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Published: March 25th 2008
Damaged building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon
This building is still used as a home as evidenced by the washing on the top floor.
From the moment I stepped into Beirut International Airport, I knew that Lebanon was going to be a very different travel destination. Armed military and police scoured the arrivals hall and I had to pass three passport checks in order to enter the country - and on each occasion every page of my passport was checked twice - once forwards and once backwards.
The immediate impression of Beirut is the perpetual state of traffic gridlock, but away from families and friends strolling the Mediterranean-flanked Corniche, and the buzz of students congregated around the cheap eateries outside the American University of Beirut, the other distinct impression is of a city infested with multitudes of checkpoints prowling with heavily-armed soldiers. Fortified military outposts housed all degree of armoured personal carriers, anti-aircraft guns and other hardware, whilst choppers would occasionally fly past, the pulsating sound of their blades echoing through the canyon of buildings. Suspicion was everywhere, I succumbed to a full bag search prior to entering the cafe area of Place d'Etoile, and once when kneeling next to my camera bag to change a camera lens, an armed security officer walked a full block to ask me what my intentions where.
Reminders of the civil war abounded: buildings riddled with bullet and mortar damage are scattered across the city and in some instances only the husks of the structure remained, the rest consumed by fire and explosives. Remarkably, many of these damaged buildings were still functioning as homes or offices. Though newer constructions are appearing across Beirut, many sections are still in desperate need of rejuvenation, and it may be generations, if at all, for this process to be completed.
Though omitted from Beirut tourist maps, I visited the place where former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was killed at 12:55 on 14 February 2005 - a day on which no love was shown. This was no ordinary assassination, for the perpetrators used a bomb of gargantuan proportions to ensure that Mr Hariri would never see the light of another day. Up to 1800kg of TNT exploded with a terrifying intensity as Mr Hairi’s motorcade drove past the St Georges Hotel. This was an explosion that not only took 23 lives, but it tore deeply into the Lebanese psyche, for the massive outpouring of emotion in the form of street protests, vigils and memorials after the assassination still resonates today
as pictures of Mr Hariri adorn billboards, shops and cars across Beirut.
The normally pleasant conversation one enjoys with the Lebanese people dramatically changes once the subject of politics is breached - for even words from the gentlest of souls are filled with venom and bitterness. Whether the blame is thrown onto internal leaders, the military, or external forces - every person I spoke with in Beirut was utterly dismayed at the despairing state of politics in the nation - where violence has become a common method of resolving issues. One refined elderly man recounted sending his four teenage children away from Lebanon to safeguard them; indeed this must be a desperate country when families are separated to achieve even a semblance of safety.
One of the most obvious aspects of politics in Lebanese life takes the form of Hezbollah - the military/political movement dedicated to excising anti-Muslim sentiments. The yellow and green flags of Hezbollah adorn many buildings, and images of their leaders are plastered across billboards and vehicles. Most remarkable though is what I termed the “Avenue of Martyrs”, where pictures of soldiers who have died fighting (or martyred) for their cause are hung along major
thoroughfares - and these memorials stretch for kilometre upon kilometre.
However, opinion on Hezbollah is divided - some do not like what they stand for, nor their methods - but their supporters view them as a generous provider to the working class, enthusiastically asserting their allegiance and eagerly promoting their beliefs. When asked an opinion on Hezbollah, Israel or the USA - it pays to be diplomatic. I was once offered to meet a Hezbollah member just released from prison, whilst another sympathiser asked if I wanted to “shoot some guns” in the hills. Maybe, these people thought me an ally, for on telling a Lebanese man that I did not smoke nor drink alcohol he exclaimed in delight, “You Hezbollah!”
Away from Beirut, the military situation was less confronting, though one would inevitably pass an armed checkpoint every 15 minutes of driving. I was fortunate to visit two peaceful places amongst the turmoil of the surrounds. The first was the serene and beautiful 19th century palace of Beiteddine, which was awash with marble, mosaics and water features. The other was the village of Deir Al-Qamar, whose central square is surrounded by rustic stone buildings that have stood
No vacancies at the Beirut Holiday Inn
This building was a major battle point during the Civil War and still remains in this battered state.
for hundreds of years.
The final destination was the spectacular ruins of Baalbek in the Bekka Valley - which hosted an incredibly long “Avenue of Martyrs”, as the area within the Bekka Valley is one of the largest supporters of the Hezbollah movement, and thus it stands to reason that many of the soldiers would be drawn from this region. The ruins of Baalbek are more than 2000 years old, and the people that passed through this city are amongst the most famous in ancient history - Alexander the Great, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. It became a site of intense religious rivalry and it is a wonder that anything survived at all - but survive it did - and Baalbek is one of the Middle East’s most impressive historical sites.
Arriving late in the afternoon meant the ruins were virtually deserted as most people visit on day trips from further afield. The Temple of Bacchus was in an amazing state of preservation, whilst the enormous pillars of the Temple of Jupiter were staggering. I wandered for hours and sat on one of the site’s highest points to watch the amber light of the setting sun cast
Reconstructed area of Place d'Etoile - Beirut, Lebanon
This place was almost deserted - supposedly it is more lively in the evening - supposedly...
oblique shadows across the worn stonework. The ruins seemed devoid of other people, and it was calming to gaze across the empty site as the shifting breeze carried a mosque’s prayer call from one direction and the ringing of a church’s bells from another. Once the sun slipped beneath the horizon, I strolled to the exit, and it was then that the reason for my sole presence within the ruins became known - for the Temple of Baalbek was actually closed and I found myself locked inside the compound.
I walked beneath the darkening, chilly skies shouting “Hello!” but the only response was the echo of my voice bouncing from the ancient walls. Whilst contemplating this discomforting situation and engaging on a reconnaissance of the perimeter to discover the shortest wall or fence to climb (and the one topped with the fewest pointed parts) a policeman named Hussein, who was stationed at the temple complex overnight, approached me. Through the use of sign language and some hopelessly inept Arabic and French, Hussein understood my predicament and unlocked a gate for me to exit.
As I was leaving, Hussein asked where I was going, and being hungry my reply
Military checkpoint - Lebanon
This was not occupied at the time, otherwise I would have been in a LOT of trouble for taking this photo.
was “falafel”. At hearing this, he beckoned me onto the back of his moped - which wheezed under the weight of two people plus my camera gear - and Hussein drove to a small restaurant. I offered to buy him a meal, but Hussein insisted on buying this meal for me instead, after which I accompanied him to the foyer of bank where I whiled away two hours discussing Australia and Lebanon with him and two English-speaking policemen.
Finally, my time to leave Lebanon had arrived, and after passing the ubiquitous red and white checkpoints, the minibus dropped me at the border where I, along with a handful of Lebanese and Syrian men, trudged our way into Syria. I reflected on my time in Lebanon, and the kindness of the people - especially those like Hussein - but my most indelible memory is that Lebanon is a living testament to the tragedy of war - a tragedy that destroys everything it touches; whether that be lives of people, their future dreams, or the hope of a better tomorrow.
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