Monday, August 16, 2010

Lebanon, Man

It always starts off commonplace. A one-hour bus ride from Tyre to Sidon, great chance to nab a nap without feeling guilty. Watch the banana plantations pass by out the window, eyelids getting droopier, head lolling forward before snapping violently back. Halfway through there is some kind of commotion, which brings us to a standstill. We're at a many-directioned intersection, with ramps and roundabouts and a Hezbollah statue rising Phoenix-like at the centre of it all. And smoke. There is smoke billowing up in raw, expanding puffs just ahead of us, pitch-black. A further look and there's fire, something ablaze on the road, with people gathered around.

You know what they say: 'You should avoid any large gatherings or demonstrations as they could turn violent.' Well, this is that. I'm not typically disposed to hysteria, but this isn't my typical world. Look real close and that unknown, burning object morphs into two hysterical possibilities: car bomb, or martyr. The bus tries navigating its way around the mess, but it's a total, constipated logjam. No one's going anywhere, fast.

So but now everyone else on the bus seems only coolly pissed off. It's strange -- they're gotten-to, but differently to me. I don't think it's the event they're seeing, but the connotations: she's going to be late for an appointment, he's going to miss out on dinner tonight. These people actually live here, so they're numbed to this unruly shit. We manoeuvre around some more, backwards and sidewards and aboard another ramp, pointlessly. Someone broken-Englishes me what's up: They're protesting. Against the government. No electricity.

Ok, I can handle that. Outside, massive black clouds are pluming up high (from a distance: bomb-like). The protesters are burning tyres, branches, any old refuse they can dredge up. Except none of this is slapdash -- it's finely co-ordinated. They have managed to simultaneously lay blockades of this refuse, now ablast with roaring flames, across all the roads in every direction of this elaborate intersection.

We manouevre around some more, deboard one bus for another. Honk, turn, try and outflank the by now terminal vehicular hemorraghing. But we only hit another impasse. Over the far side, cars are driving the wrong direction down the road, writing their own rules. Some of them creep up to blockades with ideas of running the gauntlet, or maybe sweet-talking their way through -- but they are quickly and imposingly deterred by the protesters, who are now shirtless, soot-faced, and waving sticks. Their countenance is militia-like. Mobs of them, angrily alive. Some of the younger ones start hurling rocks at the many engulfing billboards, bringing panels thudding down to the ground. All this time I've been debating what to do -- I don't care for photos, or experience, or expressing solidarity with the disaffected. About now I just want to get the fuck out of here, to preserve my own personal arse.

Me and an Egyptian guy, middle-aged and been-through-it-all, summarily jump the bus and beat our own path forward. We walk towards a blockade -- me with false calm, his for real -- hoping they'll let two meagre, foot-bound pilgrims through. But they just look at us fiercely, raise a stick. We defer, divert, walk through a litter-strewn ditch, scale an embankment and skirt quietly around the edge -- this marginal area somehow remaining unchecked. It feels good, self-reliant. It feels plain, real.

Suddenly the terrain opens up into the highway to Beirut, flowing freely. Our escape hatch, found that easy. I look back to be met by this: a morass of cars and buses and trucks facing every which way, with protesters scrambling madly from one vehicle to next, ordering them to stay at bay, to not do anything rash, threatening and terrorising them with wielded sticks, as four or five demonically black smokestacks rise up and dissipate into the sky above, polluting everything.

We hitch a lift back to Sidon on a bus. It happens to be the very same driver who drove the me in the opposite direction to an unrelated place the day before. No small coincidence, so we smile and nod and genially shake hands. The Egyptian guy is rolling his eyes, more jaded than relieved. 'Lebanon, man. This country is fucking crazy.' Without a hint of irony, without a shred of colloquialism. The day after, I check the internet: no mention of any incident along the Tyre-Sidon highway. No escalations, no news. A total non-event. More or less it didn't even happen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What is Beirut?

No idea. This place is insane. I've been here 24 hours. The quality of life, the development, seems insane given the place's history. Given the war. Which, in like 5 - 10 year cycles over the past half century, lovely Beirut has found itself fallen prey to in a serious, push-the-country-back-years kind of way.

