Going East and West

Antony Johae

(United Kingdom)

It was in 1985, on my first business trip to Beirut, that I met the woman who was to become my wife. The fighting between factions had resumed after the Israeli army had withdrawn from the city. The Green Line, or the khutut at tammas as the Beirutis called it, the no-man’s land which divided Muslim West Beirut from the Christian East, could not be crossed by Europeans like myself, and even the local men traversed the space from one side to the other at their peril.

I did meet a Muslim in East Beirut, a supplier of spare parts for cars, who seemed to be on the best of terms with his Christian counterpart.

“You think I hate him?” he questioned me, placing his arm around the other man’s shoulder.

“It doesn’t look like it,” I said.

“You think this is a war between Christians and Muslims?” he quizzed me again.

“That is certainly what the world has been led to believe,” I replied, although I knew that others on the outside were implicated. I felt uncomfortable as the two men clung to each other and fixed me with their stares. They were not going to allow me to remain an innocent bystander, and at that moment I saw myself more separated from them than they had ever been from one another.

I was not always made to feel like an interloper, and once the civil war was over and I was living in the capital with my wife and child, the sight of European construction companies demolishing the ruins of the old Beirut and beginning the reconstruction of the new business centre, made me feel a certain proud involvement in the city’s rejuvenation. Beirut might again establish itself as a paragon of the business world, and Lebanon might once more become a trading nation as it had been before the civil war and, too, many centuries earlier when supplying King Solomon with cedars for Yahweh’s temple; or as when the ancient Phoenicians had traded purple cloth from Tyre, crafted fine furniture from mountain timber, and fashioned jewellery from precious stones, renowned among the veiled women of Arabia.

I recall how, on my first arrival, it had seemed to me impossible that this country had once prospered in peace. The airport to the south of Beirut had been closed for some time, and even had there been no shelling and the runway had been open, I could not have flown in there, for it was the time of hostage taking. I had landed instead at Damascus. On exiting with my luggage, I heard my name called out – “Mr. Anthony Rowley?” – and a man approached.

“My name is Youssef. I have come to take you to Beirut.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Please call me Tony.”

“You are an architect – yes?”

I nodded.

“But in Lebanon buildings are knocked down by fire,” he said.

“One day they will be built again.”

Youssef smiled at my response and led me to his car.

Even before we had set off from the Syrian capital, I felt nervous; there was a heavy strangeness about the place which I had not experienced in other foreign cities – ominous almost, and tangible. Perhaps it was the many soldiers milling about the streets or loaded onto trucks giving the impression of readiness for war, or the accident encountered on the way from the airport – a lorry skewed across the road and the sparkling of an acetylene burner as a crowd surrounded a squashed car trying to get the passengers out; or was it simply that I would soon be inside Lebanon and that I was projecting my fears onto this, the oldest of inhabited cities? I was certainly not entering triumphantly as the Macedonian general had done when driving out the Assyrians, nor like Lawrence when routing the Turks. I felt more like Saul of Tarsus humbled on the Straight Road as he travelled towards Damascus.

Before heading for the border and the Bekaa valley, Youssef had stopped to buy cakes, which he informed me were cheaper to buy in the Syrian capital than in Beirut. There was no air-conditioning in the car, the afternoon sun was hot, and the back of my damp shirt clung to the seat. I was made thirsty by the sweet cake Youssef offered – baklawa he said it was calledand which he would not allow me to refuse.

Once past the frontier, we stopped at a roadside café, but the drink I had chosen was as sweet to the tongue as the cakes had been – a green syrup diluted with water which had, from the look of it, promised the freshness of mint. As we sat in front of the café, two grotesque tanks ground by, followed by several truckloads of soldiers.

“Syrians,” Youssef said confidingly, “we will be stopped in the mountains. You know that they are here, don’t you?” I did know, but the reality of it struck me as bizarre – a foreign force come, not to invade, but to keep local factions from each other’s throats.

The sun descended behind the range as we left the last town in the Bekaa valley before the ascent to the pass.

“The Druze live here,” Youssef explained as we entered a mountain village. “Once Christians lived here too, but they were driven out.”

It was dark by now and I could see nobody in the street. Some of the houses looked derelict, while others were boarded up.

“There will be a checkpoint,” Youssef said, slowing down. “Syrians – and later Christian militia and the Lebanese army.”

A soldier shone his torch into the car. I could not see his face beyond the glare, but his voice sounded friendly. Youssef got out to open up the back for the soldier to look inside. The night air was cool and I shivered in my damp shirt.

Once over the pass we descended, driving through quiet villages until we reached a hill overlooking Beirut. The city lay below stretching towards a promontory in the west with the sea lying beyond. The water glittered under the moonlight – and then I saw an accompanying flash as though a massive photograph had just been taken; a shell must have exploded somewhere in the heart of the city, though there was no sound of a detonation. I could vaguely discern a puff of smoke hanging in the air, and at that moment thought of the city as a diseased body divided against itself.

The next day I saw stark evidence of the war: buildings pockmarked all over by shells, tall office blocks with their windows shattered, gutted houses mere skeletons now, and heaps of rubble of what had once been a mosque, a church, a school, a museum, or a ministry. The centre of the city, where the so-called Green Line passed through, was entirely mutilated and the famed beauty of Beirut gone. The old sandstone buildings, which I had seen in photographs, were shattered, their columns and arrowed windows destroyed.

Although I heard no firing that day, the two-fold bang of Israeli fighter planes flying overhead breaking the sound barrier reminded me of war and the vulnerability of civilians walking or riding in the streets. My taxi-driver, whose crucifix suspended from his rear-view mirror on a string of worry beads swung with the swerving of the car, crossed himself at every crossroad that we passed; he had reason to because I noticed that there was not a single traffic-light that was working.

