It’s late March, and I’m in downtown Beirut, escaping the sun to browse the books on politics in the Virgin Megastore. A stack of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country is in front of me. Across the street is the tent city that protesters against the Syrian presence in Lebanon pitched soon after the Valentine’s Day assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. A few steps away, the enormous Muhammad al-Amin mosque soars up. Hariri is buried there, and since it’s less than forty days since his death, Koranic reciters still sit outside underneath a canopy while men and women of every confession continue to pour in to pay their respects. Many take photographs; some men in sharp suits clutch beads in their hands as tears roll down their cheeks. Nothing has united the country more in recent years than his death.
Hariri was not without his critics, however. Often blamed for plunging the country into massive foreign debt, he was also said to have ignored the plight of the poor when he rebuilt Beirut after the civil war. For most of his political career Hariri backed the Syrians but last year began moving slowly and cautiously towards the opposition. It is said that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, told him last August that ‘if you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.’ The opposition, which is made up of Christian, Druze and Sunni parties, has been organising in earnest since last September, when under Syrian pressure parliament extended the term of Emile Lahoud’s presidency by three years. But although many Lebanese I talked to believe the Syrians were involved in Hariri’s death, others suspect the involvement of Israel or the United States, in an attempt to pressure Syria into withdrawal.
Hundreds of young people, the vast majority under 25, are camping out in the tent city. They won’t leave, they say, until Syria does. Some of Beirut’s important families provide them with food – cheese and cucumber sandwiches and cans of Mountain Dew. Portaloos have been set up (scrawled on the door of one are the words ‘Syrian Ambasy’), but the toilets are rather disgusting and many prefer to use the facilities at Virgin. A set of rules has been drawn up by the opposition leadership and is posted throughout the camp. No playing music for the first forty days (out of respect for the dead). No military fatigues. No flags other than the Lebanese flag. Unity is paramount.
The tents are pitched on the gravel of Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut, where early in the 20th century Lebanese patriots rose up against the Ottoman Empire and were slaughtered. The statue in the square commemorating their deaths is pockmarked with bullet holes from the civil war. There is a carnival atmosphere of the kind that often accompanies collective political action. Cardboard signs with an intertwined crescent and cross are everywhere; Arabic, French and English graffiti cover the cement walls surrounding the statue. ‘Lahoud pull out,’ someone has written in English. ‘My ass hurts.’
Waheed and Hisham have pitched their own tent in the square; they see themselves as independents rather than part of the ‘official’ opposition. Although both are Druze, a minority Muslim sect, they don’t support Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Instead, they’re interested in finding their own way, but are unsure how to do this without direction (or, as they fear, manipulation) from older leaders. Waheed is frustrated by his lack of historical knowledge. He wants at the very least to have a copy of the Lebanese constitution, and this is what has brought him and Hisham to the Virgin Megastore.
After a short conversation about modern Arab history, they invite me to the camp. Hisham studies at the American University but has hardly gone to class since coming to the camp (his father lives in the United Arab Emirates and, worried by the situation, wants him to leave Lebanon); Waheed is 26 and has a West African mother who now lives in Florida and a Lebanese father. He dropped out of school when his father could no longer afford the fees and now works at a bakery – or at least he did before he pitched his tent at the camp. I also meet their friends Wassim, a Lebanese born in Venezuela, who has just deferred his military service to join the protest, and Bassam, who has a shaved head and an elaborate tattoo on his right shoulder.
Waheed walks around the camp trying to get into conversation with people in other tents, or inviting their representatives to visit his. It’s easy to do this because the camp has an established geography – most of Lebanon’s major political parties have representatives here. (The pro-Syrian factions, of course, are not around.) Hariri’s Future Movement has a large tent, the only one I saw with a TV. The Free Patriotic Movement, the party of General Michel Aoun, is well represented, as is the Lebanese Forces Party, a civil war offshoot of the right-wing Phalange Party. Neither Amal nor Hizbullah, the Shia parties, has an official presence here, but a young Shia sheikh has recently arrived with his entourage. While many of the campers have body piercings and dyed hair, the sheikh has a tightly trimmed beard and walks slowly around the camp in his brown religious garb.
On the day I arrive, Waheed invites Kamal, a representative of the Lebanese Forces Party, to tell us about the party’s platform. Salaams are exchanged, and we sit on white plastic chairs around an unlit campfire full of cigarette butts. Waheed starts by asking Kamal a deceptively simple question: ‘What’s the Lebanese Forces’ plan for the future?’
