Friday, 14 March 2008

Despatches from Lebanon - Part 2

Here's the next instalment in my friend's Despatches from Lebanon emails. His military experience is useful in helping understand the situation there.
More musings from Habibi’s Kebab Emporium.

March 8, 2008 has come and gone, not too much to report just a few gun shots in the middle distance. Not enough to have the sounds of sirens approaching. Apparently the police in Lakemba have a similar approach with drive byes. There really needs to be a substantial issue before the desk sergeant gives up his coffee and takes a first hand look. Anyway each street corner has its own personal APC complete with 50 cal machine gun and some smaller ones when they don’t want to waste the ammunition on unarmored vehicles and pedestrians. So the need for backup only comes rarely.

There are a few upcoming dates for political decisions so this could increase the excitement level here over the next few days. Time to get out the camera and put the photos up on google earth.

It seems that the political tension here won’t ever abate as Lebanon is a buffer zone between the Arab world and the rest of the world. Israel is just a beachhead to the rest of the world. Orange groves and tanks set on a lovely backdrop of sand and rocky outcrops, where even weeds won’t grow without chemical and economic assistance. From a real estate perspective you wouldn’t build there. Lebanon is more European than Arab. Just walking around you could be anywhere in the western world. A few women have headscarf’s though most are dressed in the same gear as you would find in the fashion conscience areas of Sydney. Yes unfortunately muffin tops have found their way into the local fashion scene and are highly prized by the local youth. The fully covered Saudi fashion statement is very rare here. The traditional dress of dowdy country folk (Balkan mountains circa 1928) is restricted to the poorer people. It is the preferred outfit for the blue collar class.

A trip to Geant the local equivalent of a Westfields. Just like Bondi Junction except I couldn’t find Frank Lowy. Saw a movie there, high expectations, a few awards, Daniel Day Lewis, an appalling stage to his acting. It seemed that someone wrote a movie script to showcase his acting talents and failed to make a plot, a story, or anything else that that would constitute a movie. Not even in the league of B grade movies. With a title of ‘There will be blood’ I think that the false advertising laws may come into play. It had all of the appeal of a Mariah Carey song.

My first thoughts and expectations of Lebanon were created in Abu Dhabi as I boarded the flight to Beirut. With the good fortune of traveling business class I was spared the hustle and bustle of the hoi polloi. So I thought until I tried to take my seat in 2A. There was a gentleman squarely taking up my seat . I suggested to him that he was in my seat and he told me that the hostie had told him that it was his seat. A quick look at the boarding passes had him in 16D. This evidence did not deter him as he took his instructions for the hostie and he was sure that he was correct. He continued to peer out the window is if he was seeking the second coming.

He was about 60 with two packets of cigarettes in his top pocket and a Nigerian samsonite at his feet holding about 20 cartons of cigarettes. He was not a good smuggler. Seeking assistance from the hostie eventually had him take his rightful place. It did take a while as he didn’t want to budge. Business class was very full up to the time that the doors were closed. At this point the arguments started with a number of the groups in business class. Dodgy young lads had taken possession of seats up front and were putting their cases to the hosties as to why they should stay. The reasons included true love for the hostie and it is not being used through to not understanding any language that was currently being used. There were other groups of families enjoying the comfort, they had spent their lives traveling on airlines that did not indulge in seat allocations and were appalled that this airline was so restrictive. They were on the plane first and were entitled to the seat that they chose. They should not be moved by those people who were lazy and took their time to board the plane. Also it was very crowded down the back as some weary travelers had already taken up three seats to get a good sleep. It was not good form to disturb them. It was like a high school debating team lead by the football coach.

Apparently this happens on this route as consistently as the safety briefing. The hosties were very professional and very firm. A quality that could see them excel in a variety of other employments.

This set the tone for what I thought would be a hustlers paradise. As it turns out Beirut is very civilized in that respect and there is no real hassling. These passengers were most likely trained in Bankstown and were not a reflection on the locals.

