Across Border Lines: A long weekend in Lebanon
by Tiara Ataii (MML, 2016)
The second smallest country in the Middle East, Lebanon, at a mere 3,950 square miles, makes up for its size in its diversity. Since the early 2000s, Lebanon has become a tourist destination for those seeking a new kind of city getaway, attracted by the nightlife, the 300 kilometres of beach, and the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Others come for the aid work, which has been a quasi-permanent pillar of the Lebanese economy since the UN Work and Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) began its work in Lebanon in the 1950s, and since the Syrian crisis brought Lebanon’s total quota of refugees to 1 in 6 of the total population.
Since I arrived in Jordan at the beginning of my Year Abroad in September 2018, Lebanon became a point of fascination. Having studied twentieth-century history of the Middle East at Cambridge, I became attracted to the idea of visiting a Middle Eastern country whose citizens have a range of religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, wondering if such populations can live peacefully together with the memory of war still afresh. Having founded a charity which offers grants to refugee aid, I was also particularly interested in visiting a country which has such a large refugee contingent.
Nonetheless, before arriving in Lebanon, my knowledge was fairly scant. I was aware of the Civil War, and the fact that the Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are the most disserved contingents of their respective countries anywhere in the Middle East. I was also aware that the Lebanese are over-represented when it comes to the Middle East’s rich list, though the country itself is facing one of the most severe cases of wealth inequality globally. I wasn’t aware, nonetheless, that for a few days I would be exposed to a deeply complex social lattice – or, rather, minefield – where the language you speak and the accent you speak it in, your religion and sect, and your ethnicity could make you a friend or foe, depending on who you are speaking to. And neither was I aware that some of the areas I would walk through would compete with the beauty of Paris, and that others would be the most worn down I had ever seen.
My first introduction to Beirut was the urban sprawl which I cut across on the way to Shatila Refugee Camp. I had just arrived in the capital, and was staying with my friend Flora (a Cambridge student also on her Year Abroad) who was working with an NGO hosting a press event in Shatila for its beneficiaries and donors. We hailed a bus, which was as efficient in space – each chair unfolded and folded to make space for those getting out or in – as it was in time; to get on the bus we had to do a run-up so as not to slow down the bus driver’s acceleration down the motorway any more than necessary. With each mile, I watched the city become poorer, as the buildings’ concrete edifices suddenly became stained with pollution, the roads became narrower and potholes far more ubiquitous, and the Mercedes and BMWs were replaced by motorcycles and worn-down services (shared taxis) emitting clouds of black smoke. Though nowhere near as beautiful as downtown Beirut or Gemmayzeh, it felt immediately welcoming, enticing even, as we walked along carts of fresh fruit and vegetables, sesame falafel, and knafa, a dessert made from semolina and cheese.
On the side of the motorway, we found ourselves at the mouth of Shatila, notorious for the massacre of over 3,000 of its residents in the early 80s by the Phalanges. Built by Palestinians who had fled the Israeli invasion of 1949, the camp had now become home to thousands of Syrians. Everything suddenly felt a lot like Amman – another city teeming with Palestinians and Syrians – the accents had migrated South, and for the first time since I had arrived, I heard people pronouncing the glottal letter ‘ain to its full extent, which Flora later told me was something associated with Bedouins and distinctly out of fashion in Beirut. The shmaq or kufiyyeh, a turban wrapped around one’s head and patterned in regional motifs, was everywhere – I later came to realise the shmaq, alongside all visibly Eastern dress, such as the jilbab (a modest long-sleeved dress worn by women), was at best too unstylish, and at worse, far too political, to wear in Beirut. And yet, here we were in Southern Beirut, although we might as well have been in the West Bank.
As we walked down the main street which runs through the camp, Flora pointed at the red zone, which consisted of anything past the UNWRA school. A young father walked past us, chatting to shop owners, cuddling his infant daughter in one hand, and holding a gun in the other. Flora’s assessment of the situation was a cynical raise of the eyebrow, which seemed to imply: ‘welcome to Beirut’. Given that this was the green zone, I dreaded to think what the red zone would be like, which luckily our destination was far from.
