Monday, 26 February 2007

Ordnance

Difficult to imagine a war here, it’s so peaceful. Stand in Qasir’s olive groves and you can’t hear the traffic only 30 metres away, you can only hear the birds circling over head.

In the baldia of Dier Qanun al-Nahr we get a real feel for how things work around the small villages of the south. We called the number given to us by Dalya Farran, the UNs extremely relaxed and deliberate coordinator of unexploded ordnance clearance. I thought we were calling a londowner whose farm had recently been cleared, and we could arrange an interview with him. Once he answered, and generously invited us to meet him right then, I was surprised to find it was, in fact, the president of the municipality.

There was no red tape involved, no appointments through his secretary, he simply walked with us into his office, produced two cups of coffee instantly, and offered to help us in any way he could.

While we sat in his office, local farmers and other ordinary members of the community simply walked in, shook hands and settled any minor disputes with a brief conversation. It was impossible to imagine local politics like this in the UK, just walking in to talk to your local mayor with no appointment and greeting him like an old friend.

The president is Mohammad Kassir, a rather common name in the village, we soon found out. He clearly commanded respect in the area, but he was nevertheless extremely happy to welcome Federico and I and to drive with us to the house of a local farmer (also a Kassir) to help arrange an interview.

It was a refreshing change from the bureaucracy and stonewalling we had expected after our visit to the Hizbullah press office in Beirut.

On our way out of Dier Qanun al-Nahr, we were directed to the house of Mohammad Ahmed who couldn’t access his olive groves for months following the war. When we arrived at his house, his family greeted us from the balcony of their two-story peach-coloured house. Their dog, Jacques, barked excitedly from the garage. With a look of interest and concern at the arrival of our car, clearly marked TV for our uneasy drive along the Israeli border, the family cautiously welcomed us and summoned Mohammad to speak.

My first impression was of a hard man, not one to tolerate curious foreign journalists, but as soon as I explained what we were doing and nervously asked (in a raised voice, because he was still looking down at us from his balcony, “is there any chance we could talk to you?” his face broke easily into a smile. “Of course,” he replied and came down the steps with the entire family (wife, three boys and a dog).

His face was surprising for his bright blue eyes, peppered grey stubble and deep set wrinkles. He must only have been 40 or so, but he looked ten years older. He explained how he and his family lasted 11 days of Israeli bombardment, but eventually left the house and the village when the children could no longer handle the attacks. They were terrified, the mother explained, and would cry at the very sound of jets flying overhead.

Mohammad had waited months for his land to be cleared, and he was too late to harvest his olives and the entire season was lost. He was lucky enough to have several other farms in the area that could be worked until his olives recovered in time for next season.

He had a sadness about him, despite his incredible strength and generosity. The encounter was made somewhat surreal by the fact that every few minutes his two youngest boys would come shrieking passed us, Jacques bounding along and dragging his chain behind him, as they chased the dog around the filed and laughed hysterically. Mohammad laughed too, seeing his children oblivious to the deadly legacy in the fields surrounding them. But soon enough he returned to a mood of heavy resignation as though, even amidst his joyous carefree children, generous wife and beautiful elegant olive groves, he had already seen too much. As if he knew things might never be normal in this part of Lebanon.

The farmer in the red woolen hat (we never did get his name) had owned those chicken coops now hammered flat. It was a sign of the extent of Israel’s destruction in these southern villages that even chicken coops (or “factories” as Federico called them) were bombed, as though the chickens themselves were somehow part of the Islamic militia.

His invitation wasn’t simply a polite offer. It was full of hope, his eyes pleading as though he were genuinely compelled (perhaps even he didn’t understand why) to have us in his home. That kind of generosity, I later tried to explain to Federico, actually hurt me, made me feel ashamed that I never extend that kind of warmth to a complete stranger.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Khiam, Dead Museum of the Dead

Driving through Qantara. Pissing down with rain. Lost on the way to Khiam, we were told we had to go through this valley – we said we’ll go around it, but in the end we couldn’t avoid it. I looks beautiful, some sharp hills, occasionally we see caves (we assume these are the Hezbollah hideouts we've heard so much about) On the dirt roads, some sections are completely washed away. Olive groves to the right, to the left grey cubic houses.

Along the Israeli border, passing Fatma’s Gate. Still pissing with rain, everything looks dark and overbearing. All along the way two parallele sets of fences, one electrified and one fortified. Stations along the way, watch towers. At the end, a Lebanese village facing the Israeli settlement. The Lebanese side looks like it was made by hand. Across a lush valleys, agricultural land, a settlement that looks like lego land, white cubes, red pitched roof.

In the village of Khiam, stop in a falafel place just to get out of the rain. Ali Deeb, a civil engineer from Khiam, approaches us and we started talking about the point of the film. He's extremely, almost aggresively passionate about his ideas. He's welcoming to us, then "this is the message you have to give to Europeans" (ten minute monologue).

"People that talk about human rights are the ones supporting things like Israel, violating Palestinian human rights. We have no problem with people of America, Jews, people of Israel. It’s the governments we have problems with, governments are interested only in money. Halliburton, Iraq, who's lining their pockets with money? They don’t have the peoples’ interests in mind. People are starving in Somalia and Ethiopia but they’re also throwing food away to keep prices up and lining their pockets. (I nod occasionally) Arabs have the right to live freely on their own land."

Ali was bon here, lived here his entire life. He remembers, as a child, surviving Israeli bombings. "You must tell Europeans that we have the right to live on our own land." There’s a difference between political life and actual life.

He's very nicely dressed, clean shaven, tie, jacket, clean shoes. But around him the roads are torrents and buildings crumbling. He says “I wish your friend could understand,” pointing to Federico.

"If Jews want to live here, it’s not a problem, but to kick someone out of their place and then say this is my land is unacceptable, whoever you are."

Later, in Khiam, I ask the care-taker Abu-Ali about the museum. "It's not a museum, it's a detention centre." Secret Israeli prison, secret tortures, disappearences. He was a prisoner here for 5 years, tortured, he has to take 6 medicines every day.

Abu-Ali is in his Early 40’s, round face, moustache, his eyes unaligned. He's very serious in the interview. He says he's sick, that’s why he’s wearing track suit bottoms, so please only film him from the waist up.

He says they get more tourists now then they did in the days of the original museum, before it was destroyed. When it was first "liberated", Khiam because a tourist attraction, "See where Israel secretly held and electrocuted the testicles of thousands of kidnapped Lebanese." Then it was bombed in the summer war, destroyed, and became and even bigger tourist attraction.

The whole thing is a monument to the detention centre, to the torture. Abu-Ali explains the younger guys there are working to keep the memory alive because they understand how important it is.
"Will you restore it?"
"After the last war, the brothers decided there was no choice but to leave it like this. It was previously a place of torture and hatred and barbarism, and now it’s the same thing: it’s still about torture and destruction."
He lost friends here, five killed inside, others died after leaving.

I ask the old familiar question, and get the same familiar answer. "How are things in Khiam now?" (it was bombed, again).
"The situation in Khiam is great, people want the resistance because the resistance defends their honour and their dignity."

We're offered Hezbollah DVDs, live footage of their operations during the war, a history of the prison, testimonials.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The Farthest South

Our guidebook ends in Tyre, nothing south of here is mentioned, despite the fact that it calls the South “the most hospitable part of the country,” (which, I believe, is true). Tyre itself is a quiet seaside town, previously a fishing town where Muslims and Christians have traditionally lived together with few problems. Around Tyre, an area known as the Tyre Pocket, was the most heavily bombed during the war, and these days the town survived very well on the NGO economy. Virtually every group working in Southern Lebanon is based in Tyre: it’s the largest city in the south, and the farthest south as you can go without sacrificing bars, restaurants and predictable electricity (predictable because the locals know it cuts out for four hours every night)

As we drove along winding (at the moment, flooding) valleys through a series of small towns, we saw on every building the signs of surveys for unexploded bombs – a red letter followed by three numbers spray-painted on the outside of the house. The entire area is still littered with an estimated 1 million unexploded cluster bombs, a situation that has turned some areas into de-facto mine fields. There are a handful of groups, some NGOs and some commercial all under the direction of the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Centre, working to clear the country’s south. At the moment, there are nearly 60 teams working simultaneously, seven days a week, but at this rate it will take them at least another five years before the job is done.

