Lebanon 2 – I arrive, the government falls

I used to love this revolution (which is what the locals are calling it, not the mere ‘protests’ the media describe). Check out this footage of the happy crowd of revellers forming a human chain along the Corniche in Beirut on Sunday (Oct 27), as seen from atop our sightseeing bus. They say the chain ran the entire coast of the country, more than 200km. Laughter, song, cheers, smiles, welcoming waves – a carnival atmosphere for a true revolution that crosses all lines of class, religion and ethnicity. Haven’t met a single person who’s against it.

There were a couple of streets closed to all but emergency vehicles but the driver got out and pleaded with the soldiers to let us tourists through this one, and they did.

The following day – Monday – we went south along the coast to Echmoun, Sidon and Tyre (I’ll post about that excursion separately) and encountered only the usual chaotic Beirut traffic, which is typically mediterranean in its attitude to speed, lanes, parking and so on. The following day – Tuesday Oct 29 – the plan was to go up north to Tripoli, spend the afternoon and the next day sightseeing, then come back to Beirut in time to get me to the airport at 6. Should have been a 2-hour drive max each way.

Well, the carnival was definitely over. That pretty flag-bearing lass (top of the page) and her cohort caused us untold stress and strife over the six hours it took to cover the 100 km to Tripoli. The freeway was closed in about 8 spots, necessitating detours through the narrow streets of coastal towns, usually at an agonizing crawl and occasionally coming to gridlock. The one depicted above lasted about 40 minutes. See Ray waiting it out on the grass verge! I got out too. It was the hottest time of day (low 30s) and a woman at the wheel of a van called me over and begged for a suck on my water bottle. Which I gave her, of course. You can’t refuse water to another human being. And I have to say she did that thing my Aussie Lebanese friend George can do – pour the water straight down the gullet without touching the bottle to the lips.

Other drivers and passengers got out of their cars regularly to smoke and trade tidbits of info about the blockades. Lebanon is, incidentally, the least smoking-regulated country I’ve been in so far. Plenty of places allow it indoors. Most men and plenty of women smoke. Maybe it’s the successive stresses of the civil war, the declining economy, the corruption and now the traffic blockades. Crack down on smoking in this hitherto non-violent revolution and things might turn ugly.

Ray had endless reserves of Zen and remained calm and cheery throughout. I didn’t do too badly but as we inched our way northward I became increasingly anxious about whether we should be leaving Beirut at all, because God only knew when we’d get to Tripoli and more to the point how the hell we’d get back the next day (Wednesday) in time for my flight to Larnaca. Driver Hassam couldn’t tell us. Nobody could. Drivers swapped information through their open windows constantly, and Hassam listened to a constant stream of reportage on the car radio in rapid-fire excitable Arabic. But his English wasn’t up to passing on any of this to us. Over the course of the day the government fell.

That’s Hassam, photographed on Monday in Tyre. He’s the one on the right. The other fella is connected somehow with the nearby Shi’a shrine. They are standing in front of a billboard depicting portraits of Hezbollah ‘martyrs’ (their word) killed during the Israeli invasion in the 80s. I think. Faaark. But he was a friendly chap, not scary at all. I asked him about a flag flying above shrine. ‘Ya Husseini!’ he explained, a cheer for a Shi’ite saint. I think it’s his festival time – Ashura. It was a very big deal when we were in Iran this time last year.

Fun fact about Hassam: he plays for the Lebanese national team in 5-a-side mini soccer. I’d never heard of such a thing but apparently there are international games starting in Perth in two weeks and he’s coming over. Sightseeing? Leisure? A look around the wide brown land? Nope. Wall-to-wall training and competition. Well you shouldn’t be smoking, I teased him. (He claimed to only have one or two a day. He certainly was nowhere near as bad as Haytham, who drove me back from Tripoli to Beirut yesterday (Wednesday) with his wife alongside in the front passenger seat. They got through a packet between them. Fortunately the pleasant mild sunny weather allowed for the keeping open of all the windows all the time.)

Anyway, back on the Road to Tripoli and Hassam, with $US100 at stake for getting us there, kept forging northward performing many a bold and daring motoring manoeuvre with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a mobile phone in constant use, which scared the bejeesus out of me on the rare occasions we picked up speed on an unblocked portion of highway.