It was on the following day that I met Nadia. I had been dining at a restaurant with a construction company client in Ashrafieh, a district in East Beirut not far from the port, when the shelling began. Most of the customers and the staff made a quick escape while a few others, unwilling to take the risk, remained. I was too far from my hotel to leave, so when the proprietor ordered us into the basement, I obeyed – and there we stayed for three whole days while the bombardment continued. There were six of us at first: the restaurant proprietor whose name was George, a family of three who lived in the area, and I and my business client, the latter of whom slipped away –  apologetically – in a brief interlude between the shelling.

It wasn’t long before the light from the dangling bulb went out.

“Don’t worry,” George said in the dark, “the electricity is closed – it is normal.”

Then I heard a match being struck and in a few seconds we could see one another in the intimate light of a candle.

“Don’t worry,” George said again smiling across at me. “There is my generator. I can open it when it is quiet – and you can lie down there until it is finished,” and he pointed to a pile of blankets and mattresses in a corner of the basement; but at that moment we heard the scream of a missile.

“Under the tables!” George yelled as the room shook from the deafening explosion; there was a strong smell of cordite and the candle went out. I could hear a woman moaning in the dark and the voice of a man speaking in Arabic, then in English, apparently addressing me: “My wife has had enough. It was better when the Israelis were here; at least we knew who was firing at us.”

“Now, we don’t know,” the woman joined in, “and that makes me angry and desperate. What have we done to them, whoever they are, that they should make us suffer? For too long!” – and I could hear her weeping again, and another woman’s voice speaking soothingly in Arabic.

Later, with a lull in the bombardment, George left us to start up the generator and, when the bulb lit up, the first thing I saw was a cockroach, its antennae waving, stationary on the floor, seeming to be nonplussed by the sudden light. The woman who had been weeping shuddered and made a move to kill it.

“Leave it,” the husband said impatiently, “isn’t there room for all of us here?” –  with which the cockroach, having adjusted to the light, scuttled out of sight.

Araq!” George announced as he came back into the room with a bottle in one hand and glasses between his fingers in the other.

“The cockroach isn’t staying,” I said.

“Is that your English humour?” the younger woman asked teasingly – and the others laughed.

If the cockroach shunned our company that night, the mosquitoes didn’t.

We lay down on the mattresses, but none of us could sleep because of a double assault – the intermittent bombardment outside and the constant zooming in of the long-legged creatures that seemed to have taken possession of the room – so we talked instead.

I learned that the husband had been teaching biochemistry at the American University, but was now made redundant because it was unsafe for Christian men to cross the Green Line to the campus in the west. His wife kept on shaking her head as her husband recounted how he had abandoned his post, and I saw tears in her eyes.

“At first, when the fighting started, I could get across town; there were road blocks of course – militia and armed Palestinians – but it got too dangerous – snipers, weapons everywhere. I haven’t been to West Beirut for years.”

“He stays at home with me,” his wife said. “How long it will go on . . . we don’t know,” and turning to her daughter – “but Nadia’s office is on this side, so she can go to work when there’s no shelling.”

“It’s not far from here,” Nadia explained. “A solicitor’s practice, but since the law courts are hardly functioning, I feel myself unemployed like my father here.”

At that moment there was a sudden explosion, perhaps a street or two away, and Nadia jumped up nervously and exchanged words in Arabic with her father.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Nadia said, “just a door.”

She saw me looking puzzled and laughed.

“That’s what we say when there’s an explosion – just to reassure each other: la, haitha bab – No, that’s a door.”

“Even if the building above you is collapsing?”

“Perhaps not, then it’s not just a door.”

When finally emerging from our hiding place, I expected to see the restaurant in a state of collapse, but this was not in fact the case; to be sure, every window had been shattered and most of the crockery smashed in the persistent blasts, but the building itself remained intact. With what I was to discover was typical of Lebanese enterprise, George set about having the window glass replaced – for the fifth time since the war had started, so he told me; and two days after the bombardment had stopped the restaurant was back in business.

I got to know the Sassin family well during those three days underground; they talked much about what they, and others, had endured in the last ten years; and after we had emerged from the basement, they invited me to dinner at their home. I had planned to stay a week in Beirut before returning to London, but in fact remained for a month, at the end of which Nadia and I were married. The ceremony took place at a Maronite church in Ashrafieh, but even before the rites had been completed, we could hear a fresh bout of shelling start up and the guests were forced to take shelter in the crypt. A few days later, Nadia and I set out with Youssef, our driver, for the airport at Damascus and took the flight for London.

We did not return to Lebanon until the Spring of 1991, by which time the civil war had ended. Nadia had been a child when the war began and had no recollection of visiting the west of Beirut except on a shopping expedition with her mother and father to the district of Hamra. Now that it was safe to go, she wanted to see the other side of the city for herself.

It was strange that we should both be visiting this part of Beirut for the first time – she, someone who had lived in the city for twenty-four years before her marriage, and I, a tourist so to speak. As we looked out of the window of the bus, we were struck by the devastation; the buildings still standing had been heavily scarred by shells and shrapnel, while those which had been gutted had taken on the shape of a ghost city.

“Was this part of the Green Line?” I asked.

“Yes,” Nadia replied, “and it is green, do you see?” – and it was so, for growing up among the rubble and the ruins you could see grass and weeds and even little trees. Then Nadia took my hand and said, “Tony, feel it; the baby’s moving.”

On our way back, we saw a group of young people get on the bus. I noticed that they said little to each other and looked strangely diffident.

“They’re going for the first time,” Nadia said. “They’ve never been before – to the east, just like you and I to the west” – and as we smiled at them, they beamed back shyly.

Antony Johae

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.