beirut-bleak-graffiti-lebanon

Travels in Troubled Lebanon (2024)

Notes From The Road

“Last week, a guest was kidnapped,” said the guy at hotel reception.

Great. Just what inspires travelers to Lebanon.

So it looks like the southern region is out.

I suppose that stands to reason, since Israel and Hezbollah are amid a low-intensity border conflict.


In spite of double-glazed closed windows – impatient horns rip my city view of Beirut.

I’m bored.

Bored in Beirut?

How’s that possible?

Well, I’ve seen ‘the sights’.

And the ones that I haven’t done, now the government’s closed all the sights across Lebanon. (Apparently, employees haven’t been paid in months when I asked in Sidon / Saida yesterday).

Cloudy over the waterfront corniche of Sidon, facing the ruins of the 12th century Crusader sea castle.
Cloudy over the waterfront corniche of Sidon, facing the ruins of the 12th century Crusader sea castle.

Sights are what I travel for, primarily.

And not for the classy bars, fining dining, high fashion or luxury shopping – things that once made Beirut the playground of the East; no, I’m not into that stuff… Never was.

What’s more, at age 57 and happily married, I no longer want crazy wired nights on the town (during my youth – which extended into my forties, I had more than my fill of fun.)

Anyway.

So, am chilling in bed, alternating cold beer with cheap red.

I arrived 2 weeks ago in Beirut at 3:35 AM, and later got a taxi along wet, dark roads amid a storm that lashed the city with rain and thunder.

It was vicious.

It rained for days.

But I got out and about in a rain-jacket, with merino hat and fleece warmth to wander about the drenched gray city.

Lone boy with toy gun; ruined buliding (in process of being restored) on the Green Line in the Lebanese Civil War. BELOW: Downtown Beirut is blocked off by barriers and checkpoints; Great mosque in central Beirut, built by Rafic ai-Hariri (apparently from $25 million dollars of his own money).
TOP: Lone boy with toy gun; ruined buliding (in process of being restored) on the Green Line in the Lebanese Civil War. BELOW: Downtown Beirut is blocked off by barriers and checkpoints; Great mosque in central Beirut, built by Rafic ai-Hariri (apparently from $25 million dollars of his own money).

People were friendly, when I said Salaam Aleikum, or Bonjour – depending whether I was addressing a Muslim or a Christian Lebanese.

Otherwise, the bustle of the city, like any city, just ignored and swallowed the stranger as if he was one of them.

In the central downtown of Beirut, buildings of rebuilt colonial grandeur (since Israel bombed the heck out of it), the streets were now permanently blocked, guarded by soldiers. No entry.

But they were also friendly, guns and all.

It rained on the mosques, it rained on the churches, it rained on a big poster picture of the esteemed but assassinated leader, Rafic ai-Hariri (taken by a massive car bomb in 2005 but prior to his death, he’d rebuilt much of central Beirut, often with his own millions).

It was wet and cold as Syrian kids pleaded for money.

Mostly, I gave to people.

Old veiled Muslim woman sitting on the freezing pavement; another woman wanting money for medicine; and shawarma chicken sandwiches for Syrian shoe-shine boys.

This wasn’t a poverty like India, no way, but anyhow, I still couldn’t save the world.

Adham, a Lebanese guy I’d met flying from Saudi, told me over midnight beers in Cairo airport that since the massive port explosion in 2020, that Beirut had lost its confidence, that it has never been the same since.

This is my first time here, but certainly, while there’s still the rich and luxurious buildings, fashion shops and luxury cars in some parts of Beirut, also there seems to be a certain universal melancholy.

Maybe, it’s just the bitter storm blowing?

And blow, rain, and crackle it did (I thought my hometown in Wellington, New Zealand was TOTALLY WET and wild in winter. Well, Beirut can definitely compete.)

Heading into the mountains of Lebanon it was freezing… Snowing.

Travels in Lebanon: Ruins of Anjar and Baalbek. BELOW: Along the waterfront of Beirut - stormy weather returns from the sea.
TOP: Travels in Troubled Lebanon: Ruins of Anjar and Baalbek. BELOW: Beirut waterfront – posing for family (that’s my hand in the way); stormy weather coming in AGAIN.

In Baalbek, heartland of Hezbollah (the Shite Muslim military + political force of Southern Lebanon), I was lucky to wander the mighty Roman temple ruins for hours, alone.


Baalbek was my number ONE reason to visit Lebanon


WOW.

And there was no real drama (at least not from armed men. But, some hotel staff member broke into my locked camera / computer bag and stole wad of Lebanese cash; maybe $US 30.

Hard to say, as I had a brick of them.

Since Lebanon’s financial crash, the biggest note is 100,000 lira, which is just over $US 1, so a brick is carried when you change a couple of 100 dollars.)

The Omayyad (Islamic) ruins of Anjar were closed. So I sneaked in, got caught, and was politely kicked out.

When I told my apartment host that evening, he said that I was really a “true Lebanese, for we always break the rules.”

