Beirut, my city

On a September evening last year, 10 people made their way to an apartment in Beirut’s Hamra district. Intrigue, curiosity and a sense of excitement filled them. One by one, they were let in and, one by one, they took their seats around the dinner table. To a casual onlooker, it looked like an ordinary dinner party. But this dinner was far from ordinary. If what the guests had in mind worked, then Beirut would become a whole new city.

The hosts, husband and wife, looked at their guests pensively. These were some of the top planning minds in the city, strategic thinkers – the Beiruti ‘technocrats’.

‘It is time to take over our municipality,’ said Mona Fawaz, a university professor, finally. ‘It is time for you to implement your plans.’

All of the guests had at one point submitted to the Beirut municipality studies about how to improve the city. Others had argued doggedly with officials about ways of saving Beirut – in vain.

‘We all share the same frustrations, and protesting just isn’t enough any more,’ said Fawaz. ‘We have to take action. We have to take Beirut back.’

The past year saw protesters taking the country by storm when they took to the city’s streets objecting to the uncollected trash lining the sidewalks.

It has since become known as the You Stink campaign. Protesters included Beirutis from all walks of life – many of whom, like myself, could barely make their way home through the piles of garbage. Moreover, the protest brought to light some of the many scandals.

Most notably, a plan for developing the Dalieh, the city’s last natural coastline. The culprits were the usual players: politicians turned entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs turned developers, developers turned politicians.

Nothing new, really. But this time, a new class of Beirutis – many educated in the world’s most prestigious universities – had emerged. They figured out the game and were ready to take Beirut back.

And so it was that the dinner gathering turned into weekly meetings. Social media went abuzz. Hundreds joined up. Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) was born. ‘We will run,’ announced their Facebook page.

It was a movement unlike any Beirut had seen in years. No run-of-the-mill candidates here. No sectarianism, religion or tribal allegiances. The candidate list was made up of 24 independents and was equally split between men and women, and Muslims and Christians, from all walks of life: urban planners, lawyers, economists, professors, graphic designers, architects, doctors, artists and fishers. And even a popular actress.

Beirut Madinati’s programme included plans to improve public transport in the traffic-congested capital, introduce more green spaces, protect Beirut’s heritage, prioritize the health and safety of all residents, make housing affordable and implement a permanent waste-management solution. All desperately needed changes in the slowly deteriorating city. Every promise was accompanied by a well-researched study.

Their campaign went into full force and we all watched with bated breath. Will they win? Can they win? Will political, religious and tribal affiliations finally be over? Will this be a new era? The excitement was almost palpable.

And then it was elections day – 8 May.

We waited, on tenterhooks, for the result.

No. Close, so close, but it was a no. For the next few days, many of us greeted each other in a fog of gloom. Nothing will change. This was it. Our last chance for Beirut to become well again, gone.

That was until I ran into Mona. ‘But we won in many other ways,’ she said.

And then I understood. Beirut Madinati had won indeed. Would I even be talking about the loss of the coastline if it hadn’t been for them? Would Beirutis be scrutinizing their politicians for signs of corruption just a few months ago? Would they be talking about honest candidates and maybe, just maybe, beginning to sway away from sectarian and tribal affiliations?

Yes, Beirut Madinati had indeed won where it really matters. The elections were just the beginning. There is definitely a new feeling among the Lebanese – especially younger people. There remains a sense of hope and energy in their air. It is slowly dawning on the Lebanese that it is fine to let go of divisive affiliations and just let the ‘best person win’.

‘It’s not over,’ added Fawaz. ‘We will come back. This time even stronger and take back Beirut.’

I do believe they will.

Reem Haddad is a freelance journalist in Beirut.

‘How can you say no?’

08.01.16-Lebanon-590x393.jpeg

A Syrian girl stands behind a door in a makeshift settlement Ketermaya, south of Beirut. The village, which has a population of just 15,000, is hosting 5,000 refugees – the same number given sanctuary by Britain over the last four years. © Ali Hashisho/Reuters

Something strange and new is happening on a little hill just 12 kilometres north of Beirut. Veiled women are walking around the narrow alleys of a little Christian enclave. In tow are their children, skipping around. Every once in a while, the radio blasts out Qu’ranic verses that startle the Christian residents, who are more used to hearing their Sunday church bells.

Lebanon is accustomed to veiled women. While not officially admitted, the number of Muslim Lebanese exceed Christians. But while some areas boast both religions living side by side, most remain largely separated.

