A blog by someone new to blogging, set in Beirut, by someone new to Beirut.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Falling Down

First of all, Dom and I are not in Beirut any more. We left about ten days ago through Syria, on the start of our two month journey back home. We were really sad to leave, the political situation seemed to be calm, although not resolved, and we knew we were really going to miss all our friends.

Over the last couple of days, we have obviously heard some of what has been happening in Beirut and across Lebanon. It is scary and sad. Many of our friends live in the area where the fighting is taking place, my friend Lucy had to spend the night in her apartment corridor away from the windows as gunmen were firing in her street and at one point tried to get into the building. From what I hear from friends this afternoon, the fighting is continuing, and seems to be spreading from where it began. Thankfully, they are all safe.

West Beirut - Hamra, where I spent many a happy night drinking - has been taken over by Hezbollah. Ras al Nabba, where my friend Lucy is, is also now controlled by them too. From what I can glean, it is mainly Sunni/Shia (in very general terms pro/anti government) fighting. I haven't heard any reports of Christian militias being involved in the fighting, but if their leaders decide that now is the time to get involved, I am sure they would. Such is the power of the wasta and the gun in this country.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

And now, the end is near

We're off to our penultimate Karaoke night this evening, our last trip to the south is on Saturday, and I have finished all my work for Bespoke magazine (it's not all bad, you see!!!). We leave in three and a half weeks, and then spend two months InterRailing across Europe! Again, not all bad.

Lebanon has been pretty quiet for the last few months. We've had some top visitors out, gone to Syria on a road trip, and began to organise moving on. The next few weeks are likely to pass really quickly as we are trying to see all our friends individually before we go.

Politically, it really is the case that nothing is happening. Most people I speak to don't mind this stagnation, it is better than riots or bombs. Worryingly though, it seems that the country can just quite happily stagnate for as long as it takes, which isn't going to help it economically or with political reform.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Three Years On...

And still nothing has been solved politically. In fact, things are worse. Assassinations, bombs, wars with Israel, battles in Palestinian Camps... you name it, Lebanon has had it. Today saw the usual suspects trotting out the usual rabble rousing speeches - but this time another event was going on a couple of miles down the road... the funeral of Imad Mughniyeh - one of Hezbollah's commanders. A thoroughly nasty piece of work (hijacker, kidnapper, torturer and all round terrorist), he was killed on Tuesday night in Damascus. Many people suspect the Israelis, but I would also place money on the Syrians. See if there is a thaw in relations between the US and Damascus in the coming weeks/months...

Anyway, the Hariri commemoration went ahead today in the pouring rain. Some figures say that over a million people attended, with a further 500,000 people in the surrounding streets. I would be most surprised if a third of the population of Lebanon did attend - maybe some got lost en route to Mughniyeh's funeral?!

Interestingly, given Nasrallah's speech at Mughniyeh's funeral about it now being open war with Israel, Hezbollah had increasingly distanced themselves from his tactics and operations. So I'm wondering what this latest rabble-rousing speech is aimed at doing. Especially as Nasrallah's last appearance on TV - last week with Michel Aoun his Christian political ally - was much more measured. Time will no doubt tell. On the plus side, there has been no fighting as of 7.30pm this evening, giving more credence to my recently patented theory that "people don't riot in the rain"!

Anyway, enough boring political stuff! Siobhan is here this week and we have been down to Beaufort Castle and Sidon as well as up to Tripoli (it rained that day and we got lost). We have also been to a spa and just chilled out in Beirut! Very nice!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Back to Reality...

It looks like Dom blogged too soon! Since he wrote that posting there has been another assassination (of an investigator from the Internal Security Forces) which killed another 3 people, followed by violent riots on Sunday which left dead. And today I am sitting indoors while a storm rages outside (although, to be fair, that isn't really anyone's fault).

So where to begin? Well, the bomb on Friday (25th) killed Capt Wissam Eid, who had been investigating many of the bombings that have been going on in Lebanon since 2005, when Hariri was assassinated. The bomb was only about 1.5 km from where I live, but I didn't hear it as I had my iPod on at the time. It was a pretty big bomb - bigger than many others, although again, it was clearly targeted.

Then on Sunday there were demonstrations in parts of Beirut and Lebanon against the cuts in electric power that happen on a very regular basis. Most parts (and more often than not, the poorer, Shia parts) of Beirut are without power for 3 hours at a time, 2-3 times a day. This has been going on for some time and, understandably, people are getting pissed off. Sadly, the demos turned nasty, and, depending on which account/biased newspaper you read, snipers fired at the army, or snipers fired at the demonstrators. Either way, seven people died needlessly on Sunday and yesterday was declared to be a day of national mourning. I'm not particularly in favour of shutting down the country every time something happens (it's mainly the schools, universities and government offices that close, private businesses tend to operate as normal), particularly as its happening all the time at the moment and children in particular need the stability of school, but when tensions are as high as they are, closing the universities is probably a good measure, especially as that is where it all kicked off this time last year.

So that is where we are at the moment. I am sure that there is a level of coordination about these disturbances on all sides at the moment (i.e. getting their people to fight, I am sure the opposing parties are not coordinating with each other!) especially as everyone knew that there was a massive storm coming yesterday and today, and that the Arab League (I think) were meeting on Sunday to talk about Lebanon. Naturally, nothing came of it.

Dom is in Dubai - he got to the airport a couple of hours before the airport road was closed by the rioters - and is most annoyed to be there. Especially as his hotel appears to be on a building site. Still, he is talking to people about 'Arab Health' - one of the biggest exhibitions in the world that takes place in Dubai. Not sure what is different about Arab Health to Everyone's Health, but I am sure marketing plays a part!

