Sunday, January 27, 2008

Energy riots & Sunday snipers

"This country is like a person with liver failure who continues drinking," L. said, her head in her hands, as news of the day's first casualties broke.

At around 4pm this afternoon, dozens of men--mostly followers of Nabih Berri's Amal Movement-- gathered near the Mar Mikhael Church in Chiyah (in Beirut's southern suburbs) to protest electricity shortages. Riots over living conditions have been an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks; some neighborhoods outside central Beirut receive only 2 hours of electricity per day.

When the impromptu rioting broke out, the army routinely moved in to clear the burning tires from the road and disperse the angry crowd. They were met with a barrage of rocks. A scuffle between soldiers and protesters ensued; and then-- sniper gunfire from an unknown location. A local Amal leader shot dead. On TV later, continuous rounds of gunfire could be heard; panicked soldiers ducked and elbowed their way along the ground as protesters tried to flee the scene.

We had been at R.'s house in Mar Elias earlier that afternoon and had just left to go to a cafe in Clemenceau. R.'s mom called and insisted she come home immediately; she called back five minutes later and told her not to come home at all that night-- the protests had spread to their neighborhood and other areas. On TV we watched a mass of young men light garbage cans on fire just a few feet from her house. One young man interviewed on New TV yelled, "Let's see whose stronger now. Sunni or Shia!" Everyone gathered around the TV set gasped. "Why are they showing this? Can't they edit it out?" S. complained.

Outside Mar Mikhael church--more wounded, more dead, amidst reports that the army had retreated under fire. The violence continued into the night. I finally decided to take a cab home. R. and S. took down the driver's name and told him to take me straight home to my front door. The driver and his friend-- who was riding shotgun-- were on their way to Casino du Liban for a night of gambling. They invited me to join; I politely declined.

At home, more bleak news: a grenade attack wounded 5 people in the Christian neighborhood of Ain el Rummaneh. An RPG was fired in Chiyah. Just before midnight Hezbollah security finally stepped in to help the army control the situation. Snipers were apprehended and arrested. The tally-- 8 people killed, and more than 22 wounded.

S. works in Burj al Barajneh -- originally a Palestinian refugee camp that now is also home to many Shia, poor migrant workers from Syria and southeast Asia. That area has barely received any state-supplied electricity and so most people are forced to subscribe to power supplied by a generator. The man who supplies the generator power to her building-- a Sunni Beiruti merchant, as she describes him-- was mobbed by dozens of angry residents last week when the electricity went out every five minutes. He was reportedly stabbed five times, but survived the attack. J. reports the same from the southern coastal city of Tyre, where his local generator supplier was shot after he announced a hike in prices. "Our standard of living only seems to decrease here," L. laments.

Prime Minister Saniora just declared tomorrow--Monday-- a "national day of mourning". All schools and universities will remain closed. Yesterday was also a national day of mourning, in honor of the 10 victims who perished in a car bombing the previous day. It seems we now have a day of mourning, followed by events that warrant a further day of mourning. "One day yes, one day no," to borrow from my first Beiruti landlord-- a phrase she employed to describe the erratic supply of potable water.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The current blog layout is a work in progress... do not be alarmed by my inability to color coordinate.

The banner photo was taken by my friend Hisham Ashkar on January 23rd, 2007.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ashura refreshments

On Saturday I attended my first Ashura in Nabatiye, which commemorates the anniversary of Imam Hussein's martyrdom in Karbala some 1300 years ago. I had warned my friend D. before our early morning departure from Beirut that this might be the only Lebanese event where there is no street food and insisted we stop for a manaeesh on the way down south. But in fact there were plenty of refreshments being sold -- the metallic smell of blood didn't deter bystanders from wolfing down kababs, chickpeas and corn.

Ashura in Nabatiye is a pretty bloody affair-- young men (age 3 to 30, usually) participate while the rest of the town and visitors watch. As soon as we arrived, groups of 10-12 young men started to pour into the street from the local mosque, white cloths draped around their necks and bleeding from a (superficial) cut in the front of their heads, which they smacked with a sword or their hands, creating a flow of blood down their faces and staining their clothes. (I thought that a good advertisement for laundry detergent would show a mother trying to wash blood out of her sons clothes after Ashura).

