Lebanon 2005: Revolution Day

Here is the final of the three old pieces, written about a journey in the Middle East a decade ago, that I recently discovered, stashed away in the dusty recesses of my files. After some time in Syria I crossed the border into Lebanon. The former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated two weeks earlier – by Syrian security forces, the gossip insisted. At the time there was a heavy Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Many Lebanese felt that their country was, militarily at least, a client state of their bigger neighbour, and now, they had had enough. The “Cedar Revolution”, now largely forgotten, was “Arab Spring Mk.1”, but worlds away from the more recent catastrophes in the region.

damascus3 (2)Revolution Day
Beirut, 28 February 2005

They had been coming into town since first light, down the highway that curved along the coast from the direction of Byblos and Tripoli. Lying in bed in the little guesthouse, up the flight of narrow stairs above bolted-down shop-fronts still marked with old bullet holes, I could hear the sounding of car horns, and the low, liquid sound of determination moving through a crowd.

By mid-morning the army had closed the road to the north, but people had left their vehicles on the verges beside the Mediterranean and continued into the city on foot. I watched them from the balcony: a thickening flow moving determinedly towards Martyrs’ Square. The previous days had been lit by soft spring sunlight, but today a blank white sheet had run in across the sky and everything was very, very still. Except for the protesters.

Most of them carried Lebanese flags and waved them as they walked. Leaning out, I could see the long, snaking line moving down the coast, all red and white.

It was late February. A day earlier old men who read the French newspapers had been sunbathing on the smooth rocks beneath the Corniche; tomorrow young women with expensive sunglasses would go skiing on the last of the shrinking snows up on Mount Lebanon. But not today.

I stood for a long time on the balcony watching the moving crowd thickening and thickening, and hearing the roars moving back and forth from the direction of the square. The pastel-coloured tower blocks on the rising ground behind the road were smudged in the soft grey light, and right in front of the balcony, on a billboard looking down over the road, was a huge poster of the man whose portrait was plastered to walls and windows and old bullet-scarred doors all over the city: Rafik Hariri.

In the poster he was wearing a fine suit – the suit of a prosperous man – and standing with his hands in his pockets glancing upwards and smiling. He had kind eyes and wavy iron-grey hair and a thick moustache. There was a black band across the left-hand corner of the poster.

***

A fortnight earlier I had been in Amman. It was cold; there had been thick, wet sleet in Petra two days before. Amman was a strange white city, like grimy snow settled over warty hills. There were flocks of pigeons in the yellow sky. I stayed in a guesthouse with dirty corridors, and the streets were crowded with lost Iraqis and Palestinians.

I read about it in The Jordan Times, sitting at a tiny metal table on a narrow, sloping alleyway just off Sha’ban Street, eating hummus and good bread, and drinking thick, grainy coffee that tasted of cardamom. It was on the front page. Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon – the anti-Syrian former prime minister of Lebanon – had died in a huge car bomb blast near the seafront in Beirut. The students from the Lebanese universities blamed Syria. They were already demonstrating.

***

I saw a small girl give a flower to a soldier.

They had been ordered to keep the crowds out of the square, and the people coming down the road from the north – and me, strolling among them from the guesthouse – swung left at the bundled rolls of barbed wire. We could see the red-and-white hordes on the other side: people who had come in by other roads, and the students who had camped on the sloping grass by the Martyrs’ Monument for days. Sometimes a gang of youths would kicked the wire aside where it lay loose against a wall, and a great surge of people would dash forward with a cheer to join the protest. The soldiers smirked as they pushed the wire back into place, and when the little girl reached up, holding the flower, the man with the gun grinned broadly and you knew that no one would be shot today.

By lunchtime they had disobeyed heir orders and taken the wire away and the road was open. The Lebanese soldiers hated the fact that there were Syrian check-posts, and Syrian intelligence officers in their country as much as anyone.

***

The “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon was a little piece of history that could have been made for inquisitive tourists. It all seemed to happen in the course of one day; the result seemed clear – and good; and no one ran for cover under bullets or fell coughing to their knees in tear gas clouds.