We had arrived in the south with little hope of getting a lot of footage. Last week, we had been told by Hezbollah’s press office in Beirut that we wouldn’t be allowed to film anything in the south. As the story goes, another journalist had earlier received permission to film one thing, and ended up doing another. It caused “a lot of trouble” we were told: a thinly veiled reference to espionage, but we were given no more details. All filming permissions were frozen until further notice. We were told by other journalists that it would be impossible, that everyone would be suspicious. A BBC producer described how had once been assigned an escort who would let him film nothing but buildings – no people, no pets, not even a shawarma stall.

With little choice – we weren’t about to simply give up - Federico and I were forced to take our chances and go it alone. It was likely, as had happened in the Beka’a Valley, that as soon as we stepped out of our car, we’d be met by the party’s usual scooter-riding youth network of informers and sent off before a single shot could be framed…

We were extremely cautious, and nervous, approaching Ait Echa’ab. The weather was oppressive, a dark and thick fog covered everything and made the village look even more depressing than it was already. The people we met, however, were a complete surprise. They were not only willing to speak to us (though without giving their names) but were even eager to show us around. As soon as we arrived, we had a teenage guide who pointed out the locations of Hezbollah fighters and Israeli positions, recounting battles for the camera as though he himself was there. It was difficult to keep up with his stories - the houses and streets of the battles he was describing no longer existed. There was nothing but rubble.

Another pair of boys, no more than 10 years old, became fascinated with Federico’s camera and took off with it, filming an old couple farming in their tiny plot and arranging their own scenes. One of the boys pointed to a Hezbollah flag in the basement of a nearby, partly destroyed building. “That’s where one of the fighters was martyred,” he told me, and – like the teenager earlier – recounted the battle with details that could only be, by this point, the stuff of legends. The boys were bright, still innocent and childish but – somehow - quite proudly showing us around the utter destruction of their village. It was impossible to imagine what affect all this violence was having on them – living every day amongst so much destruction, walking to school through the rubble, playing in destroyed houses where once fighters were “martyred”.

At the farthest edge of the village, while following one of the teenagers around, I came across the type of surreal site that has come to define the resilient, constantly “post-war” Lebanon. A film crew was shooting a short music video in the ruins of a house, complete with an actor wearing a fake beard and a kafiyyah: an urbanite (rather badly) made up to look like a village elder. A group of camera assistants and producers paced back and forth, eyeing our camera suspiciously and taking notes on their clipboards. They had even lit a fire in one of the ruined houses for added realism. No one displayed the slightest hint of irony in filming a music video beside locals still rebuilding their houses, by hand. In Ait Echa’ab, the war still wasn’t over, but it had already become recent history, an instant folk tale.

We met a man working on his own, perhaps on his mid-thirties, cutting lengths of rebar. It first, his face looked harsh – bold features and angry eyes. He scowled at me, always answering questions as though I had insulting him. “It must be hard to rebuild all this…” I asked, looking around at the extent of the destruction.
“It’s harder living under occupation,” he replied.
“But you’re in a difficult situation now…”
“See all this destruction behind me,” he asked rhetorically. “It’s nothing. As long as there’s no occupation, and you have a lot of dignity, you can walk tall. Either you live with dignity, or you’re humiliated for your entire life.”
It’s something we were to hear over and over again in the south. It was hard to know if he was being honest, or just sounding defiant for the camera, but he displayed what I soon realised was typical Lebanese resilience bordering on denial. Over and over, I would ask “things must be difficult for you now,” standing beside the ruins of their home, but again and again the same answer came: “No, the resistance was successful. We still have our self-respect.”

On our way out of Ait Echa’ab, as we passed a series of towns - Ramiye, Ait Echaab, Rmesh - a pattern soon became clear. The most heavily bombed villages were all Muslim, the Christian villages neighbouring them were hardly damaged at all. A young kid in Ait Echa’ab had told us he had fled to neighbouring Rmesh during the war for safety. Unfortunately, Hezbollah fighters occasionally had the same idea, and so Israel’s air force had bombed several of the roads through these sleepy villages. Other than the roads, however, the Christian villages were virtually untouched.

Further along, in Bint Jbeil – one of Hezbollah’s operational centres in the south and another village almost entirely destroyed - more surreal moments of “war tourism”. A group of young, trendy Beirutis in their 30’s, here to “smell the air.”
“You chose a strange time to visit,” I offered to a baby-faced looking man in a red jumper who had appointed himself the group’s spokesman.
“No, it’s a sad time, but not a strange time.” There was a sense of nostalgia as he looked behind him, towards the Israeli border, across fields of rubble. His friend, shaven head and tattoos, was urinating against the ruins of a house.
“This is a place of heroes,” he said “This is where the real struggle was.” It was his way of escaping the relative safety of Beirut’s bubble to see what really happened in another of this country’s darkest moments.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The City of Saida

After waiting for five days for our MOD paperwork to visit the south of the country, we finally get a call from Col. Debian at 1pm, while we’re already on our way to Beit Eddin having given up on the paperwork for today, announcing it’s ready. We race back to the hulking housing estate that is the Hazmiyyah military compound, sign our permission paper in front of the colonel, quickly pack our things in the Beirut hotel and head south.

On the drive, we pass the beaches of Jieh and Ramliyah, with resort names like Pangea, Hawaii and Bondi Beach in a strip of coast just south of Beirut. Last summer, thoss resorts should have hosted tourists from around Lebanon and the surrounding countries, but that tourist season was hastily cancelled, and this year, the oil spill threatened to kill off another season. All the bridges in this area, every single bridge leaving Beirut, has been bombed. Sometimes, you just see a massive hole through the bridge, other times, the bridge is completely gone. Some bridges have temporary bridges over them that slow traffic to a one-lane crawl, others are still under construction forcing us on completely unexpected detours, often down into the gully beside the bridge and up steeply on the other side. “It’s disgusting” Federico mumbles to himself, seeing the extent of the destruction. We follow a blue sign on the highway which simply says, in Arabic only, The South.

Our destination, for now, is the military intelligence building in Saida we’ve heard so much about. The city itself is grim. Grey, dark, largely industrial, it’s depressing and almost lifeless. At the first checkpoint we arrive at, no one seems interested in our paperwork (the paperwork we just waited five days for) We’re given directions to the intelligence building, though the soldier seems confused as to why we want to go there, assuring us “You don’t need any more paperwork…”

The military intelligence building here is no better than the sprawling complex of Hazmiyyah. It’s slightly more run down, but otherwise the same rules apply. No one seems the least bit interested in us, as far as I’m concerned I could just drive on without the permission and no one would even notice. Most surprisingly (or perhaps least surprisingly) they don’t even have a photocopy machine here. This is, I repeat, the building in which is coordinated MILITARY INTELLIGENCE for the ENTIRE SOUTHERN HALF OF LEBANON. That is, the half that borders on Israel. The country with which Lebanon has been in a state of war for the past 60 years. No photocopy machine.

The clerk inside is watching Top Gun on tv, and tells us that we can’t get our permission number (it’s not even a physical piece of paper) until we’re actually heading further south than Tyre.
“We’re going south tomorrow.”
“oh, you’re going to have to call tomorrow.” Apparently, they don’t think more than 24 hours ahead in this building.
“I’m still not convinced there’s any intelligence there,” Federico comments later.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Pepe The Pirate

The last 40 years of Lebanon’s history seem so far away from Byblos. It’s a small coastal town, the centre now rebuilt to look like a holiday town, but on the day Federico and I arrive, the weather is beautiful and so warm, we’re tempted to swim. Narrow cobbled streets, lined with souvenir shops, fish fossil shops and small restaurants leads to a square of restaurants, almost like a miniature Lebanese piazza. Here, unlike many of Lebanon’s coastal towns I’ve seen so far, you can actually feel that you’re near to the sea. In Beirut, for reasons I still can’t figure out, the city seems very rarely to be oriented towards the sea. There is a corniche, but the restaurants along the coast are most often set far from the sea, with a major road in between then. There are none of the small cafes and bars you would expect facing the sea, couples sitting outside in the sun enjoying the sea breeze. It’s as if the city were happy to glance over at the sea, to be occasionally reminded if it, but too wary to open up and face it directly every morning.

