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.