Notes from Beirut: Beirut Downtown Part I: Getting there, Seeing a Protest
July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
This will be another post where I use a lot of pictures to illustrate my observations.
A little while ago, I decided to walk from my apartment in Zarif to the old heart of Beirut.
On my way there, I passed by this quite charming building which looks like some kind of private children’s school
And, as I often do in Beirut, cool old cars
As well as picturesque, yet haunting abandoned buildings
(Here’s another, on an obviously-inhabited street. Note the Lebanese flag– basically like the modern Austrian flag with a Cedar tree in the Middle of it– on the wall down the street)
I had planned my route poorly, so I found that my progress was blocked by this major highway, which cuts across the middle of town, dividing the city’s wealthier northern sections from its poorer southern sections. Although I think that the fogginess in this picture makes it more aesthetically appealing, it’s actually very nonrepresentative of weather in Beirut. Usually, the sky is an empty, piercing blue.
I tried to go down this nearby street (which I later figured out is something like Beirut’s equivalent of Embassy Row) only to find, after a ways, that it was blocked today. The policeman standing guard (note for people reading along at home: the police in Beirut wear camouflage uniforms and carry assault rifles) politely told me that I was going the wrong way and gave me directions. If you look like a Westerner, people here will assume that you’re harmless, which has some downsides (cab drivers and store owners will frequently try to cheat you), but some even more important upsides (the police are much more likely to help you than bother you). The barbed wire and tank spikes in this photo are frequent sights in Beirut. The police protect government buildings by monitoring and limiting movement in all of the streets approaching the building as well as the building itself. This is probably great for stopping bombers, but it also makes it much harder for the people here to access public spaces.
So I had to find an alternate way around. While I was trying to find it, I passed these women. I feel like this is the kind of image that people like to use to make generalizations about countries like Lebanon, so I want to avoid overinterpretation here: it’s just a Roman Catholic nun speaking with a pious Muslim woman selling something from a plastic bag on a street corner on the south side of the highway.
Another refurbished old car– the Beetle, like most old German cars, is far more common in Beirut than in the US.
Eventually, I did cross the highway. This is the view from the other side. The group of skyscrapers on the far side of the image make up one of the city’s main business districts. I think that the garden in the foreground is supposed to commemorate the victims of the late 20th century Lebanese civil war. Sadly, it’s not possible to go there.
On my way into town, I noticed this group. The flag rolled up in that young man’s hand is the Kurdish tricolor-with-sun. A young woman in the group was wearing a YPG-headband, making it pretty clear that this group had come out to demonstrate in favor of the Kurdish rebels in Syria. A policeman checked their cars, and the cars of unaffiliated people who showed up, because protests have been a popular target for Beirut’s car and suicide bombers in the past.
Another group of demonstrators drove by, waving flags from their car and shouting slogans.
This group headed towards the Lebanese Parliament on a bus.
This protest had a proud, celebratory character. Lebanon is a country where the Kurds could protest without having to worry about getting shot by soldiers or rounded up by the Mukhabarat (as the often alarmingly ubiquitous secret police are or were called in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria), but it’s also not one where they could plausibly convince the government to help their cause. Most of Lebanon’s major political factions are either against getting involved in the Syrian Civil War or in favor of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The compromise they seem to have come to is that Lebanon itself stays neutral while Hizbullah’s militia helps al-Assad’s forces in Syria. Lebanon is a country with lots of small religious or ethnic minorities, but the Kurds are small even by Lebanon’s standards, so they aren’t going to be able to convince the government to do anything for their people. But they can show the world that they’ll keep struggling for their cause, and the Kurds’ string of decisive victories against Da’esh (which is what people here call ISIS/ISIL) this summer offered them an appropirate occasion to do it.
Because this post is already fairly long, and has a lot of images, I’ve decided to split it into multiple parts. Next time, I’ll talk about Beirut’s city center itself.