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A Date with Hizbollah

Real Travel

10 Feb 2009

For years the name Beirut evoked images of a vicious civil war and a hotspot of clashing cultures. It’s been a while since tourists flocked to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered a Lebanon of high class fashion, vibrant beauty, worldly citizens and some of the most amazing nightlife in the Middle East.​

Before I go on, forget everything you have ever heard about Lebanon. These days it is generally (a) out of date (b) wrong, or (c) the exception rather than the rule. It’s true that years of war and occupation have left their mark on Beirut, especially the southern Shi’ite district of Dahieh, but it is no longer home to the violence that used to dominate TV news. Like anywhere in the Middle East you have to take care and be aware, but it’s certainly not as unsafe as people make out. The locals, while wary, are welcoming and generous – even when you accidentally end up in the middle of a Hizbollah protest. But let’s start at the beginning…

I was on a 6 week trip through the Middle East and had always wanted to go to Lebanon. Having heard so much about the country, it was a blend of curiosity combined with the “Oh my god, you’re going where?” factor that made me want to explore this part of the world. Initially I had hoped to go to Palestine and Israel first, but the Israeli stamp ‘issue’ meant that I would then have trouble getting into Syria and Lebanon. (As it was, the Israelis will stamp a piece of paper instead of your passport if you ask.)

I’d just spent a week in Syria coping with the fact that Facebook is blocked (one of only two countries in the world; the other is Iran), where the highlight was Crac de Chevaliers – a medieval crusader castle that looked like the ones you imagined as a kid. Coming from Homs in Syria, I crossed the border at Abboudieh into Northern Lebanon. The ride to Beirut was an adventure in itself. I took a sherut, a shared taxi, paying an agreed amount and stopping numerous times along the way to have our papers checked.

While my Arabic was very rudimentary a couple of Asalaam 'Alaykum’s (peace be upon you) and Shukran’s (thank you) can get you further than you think. And money’s pretty easy to use once you get into Lebanon: the general rule is pay $US for large amounts and LP (Lebanese Pounds) for smaller purchases.

​Beirut’s nightlife was calling me, so as soon I’d put my pack down at the Mayflower Hotel in Hamra (got a great rate on – lots of accommodation to choose from), I was off to a club. Flagging down the nearest taxi, the driver Jamal spoke very good English. Little did I know that he would end up shaping my entire visit. When I said how I wanted to go to Southern Beirut the next day to see the reconstruction and find out what the people are really like, he just smiled and said Inshallah (God willing). So we agreed a pick-up time, and he then dropped me off for my first experience of Lebanese nightlife.

Entering the ironically designed Element club – which looks and feels as if you’re in a bunker – I immediately knew that this was glamour plus. The women were stunning, the men stylish, the drinks reasonably priced and the locals friendly. And this was on a Tuesday. Nearly everyone spoke English (de rigueur among young Lebanese professionals), and one couple who were celebrating their 3rd wedding anniversary wanted to know everything about my home country, New Zealand, while I wanted to know everything about theirs. It was a very late night.

The next day Jamal was waiting outside my hotel as promised. He’d put aside the day to show me his city, which started with the drive down the Corniche, the boulevard that once used to be the jewel in Beirut’s crown. While the rebuilt downtown area with its restaurants and high class shopping is now the star attraction, there were more than enough people strolling along the promenade on a slightly overcast day.

I was a little apprehensive when he told me not to take any pictures of the men with guns. I didn’t need telling twice

From there we headed into Southern Beirut, where Jamal lived and a Hizbollah stronghold. It’s not an understatement to say I was a little apprehensive when he told me not to take any pictures of the men with guns. I didn’t need telling twice. What was fascinating though was what Hizbollah actually did beyond what we hear about in the news. Not just an armed organisation, Hizbollah also has representatives in the Lebanese parliament. As we drove along Jamal pointed out the Hizbollah universities, Hizbollah petrol stations, Hizbollah construction companies, Hizbollah supermarkets and of course, subtley, the Hizbollah checkpoints. All was going well, until we turned the corner.

I was a little apprehensive when he told me not to take any pictures of the men with guns. I didn’t need telling twice. Little did I know that that day was Ashura, one of the holiest Shi'ite festivals that marks the Battle of Karbala where the grandson of Mohammed was killed. To show their affinity with the suffering, men self-flagellate. As we entered the next street we found ourselves next to bleeding backs from whipping, and boys with rubbing blood onto their chest. While that was a little concerning, it wasn’t until we got a few metres down the road when it became apparent what was really going on. The head of Hizbollah was giving a televised address to thousands of followers, all pumping fists and firing guns in the air.

Now, at this point I should say that my timing was extremely bad. It was January ‘09 and while I was in Jordan, Israel had invaded the Gaza strip, the Middle East was in an uproar and rockets were being fired from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel. This was one of those “exception to the rule” moments and is definitely not the norm. Thinking quickly, Jamal pulled the taxi over and bought a Hizbollah flag from one of the stores opposite the protest. We tied it to the car aerial with a rubber band and slowly made our way through the ever vocal crowd, with Jamal voicing his support so we didn’t get stopped at checkpoints and no-one asked what I was doing there. It seemed like the longest car ride in the world and I still have today “the flag that rescued us”.

Once we got to relative safety, there was one other place I wanted to see: the Sabra and Shatila camp which is home to over 10,000 Palestinian refugees. My interest in politics meant that I had long ago heard of the massacre here that inspired the Israeli animated film “Waltzing with Bashir”. Despite its awful history - and my naiveté - I didn’t know what to expect. The "camp" is really a one kilometer square suburb with roads and the semblance of paths; there is no wire or separation wall surrounding them and people are free to go out beyond them. The buildings are concrete and food stalls abound.