Some French weenie, well into international politics, the other day told me how a recently-released White House dossier predicted armed conflict between Lebanon and Israel within the next year and a half. What my own research tells me: the reason it's been so quiet since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah clusterfuck is because of a kind of apocalyptic fear: Hezbollah's arms build-up is now so menacing, thanks to Iran and Syria's abettal, that any kind of declared war is bound to devastate the region in a whole new way, in a whole new league of battle. Iran would be drawn into it. And Syria. A thing of such scale that it would spill into the civilian realm in a way not seen for some time, devastating magnitudes.

In Beirut you deboard your bus and look around and hail a taxi and suddenly you're looking out the window at this: Miami-style condos of every imaginable colour pushed hard up against one another, hot-shot cars gliding around between them -- burnt orange Ferrari, Hummer, sexy upper-end BMW -- driven by men and women of a genepool more spectacular than anywhere else I've been or will g0 to, usually with a mobile phone pressed to their ear. There's that. And then in-between in like a 10:1 ratio is this: bulletholes in destitute buildings, bombed-out tenements, bulletholes in still-operative roller-doors and balconies and whatever, you name it. Walking down the street is a challenge, you get drawn into phantasms of how it must have been: soldiers running around in residential areas, firing shots at snipers hidden up high in some real Lebanese civilian's (with a name and a story of their own) abandoned home. The street quiet and deserted but for the odd volley of gunfire, sight-snatch of a gunman moving to find a better vantage point. I write it here in words, but walking down the street in 2010 with Lebanese life buzzing healthily around you, it's impossible to comprehend. Yet it's all you can try to do. I've been drawn to Google-image things like 'lebanon civil war rue gourad' (the name of a main street, where now all the hip, expensive bars lay), just to see what it was like. To print out the image and others like it, so as to be able to walk along those very streets and pinpoint where those exact photos were taken, to get that exact view and experience the ghost of it all over. Do it. Google 'lebanon civil war.' Look at the pictures.

I haven't found the cinema yet, which I make a concentrated effort to do at least one time in each country I visit. But I have found a bombed-out version thereof. Have you ever wondered about superstructure of a cinema, what it looks like in truss-and-beams form? This cinema sits more or less in the centre of town, a giant egglike shell with pieces missing and bulletholes decorating, a giant egglike shell stripped back to its skeleton of sick grey concrete and sick brown undergirding, a giant egglike shell literally ripped into half of what it once grandly was: a massive airy room where people watched movies in the dark. War movies.

It must be what Sarajevo's like. Or: 15 years ago here must have been what Sarajevo's like now. The perfect time to be a tourist here would've been then, 15 years ago. The rebuilding process still in its early stages, the bombed-out buildings holding sway over the redeveloped multitudes. Why would that be perfect, for me? Something to do with living history. Modern history, where the ash is still smouldering. I've come to realise this has become my travel-bent. Seeing and researching and understanding the now-history of these places, the history-in-action, history-up-for-grabs. Screw the Romans and their still-standing ruins. Piss on your ruins, Marcus Aurelius. Your stony relics have no bearings on me and my travails (unlike your books, which are great. Keep it up!).

In any case, the move from Syria to Lebanon has been even more dramatic than I had anticipated. There are mountains everywhere. The heat is wet heat, not dry. People speak English better than me. And every time I hear a firework, I duck. Every time I hear a police siren, I think 'air raid.' Where Damascus fights war by proxy, Beirut does not. I am here in the jewel of the Middle East, fake-boobed woman running around at 5-star Mediterranean beach clubs, McDonald's serving chicken Big Macs to girls in hijabs, all this wonder and tawdriness and modernity -- smack-bang in the line of fire. This is Beirut.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vote or Die/Keep it Simple, Stupid/Would You Like a Cup of Tea With That?/Screw it All

Syria supports Lebanon, even though some parties allege President Bashar Al-Assad oversaw the assassination in 2005 of Lebanon's then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Lebanon supports Syria, due in no small part to Syria's withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 2005. Syrian troops had been there to help Lebanon in the fight against Israeli occupation of the south -- which is Hezbollah territory -- but Israel withdrew in 2000, leaving Syria with no real reason for maintaining military presence, which they did for 5 years anyway. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon occurred in response to the Cedar Revolution, which was sparked by Hariri's assassination, which I believe I may already have mentioned at the top of this paragraph as having been orchestrated, allegedly, by Syria.