In Byblos, the real attraction is the Byblos Fishing Club. We’re here to find Pepe, the legendary owner who welcomed an international clientele of superstars, politicians and sports heroes into his eternally open restaurant. Our real reason for coming here, aside from the restaurant’s reputation, is to meet the man himself and hear him reminisce about the incredible life of this restaurant during its heyday. But when Federico asks inside a souvenir shop on one of Byblos’ picturesque cobbles streets, the answer is less than encouraging:
“We’re here to meet Pepe The Pirate. Do you know where he is?”
“Pepe? He’s dead...”


So it is that all that remains of the Pepe “The Pirate” Abed, Mexican-Lebanese restaurateur extraordinaire, are hundreds of framed photographs of the impresario at work, hosting an island of calm in a country routinely dragged through hell. His meeting with the various dignitaries and celebrities that have dined here over the years are all preserved in glamorous black and white. Some names are immediately recognisable: Marlon Brando and for example Brigette Bardot. Others are a slightly more dubious, a former European Ping-Pong champion for example.

On a pair of tables at the back of the restaurant, under a sheet of glass, are dozens of snapshots of the man as he would surely want to be remembered, with his arm around every member of the Miss Europe 2004 pageant, some of them kissing the 94-year-old pirate on the cheek.

In between serving the Albanian mafia on the table behind us, Marwan - the restaurant’s only waiter - explains that the restaurant has never closed since it’s opening in the 1960’s. Throughout the civil war, and last summer’s war, the restaurant remained opened and, aside from an understandable drop in tourism and some minor damage from Israeli bombs last summer, untouched by the country’s wars.
“If Byblos Fishing Club closes,” Marwan explains proudly, “It means Lebanon is closed.”

The view from the balcony is incredible. A small bay, fishing boats bobbing on the water, opens on to the ocean. The sun sets behind the bay, silhouetting swimmers and fishermen enjoying the unseasonably hot weather.

After lunch, Federico decides to take a brief swim in the bay despite the fact that Marwan has just spent the last twenty minutes showing us photos of the water after a massive oil-spill, the result of Israel’s bombing of several coastal fuel tanks during the summer of 2006. In his underwear, watched suspiciously by the locals, he manages to swim out barely a few metres before swimming back and trying to climb his way on to the rocks. As he slithers, half-naked, back on to the rocks and stands in the sun to try off, a fisherman, looking rather unimpressed throughout, waves for him to move out of the way so he can cast his line. Instead of lending Federico a hand to get his clothes back on, I’m filming the whole sorry episode.

The fisherman is from Luqluqa, a skiing resort high in the mountains, who comes here to fish every week. “I come here to feed my friends and family,” he explains, adding with a dry smile “I also like Vodka and women…”

Monday, 19 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: M.O.D.

Federico and I finally get the film’s opening scene shot – a visit to Beirut’s official tourist office to ask their advice on having a holiday here. The receptionist piles hundreds of pamphlets and brochures and books on the desk, filling Federico’s arms with information, maps, bus time tables and booklets. She talks continuously and does her best to gloss over the difficult questions:
“What about the Etoile area, can we visit there.”
“Oh, no, don’t visit there, it’s dangerous, but go to Gemazeh it’s beautiful.”

At one point there a bizarre scene when I ask about visiting the south of Lebanon, and the receptionist gets on the phone to someone else in the building to ask “Do you need Hizbullah permission to visit the south?” Most tourists would probably be put off by it…

She’s very diplomatic- when it comes to the really awkward questions, she simply ignores me and piles more brochures into Federico’s hands.

We already know we need Hizbullah permission to visit some areas of the south of the country, but now it seems we also need Lebanese military position to venture further south than Saida. Once there, we’re told, we need to register those military papers with the “Mukhabarat.” Once upon a time in Lebanon, the Mukhabarat meant Syrian intelligence eavesdropping on your conversations and phone calls, listening carefully for dissenting voices. Now, it’s simply part of the national security apparatus, but for me the word still conjures up images of a clandestine network of informers, the bane of free-thinkers still today throughout the entire Middle East.

In order to get our military papers, we’re directed to the Ministry of Defence in Hazmiyyah, a sprawling compound 2km long of hideous concrete, desolate architecture and extremely bored looking soldiers. At the centre of the complex is the MOD’s monument to Lebanon’s wars – a giant concrete slice of Swiss cheese with, embedded into it, a bizarre collection of tanks and APCs all with turrets pointing to the sky. It’s one of the most miserable monuments I’ve ever seen, though it seems to fit Hazmiyyah quite well and takes pride of place in the centre of the ministry’s main compound.
After passing through several levels of security, Federico and I are escorted to the second floor to an office where we’re introduced to Colonel Airman Hisham Debian. He seats us in front of his desk, beside a relief map of Lebanon showing, in 3D, the country’s incredible geographic diversity. It also highlights how easy it would be to draw, almost on geographic lines, the political divisions of Lebanon.

Colonel Debian shakes my hand and orders two coffees from an assistant. He’s a handsome man of around 40, clean shaven with slick black hair who draws patiently on his cigarettes before speaking. We discuss the documentary and our reasons for wanting to visit the south as the Colonel explains the procedures. I laugh nervously at his jokes, aware that he could easily send me away with nothing if he doesn’t like the look on my face.

By the end of our brief meeting, everything seems in order and we’re preparing to say our goodbyes. But there’s something, a voice in the back if my mind, that won’t shut up. It’s telling me to ask a question – a question which, I know, could upset The Colonel. But I can’t ignore that voice. To avoid asking the question would mean I wasn’t really doing my job, as a journalist, and would definitely leave me tortured with curiosity. So I ask, as tactfully as possible:
“What about the Hezbullah areas in the south? Will military permission help us there?”

The Colonel is silent. He draws on his cigarette. He thinks some more, and I’m beginning to regret asking the question.

Finally, the officer by his side interrupts the silence,
“Hezbullah? There’s no Hezbullah in the South.”
The Colonel, without looking up from his desk, agrees in a way that leaves no room for questions; “No Hezbullah…”

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Bisharre (skiing, finally)

We’re going skiing. Today is a very important day because, as one half of the title of the film, the skiing is crucial. On the drive to the skiing chalets in the hills above Bisharre, we catch a lift on this snowy, overcast day along winding, icy streets (always driving too fast. At every turn, I’m certain we’re going to slide off the mountain face).

La Casa seems to be the place if you want to rent skiing equipment. Pushing open the door of the rental shop, I’m surprised to see many of the same faces from the club last night (just below the shop) including a 12-year-old boy last night dancing on a podium, today playing a basketball video game. From amongst the slightly sleepy crowd, we’re greeted by Tony, owner of La Casa and the underground club beneath it. Tony is a mix between frightening and endearing, a real over the top character whose voice sounds like he’s been gargling cut glass and a face impossibly wrinkled and deep cut with grooves. He’s like a Lebanese Mafioso caricature, it’s often hard to take him seriously, especially in his “HOT ONE” jacket. Tony sets Federico up with all the equipment he’ll need for the day, pausing in between fittings to show us a few magic tricks.

Almost above the clouds, I stare up the endless pilons and cables of the ski lift. Federico seems at home here – he’s been skiing since he was four years old. I choose the perfect moment to announce to him that not only have I never been skiing in my life, I’ve never even ridden a ski lift before. My hands are already freezing as I try to film while we glide up the vast mountain face, our feet skimming above the snow. The panorama is immense, towering walls of pure, blinding white on three sides. Behind us, occasionally when the fog breaks, we see rows of this region’s famous cedar trees surrounding the tiny village of Bisharre and the modest ski resort below us.

