Stuck In Beirut

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Things you need to know about Beirut but were afraid to ask

Now that the vacation is over and I am back in the states uneventfully, I can't help but reminisce about some of things that are unique to Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, that visitors would find very strange. One of them has to do with parking or curb side service. Many shop owners with store fronts on the main street will “reserve” a spot in front of them for their clients to park either to go down or shop or to order from their car in the Lebanese version of the drive through window. These shops include small sandwich stands, photo marts, butchers, hair dressers and pharmacies. The interesting part is the array of items that are used to indicate that a spot is reserved such as old chairs, shopping carts, step ladders, old tires and the more official chain linked posts. What is really weird is that Beirut is a very crowded city, where parking spots are in high demand and where tempers flare easily, yet everyone accepts and respects the code of the chair in the street.
A Second unique feature of Beirut is large portions of a block with no parking allowed at all. This is usually an indicator that some important public official lives in the building and these precautions are taken to prevent any strange vehicles from getting too close. The amount of no parking space correlates directly with the importance of said official or his/hers prominence in the political circles. This can therefore escalate to the point that the entire street is blocked to regular traffic and even, in the case of Hariri and Berri, several cities blocks become off-limits and traffic becomes even more ensnared that normal. What a way to serve your constituents and put yourself at their service.
A Third aspect that takes some getting used to I will call Bi-Monetarism. This refers to the fact that all Lebanese who handle money must be fluent in converting dollars into Lebanese Liras (LL) and back. The official rule specifies that all transactions must be done in LL, where 1 $ = 1,500 LL. However, most visitors don’t bother exchanging their Dollars to LL and prefer to pay directly with Dollars instead. The Lebanese have adapted to this reality and will now provide a bill with the amount figured in both currencies. The part that is amazing is that everyone will figure out very quickly the best combination to pay the bill and the best combination to make change. I on the other hand must look at my change for a minute to make sure everything is right. This includes parking attendants who, without the use of a calculator, will know that the correct change for a $20 on a 3,000 LL fee is $10 plus 12,000 LL.
Speaking of parking, due to security reasons, all cars entering public facilities are inspected. The inspection team usually consists of two young men. One uses a mirror to look at the undercarriage of the vehicle and checks the trunk. The second man has a “wand” that he must hold in a very specific manner while he walks next to the car. Not sure how this thing works, but its supposed to be very reliable and it costs thousands of dollars. It appears to be an electromagnet of some sort. Its made of two dissimilar metals, one used for the handle, the second used for the antenna. If it detects something, the antenna will rotate horizontally towards the car. That’s when the questions begin. Apparently this thing is so sensitive, it detects perfume (don’t ask me how or why). So the ladies in the car will be quizzed about what they have in the hand bags and the suspect hand bag will be removed from the car while the "wanding" is repeated. This routine causes back-ups entering the parking lots and creates congestion in the surrounding streets. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this ritual is accepted by all as a small price to pay for everyone’s safety and security and everyone abides by it without complaining. Makes for an interesting and memorable vacation spot.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Winners and Losers

In typical Lebanese fashion, both sides are claiming victory after the local elections in Maten. The actual seat went to the opposition, under the leadership of Aoun, who now claims that the people have spoken. The ruling party, represented by Jemayel, was quick to point out two things: one, the votes that gave the opposition the upper hand came from areas know for falsifying poling results and two, the majority of Maronites voted for them, not the opposition. So Jemayel is now claiming a political victory as the new representative of the Maronites. This is a key point because of its significance in the upcoming Presidential elections. Both sides now claim that they are the legitimate heir to the presidency. Both blame each other for the deep division in the Christian ranks to led to these results. So in my view, neither can claim to be of Presidential material, since that post should act first and foremost as an arbitrator and excel at bringing different people and opposing factions closer together. Furthermore, neither side really has the final say on who the new President will be. That decision lies outside of the Lebanese borders and circles of influence. That picture is still out of focus and will continue to cause heartache and lost opportunities for the Lebanese people. In the meantime, Jemayel has officially contested the results of the elections and the parliament is still closed.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The emotional return

Maybe I should change the name of this blog to Stuck ON Beirut. I have no other way to explain how happy I am to be back home. The touchdown at the airport a couple of days ago was a mini triumph on several fronts. Personally, it meant that I was able to see family again and to take care of unfinished business from last year. Regionally, it meant that Lebanon found a way yet again to overcome adversity and regain a sense of normalcy. Internationally, it meant that a new chapter was underway, with several authors vying to write the ending that suits them more than their enemies.
As always, I had to remind myself to start adapting to "Beirut Rules" as soon as we landed. The first thing was watching almost all the people around me switch the SIM cards in their cell phone. This allowed them to start making calls to let everyone know they were back. The second thing was getting used to the positive energy in the street and on TV, anticipating the upcoming elections and the definite, assured, positive knowledge that their side will win. Those elections are going on right now, and things are quiet and running smoothly as far as I can tell.
The third Beirut rule is getting readjusted to traffic laws (which don't exist by Western standards) and getting from one place to another in the narrow streets and alleys which don't provide much room for maneuvering.
Many Lebanese who initially cancelled their trips to Lebanon have decided to come after all. I still can't explain it. The economy is down, the politics suck, the security situation is tense and the whole thing could fall apart any minute, yet Lebanon still has so much potential and so much promise, that The Lebanese are not willing to give up on it. That's why they stay, that's why they always talk of coming back and that's why they choose to spend their vacations here.
I wish our politicians would realize this and leverage it to improve things for everyone one rather than take advantage of it to advance their own meager political and power-grabbing agendas.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

