Citizens, NGOs try to keep life going in Lebanon
31 July 2006
by Brian Whitaker
Beirut, Lebanon: The Phoenicians were the greatest traders of the ancient world and the Lebanese are their descendants. In Lebanon, every situation - no matter how dire - is an opportunity for someone to do business.
Ammar runs a shop selling decorative inlaid boxes, hubble-bubble pipes, necklaces, keffiyehs (cotton headdresses), historical-looking artefacts and just about anything else that a tourist in Beirut might be induced to buy.
"You can't be selling much at the moment," I suggested after he had almost dragged me inside.
"You'd be surprised," he said.
Only the other day, a diplomat who was due to leave Beirut had called in and spent $500 (£270) on souvenirs.
Ammar gave me his business card. "Ammar Stores - exporter," it said. "Abaya factory, oriental gifts, leather goods, all kinds of ladies' wear."
His latest line of business, with samples proudly draped over a traffic sign in the street, is T-shirts. They are printed on the back with this message: "PRESS DON'T SHOOT"
"If you don't like the words I can print something different," he persisted. "You want a car and driver? I can get you one. Very reasonable price."
He took out a photograph from a folder and laid it on the counter. It showed a dark-haired young man wearing another T-shirt, this time labelled "BBC".
"1982," he said - the year Israel invaded Lebanon.
"And who is that in the picture?" I asked, not immediately recognising the face.
"Me," he said. "I was working for the BBC. I know Tim Llewellyn. I took some stupid risks at that time. I wouldn't do it now."
Sadly, Ammar's spirit of go-getting enterprise doesn't extend to large parts of the Lebanese government, especially where people fleeing the bombs (officially known as "internally displaced persons" or IDPs) are concerned.
It is now one week since Nayla Mouawad, the social affairs minister, told a press conference of her plans to set up tents for them in sports grounds and other open spaces. On Tuesday, she informed another press conference that the tents had yet to arrive from Switzerland. The ministry also seems to be having problems with staff who are unable or unwilling to turn up for work.
In the meantime, individuals and non-governmental organisations have been taking the initiative. On Tuesday, I visited Zico House, which has become the hub for voluntary relief efforts in central Beirut.
Zico House used to be a sort of arts centre which also housed various radical and leftist groups such as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, Haya Bina ("Let's Get Going!") and Helem, the only openly functioning gay and lesbian organisation in the Arab world.
Helem's office is still recognisable from the posters promoting safer sex and another in rainbow colours saying "No pride in occupation", but as soon as the war started it was turned over to the relief effort.
As I arrived at Zico House, they were preparing to distribute a consignment of cooking oil. A van was parked outside and a long line of people rapidly passing the oil containers from hand to hand stretched from the van into the building and way up the stairs.
In the back yard, there were piles of newly-donated clothes and volunteers sorting them into boxes labelled "skirts - long", "pyjamas - men", "shorts - men", etc.
In the kitchen, I found Rhea, with a ring through her lip, and Aida (punk-style pants and hair dyed in an interesting pattern) along with two other young women, grappling with a vast pan of spaghetti to feed the volunteers. They said it was their first experience of cooking and I could quite believe it. As the pasta began to stick to the pan they admitted it wasn't a huge success.
This particular relief effort, which now comprises some 40 different groups, goes by the name of Samidoun ("Steadfast"), and most of its volunteers are in their 20s and 30s.
It may look a bit chaotic but it's actually highly organized, using computers to keep track of people's needs. Volunteer helpers present themselves to a man with a laptop who assigns them a task.
Having spent three months in Beirut last year during the so-called Cedar Revolution, I decided this week to call some of my old contacts and find out what had happened to them.
When I called Magda, a university teacher, her phone wasn't working. I thought she might have gone to her home up in the mountains but someone told me later she had got fed up with Lebanon and emigrated to the United States.
Dina, who works for a publishing company, was still here in her office, so I dropped round for coffee. I found her alone, trying to start up a computer. She was coming to the office every day, she said, not because she had much work to do but mainly to get away from the family.
Like many Lebanese, her home is now crammed with relatives from the south; there aren't enough mattresses to go round, it's hard to get any sleep and with so many people cooped up in the same small space it doesn't take much to start the kids screaming and the aunts and cousins bickering. It sounds like a particularly bad family Christmas - except that this one looks like carrying on for weeks rather than a single day.
"I'm so tired," said Dina. "This is worse than the civil war. Much worse."
Leila, who in normal times works in Lebanon for a German NGO, was also tired. Her flat has become a haven for friends from the south who stay up talking politics until 5 am. She has also been getting calls for help from a young German journalist who has never been to Lebanon before, and a Greek journalist who had the not-very-brilliant idea of trying to spend a night with a Shia family in bombed-out Dahiyeh.
Leila welcomed the idea of escaping for a while to have dinner, but we arrived to find the restaurant in darkness, with its staff sitting on the steps outside. There was a power cut.
They had a small generator providing just enough light for the kitchen, so we ate by candlelight - which might have been romantic in other circumstances. At around 10pm the staff became fidgety and we decided it was time to leave.
As we finished, a couple from another table - the only other customers - came over to chat. The man introduced himself as Hugh from the BBC and said he had just arrived, having previously been in Iraq.
"I'm going to do something that you may think is very strange," he said, pulling out his recording equipment. "But it's amazingly quiet in here. I want to record the silence."
And with that, he disappeared into the gloom holding his microphone.
Back at the hotel, I was just dozing off when the noise started: Israeli planes roaring overhead. When that happens, you expect to hear a bomb a few seconds later, but strangely I could hear no explosions. It was considerably more agonising than the bombing I have heard on other nights.
Is this some new form of torture, I wondered ... keeping people awake with the sound of planes then waiting, waiting, for a bang that never comes.