The second life takes us up to 3000 metres and a plateau where the drama of the sheer walls of snow gives way to an eerie calm. The fog fills our lungs, I can’t see more than 50 metres ahead and everything sounds muffled and unreal. The only sound, when I hold my breath, is the motor of the cable car churning in the distance. Federico says his goodbye to camera, I wish him luck (pointing out that we never did, in fact, find any Hizbullah to ski with) and he pushes off, skating over the blanket of snow and disappears into the fog. In the dead air, it feels like I’m the only person left on earth.

Later, Tony (this time the owner of Tiger Hotel, not the ski rental shop owner) is talking about his life here in the mountains. We’re in Geagea territory here – the former militia leader turned “respectable” politician who spent 11 years in prison for a series of political murders (including a church bombing of which he was later acquitted). It’s a rarely discussed fact about this country’s civil war that some of the most intense and brutal fighting was not simply Muslim against Christian, Syrian against Lebanese or Palestinian against Israeli but inter-sectarian violence for control of the various militias that keep sprouting in various communities. Geagea came to lead the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite Christian militia with roots in the fascist Phalange, after overthrowing Elia Hobeika – another equally brutal Christian militia leader.

Tony’s own life story reflects this style of inter-sectarian fighting. Born and raised in Bisharre, he eventually left his home town for the relative safety of Juniah (just North of Beirut) during a feud between two neighbouring families in his valley. One murder led to another, and he took off before the cycle of violence threatened to swallow him and his family.

On the wall of Tony’s living room is pasted, rather unnervingly, a photograph of Samir Geagea. The photograph is split down the middle: on the left, the man in prison and on the right, the free politician and current member of the March 14 alliance (in general anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri).
“He represents the Maronites, and we love him” Tony tells me. “He’s from Bisharre. Even if he wasn’t from Bisharre we would still love him.” Knowing the Maronite, and particularly Phalange, hatred for Palestinians during the civil war, I find it wiser to introduce myself to Tony as an Egyptian – not strictly untrue (I’m half Egyptian) but not entirely true (I consider myself Palestinian). It’s an uncomfortable story to have to tell, not only because of the historical treatment of Palestinians by the Phalange militias, but because being Palestinian isn’t something I like to lie about.

Tony’s devotion to Geagea reveal a surreal, paradoxical aspect of Lebanese democracy: every sect has its own political party to which it is eternally dedicated, no matter what. Later, talking to Tony’s son Fuad, this is beautifully illustrated. Fuad is a 24-year old recent law school graduate, smartly dressed with a few days of stubble and slightly tired eyes. “Lebanon is the only democracy in this region,” he tells me over coffee in his father’s house. Later, I overhear him in conversation with Federico as we’re driving back into Beirut: “I’m from Bisharre, so of course I’m Lebanese Forces.”

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Tiger Hotel

We knock on the window of Tiger House, the cheapest hotel in Bisharre where Federico and I are to fulfil the “skiing” part of the film’s title. Bisharre is a small, quiet town in the Qadisha valley, the spiritual homeland of “Lebanon”, home of the legendary cedars, and the heartland of the country’s Maronite community.

It’s dark already, and as I try to peer through the window (no one’s answering) I notice a UN jeep parked outside the front door. The road behind is slick with rain, and it’s cold here at an altitude of around 1000m. Eventually, the door opens and we’re greeted by the sound of a loud party, and by Tony, the hotel’s owner. Tony is a kind, extremely welcoming man in his early 50’s with deep, slightly troubled eyes that seem to betray some past darkness, now hidden away in their somewhere. As we step inside the living room, we see where the noise is coming from: a group of very drunk Polish UN soldiers, posted in Naqorra but here on a few day’s leave.

As soon as we sit down next to the fire to relax, it becomes immediately obvious that the soldiers have something else in mind for us. They want to get us drunk on the same Vodka they’ve been shooting for hours. Tony returns to the kitchen with a welcome glass of whiskey, but as soon as he’s gone Robert – the most vociferous of the soldiers – pours us each a vodka and thrusts the glasses into our hands. I’m not really in the mood for Vodka, but with Robert, it’s impossible to say no.
“Italia! Nasdrovya!” he yells, and holds his shot glass up to cheers. I stare at him, a bit lost. I hold up my glass of whiskey:
“Whiskey. I’m drinking slowly…”
“No!” Robert glares at me, “Vodka! Drink!”
“Oh, I don’t really want-“
“Drink!”
I’m actually afraid to say no. Robert seems nice enough, but at this point he seems like he could snap at any moment, and I don’t want to push him.

Federico and I start laughing to each other, slightly nervous, but we’re trying to keep a low profile (hoping Robert will forget about us). The Poles continue drinking. We eat dinner. The Poles drink some more – shot after shot of Finlandia vodka. Robert keeps repeating the only sentence he knows in English which is, for some reason, “Life is brutal…” and he holds up another shot glass, shoots it, screws up his face in distaste and chases it with a sip of cola. You know something’s wrong when your only English sentence is “Life is brutal.”

For the next hour or so, Robert forces another two glasses of vodka on me. “Five minutes!” he yells at me, holding up his hand to tell me how much longer I have to finish the glass before he pours me another.
“No, Robert, I need to drink slowly.”
“Five minutes!”
Before long, one of Robert’s friends is so drunk he keels over on the couch, his head starts lolling and he starts mumbling to himself. The soldier next to him, who seems to be the older and slightly more responsible one, picks him up and drags him to the toilet, then to his bed.

“I can’t believe this,” Federico says to me under his breath. “The are the people in charge of peacekeeping. Imagine, the UN around the world, and these are the people we’re supposed to trust.” I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

At midnight, some of Tony’s younger relatives come by the hotel to visit and offer us a lift to a nightclub in the mountains above Bisharre. Luckily, by this point, the Poles are all in bed. Even Robert “Life is Brutal” crashed early. The midnight drive takes us via winding cliff-hugging streets to La Casa nightclub where we watch exhausted, from our seats, as the village’s young Lebanese dance into the night. After around 15 minutes, I’m already regretting the decision to come out tonight and I can hardly keep my eyes open. I’m falling asleep in my chair. For the next two hours we have to wait patiently for our ride back into Bisharre, occasionally turning to each other to mumble, in a fake Polish accent, “Life is brutal…”

Skiing With Hezbollah: Trablus, not Byblos

The plan was to take a bus to Byblos to film around the once famous Byblos Fishing Club - a seaside restaurant once frequented by Hollywood’s elite including Marlon Brando. Instead, we fell asleep on the bus and missed our stop. We ended up in Tripoli, where we weren’t planning to visit until the next day.

Seconds after we leave the bus in Tripoli’s main square, we’re approached by a local guide Ali. His round face and slightly bulging eyes give him a rather comical look, and with his face in a permanent grin, it’s often hard to take him seriously. But Ali is, in fact, an extremely friendly and generous man. He talks at a thousand miles per hour, never stopping for more than a few seconds to answer a question as quickly as possible. Even before we have a chance to answer, he takes us on a lightening quick tour of a few sites in the area, then declares “We’ll meet tomorrow for the rest of the tour, ok? When do you want to meet? It’s hard to decline his offer, not only because we do – actually - need a guide in Tripoli, but also because Ali is so genuine and eager to please we can’t refuse his offer.

The pension we decide to stay in is more like your grandmother’s house than a hotel. The building that houses it is a bizarre structure: extremely tall and thin, the huge atrium that runs through the middle seems to have been sliced out at random. A series of Brazilian flags hangs in front of the door to the pension. Inside, an extremely old woman sits, doubled over with age, in front of a heater watching an Arabic game show. Another women shows us to our room. Everything smells of damp and old clothes. It’s comfortable, but I have trouble sleeping the first night, a combination of the sound of the (extremely loud) television and the electrics buzzing like a mosquito around my ears, and a mosquito buzzing around my ears.

The next morning, Federico and I arrive slightly late to meet Ali for our tour. Standing on the agreed spot, we can’t find him anywhere. As we’re thinking of what to do next, I spot him down the road, just under the clock tower of the central square. His face grinning madly, he’s running down the street in a purple dinner jacket and pastel tie, his arms waving determined, to get our attention. He looks like a talk-show host from 1970’s Lebanese television, with about the same level of enthusiasm.