Kamal is 20 and has lost his job as a printer’s assistant because being at the camp has kept him from work. He’s fashionably unshaven and wears his hair in long loose curls. Hanging off the zip of his jacket is the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a crucifix with a jagged edge at the bottom. ‘Before the Lebanese Forces was a militia, it was an ideology. It’s 1400 years old,’ he says, not answering the question. Then he gives us the party line: the Syrians must leave with their intelligence services, all the militias must be disarmed, and the elections must be free and fair. These goals line up with freedom, sovereignty and independence, the mantra of the newly founded intifada al-istiqlal or Independence Uprising. (No one here calls what’s happening the Cedar Revolution, a phrase Washington seems to have invented.)
Three further demands are counted off on his fingers: an increase in the minimum wage, the return of Michel Aoun from exile in France and the release of Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces who was imprisoned 11 years ago after a trial that Amnesty International ruled unfair. The last two demands, which are often made by the Lebanese opposition, are potentially divisive. Aoun and Geagea have plenty of blood on their hands. ‘If Geagea doesn’t come out of jail, we will have a civil war again. Trust me,’ Kamal says, less as a threat than as a statement. His intensity frightens me.
Waheed slumps in his chair. Kamal hasn’t given him much idea what the future Lebanon would look like. ‘I respect your opinions,’ he says earnestly, ‘even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.’ I ask about raising the minimum wage, and it’s explained that this is a common demand in the camp. With more than half a million Syrian workers in Lebanon (many of them without official papers), the young Lebanese believe that the end of Syrian control will lead to the expulsion of the foreign labour force and a rise in their own wages.
After the meeting, Kamal tells me to come back to the camp later. The Lebanese Forces group is going to put up a large, metal-framed tent and Kamal thinks that the police will try to stop them because of the metal frame. ‘CNN is coming,’ he says. ‘The police will be there.’ I return in the evening, but see no police and witness no violence. Instead, I watch a bunch of young men with portable drills erect a large, solid looking tent, which, incidentally (or not), has the effect of dwarfing the tents of the independent group.
The camp’s problem was by this time clear to me. The history of Lebanon is one of deep, almost unbridgeable, sectarian divisions which people believed – ‘hoped’ is perhaps a better word – could finally be overcome after the Hariri assassination. The killing of the former prime minister – a national insult – illustrated the need for a strong and unified Lebanon. Unity is called for over and over again at the camp, but its geography demonstrates the same confessional divisions that exist in the country itself – which is what makes the independent group all the more exceptional. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say that there is no significance in what is happening here. In Lebanon, according to Muhammad Ali Khalidi, a philosophy professor at the American University, it’s rare to meet members of other sects. In tent city they are not only meeting but talking to each other.
The people in the camp are too young to have fought in the civil war, although many remember it. Waheed and Hisham told me that they thought it was a lot of fun. Waheed collected spent cartridges, jammed rifles and missile casings, hiding them in a makeshift fort of branches and leaves. Hisham used to sneak out of his house to watch Israeli and Syrian planes dogfighting. He taught himself to identify the sounds of different munitions. He also remembered being given sweets by Israeli soldiers.
By the time I left Beirut, three bombs had exploded in predominantly Christian neighbourhoods, and with each blast, talk of a new civil war increased. But almost everyone I spoke to, both inside and outside the camp, had an easy – perhaps too easy – answer as to why there would never be another civil war. We have unity now, I heard people say again and again. When I suggested that unity is easier with Syria as the common enemy, and that once Syria leaves, as it almost certainly will, there will be real difficulties, most people said that the Lebanese are too smart for war now. ‘I don’t think you have two civil wars within living memory of each other,’ Professor Khalidi assured me one night. Besides, he said, none of the parties except Hizbullah has many weapons, whereas in 1975 the militias and the Palestinians were armed to the teeth. Still, with each bombing, I heard a few more stories of well-heeled Lebanese making plans to leave the country if the situation got worse. And according to the Daily Star, sales of personal weapons have risen by as much as 70 per cent since the first bombing. A revolver’s not a rocket launcher, but it’s still a revolver.
During my second week in Beirut I spend long days in the independent camp, where they’ve taken to calling me ‘Professor’. I walk past the Lebanese Forces tent on the way, and every day it gets bigger. A few people are milling about the independent camp, a few others are asleep. The rest are either at school or at Dunkin Donuts, a popular hangout when camp life becomes too tedious. Rumours have been circulating in the media that prostitutes are visiting the camp, that drug use is rampant, and that sex is common. The opposition leaders, who don’t live at the camp, have responded by strongly discouraging women, who already sleep in a separate tent, from staying overnight. The rule is generally followed, but there is dissatisfaction, not so much with the rule itself as with the lack of consultation. The people I talk to are also unhappy that the Tanzim, the organisation that runs the camp, has been spot-searching tents for drugs. The objection, again, is not to the banning of drugs, but to the lack of trust and the invasion of privacy. Listening to these complaints, and observing the camp more closely, I sense that the levels of conflict are rising.
