Friday, July 14, 2006

Report from Beirut 2

Another letter from my sister-in-law in Beirut (the first is here). This one arrived a few minutes ago.

Just to assure you, I'm FINE. In case you're up for a description of today, I've had time to write it since everyone abandoned the one bar open in my neighborhood at about 9:30...

At about 1 PM today the atmosphere in Beirut changed as though a tornado had swept through. Within a matter of an hour or two the approach of Beirutis with the means to do so changed from sitting tight to fleeing to North Lebanon in masses. Around noon leaflets began being dropped in certain neighborhoods warning of specific targets in the area and advising evacuation (my neighborhood was not targeted). Families mobilized, planned, and left literally within a matter of an hour like they were carrying out a military drill. These are families in which the parents are from the generation who grew up and came of age during the war confronting the insanity on a daily basis with the manic energy of people who don't know much other than strong alliances and acute loss – people who I've spent hours listening to telling war stories over Almaza and Arak. Today they were putting that same manic energy into keeping their children safe. I had lunch with one of my close friends and colleagues, a Lebanese-Canadian who worked for years in the West Bank on economic development projects (using his Canadian passport) and his wife, who is Jordanian but spent the entire war in Beirut, at one point being held with fellow students by the Israeli navy during a failed evacuation by the Jordanian government. During the hour that Imad was making lunch for us Sahar called around, made arrangements to rent a house in the North, packed up the children and had them and the Filipina maid in the car as soon as they were finished with lunch. She explained that having lived through the war, they can just sense what is coming, and she wouldn't take chances with her girls. A bridge right near their house was bombed a few hours later.

Several of my colleagues decided just as quickly this afternoon to rent space in a hotel resort an hour north of Beirut. They called me as they were on their way to pick me up, expecting me to simply jump in the car. I didn't… I guess because even though I've been close to some intense situations in this region I've never really been close enough to fully grasp what the Israelis have said from the start, that "nowhere is safe" – and because I have friends in Beirut who don't have the option of driving up north to a resort for the weekend – and because I grew up with stories of my grandparents sticking it out on the edge of East Jerusalem through the 6 Day War - and because Beirut has come to feel like one of my many homes. When my Lebanese friends found out I had turned down a trip up north they visibly disapproved and all responded by insisting that I come and stay with them. The way I always describe Lebanon is that there are intricate codes of conduct here that outsiders will never fully understand (I use the metaphor of the traffic lights, which Lebanese seem to intuitively know which to respect and which to ignore). Responses to this situation are clearly governed by some of these intuitive codes. My Lebanese friends know exactly which roads and which spots are safe. My neighborhood, Hamra, is one of the few places in West Beirut which everyone seems to thinks is safe. Last night I managed to sleep through all the bombings, a coincidence of where I live, that my apartment is on the bottom floor, and that I was out late drinking at the one bar open in my neighborhood. But now the bombings are very audible from here, and everyone was leaving the bar at about 9:30. I'm planning to join my colleagues up north in the morning.

As for leaving - we found out today that while the US embassy's website has for the last two days been recommending American citizens to leave the country – but not telling us how we might do that – they have evacuated their own staff. Which means there's no one left to answer the phones. While the roads between Beirut and Syria are not as badly damaged as we originally thought, Syria has not been letting Americans into the country without an existing visa, which makes that route little use. The last time I made the trip between Beirut and Damascus about a month ago for a conference I was held for over 7 hours at the border. And now there are literally thousands of tourists who don't need visas fleeing into Syria by the hour, and all heading for the airport which is apparently packed like a refugee camp. So getting back to Cairo that way is not much of an option. While it seems bizarre that the US can't organize an evacuation, it seems that the problem isn't with the logistics but with the message it would send, that what Israel is doing is problematic and that civilians are in fact in danger. Anyway, I'm registered with security clearance by the embassy for my work here and am apparently at the top of the list for getting out. Still, it is only the fact that my Lebanese friends seem worried about me being by myself tonight that I'm a little anxious for the morning. Insha'alla all will be well.

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