As I film the tour, Federico keeps trying to get Ali to slow down, take a breath, and talk calmly about his life for a moment, but he can’t be stopped. Ali continues to race around like a man on fire:
“So, Ali, have you lived here all your life?”
“Yes. Now I’ll take you to the Attarine mosque. Follow me please.”
Occasionally, we ask Ali a political question, or ask him about a certain poster we might have seen in the street, but he seems very reluctant to talk about politics in any meaningful way. It’s clear that he feels he should somehow shield us from the realities of this place, glossing over political concerns and urging us to look elsewhere for answers.

We tour the Khan Sharkis as Ali explains the “soap mafia” that was built around two rival family businesses. Ali is currently in the middle of a court case after someone working for Hassoun - the pretender to the throne of traditional Tripoli soap-making - beat him up for refusing to take tourists to the his soap factory. “If you go there,” he warns “don’t mention that you know me.” At one point, while walking (jogging) through the city’s traditional souk, I hear the strains of pop music exalting several of the characters from the current administration (this city is one of the pro-government strongholds. We ask Ali about it, but he tries to avoid the question saying “Oh, this song has bad words. I don’t like to talk about it.” Filming the music stall from where the music is blaring, I ask the owner if they have any music with anti-government lyrics. “I’m sure it exists,” he tells me, “but not here.”

While at the music stall, Federico notices something hanging from a nearby stall: a poster of Saddam Hussein, similar to others we’ve seen posted occasionally around the city. In a brief conversation with the owners of those stalls, they explain their appreciation for the tyrant and what eh stood for: Arab strength, anti-Americanism, and the Palestinian cause. It’s an opinion I’ve heard, and argued against, a hundred times before, and at this point I’m not about to get into a political debate about the finer points of Saddam’s rise and fall. I stand silently for a few minutes with the stall owners looking at me, smiling, waiting for a reply. “Well…I don’t know what to say,” is all I can think of. “That’s your opinion.”

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Southern Beirut

Everything goes wrong today. We are planning the documentary’s opening scene: Federico walking into the tourist office in Hamra, asking how business is these days and looking for advice on travel around the country. We are planning an intricate walk down the street, following Federico as he opens the door to the office, then over his shoulder to the receptionist at the tourist office for the best view of their conversation. We get to the door of the office and it’s closed, though we’ve been told on our last visit (when it was also unexpectedly closed) that it was open between 9am and 12. Apparently, there are new opening hours, from “around” 9am to “around” 11am (it’s still now 10:30) and again from “around” 2pm until “around” 4pm.

Our next option is to visit the infamous southern suburbs of Beirut – Hizbullah’s territory in the capital – to film the reconstruction efforts since parts of the neighbourhood were flattened during the war of 2006. We film Federico’s initial reactions to the heavily bombed neighbourhoods, wading through thick mud following a spectacular apocalyptic storm this morning. Things look largely as they did when I first visited the area over six months ago. Work is incredibly slow, only a few bulldozers and JCBs can be seen and only half of them are running at the moment. There is no sign of an organised reconstruction, only individuals working, mainly by hand, in one or two buildings. The scale of the reconstruction is immense, rows and rows of twenty story apartment buildings having been flattened to the ground, or torn in two waiting to collapse at any moment.

With everything covered in a thick layer of slime and mud, the area looks almost worse than I remember it, certainly more grim. We were told it might be difficult to film in the neighbourhood these days, that Hizbullah was no longer welcoming journalists as they had just follwing the war. Peering over the edge of a massive crater into the foundations of a destroyed apartment block, it was suddenly clear why. We could easily see, far below street level, three basement floors, fully furnished, with electricty and plumbing. These were not underground storage or parking garages, they were the underground offices Hizbullah had cynically built under residential towers and which they long denied existed. They were also the offices Israel's military wanted so desperately to destroy, they were willing to flatten hundreds of cheap flats to the ground.

We manage to shoot around five minutes of footage, Federico virtually speechless under the dripping floors of tower blocks with personal belonging littering the ground. The only comfort is in knowing that few people were killed here; the area was cleared out soon after the war began.

As we peer over the edge of a massive crater, several floors of the building visible underground, we’re approached by a local Hizbullah guard, one of the organisation’s patrol men each responsible for their own little patch of the neighbourhood. He’s very polite, but asks us what we’re doing here, why we’re filming and if we have permission. It’s soon clear that our Hizbullah-issued press cards from downtown Beirut aren’t valid in the southern suburbs, and after a few minutes of attempted negotiations, the guard (now joined by another) insists on erasing some of the footage.

“I’m going to leave you most of it,” he explains carefully, “because we want you to show people how we live here. But anything with my voice or my face, we have to erase.” They’re not aggressive, but they make it clear what is and isn’t acceptable. I’m not willing to find out what the punishment is for ignoring them, so we rewind the tape together and the guard identifies the spot from where we should start erasing our footage. While recording over the old footage, we discuss our work. The guards here aren’t so concerned with bad press, but more with potential spies posing as journalists. “If you’re filming buildings,” one guard says to us with a wide smile across his round face, “You’re journalists. But if you start filming faces you’re…” he pauses and grins, then says - now in English - “…from the enemy.”

The guards want to review the erased footage, but they’re still not happy. The microphones were still plugged in, so while the screen is blank the soundtrack features all three of our voices discussing the fact that I need to erase the tape. They make me erase it again, this time unplugging the microphones first, and we stand around talking for another five minutes waiting for the footage to be erased.

Satisfied, they direct us to a tent 200 metres away which now functions as the area’s press office. But the Press Office isn’t here any more. We’re redirected to an office 500 metres away, which also, conveniently, isn’t the press office either. Someone in that office walks us around the corner to another press office which is, thankfully, the actual press office. Unfortunately, it does us no good anyway. Hizbullah’s press officer informs us that, after another groups of journalists did “a lot of damage” (we’re not treated to the details) all filming is frozen in Hizbullah controlled areas until further notice.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The Demonstration

We’re woken up at seven in the morning by music blaring from the Kata’ib offices in front of your hotel. It’s political pop music, exalting the dubious Kata’ib party and their latest slain leader, Pierre Gemayel. On the streets, hundreds of thousands of people (or tens of thousands, depending on whose estimates you read) are flooding into Martyr’s square – here from all over the country to commemorate the second anniversary of the assassination of Hariri. Thousands of faces painted in the colours of their chosen political party, many with pictures of the ex-Prime Minister. Hundreds of thousands of red, white and green Lebanese flags fly beside those of the Future movement, the Progressive Socialist Party (neither progressive nor socialist) and the Lebanese Forces. We spot one or two communist flag, yellow hammer and sickle on a red background. One teenager wears an unnervingly fascist-looking red armband with a picture of Samir Geagea; hero of the “Lebanese Forces”, member of the current administration and a convicted murderer.

But today isn’t simply a commemoration rally. Because of the split government, today has also become a political show of support for the “March 14” government, the legacy of Hariri, his successor son and Hariri’s supporters. Directly beside Martyr’s Square are the camps in which a few thousand protesters are calling for the resignation of the very same government that these demonstrators are here to support. After yesterday’s twin bombings, the potential for violence is clear – a row of tanks and armoured government soldiers, a four-metre high fences and razor wire separate the two groups. While the demonstrators cheer, wave their flags and listen to speeches, the opposition sit quietly in their tents, only metres away and watch the demonstration on tv. It’s generally accepted that if these two camps clash today, we would be hearing the opening shots of country’s the next civil war.

Despite the context of today’s demonstration – a government in crisis and another murderous bombing - the mood is one of celebration. This is not an angry demonstration, not a protest to say “We are against you,” but instead a celebration to say “We are with you.” At least it’s supposed to be, until Jumblatt starts spitting insults from behind the sheet of bullet-proof glass that surrounds the speaker’s microphone. He calls his opponents “rats…the missing link…and the whale that the sea spits out,” ridiculous childish insults that send the crowd into waves of “YAAAAAAAAA!” or “BOOOOOOOOO!” depending on the context.

