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The International Writers Magazine
: Guy Burton in Lebanon - serialised in Hacktreks

London – Kebabs and Invitations
"Although soap, toothpaste and other toiletries are readily obtainable, in the more backward areas toilet paper is unknown. So unless you can adapt to the Middle Eastern watering can and left-hand method, bring along some loo rolls."
Lonely Planet, 1997

The kebab was bad. After a heavy night of drinking in London I’d introduced Marcel to the dubious delights of a night-time kebab. He liked it so much he went back the next day for another. But this time he was sober; he didn’t realise it should only be eaten after drinking lots of alcohol. He promptly threw up and spent the rest of the day in bed.
The next day I came home after a long and difficult day taking an exam at university. I was exhausted and slightly irritable. Marcel had made a partial recovery. A dirty plate and assorted pots and pans were testimony to the fact he felt well enough to cook, if not to clean.
"You know you can clean your dinner plates after you’ve used them," I snapped.
Marcel sized me up, trying to work out whether I was genuinely upset. His face broke out in a smile. He laughed. He’d guessed incorrectly. But my silence made him stop. "I’m not joking, Marcel. I am not your maid."
"I can’t believe you said that," he replied. He sounded wounded. I had shone a light on to him which he didn’t like. "If you were in my house, I would treat you as my guest."
"I’m sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean to get angry."
"Well, you know I mean it. You’re welcome to visit. Anytime."

He’d been saying this ever since I first got to know him a few years earlier and before he took a job in New York. He was staying with me for a few days before returning back to his parents’ home in Lebanon.
Marcel had been extending his invitation for some time. I usually nodded, to let him know I’d heard, before going back to whatever it was I was doing at the time. But this time it was different. I did not have anything planned for the summer. I was on the verge of breaking up with my girlfriend; she wanted to ‘find herself’ and not feel as if she was being ‘held back’. If I had the money, what was there to keep me in England over the coming months?
"I may well hold you to that."

I hadn’t liked Marcel when I first met him. Perhaps it was his loudness, his rudeness, which was stripped away the more you got to know him. But as I spent more time in his company through the pressure of mutual friends, I came to realise my first impression was mistaken. Yes, he had a booming voice and he often said what he thought, but these were traits which I eventually came to accept. Besides, he had an international background, having been born in one place and grown up in another. Like me, he was rootless.

But whereas I had been born in Brazil and then moved from one country to another as a result of my father’s work, I learnt Marcel had moved away from Lebanon because of a war which had dominated most of his childhood. Others had lived the same experience, including a girl, Nadine, who Marcel had introduced me to.
I’d been interested in Marcel and Nadine’s experiences, although I didn’t want to ask them too many questions. Every time the subject was broached it invariably was linked to that of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which gave rise to mounting passions. Since I didn’t know very much about the subject I avoided speaking too often about it, even I did want to know more. But it wasn’t a passion; merely a matter of passing interest.
As the weeks and months passed, I soon found other distractions. One year, soon before starting university a friend invited me to join her in a trip around Eastern Europe. We went as winter was setting in and as the region’s hostels began the slow drift into enforced seasonal hibernation. We hitchhiked around Poland looking for the cheapest places to stay. We ate only bread and butter and drank nothing more than water. I hadn’t known what to expect but when I returned two months I did know one thing: I had fallen in love with the idea of backpacking. Even the cold nights spent sitting in train stations, inhaling the fumes of people’s socks in dormitories and eating food which tasted of cardboard couldn’t dampen the appeal. I knew I wanted to do it again.

And now Marcel had repeated his offer to me of visiting Lebanon. The invitation was really only for a week, but already I was thinking beyond the time I might spend with him and his family. As the days passed after Marcel’s departure, I mulled over his invitation. I read about the country and learned it was full of rugged mountains, rising steeply out of the Mediterranean Sea, atop which massive cedar trees grow. In ancient times it was called Phoenicia; its traders journeyed across the Mediterranean bringing the wares of different provinces and towns. I came to realise to realise it would be a perfect launch pad for a journey around the region, although I wasn’t yet sure where exactly I would go afterwards. I knew I would have to travel through Syria, since Lebanon’s only open border was to that country. I also knew I could only go for two months, since I would need to be back for the start of my final year of university.

