From Damascus to Beirut

Because of the closure of Beirut airport and the destruction of Lebanon’s highway system by Israeli bombardment, I returned to Beirut from Damascus to by bus on Friday, 18 August, 2006, traveling along Lebanon’s byways. The slow journey took us through beautiful villages and small towns that most passengers would not have visited otherwise.  Perhaps we need a calamity to remind us of what is often sacrificed in high-speed development >>>

At the Syrian-Lebanese border, aid workers form various organizations, including the UN, were stationed to help the refugees returning to Lebanon. One group of aid workers delivered a supply of bread, cookies and fruit juice cartons to our bus. The gift would surely have been received gratefully by the survivors of a famine or an earthquake. But at least on our bus, none of the returnees showed any interest. The supplies were stowed away on the bus – perhaps to be given to people who had lost their entire livelihoods, including the means to travel to safety abroad.

The bus ride cost little more than $4 and took less than four hours, while some other passengers were paying a hundred dollars or more for exclusive taxis, without necessarily saving any time. Indeed, at the Lebanese immigration post, I came across a taxi driver who outside the Damascus bus garage had offered to charge me $20 the journey – as one of four passengers – because, he said, 'there are no buses.'  We greeted each other, shook hands, and laughed after I pointed out that there had, after all, been a bus.

The Syrian and Lebanese sections of the Damascus-Beirut road are different in landscape and displays of wealth. In Syria – with a population of nearly 19 million and per capita GDP of $3,900 (CIA World Factbook – Syria) – there are relatively few billboards on the sides of the road as it passes through slowly rising, mostly barren land. Many billboards are political, praising the Syrian leadership. Some at the border declare Syria’s wishes for Lebanon’s strength and security.

In Lebanon – population nearly 4 million, per capita GDP $6,200 (CIA World Factbook – Lebanon) – where the land grows increasingly green as the road descends from the mountains towards the Mediterranean, there is a deluge of ads for consumer goods, many of them promoted by women in suggestive poses. There are also posters announcing concerts by popular singers that were due to take place in the second half of July, early into what was to have been Lebanon’s tourist season.   

There were no billboards announcing the planned appearance, also in mid-July, of the greatest living Arab singer, Fairouz, at the magnificent Roman Acropolis in Baalkeck. The Baalbeck International Festival, first held in 1956, was also due to have included another musical icon, the British rock group, Deep Purple. A statement from the organizers calmly explains what happened:

War broke out in Lebanon on July 12. Because of these dramatic circumstances all the activities of the Baalbeck International Festival have been interrupted. We hope that Lebanon will rapidly recover its cultural and touristic role.

After announcing a plan for refunding the tickets, the statement ads:

Fariouz's pre-opening performance, the musical comedy ‘Sah el Nom’ [Sweet Sleep] was also the Festival’s last show. It was presented on the 12th of July for an audience of 6,000. The musical was presented to the residents of Baalbeck only.

A Fairouz performance, of course, does not need any billboards to sell out. But up to the war and in its early days, the voices that could be heard widely on radio in Beirut and Damascus belonged to the more recent Arab singers, some of whom also promote carbonated drinks. Later on, it was Fariouz’s voice that filled the air. Yet again, a calamity seems to have served as a reminder of a treasure.

Sitting at the very back of the bus, I had the pleasure of conversing with two Palestinian-Lebanese children, whose alertness to the presence of anyone in uniform was a reminder of the insecure lives many Palestinian refugees have lived. The children were also lively, cheerful and articulate – another prominent feature among Palestinian children and youths. They were not allowed by their elders to be photographed, but they did hold up for photography leaflets that have been distributed in Lebanon warning about unexploded armaments dropped during the war >>>

Arriving in Beirut, on its way to the southern city of Saida, the bus passed by the south Beirut neighborhoods that had been attacked by Israel. Though we were far away from the demolished buildings that had been shown on television around the world, what we could see– including a vanished urban bridge now replaced by a string of Lebanese flags – gave a clear picture of the destruction. There were also scenes showing the Lebanese people's resilience:  a toy store back in business, and a man reading his paper at a sidewalk café, on the ground floor of a damaged building. And there were more billboards along the streets, some commercial, others political, including those displaying Iran’s leaders and the General Secretary of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Seyed-Hassan Nasrallah >>>

Hossein Shahidi is Assistant Professor of Communication, American University of Beirut.


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