And so it was a bit of a shock at first for the Christians living in the little Dbayeh camp to wake up and find themselves neighbours with Syrian refugees, especially Muslim ones. In the early days there were some minor disagreements. But once the shock wore off, there was really nothing to do but welcome them in. After all, the 500 residents of Dbayeh know what it is like to be refugees: they and their families have been displaced for over half a century.

Their story began in 1948 when they fled their homes in the wake of the creation of Israel. Catholics from around Galilee in northern Palestine, they were labelled as refugees and denied many rights by the Lebanese government. To this day, a Palestinian cannot own property and is barred from working in over 70 skilled jobs. They continue to be unwelcome and remain the subject of resentment. Dbayeh camp has slipped into poverty.

The arrival of the 50 refugee families in the camp was contentious. On the one hand, Palestinians could sympathize with the Syrians. But on the other, they felt they were losing out. The arrivals had come because their husbands had found unskilled jobs in the area – by working at lower wages.

‘There is no denying that Syrians are taking our jobs,’ said Elias Habib, a Palestinian refugee who resides in the camp and oversees the JCC (Joint Christian Center), a small NGO which caters for Palestinian refugees in Dbayeh. ‘And I know that this camp cannot possibly take in any more people. But how can you say no? They need us.’

Once the shock wore off, there was really nothing to do but welcome them in

Soon, clothes and food began flowing to the Syrians. But there remained one significant problem: education. With nearby public schools only able to offer spaces to Syrian children once all Lebanese students have registered, many refugees found themselves excluded.

Seeing the Syrian children wandering aimlessly around the camp, the JCC took it upon itself to turn its small building into an unofficial five-room schoolhouse.

‘What they are doing here for us is a godsend,’ said Fatima Ballout, who travelled with her children from Idlib in northern Syria. ‘There is no place for my children in the Lebanese public school this year and we don’t have the money to send them to a private school.’

It is a struggle for Ballout to abide by the tough new government rules. She must now find fees every year to renew residency permits, which can run to $1,000 for a family.

Her story is like that of countless other Syrian women. Her husband was working as an unskilled labourer in Lebanon before the war, and sent for her and their children when conflict reached their home town two years ago. She now shares a three-bedroom flat with three other Syrian families.

Yet every morning, Ballout’s children are among 91 pupils who attend the JCC school. Four teachers – three Syrian and one Palestinian – hold classes all morning. Parents pay a symbolic fee of $6 per month and all materials are provided.

‘We teach the Syrian curriculum in the hope that they can one day go back to continue their education there,’ said Habib. ‘We don’t have books, so we make do with photocopies.’

In the afternoon, the classroom is turned into a community centre for the camp’s children. All are welcome to join choir, storytelling hour, dancing and, during the summer, camps and field trips.

‘I have been touched by the way the Palestinians welcomed us here,’ said Rania Merjeh, whose house in Aleppo has been completely destroyed. She and 30 other women had just arrived at the JCC centre for a meeting with Habib about their children’s progress. 

‘They are doing their best to make us comfortable,’ she continued. ‘But we want to go back to our homes in Syria. I want to rebuild my house and replant my garden. I don’t want to emigrate to a strange land. I just want to go home.’

Habib looked at her sympathetically. ‘You know, Rania,’ he said slowly, ‘we have been waiting for 67 years now. But don’t you despair. At least when your war is over, you will still have a country. Look at us. Our whole country was taken away and nobody really wants us.’

The Palestinian and Syrian refugees looked at each other pensively for a few moments. There was really nothing more to say.

‘Bless you,’ Merjeh finally said, as dozens of children raced in for afternoon activities. ‘Bless you.’

Lebanon

Map of Lebanon

Living in Lebanon is like watching a dramatic thriller unfold. At times it’s exciting, at other times heart-wrenching or just petrifying. The Lebanese people endured 15 years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 that cost around 150,000 lives and left the capital, Beirut, in ruins; but in the 1990s they seemed to be moving into a new era of peace and stability. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb in February 2005, however, Lebanon’s stage has been set to a ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery.

The assassination was widely blamed on neighbouring Syria (which had dominated Lebanon politically since the civil war). Hundreds of thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. In response to this ‘Cedar Revolution’, Shi’a Muslims, most of whom support either Hizbullah or the Amal Movement, held a counter-demonstration of support for Syria. The tit-for-tat demonstrations went on for a while until Syria – under immense national and international pressure – withdrew its forces.

