18 years ago in Southern Lebanon…

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990. I have blogged before about being in Lebanon in 1993/1994. This is part of a diary entry for 3rd January 1994… exactly eighteen years ago today. At the time, Beirut was occupied by Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ forces:

* * *

The currency here is the Lebanese pound (L£).

I was told today that an official ‘taxi’ in Beirut will cost me L£5,000 but, if I get any other cab, it will cost only L£1,000. All the official taxis are Mercedes-Benzes marked ‘taxi’. And all the ‘other cabs’ are unmarked Mercedes-Benzes.

This morning, leaving Beirut, there was a solid, un-moving rush-hour traffic-jam of Mercedes-Benzes entering the city.

As we left, I asked about a shelled hotel nearby. It was not shelled in the recent Troubles, I was told: it had been half-built when the Israelis shelled it back in 1984.

We left through the southern suburbs, heading towards Israel.

On lamp posts, there are big 15-ft high cut-outs of the Ayatollah and others raising their hand in greeting or perhaps blessing. At one point there was a little community of oblong-shaped tents by the roadside. My driver told me with distaste that they were “gypsies” and, during the Troubles, there had been a famous massacre of them. I thought I must have misunderstood and that he meant the massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila ‘refugee camps’ because, at this point, we were near them. But he reiterated these were “gypsies from Greater Syria”. He did not specify if he thought Greater Syria included Lebanon.

Further along the road, we passed a group of about ten men in the wide central reservation. One man was in the process of swinging a tyre iron  at another. Perhaps if you have become used to satisfying bursts of anger with bursts of machine gun fire and then peace comes along….it must be difficult to stop anger bubbling over into violence. He was swinging the tyre iron at the other man’s head. We had passed before it made contact or the man ducked: I will never know what the outcome was.

Yesterday, on a road in the Bekaa Valley, I saw someone pushing a vehicle which had broken down. He became annoyed by the car behind him in slow-moving traffic. He just turned round, put his hand on the car’s bonnet and did nothing for all of a very long ten seconds. Just a long, long, very hard, unblinking stare at the driver of the car. Then he turned back and carried on pushing his broken-down vehicle.

Further down the coast this morning, we passed through an area where all the scattered buildings on both sides of the road had been blown up. I asked if the Israelis had done this and was told, no, the Lebanese government had done it in 1984. Christians fleeing Beirut had tried to resettle in the houses in this previously Moslem rural area. The government did not want to risk unsettling traditional religious areas, so blew up the houses to prevent the Christian refugees settling there.

Still further south down the coast, there started to be a more visible military presence: three tanks dug-in at one point – two with guns out to sea, one pointing South down the road towards Israel.

As we entered Sidon, there was a flurry of checkpoints. Generally there are checkpoints every 5-minutes or so as you drive along a road. As we entered Sidon, there were three within 100 yards.

As we passed through the town, there was what looked like a poster of British Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis in a turban and a banner on the other side of the road in Arabic with some words in English – INDECENT PROPOSAL – ROBERT REDFORD. What on earth do the Islamic Fundamentalists make of this? I wondered.

Overlooking Sidon on a hill, there was a giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top of a large cone. An interesting concept. And, on a facing hill, a mosque.

Sidon is a Christian town.

As we looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, a jet flew low over a nearby hill to the east.

“Israeli plane,” my driver told me.

Then we were off southwards again.

In a small town/village by a river and the inevitable checkpoint was a 40 ft high orange monument which, at first sight, seemed to be a crescent but was actually a grey hand holding aloft an orange scythe. It was a memorial to a boy who mounted a successful suicide attack on the Israeli Army. Towards the bottom of the monument was a banner: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SOUTH LEBANON.

South Lebanon is noticeably different to the northern part of the country. The south seems less bleak, greener, with more trees plus banana and orange plantations etc. Also, the military checkpoints seem more serious with tanks and/or armoured personnel carriers plus artillery either dug in by the roadside or standing by the checkpoints themselves. The soldiers, rather than wearing just uniforms, are in full battledress with pouches round their belts, knives sheathed in the small of their backs.

As always, some checkpoints are Syrian, some Lebanese.

The Lebanese Army, strangely, seem to have better weaponry than the Syrian Army. The Lebanese (but what do I know?) have weapons that look like Armalites. The Syrians have less substantial, more basic-looking automatic guns.

When we entered Tyre (about 20 km from the international border with Israel and about 10 km from the start of the Israelis’ self-declared “Security Zone”), there was a Lebanese Army patrol walking down both sides of the road, looking around, rifles held horizontally. In another part of the city, I saw two UN soldiers. The UN has been in Tyre since 1978. With little effect.

The reason I went to Tyre was to see a massive 20,000 seat Ben-Hur style Roman stadium. Well, in fact, there is almost nothing left. But you could see the size and shape and, from some 1960s reconstruction, get an impression of what it must have felt like.

Massive.

To be there when it was built and operating… well… you must have felt the Roman Empire was so unimaginably mighty it would never end.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings indeed.

The gigantic standing temples at Baalbek must have awed the local peasants. Just these remains of the arena at Tyre awed me.

I guess all civilisations seem like they will never end.

But they do.

I used to have a company called Shivadance Productions. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is the god of destruction, but also of creation. The Dance of Shiva creates a new world out of destruction. You cannot destroy anything without creating something new. You cannot create anything new without destroying what was there before.

The world turns.

We drove back to Sidon and its Crusader castle defending the port. Then back to Beirut, where it started to rain.

I had decided to get dropped off at Verdun Plaza, an expensive new apartment block with three floors of ultra-modern plush shops below. Very plush. All marble and expensive trimmings. Then I went off to the main shopping street and the downpour started in earnest. The rain was bouncing: it was not rain but little hailstones. After that, for about 15 minutes, it became giant white hailstones thumping down onto the streets, making people scurry for cover. Then came deafening thunder and lightning.

At the moment, Beirut has no proper drainage/sewer system so, in downpours, the water builds up on the streets.

The day was rounded off nicely by seeing a sign which read:

NEW PERFECT HOME: THIS WAY

The sign was leaning against the boot of a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz.

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Filed under Israel, Lebanon, Religion, Syria, Travel

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