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lebanon the long devision

Nada Almutawa
10/09/2008 12:00 AM

Long division

Sep 9th 2008

Scenes from an uneasy peace


THE bus from Damascus crawls through traffic down Mount Lebanon. The passengers—guest-workers returning from Syria after the weekend, mothers smiling through their veils at children happy to be returning—gather their belongings. The eight year-old sitting next to me begins to shout “Beirut!”

Through the window I see the city spread out against the sea (pictured below). This view suddenly brings Lebanon’s recent history into focus. From my perspective (which is also that of an invading army), I can make out dense urban life, towers and wealthy suburbs. This is not the battle-scarred wasteland I imagined; this is a prize worth fighting for.

The drive to the centre provides me with my first lesson in Lebanese politics. The apartment blocks rise one over the other. Some are brand-new and shining; others remain scarred by damage from the civil war. Vegetation is as ubiquitous as political posters.

There is no obvious racial divide between the Lebanese sects, but the faces on the walls show who owns what. Faded images of Bashir Gemayel, a former president of Lebanon who led Christian militias during the long civil war, adorn buildings in Christian areas. Graphed “ticks” mark out areas dominated by Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hizbullah, and his Free Patriotic Movement. As you move into Shia areas, large murals of Hizbullah fighters festoon buildings from which Iranian flags fly, and Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, glares down from countless posters.

I follow the moustache of the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the pin-up of choice of the Sunni community and icon of the Future Movement, which is today led by his son Saad. There are no obvious front-lines; posters and flags just fade out into different neighbourhoods. They lead me to Hamra, the heart of Sunni West Beirut and the scene of street fighting this May when Hizbullah seized most the city.

On Sadat Street I sit down for a late-afternoon shisha with Tarik. His eyes never stop moving. He is permanently alert. In his early twenties, the recent violence has taken him from his former concerns. He speaks with the urgency of one still shocked.

“When they came, the Hizbullah and their allies, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, we took out our private weapons. My father passed me one of the guns he’s used in the civil war and we defended ourselves. I shot. I do not know if I killed. I just fired.”

I ask him if anybody he knew anybody who got killed. “Yes. My cousin. Ziad Ghalayini.” He points to a massive poster of a teenage boy standing in front of Beirut’s famous Pigeon Rocks wearing a T-shirt that reads “Still Virgin” and a nice smile. He continues. “He died in my arms. They shot him when he was on his moped trying to come home. I’ll introduce you to his father.”

Over the road is the Ghalayini family bakery. The boy’s father is listening to the Koran on tape when I come in. A veiled women in mourning brushes past me clutching flowers. “That’s my wife. Those are for the cemetery,” Ramadan Ghalayini announces. When I ask him who killed his son he has a one word answer for me: “Shia.”

Over the road, the pharmacist tries to explain her neighbourhood to me. “You know, there is peace now in Lebanon. Just politics. But people died. And people remember.”


IN THE evening, I drive south into Dahiya. Beirut’s main division these days is less between Christian east and Muslim west than between the poor and mainly Shia south and the wealthier northern districts.

There are no obvious frontiers. The buildings just get closer together, dirtier and more dilapidated, and the electric wiring starts to become visible. Piles of rubble from the 2006 Israeli attacks are left seemingly untouched. Large posters announce “We will build it better than before.” Placards bearing the faces of stern Hizbullah martyrs adorn the lamp-posts.

I stop for a kebab outside the Assaha Traditional Village. Anas, my taxi driver, wants to show me around a bit. He points at the large and modern Rasoul al Aazam hospital across the road and then to the Iranian flags hanging from buildings.

 Thank you, Iran,” he announces. “Hassan Nasrallah is my protector. My brother died fighting Israel when we defeated them for the first time in 2006. I am proud of Hizbullah,” he says. Then he turns and points to the kebab shop. “This is Hassan’s favourite restaurant. We organise secret deliveries.” I’m not sure whether he’s joking.

The Assaha Traditional Village is a complex built to look like a medieval Arab castle. It contains a museum, bookshops, a pricey restaurant and a number of expensive shops selling jewellery and trinkets, including Hizbullah clocks, flags and refrigerator magnets.

The centre is associated with the charitable foundation of the Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah and financed by his supporters. Mr Fadlallah is one of the spiritual guides of Lebanese Shia. He played a key role in giving the community the necessary drive and convictions to overcome its traditional place at the bottom of Lebanon’s sectarian hierarchy, and was a key force behind Hizbullah.

For dinner I meet Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese political analyst who represents his country at Chatham House, a prestigious British think-tank. I am shocked to discover that in the middle of poor south Beirut, a stylish restaurant complete with a courtyard and fountains, is filled.

Mr Shehadi points out the extreme variety of clothing. “As you can see, the families eating here do not all dress in the same manner. Some men have full beards and their wives are wearing a chador; this means they will be following a more conservative spiritual guide. Others may simply be veiled and their husbands clean shaven. There may even be a secular member of the family or a nationalist.” My impression of Lebanese Shia as uniformly poor and religious are overturned; Beirut, it appears, is a city of facades.


“It’s such a pity we can’t have a glass of arak with such a good meal,” Mr Shehadi jokes before the conversation turns to politics. I ask if the coalition that comprised the previous government was defeated when the Hizbullah-led opposition forced its way into government after May’s fighting. “No, that’s the wrong way to see it. Imagine you and your opponent are 18th century English gentlemen, and he challenges you to a duel. Now imagine he challenges you at a moment you are certain to lose, in a place that will defeat you and with a weapon you cannot match. If you manage to change the time, place and weapon with which the duel is fought and live with your honour intact, then you have won the duel.”

Mr Shehadi believes that because the previous coalition managed, through clever manoeuvring and intelligent politics, to transfer Hizbullah’s challenge from street fights to negotiations in Doha, it transformed the situation from an unwinnable military confrontation into a potentially advantageous political one. He gestures to the happily dining families at the tables that surround us. “What I need to stress,” he says, “is the banality of Lebanon right now.”