I am just taking things easy, and beginning to sort out the house for the return home (sob!). I've got some work lined up for the end of February, and we also have visitors - hurray! Siobhan and Dom's friend Jeremy in about 10 days, and then Pete and Sarah at the end of Feb. Can't wait! And just to re-emphasise... Lebanon is normally really peaceful, and has much less crime, violent or otherwise, than London. Unless you are really unlucky, it is perfectly safe to visit here - you just have to have a chilled out attitude!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The good things..

Dom reporting. There is a lot of grim news around in the Middle East (see Fi's bit below), and the Arab League initiative for Lebanon seems to be floundering - I am not sure if there is another initiative after that but there usually is - but there also doesn't seem to be an appetite for any violence. Probably the situation will stagger on for a while yet.

Anyway, I thought I would draw attention to some of the good things that have been going on here in the last month. Firstly the weather has been perfect - perfect that is for Brits who think that around zero degrees at night and 8 degrees but sunny by day is nice. The wind is from the north which means chilly but amazingly clear. In which other capital city can you sit outside in a warm sun by the sea and see a huge snowcapped mountain? OK maybe somewhere in south america? And Geneva is not a capital - neither is Lake Geneva a sea. And yes you can ski and it is brilliant to be able to drive 50 minutes up the mountain from your flat and be skiiing an hour after leaving the house. Fi has done a black run this year and I am still on the reds, but there is still time!
Next, the nightlife. The nightlife in Beirut is simply phenomenal and very tiring when you have to be at work at 8! We now have a new 'local' called Scotts which is about 2 minutes walk away and serves Murphys!. The main drags of Monot and Gemmayzeh are flourishing and new places are opening (and closing) every week as trends move on. Food here is also something special. Much as I love Syrian food (cherry kebabs yum), in Syria there is really only Syrian food - apart from the odd ropey Italian. But in Beirut you have Italian, Chinese, Japanese by the hundred, French, Steak, pick-your-own seafood, Parisian-style cafes, and a million franchises from Costa Coffee, Nandos, Starbucks, and....KFC (aaaargh) - all within 15 minutes walk. and of course the delicious Lebanese food too. One thing that is lacking is a really good Indian although there is a place called Maharajah which is OK. And it is all a fraction of the price of London.
Just before Xmas we went to Byblos for a seafood blowout which involves selecting fresh fish and having them cooked to order, then about half way through realising that seafood is quite filling but as you ordered it you have to finish...walk it off with a wander through the souk which is becoming slightly corporatised but in a very tasteful way (a bit lie rebuilt Central Beirut). A really nice half day out.

Although the economy here is suffering badly, it still managed 3% growth in 07 despite everything - way above all forecasts. That's more than western Europe but really it needs 8% to really create jobs. It seems the more people who emigrate to well paid jobs overseas the more money comes into the country to keep it afloat - a bizarre way to keep the country going but it keeps the wheels turning. But the brave investor is reaping rewards - like the guy who opened a microbrewery called 961 (after the dialling code for Lebanon) and is making pots of cash.

Finally it is still incredible to me how good the education is here. When 18 year old bar staff can speak 3 languages it puts us all to shame. No doubt we will really miss most of it when we go(with the exception of politicians, idiot drivers, potholes, too loud dance music in bars, lack of green space, and the symphony of car horns!).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Threat Widens

The number of people and institutions that are perceived to be legitimate targets by terrorists seems to be increasing. Firstly politicians, then journalists, then the army, now a car belonging to the US Embassy was attacked today. No US Diplomats were killed, but 4 Lebanese passers-by were. Some reports say that the reason that the US car (which is always massively armour-plated) was not more badly damaged is that a car was overtaking the US vehicle, and took the full force of the blast. US cars drive pretty fast at the best of times, so goodness knows how fast the poor occupants of the other car were going.

US Embassy security is Alcatraz-like. The Diplomats there are only allowed out two or three times a week, they have to be back in by 2am, they have a security team case the place they are going to beforehand, and they are always, always accompanied by a bodyguard and have an armoured vehicle with them. Obviously, this makes them pretty easy to spot, and it's a hobby for many Lebanese to spot the Diplomat. The sobering thought is that even with all this security, they are not safe and if people want to get you here, they will.

It's too early to try and imagine where all this could lead - this attack could have been a message to Bush who is in Saudi at the moment, I think. I saw him on TV with a ceremonial sword in his hand and for a minute I thought he was offering to carry out a public beheading. There are rumours here that the politicians were ready to announce a compromise solution the other day, but held off because Bush was in the region and they couldn't stomach him taking any of the credit. I think the next (14th?) meeting will be on Monday... we'll see what's announced then.

In other news, we had a fabulous and chilled New Year in Aleppo, caught some crusader castles, ate loads of food and stayed in the Baron Hotel, in TE Lawrence's room! Photos to follow...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Merry Christmas and an Aleppian New Year!

We've just got back from a very nice week in Britain for Christmas. The only downside was that it was *flippin'* freezing! I have truly turned into an ex-pat! Lots of lovely food and drink and many lovely presents - thanks to all! Tomorrow we set off for a New Year long weekend to Aleppo, via a Crusader castle or two, and other sites of interest.

Politics-wise, it has quietened down over the holiday season, Parliament has been postponed for the umpteenth time, and one shop is requesting Santa for President! Parliament may yet sit on the 12th Jan, but who knows, and, frankly, most people don't care. The shopping centres are crowded, the sales will soon start, and many people are just enjoying the break, especially as Eid Adha has just been celebrated too.

So, have a great New Year and here's to 2008!!! We only have 4 months left here... it's going so fast!