For a while, it looked as if peace had prevailed. But the euphoria was short-lived. There was a rash of late-night bomb explosions in Christian neighbourhoods. A series of assassinations began, most of the victims being anti-Syrian journalists.

And then, in July 2006, Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at the border. In retaliation, Israel launched a war by air and sea. The entire country was targeted but the south bore the brunt. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed – a third of them children under the age of 13. The attacks lasted for 34 days and ended as suddenly as they had begun. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed along the border.

Once again, a certain sense of peace began to prevail. But not for long. In November, pro-Syrian cabinet ministers, including all the Shi’a, walked out of the Coalition Government, claiming that they were being marginalized. A few days later, leading Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead.

Photo: ALFREDO CALIZ / PANOS

In December, thousands of opposition demonstrators in Beirut demanded the resignation of the Government and set up tents in the city’s busy downtown area – effectively shutting it down. The ‘tent city’ remains to this day. Nerves were tested again when, in May 2007, an al-Qaeda-inspired group fought a three-month battle with the Lebanese army in a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. More than 400 people were killed and 40,000 refugees were displaced before the army finally gained control.

Meanwhile, the assassinations continued. Two pro-government MPs were killed by car bombs in June and September 2007. The numbers of pro-government MPs were dwindling. With MPs required to vote in a new president soon, many of the anti-Syrian legislators moved into a heavily guarded five-star hotel in central Beirut, hoping to stay alive long enough to elect a candidate of their choice.

Lebanese people watched this drama unfold in fascination. Who would be next? It was all anyone could talk or think about. At the beginning, people would stay home for a few days after every explosion. But by the fifth or sixth assassination, they waited a few hours for the roads to be cleared, then went about their usual business.

With the MPs in hiding, the targets changed. In December, a senior army general was assassinated. In January, a US diplomatic vehicle was targeted, killing three passers-by. The latest assassination was that of a Lebanese counter-terrorism officer who had reportedly been working with a UN team to uncover the killers of Rafik Hariri.

Ironically, Lebanese _joie de vivre_ continues. Nightclubs and cafés remain full. After all, where else can one discuss and analyze the latest events in the Lebanese murder mystery?

*Reem Haddad*

In hope of justice

Illustration by Sarah John

I want justice. I want to know who killed Rafik Hariri. I want to know who planned it. I want to know why. Most of all, I want to see his murderers humiliated beyond their dreams and admitting their crime at an international tribunal.

I want them to hear the testimonies of thousands of Lebanese who will tell them that Hariri represented their dreams and future. I want them to know that they have taken Lebanon’s soul and we are, to this day, still lost.

Justice is coming in the form of a German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis. Since June, Mehlis, assisted by a team of 100 legal experts and technicians, has doggedly tracked Hariri’s killers as part of a United Nations investigation.

And then came a shock: four senior generals were arrested and later charged as accomplices to the murder. Those officials were the commanders of Lebanon’s security and intelligence agencies – the very ones we trusted to keep us safe.

But they were not the brains behind the operation. As Lebanese, we knew who was behind the plot but we needed Mehlis to confirm it. Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, was killed in a huge bomb blast on St Valentine’s Day. The massive explosion, which was heard all over Beirut, killed another 22 people, including a former minister who was travelling with Hariri.

Blaming Syria, thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets in an unprecedented series of demonstrations over the next month demanding the withdrawal of Syria’s 14,000 troops and intelligence officers. Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 and by the end of the civil war in 1990 Damascus had taken control of the country, dictating almost every move practically at gunpoint.

For many years Hariri had accommodated the Syrians, believing that one day they would leave. But his patience ran out and he joined the opposition ranks in late 2004.

Throughout the summer and early autumn, all we could talk about was the upcoming report by Detlev Mehlis. We followed every press leak and his every reported movement religiously. Our desire to know exactly who ordered Hariri’s murder was strengthened by a periodic campaign of assassinations and bomb attacks against Lebanese journalists and politicians who were against the Syrian domination. The people behind Hariri’s assassination were most likely the ones terrorizing us now. International pressure against Syria may deter further bombings, we hope.

Finally, in October, Mehlis released a 54-page report, based on 400 interviews and a review of 60,000 pages of documents. It confirmed that the decision to kill Hariri ‘could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranking Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services’.

The report named as suspects several members of the inner circle of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, including Maher Assad, his brother, and Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law. Syria denied any involvement. President Assad insisted that his country was ‘100 per cent innocent’.

