The waterpipe: smoking enjoyment and a wonderful work of art rolled into one device. Whenever I’m in Iran or Turkey, I surrender myself to this relaxing, reclining way of bliss. Together with Shervin Nekuee, friend and co-founder of Eutopia magazine, I was in Beirut for a few days to meet some political commentators. We were looking forward to discussions over Iran, Lebanon, Syria and big-bully America, while enjoying good coffee and smoking water pipes amidst a beautiful city by the Mediterranean. Little did we know that this was the calm before the storm.
Lebanon was already without a president for over a year. The political power is divided among ethnic and religious factions in parliament, with very complicated coalitions. The current majority under the Sunni Saad Hariri, which also includes Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, only represents a portion of the country’s split population. The Shiites, represented by the powerful Hezbollah, are not included in this coalition.
We were staying in West Beirut, the centre of the majority Sunnis. The atmosphere reminds one of bustling, cosmopolitan Paris. A Lebanese philosopher describes this part of town as follows: “We act as if we were living in New York or Paris”. In this city wounded by political scars and divisions, one would rather imagines another reality.
Meanwhile South Beirut, where Hezbollah rules with its military might, reminds me of my birth country Iran. Hezbollah, supported by the Iranian and Syrian regimes, has an oiled military organization which has remained so following its victory over Israel in the summer of 2006.
Hezbollah is very proud of its resistance mentality, enjoying the apparent approval of a majority of the people. Many Lebanese give Hezbollah credit for its resistance against the Israeli war machine.
Then, Druze leader Jumblatt appears on Lebanese television, accusing Hezbollah of having ties with Iran and possessing communication installations without the knowledge of the Lebanese government.
On Thursday, May 9, we were enjoying a water pipe in a quiet café. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was to have a press conference at 4:00 pm that day. There were already signs of unrest leading up to the press conference. The Lebanese army were present at every street corner, but very few people risked being outside in this usually lively city.
The Hezbollah leader appears on the television screen. He is a charismatic man who regularly makes people laugh with his political jokes. His Arabic is deemed as very effective by political analysts. During his televised speech, he raised two fingers while disparaging the government: Jumblatt must take back his words, and Saad Hariri must take responsibility for the current situation.
We stood up to leave the café as Nasrallah concluded his appearance with statements which could not be taken as anything other than a declaration of war. We were on the street for less than a minute when Hezbollah militias appeared on the streets armed with Kalashnikovs, automatic weapons and pistols. Shots were fired. Militias took their positions on street corners. Hariri’s supporters have also taken to the streets. The guerilla battle has started.
There was fighting in West Beirut for two straight days, literally on every street. Every time we tried to go outside, bullets were swishing past us. We could feel the launch of the rockets which blew up buildings.
One time, amidst fierce fighting between two streets, we suddenly heard loud music through the bullets. We looked at each other. No words were needed: would Roger Waters know that Pink Floyd’s The Wall played at moments like these? It was an extraordinary instant. We laughed as we tried to move among the running, armed young men.
Some streets were adorned by flags of the ‘nationalists’, which are allies of Hezbollah. After two intense days, the media came with headlines such as ‘Hezbollah Revolution’ and ‘Beirut in the hands of Hezbollah’. At the airport, landing strips were strewn with sand and pebbles to avoid surprise attacks from outside. The city is cordoned off, and there is a lot of fighting.
After the first two days of fighting, the situation eased up some, and we decided it was time to leave. The current conflict could continue for a longer time than we had previously expected. One of the possible exit routes was through the north-eastern border with Syria. This was the shortest route. Our taxi driver suggested that we go through the eastern border.
On Saturday, May 11, we take the car towards the eastern border. Barricades were everywhere, some manned by the Lebanese military and others by Hezbollah. Everywhere were burning tires, torched cars and roadblocks. In various cities and villages we passed by, local ethnic and religious groups have taken their positions. In every small town we see armed young men beside large groups wielding clubs and chains. After Beirut, other towns also need to show their muscles.
Our car stopped. We were in a queue with a number of small vehicles and vans. From a distance I could see people getting beaten up and cars being destroyed. Suddenly, everybody wanted to turn around to escape the impending menace.
After a few hours, we arrived in the neighborhood of the Lebanese-Syrian border. The tension was high and we felt as if we were in a movie scene. Rocks were piled high to fence off the border. In front of the barricade were scores of young men.
It was a piece of no-man’s land where a small mistake could turn into big trouble. We were stopped by a few armed men with scarves on their heads. They were the authority for the day, and they all wanted to see passports. The Lebanese army was present, but they looked on passively to see how the warring militias played out the day.
When we clinched our visa at the Syrian border, we drove on to Damascus. At the airport, it turned out that many people have made it out of Lebanon. Our passports were also regularly scrutinized here. At one of the checkpoints, we were inspected by a good-looking Syrian security officer. “I see you are Iranians.” Our Dutch passports were not our only tool: our roots came in very handy at that moment. Iranians coming out of Beirut and ending up in Damascus: the best-possible combination for a fast exit.
Finally, we landed in Berlin. We decided to return to Lebanon in the near future and continue our preparations for a special Lebanon edition of Eutopia. The publication would have to include these past chaotic days, in which scores of people have lost their lives, and the civil war returned briefly.
It has become increasingly apparent that Lebanon is a multi-cultural society, embroiled in a political crisis. Its ethnic and religious diversity demands a new form of political management. No government could function without Hezbollah. However, a broad coalition government could not be formed without outside influence. Good agreements must be reached between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which both wield a large influence on Lebanon’s political parties. And it would help if the United States of America figures out that a lot of things have gone wrong in the Middle East since the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Back in Amsterdam, I miss my water pipe. And the discussions that accompany it.