Charbel was a Maronite Christian, a Captain in the National Lebanese Army. He was more office bound these days, but said he missed the field. Back in the day, around 2015, he had been fighting ISIS in the Anjar area.


Troubled Lebanon – some background


Now, if you know a little about recent Lebanese history, you’ll know the last 50 years has mostly been a mess.

travels in troubled Lebanon in the Bleak graffiti on walls of Beirut (in 2024).
Trouble Lebanon – bleak graffiti on walls of Beirut (in 2024).

Fighting – gun battles – between Christians and Muslims.

Between Sunni and Shite Muslims.

Between Palestinians and Lebanese.

And off course, NUMEROUS conflicts with Israeli, 1982’s big invasion and the 2006 incursion being the nastiest in recent times (and now, a low intensity war again on the border between Hezbollah and Israel, relating to Gaza).

Then, there was the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 – 1990.

It ripped the country apart, followed by years of Syrian annexation and sectarian fighting.

Later, the Syrian civil war spit zillions of refugees and also ISIS over the border.

A few more years on came the financial crash that destroyed the economy, followed by the ‘near-atomic’ port explosion in central Beirut (2020).

Lebanon is a friendly, but fractured country.

I visited mountain towns that were only Christian, cities dominated by either Sunni or Shia Muslims, and then there’s Beirut, a mass of ‘cohesive’ group divisions.

Lebanon flows as one now.

But if history is the judge, then appalling and unexpected things can erupt anytime in troubled Lebanon.

… Today, the sun shines.

walking along the waterfront corniche of Beirut, near the district of Hamra
When the sun FINALLY came out… walking along the waterfront corniche of Beirut, near the district of Hamra.

Postscript: Lebanon Conflict during Gaza War


Things were hotting up between the Israeli military and Hezbollah on the southern Lebanese border during my travels, after months of shelling and bombing each other.

Headlines like these screenshots accompanied my 2 week journey, and it was good to get out as planned – incase the Israelis bombed Beirut airport (like they’ve done in the past. And then, I’d be stuck in Lebanon as there is no other practical way out and my cash dollars were getting low).

news screenshots of Israel Hezbollah conflict on south Lebanon border during Gaza War in 2024, while I was travelling Lebanon
The Google Map shows the Lebanon- Israel border strikes: Israeli in Blue; Hezbollah in Yellow. But you really need to see the enlargement to see all the actual zillion strikes that were going on before, during, and continue after my journey.

Getting out of Beirut


If I thought arriving into Beirut at 3:35 AM was a nasty chore, after waiting 6 hours in transit in Cairo, then no, that was wine and roses compared to my ugly fuckin’ departure from Lebanon.

Started well, if you can say awaking at 4:30 AM is good? At least, I was on time and had ordered a prepaid and expensive, BUT, reliable cab that actually picked me up at an ungodly cold and dark hour.

So far, so good. Everything going to plan.

At the check-in early (as I’d read Beirut can be hours of chaos with security lines). Nice, very small check-in line.

But then.

The guy said “I can’t check you in. There’s a X next to your name. I only do check-in. I’m sorry. You need to ring the airline.”

BUT (WTF !!!) My ticket is confirmed and in my hand.

“Sorry,” a woman explained, “This happens all the time. It’s no problem, it is easily fixed.”

THE PROBLEM: Some weeks ago, Cyprus Airways had canceled my flight and so reseated me on the next day’s flight. Something I confirmed, also, on their website. I HAD A NEW TICKET ISSUED WITH NEW DATE AND CONFIRMED, so it said.

Well, I was blown away. Too surreal. Lack of sleep did not help, either.

But I had time, and staff seemed to think it was nothing. So, I waited an hour until the office opened in Larnaka (as I’d already tried and a robo message stated: open at 7 AM).

When the time came, my phone had no credit to call. FUCK.

I returned to the young check-in woman and explained. She said she’d call someone at the airline.

AND THEN I waited.

And waited

And waited.

Until some boss wanted to close the check-in counter – the one I still hadn’t checked into!

I watched the clock.

Less than 1 hour to check-in then scream thru security, immigration and find the gate!

I was silently STRESSED.

I don’t need this shit.

The staff were panicking, trying to follow instructions over the phone to hack the system.

With 40 minutes to go – GREEN LIGHT.

Everyone was elated. The check-in guy rushed me to the security line – THANK GOD, not too long (thanks, to lack of travelers due to the conflict, I’d later read).

BUT THEN – Immigration stretched for kilometers.

That’s it. I’m FUCKED.

All I could do was work up the mad nerve to go right to the front and ask a young man if it was OK to push in. I explained, he said “OK, but not sure about the people behind me.”

It’s all I could do.

Utter a millions thanks to the entire planet that waited behind me. Get stamped, and stampede towards Gate 19.

Standing there was the check-in guy awaiting me: “Mr Powell !!!”

I believe he was as stunned as me – that I’d made it.

He grabbed my pack, running to the boarding gate as I said thanks, shook hands, and sprinted onto the plane.

Cabin crew immediately closed the aircraft door.

MRP – ONBOARD.

… Just.

Travels in Lebanon – 2024

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