early twenties, deliberately began to antagonise Syrian workers, cursing at them and even throwing stones. It almost turned ugly, but thanks to some level-headed thinking from some of the demonstrators the situation didn’t spiral out of control. As the demonstration finished, I met up with Sami to have lunch in Gemaizeh again. Sitting next to us were three Lebanese women with whom we eventually had a heated discussion with. So heated, in fact, that some of the clientele in the café stopped to give us bewildered gazes. When I asked one, Lina, what she thought of the Hezbollah movement, she pulled no punches. “They want to know the truth about who killed Hariri, but they don’t want Syria out,” she said. “I believe in what they were doing, we don’t deny what they’ve done for the country,” in reference to Hezbollah successfully ousting Israel from Southern Lebanon in 2000. Lina was cynical about Assad’s speech to parliament and said: “America has helped us by putting pressure on Bashar Assad to get out.” Lina’s friend Huda was a slightly more overreaching in her assessment. “What you’re seeing today in Lebanon is because of America. Iraq isn’t working for it, as far as a case study for democracy goes, and Lebanon does.” Lebanon indeed has all the characteristics of a democracy, perhaps more than all the Arab countries put together, but I argued what was taking place today was a direct result of the killing of Hariri. As voices grew louder and more heated Lina’s face came inches from mine and the thought of getting physically assaulted by this woman crossed my mind. At this point Lina and Huda’s friend, Da’ad, interjected. “We are all united,” she said, “but we all have different priorities. If the Taif Agreement gets us all on the same footing then who cares about [UN] resolution 1559.” The resolution, sponsored by the US and France, calls for foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to disarm. Sami, who is completing his PhD on the political anthropology of Lebanon at Princeton University, was more insightful in his reading of what was taking place on the ground. “People are not thinking so much in terms of organisation or collective power, which can be very positive, but also negative,” he said. “Its because people are not thinking about the implications of living without Syria.” Sami’s point was a good one. And, as I would later discover when I interviewed Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, who had become pointman of the opposition camp, the opposition wasn’t as entirely united on every front as it would have liked to have been. Surprisingly there was no plan about what would happen once Syria did withdraw. It remained to be seen what exactly the opposition was all about — other than demanding that the culprits who killed Hariri be brought to justice and calling for the present government of Syrian loyalist prime minister Omar Karami to resign. “I am part of the opposition — I have to see with my partners in the opposition. We need a new president. We need to go to elections. This is very important for us,” said Jumblatt, when I asked about the movement’s future plans. Jumblatt was transfixed on ending Syrian rule and it was apparent he was content with dividends reaped so far. “I think until now the cedar revolution [has been] able to [bring] down the government and [begin] getting the Syrians out — that’s not bad,” he said. “I think the Lebanese have said it’s enough. The killing of Hariri triggered this mass popular movement. Unfortunately, it was because of his death. The Lebanese [have] said [that] ‘we want to live in a civilised country [and] we don’t want killings or assassinations anymore’. The assassination of Hariri cemented the unity of the Lebanese and we are telling the Syrians ‘it’s time for you [to] relieve pressure on us and let’s fix up a new deal’. But he’s gone now,” he adds. After leaving the café that afternoon, I met Amira, a lucid, passionate activist, who like many other Lebanese defied the curfew on February 27 to take part in the sit-in that eventually brought down Omar Karami’s government. After years abroad Amira returned to Lebanon to give it a go. And when Hariri was killed on St. Valentine’s Day, Amira like many Lebanese said enough is enough. Writing to friends in New York, Amira said there was a breach of sovereignty and the Lebanese people were violated when Hariri was killed: “Violation is the disruption of the peace in a country struggling to stand on its feet. The violation is our president not addressing the nation after such a tragedy rocks the nation.” In many ways, Amira’s resilience to do right, her indignation with Hariri’s killing and her courage to speak out like the hundreds of thousands of other Lebanese was, and continues to be, a result of the shock and outrage that still grips the country more than a month after the death of Hariri. “We won a small battle in a bigger war of finding a true independence day for Lebanon,” said Amira when the Karami government resigned. “We won in introducing the sense of responsible citizenship to a nation that had long lost faith in [its] passport. We won in coming together for a reason that we collectively want. I stood side by side with Lebanese whose agendas and mind frame are different than mine, some of them scarily so, but we agreed to stand together as Lebanese.” The next day, Hezbollah expectedly flexed its muscles, drawing no less than half a million supporters to its demonstration in Riad El Solh square. The uncertainty of how the event would turn out was nerve-racking for many in Lebanon. Most Lebanese who supported the opposition and wanted Syria out of Lebanon were intimidated by the open display of what they considered the last parapet of Syria’s authority in their country. Like them, I didn’t really know what to expect, but there was a ubiquitous fear of the size of what was to come. The demonstration was scheduled to start at 3pm but people started to converge as early as midday. All I could see when I reached the overpass from where one can get a clear overview of Riad El Solh square was a sea of white and red. Traffic came to a standstill. There was