Published January 13, 2015
This is the third installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native New York resident who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.
"The New Beirut Nightlife"
Save for the occasional passing cab, the streets of Beirut are pretty empty after nightfall. It certainly wasn't always this way. Residents of Lebanon's capital have a reputation for socializing, and whenever I had tried to keep up in the past, it always seemed my night was ending when others were just beginning.
On Thursday, Iman and I set out to spend the evening with another group of Americans on the other side of town. The trip back to our apartment would have ordinarily taken about half an hour. But these aren't ordinary circumstances, and the ride took no more than four or five minutes. I kept a close eye on the speedometer. As we crossed over General Fouad Chehab Avenue, our cab driver exceeded 95 mph. There was an assumption on his part (mostly correct) that no one else was on the road, and so he also felt perfectly confident ignoring traffic signals. As the car came to a stop outside our building, the driver held out his hand and requested double the normal fare.
By 1 or 2 a.m., the few remaining cab drivers finish overcharging their few remaining customers and everyone calls it a night.
Well, actually, almost everyone calls it a night.
As we start the third week of the newest crisis between Israel and Lebanon, predictions about when and how this will all end are hard to make. Lines in the sand are being leaped over every day. But one consistent routine has emerged in Beirut. Here, the most concentrated Israeli airstrikes and shelling have come between midnight and 6 a.m., creating the most abnormal and frightening snooze button one could imagine.
The layout of our neighborhood is as follows: Our apartment is half a mile from the city's seaport. A couple hundred yards from the seaport is a row of massive and imposing Israeli gunboats. And somewhere in between our apartment building and the seaport is an unbelievably confused rooster.
The rooster — apparently a resident of Achrafieh intent on staying — is the only barn animal I'm aware of in all of Beirut proper. And before all this happened, it was a pretty good rooster, cockadoodling as the sun came up. It has since lost all sense of time. Now, the only thing it seems capable of is filling the empty and terrifying silence between one Israeli bomb and the next.
Last night was particularly bad. The gunboats were firing shells at short intervals over our building and into the south of Beirut. At least I think that's what was happening. It's often hard to tell where shots are coming from and where they're going. All shots seem to echo off Beirut's hilly coastline, and they absolutely shake the earth.
For the first couple days of the bombardment, Iman and I were sure these noises were sonic booms produced by planes and meant mostly to scare. We found out otherwise when we came home from a trip to the local grocery store, went out on our balcony with bags of food still in hand and witnessed a round being fired from one of the ships. The sound was deafening. The windows shook. And within seconds the shell had reached its target: A tall, gray but otherwise nondescript building lining the port. When at other times the fighting has seemed distant, this time the target was immediately in front of our apartment building, and the target's top floor was on fire.
It's now Sunday afternoon. In a little over an hour, I've counted seven separate explosions. All of the blasts were powerful enough to shake the Internet café's doors, and yet it's quite possible they took place miles away. Today both the Israelis and the rooster are busy. Tonight I'd prefer that both got some rest.
"Life and Politics Over Orange-Flavored Tang"
Since I arrived in Beirut just over 10 days ago, I've been coming to the same Internet café to message family and friends. It's in Achrafieh, a short walk from our apartment. A lot goes on here, and day-in and day-out I see many of the same faces. There's a group of teenagers who get together and indulge in hours of NASCAR racing games on a shared PlayStation.
For the Internet users among us, a link has made its way around the café; it posts highly graphic pictures of civilians killed in the south of Lebanon. All are bloodied. Some have been crushed. Others dismembered. Some have lost their heads. Some of the café users are clearly upset by what the site offers. Others are seemingly unaffected. Yesterday, one customer was looking at the photos without expression and dipping his hand into a bag of chips, as if watching a movie he had seen before.
Another patron took in the day's news and then went straight to Google Earth, hoping to get a bird's-eye, satellite-aided understanding of what was destroyed the night before. When explosions are heard, some at the Internet café don't bother to look up from their keyboards any more. Others are listening to music — perhaps so they don't have to listen to the explosions. And still others hear the explosions and are visibly shaken, visibly upset.
When the blasts get really loud, some patrons mutter in Arabic, some in English and some in French. Many residents of Beirut can speak (or at least mutter) in all three. They complain about Israel, or Hezbollah, the weak Lebanese government or the feet-dragging international community, and some complain about all four.
If I spend enough time in the café, chances are the power will cut out. Electricity is being rationed, and so going from sitting in front of a working computer to sitting in the dark has become a routine and accepted part of the new reality. So far, the outages have stretched anywhere from 15 minutes to four or five hours at a time. Customers are left with the decision to pay and leave or roll the dice and wait it out.
Those who stay are treated to cups of orange-flavored Tang, and with little else to do but sip our drinks and talk, conversation quickly turns to the worsening crisis of the last two weeks.
Etienne manages the café. He's a young entrepreneur who usually gives discounts to regulars. We're both 24 years old. But whereas I was born into small-town New York, Etienne was born into a civil war. He was 8 when it came to an end. In those formative years, his father would disappear and fight for weeks at a time, leaving Etienne and his mother to wonder if he'd return at all. Etienne was a freshman in high school during Operation Grapes of Wrath — 16 days of Israeli strikes that resulted in the destruction of Lebanese power plants and left much of the country in the dark. And now this.
Etienne plans to keep his café up and running for the neighborhood to use so long as there's available electricity. He projects that if fighting goes on even a month longer, all the money he has managed to save will be completely gone. Clearly distressed, he presented me with a very basic question, "If every few years this sort of thing happens, how can I be expected to make and grow a business? How can I raise kids?"
Etienne's family still lives in Achrafieh, but by now his father is probably past fighting age. With any number of possible outcomes — an intensifying and advancing Israeli ground invasion, a forcible and thorny disarming of Hezbollah, or a mere opening of old civil feuds — it may be a grown-up Etienne's turn to make his family wait and wonder if he'll ever come back.