Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lebanon's Choice

Ian, a man who likes walking more than I do, persuaded me to lug my overloaded bag the required 4 km to the hostel Talah, just north of Gemayzih, where we had decided to stay. Even more than out of the window as we drove over Lebanon’s greeniness, the higher levels of prosperity and westernization became apparent, signaling an end to my month long exile from western culture, which had begun in Kayseri east of Goreme.

This intimation reached a crescendo of homecoming when I spotted the Virgin Megastore dominating Martyr’s square. The plush, succulent bars of Gemayziz, as self-consciously hip and superior as it possible for a bar to get, further completed the scene; as did the prices which indicated that my Syrian days of spending less than ten pounds a day were definitively over.

I am struck by memories of the food., which was really excellent. Usually I’m pretty indifferent to food, except for two considerations – that it should be adequately cooked and that there should be enough of it on my plate. The food I’ve tended to enjoy most over the years has been fried and fatty and basically on the wrong side of good for me. But Lebanese food – which looks and tastes as healthy food is supposed to, really charmed me as no other cuisine has, during these recent months of travel at least; all the glowing reports are true.

Beirut is festooned with militias and private armies. As I write Lebanon stands on the brink of a meltdown into what might become a new civil war. That event, if it happens, will be a regrettable tragedy for which the various players involved - in all their variousness - will be to blame. One would be forgiven for addressing Lebanon thus: If you value war over peace, do not be surprised, nay, be grateful, if war is what you get. On the other hand, If you value peace over war, as you say you do, then act accordingly and stop boring the world’s media to death with your indigestible quagmire.

After choosing your paradigm by which to understand the geopolitical factors pecking vulture-like into Lebanon, readers will want to decide if the fault lies with the ‘Shia Crescent’ stretching from the Hezbollah heartlands of Southern Lebanon through the Bekaa valley, to the Alawite regions of Syria, and from there into into Iran; or with the ‘Israeli-American Zionist crusading’ enterprise, and its treacherous Sunni-Christian Maronite affiliated supporters. My suspicion is that one’s decision in this regard might reflect some kind of pre-formatted, previously existing ‘pre-judice’ (literally pre-judgement) regarding the affairs of the region of a type distillable to the question of whether or not one is pro or anti-American - though I could be wrong. Speaking for myself, I am sure both sides in this grissly face–off are in their own peculiar ways to blame for Lebanon’s ills, to an extent.

That said, I am not an anti-American. As such I realize all too well that the deeply ingrained 'Zoroastrian-style' instincts of the ‘Babylonian’ human psyche will want at once to conclude from this that I am necessarily pro-American in such a way that compels me to be anti-Syrian/Islamic/Palestinian or whatever. I am both pro everyone and anti-everyone depending on what is meant and when.

A curse of immediate death on this form of dualistic, either/or reasoning. Please. Its stupidity cries out to heaven for fireworks.

Why can one not be pro-everyone and anti-everyone at different times and in different ways, depending on what is meant and when? Of course, I forgot; because above all else what you are not allowed to be is an individual – unshepherded, unherded by other people’s ways of categorizing you.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Heading to Beirut

Damascus is only 127 km from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, the only non-Jewish, democratic country in the Middle East. Well, except for Iraq, if you can call it a functioning country. Even though Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, after moving them in twenty nine years earlier in response to Palestinian-Israeli instability, strong ties still exist between the Syria and Lebanon- politically, economically and socially. Most significant of these, at least to a Western and Israeli perspective, as well as an Islamic anti-Syrian one, for example Saudi Arabia’s, are the political ties.

