As Syria enters its sixth year of civil war, how does the proximity of this monstrous conflict affect its already traumatised neighbour?
We live our death. This half-death is our triumph.
– Mahmoud Darwish
The air barely moves. Piles of garbage wrap around a street corner. I have rarely seen so many weapons or military in one place as I watch the day die on a stranger’s balcony, shifting from orange to purple to black over Beirut.
I wander into the night. I can taste gas in my mouth. Elements of the city seep in: tar, dust, humidity, bare concrete deco, murmurs from televisions, splotches of red wax from Maronite candles, perspiration.
Traces of the Lebanese civil war are barefaced and muted at the same time. I pass the obliterated 24-storey Holiday Inn. Tanks and armoured jeeps line the entrance. The sites of mass violence that stem from this monolithic symbol of war are now glazed over in the streets of a modernised downtown Beirut. Versace, Burberry and Starbucks emblazon their models in advertisements displayed over mounds of rubble and dry blood.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 1.2 million registered Syrians have moved to Lebanon – constituting more than one fifth of Lebanon’s entire population. Considering the number of Syrians living illegally in Lebanon, however, the figure is believed to be much higher.
I meet several Syrians drinking on the streets in the neighbourhood of Gemmayze, a hip district with many bars. We share some booze; ethanol disguised as vodka, mixed with energy drink. They introduce me to a couple of Palestinian friends and invite me back to their apartment to smoke hash.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 1.2 million registered Syrians have moved to Lebanon – constituting more than one fifth of Lebanon’s entire population.
In the third-floor apartment, a Palestinian woman points to two brothers who are both stoned on the couch.
‘Hey, you see these boys – they are half-Syrian, half-Palestinian. Kidnap them! Kidnap them and take them to your country. They are stateless.’
She laughs away at what she says. I am unsure of how to respond as the hash disperses my thoughts. I walk about the house. The ceiling hangs low like brown wrinkled drapes. The laundry is filled with stacks of shoes; the house is home to many.
The topic of migration continues in the lounge. Someone is saying, ‘We are nothing but refugees to the world. Did you see the Germans at some stadium holding up signs saying “REFUGEES WELCOME”? Thanks, but we are Syrians.’
I think of when I was at Istanbul airport on the way to Lebanon. I had been looking at the gates where flights for western European countries were departing. I peered through the glass, trying to take note, at the request of a stranded and outcast Syrian friend in Turkey, of how tightly security checked passports before boarding.
I am told a story of a young man incarcerated by the Assad regime in Damascus and detained in a prison notorious for its brutality and torture. After smuggling in a mobile phone, the man managed to crawl up a tower where he placed an ad hoc bunch of antennae and receptors made from a Coca-Cola can and various metallic scraps. Establishing a signal, he was able to call to his family and report the atrocities occurring in the prison to global media outlets. He also researched techniques on how to overthrow the rule of the prison – and how to escape.
The man’s tactics inspired his fellow inmates, instigating a riot between the prisoners and their captors, killing many, and resulting in the prisoners taking control of the facility.
They established a self-determined and self-sufficient system, creating their own sacrosanct economy – selling goods such as food and tobacco – as well as holding English classes, establishing men’s groups and protection groups for young prisoners to quell sexual and physical violence inside.
The young smuggler has since escaped.
I go 100 kilometres south to Tyre. We pass through multiple military posts; the green cedar tree and the red stripes of the Lebanese flags hand-painted across white oil drums. As we travel alongside a sublime, rushing coast, the odd Hezbollah flag begins to adorn various promenades, along with portraits of the political party’s Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, on enormous stretches of tarpaulin.
Despite the country’s delicate sectarianism and robust security, I walk through various alleys distending from the main streets of Tyre and stumble into a camp of displaced Palestinians. Young children ride BMXs and scooters as men sip coffee at a cafe and smoke cigarettes under large banners of Yasser Arafat.
Other posters include various Palestine Liberation Organization soldiers in battle; their weaponry is replete with lasers and other futuristic graphics. Long, drooping electrical wires from generators feed to open square holes in the facades of the camp.