Justice is still far from being achieved. Mehlis reported that the Syrian Government was unco-operative during the investigation. The UN Security Council has ordered Syria to co-operate and allow Mehlis to interrogate top officials or face the prospect of UN sanctions being imposed.

I read and reread the report. It was a true Hollywood plot involving spies, financial scandals, assassinations and months of meticulous planning. The 54-page document was read in its entirety on several local television stations.

The day it was published, hundreds of Lebanese made their way to Hariri’s grave in downtown Beirut, the area that he had rebuilt after the 16-year civil war. His grave has become a shrine where a steady flow of visitors continue to pay their respects.

Some people prayed by the grave, some carried Lebanese flags and others held on tightly to copies of the Mehlis report. ‘This is for you,’ said one woman crying as she held out the report.

I find myself often thinking of the killers. Are they wishing that they could turn back time? Are they shocked at the reaction they provoked? Is there possibly any remorse?

Until they are brought to trial, I will not know. But I do know that only then will justice be served.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Speaking in tongues

Sarah John

I'm not sure how but I have managed to produce a daughter whose sentences can only be understood by the Lebanese. For only they can understand the bizarre mix of Arabic, French and English.

‘Ana going aa’ ecole,’ (translation: I am going to school) declares three-year-old Yasmine in the mornings.

My British husband often seeks me out to translate his child’s sentences. ‘I think I know what she’s saying but I’m not sure,’ he says, looking a little ashamed. And so Yasmine repeats her mixed-up sentences and I dutifully translate.

At first, I worry. ‘By age three,’ a magazine article declares, ‘your child should make clear sentences and use proper words.’ I begin to panic. Yasmine’s sentences are far from clear. I blame myself. I decide to read her books only in one language. I put away the French and Arabic ones. Yasmine has a fit. I bring them back.

Then I decide to speak to her solely in Arabic. Not an easy task. I am a typical Lebanese who floats from one language to another. I don’t know the Arabic words for many things. I usually just use the English or French word. So I buy a dictionary and spend time looking up the proper Arabic words.

But the headmaster of her school frowns. ‘How do you expect her to compete with other children if she doesn’t speak French?’ he practically bellows. ‘Speak to her only in French.’

And so I switch to French. Yasmine continues to speak Arabic but incorporates some French words here and there. And since her father only speaks English, the child’s sentences become trilingual.

‘We’re back where we started,’ I complain to my husband.

Lebanon, a French mandate between the two World Wars, is well known for its multilingual talents. Nearly a quarter of a century of French rule has strongly influenced aspects of life. French was first taught in Lebanese schools in 1834. But when American missionaries arrived in the region in the middle of the 19th century, they founded several English-speaking schools and universities. While French continued to flourish in the Christian areas, English grew increasingly popular in the Muslim regions.

During the 16-year civil war, thousands of Lebanese fled the country. Many settled in Anglo- and Francophone countries. When the war ended in 1990, many returned bringing with them French and English speaking children. There’s also a strong US influence – with the introduction of cable television, viewers here are bombarded with non-stop American films.

As a result, English and French words continue to enter the Arabic language mainstream.

Today, when registering their children at elementary schools, parents have to choose whether to put their children in an English or French section. While some class material is taught in Arabic, most is taught in the language chosen by the parents. At a certain point in school, all three languages are taught simultaneously.

Children end up imitating their parents, whose business and social conversations often contain mixed sentences. This is particularly annoying to visitors from Arab nations where Arabic is considered the main language in schools.

‘Why can’t you just stick to one language?’ asks a friend visiting from Jordan. ‘Do you think we can stick to Arabic?’

I try. But it’s hard. Conversations just don’t flow as easily. I revert to the dictionary. My friend sighs. ‘Arabic should be your main mother tongue,’ he reprimands. ‘If you want to speak English, speak purely English. If you want to speak French, speak purely French. But stop mixing them. It’s annoying and I can’t understand you.’ I’m relieved when he leaves.

When my son, Alexander, was born a year ago, I was determined to use only one language when speaking with him. I chose Arabic. I thought myself wise.

One day I was trying to coax Alexander (in Arabic of course) to follow me to the elevator. He refused to budge. Yasmine, watching us, looked at me disdainfully. Finally, she came and stood squarely in front of her brother.

‘Alexander,’ she said, ‘taa go to ascenseur. Rahan walk bil jardin maa mommy.’ (Alexander, come let’s go to the elevator. We are going to take a walk in the garden with mommy.)