The afternoon after the second bombing, a particularly large group is discussing the prospects for civil war. Reine, a 16-year-old who looks, acts and sounds much older, expresses profound scepticism about the camp’s mission. She is sure, she says, that war is inevitable, and the problem is that young people are blindly following the leaders who brought the country to disaster before. Reine is from the south. She’s a secular Shia, raised by a mother who for 15 years was an active member of the Communist Party. An aspiring artist who fills canvases with abstract shapes of black, white and grey, she has two-tone red-brown hair and wears thick eyeliner.
Rosie, another young woman in the independent group, says she hopes Geagea will be released. ‘Why do we have to follow them?’ Reine shouts. ‘What makes you think they will be any different this time? What’s your guarantee?’ Rosie says there isn’t one and Reine is unimpressed: ‘These are the same people who committed terrible crimes during the war! The same people! Did you lose any of your family during the war?’ Rosie responds that her family’s house was destroyed. ‘Material things! A house can be rebuilt. My father was kidnapped. My uncle was shot 52 times. Do you think these things can be forgotten so easily?’
Rosie expresses the hope, shared by many in the camp, that American forces will land in Lebanon to force Syria out, and that their presence will assure peace and prosperity. ‘Why do you want the Americans to come?’ Reine asks. ‘So they can build a big mall? We already have malls!’
Later, I ask Reine why, if she’s so convinced of the inevitability of civil war, she is at the camp. ‘No one has the right to tell my country what to do,’ she says simply, as if I had asked a stupid question.
Over the next few days, Hisham is preoccupied. The Lebanese Forces are organising a large meeting. They want the whole camp to discuss strategy, but insist on having the assembly in their tent. Hisham is worried about being co-opted. ‘Why can’t we just put all the chairs in a big circle in the parking lot?’ he asks me. ‘Why do we have to meet in their tent?’ He thinks they should boycott the meeting and has been arguing with Bassam, who believes that the independents ought to have a presence there.
Bassam and Waheed arrive to discuss this, and sit in plastic chairs round the fire. Bassam explains his position, and Waheed asks me what I think. I mumble something vague about maintaining independence, which satisfies neither Bassam nor Hisham, sitting on either side of me. The conversation drifts to talk of democracy and the problem of the old leadership leading the opposition movement. ‘The best protection for Lebanese society,’ Waheed says, ‘is if the law stands above everyone equally.’ He thinks real democracy is an excellent idea, but worries about manipulation, both by internal and outside forces. ‘Democracy,’ he says, ‘is a wolf and three sheep discussing what to have for dinner.’
On Saturday night another bomb, the third, explodes in the predominantly Christian area of Sad el-Bouchrieh. Later, I learn that the blast injured at least five people and started an enormous fire. When it explodes I am having a drink with some friends, but as soon as the news reaches us, we lose all interest in socialising. We sit in the car, wondering where to go. I suggest we head to the camp.
When we arrive, I find everyone spooked by the blast. ‘Did you hear about the bombing?’ Bassam asks me soberly. ‘We heard it, you know,’ he says. ‘We were just sitting here. At first, someone said they thought it was a sonic boom, but then we saw the smoke.’ His eyes focus on somewhere off in the distance. ‘I don’t know, man,’ he says after a pause. ‘Syria has to leave.’ He takes a deep drag from his cigarette. The orange glow from the tip lights his face for a moment in the dark. ‘I don’t know if I’m ready to die, you know,’ he says, blowing smoke. ‘All they would have to do is put a bomb right here and it would be over. I don’t know how long I can do this.’
‘There’s a lot of tension in the camp right now,’ Hisham whispers to me later, but he isn’t telling me anything I can’t already sense.
‘This is fucked up. Fucked up!’ Reine says to no one in particular. ‘I’m too young to die,’ she says dramatically, though it’s clearly true.
Bassam and Wassim leave to look for a member of the group who lives near the area of the blast. They soon return with her. I ask Wassim what he saw. ‘We couldn’t even get close,’ he says.
