A more infamous war-zone
26.08.2009 - 30.08.2009
Our first stop in Lebanon was Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley. Baalbek is famous for large ruins, hashish production as well as being the headquarters for Hezbollah (the current leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is from here). This is scarily visible. There are Hezbollah's yellow flags all around town, as well pictures of a smiling and rather cute looking Sayid Hassan (Mr. Hassan, as he's known around here) with his thick glasses, turban and big beard, often alongside the Ayatollahs Khomeni and Khameni. The Iranian influence and money is also visible, with more-than-suspiciously Iranian looking mosques, decked with onion domes and blue tiles, outside played a loud and impassioned speech by Nasrullah, set to music. There are even shops selling Hezbollah souveniers, but some are so out of the way, they are clearly not for tourists, but for the locals.
The locals buy the Hezbollah merchandise (incuding mugs, t-shirts, flags, desk-flags, bumper stickers, CDs) so that they get immunity from the police, as Hezbollah is popular with the locals and have lots of guns. The hashish dealers, although officially not looked favourably upon by Hezbollah, are tolerated as they help with the financing and ride around in huge SUVs decked out with Hezbollah signs blaring bomb and gunshot sounds (not even to a beat, just war noises), and Nasrullah speeches. Hezbollah, or the party of god, are very popular in the area, the principal reason is that their activities are generally useful to the people. Lebanon's goverment is almost non existant, and with the heavily damaged infrastucture, Hezbollah filled the gap and built schools, mosques, roads and hospitals not just in this area, but in many Shia area's of Lebanon, financed through "muslim charitable donations" (ie the Ayatollahs of Iran). Along with the religious ties, their supporter base is loyal and large. The police, controlled by the government, are completely incapable of touching anyone affiliated with Hezbollah out of fear.
This definitely added some tension to the air, or perhaps that was our slight worry at the yellow flags with Kalashinkovs on them all over the place. This was not helped when the explosions started, but those turned out to be fireworks. Tourists don't seem to stay in the town at all, and just arrive on day trips from Beirut to see the ruins and go. The ruins were very impressive, as they are huge and well preserved temples to Jupiter and probably Bachus, although no-ones really sure as the iscriptions have worn off. The on site museum and labelling was by far the nicest and most-airconned we'd been to so far, which was a bonus.
From there, we took a minibus to Beirut, through past the many glittering billboards and sandbag and tank reinforced military checkpoints.
Beirut is a shock to the backpacker system, used to small dirty streets, grubby children running around, men sitting on street corners drinking tea, we suddenly fast forwarded into the 21st century. Macdonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Western culture in general is the way in Beirut, Hummers and SUVs rolling around playing RnB underneath billboard advertisements for holidays in Turkey. Amongst these glamorous things, soldiers, security guards and milita men (depending on whose area you're in) stand around at street corners with assault rifles and tanks. Not all the Hummers are civilian either, with fully armed military patrols rolling past flashy Bulgari shop windows. Barbed wire adorns many of the buildings just like the jewlerry on the nicely dressed women strutting around town. The downtown area, newly refirbished after the war in 2006, is completely closed to cars by military checkpoints, and soldiers stand guard underneath the main Rolex-sponsored clocktower.
But Beirut is not all glamour. As well as being one of the most developed and richest places we've been to so far, it's also the poorest. The city is divided in 3, with the christians to the east, muslims to the west, and the Shia slums and palestinian refugee camps to the south. We went to the slums and camps yesterday, about an hour walk from the centre, into filthy rubbish strewn streets, people living tightly packed in either concrete shells of appartment blocks or corrugated iron housing. We may have heard a single gunshot. These areas seem to be divided as well. The Shia areas are clearly marked with the posters of martyrs along the road, but we were in an area with green flags, controlled by the Amal militia, who before were bitter enemies of Hezbollah. Life looked very hard here, trash strewn streets where it is unclear whether the rubble was cleared after the war or not. We tried to find the Shatila refugee camp, scene of a famous massacre of Palastinian refugees in 1982, and what we found was a few nasty walled off areas, topped with barbed wire, although it seems that there were people living inside, we saw fresh laundry lines over the tops of the razor wire. Perhaps these were the camps. Either way, living condition were by far the worst we've seen on this trip, mangy dogs patrol the streets and syringes litter the grimy pavements.
After that, we went back to the glittering lights on the centre, past the many Starbucks and Costa Coffees, had dinner and wondered whether we were in the same country as a few hours ago...