I have come to dread Sundays in Beirut. Previously my favorite day of the week, Sundays now instill a sense of dread that the artificial calm might collapse-- with breaking news of street battles, car bombs; or that this time perhaps—Monday could dawn on a country at war.
The short list of Bloody Sundays in recent memory include the Danish cartoon riots, the 2006 Qana massacre, the beginning of the Nahr el Bared siege, the car bomb at the ABC mall in Achrafiye, and the deadly riots in Shiyah last month. This might be a bogus calculation. On second thought, Tuesdays and Thursdays have a commensurate penchant for turning violent.
Frequently these days, there’s talk of a civil strife being an inevitability; we spend hours debating when—in hindsight—historians will say this war started. In 2004 with UN Security Council Resolution 1559? On February 14th, 2005? On July 12th, 2006? In November 2006, when Hezbollah and Amal quit the cabinet? Some of my friends argue with near conviction that Iran will be attacked by the US or Israel (which I don’t believe), that the region will go up in flames, and a global recession will usher in a world war. R’s mom—"Information Central"—is already carving plans for “after the war”.
Friends who were children during the civil war now customarily share stories— devastating stories of narrow escapes, of wedding parties under fire, of Picon processed cheese (a treat compared to the Ramek and Smeds variety, I am told), of munching on sunflower seeds holed up in a bomb shelter for hours, days.
Cab drivers pull out all the stops for an increased fare. In the seven- minute car ride from Tabaris to Mar Elias, a driver detailed how his mother, father and sister were killed by Israeli bombs in Marjayoun during the July War; a year later, his favorite nephew was wounded in Nahr el Bared, and now his car had not a drop of fuel left in the tank. Look at the gas meter. Empty! He expressed bewilderment that the car could even make it uphill. With every tragic detail, I found myself groping for extra cash in my pocket.
Unlike the deadly riots last January, the feudal political class has not responded to the proliferating incidences of street violence with hollow good-will gestures and talk of compromise. The rhetorical escalations continue with Sleiman Franjieh deriding the Maronite Patriarch as a senile old fart, then denouncing Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, as “a criminal, and to top it off-- an impertinent one”, who killed Franjieh’s mother. Jumblatt just made a speech that rivals Goebbel’s finest moments—"If you want chaos, we welcome chaos. If you want war, we welcome one."
The March 14th Forces have called upon their followers to come out in droves for the third anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. A source close to army intelligence claims that Hariri plans to “sweep” the tent city downtown. That would be an immeasurably reckless and stupid thing to do. I can already see the Grand Serail in flames.
I left Beirut to take care of some unfinished business and will return in March. The Martyr Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri Beirut International Airport (M.P.M.R.H.B.I.A., for short) is a deceptive gateway in and out of the country. After weeks of turmoil, departing passengers are left with the spurious impression of a stable, modern state. Shiny marble floors, tarted-up duty free saleswomen, eager baggage attendants, neon billboards which depict bustling cafes in downtown Beirut and other attractions, a competent immigration bureaucracy and a soldier who reviews your passport and asks you, “Please don’t leave Lebanon.”