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.”

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