Driving across the Biqa’ Valley:
As we reentered Syria from Lebanon yesterday, a friend had his copy of al-Hayat, the Lebanese daily, seized by a border guard. “Not allowed,” he said simply as he snatched it out of his lap, reaching into our taxi’s back seat.
A few days earlier we had left Damascus in the early morning, trying to beat the Eid al-Adha holiday traffic. We were only half successful, still having to sit in lines of cab and car traffic at the mountain border between the two countries, the line between the dry desert hills that drop down to the former oasis of Damascus on one side, and the fertile Biqa’ Valley on the other, which you cross in 10 minutes of fast driving before climbing into the craggy mountains and fog and under-construction bridges that eventually drop you down to the Mediterranean and the concrete cityscape of Beirut, which was mostly caked in smog last weekend, before sea breeze and a bit of rain cleared things up.
The disconnect between the two cities is startling and it goes far beyond the prevalence of French, English and Western cafes in Beirut. West Beirut, save for the “incidents” in May — how many Lebanese referred to Hizballah and Amal’s take-over of the city last spring — is in many ways student neighborhood now, the posh kids from AUB going to Starbucks or eating sandwiches across from campus talking in English mostly, with the errant Arabic exclamation. It’s hard to imagine the city’s past amid this, but perhaps this is the truth of Beirut: the disconnect from it dusty neighbor, Damascus; the always looking across the Mediterranean, at least in certain parts of town; and the absurdity of Italian coffees and French newspapers in section of the city that Yasser Arafat vowed to turn into a “the graveyard of the invader and the Stalingrad of the Arabs” when the Israelis invaded in 1982.
I bought Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 on Rue Hamra in West Beirut. He writes in the opening pages:
The dawn made of lead is still advancing from the direction of the sea, riding on sounds I haven’t heard before. The sea has been entirely packed into stray shells. It is changing its marine nature and turning into metal. Does death have all these names? We said we’d leave. Why then does this red-black-grey rain keep pouring over those leaving or staying, be they people, trees, or stones? We said we’d leave. “By sea?” they asked. “By sea,” we answered. Why then are they arming the foam and waves with this heavy artillery? Is it to hasten our steps to the sea? But first they must break the siege of the sea. They must clear the last path for the last threat of our blood. But they won’t do, so we won’t be leaving. I’ll go ahead then and make the coffee.”