"Symbols of the intractable problems of the Middle East stood in striking contrast to the pleasures of life pursued by the resilient Lebanese as I took a walk downtown from the American University with a friend earlier this month," writes UCLA Fulbright coordinator Ann Kerr in the Palisadian-Post.
We came to a group of charming townhouses with period street lamps, flower boxes in the windows and a children's playground, all built in a mood of hopefulness in the mid-nineties.
This article was first published in the Palisadian-Post in May 2007.
In Lebanon's capital of Beirut, symbols of the intractable problems of the Middle East stood in striking contrast to the pleasures of life pursued by the resilient Lebanese as I took a walk downtown from the American University with a friend earlier this month. From the pine covered terraces of the campus overlooking the Mediterranean, we strolled along the cornice amidst early morning joggers and vendors selling sweets and children's toys. Not far beyond the McDonalds, which offers valet parking, was the historic St. George Hotel area where buildings are still full of gaping holes from the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and many of his associates. These unrepaired buildings are the symbols of the unfinished and contentious business of placing responsibility for his death — assumed by most to be Syria. A U.N. tribunal has made its investigation and is ready to announce the guilty party.
Beyond the St. George, we came to the port area where debris from the destroyed downtown area was bulldozed into the sea after the 1975-1990 civil war to create an attractive peninsula of landfill with a large conference center and chic restaurant. The empty downtown center at that time seemed like a blank slate on which Lebanon could begin anew to build a government that would better represent their sectarian differences. A city plan from the nineties showed low buildings along the shore with graded height limits moving inland. Now high rises were being constructed right on the water in disregard of zoning regulations - just as it had been done before the civil war.
From the sea front, we walked up to the parliament building, beautifully restored after the civil war by Rafik Hariri's huge construction company, along with many old art deco buildings turned into posh shops and cafes. Archeological sites unearthed in the war had been restored by the curator of the AUB museum and other archeologists. While these beautification projects had not restored the vitality of city life and the enterprise of people of all backgrounds mixing in the heart of pre-war Beirut, they had given at least the wealthy a feeling of pride in their capital. Now the tents of demonstrating forces opposing the government formed bits of patchwork around the elegant restored buildings, Syrian-connected Hezbollah Shiite Muslims in one area, pro-Syrian dissident Christians in another and among them the interwoven cement blockades and barbed wire of the Lebanese Army who were supposed to keep order. Cafes, which had mushroomed in number in the last few years, were now mostly deserted with their chairs turned up against the outdoor tables as if the proprietors were just waiting for the right moment to reopen.
Only a few blocks further east, we came to a group of charming townhouses with period street lamps, flower boxes in the windows and a children's playground, all built in a mood of hopefulness in the mid-nineties. And in a small plaza nearby, seemingly far away from the eerie atmosphere of the parliament area, was an open market very much like the Swarthmore Street Sunday market in my hometown of Pacific Palisades. Students from the AUB agricultural school sold their vegetables, and a local book store displayed books in the three languages of Beirut that were being spoken in equal measure by the people around me, Arabic, French and English. There were arts and crafts tables and a class for school children on conservation and the environment. We bought our fresh flowers and bread and caught a taxi to go back to the AUB campus.
Two weeks after my stroll through Beirut, troubles erupted in a Palestinian refugee camp in the northern town of Tripoli when the Lebanese Army fired into a refugee camp at members of a dissident Islamic extremist group, Fatah al-Islam. There are various theories for what is happening, but it is possible that as the U.N. is ready to release its report condemning the Syrians for the death of Hariri, people in Damascus are trying to stir up trouble. The camps of four generations of Palestinians, now numbering almost four hundred thousand, living in Lebanon since the state of Israel was established in 1948, are a ripe breeding ground for any kind of dissident activity from inside or outside the country. Lebanon has to put its own house in order, but it will be difficult to do so until there is a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem and Syria is brought into the fold of international negotiators in solving the problems of the Middle East.
Ann Zwicker Kerr coordinates the International Institute's Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment Program.