An excited smile appeared on my little boy’s face as he jumped and crawled after his sister.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Charmless change

It used to take me a good 20 minutes to reach my car, parked a few metres away from my home in Gemaizeh – one of the few quarters of Beirut to retain its original pre-civil war charm. There was the grocer to greet, the butcher to chat to, the old Armenian shopkeeper to shake hands with, and the cobbler who would insist that I admire some newly repaired shoes. I always ended up being late for appointments.

But these days it takes me only a few minutes. Most of my friends are gone, replaced by restaurants and pubs.

‘I can’t keep up with the businessmen coming to my shop,’ says Nimr, who has run his herb and spice shop for over 30 years. ‘I have been doing this all my life. I don’t want my shop to become a restaurant. But they keep coming and pestering me.’

Most of the shopkeepers do not own their shops but rent them according to the ‘old rent’ system of the 1970s which has not been adjusted for inflation. Because the Lebanese pound plunged in value from a couple of Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in the mid-1970s to the present rate of 1,500 to the dollar, many landlords receive a tiny rental income and are eager to be rid of their tenants. But eviction requires the landlord to pay the tenant 40 to 60 per cent of the property’s value as compensation.

Entrepreneurs come to Gemaizeh offering to pay the evacuation fee to tenants and modern rental rates to the landlord, theoretically keeping everyone happy.

But some shopkeepers are renting under the modern law – and they are far from happy.

‘I was paying a fair sum of rent before Gemaizeh was “discovered”,’ says Anwar, my local grocer. ‘Now, the owner keeps raising the rent. It has almost tripled in less than two years. I can’t afford it. He wants to push me out so he can turn this place into a pub.’

It all started three years ago when a traditional coffee shop was renovated. For years it had been the meeting place of old men. They would spend the entire day smoking, drinking coffee, playing cards and backgammon and spending very little money. One day I arrived to find dozens of them standing on the sidewalk looking lost. Their shop had suddenly been closed. A month later, a fancier-looking coffee shop opened. I still bump into some of the old men just walking aimlessly up and down the street, unable to afford the new café prices.

Shortly afterwards, an upmarket patisserie and restaurant opened up and became popular with chic Beirutis. And before long, investors descended with open wallets.

Gemaizeh was once an important Roman road, linking the city centre to villages further up the coast. It later became a souk where farmers set up stalls and sold their goods. The stalls became shops with homes above them.

My father laughed when I moved here six years ago. ‘It’s like a village,’ he said, as he walked along a street filled with traditional Lebanese townhouses in desperate need of renovation. Dozens of dusty family-run shops lined the street, most of them small. I immediately fell in love.

Before long, I got to know all the shopkeepers. Many times, one or the other would run over to carry my grocery bags to my building or escort me home under their umbrella when I was caught in a sudden rainstorm. My first pregnancy was noted early on and I received endless winks and conspiratorial smiles. When I reappeared on the street after giving birth to my daughter, Yasmine, they rushed to praise and coo.

Two years later, my son, Alexander, was born. Very few were left to admire him. Most of my shopkeepers were gone. Since most fell under the ‘old rent’ category, they were handsomely paid. So I suppose I should be happy for them.

But I’m not. I miss my butcher who would take his time cutting the meat to my strict specifications. I yearn to buy the wrinkled tomatoes that the old Armenian man displayed every day. I’m lost without the tailor and the newspaper shop. Even my three-year-old daughter seems disturbed. ‘Where are all the amous?’ she asked, using the Lebanese expression for ‘uncles’.

I had no answer but took her to have lunch at Le Chef. Once Gemaizeh’s only restaurant, it is a family-run business that has been operating since the 1950s and serves traditional Lebanese food. I was glad to see that it remains filled with customers. I’m not the only one who prefers the old Gemaizeh.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Doubters and dreamers

I stood there at the airport waiting for him to arrive. I even carried his picture around my neck. I didn’t have a choice – it was a press card. After 11 years of imprisonment, the former Christian warlord, Samir Geagea, the head of the once-banned Lebanese Forces party, was about to be released and flown to France for medical check-ups.

His name alone rekindled black memories of the war, of shells and bombs. I shivered as I viewed the excited young faces around me. Their hakim or ‘doctor’, as he is called, was about to appear. None of them looked over the age of 20. They could barely remember the war; many of them had not even been born. As a haggard-looking Geagea appeared, the people in the crowds couldn’t help jumping up and down and hugging each other.

