I was knocked out last night after this wonderful dinner. I laid down on bed and felt asleep immediately – didn’t even take my clothes off.
After 12 hours of deep sleep I was ready to start into our first full day in Beirut.
We are staying in the city center in the Ain el-Mraisseh area, just a block away from the sea. Around the corner of the hotel we found a coffee shop – a meeting point for locals who stop by to have a coffee or tea before going to work. Sunits and Schiits sitting together and discussing daily life.
The coffee was strong and sweet, the croissant crispy and tasty.
We were fully aware when we entered the place that it would be only a question of a few minutes until one of them would start a conversation. And so it was. And – surprisingly – the guy talked to us in German. Bea explained him what we are doing here and he connected us to a German camera man working for CNN in Beirut. Christian just came back from Egypt yesterday – from a journalistic point a daily too early … the news about the crackdown on pro-Morsy protesters in Cairo arrived only an hour after we’d talked.
I myself talked to a senior banker – he said the Beirut economy is hit rock bottom and the effects of the Syrian war are more than tangible: increase of unemployment, decrease of tourism, the finance market is in turbulence, the religious conflict between the Sunits and Schiits is fired and the Hezbollah is under attack because of their support for Assad. A pretty hopeless situation he said.
Our next stop was in a rather fancy area: Saifi Village. An area which looks like Italy and in which things are as expensive (or even more expensive) as in New York, Tokyo, Paris or London.
We’ve met a Syrian fixer, working for a news channel, now living in exile in Beirut. He and his family have left Damascus only a few month ago when he felt that going back and forth to the city – he was living in the suburbs of Damascus – simply became to dangerous. Especially at night. Now he goes back every now and then for a couple of days for jobs. He said, he always stays in hotels and he considered them as safe. We’ve had a long conversation with him on what distinguishes Lebanese people from Syrians and he gave us deep insights into what he describes as the Syrian identity. Based upon his understanding that Syria used to be a melting pot – just like New York – where all different minorities (even Jews) were welcome and were accepted as they are, he claims that Assad assured the “frame set” for the Syrian people to enjoy this diversity. We decided that both topics will end up in an article in we_middle_east. So no more insights here right now …
From him we heard that inside Syria the government is taking care of 4 million refugees inside the country – they provide them shelter in hospitals, churches and mosques and other public buildings and they feed them. (Update: Sister Agnes, a Syrian nun, well-known for her fight to get the truth of what is happening in Syria out to the world, told us on Saturday that there are 6 million refugees inside Syria – not all of them finding shelter and food). He continued to tell us, that they’ve done a few stories about this – but such kind of “material” is hard to get aired outside Syria. It doesn’t fit in the picture the West has drawn of the despot Assad. The refugees outside the country – in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon – are closely related to the insurgents, he said. Alas for them it would be dangerous to stay in Syria. Horrifying and perverse stories – actually stories beyond believe – are coming out of these camps: very often stories about sexual abuse of women, sex trafficking young girls and brutal and often deadly separation of children and their mothers … Sister Agnes confirmed this on Saturday and showed us pictures from people cut in pieces, beheaded people, insurgents eating innards of people who have just been killed. You can watch all this on youtube. BARBARISM! Perversity!
We’ve met other Syrians in exile – successful business people who left the country when the turmoils started 2 years ago. They have a completely different opinion about Assad. They closed down their businesses and properties and fled to Beirut. Beirut or better Lebanon is for them almost the only place where they can practically go – no other country gives Syrian citizen a visa these days. So they are pretty much trapped. And they are not very much welcome – even with their money. Innuendoes such as handing out parking tickets for cars with Syrian licence plates or emptying the trashcan over ones are part of daily life among them.
Lebanese are afraid that the unrests spill over – sources say there are close to 700,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon – a tenth of the Lebanese population! As the number of Syrian refugees increases, the Lebanese fear the country’s sectarian based political system is being undermined. Just another powder–keg in the Middle East.
And – paradoxically – we were discussing all these issues on a breathtaking yacht in one of Beirut’s harbours …