We had intended to stop and spend a few hours in the beautiful old coastal port town of Byblos, or Jbail as it’s known locally. We got there around 3.30 and despite my misgivings about getting out of the stream of traffic I let Ray persuade me to at least have a walk and a beer in this lovely place. He could’ve been Elmer Fudd: Ah’ve paid mah two bits to see Byblos, and ah’m a-gonna SEE Byblos!’ At least we had it virtually to ourselves thanks to the road blocks, as you can see.

These young locals were all watching the revolution unfolding on a screen above the bar
Note ingenious use of the ancient steps in the bar

And so we arrive in Tripoli about 5.30pm, six hours after starting out from Beirut. We find our hotel fairly easily and say farewell to Hassam, who won’t get home to Beirut till well after midnight and will simply not be able to accomplish the original deal of driving home to Beirut and back again to Tripoli to pick us up in the morning. We’ll get a local driver (the aforesaid heavy smoking Haytham).

I’m deeply frazzled by now and in a state of mind that only a glass of something chilled and alcoholic and a lungful of nicotine can fix. We head out for some R and R. Ray fancies the waterfront but it’s peopled by virtuous muslim families and their kids in toy vehicles bowling up and down and nary a bar in sight.

A childish voice came from behind me: ‘Excuse me madam, if it’s not too much trouble would you mind telling me where you come from?’ I turned round to meet this young man. ‘Australia’, I said. ‘So do I!’ said he. Turns out Sala is from Sydney and visiting family in Lebanon. He was certainly a credit to his family and his school – such impeccable manners and speech!

We were lured by the bright lights of this joint just off the waterfront, which alas dealt only in coffee, soft drink and shisha. And you could of course smoke.

Ray searches in vain for evidence of alcohol

After a cheerless fizzy drink we mooched off back up towards town, hoping at least to find a good meal. We stumbled across this place – Warche 13, a cafe/bar/restaurant run by Dutch-born Ruben and his Lebanese wife Nadine. The music and the artwork were super-cool and so was the chardonnay. We drank rather too much wine, I fear, and dined on the splendid cooking of Nadine’s mum: cabbage rolls and chicken pie, but not as you would picture them. Neither did I, I’m afraid. I was too hungry to bother whipping out the phone.

Ruben and Ray at Warche13
Note the funky bathroom set-up.

It wasn’t just the food, wine, company and music that restored my equanimity. Nadine found me a driver for Wednesday – the aforesaid Haytham. I could have hugged her. Actually I did. We just loved this place. Ray’s going back there Thursday after I head back to Beirut.

Outside the Azur Suites in Tripoli

But the next day dawned bright and sunny and our Tripoli digs revealed their charm.

Ray on the balcony of the Azur Suites
Only drawback – they didn’t have an elevator
‘Tic Tac Cafe just round the corer from Azur
Wonderful Lebanese brekky spread for about $6 each

We would have spent the morning in Tripoli and driven leisurely back to Beirut, possibly via the Jeita caves, in time for my 8pm flight to Larnaca in Cyprus. But I thought it prudent to leave much earlier, allowing the same 6 hours as yesterday, so Haytham and his wife picked me up at 11am. Well of course most of the blockades had been dismantled and we got to the airport at 1.30 – over 6 hours early!

Ray isn’t leaving Lebanon till Friday and he stayed on in Tripoli, falling in with some revolutionaries, he tells me via Messenger. He came back to Beirut on Thursday. The blockades had been dismantled so he had time to go to the Jeita caves, lucky sod. We hope to meet up again in Amman on Saturday. I’ve got a whole day there before starting my Jordan/Israel tour.

Fully veiled muslim women at Beirut airport

I had 6 hours to kill at the airport and only two hours of free wifi. I wandered about and snuck a pic of these women. The airport wasn’t crowded – why would they sit on the ground right over in the corner like that? One woman was totally draped in black – not even a slit for her eyes. They went through passport control same time as me. I was pleased to see they had to lift their veils for passport inspection. And if it was male officer, too bad.

The gods finally took pity on me when I landed on greek soil and gave me a hassle-free arrival at Larnaca and a free bottle of nice Cypriot red wine in my hotel room.

I said at the start we hadn’t met a single person who was against the revolution. While we were at Warche13, a crowd of pro-government protestors stopped down the end of the street. Check this out, and yes, I shouldn’t have turned the phone camera sideways.

Pro-Government demonstrators last night. They are cheering Hariri who just resigned, but most people support the revolution.

Posted by Annie Warburton on Tuesday, 29 October 2019