Banging the wound ensures that the blood doesn't clot and continues to bleed, but it also means that bystanders are often covered in specks of red. I was standing back a little behind my friend S. who was getting the brunt of the spray. Suddenly a serious amount of liquid hit the side of my face. I dabbed it with my hands-- the liquid was clear and smelled acidic. Then-- another splash of liquid, this time drenching the sleeve of my jacket. I turned around and realized-- to my relief-- that I was leaning against a juice cart and was being sprayed by freshly squeezed orange juice.

Orange juice man hard at work

Two boys enjoying orange juice at Ashura


"Gaza plunged into darkness"-- last night's headline read on the BBC website.

Doctors in Gaza are being forced to choose between heating the maternity- or the emergency wards in hospitals. The Israeli government yesterday maintained that the humanitarian catastrophe was "exaggerated... because they have an interest in exaggerating" and a "ploy to attract international sympathy." After five people allegedly died in hospital wards from the shut down of Gaza's power plant, Olmert proclaimed that the Strip's residents "can walk" and added, "We won't allow the Palestinians to fire on us and destroy life in Sderot, while in Gaza life is going on as usual." 'As usual' in the relative sense, I'm sure. Because life is usually a fucking tea party in Gaza.

In Beirut we usually have 3 hours of electricity black-outs, which is totally manageable. Today I went downstairs to use my neighbor L.'s washing machine. We loaded the laundry, filled the detergent drawer and pushed the 'on' button. "It'll turn itself on when the electricity returns," L. said pragmatically. Then we went to make breakfast and coffee in the kitchen. When L. lit the stove top, the flame flickered and extinguished. No gas left in the tank. So instead I took the pan with the raw omelette upstairs, made coffee and breakfast on our camping stove, and brought it back down to her house. On the stairs I passed our neighbor M. He laughed when he saw me carrying a pan and a steaming pot of coffee. Even with neighbors like L., in Gaza there's not much you can do under a total blockade.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Authority

M. tells us the following story:

Late one night, his friend Samir is driving through Beirut in the torrential rain. He passes under a bridge; suddenly his car is submerged in a massive puddle, a veritable pond. Water begins to flood into the car's interior. Samir calls for help; he calls his friends, his family, his acquaintances-- to no avail at this late hour. Finally he dials 112-- the emergency operator-- and explains his situation, only to be informed that this did not fall under the jurisdiction of the police department. Well who do I call, Samir asks. I don't know. Try another number.

Samir waits. He again attempts to rescue his car. A passing motorist stops to help. Knee-deep in water, Samir gives up. He's cold, he's wet. He calls the emergency responder again. The same officer picks up. "Listen you son of a bitch. I'll screw your sister, you useless piece of shit..." Samir unleashes a stream of vulgarities and personal insults. "You idiot, I'm fucking insulting you. I'm cursing your mother and your sister. Come and fucking arrest me. I'm under this bridge. And please rescue my car while you're at it." He hardly got a rise out of the guy. Again he was politely informed, that such emergencies were not the business of the police department.

On Loss

We met S. at my neighbor L's house. A tranquil, portly man in his late 30's with a neat beard and a penchant for guzzling vodka, S. works as an architect. He nestled on the leather couch cradling his drink and said very little for most of the evening. After the first few minutes of animated chatter (I haven't seen L. in months), she introduced S. "This is S. by the way. His house burned down two days ago!" M. interrupted her, grabbing my arm. "Burned down, you say? He lost everything! Every last item he owns! You won't believe it, man. He sunk 20,000$ into that house in renovations. He had just moved in four days before the electrical wiring caught on fire." M.'s laughter rumbled; S. nodded. A jovial grin spread across his plump cheeks. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, he added, "You know it's funny that 25 years of civil war couldn't do to my house what the fire did in 3 hours." Laughter all around.

My friend D. asked if S. was sad about the loss of his house. He thought about it for a while. "You know, once I had a friend who died. And I only started to miss him a year later. Perhaps it will be the same with my house."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Feltman's farewell

A roadside bomb targeted a US embassy motorcade this afternoon as it passed through Dora, along the coast to the north of Beirut. We were up on the roof in my pied-a-terre in Rmeil, when we heard a massive explosion; I jumped up from my seat and looked out the balcony window. A vertical gray smoke cloud shot into the sky near "Normandy"-- a picturesque grassy landfill of garbage, just off the curving coastline. "Its in Dora," S. observed. "Probably a gas explosion of some sort. An accident." T. had just come over for coffee. "Well we can still have coffee, " I suggested, opening my laptop to inform anyone online of the explosion.