Everyone we speak to is determined to establish the controversial tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. “You know why some people don’t want the tribunal?” we are asked, “because they know they’ll end up in prison! That’s the only reason someone would oppose it!”
It’s clear there are still so many unanswered questions in the minds of these Lebanese. Everywhere there is an eagerness to move forward form the sudden, occasional violence that has punched this country in the face since February 14, 2005 when Hariri’s car was spectacularly blown up, and the dream of rebuilding Lebanon was temporarily put to bed.

An older man, straining to speak to us in the crush of thousands of screaming demonstrators, sums the mood up perfectly. “We are waiting for the truth,” he tells us. “Once we know the truth of who killed Hariri, we can move forward. Until then, we can do nothing, this country is standing still.”

The question still haunts everyone in this county, it seems. Who killed Hariri? It’s a question that split the current government, led to the resignation of Hizbullah ministers and put the country’s political future into jeopardy. Everyone has their own theories. Sometimes you get a straight answer: “Syria” or “Israel” or even, surprisingly, “Iran and American,” but more often than not, you simply get a sideways glance, a hesitant pause, and “…outside forces.”


Most demonstrators are here to show support for their country, to prove they will not abandon Lebanon in her time of need, but some views are surprising. We talk to a middle-aged engineer; his thinning hair slicked back and sporting a neatly-trimmed goatee beard, who speaks perfect English. He lived in Canada for years, but returned to Lebanon when Hariri – in the midst of his reinvestment strategy – called on Lebanese overseas to return to their country, to support the reconstruction effort. The engineer, however, was soon disillusioned. Now, he tells us, he’s considering leaving the country again - as with many others here and abroad, things didn’t turn out as he expected.
“What would you tell your children,” Federico asks him?
He doesn’t take long to answer, “I would tell them to leave Lebanon.”

After the demonstration, as the sun is setting over the Mediterranean, Federico and I walk to the corniche to film a short sequence in front of the site of Hariri’s assassination, a massive crater outside the once magnificent St. George Hotel. The St. George Hotel was the pride of Beirut, one of the symbols of the “Paris of the Middle East”, but the hotel now lies in ruins, ripped to shreds by the 1800kg bomb that killed Hariri and twenty others around him. Even the buildings surrounding the hotel were devastated in the blast, and today two blocks of the city’s sea-front road are still off limits to anyone, part of a UN investigation. Everything in sight is shredded. It’s a shocking scene, even two years later, a spot layered with so much significance you can do nothing but stand and stare.

As we’re filming, a man approaches us from the restaurant directly behind us; a restaurant I assumed - like all the other buildings in the area – was closed. But the restaurant’s chef, Shafiq, invites us in for a drink, happy to welcome someone from Italy into his Italian restaurant. Shafiq orders us two coffees and begins to talk about his restaurant. He points out a few scars on his face and mentions that he was here on the day of Hariri’s assassination, but he would prefer not to talk about it. Instead, we talk about fish.
“Didn’t you see the fish on the way in?” He asks. “Come with me, I’ll show you.”
He proudly displays fresh fish laid out on a counter of ice by the front door. He stirs a net in the fish tank behind him, chasing an octopus around the little enclosure next to a dead lobster.
“That’s Natasha,” he says giggling loudly, pointing to a cat peering through the door. “You know why she’s called Natasha? Because she’s Russian…”
“Is she a dancer?” I ask “I thought all Russians in Lebanon were dancers…”
Shafiq laughs again in his overexcited giggle – it sounds much younger and more vulnerable than his face would suggest. “You’re talking from experience,” he says with a smile.

Shafiq tells us stories, in a style by now familiar, a style common to many of the Lebanese we’ve spoken to. At first, he is hesitant to discuss personal matters, but give him time and he soon transforms into a master storyteller, unfolding scenes with incredible detail and emotion and offering intimate stories and horrific events without prompting. Shafiq was conscripted into the army, but because he didn’t want to fight (and because he was such a good cook) he was drafted into the officer’s kitchen. He had an excellent relationship with the officers, he explains, because they all wanted to make sure they ate well every night.
“I lived like a king,” He boasts. “They would greet me every day, ‘Hello Shafiq, what are we having for dinner tonight?’” He laughs his trademark giggle.

“I lived through four wars, then what...what next?” he says opening one of his stories. I’m used to thinking about Lebanon’s Civil War as one singular, unstoppable event, but each individual has their own unique experience of those years. Shafiq experienced each of the war’s chapters as separate catastrophes. “Some days we couldn’t play football outside because there was shooting, so we stayed in the shelter playing cards. I don’t want my children to grow up like that…”

At the back of the restaurant, two windows open directly on to the Mediterranean. We can hear the waves seeping in under the walls, we can smell the salt in the air. Federico leans out of one window, “I can’t believe I’ve been here two weeks, and this is the first time I’ve seen the sea.”

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Ain Alaq

I had a dream last night. A strange dream, of the kind I often have, in which I’m watching or somehow involved in a movie, unfolding in front of me where I’m half audience and half participant. This time, it was a futuristic thriller in which a chosen group of people could shift matter and time in order to prevent crimes from happening. They could walk through walls, change their own shape, and step out of real time into a sustained time and look at the 3 dimensional world from the side, as if looking at thousands of paper-thin walls from the side.

I wake up to the sound of a text message from Gareth in Doha, telling me to be careful there in Beirut, because it seemed the second anniversary of Hariri’s assassination could be a flashpoint for more violence. Slightly confused, I send a reply that everything is fine, dress quickly and go downstairs to check the news online. On the stairs, I innocently attempted a chirpy “good morning” to the hotel staff, but they look back at me straight-faced, asking if I’ve heard about the explosions. I haven’t heard about the explosions. I check the news online, my heart racing with anxious energy, half-confusion and half impatience, and read that two buses exploded on the road into Beirut on their way through the mountain village of Ain Alaq.

I rush upstairs to wake up Federico and turn on the television in the room, looking for a news channel. For a few agonising minutes, he doesn’t believe me when I explain news of the bombings. I am the boy who cried wolf - since we arrived in Beirut, every morning, I’ve invented a joke news headline to make light of the situation. The first morning, I read aloud that Israeli troops had entered Beirut (not true). The next morning, I declared Prime Minister Siniora had been assassinated (also not true). This morning, Federico laughs, and as I flick through the channels, finding only unrelated news and the broadcast of a horse shows, it almost seems like maybe I was joking. Maybe I was still bending space and time in my dream…

At the site of the bombing, rain beats down in cold sheets. The buses are lined up in the middle of the street, one torn in half around 200 meters from the police cordon, and another with its roof blown off and insides mangled. The roof sits by the side of the road ten metres away. In the valley below the street, soldiers search for evidence amongst the pieces of twisted metal strewn amongst the forests that surround these small mountain roads. Various news stations take turns filming their live broadcasts from prime positions in front of the destroyed bus. Estimates roll in about the number killed – we first hear twelve, then six, and finally three. “Only three” I find myself saying, unaware at first of the cruelty of the sentence.

The scene is strangely sterile. There is no ash covering the street, no blood pooling around the bus - the rain seems to have washed everything away, leaving a white skeleton, brittle and bare as though picked clean by scavenging birds. Soldiers mill around the buses casually, mobile phones chirping, journalists pushing each other out of the way to get the best shot. I see BBC’s Kim Ghattas rehearsing her lines. As I film the wreckage and the surrounding soldiers, I hear through my headphones the surreal repetitions of her script:
“Amidst the continuing violence…amidst the continuing violence…On this day before the anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri…the day before the planned demonstration marking the anniversary of former Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination…amidst rising sectarian tensions…in an atmosphere of rising tensions…”

It’s an unnerving feeling, knowing that these scenes are crucial to the documentary – and to the future of Lebanon - but despising the coldness needed to document them accurately. The press hordes always make me uncomfortable. I try to convince myself we’re all performing an important duty, but it doesn’t always work. Scenes make “good visuals,” interviews make “good copy.” All the while, I’m trying to hold Federico’s waterproof jacket over the camera which, by now, is soaking wet. The sound of rain lashing against the jacket and the street is loud in my headphones.