I definitely knew I wanted to see as much as possible. And I knew I wanted to learn something of the region’s culture. I knew many of the countries there were Muslim, but the realisation Lebanon had a large Christian population was news to me. I wondered whether it was present in other parts of the Middle East too. I had learned of the debt Europe owed the region for keeping the knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy alive during the medieval period. And I’d read about the ruins left by the Greeks and Romans and wanted to see them.
Of course there was the question of money, but that was resolved a few months later when I boarded my plane to Beirut. Following my final exam I spent the next weeks working in my hometown. I also had some money left over from the university year which had just ended. It wasn’t a large amount, between £500 and £600 after paying for the airplane ticket. According to the guidebook it would be feasible to live, sightsee, eat simply and use transport if I stuck to a budget of £6-£10 per day.

The first thing was of course of the flight. The cheapest flight was via Bucharest. And so several weeks later I found myself checking in at the airport, a rucksack on my back with the bare minimum needed to get around for two months. I had already divided in half the clothes I’d planned to take, and I was carrying a tube of detergent paste with which I would do my washing. Luckily because it was summer I wouldn’t need any warm clothing, other than a sweater and a long sleeved shirt. Trousers would be needed though, since I couldn’t go into a mosque or church without them. Having done some research, I’d been warned I might need to carry my own toilet paper, so several rolls filled my side pockets. Along with a sleeping bag, some shorts, sandals and five pairs of T-shirts, I thought I would have enough. Except I had to also bring all my paraphernalia associated with my contact lenses. Several canisters of saline solution duly made their way in, ensuring the weight nearly doubled, while the few books and cassette tapes I brought to play in my Walkman also didn’t help.

The day was already proving to be long. Despite having arrived in Bucharest several hours earlier, at midday, my connecting flight to Beirut would not leave for another four hours. I looked at the money I’d brought with me: I had around $1000 in cash and travellers cheques and a credit card if I needed to bail myself out. But if it was to avoid using it – and I didn’t think it would be particularly easy to find an ATM in Syria which linked up with my bank in England – I would need to impose tight budgetary restrictions on myself. I was therefore determined to make the hot chocolate I’d bought nearly 45 minutes ago last for as long as possible. I was even prepared to accept the grudging looks from the gloomy Cold War waitress who wiped the nearby tables and glanced at me with contempt. In a few hours’ time, I thought, I will be out of Eastern Europe and in a whole new place.
Several hours later I stepped off the airplane flight in the hot still air of a dark Beirut night. I paused at the door and looked at sight before me. It wasn’t hard to miss. The building opposite loomed above us and was dimly lit by the lamps which appeared to skulk at the edges of the airport. It was an aircraft hanger riddled in machine gun fire. I felt a knot in my stomach and a sense of trepidation. Have I made the right choice, I wondered? Where on earth have I come to?

Lebanon
Beirut – Soldiers and Cameras Don’t Mix

"…amid this chaos, and partly because of it, Beirut has lost none of its vibrancy and retains a certain charm, due mainly to the warmth and hospitality of its citizens. Though there’s not much left to see in Beirut itself, it’s a good base for travellers, as it’s the country’s transport hub, and the more distant part of Lebanon is no more than three hours’ drive away."
Lonely Planet, 1997

I don’t recall much of either the drive back to Marcel’s or the city through which we passed. All I did remember was the strong military presence on the tarmac, by the entrance to the airport terminal. As I walked through, my movements were closely watched by the Lebanese and Syrian soldiers standing next to the swing door. There was something unsettling about the army’s visibility, the matter-of-fact way in which they strolled along the airport concourse and on the streets outside, their rifles being swayed from side to side.

The following day I woke to a bright and clear July day: my first in Lebanon. Marcel had dropped me off in the centre of Beirut. I was free to explore the city for a few hours while he went to his summer job at a bank in what passed for the city’s financial district. Later we would meet up and have lunch with his parents by the sea. "Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone," he laughed as he drove off in his 4x4 – a necessity on Beirut’s unpaved and bombed out roads.

