After my brief foray into Syria, I passed Homs and crossed the border into Lebanon. A great sense of relief washed over me. However, right at the Syrian exit point, an older Lebanese woman found out I was Canadian and started asking me questions in French about my profession. I didn’t feel comfortable telling her I was a journalist, so I avoided the question altogether, fearing what might happen if the Syrians overheard. In the end, she gave me her daughter’s phone number and told me I should call her in Beirut to show me around.
In Tripoli, the same Lebanese woman pointed out the Palestinian refugee camp, then I mentioned Sabra and Shatila, the two refugee camps in Beirut, where Christian Phalangist militias massacred Palestinians during the civil war in 1982. Her response was the same one I received from every Lebanese person I met: “I’ve never been there. It’s too dangerous.” As if the Palestinians are animals caged in their refugee camps, fighting amongst each other. At least that’s the impression I got.
In Beirut, I wanted to visit Sabra and Shatila, so I made numerous inquiries. The first was to PHRO, the Palestinian Human Rights Organization, but I didn’t get any response. It’s unfortunate, not only for me, but from what I read, the majority of Palestinians living in Lebanon are treated as second-class citizens, not receiving the benefits most Lebanese do, while most are still stuck living in the refugee camps on the edge of Beirut and Tripoli.
There’s only one word I can think of to describe Beirut, and that is sexy. I love the chaos of Hamra and West Beirut, long walks along the Corniche, the frenzied Christmas shoppers in the souq, as well as the night life in Gemmayzeh, where I stayed during my time there. The American University campus had a great atmosphere and I spent a serious amount of time searching the bookstores for Robert Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War” which is the classic account of life during the 15-year civil war that destroyed this small, beautiful Mediterranean nation.
As I walked around Beirut, I saw the battle scars that dot the landscape. From the Beirut Hilton along the waterfront, which is a shell of its former self, riddled with bullet holes, to the highrise, bombed-out, buildings along the former green line (pictured above). This is the line that historically separates Christian east Beirut from Muslim west Beirut. The Lebanese civil war is still a vivid memory for most Beirutis and when I went out for drinks with my Christian Maronite friend (the daughter of the woman on the bus) she described to me the terror she felt during the 2006 Israeli invasion of south Lebanon and parts of Beirut to destroy the militant group, Hezbollah.
Lebanon is a nation under the constant threat of war.
Many neighbourhoods I walked through during my time in Beirut looked to me like Hezbollah strongholds. One day, on my way back from the Beirut National Museum, I strolled through Corniche al-Mazraa and saw many flags with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nazrallah’s likeness. I glanced in front and saw a Lebanese army tank sitting in the middle of the street, facing a row of apartment complexes with crescent moons lining them. Of course, everywhere in Beirut are military bunkers with armed soldiers, especially downtown and around parliament. Lebanon has a long, bitter history of political assassinations that have claimed the lives of many leaders, especially in 2005 when multi-millionaire, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was killed by a car bomb.
Beirut is a tragic city, where religion divides and hatred still simmers, ready to explode at any moment.
My stay in Lebanon was quite spectacular and I fell in love with Beirut. But I had to move on, so I caught a quick flight one morning to Amman, Jordan and hopped on a bus to Petra. It was probably the most culturally fulfilling experience of this trip, seeing Bedouin Arabs living around the ancient, red rose city, and witnessing a brief moment of their lives, while learning the story of each stone carving was unbelievable. These are the moments I live for while travelling. (Photo: Treasury at Petra)
A few days well spent getting to know Petra gave me a great impression of Jordan. The warm, welcoming people wanted to talk and drink tea, but as soon as I got back to Amman everything changed. The Jordanian capital was hectic, to say the least. It didn’t help that there were no clean backpacker hostels to spend the night, nor friendly people to guide the way. Obviously, I didn’t get much of a chance to experience the city or the sights, but I did eat falafel like a Hashemite king at Hashem restaurant in downtown Amman, and that was all I really needed to recoup and continue.
The next morning I caught a taxi to the King Hussein bridge, feeling the warm air of the Dead Sea as I descended into Israel/Palestine and that’s another long story. Stay tuned.