Monday, February 28, 2005

Beirut Pushing for Truth and Independence

The week began with protests last Monday. I was not able to go as school has taken the upper hand however, there were more people present than at the funeral procession.Estimates ran as high as 300,000 people showing up, and yet it would be important to note that there were some not represented as reportedly bus loads of people prepared to march were turned away at the outskirts of town. This afternoon, Philip, one of my very gracious host here mentioned that some were not to be dissuaded from the procession, and ended up coming into town on foot. The determination to stand and be counted for in a public stance against Syrian presence and the desire for a new government is clear.

Lebanon is applying a fairly unified stance so far, not so much divided along sectarian lines as much as the division set between those for Syrian presence and those against it. A student who had gone to the protest told me with pride that what jumped out to him was a man propped up on shoulders, holding a cross in one hand and a Koran in the other. This would apparently be a first since the war, to see as many Christians and Muslims gathering together together for at least one the following public requests: a truthful investigation on the murder, a desire for a public understanding of the origin of the perprators and the reasoning behind it, a withdrawal of Syrian troops, a change in government, and a unified and independent Lebanon.

As the emotional wave is riding high, animosity toward the Syrians unfortunately had a deadly consequence in the beginning of the week when some 5 Syrian workers were killed. This trend luckily did not continue through the week, however the attack has lead to a Syrian migration back across the border. There are no official numbers how many have left, however unofficially one restaurant worker on Hamra street said that he heard that some 70,000 Syrians had left Lebanon. Regardless of the number, the street cleaning company, Sukleen, started up by Hariri has had a labor turnover. The street cleaners have changed faces, now looking more like they are coming from South East Asia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh.

Conversations throughout the city has changed. Although finding out the perpatrators of the attack is high on the agenda, there is a stronger focus revolving around a independent Lebanon.

On Friday evening I headed down to the mosque were Hariri and his body guards are buried. A mosque still under construction, the outside protective walls of the site are covered with urban graffiti, people writing condolescences and messages for freedom, truth and independence. At the grave site itself, the earth is still fresh over the coffins, and has become home to shrines, covered in flowers, images of christianity, verses of the koran, all of it alight with burning red and white candles. Throughout the evening and during the following day people have been streaming through paying their respects. At the foot of the mosque is the Place des Martyres, a Statue erected by the French. Since the 15th of February, the day after the assassination, a steady number of Lebanese have been setting up tents around the statue and now expanding outward in the square. Essentially a political squat, inhabitated by activists making up the faces of the 8 anti-syrian coalition parties have congregated in a similar way to those involved in the Orange Revolution which just took place in the Ukraine. About 100 people and although far from being as impressive in number as of what took place in Kiev, a friend pointed out: "Come on, the Lebanese camping? This isn't nothing". And political activist Tracy, who has been spending all her free time down there explained since the attack explained: "Yeah, this is really a big step for people, a big step". The campers all agreed that while down there, no one would put up political party flags rather they would rally behing the Lebanese flag as a symbol of unity.

The big step Tracy refered to was about how the result of Hariri's death has permitted for a real public display of discontent. Although Lebanese press is noted for being the freeist in the Arab world, each publication is still under the constraints of self-censorship, unable to outwardly discuss the Syrian presence and the impact it has had on decision making in Lebanon. For the first time, since 1989, when the last big anti-Syrian protest took place, people of all ages, socio-economic and religious backgrounds are finding the strength to display their frustration with the impact of the Syrian presence. On Saturday evening, a human chain was organized with maybe 10 to 20 thousand people standing from Place des Martyrs down the site where the blast took place. I overheard people speaking, one lady saying to her friend: "I don't what will come of this, but it is important to be here". Another and more prominent figure I ran into, Ziad Doueiri, a filmmaker who directed West Beirut about the war, and more recently, Lila dit ca, explained to me that " I never go to demonstrations, but that this time I feel like I can't miss this, I just really need to be here". As people lined up, there seemed to be just as many soldiers along the way. A presence heavily armed, stood by quietly in the background. They were noticeable, but far from agitated looking. One officer turned to me and said: "It is all good as long as it stays under control." Persisting to find out what he thought, he said:"You know, Hariri was a big loss, so I think this is good". So far the government is condoning population's ability to act on its democratic right, yet things may start changing.

