Beirut, a city on the edge

On the surface, Beirut is a beautiful city that prides itself on being a tourist-friendly centre of culture, art and music. But scratch the surface and you will find a city that threatens to erupt.
Lebanese shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during a protest against Syria's ambassador to Lebanon and against the Syrian regime's mass killings, in Beirut.
Lebanese shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during a protest against Syria's ambassador to Lebanon and against the Syrian regime's mass killings, in Beirut.

BEIRUT // The sudden bursts of gunfire filled the air, shattering the calm around the Grand Serail, the seat of the Lebanese government. The cabinet was meeting inside the building, which was constructed in 1853 in Beirut's now glitzy downtown area.

The few men loitering among a fleet of expensive black cars in the courtyard of the Saray, or palace, looked nervous. Two young men ran toward the source of the gunfire, the mixed Shiite-Sunni district of Zqaq El Balat, a stone's throw away.

The gunfire continued for several minutes, intense and deafening. It did not take long for everyone in the Saray area to figure out what was happening. It was a celebration, not a shooting.

Life soon resumed its normal pace, as it often does in Beirut - a city on edge, a place of beauty, many contrasts and an unenviable knack for getting quickly and unexpectedly thrown into trouble, sometimes of the deadly variety.

Of late, the conflict in neighbouring Syria has been the main source of tension in Beirut.

But with or without the Syrian conflict, Beirut is, in many ways, a city that often looks on the brink of an outbreak of violence.

The gunfire on Wednesday near the Saray was celebratory - Shiites celebrating the release on bail of Wessam Alaaedeen, a Shiite militiaman who was arrested on June 25 while trying to set fire to a building housing an independent television station, with scores of employees inside. The militia, the Resistance Brigades, is a faction of Hizbollah, the militant group backed by Iran and Syria.

The man's release can hardly be an occasion that calls for celebration, but this is Beirut, where each one of the major political factions seizes every chance that comes along to make a point or get one over on their rivals.

In the case of Hizbollah and its allies, a show of force seems to be the preferred method.

Hizbollah, after all, has a guerrilla force that is arguably a more effective, better-armed and better-trained force than the country's national army and has defiantly rejected calls for it to disarm under the pretext that it defends the nation against Israel.

To those with no insight into the city's subtleties and socio-political intricacies, it is vexing, to say the least.

Beirut prides itself on being a centre of culture, art and music. In the 22 years since its ruinous civil war ended, it has built a reputation as a commercial and tourist hub and, of course, a nightlife so vibrant it has no equal in the Middle East.

Bookshops are often packed, concerts and local stage productions play to full houses. It is also a culinary haven, with healthy Lebanese fare and everything else from across the world.

So, how come some Beirutis can let off hundreds of rounds of live ammunition in the air and get away with it?

There is no easy answer, but consider this: Beirut's cultural sophistication is genuine, but - and this is what puzzles many - underneath that, there is an unpleasant, perhaps even rough, Beirut that only its natives and longtime residents identify.

Beirut is a city of divisions, suppressed aggression and a combustible sectarian mix that at times come to the surface with a bang.

On a different level, living in Beirut is both expensive and sometimes tough. Power and water cuts are an often daily nightmare that the city's estimated 1.2 million residents have to live with.

In most cases, Beirutis are buying their electricity from neighbourhood entrepreneurs who own power generators. The monthly bill can be anywhere between $120 (Dh440) and $500 depending on how much power a household needs to run essential appliances.

Residents also complain of high fuel and food prices, as well as rents. A taxi ride, no matter how short, costs a minimum of $5.

The high cost of living is just one of many things Beirutis have to cope with.

Beside the tragic deaths last month in Tripoli - 17 dead and more than 100 wounded - the Al Muqdads, a Shiite clan that not many outside Lebanon had heard of before, kidnapped Syrians and Turkish nationals in Beirut last month in a bid to secure the release of one of their own.

And that was not all. Angry Al Muqdad clansmen cut off the road to the city's international airport. In a series of news conferences shown live on all local television channels, the clan's elders addressed the nation while surrounded by security details made up of Rambo-like, heavily armed and tattooed young men.

This is not to say that Beirut is an entirely lawless city. It is heavily policed. Traffic officers dispense hefty fines for offences such as speaking on mobile phone while driving or not using a seat belt. The fines can be as much as 70,000 Lebanese liras (about Dh184).

But, more often than not, their authority does not extend to armed men with political connections - and not just any connections.

On Friday, scores of policemen in body armour and machine guns surrounded an office of the secular and pro-Syrian National Syria Party in the Al Hamra area, after two members took away the weapon of a plainclothes policeman whom they mistook for an anti-Syrian activist.

The standoff lasted several hours and attracted a large crowd while being shown live on all local TV channels. It ended with the party handing over the two men to the authorities, and their arrest.

Beirutis, much like Lebanese elsewhere, have a seemingly undying passion for firearms, something that explains why the city has had one bout of violence after another involving rival militiamen since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Iraq's sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007 lasted so long and claimed so many lives because, like in many parts of Lebanon, possessing and knowing how to use a firearm is a rite of passage to manhood.

Beirut's recently renovated seaside boulevard, or corniche, holds part of the secret of that passion for firearms. During the first day of the Muslim feast of Eid Al Fitr on August 19, many children played with toy guns, something that is seen across much of the Arab world on these religious holidays.

But in Beirut, the children, some as young as five, hold their innocuous toys in a manner worthy of a seasoned militiamen or professional hitmen.

Some tucked them in the waistband at the back of their trousers, others held their pistols with both hands as they aimed. Those with toy machine-guns had the muzzle facing down when not pretending to shoot, just like professional soldiers.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: September 4, 2012 04:00 AM

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