The Foreign Office advice was clear, do not go to Lebanon, and if it’s absolutely necessary then under no circumstances should you go to the Southern suburbs of Beirut, do not go to the South of the country and do not drink the contaminated water supply.
Sitting in the cushioned back seat of a lime green Mercedes parked in the southern Beirut suburb of Borj El Brajneh, I felt a sharp twinge in my abdomen, it caught me by surprise and I winced, I leaned out of the window to see where my newly found friends were. We were parked in a breeze block built shanty town, war damage and smouldering garbage. Ibrahim was emerging from a side alley with a grin on his face; the other two were following behind him. Did you get it? I asked as they all climbed back in the car. Yalla says Ibrahim clearly pleased with himself. We had just bought a second hand carburettor.
It was the early 90s, officially the Lebanese civil war was over and the last of the western hostages had just been released. An air of optimism was prevailing; the Syrian army had it all under control. Americans were banned from flying into Lebanon and for the rest of us it was far from a simple task to get there. I found a ferry from Cyprus.
In the smoke filled waiting room at the port of Larnaca I was being peppered with questions from the Lebanese expatriates waiting for the same Russian tug; Am I in the UN? Have I been before? Do I have a place to stay? Do I know anyone in Lebanon? My negative answers were making me nervous and the others dismayed. Eventually we were all summoned to a waiting mini bus, it was dark, and the curtains were pulled closed. Someone said we are not even in Beirut and already we are being kidnapped.
We boarded the boat and all headed below deck to the bar to continue taking the piss out of the idiot foreigner. The bar was small, semi-circular and mostly maroon. Natasha was working the bar and the guys kept asking for drinks that involved her having to climb the spiral stairs, as the boat lurched to the port side the Lebanese lurched to the starboard side to get a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs as she fetched the drinks.
I shared a cabin with Robert and spent most of the night being re-educated on everything I thought I understood about the Lebanese civil war. As the dawn broke the boat entered Journieh harbour and I was not feeling as confident as I had been. Perhaps Robert would guide me through the formalities and into town.
The customs shed resembled a fish market, the guard poked at my rucksack as if it was the last flounder of the morning catch. Tourist he repeated a couple of times as though he had never said the word out loud before, I smiled and he nodded me through. Outside I looked around bewilderingly, I heard my name being shouted, and there was Robert waving from a taxi as it sped away.
I had walked the full length of Rue Hamra to the San Lorenzo Hotel, dripping in sweat I paid for a bed in a shared room, the clerk handed me a key and a litre bottle of water, in the room which resembled an army barracks with a row of empty beds and a lonely cockroach as the only other guest, I glugged every drop of the water, then I went to the sink to wash my face but there was no water. I looked at the empty water bottle on the bed and it dawned on me what had just happened. It would take another 24 hours before the pollution would seep into my veins.
Rue Hamra was busy with dilapidated traffic, hawkers selling knock-off perfume, money changers and cigarette sellers, I slipped down a side street, past the American University and onto the Corniche, bullet riddled buildings tottering beside a solid blue Mediterranean Sea, calm and chaos. A Ferris wheel miraculously still standing and rusting in midday sun of the Luna Park, bill boards advertising Crossfire walking boots and Syrian tanks sheltering in their shade.
I poked my camera through a hole in a barbed wire fence and within seconds was surrounded by shouting Lebanese soldiers; I had missed the sign for Military Beach Club, a schoolboy error, they wanted my film but despite only having shot two frames I argued to keep it and managed to extricate myself and promised them and myself to behave in the future.
Beirut is slumped exhausted at the base of Mount Lebanon and the Corniche is the dividing line between the city and the sea, the esplanade providing respite and reflection, walkers and sunbathers, smokers and coffee drinkers. I munched on a handle of bread spread with a triangle of cheese.
It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that was draining me, I was overwhelmed, poverty I had seen before but this was Armageddon. Standing at the entrance to a side street, starring, bombed out buildings full with families, shells of cars, the haze of burning rubbish; I wanted to enter the street but was rooted on the spot. I thought I was prepared for this but I clearly wasn’t.
