“In Search of Beirut”

BEIRUT — I’m going to be doing a daily diary of sorts of TIME Magazine this week. Basically B2I is getting transferred there for a little while, but you’ll still be able to see the dispatches here. Here’s the first one:

This war has turned Beirut inside out. The city’s usually snarled traffic is almost gone and the blaring noise of car horns is absent. Conversely, parks that are rarely used are now full of people — those who have fled the bombings in the south, east, north, and, well, pretty much everywhere in Lebanon.
The city’s fabled and glamorous nightlife is almost gone, too, but the Lebanese dark sense of humor remains. In Torino’s, a bar in the funky Gemayze district, the owner, Michael, has written “Raad-1” — a type of rocket Israel claims is being used against it — on the chalkboard usually reserved for announcing the daily specials. Below that: “Shlomo Go Home.”
This morning I went to the southern suburbs of Bir al-Abed with Rania, my friend and occasional translator. Bir al-Abed is a poor, Shi’ite area whose residents mainly support Hizballah. But there were no people there today; it was practically deserted, with shops shuttered, no cars on the streets. Bir al-Abed is close to Hizballah’s headquarters, which are in the next neighborhood, so — like most areas in the southern part of the city — it’s been pounded for almost a week. Bridges and overpasses have been reduced to rubble. Several intersections have been turned into craters, often filled with water after the water mains under the street are shattered.
Walking and driving around the streets, I noticed a peculiar trait of Beirut: it’s not always possible to tell the difference between the old war damage and the new. Beirut is ramshackle and delightfully dilapidated in some parts — mostly the poor Shi’a parts, which are also the main target areas. Sometimes you realize that a balcony that appears freshly shorn off actually collapsed in the 1980s.
While I was in Bir al-Abed, the Israelis dropped a couple of small bombs about 500 yards away, on the next block. They sent gray plumes into the air and filled my nose with the smell of cordite and dust. The cab driver who drove us there, Ahmad Hammoud, 40, didn’t even flinch. He’s from the neighborhood and was more concerned with the fate of his family. “I got my family out on the first day of the strikes,” he said. But he stayed. “I thought it was wrong to leave because if we all left it would be like surrendering to Israel.”
He finally decided to leave Bir al-Abed because of the pleading of his children. “My wife told me that my eldest son is very worried and my other son has stopped eating because he’s scared. There’s no space at my in-laws, so I slept in the car.” His troubles haven’t discouraged him from supporting Hizballah, however, and he even welcomed a ground invasion by Israel. “On the ground, they are weaker and we are stronger,” he said. “We cannot retaliate against their military jets,” he added. “It’s not honorable to destroy a people who don’t have equal military capability. Israel destroys, it doesn’t fight.”
Back in Hamra, the formerly fashionable part of town that was home to Beirut’s famed shopping district in the 1960s, things were quite different. Traffic was subdued but it was still there. Shops were open and people were in the streets going about their business. The owner of a hardware store told me that people were stocking up on batteries. He thought the war had nothing to do with Hizballah or Israel’s security. According to him, this was a war for the hearts and minds of tourists. Once Israel destroyed Lebanon’s entire infrastructure, that would be the end of its tourist industry, he says. All the people coming to Lebanon would instead flock to Israel. I try to keep from showing too much skepticism.
Among the Lebanese and the foreigners, I can sense a real sense of panic. The foreigners and young people who have never experienced war are freaked out. And the Lebanese who lived through the civil war and remember it well are worried, too. I spent two years working for TIME magazine in Baghdad, where the citizenry scurries about in fear of hateful random violence. Beirut is not Baghdad — yet — but it could get that way if this keeps up.
At night I watch the Lebanese news channels and their footage of bombings, bloodied children and frantic civilians trying to help their countrymen into ambulances. I see the weeping women and scared kids. But I don’t see Beirut anymore.

More to come as the week grinds on… Also, check out this cover of TIME Magazine from Aug. 16, 1982.