It's all changed; the parrot is dead
Alexander Rose
National Post

BEIRUT  23 June- For the third time that morning, I handed over my passport. Yet another suspicious official in yet another pea-green Ruritanian uniform dripping with gold brocade glanced at me before methodically leafing through it page by page. His sole purpose, like that of the two before him, was to discover whether I was a Zionist spy. For the third time, I came up clean and, lo, I passed into the Land of Cedars. I made straight for Beirut's notorious Commodore Hotel. During the civil war, the downtown Commo was home to half the media hacks in Lebanon. Thanks to immense bribes to the various militias, the hotel enjoyed the only working Telex link to the outside world, obligingly listed the inflated bar bills as "dry cleaning" for the beancounters back home, and, for a fee, would procure press passes, work permits and even, on occasion, divorce papers.

It is owned by the Le Meridien chain now, and the place is squeaky clean. The only reminder of the Bad Old Days is the News Bar, its floor padded with a carpet imprinted with the front pages of papers from around the world. In a corner, there's a small glass display case containing a few hundred business cards, souvenirs from departing journos. Even its legendary eatery -- renowned as the Middle East's worst Chinese restaurant (which is saying something) -- has been converted into an excellent Japanese eatery. The tame parrot, which could replicate the sound of an incoming shell, is deceased. That afternoon, I was to meet Fadi Abou Jamra, whom a contact in Washington had recommended as the ideal man to squire me around Beirut.

But I had a couple of hours to kill, so I made tracks to ground zero of Lebanon's war, the archeological museum, which sits astride the infamous Green Line dividing Lebanon into its Muslim and Christian sectors. When the war broke out in 1975, the curator encased the precious ancient statues in blocks of concrete and locked the moveable treasures in the basement. It was only a few years ago that the government, with grave ceremony, chipped away the concrete; broke open the basement locks; and sandblasted the hundreds of thousands of bullet holes pockmarking the walls. Now it looks as though it had been built just a few months ago. The only reminder of the war is a short video of the renovation, which mentions only that "the guns fell silent" before it moves on to inspirational images of priceless sculptures.

Outside, it's even difficult to find the notorious Green Line (so called, with heavy Levantine irony, because of the leafy foliage along the avenue). There are no signs, no plaques. Once found, the only indication of the war are the grand buildings still leprous with disfiguring machine-gun holes, bricked-up windows, scars from mortar shell hits and twisted balconies. Like the Commodore, where the past has been renovated away, Beirut is complicit in a collective amnesia, even repressing its memories about who is to blame and indeed what happened. But the scar tissue of war never heals. Even where gleaming new apartment blocks and malls have been raised on one side of the street, you can see -- reflected in their gleaming windows -- the spray-painted slogans and the barbed-wire coils on the other side.

What had happened to Lebanon? Not long ago, it was a land whose 18 religious communities -- divided between Muslim and Christian, plus the Druze, a heterodox offshoot of Islam -- were able to compromise enough to form a nation, a heterogeneous, factional and weak nation, but a nation nonetheless. In the 1960s, the Palestine Liberation Organization was based in Beirut. That wasn't enough for Yasser Arafat, who wanted to turn the city into his personal fiefdom. To this end, the PLO picked a fight with the Lebanese army, which proved no match for the guerrillas, owing to the political paralysis of the power-sharing government. Beirut's Christians, fearing the Palestinians, responded by forming private militias for self-protection. In 1970, when the PLO was booted out of Jordan, thousands of Palestinian militants flooded into Lebanon and proceeded to ride roughshod over the south's Shi'ite Muslim population, which radicalized. As the government collapsed, left-wing Muslims formed alliances with the PLO to fight the Christians.

Full-blown war erupted in 1975. The leading Christian militia (the Phalangists) and Palestinians proceeded to spend the next 15 years or so massacring one another, and Beirut became synonymous with kidnapping, hostage-taking, car-bombing, blood feuds and factional fighting. At various times, Syria, Israel, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, sundry mercenaries and multinational forces composed of Americans, British, French and Italian peacekeepers piled in, each backing their own proxy, acting as a proxy themselves, working as a proxy for a proxy, creating a new proxy, betraying a proxy or desperately keeping everyone's proxies from each other's throats. Today, as in most countries under occupation, there is a reasonable facsimile of peace. But the sense of unease is palpable. It was against that backdrop that I met Fadi, a jocular, fearsomely enthusiastic 30-year-old who manages the student opposition and spends a great deal of time organizing activities designed to infuriate the Syrians, the people who won the war and now run nominally independent Lebanon.

