Uncertainty in Beirut

Hamra area, with Barbar restaurant in the foreground, after calm prevailed. (Maureen Clare Murphy)


8 May 2008

7:00pm

Beirut is exploding all around me. After Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah made his speech this evening, during which he accused the governing coalition of declaring war on the resistance, opposition and March 14 supporters started fighting each other and making their armed presence felt all over West Beirut, including my neighborhood of Hamra. The news reports stated that this morning Beirut woke up to new demarcation lines, referring to the points of battle during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war, though there were no clear lines from my perspective.

Everyone saw this crisis coming, but there is no way to really prepare for war or whatever we should call the conflict currently playing out in the streets. After the airport road was closed by opposition forces yesterday, and the roads in and out of and connecting the different areas of Beirut were shut by demonstrators, things quickly deteriorated and constantly trotted out in news reports was the old cliché that this was the worst internal crisis since the end of the civil war.

There is a large explosion as I write this.

I was in a much lighter mood this morning even though I knew there was a crisis that would only get worse. At the grocery store in my neighborhood where things were still calm, everyone was stocking up. There was no Arabic bread left by the time I got there. The line was long but people were still smiling at each other and were not panicking. When I returned just now, it was pretty much empty of people. It was funny to see what people were stocking up on — one woman had six bottles of toilet bowl cleaner in her cart. I saw a few people with smoked salmon, others loaded up on booze. Of course, the media reported that in other neighborhoods things were more dire, and people were desperate to find even basic necessities.

Another explosion. We’re all trying to call each other so the cell phone network is constantly busy. L. just called me and O. before her.

“How do you like our Lebanon?” one of my neighbors asked me earlier in the morning in American-accented English, neither in anger or sadness, but with a tone of resignation. “The more important question is how you like your Lebanon,” I replied, fumbling. He told me he had relocated here from the US in December before he threw his hands up in the air, gesturing how he thought the country was lost. I’m not sure who is still in my building. Earlier I saw that they were rolling up the carpets in my landlady’s apartment and I found out later her family had left for the mountains.

I am now reading that two people were killed by sniper fire in Ras al-Naba. Whatever humor I was finding as a coping mechanism has now evaporated. Now I understand the look of profound worry on S.’s face yesterday as she was contemplating what she would do with her children should war break out, whether she would have to leave the country again like she did during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon.

10:10pm

An ambulance is racing by to the nearby American University Hospital as I read about the woman and child killed by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Ras al-Naba. A woman was also killed by celebratory gunfire in Haret Hreik after Nasrallah’s speech. I think about how women and children disproportionately shoulder the burden of violence made by men.

9 May 2008

1:11am

A group of about seven armed men, one with an RPG, the others with multiple guns, were just on my street corner tearing down all the posters of US-allied governing coalition leader Saad Hariri and his father, assassinated prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Many of the walls of my March 14-sympathetic neighborhood are wallpapered with pictures of both father and son Hariri. Just before the armed men left, one asked the others in jest if he should tear down a poster advertising a movie starring the famous actor Adel Imam. No, Adel Imam should stay, the group decided, laughing. All the Hariri posters are now down, including the huge banner that hung from one of the apartment balconies. A few minutes later I heard the group fire an RPG at something up the street.

1:50am

Whenever I see Saad Hariri described in the press as “parliamentary leader” I always mistakenly first read it as “paramilitary leader.”

2:00am

Huge noise — I couldn’t tell if it was a large thunder clap or something caused by human activity. Likewise I couldn’t tell if the light illuminating the sky is from lightning or ammunition. I am so so tired but sleep is elusive.

2:10am

Rain — a powerful storm. The explosive clap and the ones following it were thunder after all. The rain and thunder are merciful. Now I can sleep.

10:00am

Just talked to S. and she said she didn’t sleep all night, worrying about her young kids. She was trying to convince them that all the noise was just a very late wedding celebration. We agreed that last night’s storm was divine intervention.

11:30am

I can see from the rooftop that there are armed men controlling the Hamra intersection at Costa Cafe. I can hear there are also men doing something directly underneath my building, though I can’t see exactly what. I think they are putting up a roadblock.

Right now I think it is the calm before the storm. I’m reading online that in reaction to opposition forces taking control of West Beirut, March 14 coalition leaders will meet and various Arab governments are stating it is forbidden for an Iranian force to rule Lebanon (but a Saudi and US-directed one is OK?).

I think it is wise for me to pack the things I need in case I have to suddenly leave my apartment.

12:00pm

M. called me to tell me that Hamra is filled with hundreds of heavily armed men. I texted L. who lives nearby and she told me not to go out. I have now packed my necessities and valuables if I have to leave in a hurry. Right now the call to prayer is playing from a nearby mosque. I think it must be pre-recorded because no voice could be so calm right now.

1:42pm

Things are quiet at the moment — very little gunfire, and I no longer see armed men in the streets. Some tanks rolled by earlier so there is still an army presence. R. called earlier to make sure the cat and I were OK. The cat likes this situation because it means I stay at home and she has constant company.

Now that it’s quiet it is tempting to say that it’s all over. But as soon as I’d say that I am sure I’d be proven wrong.

I see from the window an unarmed man picking off whatever bits of poster remained on the storefront wall across the street, though he left the posters of the Lebanese flag and army intact.

The peace was just now shattered by a large explosion, I think from the intersection at Costa Cafe. Now there are gun shots from very nearby.

It occurs to me that the uncertainty of war and conflict is what is probably most meaningful to the people who live through it. When I was living in Palestine I observed it was the inability to plan for the future that was the heavy psychological burden imposed on all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — poor and wealthy alike. And as I talk to friends on the phone and see people running through the streets carrying the bottles of water they neglected to buy yesterday, I think the feelings of dread and uncertainty must be the same ones shared by people living in conflict no matter where the geography.

2:00pm

The gunfire and explosions resume, and the uncertainty and dread continue to build.

7:14pm

Armed militiamen allied with the opposition are present throughout the streets of my neighborhood, and when I went downstairs I saw that they had put up their flag after they paraded through the neighborhood, spraying machine gun fire into the air. However, things are much better now. A friend tells me that opposition forces are handing over to the army weapons caches of the March 14 coalition militias found in Hamra. Everything could be a lot worse than it is, and the same friend shares my amazement that the death toll of about a dozen persons is not higher. Two friends even dropped by earlier, and now the 24-hour fast food joint Barbar, which I can see from my rooftop, has opened up again. It seems that Beirut pulled back from the brink. But the continued sporadic gunfire reminds everyone how vulnerable the situation is.

Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada.