This is the thirteenth installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

August 8, 2006

"These Signs are New"

The cab I was in yesterday zigzagged across town with seemingly little purpose. What is normally a short ride from East to West Beirut was growing longer. Quick lefts. Sharp rights. When had straight and direct ceased to become options? "What's up?" I finally asked.

An expression came across George's middle-aged face that left little room for anything else. Just pure frustration. It turns out he was taking back roads — not to avoid Israeli airstrikes or anything like that — but rather, to get away from the latest reality in wartime Beirut. Double-file lines for gas have started appearing all across the city, stretching for two or three blocks and sometimes around corners. Drivers lean against their cars and do their best to make conversation but the wait to use up what's left of Lebanon's fuel can be a trying three hours under an oppressive Beirut sun.

George had a half tank of gas as well as a mental map of every fuel station in the city. His zigzags were an effort to avoid the double-file lines as well as the congestion, beeping horns and headaches that came with them.

His explanation was yet another sign of the times. A small one, but a sign nonetheless. I hopped out of the cab and proceeded down Hamra Street on foot. Hamra is one of West Beirut's busiest commercial districts and the surrounding area is temporary home to thousands of displaced Lebanese from the south. It's a decent place to try and take the pulse of the city. Yesterday, I walked around Hamra trying to do just that.

More signs. Most of the shops that line Hamra Street have reopened their doors. Nearly every clothing storefront window has numbers hanging in it: 40%, 50%, 60%, 70%. Each percentage has been crossed out and replaced by another, advertising a bigger sale. It's as if shopkeepers can't decide how bad things really are and how bad they'll really get. Several places are even advertising, "Big Summer Sales," as if this were any other summer in Beirut and the reason for slashing prices was seasonal rather than a war.

Stickers have started popping up all around town. They seem to have a simple message but then again, maybe not. "NO WAR" they read, in bold red print on a pure black background. This sentiment has strong support here in Beirut. It's a call for a cease-fire, a halt to the bloodshed, but not a pointing of fingers. Instead, there have been frequent appeals for unity and remembrance of an all-too-recent civil war that dragged on for 15 years and left more than 100,000 dead across Lebanon. An end to hostilities is something most people here can agree on. How to end hostilities is another issue.

"These signs are new, huh?" I was asked in Arabic. I responded in kind but my accent quickly gave me away and the conversation switched into English.

"Where you from?"

"I'm from America."

Whereas moments before I was standing alone and jotting down messages from fliers stapled in front of me, I now found myself standing with a stranger. And the newest layer of fliers, covering up old advertisements for dance clubs and concerts, were unmistakably about America. "Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Who's Next?" read one. Another included pictures of children killed in Qana last week and suggested President Bush could have done more to stop it from happening.

All were posted by "The Friends of Rafiq Hariri," a reference to the former Lebanese prime minister whose assassination provided the force behind the 2005 Cedar Revolution. With strong U.S. support, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese peacefully demonstrated to kick Syrian troops and influence out of Lebanon. The troops left but the influence seems to have been slower to go.

The stranger introduced himself. His name was Samir and he was about my age. He shook my hand and explained, "The U.S. had allies here but has turned its back. Many here feel betrayed." Samir said he was going to leave Lebanon as soon as he could organize transport to do so. I wished him luck and we parted ways.

Shortly after, two loud explosions pierced the air. They were separated by about 10 seconds and shook the storefront windows advertising for ever-deeper sales. A new area of Beirut called Shiyyah had been hit and at least 10 more people were dying beneath new rubble. As I continued my walk down Hamra Street yesterday evening, it was yet another sign of the times.

***

If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to witte.spencer@gmail.com

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"

Part IX: "No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here"

Part X: "Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel"

Part XI: "Normal Moments Possible in Wartime, Normalcy is Not"

Part XII: "Trying to Be a Good Neighbor in a Time of Need"