About an hour later, the mood changes completely as Easter celebrations begin. We are all invited to the statue to play a game. You hold a brightly coloured hard-boiled egg, tip exposed, while someone else hits your egg with theirs. If their egg breaks, you are the winner. People are screaming with laughter.
After the game, we go back to the fire. Bassam whispers something to Hisham, who nods. Bassam then turns to me. ‘A thousand people are going to the president’s mansion tonight to protest. We have to do something. Do you want to come?’
‘Of course not!’ Hisham says right away. I can’t go, he explains: there could be violence, and this is their fight, not mine. But then, after half an hour of talk across the camp and several headcounts, the protest is called off. Someone says, ‘Dunkin?’ and about 15 of us head to Dunkin Donuts to talk about nothing while we share overpriced coffees and smoke each other’s last cigarettes until late into the night.
The next day, the group rents a van with a driver. Hisham and Bassam have talked a lot over the last few days about showing me other parts of Lebanon. Thirteen of us pile into the van and the radio blares American pop music while our Druze driver offers cigarettes around. We stop and pick up food for a barbeque. By the time we reach Hisham’s house, after a winding drive of an hour and a half into the mountains, it’s clear that the trip is really for them, another way of blowing off steam. No one mentions last night’s blast.
Hisham’s house has been locked up for more than a year, but it’s large and commands amazing views. As soon as we get there, the group splits up, and neighbours and family arrive to visit Hisham. Some people trail off behind the garage for a smoke. Waheed is in the kitchen chopping parsley for tabouleh, and a couple disappears into a musty bedroom, appearing again only when we are about to leave.
Hisham holds my arm with one hand and points with the other at the village below. The most prominent building is the church. His cousin sits nearby while Hisham tells me a story that must have been repeated many times in the family. During the war, the village below was a Lebanese Forces stronghold, and they had Hisham’s Druze village under siege. One night, when it was known that Geagea was in the village below, one of Hisham’s cousins along with four other men collected some guns, faked Lebanese Forces insignia on their uniforms, and sneaked down to the village. His cousin, he said, had a clear shot at Geagea, but as he was about to fire, a sniper hit him squarely in the chest. Hisham pokes me in the breastbone. The other Druzes began shooting, fighting their way back up to their village. ‘The Lebanese Forces thought they were being attacked by a whole army,’ he says with pride, ‘but there were only five of them.’ Four, I think, after his cousin’s death.
He shows me a hidden bunker built into the house and takes me to the edge of the property, pointing beyond the pine trees to roads and valleys that mark the borders between Christian and Druze territory. Every day I become more aware of the degree to which sectarian divides are etched in the soil here.
We sprawl around eating a fabulous meal of kofta, kebabs, shish taouq, tabouleh and French fries. Our driver tends the fire and is the last to eat. Later, I sit with him and Waheed, asking questions about the Druze religion. The driver, who’s more knowledgable, does most of the talking. By 7 p.m. he is nudging us to go back to Beirut. He has another job. There are a few grumbles, but he has been very polite. We get back on the road and everyone sings along to a Samira Said song on the radio. We’re waved through a new roadblock manned by the Lebanese army outside the city.
We return just in time for dinner and pick up pizzas from one of the larger tents at the front of the camp. I notice that the Lebanese Forces tent now has two flags inside: a Lebanese flag and the banner of the Lebanese Forces, a flagrant breach of camp rules. The flags are pinned to the tent and between them is a cross. Since it’s night-time and the tent is lit, the flags shine through the white canvas. I point them out to Hisham, who snorts in disgust.
I leave Beirut later that night with the smell of campfire smoke still clinging to my clothes. Before I go, I run into Kamal in the Virgin Megastore, where I’m buying a Samira Said CD. ‘Professor!’ I hear behind me, and there he is, clean-shaven and now looking younger than his 20 years. Another Lebanese Forces Party member is with him, about the same age and with the same cross hanging from the zip of his jacket. ‘Come with us to the camp,’ he says warmly. I tell him I’m on my way home. ‘To your hotel?’ ‘New York.’ I’m surprised by the look of regret that passes over his face. ‘I’ll miss our discussions,’ he says. ‘Really. When are you coming back?’
And I begin to wonder and to worry. Where and in what circumstances will I find all of these young people the next time I’m in Beirut? My optimism has been slowly fading since I arrived. I think about how, a few minutes before, I had been eating dinner with the independents. When they had finished their pizzas, the camp residents threw the cardboard boxes on the campfire. Maybe it was fatigue from our trip, or maybe it was anxiety about where the camp is heading, but everyone was quiet, staring blankly ahead, mesmerised by the flames, watching the boxes slowly turn into ash.