This is the 15th installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.
Beirut in Two Days
After vacationing in Lebanon in early June, my family returned to America, leaving me behind with a head full of good memories, a digital camera full of photos and a single "Lonely Planet" guidebook to the Middle East. The memories are still up there. The pictures still on my camera have helped to ensure that. And the guidebook, well, yesterday I decided to put that to good use.
The "Lonely Planet" guidebook series is bursting with trusted and useful information for the average tourist. Only, to say the least, so much has changed in Lebanon in the last month. The average tourist has long since fled. And roughly a quarter of the Lebanese population, much of which is without the means to leave the country, has been forced to move around it. More than 900,000 Lebanese have packed up their most precious belongings and found temporary refuge with friends and in local schools and parks.
Yesterday afternoon, Israeli planes scattered fliers in three new districts around Beirut. Many of the Lebanese citizens on the receiving end had already been displaced once and sometimes twice over. Some of the children angrily ripped the papers up. Many of their parents, however, heeded the warning, packed their few belongings and moved yet again. Apparently the planes had followed them.
I set out yesterday morning wanting to test the accuracy of my guidebook against the tragic reality of Lebanon after a month of war. I consulted an itinerary laid out for the traveler who is just passing through — it's titled "Beirut in Two Days" and I'd be trying to pack it all into one.
The itinerary suggests spending the morning on Bliss Street with students from the American University of Beirut. So that's where I started. I hopped out of my cab and the first thing I saw was an advertisement for McDonald's. "Your World Changes. The Big Mac Doesn't. It's Just that Good." At least part of that statement is true, I thought.
Bliss Street, which is normally bustling with people at all hours, was mostly empty. And the AUB students with whom I was supposed to be having a morning Turkish coffee, proved particularly hard to find. So I went looking for them. I passed through the university gates and onto a campus usually flooded with people. But save for a recycling campaign, numerous beautiful buildings and flowering Mediterranean trees and bushes, it too was mostly empty. As I exited the campus and reentered Bliss Street, I passed under a university motto that read, "So that they may have life and have it more abundantly." Encouraging words written in more encouraging times.
From Bliss Street, I took a cab to the "must see" National Museum of Beirut. The museum is located right on the former Green Line that had separated predominantly Christian East Beirut from predominantly Muslim West Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Like many places on the Green Line it had been badly damaged during the 15-year conflict. Like many places on the Green Line it had since been fully reconstructed, restored and improved.
As I walked up the museum's marble steps, I readied to see artifacts that stretched from the 2nd millennium, B.C., all the way up through Ottoman conquest. But instead, I found the museum doors locked — temporarily closed until the end of the conflict. I've since learned that the same precautions were taken at the start of the Civil War. In that instance, temporarily closed ended up meaning 22 years.
My itinerary continued with a walk through downtown where the streets are lined with open-aired cafes, most of which are closed. I took special care to avoid the corner being used by international media. It's a surprisingly intimidating scene. Heavily armed guards and a tank complete with a gunner turret sit within a hundred feet of news correspondents and their around-the-clock interviews.
After 20 minutes time, I reached the Corniche. It's essentially Beirut's boardwalk. It hugs the Mediterranean coastline and is traditionally a favorite spot for Lebanese families as well as people-watching teens. For nearly two miles, I was one of the only people on the cemented pathway. The sea, however, was a different issue. Droves of young Lebanese were beating the heat, diving, doing flips and cannonballs off the jagged rocks that emerge from the light blue waters. Interspersed were dozens of long pole fisherman — some with their sons — reeling in fresh catch and trying to ignore the massive Israeli gunboats that only yesterday reappeared off Beirut 's shores.
My visit to the Corniche concluded when I reached a lighthouse. Earlier in the day, it had been struck by an Israeli missile and became the second to have been hit since the conflict began. It would seem that of late, Beirut's lighthouses have been receiving signals and not giving them. This one dated to the earlier part of the 20th century and was inoperable. It's quite scenic and also historic but otherwise serves little purpose. Many Lebanese regard it being destroyed as mere target practice for the far more skilled and far better equipped Israeli military.
Finally, at the suggestion of "Lonely Planet," I made my way to the Dunes Centre, a high end shopping district and a part of Beirut I've spent little time in. The immediate district is home to several malls as well as two movie theaters. Roughly half the shops were closed. The rest weren't exactly bustling. And there was a conspicuous new addition to the area. In what looks to have been a large parking lot, there is now a large Jordanian field hospital. It's been in operation for nearly two weeks now with some 1,200 of the Lebanese sick and wounded laid out on makeshift cots, barely shaded by long rows of pitched tents. A red, duct taped circle has been made and is presumably a target for incoming helicopters with fresh patients. For the last month, however, Israeli planes have dominated Lebanese air space, as if rendering even the duct tape a wasted resource.
Indeed, as the conflict seems to worsen on a daily basis, it would seem my guidebook needs updating and tragically, the people of Lebanon are in need of a lot more than that.
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