Friday, January 26, 2007

High School

I opened my eyes Tuesday morning, wary of what the day would hold. Named by Hezbollah as the day of the nation strike, I was frightened and excited by what the day might bring. "Snow Day," I chuckled as I started to get dressed. In the northeast United States, we all stay home when it snows too hard to get on the road, but in Lebanon, I was quickly learning, we all stay in when Hezbollah decides to hit the streets.
I turned on the news to see what the latest was, but the reporting on BBC was too general for somebody who lives in the city. I got quickly changed and headed out to the street to get to work. I opened the front door to my building to find an almost abandoned city. There were some people walking along the streets, but there were no cars to be found. I headed on my way from Hamra, where I live, to Gemmayze, where I work, along a route that I had picked out on a map with help from my doorman. I set out with my friend Steve Walker from Groton, who is visiting Beirut for a month as part of a Middle East tour he's making, and we nervously anticipated what each turn in the road might hold.
Most of the businesses were closed, some because they were run by Shiites but most because their employees could not reach their shops. Another significant difference between this and any other day was that that the typically extraordinary view of the mountains and the sea was obscured by a dark gray haze that hung low over the city. I'd have typically taken a cab to work, but since there were none on the roads it was almost half an hour before I arrived in downtown. A part of the city that's almost unnaturally modern and clean due to Rafiq Hariri's rebuilding plan, downtown was a virtual fortress of troops, barbed wire, and tanks. We twisted and turned through downtown, passing the Prime Minister's offices and the Parliament Building before coming to the last leg of our walk.
In order to get to Rue Gouraud, where my office is, I had to cross Martyr's Sqaure, a giant oblong plaza, and a favorite spot for activist movements. Sure enough, as I entered the square, I spotted a group of about fifty or so men burning tires in the road. The amazing thing about Lebanon is that because it's such a small country, it only takes blocking a handful of roads to effectively shut down the country. Martyr's square is a confluence of important roads, and if shutting down the country was their aim, then these protestors were well placed. I passed them by quietly, drawing not more than a passing glance. I knew that hurting westerners was not their aim; plus, these men were not Hezbollah but rather members of a Hezbollah-allied Christian party called the Free Patriotic Movement (the FPM) who harbor considerably less resentment to the western countries. I could tell they were FPM because many of them were dressed in orange, the party's color. The air, as I passed these protestors, was thick with the awful smoke of burning rubber.
I made it to the office and spent the day watching the news and calling the hospitals for casualty reports. For those of you worried about me, you'll be happy to know that the staff would not send me out into the field on this day because as an intern, I was not under contract with the newspaper, and I therefore posed a higher level of liability to them. Throughout the day, I watched the western news on the television and grimaced in the knowledge of what everyone would be seeing back in the States. While what you all saw on television actually was happening here, it was not representative of the Lebanon I was witnessing. In northern Beirut, where I live and work, there were some peaceful demonstrations, like the one I saw, but by and large the city was just in a quiet waiting mode. Most of the violence was in the south of the city or in the north of the country.
I walked home without incident, picking up a couple beers on my way celebrate with Steve our first encounter with major civil strife. I went to bed that night after watching the news in which all of the many political leaders were taking to the airwaves in a flurry angry rhetoric which seemed to me to be killing more people than the day's gun battles.
I woke up the next morning, Wednesday, and wondered what the streets would be like since Hezbollah had decided against a second day of strikes. I've always been told that the greatest danger in Lebanon is that once you come, you'll never want to leave. I didn't know what to expect on Wednesday as I stepped out of the building, but I was amazed to see a city bustling defiantly with life. Suddenly I saw the other maxim I'd always heard about Lebanon fuse with the first. The second one says that the country can be besieged by war and violence one day, but that with the strength of its people, it rebounds immediately the next. I realized at that first moment I hit the street on Wednesday that so much of Lebanon's allure, so much of the reason that I'm quickly falling in love with it has to do with the resilience of its people.
Wednesday was a peaceful day in Beirut, but a hectic one in the office. I was charged with my most difficult story yet. I had to write a report on the previous day's casualties and arrests. This was challenging because the information was still coming in all day Wednesday and would continue to right up to the point I had to submit my story. The difficulty here was that I had to begin the story and continually add and edit as the details shifted. On top of that, I had sources who, for much of the day, gave me conflicting information on how many dead and wounded. So I had to continually try to widen my number of sources to achieve consensus numbers that most reflected the general thinking among the authorities. Ultimately, I ended up noting the conflicting sources in the article as well.
Then there was today. Today was the first day that made me anxious. Tuesday's violence felt somehow controlled, and I felt less at risk in the city. Today was a little more difficult. The day began with a note of optimism as I sat in the office watching the proceedings at Paris aid conference. I saw each delegation give encouraging words to Lebanon and then announce its dollar pledge. The United States and Saudi Arabia each offered generous sums, and as much as I hate to say it, I have to give the French a tip of the cap for their sizeable donation too. But then violence once again stole the headlines. Sunni-Shiite fighting broke out around the Arab University in south Beirut. In the camera shots I recognized the stadium that I had driven past many times on the airport road. I was a little rattled by this spontaneous outburst of violence because I could handle conflict that was announced days in advance, like Tuesday's, but unexpectedness of this new round really stunned me.
To make matters worse, I heard of outbursts around a university in Hamra, where I live. Furthermore, we could hear spirts of machine gun fire as we sat in our office. The whole thing made me a little uneasy.
And now I come back to the title I've assigned to this post. High School. I left the office at about 6:30, getting home around 7. When I went out to go to the internet café at 8, my doorman warned me that the government had just instated a curfew that would go into effect in half an hour. I ran down to the café to find it closed. So was the other one on my street. Considering the late hour that the curfew was announced, I saw people hustling down the street and rushing to their cars, heading home. And now here I sit, unable to leave, wondering what the coming days will hold. This amazing three day stretch began with a Lebanese snow day and ended with a Lebanese curfew. I somehow feel like I'm back in high school.

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Theo--
As soon as I saw the front page of the Times this morning, I immediately checked your blog, both to see if you were okay and also to get your take on things. I was so pleased to see such a fresh post. Your writing here is excellent--the tension is palpable. Please update as soon as you can as the story unfolds. Meanwhile, stay safe.

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