Iran is down with Syria and Lebanon. Actually, no, Iran is not technically down with Lebanon. Who Iran is down with is Hezbollah, which is a Shi'ite political party and paramilitary organisation operating out of southern Lebanon. Now, Shi'ite is a sect of Islam -- the second biggest after Sunni -- and is divided into many different branches, including the Twelvers, Ismailis, Zaidiyya, and Ghulat, which branches are themselves further subdivided. Hezbollah supports the Palestinian cause and draws most of its support from Syria and Iran, even though Syria is predominantly Sunni, which Hezbollah is not. In Lebanon and Syria and Iran, Hezbollah is formally referred to as 'The Resistance.' This is even the case in Lebanon, whose Prime Minister, Saad Hariri's (son of assassinated former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, whose assassination I believe I may have mentioned at the top of the previous paragraph, no?), political party, the Movement of the Future, is Sunni Muslim.


Now, Lebanon's political system works like this: each religion is given a set number of seats in parliament, with the President by decree a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'ite Muslim. Half the members of Parliament must be Christian, the other half Muslim. However, these stipulations of balance were enacted in 1943, reflecting now-archaic demographics. Presently in Lebanon, Muslims outnumber Christians. But the problem is that Christian M.P.s have made a practice out of blocking any kind of redrafting of parliamentary representations, for fear of a Muslim majority. And whatever that entails.


We return to Iran. Iran is predominantly Shi'ite, unlike Syria. Along with North Korea, George Bush Jnr. in 2002 anointed these countries the 'axis of evil.' North Korea supports Syria in the fight against Israeli imperialism, and helps Syria build fancy museums commemorating wars 'won' against Israel. In these museums, there are massive paintings (by North Korean hand) of President Bashar Al-Assad holding hands aloft with Kim Jong-il, victoriously. In streets throughout Syria, it's not unusual to come across big, brilliant, propagandistic murals of former President Hafez Al-Assad, current President Bashar Al-Assad (Hafez's son), and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad side-by-side, their massive regal heads beaming down Allah-like over businessmen, bedouins, and burqua-clad women, who beg. All this in spite of their respective countries' official state religions being different sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi'ite -- which sects have come to a head in the past in the form of major political violence. The Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988, for one. That's 8 years of all-out war, ladies and gentlemen.

Israel? Uh, everyone dislikes Israel. Vehemently.

The Middle East! (And I haven't even set foot in Israel and the Palestinian Territories yet!) To the people who say there is a 'solution': you, my friends, must be naive and/or stupid. How about this, re. the Middle East: all there is is diplomacy, small acts of human-to-human kindness, the mitigation of apocalyptic damage, and emotionally-retarded people in positions of stupendous power. The place is a political and humanitarian nightmare. In 5 weeks I wake up from it. Which is good.