I remember staring coldly yet with interest when I met Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblat – also two former warlords whose very names used to make us tremble during the war. They, like Geagea, were ruthless and the militias they ran were responsible for thousands of deaths. Yet both Berri and Jumblat became prominent politicians after the war ended in 1990.

A twinge of sympathy – albeit a very small one – went to Geagea when he was jailed in 1994 on clearly trumped-up charges because of his opposition to Syrian rule in Lebanon. He was the only warlord who ended up in jail. He was given four life sentences for several murders, including the assassination of former premier Rashid Karami in 1987. He was placed in solitary confinement in an underground cell in the Lebanese ministry of defence.

Many Christians viewed Geagea as a hero who defended their community. ‘He did what he did for our good,’ said Elie, an engineer in his late forties. ‘I believed in him then and believe in him now.’

But other Lebanese saw him as an Israeli-backed militia leader with a lust for power and a readiness to kill anyone who stood in his way.

‘I was hoping he would rot in jail,’ said Ramzi, 40, a teacher at a Beirut school. ‘He put us Christians through hell. Those days still haunt me.’

It was strange to see the thousands of Lebanese Forces members on the streets, celebrating and brandishing the party’s flag in public after years of being banned and persecuted by the Syrian-backed authorities.

Geagea’s release came about after the Lebanese Parliament granted him amnesty in July. The Syrians left Lebanon in April after 29 years’ of military presence. Their departure has led to the re-emergence of many wartime faces.

These militia leaders are older – and, you have to hope, wiser. But it’s the younger generation I worry about.

Blaring music a few days ago made me rush to the balcony. Down on the street below, four teenagers were playing Lebanese Forces anthems, waving and draping themselves in party flags and chanting slogans.

One of the teenagers was a 17-year-old girl who lives across the street. I approached her.

‘The hakim is our dream,’ she said emphatically. ‘We believe in his convictions.’

‘And those convictions are?’ I asked.

The girl looked uncomfortable. ‘Since I was a baby, my parents have been telling me about him. I grew up on his stories,’ she replied. ‘He’s wonderful.’

‘And his convictions are?’ I asked again.

‘He has sacrificed so much. He is the higher example,’ she said.

‘What has he sacrificed? What is this example and what convictions?’ I asked patiently.

The girl looked at me blankly. ‘You don’t understand,’ she retorted and walked away.

She’s right. I don’t understand. Maybe it’s because I remember so well the shelling and the fear. Maybe it’s because I miss my friends who perished. Or maybe it’s because I yearn for the childhood that I spent hiding in shelters. To me Geagea is just like the others: a warlord who ruined many lives.

And so I stood at their airport with his picture on the press card around my neck. I suddenly gave a little laugh. My colleague gave me a quizzical look. I pointed to the press card and the VIP lounge full of MPs – some of them were Geagea’s enemies in the 1980s and would gladly have seen him dead. Now they were here to welcome him back to freedom.

‘Do you see the irony?’ I asked. She smiled sadly. She remembers too.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Breaking silence

Sarah John

I’ve never been interested in reality television shows but I was intrigued by the latest programme to hit the Arab world: women – with problems – living together as they underwent psychiatric treatment.

Even I was a little shocked that an Arab, especially a woman, would openly talk about her problems on air. Like all Lebanese children, I was taught to keep any problems within the family. It is considered shameful for friends and acquaintances to get a less than perfect image of the family. Women, especially, are expected to bear abuse in silence.

But Starting Over defies all norms. Based on a US show, the programme groups seven women who divulge their anxieties on camera. ‘Arab women have had enough,’ said Rania Barghout, the presenter of the show. ‘They want to talk. They want to be heard.’

Once I heard that the filming was taking place in Lebanon, I made my way to the hills just outside Beirut to see the set. While I wasn’t allowed to interview the women, I was given a tour of the flat and introduced to its occupants.

Among them was Jinane, a 20-year-old Iraqi. Her father was killed during the Iraq-Iran war and her mother abandoned her. She was raised in an orphanage and is desperately seeking someone’s affection.

Ibtisam, a 37-year-old Syrian, never got over her husband taking a second wife – especially an older one. She lost her self-esteem.

Rasha, an Egyptian, 24, was severely abused by her husband. While learning to like herself again, she wants to tell Arab women to beware of abusive men.

Abir, 28, a Saudi Arabian, is an orphan who was neglected by her adoptive family. She now finds herself uncontrollably hitting her small daughter .

Two psychiatrists are helping the women. If one is successfully treated, she is free to leave and another can replace her.

