Beirut
Ripped Apart

On this bright sunny morning, we pay ten dollars for a giant balloon to take us high above Martyr's Square, in the heart of the city, to view the panorama of this ravaged and feverishly reconstructing city, sprawling up against the hills that overlook the ocean. Rising higher and higher, the bulletholes and crumbling walls of wartime ruins disappear from sight. What remains is the outstretched body of a city, in hues of hallucinating white and yellow, straining to resurrect itself from three decades of war, neglect and occupation.


Balloon

Impossible to fathom the horrors of the war that raged from street to street, from house to house in this city, starting in 1975 and ending with a patchy truce in 1990. I have been to Sarajevo during wartime. The shelling came from the hills around, the devastation was endless, but the danger did not come from within. Here, in Beirut, snipers and tanks and militia's were everywhere, around every corner, attacking each other from strongholds that were established one day only to be surrendered the next. The tapestry of a city that had been a harbor to travelers for ages, mixing sects and religions and ethnic backgrounds of all sorts into a permanently shifting, tense urban space consisting of layers of history, prosperity and destruction, had been ripped apart street by street and quarter by quarter.

During my stay, two writers manage to convey something of what went on to me. The first is Yussef Bazzi, a poet and journalist, editor of Nawafez, the cultural supplement of daily newspaper al-Mustaqbal. In his short book Yasser Arafat looked at me and smiled, he has put down his memories of being a fearless, merciless kid fighter during the war. The matter-of-fact style, one episode of bloodshed and insanity following the other with no time for reflection or remorse, makes it a very tough read: days later, the scenes of senseless violence still gave me the chills.

Here is an example, almost arbitrarily lifted from a small book packed with scenes like this one, that waste no time on looking any farther than simply surviving this day, this minute.

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The other writer has to be Robert Fisk, the fiery journalist who has been covering the turmoils in the Middle-East for thirty years. Beirut is his home, and Pity the Nation, his book on the Lebanese war is a fierce, all-encompassing page turner. Fueled by rage against the cruelty of governments and madmen alike, this is an extremely well documented account of the tragedy, the hipocrisy and the humanity he encountered in the streets of Beirut. Here is just one sad page, bringing together the international powers that influenced the course of the war and the horrors of a city alive with corpses.

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