Officially, these are present in the form of the support Damascus gives to the pro-Syrian parties in the Lebanese parliament, the largest and most famous of which is Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’. Unofficially, these political ties extend to Syria’s funneling of Iranian money to Hezbollah to finance that party’s attacks on northern Israeli troops and citizens, as well as, allegedly, to the recent targeted killings of numerous anti-Syrian politicians. The first and most famous of these kills was that of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Since then numerous targeted bombs, the most recent in September 2007 have succeeded in assasinating seven anti-Syrian members of parliament opposed to Syria’s involvement in Lebanese politics. Of course, it’s alleged by some, for example The Syria Times and Hezbollah itself, that America and the ‘Zionist imperialists’ are behind these assassinations as a part of their plan to stoke up internal strife and dissension in Lebanon so that they can the better divide and rule the region. Do we want to believe this? Really? And more to the point, is it true? If so, why have so few, indeed no, pro-Syrian MPs been killed, I am left wondering? If the US really wanted strife as an end in-itself, wouldn’t it be more effective to kill some Syrian MPs too, just to encourage the flames?

Foreign involvement in Lebanon has a long history. The main players in this regard have been Syria and Israel. Apart from last years month long bombardments, Israel has been absent from Lebanon since 2000, after having been involved in Lebanon’s affairs for eighteen years, so fewer than was Syria’s twenty nine.

Actually, the loud call for foreign disengagement from Lebanon’s affairs is a call actually heard on all sides of this highly fractured and disputatious land. No country officially says it wants to dominate Lebanon’s affairs, though the main players in the region certainly try to and at the very least profoundly influence it. A significant difference, however, seems to me at least to be that whereas the US and Israel, and France and the UN and others, involve themselves because they want Lebanon to be a peaceful and prosperous and independent country, much as it was prior to 1975, Syria, and Iran in the background, either see Lebanon as a staging ground for assaults, present and future, against Israel or actually consider Lebanon to be Syrian, in practice if not in theory. Well, such is how things seem to me, in any case, in all my finite unwisdom and lack of access to the minds and hearts of the powerful of the region.

Outside politics, the Lebanese economy depends heavily on Syrian patronage for trade. In addition, Lebanon is host to approximately one million Syrian manual workers (though estimates vary). Some of these are seasonal, while others received Lebanese citizenship in 1994. Unfortunately for the 400,000+ Palestinian community living in Lebanon, these Syrian workers compete with them for jobs in one of the few employment sectors in which these Palestinians, none of whom have been granted citizenship, are permitted to work.

Socially speaking, there is a regular movement of people between the two countries as well; Syrian money is often accepted in Lebanon, and no visas are required for members of either country visiting the other. Many Lebanese have family connections across the border, while Syrians are attracted to the greater freedom and affluence to be found in Lebanon, and so come to visit and to shop, if not also to party.

So when I asked my taxi driver, who was taking me up Damascus’ Mt Qasion for a very windy night time view over the illuminated city, if he ever drives clients to Beirut, I was not surprised to hear that he often takes people to Beirut for a few hours before returning.

As regards getting to Beirut, I knew there’d be no visa worries but I didn’t know if I could pay in Syrian pounds, so made sure I had enough dollars. Getting these dollars, however, proved more of a nightmare than I dreamt possible, but I managed it anyway, eventually. I hadn’t thought it necessary to get any Lebanese money in advance and so didn’t.

You can get to Beirut in one of three ways. You can be flash and take a taxi on your own. This will cost about 2000 Syrian pounds, or twenty British quid – clearly a very reasonable price for an international jaunt, one over a range of mountains moreover (the ‘Anti-Lebanon range). Or you can share one of these taxis with others (if others are around) and pay about 5 British pounds. Or, like me, you can fail to do this because you’re unable to find anyone willing to take you to Beirut, instead of only to just over the border (unless alone); and so end up taking the relatively infrequent 5-6 hour bus journey for about one pound thirty. Because I was in no desperate rush to get to Beirut, I chose the bus and a two hour wait. As it turned out, the advantages of my doing this proved more than financial. For only in this way did I manage to meet Ian, a fellow Englishman, formerly a resident of Thailand, a lecturer in Sociology, and also on his way to Beirut.

Actually, I’d already met him briefly in the hostel we were both staying in, though we’d never actually spoken. Both of us admired and had been struck by the same evocative eyes and mystical, otherworldly bearing of a certain magical Iranian lady, as it happens, who had also been staying there.