tension in the air. Lebanese Army jeeps and armoured vehicles sealed off streets leading to neighbouring Martyrs’ Square, fearing there might be clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrators. Pictures of Lahoud and Assad were plastered on cars and buses. Bombed out buildings from the civil war were full of protestors and the media. People selling Lebanese flags were on every corner. Ironically, in the mix of it all, the Lebanese still didn’t lose their merchant instincts. The assembling crowd was markedly different from the one that attended the opposition rally. Those who participated then seemed more bourgeois, educated and of a different social make up than Hezbollah supporters, who seemed to come from ghettos and the poorer fringes of Beirut. As I stood taking all of it in, a convoy of cars arrived reminiscent of a clip from a Hollywood film. A series of black Mercedes, an SUV and a Rolls Royce with tinted windows came swerving up the overpass and pulled into the parking lot. Soon afterwards standing behind bullet-proof glass and flanked by bodyguards, Hassan Nasrallah the secretary general of Hezbollah started to deliver his speech. He was a charismatic leader who spoke with conviction and he had the undivided attention of just about everyone when he uttered his first words. “You came to this rally to rebuff the attempts of the Americans and other foreign powers to impose their mandate on our country … The cause of the people revolves around whether the role and identity of Lebanon follows Arab nationalism and Syria, or the American-Israeli strategy,” said Nasrallah. “Are the hundreds of thousands of people here all puppets, agents of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services? It is shameful for anyone to speak in this way of our compatriots,” said Nasrallah taking a swipe at anti-Syria supporters. He was able to articulate a clear strategy for his audience, reinforcing what his organisation was about and what its policies would be in the future. This was more than what leaders of the opposition had provided to their followers up to this point. But then there was the routine barrage of diatribes towards the “enemy”, which put the crowd into a hailing frenzy. “Repeat after me: Death to Israel!” Nasrallah told the massive crowd, which was already chanting “America out.” The tsunami-like demonstration dwarfed the anti-Syrian rally. Hezbollah was better organised than the opposition, more successful at marshalling a larger crowd mainly because of the welfare role it has played in the poorer parts of the country and because it was able to transport people from Tripoli, Syria, Palestinians from the refugee camps and many others from all over the country. “The first demonstration was led by people … people were looking for change,” says Ricardo a television anchor and host of the opposition rally. “The second is led by leaders…people were brought because they had to come,” he adds. But Ricardo also took Hezbollah and its supporters to task for saying they were thanking Syria. “What should I thank Syria for? For stealing the resources of my country?” he asks. “At the end of the day what are we [opposition supporters] asking for?; our sovereignty. I want a state, I want institutions … I believe in democracy, but I don’t respect those who don’t have patriotism, that don’t believe in Lebanon’s existence,” he adds. I spent much of the next couple of days running around conducting interviews with members of the opposition; Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, Bahia Hariri, Amin Gemayel and others. Meanwhile, Syria had begun the redeployment of some of its troops to the Bekaa valley. Elated Lebanese would descend on the posts, revel in the victory, and paint them in the colours of the Lebanese flag. And then stories of the past would slowly begin to seep out, stories of abductions carried out by Syrian intelligence services operating in Lebanon or by their Lebanese clients and of the writing on the wall in the cells where people were detained or tortured. One early morning I asked my photographer on the way to a meeting what he thought of Omar Karami’s come back as prime minister. Karami means dignity in Arabic. The photographer shrugged and said, “What can I say — he has no karami.” His comment was indicative of the frustrated sentiment that had mushroomed in various parts of the country. Thousands of Syrian workers that were integral to the post-war construction boom in Lebanon fled the country as anti-Syrian sentiment intensified in the wake of Hariri’s killing. And for some Syrians who continue to reside in Lebanon, staying on has become a delicate balancing act. Rawya who is in her twenties says she’s much more conscious of her surroundings and of her identity. “People get stunned when I say I’m Syrian. At work I have to make sure I don’t speak with a Syrian accent,” she says. “I have no links to Lebanon, but I want to see it grow. Friends who are Syrian go to the opposition rallies because they want Syria out.” Rawya’s mother packed up and moved to Lebanon because of Hariri. “He made the country safe and good for business,” she says. Hariri helped put an end to the 15-year civil war. He played a formidable role in the Taif talks in Saudi Arabia that resulted in the Taif Agreement, known as the Document of National Accord, which provided the framework that ended the civil war and returned Lebanon to political normality. Years later, he used his personal contacts with Arab and international leaders to either write off Lebanon’s debts or assist it with grants and loans at what became known as the Paris talks. He was also a philanthropist and helped thousands of Lebanese students obtain their education. And he poured millions of his own fortune to resurrect his country. Much of the Beirut Central District stands erect today because of the will he manifested in his business undertakings, like the Solidere company which he helped set up to rebuild Lebanon. Hariri was successful in helping revive tourism in Lebanon to its pre-civil war levels. He invited and paid for Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti to perform in