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…”