Rooftop: A postcard

They're not like rooftops at home. Not gabled, nor tiled, nor lined with mucky gutters. (Hardly clean, though, either.) In a sense, they're not rooftops at all. But that's certainly what they call them: flat little concrete spaces of no more than ten square metres, situated more or less on the rooftops of building -- no matter the ilk of activity within (residential/industrial/commercial/whatever). Just always, always the rooftops. Sometimes they'll jut out to the side, like porches. Sometimes they'll take the form of little corner pockets atop the building proper. But always they look and feel and function the same: to buy time, to fall away, to relax in a way very deep. What the 'serious travellers' tend to forget is that we're all on holiday, which means let's just relax a little, people. Take a moment. Thereupon you'll find a little plastic stool (sometimes a couple, never a bunch), an ash tray, most likely some wet-but-drying clothes flung sloppily over the banister. And from up here, this is what the viewpoint permits: an elevated view of a thousands-year-old city. Not quite a bird's eye-view, not completely removed, but high enough to be unruffled by it all, to be a little bit freer, to somehow be out of it and of it at once. The horns of the madly-scrambling cars below, usually a wicked-ugly cacophony, muted to a soft, care-not drone. The pollution defeated by the high-sailing winds. Heat thoroughly neutralised. You cross your legs, look around, take a sip of your drink. Notice the Lego-land of other buildings, all stained dirty on their perimeters due to their simply being here, absorbing the hardscrabble desert elements, doing the hard necessary work of sustaining generations of Arab families -- their businesses, their livelihoods. All the satellite dishes crooked comically in the same direction, at least five to a roof, receiving their TV nourishment like plants receiving the sun. Wave to your fellow rooftop-ers, flash them a smile and hope they see it. They don't wave back, probably too distant to see you. Oh well. You at least have this rooftop to yourself. It's lonely, but in a nice way. Wait, they're everywhere. Little specks of colour against the suicidal greywash of buildings. Other people. Someone's waving at you. Wave back. Offer your arms up in a gesture meaning 'ahhhhhh,' and watch them mirror you back. On their rooftop, separate from yours. The same type of rooftop, everywhere. Looking around in the dusky glow, you realise the likely reams of them, the sheer numbers. Hundreds of rooftop-ers in your eyeline alone. Imagine how many throughout Syria. Thousands. Imagine Turkey. Tens of thousands. Imagine Lebanon, Saudi, Iraq, Qatar. Hundreds of thousands, millions. Even Israel, many thousands of Jews taking a much-needed pause from their magnificent, ordinary, Promised-Land existence. All through the Middle East, across the many different time-zones, desert-hardened people getting high and soft and legless on rooftops, everyone the same. Looking around. Taking a moment. Finding their place. Find your place. Put away your guidebook, your notepad, your thick historical novel. All that. Put it down. Sit. Here is a postcard.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What I More or Less Plan to do

- Find a pocket-size Koran, in English.
- Act bit-part in a local Syrian movie (film shoots = ubiquitous).
- Pray in a mosque, without anyone turning a head.
- Don't wear the same clothes two days running.
- Don't have a siesta two days running.
- Shower every day, without fail.
- Dress in a culturally appropriate manner (no short shorts!).
- Shoot the shit with a lady in burqua.
- Smoke mad shisha with a lady in burqua.
- Have a lady in burqua guide me to an alleyway and, for like a split-second only, lift her veil.
- Procure a burquini.
- Meet a famous Syrian popstar, any famous Syrian popstar, it doesn't even have to be a currently-famous Syrian popstar, and be invited by said popstar to drink Turkish coffee in wide open public, with everyone nearby oooh-ing and ahhh-ing in envy.
- Encounter the Syrian secret police without even knowing it.
- Talk openly and honestly about regional politics, without fear of antagonising anyone nor being thrown out of the goddamn country (although the latter might be kinda cool [to where?]).
- Say the world 'Israel' out loud in public, without being lynched or beaten or flayed by a mob.
- Learn 'I am fluent in Arabic,' in Arabic.
- Teleport girlfriend here.
- Get totally loose at a Syrian discoteque, whilst sober.
- Make a mufti laugh.
- Clean out Damascus lingerie shops, of which there are ridiculous multitudes, for benefit of unsuspecting girlfriend.
- Stop referring, even jokingly, to the Middle East as the Middle Earth.
- Bring peace to the Middle Earth.
- Continuously enjoy myself here, even if things get existentially pointless, which on occasions they have and which on they will continue to do.
- See Gorillaz play live in Damascus' 1000-year-old citadel.

Oh, re. the latter? Already am, tomorrow night.