It took me all of one hour to find it. Having walked along the Corniche admiring the dark sea waves which crashed against the rocks, I’d turned back into the city. Although the civil war had officially ended years ago, its presence continued to hang. Building upon building carried the pockmarked scars of battle from the guns from different warring factions, as the front line shifted invisibly forwards and backwards across the city.
It was then that I came upon it. Parked by the side of a war-torn and seemingly empty building was a dusty tank, sandbags hanging limply along its side. Further up the same street were a series of bars, with men sitting outside sipping tea and puffing contentedly on nargilah, or water pipes. Without thinking I pulled out my camera. This was one for the album, I thought, and snapped.
I turned to go, only to hear a whistle. I looked behind. A soldier was waving, beckoning me to him.
"Camera," he said.
I pulled it out. He took it from my hands and looked at it. Evidently, this was going to be tricky. He didn’t speak English, while my French was limited, my Arabic non-existent.
He gesticulated at the tank and then at the camera. "Why?" he asked, his camouflage fatigues and worn rifle making themselves evident to me. For the first time I noticed the beret he was wearing was black. That meant he was Lebanese. Had he been Syrian, it would have been red.
I considered the question. How could I explain to him I was a tourist in his country, that this was my first day and that with soldiers and sentries on every street corner I assumed they formed part of the scene?
All this I would have said had my new found friend and I been able to talk to each other. This was going to be tricky.
"Bassbort," he said.
"Bassbort? Sorry, what do you mean?"
"Bassbort. Bassbort," he said, miming the opening of a book.
Oh, I thought, my passport. I handed it over and he flicked through it and went though my bag as well for good measure.
"Ingleesi?" he asked. "No problem. Come, come." He waved his hand in the direction of the building behind the tank. Did I really have a choice? I felt my mouth turn dry; my knees began to tremble. What was going to happen? Walking past the tank we entered what remained of the building. Inside were a number of stern looking officers. I was presented to the commanding officer at the desk and invited to sit. Looking around I saw a camp bed and planted myself down.
Taking my bag they brought me forward, to a large table where the contents of my bag were pulled out and documented, one by one, down to the last pen and pencil. So this will all go on my criminal record, I thought. What sort of convict will I make with a guidebook on the Middle East, a notepad and a few pens and pencils? As a felon I was an embarrassment.
So what went through my mind? The prospect of a trial and prison? Worse still, a kangaroo court, shot at dawn? No, none of that. Instead, I idly wondered whether I would be out in time to meet Marcel and his parents for lunch.

Flies buzzed around in the still and dusty heat. Next door a soldier could be heard chewing nuts. The occasional car passed by. Suddenly another vehicle could be heard, slowing down and pulling up outside. Moments later a large middle-aged man with a paunch stepped into the room. His stare persuaded me to think this might be a little more serious than I’d previously thought. Perhaps I’d interrupted his early afternoon nap, because he didn’t look pleased. If I’d been an insect I would have been crushed under his boot, his eyes seemed to say. I sat up like a bolt.

The man left the room there which was followed by a few minutes of animated discussion. Eventually there was silence; maybe they were going to let me go? Another, younger soldier appeared in the dusty room. Going to the other side of the room, he pulled the mattress off a camp bed nearby, uncovering a stash of revolvers and rifles. Availing himself of a pistol, he clipped in a cartridge and beckoned me to follow him. Outside was the colonel’s jeep, along with his driver. I didn’t want to get in, but there wasn’t anyone I could speak to. It certainly didn’t look like I was going free. Where were they going to take me? Wherever it was, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I got in the back; the soldier jumped in with another, young one, joined me. The jeep reversed, held up oncoming traffic and we were away.

Speeding across Beirut’s potholed roads and past buildings which had seen better days, I attempted to make conversation. In a mixture of French and English I asked where we were going. "Another soldier, another place. But why," he asked, "did you take a picture of the tank?"
Because it was there? But I didn’t think that would provide an adequate explanation and it could only have led towards a discussion about the nature of man and existence. But that might not be the smartest thing to say to a bunch of gun-wielding soldiers. It was just as well I wasn’t thinking; there wasn’t anything in my mind.
We pulled up outside a nondescript building on the north side of the city centre near. It was in an area close to the old square known as Solidaire. As we walked across the courtyard and through the entrance, I realised this had been a shopping mall. The tiles on the floor still spelled out the name of the franchise, although some were now missing. The shop displays offered nothing, other than fragments of window presumably shot out by a battle which had taken place through the building or from the vibrations of nearby mortar shells.

The soldier we’d come to see was surrounded by his men, amid the rubble of this former monument to consumer spending. In the dimness of the shopping centre lit only by the holes dotting the walls, I was prodded forward. There sat one of Lebanon’s finest, with a bandaged leg and dressed in shorts which would have been more in keeping with the beach than an army outpost. He was young and couldn’t have been more than twenty five years old. Pale in complexion he had sharp, dancing eyes.
"Why did you take a picture of our tanks?" he asked, in a strong American accent. I trotted out the first thing which came into my head. "I didn’t realise this wasn’t allowed. I have been in your country for less than a day and thought it was like photographing a policeman."
"Did you take a picture of the building next to the tank?" he asked. I admitted I had. He whistled. "This is bad," he said, "Very bad. We want to help you, but in this country it is a crime to photograph the military."
He turned to the men who had brought me and spoke in Arabic with them. "I will call our commander," he said. "If you give us the film we will take that, but otherwise we will have to hand you over to someone who will arrest you for this."