We all tried to make phone calls but the lines were already overloaded. The power had been out for two hours that afternoon; when electricity is rationed, it usually turns on after three hours in our neighborhood. "Hey look, the electricity went back on just seconds after the explosion," Danielle noted. "It's our consolation prize."

For the next half hour, I re-loaded the news websites to look for updates and chatted online. Sirens wailed as ambulances raced to the scene. First, they reported that 10 were wounded; the source of the explosion yet unknown. Then three dead. Then four. I told my friend Danielle, who is visiting from New York, "Usually when they bomb during the day it means somebody has been targeted. The symbolic bombing that is just meant to scare people usually happens after nightfall." She looked at me as if I was trying to convince her of something utterly unscientific.

A few minutes later then, the news broke that one of the targeted cars had US embassy license plates, that in fact outgoing US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman had been on his way to a farewell party at the Phoenicia hotel. Then they said, two Americans were wounded. Then the State Department denied any Americans were wounded. J. claimed an American guy called "Matthew Clayton"-- an Evangelical preacher, apparently-- was wounded and brought to Geitawe hospital. D. -- who lives in Washington D.C-- kept us informed of live news coverage on Al Jazeera, because we don't have a TV. No Americans were wounded, he said, but a "Lebanese personality" from March 14 was riding in one of the Embassy cars. Apparently the car that was hit was a decoy for the Ambassador. And so on and so forth.

Two and a half hours later, I'm getting hungry. Feltman's farewell bash at the Phoenicia hotel was canceled. I told J., "Just yesterday I said something was going to happen this week." He replied,"Oh really?!? Well if this were Sweden, I'd be impressed."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Back in Beirut

Man in Hamra straddling two ladders

I found Beirut much as I left it six months ago—stagnant and uneasy. At night, the army and darak (police in gray camouflage uniforms) patrol Beirut’s abandoned streets; tanks sit idly stationed at every big intersection. R. complains that –since the end of the Nahr el Bared campaign— the army soldiers have started to behave obnoxiously. “It’s gotten to their heads—all the praise. Now they’re behavior is indistinguishable from the darak.” On our third night in Beirut, a soldier menacingly trailed us through the streets as we walked home-- just a foot or so behind us, not a taxi in sight.

Billboards and advertisements tailored to the current woes of the Lebanese line the highway from the airport to Beirut: for the many citizens dependent on remittances from abroad--Western Union pledges to “Send Peace” with your money order. The city’s billboard-scape also boasts USAID’s newest PR campaign—“A gift from the American people to the Lebanese”, as well as a few new entries to the martyr hall of fame. Regal portraits of Army Commander General Michel Suleiman, the unlucky president elect, have been erected under the banner “Our Savior.” Rafiq Hariri has been dead for 1000-and-God-knows how many days, according to the gigantic counter at the entrance to Hamra; my friends joke that they want to erect an additional counter to track how many times the presidential elections have been postponed. Is it 11 or 12 now?

Prices for every day things have gone up; an Almaza beer will cost you 1250 LL, a manaeesh jubneh up to 2000LL, a one bedroom apartment in Rmeil or Jeitawe $400. Narcotic- and alcohol abuse is rampant; on Sunday afternoon the little bars in Gemayze are packed. "I drink because it makes me calm," S. says. "For twenty-five years, I lived in a bomb shelter. Now I'm free and I drink to forget those twenty-five years."

On Tuesday, then, a series of violent incidents down south—a car bomb targeted a UNIFIL vehicle wounding two Irish peacekeepers--hardly upset the routine of most Beirutis. People were preoccupied with the possibility of a surprise visit by George W. Bush. R. called. "Do you know if he's coming or not?" she asked. "How come the shit hits the fan as soon as you arrive in town?" Hezbollah threatened to bus in hundreds of thousands of protesters in the eventuality of a presidential visit, to put him under a "tight siege" but prevent any "assault" against him by Al Qaeda or the likes.

I am writing all this from a cafĂ©-bar where the house specialty advertised on the menu is a “Sex with the Bartender” cocktail. More soon.