Yesterday evening, at around 8.30pm, a bomb exploded in Sad Boushriyeh, in the eastern suburbs of Beirut. Ten people were injured. It followed a similar pattern of previous bombings-- evidently designed to scare, rather than inflict maximum casualties. I was sitting at my computer in my office, listening to music. These days, I habitually turn the volume down every few minutes to listen for ambulance sirens or dogs barking. I heard a thud from the east, followed by another smaller thud, but didn't make much of it. I often confuse the sound of shipping containers being carelessly unloaded at the nearby port with acts of violence.
A few minutes later an instant message flashed at the bottom of my computer screen. "Did you hear the bomb?" Jamal inquired. "Was it coming from the east? Thought I heard something." "Yeah. New TV says in Industrial City, Bourj Hammoud." "Oh shit." I reached for my phone to call M. but the lines were already overloaded. I signed off the Internet and walked down to my apartment, stopping at the corner store for cigarettes and water. The shopkeeper was gone; his teenage daughter sat behind the counter, holding her head in her hands.
At home I turned on the TV and repeatedly tried to call M., to no avail. The explosion must have been very close to his house, I thought. Images of police army cordoning off the area around a bombed out bus and torched cars in a poorly lit street. After a short while I found myself changing the channel, in search of mindless entertainment.
I was watching the Democratic Primary "debates", when my neighbor Tariq appeared at the door, which I had left ajar. "What are you doing?"he asked. "Nothing. Watching TV." "We're going to the bomb site. Do you wanna come? You have one minute to decide." Tariq is a conflict zone-junkie, a reporter for BBC Brazil. He recently spent twelve-hours holed up in an apartment right next to army artillery positions on the periphery of Nahr el Bared camp. At all times he sports a khaki multi-pocketed vest; his press-pass dangles from his neck for convenience's sake. "Sure...", I hesitated, and turned off the TV.
We drove around in circles in search of the bomb site, following the smell of burning tires and petrol. We stopped to ask a man for directions. He matter-of-factly pointed us in the right direction with the usual polite formalities.
The outer perimeter of the cordoned off area was guarded by plainclothes men armed with automatic rifles. Tariq flashed his press card and slipped under the police tape. Teenage boys, women, men, photographers and soldiers were standing around outside the Mar Takla church, just 30 meters from where the bomb detonated.
The blue-and-white bus in which the bomb was allegedly placed was off limits to the press. Shopkeepers were already clearing the broken glass from their storefronts; the owner of a kebab joint had swept all the glass into a neat pile and continued to make sandwiches. The facade of a six-story commercial building across from the blast was damaged; twisted shutters hung from their hinges exposing office furniture and overturned filing cabinets.
Suddenly a commotion ensued, as four plain clothes men handcuffed a young man-- perhaps twenty-years old-- and escorted him to a white civilian car with Saida license plates. They shoved him into the backseat and closed the door. He sat in the backseat, straining his neck to peer out of the rearview window, terrified. A group of 10 to 12 men stood around the car. Occasionally they opened the door of the car and said something to him. I walked over and asked one of the younger men, who was wearing a T-shirt with "Jesus Soldiers" blazoned across the back, why they arrested the young man. He declined to respond, but his friend replied, matter-of-factly, "Because he's Syrian."
A tall man with a shaved head who seemed to be in charge, overheard this exchange and bellowed, "No, he's Lebanese. Please move away!" As we retreated away from the car, I made eye contact with the young man under detention or arrest, as the car drove off. "It's going to be a rough night for him..." Tariq muttered.
We left the cordoned off area, down an alleyway padded with broken glass.
I hailed a servis to go home. The cab driver-- a card-carrying member of Jumblatt's PSP party as he told me-- dropped off the other two passengers and promptly started railing against the Palestinians and Syrians. "What do they want from Lebanon? Can't they go back to their own country?" "Well, no..." I thought, as I reclined in the back seat. A young man on the side of the road signaled for us to stop. "To Ouzai," he said. The cab driver declined, drove on, and then suddenly hit the brakes. "He's Syrian!" he hissed, peering through the back window as if to reverse the car. "To Ouzai? I don't go to Ouzai..." "Please I need to get home," I interjected. For the rest of the journey he muttered to himself: Lebanon, beautiful Lebanon-- the mountains, the food, the sea-- alas! always at the mercy of others.
This morning M. finally called. His brother was in a car, ten meters in front of the bus when it exploded. I told him about the young man arrested at the scene of the bombing. "Yeah, I heard about it. They said he was trying to run away... I would run away, too, if a bomb went off."