On our way to have some coffee, I suffered the most terrifying experience of my life: We drove -- in a city seemingly devoid of vehicular accoutrements such as traffic lights, stop signs, pedestrian crossings or lane-markings. The cars tend to be either glued-together, bullet-holed 25-year-old Mercs from which rusted parts clatter onto the street with disturbing frequency or spanking new models. Everyone drives as though they were on a personal Formula 1 track. Approaching blind corners, Beiruti drivers do not deign to pause; they merely tap a horn. The city is alive, day and night, with the sound of beeps. I was the only naif who wore a seatbelt. "Yeah, the government made a law about that," mused Fadi, but "it's cheaper just to pay the cops a bribe" instead of the ticket. At the café, located within sight of some ancient ruins being plowed over by bulldozers (Fadi silently made the international sign for "payoff," a brisk rubbing together of thumb and forefingers), he drew me a diagram of how The System works.

Lebanon, the world's last satellite state, may one day be annexed by a Greater Syria. The capital, Damascus, has the Lebanese government in its pocket, and brings it out on occasion to mouth the Big Lie about how, without Syria's 35,000 troops, Lebanon would collapse. In truth, without Lebanon as a milch-cow for Damascus, the Assad regime would have collapsed long ago under the weight of its own cruelty and ineptitude. The only people who want them to stick around are those in the Christian and Muslim elites who have become fat working with Damascus. To illustrate his point, Fadi pointed out three gigantic towers. Surrounding them is a sea of squat low buildings. A parliamentarian with pronounced pro-Syrian sympathies pushed through a law allowing the construction of these three high-rises, arranged for his own company to build them and then amended the law to prevent anyone else following suit -- all in one day. Damascus ensures that Lebanese do not benefit from this arrangement because it ships in all the labour (thereby artificially lowering Syria's unemployment rate) and benefits from the money its work force sends home.

Everyone is sick of the Syrian protection rackets, the dumping of shoddy products on the Lebanese market, the drug-running, the counterfeiting of U.S. dollars, the rampant bribery, embezzlement and corruption, the outlawing of tourists with Israeli visas, the blatant siphoning of billions of dollars into Syria's pockets, the election-fixing, the "disappearing" of people into the Syrian Lubyankas, the sponsorship of terrorism, the heavy-handed secret police, the sinister intimidation, the bugging, the cars with dark windows following you around, the embarrassingly craven manner in which politicians consult with Damascus, the invidious censorship. The list goes on and on.

People are fed up with footing the bill when Syrian soldiers tap into their telephone line to call home, and they loathe seeing Lebanese Army posts overshadowed by heavily armed Syrian ones a few metres away. The Lebanese soldiers idly light one another's cigarettes while their Syrian pals, grim-faced and sweating beneath their Soviet helmets, look suspiciously at you when you drive by, their Kalashnikovs at the ready. It's just like a military occupation, though ostensibly it's not.

One of the movement's strategists told me a joke making the rounds. The CIA, MI6 and Syrian Intelligence each send an agent to procure a camel. The CIA spook accomplishes his mission in a week. The M16 man returns with a camel a week later. A few months later, the Syrian secret policeman straggles into town with a donkey. When queried by his boss, he repeatedly strikes the beast across the face, shouting, "Say you're a camel! Say you're a camel!"

The Syrians are getting itchy about the growing attendance at Fadi's mass demonstrations. They've increased the numbers of agents provocateurs and informers, created a radical Islamic front group to hound the Christians, started arresting activists and tried their old trick of inflaming, then manipulating, religious divisions. Later, we bump into a small, amiable man named Pussy (it sounds more macho in Arabic, Fadi hastens to assure me), whose eyes darted about him before he felt it was safe to speak.

Pussy is a senior Phalangist veteran of the war (he left another group, the Lebanese Forces, when it starting flying fascist colours). Now, he's busy keeping his ear to the ground. When canny old survivors like Pussy start doing that, it means something big in Beirut is simmering. Clearly, the anti-Syrian movement isn't just going to go away, as Damascus fervently hopes. Fadi and I pulled an all-nighter, touring Beirut's restaurants, clubs, bars and after-hours clubs. Our first stop was a Lebanese restaurant to meet some friends of Fadi and his fiancée, Marie. This was the spirit of old Beirut. The usually erudite, sometimes amusingly crude, conversation slickly switched, sometimes in mid-sentence, among French, English and Arabic. Everyone had lived in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Washington or Rome.