Occasionally, I catch journalists and – at one point even the deputy mayor of the town – smiling and laughing. At first it seems wrong, but it’s enough to let everyone else know that perhaps it’s alright to laugh (maybe it’s a nervous laughter, or maybe no one can think of a more appropriate reaction)

Before long, the full meaning of the bombings becomes clear. Being in the hills above Beirut, and an attack on a public bus, it seems somehow isolated, far from the usual political assassinations in the centre of Beirut. But it soon becomes clear this is, in fact, worse that the usual political assassinations. The attack takes sectarian violence to a new level of brutality, sending a message (to whom and from whom is still not clear) that things will not go smoothly. That tomorrow’s march -intended to unite the country in grief – will not succeed.

After around an hour, Federico and I are wondering around the scene slightly lost. There seems to be little to be done here, aside from filming the scene and recording our initial reactions. There is very little that can be said that isn’t clear from the stark images of the incinerated buses. We don’t need any voiceover or careful thoughts to camera. We don’t need interviews with local politicians and by-standers and villagers. We walk into a cafĂ© less than 50 metres from the blast site, but find an old woman, presumably the owner, close to tears while an English-speaking waiter furnishes journalists with his own grim description of the explosions and his opinions on who might be responsible.

Deciding to return to the centre of town, we hitch a ride with Fady, a local television stringer. Fady seems to believe the bombings are an attempt to drag Lebanon into an Iraqi-style cycle of random sectarian killings. He explains there’s a feeling amongst local journalists that the bombings may be linked to the minister of defence Elias Murr – the last we heard of him he was refusing to hand a truck load of seized weapons back to Hezbullah three days ago. All his colleagues share the same opinion, he explains, but he’s careful to point out that there’s no way to be sure. To illustrate, he draws with his fingers a diagram of the truth (a circle in the centre) and everyone’s attempts to get to it (a series of rays emanating from the circle, trying to go straight there, but somehow helplessly dancing around it)

I send a text to my family informing them, as is always the case when I find myself in situations like these, “In case you’re watching the news, I’m fine.” My sister writes back “I get the feeling it won’t be the last ‘I’m fine’ text you’ll have to send.”

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: The Camps

We head dowtown to visit the protest camps outside the Parliament building, and it seems the rules of permissions and access depend on who you ask. Some people won't let you film their faces, others are happy to talk to camera. Some tell us there's no way we can film around the camps, but with the Hezbollah press pass and a few kind words, they slowly relax and allow us to ask questions.

As we walk through the camps, there's no sign of the political tension we've been reading so much about. People are relaxing, listening to music, smoking sheesha. It's more like a mix between a refugee camp and festival than a protest. Everything is provided for the camps: there are water tanks filled with drinking water, and portable toilets. The various parties supporting the protest distribute food, and hold a small gathering every night with balloon sellers, music, speeches and news broadcast on a giant screen at the end of the parking lot.

As we walk through the camps, the only visitors there, people stare at Federico and I curiously, cautiously. We weave our way through the camps looking for someone to talk to, someone willing to talk to us on camera about what, exactly, everyone is doing here. Though cautious, everyone is happy to say hello, to welcome us, and to talk to someone new about their grievances.

Before long, we meet Hassanein. In his late 20's, and dressed like an average working class Lebanese, he explains that he's a student but that this semester, for the first time, he can't afford to pay his fees. He came to the camps not to support any particular party, but simply to denounce the government. And this is what surprises Federico and I the most, that far from being Hezbollah supports or anti-government agitators, most people here are simply expressing their disapproval of a system that has let them down. Hassanein speaks specifically about the area the protesters have chosen to occupy - the very focus of the government's regeneration plans that suddenly put the city centre beyond the budget of most Lebanese.

"I can't afford to shop here," he explains, "but this is my capital city. It should be the capital city for every Lebanese, not only those who can afford it." Soon, a crowd gathers around Hassanein and us, and a few more men are willing to speak. They all agree that the new city centre, the new Solidere project of Hariri's represents exactly what's wrong with their new government: it is corrupt, greedy, and out of touch with the average Lebanese. What we hear most often is that the government no longer represents them, that no one in there - not Hezbollah, Siniora or anyone in between - represents their interests. "The government only represents the rich of the country" we are repeatedly told. It's hard to argue with when you hear stories of some of the corrupt milionares who now run the country.

One of the older men standing beside Hassanein is willing to talk, and to be filmed. "You can film my face," he tells us enthusiastically, "I'm not a terrorist." He says he'll stay there, in that camp, as long as it takes, until "The Party" tells him they no longer need him.
"Do you work?"
"Yes, of course, every day I still go to work and every night I come here."
"But where do you get food?"
"They give us food. The food we have here is better that the food at home!"
"And what about your family, what do they do?"
"They're at home..."

It's like an entire village of willing refugees, their families waiting at home, hoping, no doubt, that this thing resolves itself as soon as possible.

Later, we return to the camps to talk with a few of the men running food and drink stalls beside the camp site. They are also eager to talk. After buying two glasses of orange juice, Federico and I sit down to speak to the owner of the stall. He reveals an interesting contradition: that outside the camps, downtown in the "Etoile", people complain that there is no business because of the demonstrations. In here, in the camps, there is more business, with a 24-hour captive audience. We even meet one Lebanese/Australian dual national who moved his stsall specifically into the camp because business was so bad outside.

The owner of the juice stall reiterates what we heard earlier: he is not political, supports no party, and wants nothing to do with politics. He simply believes that the government no longer represents him, and must be dissolved.
"But who would replace Siniora?"
"Anyone else. Anyone respectable..."

These are the real voices of the Lebanese streets, not the violence of the clashes earlier this month, not the rhetoric of the politicians, and not the militant resistance movements all claiming to represent the people. Watching the news in Europe, you would think everyone camping out here was a Hezbollah supporter, hungry for political power and waiting to overthrown the government. Hezbollah wouldn't be happy to hear this, but most people in the camps are non-political and are not interested in an "armed resistence" approach to demoncracy. They are simply ordinary people fed up with not having a voice, and this is something anyone should be able to relate to.

At one point, sitting with the juice stall owner, I relate the story of a million and a half people marching in London's streets against Britain's involvement in the Iraq war. Still, I tell him, despite a million and a half people, Britain went to war, her military dutifully joined in the creation of a hell-hole worse than Iraq has ever seen. If they couldn't change things, do you have any hope?
"Of course, there's hope! We'll stay here as long as it takes. What can he do? What can Siniora do? He can't go on ignoring us for another month, six months, a year..."

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Downtown

After two days in Beirut, I'm fascinated by the city's walls. Federico wants to include still, stark images of walls in this film - a collection of old, new, destroyed and rebuilt. It seems you can tell the history of the city through its walls, some still destroyed since the Civil War with bullet holes and mortar scars clearly visible. Often, you walk passed a newly built bank, housed in a beautifully designed, glass-fronted building, all the signs of money and regeneration. But in the original stone wall, perhaps where the developers failed to look, or preferred not to look, or overlooked on purpose, you find on the original stone walls that the dull, slightly rounded pock-marks of bullets are still visible.

This morning, we return to the Ministry of Information to pick up our press papers. These are official, Lebanese government press papers, but they're not valid in the downtown protest area. That section of the city is controlled by Hezbollah, and needs a seperate press pass (which we now also hold). Visit an official government function, and you need yet another, different press pass. All the while, you need to make sure not to get the various passes mixed up, accidentally showing your Hezbollah press pass to government soldiers, for example. It might cause some confusion...

Federico and I head for downtown, the centre of the anti-government demonstrations and also the centre of the city's gentrification process. Downtown was supposed to be the beacon of Beirut's post-war reconstruction, but instead ended up in lockdown, surrounded by military patrols and razorwire, housing anti-government protesters since December of 2006. Downtown is deserted. Surrounded by tanks and soldiers, it's hardly an atmosphere that welcomes shoppers, though the Lebanese government has done its best to attract tourists and high-value shoppers back into the city centre. We walk from shop to shop trying to briefly interview shop assistants about the current situation.

We visit the Gucci shop, Armani, Tod's, Zegna - all high-end boutiques - asking how business is, how the military presence and the demonstrations are affecting sales. The response is almost always, as before, one of denial. Things are fine, we're assured, business is going well, there are still people coming into the centre of town. "But we don't see anyone," Federico points out. "Come back at night," we're told, "You'll see lots of people." But we've been there at night and still saw no one. Of course they're all on duty, busy promoting their brand and making sure the client is always satisfied. They're not about to admit that business is terrible and few people are in the mood to go shopping.

