An American in Beirut: As War Approaches

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

July 13, 2006

"From One Week to the Next"

I have a stamp in my passport that reads 13 July 2006. It's valid for a single trip to Lebanon. It was supposed to be used for a short stay.

I've since become one of the estimated 25,000 American citizens stuck in the middle of an ongoing and quickly escalating regional conflict.

I'm a native of a small suburban town in New York, a recent college graduate and the owner of a rather lackluster collegiate baseball career. I had been studying Arabic in Damascus for the last several months. Most every weekend, I'd spend $10 and three hours in a beat-up 1970s-era Chevrolet to come to Beirut and spend a weekend with Iman, a New Hampshire native and my longtime girlfriend.

Activities on the weekend of July 7 included an excursion to one of the local Beirut malls to see, "American Dreamz" starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid and Mandy Moore. Some time afterward, Iman and I got ice cream from Haagen-Dazs, walked around downtown and marveled at how the people of Beirut followed the World Cup. Since Lebanon didn't qualify, literally any winner to any game was celebrated as the best possible outcome. So you get a better idea…

In a game between, say, Germany and Portugal, a win for Germany meant fireworks were shot into the air. Teenagers claiming to be lifelong fans would then proudly wave German flags while parading down the streets in fancy cars. A win for Portugal would have brought exactly the same reaction with many of the same people involved. Only the flag would change.

Needless to say, this past weekend was different. I'm not writing to take sides or make political points. I'm merely relating what I've seen and heard, firsthand, as one American in the middle of a big conflict that seems only to be getting bigger.

My first night here — exactly a week ago today — was the first night of major Israeli air strikes. Beirut is a city of nearly one and a half million people (with another 2 million people in its suburbs). It has a vibrant nightlife. People socialize at any number of rooftop cafes, alley bars and warehouse nightclubs until the early hours of the morning on any given day of the week. On this particular night, Iman and I made our way to the balcony of her tiny apartment and looked for any signs of life. Most Thursday evenings it'd have been easy to pick up the beats of nearby club music. But on this night there was absolutely nothing. No music. No voices. No sounds.

Likewise, from our seventh-floor perch, the change in view was dramatic. The side streets, normally bustling with life, were empty. After several minutes, we counted a little more than a half dozen people on foot. Cars were moving along the major highway, but only in the direction of Syria. Nothing was coming into Beirut. Thick anticipation was in the air. So was unmistakable fear.

Rather than sleeping and waking up to loud and unfamiliar noises, we decided to wait for them. At some point — I think it was around 4a.m. — the noises came. Lebanon's army has no fixed-wing aircraft. Beirut's airport had already been struck and incapacitated. Lebanon's carrier, Middle East Airlines, wouldn't be flying again for quite a while. No, indeed, the sounds we were listening to were the sounds of the approaching Israeli Air Force.

They grew louder. They grew fainter. They grew louder. They grew fainter yet again. And then the sounds came back.

Fighter planes, like fast-moving stars, occasionally became visible in the clear summer sky. They'd appear and disappear just as quickly. Soon enough, what we could only guess was anti-aircraft fire entered the picture. It was easy to follow. It was marked by red and white streaks, seemed quite slow and was accompanied by a sputtering cackle.

We figured a plane wasn't too far away wherever these streaks showed up. But we didn't have to guess. The sounds told us. The echo of the anti-aircraft fire was always followed by a much louder, much more resounding, much more terrifying thud, an exclamation point to the failed anti-aircraft fire.

To our right, on the horizon, between another apartment building and a local hospital, a massive cloud of smoke was rising. It grew lighter and darker, as the flames that had created it flickered below, the air coming off the Mediterranean Sea providing it with fuel.

Around every 15 minutes, there were more cackles, more thuds. Two hours later, they stopped. The planes circled back and forth, at high altitudes and out of sight but still very easily heard. Louder and fainter. Louder and fainter, until they were gone.

At 6 a.m., we turned in for a night's rest.

July 14, 2006

"A Chicken Sandwich With a Side of Turmoil"

Things hadn't been going so well. I arrived in Beirut, and less than half a day later my eyes, ears and senses had been treated to a melody of circling fighter jets, rattling anti-aircraft fire and fast-falling bombs.

Rather than allow myself to become idle, I decided to set out, see the world and get some lunch. The apartment where I'm staying is in a neighborhood called Achrafieh. It's a predominantly Christian area in East Beirut and a short walk from both the Downtown district and a long row of bars and cafes.

As I left our building, I wasn't sure what I'd be in the mood for. Traditional Lebanese food, pizza, a burger, sushi — all were possibilities. I'd see what caught my eye.

Most of the restaurants and food shops were open. The streets weren't exactly empty, but there weren't many people walking around, either. If I'd been making my way down the same street a week ago, there's a chance that a restaurant owner would have dangled out a menu for me as I walked past. He'd try to corral me through the door, tell me it was a good spot, with good food. Stop on in.

But with few actual customers to tend to and so much else going on, business wasn't the first thing on anyone's mind. Everyone's eyes remained fixed on the news, tuned in to the 24-hour networks on whatever television was closest to them. Some shopkeepers huddled around shared TVs with anxiety and concern written on their faces, but saying very little to one another. What was happening in their country? What would happen next?

I finally settled on a restaurant called Goya. Without even looking at the menu, I ordered a large Pepsi and a chicken sandwich and I let the waiter get back to his TV.

It was a mostly uneventful lunch. I sat in the restaurant for an hour. It's normally a busy place, but I was the only customer they had the entire time. The waiter made his way over to my table as I called for the bill. But before I'd be allowed to pay, I would have to answer some questions.

"Where you from?"

It's a question I've gotten thousands of times since I arrived in the Middle East. "I'm from America."

"So, I guess you're probably pretty happy to be in Beirut for all this, aren't you?"

His tone was friendly, but there was more than a hint of irony and sarcasm.

"Well . . ." I started, but was cut off.

"You scared at all?"

"No, not yet."

"You see, I ask because my French neighbor is literally crapping himself right now. He actually has someone following him around and cleaning up. He can't wait to get out of here."

There were only four people in the restaurant: Goya's owner, its two waiters and myself, the only customer, an American. All of us were somewhere in our 20s and we shared a laugh. The Lebanese, having already been through a terrible 15- year civil war and a long-standing, repressive and often direct Syrian influence, seem good at making light of tragic situations.

But this was a nervous laughter. In a couple of week's time, particularly if the conflict continues to worsen, this simple shared moment between four young adults in a restaurant may not even be possible here in Beirut. Nationalities, politics, alliances and perhaps some misunderstandings will make it so.

That was a few days ago. In the days since, Goya, like almost all other restaurants around here, has closed.