The people were cautious of this stranger in a taxi and perhaps with some justification. Jamal told me that this is their home even though it officially isn’t: if you are a Palestinian born in a refugee camp on Lebanese soil, you do not get Lebanese citizenship. There was a palpable degree of resolve in the air with the knowledge that their fathers, or in some cases, their fathers’ fathers had land that was taken from them, and the hope that one day it will be returned. And yet they became friendlier when I introduced myself and explained why I wanted to be in this part of the world. Standing outside the large banners of dead bodies at the Sabra and Shatila memorial was extremely sobering.

Deciding it was time to lighten things up, and due to the fact we couldn’t get far because there were still so many people protesting, Jamal invited me back to his house to meet his wife and family. Recognising that this was a truly generous offer and one that I was never likely to get again, I gratefully accepted… and it was here I saw the true meaning of Lebanese hospitality. Arriving outside of his apartment he saw that the power was off, a frequent occurrence in Dahieh as the government restricts electricity to Hizbollah. No matter though, up the dark internal stairwell we went to be welcomed by his wife and two teenage kids who wanted to know what was on my iPod and if I was in Lord of The Rings.

So here I was, with a taxi driver I’d just met, his wife, their teenage kids who had lit candles around the place and out comes the Merlot from Bekaa valley. In between Jamal regaling them with where we’d been, by the time the power came back on we’d worked through dishes of lamb, tahini, salad and the ever-present Markouk bread. Luckily, after a month in Arabic countries I already knew to only use my right hand while eating and not to eat everything on the plate, so I got some points for not being a complete Westerner. It was getting late and I had to get back downtown. As I left, Jamal’s teenage son handed me the Palestinian scarf he had around his neck as a gift for visiting their family and breaking bread with them. I realised that I’d been taken into the home of people who did not have much but wanted to share it all.

The next day I saw a completely different side of the country. The manager of the Lebanese branch of a company I worked for, Daniel, had offered to show me the sights north of Beirut. Unlike the rest of the Middle East it seemed that the towns on the coastal road didn’t end and start as such, they just ran one into another. Beirut became Dawa which became Jounieh which became the ancient town of Byblos.

Named by the Greeks after their word for papyrus (which used to be shipped via the port), the town has been invaded by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and Mamluks… and it shows. I’m the first to admit that I thought this major archeological site was going to be a bunch of boring ruins, but I’m glad I was wrong. I can best describe it as a history lesson pockmarked in stone, and to touch walls over 5000 years old really brings home how much Lebanon has seen through the ages.

Walking around the port, I asked a fisherman who was eyeing up the horizon why he wasn’t out there. Gestations to the sky and the sea complemented his broken English: “no good, no good”. At the top of the hill, there was nothing more to do than wander through the restored souk and humorously haggle over a cedar wooden box with shell inlay which made a fantastic Christmas gift.Back in the car again, this time heading to Beit Mary, a suburb reached at the top of a cable car – and a far cry from Southern Beirut the day before. Standing at the foot of the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon with her arms outspread over the city below, I had the perfect view over Jounieh Bay.

But it was what was underground on our way back, rather than what was on top of it, that really piqued my interest. Daniel insisted I was not going to leave Lebanon without visiting the Jeita Grotto, a set of crystalised limestone caves that is truly a world class attraction. With site map in hand I headed down the long boardwalk into the stunning Upper Cavern, joining a group of ohh-ers and ahh-ers as the guides showed us through (without once seeking the ubiquitous baksesh). With an abundance of ‘tites and ‘mites I wondered how the Lower Cavern could really be any better… but it had the bonus of a short boat trip further into the cave. It’s more than a little eerie when the only sounds you hear are drips of water into the lake below. It was disappointing that you’re not allowed to take any photos, which was a real pity for something so beautiful.

We got back to downtown Beirut in time to appreciate the lit up Mohammed Al-Amin mosque; the call to prayer echoing from its towering minarets. A Christmas tree stood proudly nearby, another symbol of reconciliation in a land that has experienced a lot. Beirut is literally a phoenix of a city. The rejuvenation of the Solidere (downtown Beirut) after the civil war is generally credited to one man – former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in 2005 by a massive car bomb outside a hotel. Thanks to his work, boutique stores, restaurants and offices all stand now where once there was rubble.

Eateries are plentiful in the cobblestoned area so we thought ‘why not spoil ourselves’ and entered one of the flashest restaurants in the Solidere, Al-Sultan Brahim. It definitely wasn’t the cheapest place to eat but the food was as good as anything I had tasted in the Middle East. Truly Lebanese, with four types of hommos and the obligatory missed pickles. Blanched dandelion leaves never tasted so good and I won’t even mention how delicious the fish sausages were (who knew?!). Mezzed-out and ready for my last night we hit the clubs once again. As I suspected, everyone is beautiful here all the time – not just on Tuesdays.

The morning of my leaving I got a surprise as Jamal, my taxi driver, and his two teenage children who had entertained me with the lights out, were waiting outside the hotel when I checked out. Not to pick me up, but just to say goodbye and hand me an e-mail address so I could keep in contact.

So there it was, three days in one of the most ancient/modern, peaceful/politicised, friendly/wary, and beautiful/bombed places on earth.

As I left Lebanon I learnt one final lesson: if you’re going to be there from say, a Monday to a Wednesday do not get the free 48 hour visa. Get the visa that covers between 48hours and 15 days for 25000LP (about US$16). Otherwise you’ll find yourself like I did, signing Arabic forms at the Lebanon-Syria border which say things to the effect of “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again”. It was worth it though.

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