Allah akhbar!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

At the Bus Station, Aboard the Bus

Akhbar beckons me over from a nearby table. Portly in an endearing, Humpty-Dumpty-like way, with the face of a kindly elementary teacher. His English: good, not great. He introduces himself. We figure out we're on the same bus together, a five-hour haul through desert landscapes to Deir Ez-Zur, in the middle of nowhere. He's dressed sharply, modern, counter to that baggy traditional tunic crap so popular. This he points out to me. Turns out Akhbar really likes the West, its ways and wants and women, the whole heaving system of it. How he put it: 'You have good civilisation.' He does not allow Syria into this latter category. We talk and talk and talk some more. A qualified engineer, he's jetsetting off to Germany in three months time in order to complete a Masters degree. Mum and Dad are helping foot the bill, all of it. He's learning German at the German Language Institute in Damascus. You should see his cheeks glow at the mention of living in progressive, cultured, liberated Germany. It's enough to make you cry, cry tears of I don't know what. Akhbar is a good man, if not a little Westernly pious. He uses words like 'dictatorship,' 'backwards,' and 'third-world' out loud in public, which is equal parts brave and stupid. He is a Muslim, like everyone else here. But I think he wants something else.

Muhammad's seat is behind me on the bus. He's young, inquisitive, bears the moustache-and-goatee combination so popular around these parts, so kitschy and hipster in the West. We talk a bit, mostly about his English and the learning of it, where I'm from and what it's like, in Australia. (Not this hot, for starters. Nor this openly dirty.) Halfway through the ride there's a stopover, whereupon Muhammad seconds me into the seat beside his. Interesting kid, Muhammad, twenty years old and midway through a degree in English Language. A bit different, preternatural, from a family of fourteen and very interested in Arabic literature. He's getting off a stop after me, two hours later, at Abu Kamal, a dinky township ten kilometres from the border with Iraq. We have a lot of time to burn.

So we talk. About America, Iraq. Turns out his extended family was slaughtered in the Iraq war. He used this word, in his second language: 'slaughter.' This individual, in real life, affected by the shit we view pedestrianly on the news. Why does America think it's better than the Arabs, think it knows better than them? It's not all of America, I tell him. I know, he says, I know. Maybe it comes down to motives, I say. And fear. Maybe they're scared not to have control of things. And maybe there's by-incentives, like oil. (Maybe it's really about democracy, but I don't try that one.) Why does the world think we're terrorists? Why is France banning the burqua? Why, why, why?

How, as a lay tourist, am I meant to answer any of this? Am I representing my country, my culture, myself? Also, I'm on a bus full of diehard Muslims. No mentioning of suicide bombers, even though I want to go there, just to see if he'll bite. And I don't know about France, all I know is that it doesn't quite have the ring of absolute freedom to it, does it, the banning of the burqua?

I turn the tables, put this to Muhammad: Why do Arabs think Western women are immoral, sluts? Because it's wrong, he says, to dress and act as they do. It's against the very word of the Koran, simple. But our society, the men-and-women-openly-interacting part, it really works, I say. It's not like the Hollywood movies, don't be gullible. It's free, it's fair, it hardly destroys our society like the Koran warns against. You should come see it with your own eyes, make your own mind up. He just shakes his head, searches for words, mutters something about 'point-of-view.' And what else can he or anyone else do, ultimately? Listen, share, agree to disagree. Push the point, offend, apologise.

Finally, we get to Deir Ez-Zur. Stuck on a bus for five hours of daylight, I don't get the sense I've wasted time. Akhbar is here. He will take me to the hotel, help me extend my VISA, show me around. The secret police will be wary, watching. They will summons the hotel clerk to get Akhbar's phone number 'in case something happens to foreign guest.' But Akhbar won't care, he's loyal to me, my way of life. Individually we will get into bed and try for sleep as meanwhile, somewhere in the desert dark, Muhammad will be watching the stars out the window bored, approaching his family home, ten kilometres from the border with Iraq.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Oh, Snap!

I just lost a very lengthy post about Simeon Stylites in the interweb ether. Dang. It was a goody, too. Shit. Tomorrow I will write about something other than the respect I have for a guy who stood on a pillar for 37 years, dispensing advice to all comers. And there were many.

St Simeon, I salute you.