I hadn’t come as a tourist nor as a photojournalist, the previous couple of years I had immersed myself in all things relating to the Middle East, I wanted to learn and understand, I had researched extensively all I could prior to travelling, I was carrying more books than camera equipment. I knew nothing. I was out of my depth, had made a huge mistake, in my mind I could see the faces of the Lebanese expats in the port waiting room, they knew.
“It’s fully booked” said a voice from behind me, I had been looking up at the shell scarred frame of the Holiday Inn, the voice belonged to Ibrahim and his clear sense of humour drew me to him, I accepted his initiation to lunch, the comfort of a cafe sounded more appealing than the idea of food at this stage.
I sat on an up-turned paint tin while Ibrahim spread newspaper on an oil spilled table, we were joined by his friends and two grilled chickens, small plastic bags with anonymous pickled vegetables and a bottle of Arak, surrounded by scrap stripped from cars and the remnants of cars stripped of scrap.
The chicken was soon devoured; despite the shadow war shattered building all around the conversation avoided the subject, I had only had a morning in Beirut and was already war weary, how do you feel after more than fifteen years. We left the workshop and walked over to the only complete car, Ibrahim tossed me the keys and said I could drive; I tossed them back, today had already tested me, not that I thought he was serious anyway, the four of us got in the Mercedes and we set off for where I had no idea.
It was hard to tell if this was a typical working day for Ibrahim and the others or the days antics were for my benefit, either way as we returned with the carburettor we decided stop at a subterranean pool hall, bottles of Almaza beer were passed round, joshing and japes, pool balls bouncing on the floor and grown men giggling like girls.
The power was off when I got back to the hotel, I heard a crunch as I made my way to my bed, I was the only guest, I slept soundly.
I sat in the Cafe de Paris and sipped espresso, Beirut was going about its business. I had been reading Jean Makdis, her Fragments of Beirut, and her words coupled with the fragments I could see all around me was wrenching; I had tears in my eyes. The history of Lebanon is littered with disturbance; a country the size of Yorkshire that once enjoyed the eponymous moniker of Switzerland of the East, a playground for the Monaco set during the heady days of the 50s and 60s and a byword for ruination by the 70s. A sectarian mezze, eighteen religious groups who have rarely seen eye to eye. It was already fragile place when the PLO helped tip the balance in 1975 and unleashed fifteen years of brutal strife.
Much of the downtown part of the city was utterly devastated, other part were busy with the usual machinations of commercial life, there were quarters of overcrowded hovels screaming with urchins and just around the corner would be faded French styled villas fragrant and blooming and all within meters of each other, but what they all had in common was the incessant peppering of bullet holes.
As I explored and tried to record as best I could I would either be thwarted by Syrian soldiers who would step out of the shadows of a derelict building to wave a figure at me, or that I was simply unable to invade the privacy of public poverty.
Most days I would pass by the car repair shop and see my friends, often we would walk down to the Corniche in the evening and drink coffee served from mobile vendors. Chatting about cars and football, I mentioned I had owned an MGB Roadster, I knew little of the different makes but Ibrahim was an encyclopaedia, he rattled off the variations and spec of each model and said that there’s MG in Beirut, and with that a red Roadster roared along outside lane of the Rue General De Gaul, “you see” he said matter-of-factly.
Back in Cyprus earlier than I planned, the state of my intestines was causing serious discomfort, I bumped into Robert who said he was surprised I got out at all, I was not sure I actually had.
I spent the next few days sitting on a bench looking out to sea; the Lebanese coast is just a couple of hundred kilometres away, but how far in reality from the package holiday resorts is immeasurable. I tried to process everything I had experienced over the previous ten days, the complexity of the politics, the simplicity of the hospitality and the extraordinary expense of ordinance.
For all of us there are definable moments in our lives when we turn the page of one chapter and begin another, this was one of those moments. Beirut changed me and my life would never be the same again.
Thank you for reading and sharing. This is the first of two parts, in the second part I explore Lebanon beyond Beirut.
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