The NGO’s centre could be perhaps more accurately described as a vaulted maze, with each room in a different building and connected by a series of stairways. We eventually reached the room where the event would be taking place, looking over onto a courtyard which had avoided the fate of being built upon, presumably by virtue of it housing a series of water tanks that reached the height of the ten-storey buildings. Each storey protruded balconies extending the width of the building itself, with children, and occasionally chickens, running up and down, whilst a motorbike repair stall set up shop under the shade of an elevated water tank, and carts of fruit and vegetables exchanged hands along the street. The sight was dizzying. Atop it all was the key of return flanked across the courtyard, the embodiment of the yearning of the displaced to return to their home, a feature in every Middle Eastern city I visit, from Jericho, to Amman, to Bethlehem. And yet, what was remarkable was how life – despite the immense pressure on services, the overcrowding, and the demand upon space – had not just carried on, but had become more vibrant than I could have ever imagined. The architecture of the buildings, such as the NGO centre sprawling on top of houses and schools, was a fingerprint of the waves of migration which Shatila had not only adapted to, but been built upon.
The next day, walking around central Beirut, a typically Maronite Christian area, I couldn’t quite believe that Shatila was only a ten-minute drive away. For, the spectres that haunted this area were not of displacement, but rather, those of a past of violence and civil war. The rawness of Shatila was no longer present, but there was a certain eeriness, since taking a turn down one street might lead you to the past, where each building was sluiced open with bullet holes and skyscrapers laid in ruins. Perhaps the most harrowing moment was walking along the ‘Green Line’, in other words, the demarcation line which separated different factions in the Civil War, which eventually became taken over by nature to such an extent that a green partition was visible from the sky. The Holiday Inn hotel, a luxury hotel which operated for a year before the Civil War broke out in 1975 and located upon the ill-fated division between the city, stands as it did during and after the war. For, the hotel had become a key frontier during the war, as each faction fought to keep control of what was essentially a vantage point for snipers, to the extent that only the structure of the building remains. But upon closer inspection, traces of its former glory remain, such as small shards of painted glass around each window and the floors of balconies hanging precariously off the walls. And yet, despite the horror of the war which looms large in front of you, it inspires respect. Just by the Days Inn, stands the five-star Phoenicia Hotel, whose reception was a blur of black Mercedes with tinted windows, and butlers opening doors for guests. I found myself inspired by the collective consciousness that had somehow rejected this brute presence; a collective consciousness that had decided to move on from the past, even though it would still be present.
The next day in Tripoli, again, I felt that I had been transported to another world. This was no longer the playground of the Maronite Christians, but neither was it the adopted home of those from across the border. This was instead the home of Sunni Lebanese, and though still set onto the same Eastern Mediterranean as Beirut, the atmosphere was distinctly different. Suddenly, everything was cheaper, with fresh shrak – a sheet-thin bread cooked between a hot-plate and a tightly packed cushion, soft when fresh but crispy just a few minutes after – just 15 cents. Entering stores and speaking Arabic was now the norm, whereas my attempts to speak in Arabic in Beirut (and in Jordanian Arabic, no less) were met with looks of confusion which read ‘why on earth would anyone choose to speak Arabic?’ until I switched to French or English. The markets were now markets in the traditional sense, as opposed to the bazaar of Beirut’s Ashrafiyyeh, which was a collection of high-end brands housed in one boulevard. Hidden inside Tripoli’s market, we found a small restaurant, build in the traditional Levantine style of a series of arched rooms set into the market walls. We lunched on hot fava beans mashed with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and lemon, which we scooped out of the bowl with bread, followed by fatteh, a dish of steamed chickpeas, bread, and yoghurt, mashed and served with olive oil and pine nuts.
Climbing up to the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, a crusader castle chosen for its strategic position looking upon the shore and at the axis of roads leading to Baalbek and Homs, was a reminder that the Sunni character of the city will perhaps only be a fleeting moment in Tripoli’s history, just as Beirut’s Christian character and the enclosure of refugees in Shatila might change as integration ceases to be a dirty word. Staring out onto the Mediterranean (the sea that would take me to Egypt – hopefully, my next destination), I began to feel the artifice of these divisions, this geographical ringfencing, which a century ago did not exist. And yet, I was hopeful, for if I had learnt anything in my few days, it was that life continues despite all odds.