Memories of another Beirut

Published August 9, 2020
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE devastating explosion in Beirut this week that bloodied the beautiful Lebanese capital yet again, inflicting a tragic loss of over 150 lives, injuries to some 3,000 people and billions of dollars’ worth of damage to the infrastructure, was heartbreaking.

Even by battered Beirut’s standards this must have been the most significant single-day damage inflicted on the unfortunate city that has survived civil wars, Western occupation, Israeli invasion, air attacks and massacres over the years.

Videos shot by citizens from their flats at different distances from the port left no doubt about how this stockpile of ammonium nitrate was a disaster waiting to happen because it had not been removed from the port and disposed of, even after seven years of having been confiscated from a ship.

This devastation pained me as much as images of the civil war on TV screens through the 1970s and the destruction brought upon the city by the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the massacre by Phalangist militiamen in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1983.

On a road trip from Pakistan to Lebanon via Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the mind of a young boy could not see the undercurrents.

I remember vividly a Yasser Arafat clip where he is being interviewed in a sandbagged position as Israeli rockets are flying overhead before slamming into civilian areas, and he points to the sky and says with great irony in his voice: “And they call us terrorists?”

The following year, once the Ariel Sharon-led Israeli military lifted its siege of the two Palestinian refugee camps, which had been enforced to enable the Phalange gunmen to run amok unchallenged and kill up to 3,500, mostly, unarmed Palestinian (and Shia) men, women and children, the soul-destroying images started to reach the outside world.

An inquiry was to find Sharon responsible for facilitating the massacre but he faced no penalties apart from having to step down as defence minister. In fact, he later rose to the highest office in Israel and continued with his efforts to exterminate the Palestinians.

Lebanon’s delicate power balance, representing its population mix with a powerful Maronite president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shia speaker put in place after the French occupation forces left in 1946, was coming under immense pressure with the influx of Palestinian refugees after the 1967 Arab-Israel war.

The war, which saw Israel capture the West Bank and other Arab/Palestinian territories, saw the large-scale expulsion of Palestinians including PLO fighters, many of whom relocated to Jordan. They launched attacks on Israel and King Hussein did not approve of this because he feared Israeli retaliation.

In 1970, he ordered his forces, led by a Pakistani (on deputation) Brig Muhammad Ziaul Haq to launch a clean-up operation against the Palestinian camps. What the tanks and soldiers under the command of the cavalry officer carried out was a massacre that came to be known as Black September.

This pushed many PLO cadres and civilian Palestinian refugees to relocate to Lebanon, causing friction there and altering the delicate demographic balance that had favoured the Maronite Christians whose decisive majority was now reduced to a minority.

All hell broke loose by 1975 when a full-scale civil war started with the Gemayel family-led Phalangists, Jumblatt-led Druze militia and the Nabi Berri-headed Shia Amal militia locking horns all over the country with Beirut and its suburbs being the major battleground.

Israeli backing and arming of the Phalange forces added a dangerous twist to the conflict. Not content with supporting proxies from afar, the Israelis finally invaded Beirut in 1982 and though they dislodged the Palestinians from there, there was a huge undesired consequence.

A breakway faction of the Shia Amal militia formed the militant group Hezbollah which sought both spiritual and material support from Iran or Iranian ally, Syria, in the neighbourhood. It is one of the few forces in the region that have held their own against the Israeli Defence Forces and forced the latter to end its occupation of south Lebanon.

However, much before, in late October 1971, when I accompanied my parents on a road trip that took us from Pakistan to Lebanon via Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the young mind of a school-age boy could see none of the undercurrents.

All I remember to this day is the sheer, natural beauty of Lebanon and the jewel in its crown, Beirut. I recall waking up in Damascus where, when we opened the hotel room window, we heard cries of ‘Amman, Amman, Amman’ and ‘Beirut, Beirut, Beirut’ as young men were trying to sell seats on shared taxis to prospective travellers.

And later that morning, the fascinating drive on a beautiful road winding through the hills to Beirut. As we neared Beirut the hills around were dotted by beautiful villas with swimming pools and tennis courts surrounded by pines and cedars. It was clear these were the homes of the very rich.

Arriving at our hotel in Al Bourj Square (later renamed Martyrs Square) we marvelled at the rose and carnation bedecked wide central reservation. My first ever visit to a department store which was called Theophile Khoury.

Later, that evening we drove past the night and boat/yacht clubs dotting the seafront and throwing light on the gentle Mediterranean waves lapping the shore and stylish Lebanese arriving in droves at the clubs.

The next day we took the cable car up the mountain and then a more or less vertical railcar up to where 650m above the sea is gigantic statue of Virgin Mary as she stands, head dipped to a side, surveying the city. We took a break at a restaurant with stunning city-sea views.

Here as my parents sipped coffee we saw a sommelier pour alcohol from different coloured bottles in two thin glasses for a well-heeled couple. For a 12-year-old it was no less than magical that the different colours seemed to form horizontal stripes in the glass and did not mix.

From those serene images to an explosion that caused widespread devastation in one of the most beautiful cities in the world will never be easy to reconcile to. But then this world never ceases to shock and shake you endlessly.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2020


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