The story from these boutique shop assitants is very different from that of the souvenir shop we approached the other day. They were very straightforward: "There haven't been any clients since Hariri's assassination," one explained. "Since the demonstrations, no one's coming" said another. I can't decide if the Gucci salespeople are really just keeping up the illusion of good business or if the shopping elite are really touring downtown Beirut as usual. After all, Ahmed explained to us yesterday that even during the height of the summer war with Israel, people still flocked to the downtown shops.

We interview one Lebanese man outside a designer shop to ask his views. "You're very brave, coming to Lebanon now," he says. But are Beirutis still interested in shopping? "Well, you know people in Lebanon like to dress well. For example, I'm wearing Gucci," and he pulls open his jacket to reveal the label, in case we didn't believe him.

The place is all wide, grand boulevards, all eerily emtpy now. Chairs are stacked inside cafes, covered in months of dust. Some signs betray the wishful thinking that followed last summer's war: "Opening soon", it says over a Nike shop, with no sign of anything opening any time soon. We find a Costa Coffe, one of the few stores that does, actually, look like it's opening soon, with workers painting the walls and installing the furniture. It's hard to know if it's worth it at this point.

Half-way down one of Etoile's side streets, we find Solidere, the offices of the company Hariri set up to rebuild Beirut following the Civil War. It's a marketing suite, complete with a massive, 4m square scale model of the future city centre. But the suite is closed, and we need to find the caretaker and ask for special permission to enter. There, in the Solidere offices, is Hariri's dream made plastic, a miniature utopia. The Holiday Inn, for example, looks perfect and untouched. Once the largest hotel in the Middle east when it was first opened, the hotel quickly became a haven for snipers because, at the time, it was one of the tallest buildings in the city. It was quickly reduced to a skeleton, peppered with bullet holes and mortar fire. Now, the empty hotel still towers over the city like a ghost from the past, waiting for something to happen. Around it, buildings are developed and rebuilt, but the Holiday Inn seems cursed to remain an emtpy shell forever. But in the Solidere model the Holiday Inn looks perfect, shiny and new.

While the Holiday Inn has been recreated, other areas of the model are strangely vacant. The residential neighbourhood of the city where, we were told, government ministers live, is a void with no details or buildings. Downtown, there are no signs of the protesters, just beautiful, grand streets and arcades. Another model shows the new corniche, complete with a miniature wave machine (which doesn't work) to demonstrate how well it would withstand a storm. The entire showroom is an excercise in optimism and it suddenly seems quaint when compared to the situation outside, like a dream already outdated. The model, though intended to be the future of Beirut, already feels like something from the past, the "before".

That night, we meet a group of old Beiruti friends working in documentary and television news. The discussion soon turns to Federico's film, and we're releaved to hear they seem interested in the idea. We rekindle the old, and public, debate between Eliane and I regarding the "Arab Identity Crisis". We discuss the future of Al-Jazeera International, eat mushroom and cheese crepes, and sip whisky on the rocks.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: the camera rolls

Things have changed in Beirut. Of course things have changed. Last time I was here (the first time I was here), the summer war with Israel had recently ended. It was still summer. Perhaps there was a sense of life, intensified, following the war. People were always eager to tell me how resiliant they were, how the fact that they still held their film festival was their own sign of resistence, how their films were their way of telling the world, "Beirut is still alive, and Beirut is coming back" as one filmmaker told me.

Now, it's different. For one thing, it started raining when I touched down in Beirut, and continued for the next two days. The sky is grey, the nights very cold (it took Federe and I two nights to figure out how to use the heater). Gone is the excitement of the summer, of the film festival, and in its place is a darker, more pessemistic view of Lebanon's future. If the summer war was a quick, sharp slash to the country's wrists, the demonstrations it now sees are a dull, slow internal bleeding.

There are soldiers on every corner. They look extremely bored, some of them fingering the triggers on their automatic weapons. Roads and bridges leading out from Etoile, the city centre where the demonstrators have been camping out in protest since December, are surrounded by layers of razor wire and armed soldiers. Major intersections are guarded by tanks and armoured personnel carriers. In short, it's not the ideal place for tourists.

South of Martyrs Square, they say there are 2000 people still camping out, still protesting and waiting for the government to fold. North of the square, Virgin Megastore is still open (though there are very few people in the streets these days. Ahmed, a friend who shoots footage for various news agencies, attributes this to a combination of people leaving the country in droves for "holidays", while those who stayed behind are simply not in the mood to go out) At one point, Federico and I visit Virgin Megastore's internet cafe to print the commission letter needed to secure a government press pass.

There are no printers in the Megastore, but on our way out we see an ad for a new collection of t-shirts on sale in the shop. Logos like "Sleepless in Beirut" and "Lebanese Democracy: Trial Version" are supposed to be sharp, pseudo-political comments on the "new" Lebanon, but I find them cynical more than anything else. Looking through the collection, Federico and I film a short interview with the shop assistant, asking questions about the designers and their t-shirts. One particularly cathes me eye: "1975-1990: Lebanon's Great War. Game Over." It's almost funny; it's rather confusing. Is it a way for Lebanon's young generation to take possession over the previous generation's war? Is it, through its cheap humour, supposed to subvert the horrors of the war? I can't tell if it's really clever or bad taste - maybe it's not my place to say, not my war to comment on. I ask the shop assistant:
"Can you explain this?"
"It's about Lebanon's civil war,"
"I know, but what do they mean 'Game Over'?"
"It's supposed to be like a Playstation game,"
"But why would you make fun of the war?"
I don't think she understands the question. She honestly doesn't understand what I mean when I ask again "Don't you think it's strange?"
"No," she simply replies; she doesn't think it's strange. It reminds me of a conversation Federico had with Natalie, a Lebanese girl living in London in which, he related to me, she expressed nostaligia for the civil war. Maybe at one point, when you live inside something for so long, it becomes a joke. It becomes a game. Or maybe it was the younger generation's way of saying
"you can't take this away from us," refusing to be held hostage by the past, refusing to listen to common sense that would say "you must be traumatised by the Civil War."
Or maybe they're just fooling themselves, I can't yet decide. What is clear is that Lebanon never seems to be able to decide when one war ends and when another is beginning. Virgin Megastore has a section filled with films and books about Lebanon's past wars. One is a collection of six or seven DVDs, each documenting another chapter in the years of bloodshed. Some refer to the various political parties involved in the civil war, others are more recent: "The Hezbollah Years." It's as though one war simply bleeds into the next. The summer 2006 war is simply an extension of the Civil War.

There are coffee table photography books showing "before" and "after" images of Beirut, but I know, flipping through it, that the book is already out of date. Some of the "after" images have become "before" once again since last summer. The books describe the post-war reconstruction, but not the post-post-war reconstruction. They proudly display Beirut's downtown area, the Etoile, as new life was breathed into it following the civil war. But just as it was getting back on its feet, it was abandoned during Israel's bombing campaign. A few months to get back on its feet, and once again the Etole is deserted, this time awaiting a resolution to the anti-government demonstrations.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: last minute preparations

As Federico leaves for Beirut five days before me, I'm in London making last minute preparations. I need to get some more gear together, I think I need insurance (no?). Most importantly, I visit my old friend Simon Conway at Landmine Action to get information on the situation in Southern Beirut and Southern Lebanon. He hands me a report with photos of different types of unexploded ordnance - millions of these cluster munitions still litter the south of the country.

Basically, just remember this : If you think you see a perfume bottle with a ribbon attached, don't pick it up.

In Simon's building, I also run into another old friend, ex-special forces "Joe". We go for a coffee opposite the MI6 building, giving me a chance to catch up with him (I haven't seen him for almost a year) and to ask more security questions about Lebanon, just to reassure myself (and my mum, when she asks...)

When I explain the concept of the film to people, they seem either amused or confused (I hope that's the reaction Federico was going for). At least they seem interested. Most people, when they hear the title, simply point out "But, you don't know how to ski..."