That didn’t sound too bad. I only hoped the commander was not like the colonel, who would be most unhappy if he had to have his siesta interrupted. The American-accented soldier got up unsteadily and walked through to the back of one of the empty shop offices. There sat a camp telephone, through which he was patched to the commander’s officer. Apparently he was out, at a meeting. We would have to wait.
The telephone went. The solider listened intently before replying. He put the phone down. I looked at him expectantly. No, it was just his wife wanting to know what he wanted for supper. I wanted to ask him where he had learnt such good English and why an American accent. But I did not have a chance to: one of his colleagues sat down next to me. He was the only other English speaker and spoke with a thick Lebanese accent. He asked about where I was from, who I was and why I had come to his country.
I asked him why, if the war was over, were there so many soldiers still on the streets of Beirut. "Because we are peace keepers," he said. I considered the reply and thought of the two checkpoints Marcel and I had driven through earlier that morning on the way into Beirut. The first had been Lebanese, the second Syrian, just yards further along the road. I remembered Marcel’s words said through gritted teeth of the presence of so many soldiers, especially Syrian, along Beirut’s streets. Things couldn’t be normal while the army still made its presence felt. Looking around me, I remembered where I was. I decided not to explore this line of thinking.
The phone rang again. The soldier in the shorts picked it up. Again he listened. He put it down and looked at me, a large smile across his face. What was he smiling about? I didn’t want to know.
"We have decided to arrest the film," he said, nearly giving me a coronary. And then I felt relief. My body, which had felt so tense for the last few hours, now relaxed. Like a runner who just finishes a marathon, my brain became flooded with chemicals as elation began to hit.
Well, at least I will be able to meet Marcel on time, I thought.

The news had to be translated to his soldiers, none of whom spoke English. The soldiers, having gotten wind of the situation, broke into wide open grins, slapping me on the back. Whereas before I was public enemy number one with whom no one would talk, I was now the toast of the town. I seemed to be in good company.
"Where do you want to go?" asked the soldier in the Bermuda shorts. "We’ll give you a lift into town."
With that I was hoisted into the back of the jeep with several pairs of helping hands and given a hero’s send off from a crowd of waving soldiers before heading off to the corner of Solidaire.

An hour later I was sitting in the Hard Rock Café, waiting for Marcel to arrive. Sitting in the icebox surroundings of the bar, I considered the contrast. All around me were well-dressed young people, waiting for generous helpings of hamburgers and chips, to be washed down with a large Coke. The interior was decorated in the style for which the chain is well-known; records and photographs of American celebrities adorned the walls. Outside, life seemed bleaker, harsher even. On one side of Solidaire, a vast and prominent square in earlier life stood what remained of the Intercontinental Hotel. Bullet holes and spaces caused by mortar shells slamming into the side disguised what had once been one of the most well known establishments in downtown Beirut.
Yet even amongst the ruined buildings, the unmarked roads, the lack of street signs and traffic lights, there appeared hope. Rebuilding was taking place at a slow pace. The recently appointed Prime Minister was preparing to send in the bulldozers and trucks into Solidaire, to begin shifting away the debris and then rebuild and restore the square and the surrounding area to its former glory. Shiny new Mercedes and BMWs competed for space with the beaten up hulks of older cars from another era.

But there was no mixed feeling with me. Nothing could get me down. I felt good, ecstatic even. I had had a run-in and come through. As I knocked back the last of my beer, Marcel bounded up to me. "How was your first day? Did you do anything interesting?" he asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact, yes," I said. "I met some of your soldiers. They seemed quite nice."
"Really?" said Marcel, wide-eyed. "I’m surprised. We never talk to them. You have to tell my father. What did you have to talk about?"

© Guy Burton October 2004
Guy Burton" <gjsburton@hotmail.com

As a postgraduate politics student Guy contributed academic fieldwork to Gianpaolo Baiocchi¹s Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003) and book reviews to Liberator magazine. Recently I was made a columnist on Brazzil magazine, which is available online.

See
Ancient Tyre
Antakya


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