Some residents seem pleased to see me and invite me in for coffee. I talk to them with hand gestures and stray bits of English. Children take photos with me on their smartphones. Soon it becomes clear that I should not stay much longer to avoid questioning from the guards patrolling the camp.
‘Go that way, brother.’ One of men points down an alley. ‘No military that way.’
I pass small open houses in which families are gathered. Children follow me, but pretend not to be when I turn around.
I walk on the beach of Tyre and make myself believe that I can see the state of Israel on the vaguely remote horizon. Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness (1982) comes to mind. The lauded prose poem rendered the Lebanese civil war through the lived terror of the siege of Beirut, evoking the miasma of an already displaced mind in another war:
I want nothing, and I hope for nothing. I can’t direct my limbs in this pandemonium. No time for caution, and no time for time. If I only knew – if I knew how to organise the crush of this death that keeps pouring forth. If only I knew how to liberate the screams held back in a body that no longer feels like mine from the sheer effort spent to save itself in this uninterrupted chaos of shells. ‘Enough! Enough!’ I whisper, to find out if I can still do anything that will guide me to myself and point to the abyss opening in six directions… The fever of metal is the song of this dawn.
I take the last minivan back to Beirut. After being waved through multiple checkpoints, night drops and we descend through a dense mist. The headlights of oncoming cars beam through the fog like broken kaleidoscopes splayed out on the road.
‘He’s proven to be a very good president, hasn’t he?’ the owner of the cafe asks me as he points to Vladimir Putin on the plasma screen.
‘I’m Ukrainian,’ I say, to cut him off.
He goes silent for a moment, changes topic. ‘Did you hear about the Algerian hacker who stole over $250 million from banks and donated most of it to Palestinian charities? They found him somewhere in Asia.’
The man, Hamza Bendelladj, appears on the news for a moment – a photograph shows him smiling as he is taken into custody.
‘You’re from Australia, right? I liked what your Prime Minister said yesterday.’
‘He said that ISIL is evil. He used the word satanic! I liked it very much.’
‘Not much to disagree with there,’ I say. I finish the last of my drink and leave.
I pass a construction site and watch men muscle hacksaws through orange pipes. A woman with a glass eye stands on the other side of a window. The heat exhausts me again.
I go into the Mohammad al Amin Mosque and lie down. I look up to see the intricate, endless and sublime patterns of the ceiling harmoniously entangle themselves.
Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014.
I go east to Zahlé. Grapevines and Greek Catholic icons dot the way.
After walking around the city, I head up to a quiet peak of the valley. I look for a long time at the mountains that make up the border to Syria. Twilight sheds its skin and I watch the day expire.
After 15 or so minutes, an enormous oval of orange light appears in the night for less than a moment – a bomb-blast over the way in Al-Zabadani. It lights up the horizon, as though beaming from the luminous belly of a gargantuan firefly.
The murky Beirut streets evoke a silent horror, calling to mind how political violence has become endemic to the body politic of this region.
Back in Beirut, I walk the dimly lit streets that stretch out from the bus station. A stranger comes up and asks: ‘What are you doing here? Get in a taxi. This area is full of Syrians and Palestinians. Like a ghetto.’
I keep walking with the image of the inferno on the horizon palpitating in my skull. The murky Beirut streets evoke a silent horror, calling to mind how political violence has become endemic to the body politic of this region. The sight of severed tongues rolling around on the pavement appears.
The hallucination fatigues me, but more come. I imagine a divine Mediterranean that straddles Lebanon simmering down and vanishing into katabatic realms of chaos. How does the proximity of a monstrous war affect an already traumatised neighbour? I ponder on the dimensions of amnesia that may deteriorate in tune with the turbulence at hand – Lebanon may once again spill into turmoil after an absence of reckoning.
The bombing of Al-Zabadani lasts for days.
Two bikies walk in dressed in their leather and speak French and drink Heineken at the end of the bar. ‘The End’ by The Doors plays on the stereo and one of the bikies whistles to the irritating licks of the electric guitar that withers in the background of the song.