Tomorrow, Monday, there is a mass strike organized, and the city will close down. Along with it has been planned another big rally.Half a million of protesters are expected. Rumor has it that throughout the past week, the government has sent out a rallying word to pro-Syrian factions to show up in support of the government and Syrian presence. If this is reality, the events could be a little more difficult to control, maybe something the Ministry of Interior might have realized. This evening, Philip surfing the internet spotted a message from the Ministry of Interior. It has set out a decree that there should be no protesting in any way tomorrow. The only thought is that the decreee might have come in with incredibly short notice, and considering the momentum of the population, it would seem hard to dissuade so many of a breath of free _expression for all sides of the equations.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

PM Rafiq Hariri's Assassination

Last Monday, right below the Green Line along the coast, the former PM Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in a massive car bomb, which left a gaping hole of destruction about 15 feet deep and some 30 feed wide. I quickly went down to the site calling ABC and Ch4 on the phone to describe what I was seeing. After having worked for 4 years watching gruesome video of similar attacks, what struck me was not so much the face of the calamity as much as the fact that it was 3 dimensional, and the color was a lot clearer and real than what one sees on video. It was incredible to think for a second that I was standing in that piece of video which I would have otherwise been screening for cutable shots in London. The other amazing sensation was the intimacy of the space. Again, watching the video of TV, it is hard to tell the scale of the situation, and in this case it was much smaller and closer than what it looked like on TV. It was also fascinating to watch the different ways people were reacting, some dazed, some curious, some wanting to help, all of that while rescue red cross workers ran back and forth from crater to ambulance caring bodies on stretchers, with smoke spiralling up from smoldering cars in the backdrop.

In the evening, I headed to the exterior of Hariri's house, just a 5 minute walk from where I am staying. Again, outside the house was a group of mourners, maybe 400, protesting his death, and at times chanting anti-Syrian slogans. Streaming through the crowd were politicians, and families squeezing their way in and out of a heavy wooden front door. Once more, what was striking was the intimacy of the space. The streets of the neighborhood, Hamra, in West Beirut are small, so fill and block up very quickly.
Tuesday, a Lebanese friend, Rachid, and I decided to attend Hariri's funeral march down to the grand mosque in downtown which made part of one of many of the former PM's construction projects around town. The street of Independence where the cortege passed through was abosuletly packed. There were tens of thousands of people moving along expressing their grief and anti-Syrian feelings. In all, the estimates of people attending the funeraly was around 200,000 to 250,000. Rachid essentially played the role of a fixer for me. He showed short cuts so that we could aim for the best views and shots of the procession. Being about 2 meters tall, 1 meter 97 to be exact, and weighing in at about 125 kilos, I knew that he was the right man to be moving through such a massive crowd. Also,  his height can in handy. He became the official photographer of the team taking some excellent shots of relevant political players, Hariri's family members, the coffins... you name it. I will send you some of the photos of the event in a follow up email to give you a sense of the scene.

From Tuesday evening on, things calmed down as the city shut down for 3 days of mourning. Although I kept a low profile, watched the news, and studied my Arabic, the minute I walked out to check in with some local friends, I couldn't help but remembering Friedman's description in, Beirut to Jerusalem, of Beirut's incredibly active rumor mill, which was moving at full steam by Wednesday. I heard theories of who was behing the assassination from all different angles and made up of many, many different colors. In fact, still to this day, Sunday, the theories are being generated in massive quantities, but at the end of the day, as one journalist friend who had just come in from Baghdad said: "It doesn't matter who did it, because it is what will come of Hariri's murder that counts at this point." 

It is hard to predicate what will come of Hariri's death. One of the most important and wealthiest men in Lebanon, Hariri having made his fortune in Saudi during the war, was one of the key figures behing the peace accord to end the Civil War and Beirut's reconstruction. I would guess that he and his efforts caused the international buzz of "Lebanon's back". However, despite the buzz, the beautiful reconstruction and promotion of the country, it didn't seem convincing when I was here studying Arabic last summer. To me, Beirut felt like a glass house, and place where the concrete and new stone facade were more illusion than reality. The feeling was confirmed within minutes of Hariri's death. The rumors and theories of who had perpatrated the act unveiled a very polarized population, which had split and grouped into different factions as a reaction to the murder. The massive chasms  apparent during the war were right back, and gaping.

Many on the streets have often told me that nobody knows why or how the war stopped. It just did, and as some say:  "maybe we were  tired of the killing". So ending from one day to the next, profound divisive issues remained unresolved, and nothing really changed. The end of the war was more a truce rather than a reform. There were no legal nor political changes which might attempted to bridge differences which surfaced during the war, nor very much of a move to change the political system set up by the French in the 1920's. For instance, the last population census which took place in Lebanon was in 1940. There has never been a new one set in motion, as no one wants to deal with the reality that demographics have changed and hence the need to a fairer governmental representation.  Although Beirut is undergoing a nice face lift, it is still the same city filled with sectarian differences which date back 150 year with a harsh reality that the Civil War only ended 15 years ago.

So, what next? Tomorrow there will be a massive protest in the morning which will end up in front of the parliament. It is supposed to be a statement against the Syrian presence in the country. No one knows whether it will get out of hand. A professor at AUB said that a lot of what we will be looking at is action resulting from an emotional and slightly irrational high making everything around us a little more volatile than necessary. The political players in the anti-Syrian coalition are taking advantage of the momentum as a means to reinforce their position both nationally and internationally. The opportunism is seen by many as untrustworthy and unfair. So we will see. I am not sure the story is big enough at this point to make much waves in international news, however certainly locally and regionally many are standing by watching. The melting pot characteristic of this town funnily enough implicates alot of countries around here, who are in one way or another represented in the small but fascinating city.