March 9, 2008. A day off and to Byblos for some sightseeing. Byblos from the Greek means bible or book. Here the first instances of the written alphabets, four apparently, were found. I am sure that others scholars have their own views but it sounds good to me. Byblos is in Beirut as I have just found out. It is an area the size of the Taronga Park Zoo perhaps a little smaller. I thought that it was a town somewhere off into the distance (it was once). A taxi ride up there and back. Philip is now becoming relieved when we get a Christain taxi driver. Previously this was a group of people he avoided the world over. I guess a bad experience at Sunday school or not making to senior altar boy. They are very distinctive, a cross and rosary hanging from the rear vision mirror, generally made of wood and approaching about one kilo in weight. Much better than the Australian equivalent of fluffy dice and car perfume to mask the odour of kebabs, MacDonald’s and Pizza Hut refuse littering the back of the car. Also there are a variety of photos and icons adorning the dashboard and glove box. Some of them are very artistic.

On Friday we had the experience of the Hezbollah taxi driver at lunchtime. He looked like a younger version of Yasser Arafat with blue eyes and the West Bank nose. The taxi was a Datsun Sunny circa 1982 replete with exposed seat springs and the wear of a thousand arses on the seats. Mechanically it barely worked. From the rear vision mirror dangled a Koran, the Middle Eastern sabre and his Hezbollah calling card in bronze. No real problem until he went past the next mosque and took the Mosque newsletter for later reading. We thought that we might be taken for a long detour, perhaps a meal or two and sleep over with some of his closest friends. He tuned the radio to the prayer station and turned up the volume so that we could hear the sermon to the tune of AK47s in the background. To me I enjoyed the cultural diversity, the others in the cab were not as happy. I think this why Philip has recently reviewed his position on Christians. I think that he is a little harsh, they all seem like mighty fine chaps. He has spent a lot of time in Serbia and I think that his experience there has jaundiced his view of humanity.

Byblos is a great piece of history saddled in a seaside suburb of Beirut. It has been ransacked and run by Phoenicians, the Arami, Arabs, Romans, Ottomans, Christian crusaders, French, English and some others. This has been going since about 6000 BC so plenty of time for all the groups to have their fair run of the place. The only ones not known to have had their turn are the Chinese. Much more interesting than some Australian history. Here people have been walking the streets for many centuries. In Australia we most likely just missed the first bloke to walk the street, he probably died just last year.

Up until the 1920s there was just a castle in the centre. Excavation by the French revealed layers of construction dating back through many centuries. I gather from the tour guide that the French have helped themselves to many artifacts in the process and there is an ongoing diplomatic issue about their return.

Each of the owners, marauders or ransackers contributed to varying constructions with some of the more spectacular constructions by the Romans. It was here towards the end of the Roman empire that Caligula held some of his many orgies. They were held in the public theatre. One needed to wear a mask before being allowed in to participate. This was to maintain the anonymity of the players to avoid complications in the work place. So not only have the first instances of the alphabet been attributed to Byblos but the early workplace regulations seemed to have found their genesis in the rocks and ruins of far more glorious days along the old Phoenician coast.

Getting up to Byblos had us traveling along over several new bridges. Apparently the Israeli Air force took out most of the bridges between the Gaza and Syria a few years ago. These Israeli chaps seem to have made a habit of conducting their military exercises in other people’s countries. Probably saves them getting permission from the relevant local authorities back home. There are a few signs of the destruction still there. My understanding is that the local communities rebuilt the bridges rather than use government funding. This was achieved by members of parliament strongly suggesting to very wealthy individuals that they should sponsor a bridge. With great philanthropy they obliged and with some bridges costing north of $30 million these individuals contributed greatly to restoring the road transport system.

There is also some scuttlebutt about land rezoning and personal benefits to the philanthropists but I find that very hard to believe.

Back to work over the next few days. Hopefully a few trips into more interesting places will be on this week.
Despatches from Lebanon - Part 1

(Nothing Follows)

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