The bartender turns on the television. On the news is a live feed of a large protest in Martyrs’ Square, which is about a kilometre away. They are demonstrating against the lumpy stacks of waste that fill street corners. The heat bloats the stench. A group called YouStink are using the garbage crisis as a premise to demonstrate against the general dysfunction of the government.
In the square, the crowd hold up shells of bullets that riot police shot into the air. Hordes of young men take off their T-shirts and mask their faces. Broken windows are smeared with traces of grease – the residue of all these bodies. Tents are being set up to occupy the square. Megaphones blare.
The military arrives in convoys of armoured Jeeps and tanks, and they brandish gatling guns, machine guns, assault rifles.
The steps of the Mohammad al Amin Mosque are swarming with armed police. Tear gas, rubber bullets, water canons. The protesters advance and retreat. Young men collect rocks and bottles, all down by the green line, which constituted the central division of sects, religions, political parties and militias during the civil war.
Standing in the centre of the crowd, I feel as though I am in the interior of an already-exploded reactor. The notion of Lebanon being a relatively peaceful place in a turbulent Middle East is beginning to dissipate.
On a step I look to the rear of the crowd to find that it has grown five times in size. The city’s main road is now blocked. Every few minutes the crowd parts to let another ambulance through, the sirens ringing high between them. There is chanting.
The tear gas burns my eyes, and makes me feel like nails are pressing into my cheeks. Demonstrators in gas masks piggyback others who have collapsed from dehydration. Flames lick at the half-built bell tower of the city’s main Maronite church. Smartphones are raised into the air, recording.
Testosterone, taut skin; news reporters in helmets and bulletproof vests; the echoes of the tear gas guns bouncing between the buildings; windows smashing, glass crackling underfoot, a man limping, a pair of spectacles broken into a woman’s eyes; headlights of motorcycles and scooters beaming through bodies and legs; more tear gas twisting around tree branches; lumps, blisters, shoulders against shoulders, forearms shielding skulls; the scream of a young woman; people ripping off the walls of a construction site and throwing the boards into another pile of fire, burning tyres, burning plastic, burning asbestos, burning trailers, burning traffic lights, burning billboards, burning anything in immediate sight; onlookers smoke cigarettes; more smashing of traffic lights; people offering each other cold water; a taller inferno closer to parliament.
‘This no good,’ the man beside me says. ‘Are you hungry?’
He offers to take me out for kebabs. Nearby, someone walks through selling espresso, and the man buys me one. Meanwhile people sing, something explodes, and a television is set on fire.
‘Why are you here?’ I ask the man.
‘I was just on my way home,’ he replies.
The military arrives in convoys of armoured Jeeps and tanks, and they brandish gatling guns, machine guns, assault rifles. They charge through the fires and makeshift barricades and towards the people.
We run from the tank doing doughnuts in the square. The tread of the tank grinds on the asphalt, throwing up sparks at our bare arms and legs.
The power cuts out when I get home.
I peel myself off couch cushions in the following late morning. The stench of gas, body odour and waste spills from my pores. I splash water on my skin and return to the square.
The police have built a 15-foot wall blocking the steps to parliament. People throw bottles over to the large crowd of police on the other side. Fellow demonstrators tell them to stop. A man tries to climb over the wall.
‘I don’t think there’ll be a revolution tonight,’ says a young man next to me. ‘It needs to be more. This protest will be the precedent for the youth. It needs to be more violent. There will be no revolution without violence.’
White patches of sweat from running still stain my jeans, but the havoc of last night feels like weeks ago. People are picking up rocks, perhaps just to be seen to be picking up rocks. One masked and topless man, no older than 17, keeps running through the procession, trying to barge the police barricade.
He tries and fails five or six times. Seething with rage, he runs about with his thin arms pounding on his thin legs. In front of the crowd, he runs toward a bank and crashes into the glass door of the entrance, headfirst.
People take photos of the boy on the ground, and of themselves. There is an ice cream van, and many espresso vendors clinking their cups. Furious men threaten filming journalists – ‘Not the face!’
The main organisers and campaigners of YouStink stand between the police and the riled youth. With sectarianism so heavily embedded within the political system, the protest is also splintered. Compared to last night, there is an air of despondency in the air. A stranger buys me a coffee on my way out.