Only once did I detect the tensions underlying Beiruti society: when our table encouraged the pianist to play patriotic Lebanese songs, which my group lustily accompanied. Some tables joined in. But here and there you could see irritated customers hunching their shoulders, furrowing their brows or turning sullenly silent. It was a bit like singing La Marseillaise in a 1940s Parisian bar packed with collaborators. Two aspects of Lebanese life must be remarked on. The first is the argileh, the water-pipe or "hubbly-bubbly" that accompanies meals. Anywhere from a foot to four feet in height, these brass-and-glass contraptions are the great Middle Eastern gift to the world (and college students, who patterned homemade dope-bongs on the design). When one inhales through the pipe, the green-apple-flavoured smoke is cooled by the water in the base as it passes through. Second, there is the Lebanese obsession with eating, three-hour undertakings interspersed with argileh refills and constant replenishment of plates. At first, the length of the meals, combined with the quantity of food, is disconcerting. Having gorged for an hour on a mountain of nine Mediterranean salads followed by a sideboard of meats washed down with a fine bottle of wine, I assumed it was over and woozily kissed the hostess goodbye. I was politely informed that now the appetizers were finished, it was time for the main courses.

After rolling out of dinner, Fadi and I wound up touring various nightclubs and bars. Whilst leering at some impossibly pretty chicks squeezed into impossibly taut Prada, I asked Fadi whether they were Christian or Muslim, and whether it was possible to distinguish between the two. If religion formed the basic fault line during the war, surely clocking another's religion was an automatic reflex? Though he's from an old Christian family, Fadi insisted, "We are all Lebanese." If you think of religion divisions, he explained, it was too easy to "fall into the sin of confessionalism" which leads inevitably to strife. Even so, there are telltale differences between Christians and Muslims. No Christian man wears jewellery fashioned from white gold. No Muslim would be seen in yellow gold. Fadi had deliberately chosen to wear a white gold engagement ring. As for the girls at the bar, I think they were Christian, but to tell you the truth my powers of deduction were blunted after all those cocktails. Fadi and his friends rigidly adhere to the notion that "We are Lebanese," doggedly following a precept of General Michel Aoun, who lives in exile in France. Gen. Aoun was a career soldier devoted to the legitimate government of Lebanon. A Maronite Christian, Gen. Aoun's impartiality was renowned. In June 1984, he was commanding the Lebanese Army, but instead of getting dragged into militia cat-fighting he withdrew his soldiers to their barracks until 1988, waiting until he was called to enforce a peace agreement.

By the late '80s, the war had burnt itself out, leaving Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian President, in control of 90% of the country. Just as the victorious Assad was about to kill Lebanon as an independent entity once and for all, the outgoing president -- 15 minutes before his term expired -- appointed a military caretaker government and made Aoun interim prime minister. He wasn't PM of much. By then, the only territory the Lebanese government controlled was part of East Beirut and a few suburbs. But within a couple of months, after several provocations by the Christian Lebanese Forces, Aoun's rump of 15,000 troops crushed them and took over the port of Beirut, marking the first time since 1975 the government had booted a militia off its turf. Aoun, having struck the Christian militia first, was cheered by Beiruti Muslims wherever he went. He then hounded all the militias, by trying to close the illegal smuggling ports run by them. Incensed, the Syrians, who were financing their occupation by skimming smuggling profits, started shelling Aoun's territory. In 1989, the general took the momentous, if perhaps premature, step of declaring war on Syria.

Despite massive support, the crusade fizzled. Aoun had miscalculated in assuming the international community would back him. But no one wanted another war. The result was the Saudi-brokered Ta'if Accord, which Aoun rejected, providing for eventual Lebanese "unification" but failing to call for total Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. And so Aoun went into exile, though in recent years the movement to bring him back has grown exponentially. I was fortunate. On the day I spent with Fadi and his friends, a rare phone call was placed to the general to ask his advice. At the movement's secret headquarters, a sparsely appointed place with two desks, a few rickety chairs, a television, a framed picture of Aoun and a telephone, one could almost hear the click when Syrian Intelligence started the telephone tap. Crowded round the speaker phone, 30 to 40 students listened raptly and reverently as the calm far-off sound of their master's voice reached them. After, to confound the telephone bug, the movement council voted on how to organize an upcoming demonstration in total silence, using nods and raising of hands to record their decisions. I wished them well, and offered Fadi a donation to the cause. He refused it. "Just print the story in your paper," he said. And I have. Pussy said something big is going to blow in Beirut. I'm sure he's right. You can just feel it.