Sunday, July 23, 2006

Broummana Diary

After my Shi’i friend from the southern suburbs of Beirut left the other day, he threw me a curveball. My friend stayed for three nights with me up in Broummana, a Christian resort town in Mount Lebanon. Although my friend has been around much of Lebanon, this was his first time here. His stay ended because he had to get back to work, in Hamra. Commuting such a long distance was to be avoided so he decided to camp out at his office. On the afternoon he left, my friend didn’t want me to drive too far to drop him off on the main road, where he would take public transportation down the mountain and to Beirut. I kept driving, as far as the Beit Mery roundabout, just outside Broummana, as he kept telling me “this is far enough, really, just go back home,” to which I responded that the Israelis wouldn’t hit a place full of tourists, including those from the Gulf. “Yeah, but there are all these trucks,” he responded, then switched to cursing the truck drivers we saw, for supposedly endangering our lives. As we stood on the side of the road, we noticed that there weren’t many services or buses running that day. A Lebanese couple in a Range Rover stopped and asked us the way to Beirut. Before I could point down the road, my friend asked if he could hitch a ride, and guide them in return. The man agreed, and as my friend opened the back door, he turned to me and whispered, “We just go straight ahead, right?” I rolled my eyes and nodded at the new “guide,” who had never traveled down the road before.

I called the next day to ask about how he was doing in Hamra. The response? “Hey, I’m on my way to Syria – I’m in a bus right now, headed for Tripoli.” This is the long way around, but it avoids the Bekaa Valley, where the Israelis have been bombing regularly, including sections of the international highway between Lebanon and Syria. We agreed to keep in touch when I make it to Syria; I would be going to Cyprus in the American evacuation and then catch a flight to Damascus. I had an image of my friend, traveling alone in a bus on the road to Tripoli, abandoning his home in the southern suburbs, and his country. While in Broummana, my friend contacted a Syrian woman, a friend from college days in Damascus, to help his family members get across the border and find temporary housing. Finally, his parents, siblings, nephews and nieces preceded him to Syria. We spent several nerve-wracking hours following their movements by phone and waiting for the confirmation that they had made it across the Bekaa. “It’s just an hour or less of nail-biting, and then they’ll be safe – better than being worried about them every single day, “ he had said. Now he was going to join them.

While we were in Broummana, we caught up with some of our circle of friends. Two of them were from villages in the Bekaa, perhaps the “hidden” front in this war, gauging by the international coverage. One of them lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut and when the fighting started, took his wife and three children to his home village, near Baalbek. When we spoke on the phone, he sounded weary, with the kind of voice you usually hear at funerals. “Fleeing” to the Bekaa didn’t seem to make much sense when so much of it was being bombed by the Israelis. “And there are those damned (unintelligible) all the time,” he added. When I asked about the word he had used in Arabic, I made my latest vocabulary addition, “em-kah,” or MK, the type of Israeli spy plane that has been hovering around so much. “It’s really irritating, with those MKs flying around. They’re wearing us out,” my friend went on. When we called the next day, he surprised us by telling us he and his family were now in Beirut, staying with friends. I didn’t bother asking about my friend’s work, as a dentist, because the answer might be too depressing. There’s nothing going on in the suburbs, where his home and office are, and no reason to go there. No check-ups these days. Our other friend is also a dentist, who lives and works in Saudi Arabia. We talked to him as he sat in his village in the Bekaa Valley, pinned down by the bombing, and tantalizingly close to the Syrian border. “Man, we came home for a summer vacation, and we get stuck here,” he complained, and told us about how he would try to get to Damascus and catch his re-directed flight back to Riyadh. Hizbullah’s headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the proximity of the south to Israel means these areas often grab the headlines, but the Bekaa, all of the Bekaa, from top to bottom, also seems like it’s being taken apart piece by piece, the more that roads and other places are hit, and people flee.

When I dropped off my car at a repair garage in a Christian suburb of Beirut, I found few people worried about leaving. Although the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Beirut was hit once, with no casualties, the Christian suburbs have escaped practically all of the onslaught. Some of the people I know through this garage are considering leaving the country for the US, where they have citizenship, probably due to a mix of concerns about security and the economy. But most are staying put. When I went upstairs to get a coffee, an Egyptian worker at the garage followed me upstairs, to do the same.

“You’re leaving?” he asked me.

“Yeah, getting out with the Americans.”

Since I was in the middle of hearing things about the arrangements made by various foreign embassies, I decided to gauge the Egyptian situation.

“I’m leaving too, you know,” he said.

“Oh yeah? How?”

“The embassy is organizing some buses, to go to Syria, and then we’ll probably fly back home. Didn’t you hear our president? He promised to send buses and planes and make sure that the Egyptian workers here got out… the Mubarak Tourism and Travel Company!” he said, cackling.

I learned there was a nominal fee, and that the plane tickets would be half price. I asked if my friend really needed to go, because the area in Greater Beirut where he lived and worked had been safe up to now.

“Well, I don’t want to get stuck here. And there’s no work.”

I thought of my Lebanese friend alone on his bus going to Tripoli, and the Egyptian worker’s organized, yet costly trip back home and temporary loss of his job.

I showed up at 6.30am at the port of Dbayyeh, north of Beirut, for the evacuation of US citizens. The signs were not good. Several hundred people (overwhelmingly Lebanese in origin) were there in the early morning for a first-come, first-serve situation, but every single other aspect of the process was vague, at best. After a brisk eight hours standing in the sun, nearly motionless in a tightly-spaced, yet jostling crowd, I made it past the first gate to a second, nearby series of waiting areas. Many rules, regulations and arrangements were announced for both the wait and the evacuation trip, but the set-up was hampered by a deficiency in a key area – boats – which come in handy when you need to go to Cyprus and don’t have a functioning airport. When I asked a Lebanese embassy employee about the evacuation contingency plan as it existed prior to 12 July, he just grinned at me. The long wait for boats kept getting longer, to the point that I had no chance of making my flight the next morning, so I abandoned my fellow refugees and citizens to their fate. In the crowd of US citizens there were some who had fled the south, where they had been visiting relatives. But few seemed to be talking about the war, even when we got to the second area, where there was space to sit down and socialize. I called a Lebanese journalist in Tyre to find out what was going on in the south, and specifically with the Israelis’ incursions into several villages. Those around me at Dbayyeh were, it seemed, mainly interested in the fact that Israeli had bombed the country and ruined their vacations, and not the war itself. One man I talked to expressed the line that “you cannot have a state within a state,” to which I responded that a military solution to this issue didn’t seem particularly feasible. “Look, it’s bigger than Lebanon,” he said, “it’s connected to Syria, to Iran, to what’s happening in Iraq…” After it took 12 hours to move a whopping 200 yards toward safety, I wondered about the war here, and how the evacuation was happening as if we had all the time in the world to leave, implying that Lebanon, as a country, really wasn’t at war. If they’re not going to take this seriously, I thought, I won’t either. I’ve begun making calls to see about taking a bus to Tripoli.

Marlin Dick, Broummana, Lebanon


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