***

damascus 4I wandered back and forth all day. The square was full. There were students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their red, white and green flags. There were banners and posters in Arabic and English and French, telling the Syrians to go home. There were girls in headscarves and girls in tight sleeveless tops with their pierced belly-buttons showing. And there were old women and men in suits. And one man with curly grey hair, holding his little daughter by the hand, and with a flag over his shoulder called out to me: “Allez, monsieur! Come and protest with us, protest with Lebanese!”

There were great walls of white wood close to the memorial, and they were scrawled with messages in three languages, messages of commemoration for Hariri, the Martyr, and messages of condemnation for Syria – go home!

Above it all the great hulk of the old Holiday Inn loomed with its hollow windows, and the acne scars of a million bullets from the old war. Not far away there was a barrier across the road, and black scorch marks on the pavement, and rows of cars with shattered windows and smoke-black buildings. Hariri died there. No one was guarding the scene; no one had cleared it up, after two weeks; and no one had properly investigated it.

***

In the little shop, just off the square with its high walls lined with jars, I had to queue for a sandwich. I had eaten there the night before when it was quiet, and drunken bottles of Amstel beer. There were no other customers then, but today the heavyset man behind the counter shook his head breathlessly.
“I am so busy today,” he said, “It is the manifestation – revolution makes them hungry.”
They didn’t call it a “demo”, or a “protest”; they used the French word – “manifestation”. I liked that.

***

In the afternoon I walked away from the square. The streets around the university were empty, and a soft sunlight had cut through the clouds. I bought an ice cream and walked along the Corniche. It was very still, and I could hear the roars from the square, and when I got back it was almost dark, and they had lit little fires near the statue, and there was a big television screen near the old opera house, and in the Lebanese parliament they were debating a motion of no confidence in the government of Omar Karami, and there were still students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their flags.

The crowd was mixed, but it was mostly young, and by evening when the sightseers had taken the children home to bed it was clear that this was a very middle class movement – and in Lebanon the middle class is disproportionately Maronite Christian. I never quite got over the deft, chic confidence of these trilingual young Lebanese, thoroughly Mediterranean in their look and their outlook. You couldn’t help but feel a little shabby and provincial around them. But they were furiously positive too. Things would change, they said; they were sure. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but things would change.

They liked Walid Jumblatt, the canny Druze politician.

“He’s mad,” said a very beautiful girl with a nose piercing and braided hair. “I mean really mad, chemically mad, like us.”
Her boyfriend had marijuana-stained eyes and he wore the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. He laughed when she said this. “He is! She’s right.”

I asked when they thought Karami’s government would fall. Not today, they said; maybe next week. They were going skiing tomorrow – did I want to come?

***

The crowd was going nowhere, but it was getting late, and I began to wonder how the day could end. It was still cold at night, and I envisaged the kind of hung-over, grey-sky weariness of mornings at music festivals in the coming dawn. Perhaps they wouldn’t chant as hard the next day.

I had wandered away from the square again when the cheer went up. It was a huge roar and a boy with a red neckerchief went dashing past me shouting, and car horns started sounding all the way up the road along the coast, and I turned back quickly towards the square and someone told me the government, the pro-Syrian government, had resigned in the face of the protests.

I had nothing invested in what was happening, and I knew only what any diligently interested tourist ought to know about the politics and history of the country, but I understood well enough that this was what the crowd wanted, and I was absurdly happy for them.

They were dancing on the street outside the guesthouse all night, and the car horns were sounding all night, and in the morning it was very cold, and very grey and my visa was about to run out.

***

There was no traffic, and no one walking on the streets. It was very, very still and silent. There were no buses running from the terminal, but I found a nervous Syrian taxi driver who wanted to get out of Lebanon, and he crowded me and a handful of other Syrians into his car, and filled it with boxes of soap and biscuits and drove over the mountains to Damascus.

Syria seemed shabby and subdued in a way it hadn’t done a week earlier. The woman behind the counter in the guesthouse in Souq Sarouja shook her head as I filled in the register.

“They are crazy, the Lebanese,” she said. “We have always known that they are crazy; they are always doing things like that.”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

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