One Year Anniversary

On this day last year I posted my last update on our ordeal out of Beirut. Today, I start packing and getting ready to go back on my vacation for the first two weeks in August. My co-workers, neighbors and most of my friends are surprised by this decision. My Lebanese friends are not, they actually support it and wish they could go with me. My family is already there. Planes are booked solid and I actually had difficulty finding a suitable flight. Its the Lebanese spirit on display. Many people are going to Lebanon in spite of the tenuous situation and the tense atmosphere. Some have curtailed their activities, specially at night. Others are still partying like its 1999. All decided to defy logic and to challenge those who want to use Lebanon as a pawn to serve their own interest with little regards to how much harm they are doing. Of course Lebanese will argue forever about who is to blame for what's happening and how to get out of this mess, but they will still unanimously pick Lebanon as the best vacation spot in the world.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Extraction

That's what they called it. Let's go back to the night of the 18th. As I mentioned, I was getting really anxious to leave. I was disappointed in the US Embassy preparations, and I had decided to pursue my own risky route. The big concern was that airline seats out of Damascus were not guaranteed, and we could be stuck there for a long time. Then I received a call from my company. They had arranged for my safe passage from Beirut all the way back to Atlanta, GA. They hired a company called SOS International to do it. Its a sad sign of the times that such a company even exists and specializes in this line of work. We jumped on the offer.
Wednesday morning, the 19th., we went and picked up our suitcases from the house in Beirut and then took a taxi and met with the SOS team at 11 Am. We boarded buses with another 120 persons and headed for the Syrian border. It took us 7 hours to clear the border, including having to walk across, dragging our suitcases. We got to the hotel in Damascus at 4 AM on Thursday morning 7/20. We stayed in Damascus until Sunday the 23rd. when we boarded a flight to London, and the next day, on the 24th., we boarded the plane to Atlanta.
We had several memorable moments during this ordeal. The first one was on Wednesday when we heard a very loud explosion not too far from us in the car. Turned out Israel was starting to target trucks on the roads and they just blew-up one behind us. Had we been ten minutes behind schedule, it would have been real ugly. Another one was when we thought that we lost one of the suitcases, just as we got to the airport in Damascus to leave to London. It was a tense 2 minutes before we relocated it. The third one was on the plane to Atlanta, 20 minutes into the flight. They started looking for a doctor to handle a medical emergency. Thank God it was resolved without having to land or turn the airplane back.
We also experienced a rollercoaster of emotions during those few days. First, after getting the call, we had to face the facts that we were leaving our family behind. We felt like we were abandoning them, but we knew it was the right thing to do. the second was at the Syrian border. We got there at the same time that the German Embassy was evacuating 800 of its citizens. It took a long time to clear everyone. The biggest disappointment was the hotel in Damascus. To keep us as a group, SOS found a convention center to house us. The rooms there were an afterthought. Some people had to bunk 20 to a room with one bathroom. Luckily, we have family living there and we stayed with them instead. The weirdest feeling for me was when the flight was taking-off in Damascus. I wanted to clap because we were finally leaving the area, but I also wanted to cry because of the way we were leaving it. The biggest irony was that half the on-board magazine was about the beauty of Lebanon and Beirut.
Despite all this, we are thankful for everything. We feel much luckier than some friends that are still making their way out. We are thankful that no one was hurt or injured during this trip. We are thankful for the warm reception we received once we got back home.
I will continue monitoring the situation in Lebanon. I will continue posting my thoughts on it and commenting on how it affects us. I will continue praying for a quick resolution.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mission Accomplished?

We made it home yesterday. We are tired, but safe and consider ourselves very lucky. Our thoughts are still with the friends and family members we left behind and we pray that they will make it out safely as well. My thanks go to all of you who wished us luck and prayed for our safe return. I am also thankful that I work for a company and a manager who really believe that the safety of an employee comes before anything else. The reaction to our ordeal has been overwhelming and trully humbling. People whom I haven't spoken to in several years found ways to reach out to us and ask about our well-being. I came to the office today and found yellow ribbons everywhere and a huge welcome home banner above my office door. By the way, it felt comforting to actually fight traffic at 6:30 in the morning. Finally, thanks to many encouraging comments, I will keep this blog going for a while (under the same name because our mind and spirit are still in Beirut) and I plan to post a step-by-step account of everything we went through over the next few days, so please stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The beauty of the Internet and Cyber Cafe

It seems help is finally on the way, but I still don't have any details beyond what I read in the papers and receive via e-mail. So I am making my own alternate arrangements which is not an easy task. I decided to follow what ever materializes first, so hopefully we will on our way back home soon. My sister left yesterday and finished the first leg of her trip safely.
I am sad to report that my brother-in-law's aunt passed away earlier today. I spoje with him and offered my condolences. He correctly stated that it is a loss for everybody.
I started receiving many comments on this blog site. Its really amazing. Total strangers are wishing me a safe trip home and praying for my safe return. People who support Israel are expressing their simpathy,offering their solutions and making their own predictions. The most amazing part is people commenting on other people's comments and getting into mini arguments. I also really appreciate all those who have taking the time to write and let me know they miss us. A good friend at work has been trying to convince me to do this for a while. We debate middle-east affairs at work. Unfortunately it took a huge event like this to get me going. Its actually very therapeutic to be able to put your thoughts and worries into words at the end of the day. Its also amazing that I can sit in front of a computer, on the sidewalk outside a cyber cafe in the mountains of Lebanon and communicate with people from all over the world with various backgrounds and diverging views. Hopefully I will re-visit these notes after I get back home and laugh at my own political comments and predictions.
In the meantime, I will continue to pray for a peaceful end to this tragedy, the safe return of all hostages and the return of the Lebanon I love and care for.