It’s no surprise for you to learn that Beirut is a divided city. I was picked up at the airport by a taxi driver who was a Druze The airport is in the south of the city. As we pulled out the airport and gathered speed on the highway, ducking through tunnels and weaving lanes he told me of his brother in Australia and his other brother who served in the army there. I listened intently but my eyes were relentlessly drawn to the city, a broken, hodge-potch city. The buildings on the left and right were battered and damaged. I commented on it and the taxi driver said ‘fucking Hezbollah. This is a Shia area.’ They’d clearly taken a beating but it became a familiar theme for the Shia communities. These were communities of Shia refugees from the south.
Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular is inhabited by three communities; the Christians and the two sects of Islam, Shias and Sunnis. These endless civil wars reflect Lebanon’s location near the centre of this pot. Just as Lebanon recovers from one war, it seems to all happen again. The large Lebanese communities abroad give you an example of their plight and the Lebanese boat people marooned and dying off Australia indicate some of their desperation. The UN announced today they’ve registered their 1 millionth Syrian refugee in the country.
Yet the Lebanese are often hugely very successful. They are the creative force in the Middle East, running the media across the region. Carlos Slim the world’s richest man is Mexican Lebanese. Salma Hayek is the same. My Colombian mate Gabriel is part-Lebanese! They have an entrepreneurial spirit, a vibrant music scene and world-famous cuisine. There are thousands of Lebanese in Qatar. The bustling atmosphere of Beirut produces the very cosmopolitanism, open-mindedness and eye for a capitalist deal we applaud in the West. And the Lebanese love showing it off. Ostentatious signs of wealth are expected.
What did surprise me was how close the communities lived to each other. The central areas is packed full of mosques, churches and even synagogues. Wandering around in the afternoon, as suddenly as I crossed a road, the feeling was different. Every 10 metres were posters of a military man with a full beard, beret and machine gun. The ambiance on the street was different. Young men were sitting on steps sipping tea or kicking dust. Women were covered. Building were damaged, pot-holed and worn. This was a Hezbollah district yet a road away from a church, a stone’s throw from restaurant serving alcohol and a few hundred metres from the decadent city centre.
Walking through most of the city revealed a worn, depressed environment. The apartment blocks near the water were once the site of revelry and openness. Communities lives together even if they didn’t mix. Now the rundownness is a signifier of the decay, a loss of community and abandonment. The centre looks like a Spanish city with its 5 storeys and narrow lanes crammed with boutiques and bars. Well-heeled Lebanese sat drinking beers in sunglasses. Just a walk a way, the long corniche which stretched around to the Raouche Rocks was full of runners and walkers. The cafes attached to the cliffs invited groups of over-dressed women to drink and chat. Ignoring the shisha pipes, I could be anywhere in the world. Look back a generation and you must imagine what was.
The military is everywhere manning city buildings or keeping protesters out of the government squares. Outside the parliament building a protestor with a board was soon surrounded and walked out the area. TV cameras were stopped from rolling and I was asked not take any pictures. Lebanon is a democracy but a very fragile and fractured one. After the civil war, the country remains officially united but politically divided.
Hariri, the billionaire old President lauded in the West but assassinated by the Syrians with a city centre car bomb has a memorial in the centre. Yet the victims of the civil war are overlooked. The state is attempting a collective amnesia to not open wounds. The unacknowledged reason is the winners from the war are now in power. An open tribunal would implicate half the government. Yet the wounds are openly talked over within communities. The price paid for the lack of public explanation is a private separation. Everyone lives in the same house there but no one is talking and the troubles continue to fester.