Alistair Caldicott

Opening Up the Middle East

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Chapter 12 - Another Side to the Middle East

How the Other Half Lives

Having witnessed, albeit from a distance, how the upper echelons of Lebanese society enjoy some of the finer things in life, I took the opportunity to witness how the other half lives…at the lower end of the spectrum. Travel can, after all, only be meaningfully appreciated in the form of contrasts.

In the southern suburbs of Beirut is a place called Sabra Shatila. Essentially, it is a permanent refugee camp, housing around 20,000 people, mostly Palestinians. To get there is simple: you take the number 4 bus south from the centre and then proceed in on foot. I went with a Norwegian guy, Kjetil and two New Zealanders, reassuringly safe and diplomatically neutral nationalities, I reckoned, before we set off.

Needless to say, this part of Beirut was considerably run down. The most striking evidence of this caught my attention very early on. It was a normal looking blackened tower block, but look closer and you realise the front entire façade of the building has disappeared, dropped away completely. Yet life continued, or seemed to continue, for those living inside – the remarkable sight of people sitting on balconies / living rooms / kitchens four or five storeys high, waving back at us, maybe for help, maybe for friendliness. They were just too far away to properly see their facial expressions, but one of them could very clearly be seen raising his hands as if they had been symbolically held in chains. This remarkable building was only a few miles down the road from the lavish Phoenician Inter-Continental Hotel I had been relaxing in 48 hours earlier, but it was on an altogether different planet.

Further down the main road we angled off down a sidestreet and it became very clear that this was now a town within a town. Buildings, which looked like they would collapse any moment, were seemingly propped up by rubble. Piles of rubbish were built up like high snowdrifts in places, with one or two people optimistically sifting through everything. Everywhere we walked we obviously stood out as white, western tourists. Every move was observed from the open street and from behind in the murkier shadows. The initial atmosphere, to the outsider, was an uneasy undercurrent of bristling menace. Half of me felt I was caught in the cross hairs of a sniper's rifle from somewhere in the shadows. Thick rusted wires looked like they'd only recently stopped smouldering from war damage. I vaguely recognised the portraits of Hamas leaders, who were assassinated by Israeli soldiers, defiantly staring out from walls of muddy brown buildings.

The Israelis invaded Lebanon several years ago. In 1982, the South Lebanon Army, militias allied with Israel, broke into the Sabra Shatila refugee camps and massacred around 4,000 people – men, women and children. A subsequent Israeli inquiry condemned the defense minister for 'not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the chances of a massacre.' The defense minister was stripped of his position. In recent years he was lauded by the Americans as a man of peace. His name? Ariel Sharon. The Israelis finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and the Lebanese people celebrated.

Such areas are strongholds of Hizbullah, the "Party of God" and a prickly thorn in Israel's side, who traditionally have used violence to achieve their stated aim of abolishing the Jewish state. These were the men who pioneered the use of suicide attacks against strategic targets. When they weren't doing that, they were bombing or kidnapping civilians. However, as always in this part of the world, all is not quite as it may seem. Hizbullah has also been known to build hospitals and now has a small degree of political involvement in the Lebanese parliament. You might say they are a couple of steps off the bottom rung of the terrorist ladder from Al Qaeda, because they provide some basic civil services, welfare networks. They are also slickly organised politically. For instance, they have been careful to distance themselves from being as fundamentalist as Al Qaeda, and were quick to condemn the 9/11 attacks.

Children run out every now and again to touch or grab you, mostly in a friendly way. I find it hard to know what expression I should attempt to maintain on my face. Appearing too happy and jovial might convey triviality and lack of concern at the plight of these people. Appearing too morbidly full of sorrow and sadness might give the impression of being grief tourists paying out respects to something, which actually lives and breathes…seemingly with a strong sense of defiance. Appearing unaffected was not an option.

Small, fragile looking shops displayed the usual day-to-day wares. One or two were even stocked with TV's and stereos. I have no idea where they came from, but they probably did not arrive through conventional channels. But here's the remarkable thing: amongst a world, which looks like it will all fall in and collapse any second, another little world operates behind closed doors – internet rooms for example, and a school we stopped to look at, which was a haven of peaceful calm.

A young man named Ahmed seemed to be the only local person who could speak English. He led us through some narrow, intricate back streets to the school. Inside, two Palestinian women, Sanaa and Mona, had just finished teaching small children. With a liberal scattering of toys and colourful named pictures on the walls, the place did not look much different to any other childrens' nursery in the world. The world outside and around them did not intrude here.

