An American in Beirut: Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'

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

July 27, 2006

"A Country Pacing in the Hallway"

In the mid-1990s, $600 million went toward renovating Beirut's only international airport. In 2005, more than 3 million travelers passed through that airport. In the last two weeks, that airport was hit with such a large combination of Israeli bombs and missiles that many people here in Beirut seem to have lost count.

Only a month ago, my family flew out of an intact Rafiq Hariri International Airport after vacationing in Lebanon. In addition to the usual fast-food joints and duty-free shops, the airport provided a final impression of Beirut: There was a long hallway decorated with a series of street scenes from Lebanon's capital. Each was a hologram. When viewed one way, the streets were a tangle of destruction — a symbol of the anarchy and chaos that typified the 15-year Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). When viewed the other way, the streets became the grand and proud avenues that now make up Beirut, a symbol of the reconciliation and hard work that typified the last 15 years.

As you walked down that hallway, you could literally watch as Beirut was rebuilt. Now the people of Lebanon are forced to march backwards — a helpless walk through time to a much worse place.

And all of it couldn't come at a worse time. Once widely considered the "Paris of the Mediterranean," Beirut had been making a furious comeback and again deserved that distinction. Both foreign and local investment dotted the city skyline with towering cranes and construction. Ritzy hotels were booked. So were shoddy hostels. Open-air cafes last month were full of customers clamoring to watch the World Cup. Visiting families were piling into private taxis and crowding tour buses that would take them to Mediterranean beaches and Roman ruins. It was the height of the tourist season.

Fast-forward a little more than two weeks, and families were piling into taxis breaking for the border and crowding massive ships that would take them to Cyprus. People weren't paying money to experience Lebanon; they were paying money to get as far from it as possible. The bombing, the flattening of entire buildings and the creation of hundreds of thousands of displaced people is taking place in the South (considered Hezbollah-dominated territory, and therefore fair game). But all of Lebanon, including Beirut, is paying the price.

Before the war started, Lebanon was regaining its reputation as a safe and worthwhile place to visit, and now that confidence has been dashed. Businesses both small and large are taking huge losses. Vital infrastructure has been destroyed. It will take 10, maybe 15 years to get these things back. An entire country, an entire people's clock has been dialed backwards.

Even given such a depressing reality, there's an attitude here in Beirut that I think many Americans would admire and relate to. It's a resilience — a bounce-back, make-it-bigger-and-better-than-before, show-must-go-on resilience that the people of Beirut absolutely share with the American people.

In my first "American in Beirut" post here, I talked about eating lunch at a restaurant called Goya and sharing a laugh after a night of heavy bombing. I wrote that the restaurant had closed. Like many businesses in Central Beirut, however, Goya has since reopened its doors. I ate dinner there last night.

The dining area was only about half-full at 8 p.m. Gone were the packed tables of vacationing families and party-seeking tourists. In their place was an unfamiliar combination. Sure there were some sharply-dressed Beirut locals, but there were also some new faces in town: The press. In the last four or five days, the press has arrived in droves.

A good portion of the menu was unavailable because of food shortages. But it would have to do. The waitstaff, which had been glued to breaking news coverage during my last visit, had since torn itself away from it. Waiters were once again hard at work and hurrying orders into the kitchen.

Beirut's economy continues to take an unbelievable beating, but the people of Beirut aren't giving up the fight. This thought was going through my head when suddenly the electricity cut out — another reminder of war, of reality. I found myself completely in the dark, a half-eaten cheeseburger and a plate of French Fries smothered in ketchup sitting somewhere in front of me. But things just kept going. The music stopped, but the conversation continued. I found my meal, and although I got a little ketchup on my hands, I went about finishing it. Others found theirs and did the same.

As I was paying the bill, the electricity returned. The lights were strong and bright and the music, loud and upbeat.


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

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"