I looked around the flat with interest. There were 22 ceiling cameras monitoring everything 18 hours a day. For this reason, one of the two veiled women never takes her scarf off. The other, Abir, only dons it on air as Saudi Arabian custom dictates.

‘The women who came forward have courage,’ said Badry Moujais, the show’s director. ‘We asked them: are you ready to go on national television and talk about this?’ Producers were taken aback when in response to the announcement, they received 40,000 applications. ‘The biggest surprise for us has been that they really have nothing to hide.’

But this is still the Arab world and the women had to have their families sign a release form. ‘We didn’t want to find ourselves in a position where a woman is in the house but she came here without the will of her surrounding family,’ said Badry. In keeping with Arab tradition, subjects such as sex and graphic body terminology are taboo. ‘In our culture, the people are more programmed to use proper language when talking about personal lives and don’t use demeaning words. Here they talk mostly about their emotions.’

Judging by the thousands of emails the producers have received, the show is a hit and has been accepted by the Arab audience. Only a year ago, an Arabized version of Big Brother – a reality show where men and women live together – was quickly cancelled. In a region where many girls and boys are segregated at schools and mingling between the sexes is frowned upon, it had mortified its Arab audience.

‘If you ask me,’ said one friend, ‘these women should be ashamed. We are becoming like the Americans, needing counselling and understanding all the time. Get over it, I say.’ Other friends were full of admiration, and yet others didn’t care.

‘It’s a wonderful thing when Arab women speak out,’ said my friend Zeina. ‘When an abused woman is interviewed on television, her face and voice are usually distorted. She’s ashamed. But these women are speaking out. They have my support.’

Some male friends admitted changing channels when the programme is aired. ‘It doesn’t really interest me,’ said Rami, ‘though I do think they should solve their problems in private.’

The show is only on for a few months but women activists hope that it has encouraged women to break silence on abuse.

‘There are so many issues out there to deal with,’ said an activist, ‘ranging from domestic abuse to “honour” crimes. If women can see that’s it is all right for them to tell the world about their problems, then maybe we can get somewhere.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Yesterday's men

Sarah John

I must have missed something – or else the world has gone mad. More specifically Lebanon has gone mad. The same faces are back. Older, greyer and more wrinkled. But definitely the same ones who haunted us for 16 years of war, ordered the death of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and destroyed the country.

Once the civil war ended in 1991, we didn’t really think about the militia leaders any more. We had other things to do: construction tycoon-turned-politician, Rafic Hariri, was rebuilding the country and pushing us all into creating a new Lebanon. The country had come alive again and we buried the past.

In early May, a week after the Syrians left, ending their 29-year occupation, Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s most prominent anti-Syrian politician, returned from 14 years’ exile in France. His first public utterance on landing at Beirut International Airport was to tell the throngs of journalists recording his arrival to ‘shut up’. Not a promising start. There are calls for the release of Samir Geagea, who has been in prison since 1994. He’s the only militia leader to serve several life sentences for crimes committed during the war. His Lebanese Forces militia and Aoun’s faction of the Lebanese Army fought each other ferociously in 1990.

Other former militia leaders are already in prominent positions. Nabih Berri, for example, the head of Amal, one of the two main movements representing the Shi’a community, is currently the parliamentary speaker. Walid Jumblatt, meanwhile, is still chief of the Druze community and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, which fielded the largest militia during the war.

Most of the above fought each other at some point during the war. By its end an estimated 120,000 Lebanese were dead, 17,000 missing and hundreds of thousands displaced. The economy was devastated and the infrastructure in ruins. And now some of those responsible are back and running for election.

‘I am having déjà vu,’ said my friend, Samia. I think all the Lebanese are. ‘So the same ones who started the war are now the ones to lead the country?’

An American friend pointed out to me that this is democracy. I suppose it is.

‘It’s like somebody took out a game that we shelved a long time ago and rolled the dice,’ said another friend. ‘The game is about to begin again.’

We comfort ourselves by telling each other that they will stick to a war of words. Still, we keep a nervous eye on developments.

Former enemies are uniting, former friends splitting, all for the sake of forging alliances to ensure they are re-elected at the polls being held as I write in June. It’s rather odd to vote for running mates who only a few years ago were intent on killing each other.

Aoun, for one, started making electoral alliances with pro-Syrian politicians and cozying up to Emile Lahoud, the ultra pro-Syrian President. Yet the Christians, who were at the forefront of opposition to the Syrian presence, love Aoun. They say he is a man of the people and they have taken to heart his stated goal of fighting corruption. Aoun swept the Christian heartland in the 12 June round of elections, defeating several moderate Christians who had been quietly opposing Syrian hegemony in the Lebanese Parliament during the 1990s when Aoun was in exile in a chateau outside Paris.