But in later years, reality would probably set in, as we discovered later on when we got roped in to playing pool just off the street with some local young men, most of whom seem to be called Mohammed. There was no skirting around the diplomatic niceties with one Mohammed.

"Your President Blur no good", he told me straight.

I did not find it hard to share his view, albeit for subtler reasons. To their credit, a lot of people I encountered in the Middle East had been informed enough to be able to distinguish between the policies of a country's government, and its people. The people were not necessarily held to account for the policies of their politicians.

Another Mohammed told me most of his friends were here all the time in the daytime, because they had no jobs. Younger boys were relegated to the table football and occasionally they would all go out and play the real thing. I found the language a little tricky, after temporarily abandoning my Arabic a few days ago, exchanging it more and more for French to get by in Lebanon. But these young men were mostly very welcoming and insisted on offering us fizzy drinks and cigarettes. My pool play was woeful to begin with, but underwent a dramatic improvement to execute an unexpectedly stylish clearance, which prompted plenty of merry local applause. It mattered little. I think we were all enjoying ourselves. In fact I'm certain we were.

It is funny how you first enter these types of places with a natural sense of wary trepidation, almost bordering on negativity, but after a while, once you have interacted with a few of the people, the barriers melt away.

Obviously it is not somewhere I would choose to live, but the critical point is, that in these places, day to day life always continues and moves on. To a degree, normality prevails.

Walking around a Palestinian refugee camp on the ground you also get a brief sense of the images which might confront an Israeli soldier in a tank or fighter jet attempting to pinpoint the source of an attack. It appeared to be virtually impossible to cleanly single an individual, without inflicting the collateral damage, perhaps the fighter on the ground's best weapon because of the increased anger it fuels and determination to use violence back in return. It was sobering food for thought.

Back in Downtown Beirut, I dined on some good, but expensive, food and a couple of beers. Inside the classy, exclusive-looking restaurant next door, I noticed it was decked out with the latest wide screen televisions. In Sabra Shatila, they probably have to make do with sharing smaller televisions. Satellite TV has done much in the last decade to strengthen the bind of Arabs dispersed by geography, but now united in accessibility to what is happening around them. Its effects were quietly underestimated, but the Arabic language and shared Islamic faith across the region pulled people together. Yet the images shown in both Downtown Beirut and Sabra Shatila (and everywhere else) were the same – scenes of panic and bloodshed centred around bomb debris.

There are now well over 150 Arab satellite channels. Al Manar (the "lighthouse") is a Lebanese TV station that calls itself the station of resistance (against Israeli aggression) and radicalism. It is the mouthpiece of Hizbullah - a very potent instrument providing awareness and empowerment to the downtrodden, in the same way Al Jazeera does on a larger scale. I guessed the images were from Iraq, but there was no escaping the same images - they were unofficial commercials for incitement, to people who lived in places like Sabra and Shatila. Unless you are able to take yourself off to the trendy Rue Monot strip of bars and nightlife, where the beautifully dressed swagger in from their sports cars. Is having the same as living, I wondered. Following a recommendation, I had to go and check out an English pub, The Hole in the Wall, where they served pints…sadly pints of Heineken at the equivalent of £3 each. And the music to end the day seemed rather appropriate: The first song was Live and Let Die, before U2 – "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Can't Live With or Without You", followed by a song from Aqua called "If Only I Could Turn Back Time." My time in Beirut had been polarised more and more to the furthest ends of the city's life spectrum.

Days after I left Lebanon, the Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri resigned in protest at the Syrian influence. A few months later he was blown up by a car bomb. It is strange that a city, and perhaps a country, can feel progressive and tense at the same time. But one senses that, like many of the Beirut building sites, the country's still fragile peace needs to be consolidated and built on solid foundations, to enable the majority of Lebanese people to get on with life, instead of toying with death.

Lebanon appears to be perennially at the mercy of regional struggles. How invigorating it would be if it could liberate itself from the constraints of others, and assertively propel itself upwards to fulfil its fantastic potential.

Sadly, particularly for the people of Beirut and Lebanon, these words I wrote at the time proved to be too optimistic as the country got torn to bits again in the war between Israel and Hizbollah. - AC, August 2006 From Beirut my journey took me across into Jordan, then around into Israel.

From Jerusalem I made my way across into the Palestinian West Bank.

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