An American in Beirut: Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel

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

August 2, 2006

"Running on Fumes"

Late last night, I hopped a cab heading from the other side of town toward our apartment. The driver's name, Bassel, was printed neatly on a nameplate on the dashboard. Conversation between drivers and passengers is fairly standard in the Middle East, and most men choose to sit up front with the driver and not be chauffeured, as in the U.S. But ice breakers between strangers have been hard to come by since the war began three weeks ago.

Somehow, "How are things?" seems a tactless question when you're spending only 10 minutes with someone and 'things' very well could mean the loss of a house or the death of a family member.

In the place of conversation, the car radio usually fills the void, and these days the dial is almost always set to the latest news. My Arabic is passable to the extent that I can get the gist of most newscasts. I attribute this to learning some of my Arabic while in the U.S. As Iman has often pointed out, American universities rarely teach Arabic for proficiency. Instead of learning how to order wine and talk to a shoe salesman as you might in a French class, in an Arabic class you learn words involving occupation and explosions.

Bassel flicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth much as a grandmother in the U.S. might when scolding a mischievous child. To do so in either culture means roughly the same thing. It's a combined expression of disbelief and anger. The radio report was talking about gas shortages in Lebanon. Very serious gas shortages. And a man who supported his family by driving a car all day had a reason to listen intently.

Two young Lebanese were passing us in a sedan on our right, windows down and music blaring. I recognized the song right away. It was one of Hezbollah's many martial-themed propaganda tunes that play on both their radio and TV station. Bassel glanced over, again flicking his tongue, and turned up the volume of his radio news broadcast. Lebanon's diversity had again shown itself, this time in a fleeting wordless exchange.

Before arriving at our destination, I was reminded that I'd have to tack an extra $1 onto the fare. Tonight, it would be $4.50 to get across Beirut in a taxi instead of the usual $3.50. Bassel wasn't trying to swindle me; he was merely factoring in a fast approaching storm.

Yesterday, the United Nations estimated that Lebanon will run out of fuel in a matter of two or three days. Since this conflict reopened three weeks ago, Israel has maintained an effective air and sea blockade. Overland routes from Syria have been the targets of repeated air strikes, and the net effect has been that very little is getting into Lebanon. In response, the U.N. has been trying desperately to persuade Israel to grant safe passage to humanitarian supply ships. Israel hasn't done so yet, and if the situation continues as is, all of Lebanon could come to a grinding halt in a matter of days.

Three hospitals in southern Lebanon have already closed due to a lack of fuel. Others will soon be forced to do the same. Several food and supply convoys have been unable to leave Beirut and head south to provide much needed aid. Israel has yet to provide security clearance assuring their safe passage. If this goes on too long, it'll be all but impossible to transport food, water and medicine anywhere in the country. On this point, Israel's actions seem to have less to do with combating Hezbollah and more to do with squeezing a people.

Beirut will likely be one of the last places in Lebanon to feel this squeeze. Nonetheless, there are already signs that it is approaching. Many gas stations in Beirut were open for only two or three hours today. Some have chosen to open every other day, while capping purchases between $7.50 and $10. Either way, such rationing will buy only so much time, and the effects of Israel’s blockade will soon prove both indiscriminate and disastrous.


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"

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"