I pass a bar in Gemmayze full of foreigners. A thick British accent mouths: ‘Did you see the protests? What helpless dribble.’
‘It’s an upper-class thing to speak Arabic badly here. Says it all, really,’ another sniggers.
The YouStink campaigners announce another demonstration is planned for the end of the week.
I trek out to find and take photos of an abandoned adult theatre named Monaco. It is in Bourj Hammoud – the most populated neighbourhood in the Middle East. I lose my way in the crowds.
I stop searching and take a table at a busy kebab shop close to the bustling landmark of the Dora bus station. Overweight African women smoke shisha and exchange coquettish glances with one another, as though they are trying to out-seduce themselves. Chickens turn in a metal rotisserie box. Workers knock off and slowly pace home together, arm in arm.
The man on the table next to me has a tattoo that circles his eye, and a tight red Nike singlet to accentuate his muscles. Day turns to night. The bartender has a violet between her toes. Inside the shop, live on the television news, the YouStink demonstrators are doing a sit-in in parliament.
‘Nothing but puppetry,’ the tattooed man says, drinking beer from a plastic cup.
I wake up to a driver poking me in an empty minivan in Tripoli. This city is much less gentrified than Beirut. Many of the buildings are also riddled with bullet holes. Bombed-out cars and scrap are scattered throughout the citadel, medina and souks – perhaps from Sunni aggression to the Alawite minority; perhaps the other way around. The city feels alive.
I meet a young Syrian man at a bus stop. He offers me the couch of his apartment on the outskirts. One of his housemates is illegally in Lebanon at the moment.
Since early 2015, Lebanon has made strict visa requirements for foreigners, due to the substantial number of Syrians entering the country. The housemate has the curtains drawn – he’s under a self-imposed house arrest until he gets his papers sorted. He claims to be a book editor and poet.
I ask if he has something of his own poetry to share. He tells me how he counts cigarettes to pass the time.
A young Lebanese man comes by in the morning. ‘You’re from Australia, right? I have family in Parramatta.’
‘Yeah. I grew up with quite a few Lebanese, actually,’ I say, unsure why, feeling it’s weightless small talk.
‘They’re wogs and lebos, not Lebanese,’ he laughs, adding: ‘I never want to go to Australia.’
The Syrian host takes me for a drive through the stunning countryside to the north of Tripoli.
We move into a forest. Shotgun shells from bird hunting litter the trail. The earth has swallowed the river dry. I smell eucalypts. We continue on, bask in the tranquility of the ravine. We sit on the parched earth and stay silent for a while.
I ask the man about his memories of Syria.
‘I remember more before the war. The war has veiled things…masked things. I remember, in Aleppo, there was a gang who killed the owner of a gold shop. The regime found all the members of the gang and hanged them all out the front of the shop. And people really liked it!’ He says this with a strangely gleeful tone. ‘Have you seen what Aleppo looks like now? I will not know my way around when I go back.’
Further on into the ravine, trees obscure the sky overhead.
‘I just want to know that my family is okay,’ he says. ‘In 20 years, we who have left and have been educated will go back and rebuild our country.’
I take a taxi back to Beirut in the middle of the night. The highways are desolate despite it being the weekend.
As we pull into the capital, I reflect on the fear and suffering that Beirut is housing in this moment, which is glazed by the city’s apparent wealth, as well as its natural wonder, while its fractured heart and dismantled organs gleam beneath in a blinding light.
The power cuts out again. The street lights too. The sweat on my brow feels like saliva.
One of the taxi’s tyres explodes and we slowly drift towards the curb. When we open the boot we discover there is no spare. I pull my lighter out of my pocket and stand on the roadside with my bag, rolling thumb on flint, trying to hail a ride. Nobody stops.
The driver and I sit on the curb and wait in the shadow of a bridge. I hear voices gather in obtuse rhythms. A flare darts into the sky. Gunshots ring out in the darkness.
‘What’s with all the noise,’ I ask the driver.
‘Oh, they want a president,’ he says, and holds his breath. ‘Unfortunately, it was paradise.’