Lebanon because he wanted people to identify with something other than the country’s traumatic and bloody history. But for now though, much of the heart of Beirut resembled a ghost town. And, alas, in many ways what happened to Lebanon on February 14 when Hariri was killed is akin to 9/11, in the sense that the effect was the same. But the perpetrators not only targeted the heart of the city, but also its father, so to speak. On March 14, one month after Hariri was killed, Beirut was in frenzy. From the early hours of the morning people started to make their way to Martyrs’ Square for what would turn out to be a massive and unprecedented show of unity and support among opposition camp supporters. Students from the American University of Beirut were making their way and children in primary school were also taking part. What was taking place was historic; an upsurge in political consciousness was under way in the country across the board. It was hard to veil what was taking place, even if the rhetoric that was present in the Arab Revolt in 1916-1918 was absent in these demonstrations. As I walked towards Martyrs' Square I saw Egyptians, other Arabs, even Sri Lankan maids and Indian workers all taking to the streets. If it wasn’t in solidarity with the Lebanese people that prompted them to rally, it was perhaps out of frustration with life in their own countries or simply because they recognised after living in Lebanon and witnessing its transformation under Hariri, that the Lebanese people deserved more. In the midst of it all, the cafés and restaurants in downtown Beirut were flooded with people. If the circumstances were different it would have looked like the World Cup had come to Lebanon. At the Grand Café, patriotic music was playing in the background. Beirut is crying one of the many songs dedicated to Hariri was playing and nearby Lebanese dressed their patriotic red and white flags were smoking their Shishas (water pipes). As I reached the square and joined no less than one million flag-waving Lebanese that had flocked to the heart of Beirut, it became clear I was witnessing history being made. It was an almost unimaginable sight and the congestion was overwhelming. People were face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, the force of the crowd simply moved you in one direction. You had no choice but to go along. A woman in front of me collapsed and had to be rushed to an ambulance. People were in frenzy. This was people power at its pinnacle, but there were also instances were it bordered on swirling out of control. I was mesmerised when I saw a dozen or so Lebanese making their way up a crane several hundred meters long. Later reality seemed to check in when an unidentified bag was discovered a couple of feet away from where I was standing. All of a sudden a dozen of jittery Lebanese soldiers came rushing and evacuated the vicinity. Luckily it was a false alarm. When Hariri’s sister addressed the crowd, it brought an entirely different momentum to the event. Unlike other opposition members who spoke, Bahia Hariri spoke very eloquently in a charismatic, yet emotive manner. She eulogised her brother, she was nationalistic and she laid out a vision for those before her. “To those who fear that the Lebanese will be divided, we say that preventing decision cannot be achieved by fear and retreat, but rather by going ahead toward concurrence, toward the truth, toward the future,” said Hariri. “Let us merge the two struggles into one, the resistance to occupiers and the construction struggle to build Lebanon,” added Hariri It was a poignant moment for the opposition, but also for the Lebanese people and for Syria. The show of unity dwarfed that of Hezbollah and more importantly it made it all the more difficult for Syria and Assad to question the will of the Lebanese people. This was a new point of no return. Hariri’s speech typified the hope and optimism her brother symbolised in his tenure as premier. The question on many people’s lips now though, was whether or not the country could withstand the prickly path ahead. The car bomb that went off in Jdeide, a Christian neighbourhood, the night before I left Beirut didn’t only add to the jittery nerves, but put the country on a knife edge. The next day checkpoints reminiscent of the civil war sprung up all over the capital. “It’s a bit too late for this,” a cynical Amira said as we drove to the home of Robert Fisk, The Independent’s correspondent. Fisk had covered Lebanon for the British paper since 1976 and subsequently published a famous book, Pity The Nation, based on all he experienced and saw during the civil war. And on February 14, as he recounted while we sat and chatted on his balcony overlooking the corniche, he was several hundred metres from Hariri’s motorcade when it was torn apart. Fisk had been walking by the sea front when the bomb went off. He described how the force of the bomb broke the sound barrier, sending a white strip of haze towards him. He instinctively ran towards the bombsite and jumped into the scorching hot crater, surrounded by burning cars. As Fisk recalled the events of that day, you couldn’t help but sense the numbness that journalists develop after covering war zones for so many years. Listening to him speak nonchalantly, was sobering, as have been the subsequent sporadic car bombings in Beirut and the feeling of helplessness that seems to set in — that the country may be slowly slipping away into the abyss. As Chahid, one Lebanese put it: “Lebanon is to the Middle East what Poland was to Communism during the cold war.” Personally, my two weeks in Beirut were as much about introspection as an Arab and assessing the state the Arab world was in today, as it was about covering events on the ground. On my way to the airport, the optimism of many of the Lebanese I met; people like Amira, Walid Jumblatt, the various taxi drivers left me hopeful — that the country’s salvation would come perhaps not out of the ashes of the car bomb that killed Hariri, but of the crestfallen memories of war and fear that the Lebanese know all too well. ||**||

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