The few new faces are sons of the old faces. So we have Saad Hariri, son of Rafic Hariri, who has risen from obscurity (although he ran the Hariri financial empire for 11 years) to become a leading contender for the premiership. Then there is Suleiman Frangieh, whose father Tony was murdered by Samir Geagea in 1978 and whose grandfather, also Suleiman, was President of Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war.

Each has his own supporters. For weeks I watched people emerge from their homes and join rallies, waving flags of particular parties and chanting slogans. Interested, I approached one of the groups. The eldest couldn’t have been more than 18. Some were 13 or 14 years of age – not even born when the war ended. ‘But you don’t even know who these people are or what they did,’ I blurted out.

They looked at me quizzically. They repeated their well-memorized slogans to me – the same ones their parents had chanted more than 20 years ago. And the same ones I heard growing up amid the sounds of war.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

A test of wills

Sarah John

IT didn’t take long for onceboisterous Beirut to become a ghost town in the evenings. We were petrified. Night after night we sat at home dreading what might come.

And it came. The explosions ripped through an unsuspecting neighbourhood. Our windows shuddered and the doors rattled. My first thought was relief – a selfish thought. The bomb was not in our neighbourhood. We had been spared.

The series of explosions which rocked the country came as local and international pressure mounted on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. On 14 February, after billionaire-turnedpolitician Rafic Hariri was assassinated in a car explosion, fingers immediately pointed to Syria. Mass demonstrations all over Lebanon demanded the end of Syrian domination of Lebanese politics, the withdrawal of Syrian troops and their intelligence apparatus. The international community reiterated those demands. Finally, Syria began the withdrawal.

And the explosions began, too.

If the intention was to terrorize us, it worked. I took the children out only when necessary and practically ran past parked cars. One of them might explode any second. It wasn’t just paranoia; it was real fear. I had to stand in a queue to get into the supermarket as we all waited patiently for our cars and possessions to be searched for any kind of bomb. We placed identification cards on our cars and reported any suspicious vehicles. Several times, I grabbed the children and hid them indoors as the army swooped down on an unidentified vehicle parked in the neighbourhood.

In a reminder of the war days, each neighbourhood organized its own lookout group. Young men would spend the nights roaming the streets, scanning them for suspicious activities.

With every explosion, I embraced my two young children. ‘Please,’ I prayed, ‘don’t let them live their childhood like I did.’

I remember my own mother holding me as shells zoomed overhead and slammed into nearby buildings. I remember the screams of dying people, the smell of burning guns. I remember bidding a silent farewell to my sisters and parents each time yet another rocket exploded or a car detonated nearby.

Similar thoughts were obviously running in other people’s minds as talk of the civil war returned.

The newly rebuilt downtown area dotted with restaurants and cafés – everyone’s favourite hangout – was deserted. Some businesses were shutting down. The pedestrian area, usually filled with running children, was abandoned. I longed for things to go back as they had been just a few months ago.

It wasn’t hard to guess who was behind the explosions. The aim was obviously to re-ignite sectarian strife.

Television networks began to broadcast anti-war slogans: ‘We are not going back to 1975’, ‘We are united’, ‘Unite for the sake of Lebanon’. Images of a destroyed Beirut and a reconstructed one were repeatedly broadcast.

A National Unity Week was declared to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1991). Free events were organized in the downtown area. The idea was to get people to overcome their fears and return to normal life. Most of all, we were called upon to show solidarity for a united Lebanon.

And we emerged from our homes. Thousands of Lebanese of all sects made their way downtown. We participated in all the planned activities. Children painted the red, white and green colours of the national flag, made them into kites and flew them overhead. Restaurants filled up once again. Lebanese singers held free concerts. The area was jammed with people. Many held up Lebanese flags or had it painted on their faces.

‘They can’t scare us any more,’ said one woman. ‘If they thought that planting bombs would make us suspect each other and go back to war, they are wrong. So very wrong. We will never go back to war.’

As suddenly as they began, the explosions stopped. People are smiling again. Beirut is once again its old self and the city’s usually hopping nightlife has returned. There is still tight security everywhere. But there is also a strong feeling of patriotism.

Somehow we have made it through this period – together.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

Pages

Subscribe   Ethical Shop