Home > Middle East > >Despatches from Lebanon – Part 4

>Despatches from Lebanon – Part 4

>Here’s the final part of my friend Steve’s writings from Lebanon, where he has been for the last 6 weeks doing some work for the World Bank.

It is has been a few weeks since the last instalment and this one is likely to be the epilogue as week six in sunny down town Beirut comes to a close, plus I have my bags half packed. Today I went for yet another long walk in Beirut. It is small city about the size of Geelong with more universities than the East coast of the USA. They seem to be everywhere not much larger than an ABC child minding centre. Everything is here but on a miniature scale. The concept of the Bonsai is alive and well.

Shopping here is interesting when you begin to understand the tariffs and economics a few things come into focus. The price of a bottle of whisky is about $US6 and a tub of ice cream is about $US9. It is times like these that you realise that giving up high calorie food is probably a good idea. Soft drinks are also cheap so a scotch and coke is a very cheap way of entering a mind altered state. Perhaps decadence is scotch and coke spider.

One of the reasons for continuing the newsletter is that I have been informed that someone is making money by selling subscriptions to my half witted monologue. I have just received my royalty contract but no cheque, and the fine print states that payment will be made in food stamps redeemable in Darfur at a synagogue between the summer equinox and the Eastern Orthodox Easter. That gives me more time as the Eastern orthodox Jesus is luckier than the Roman one as he gets to live a bit longer. Since few outside the chosen ones have failed to adopt the Julian calendar for everything the timing of life’s most important events have taken a new turn The only problem with the contract is that it doesn’t state jurisdiction. I think that others have been benefiting from my work this is a change from my usual modes operandi.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to get across to Cyprus to see John. John a wonderful chap who has had a lot of experience in the medical world and its imposing infrastructure is helping the local Cypriots to build and insurance system that will help them manage the cost of providing medical services to those eternally diseased people that are trapped in healthy bodies and also the occasional unwell one.

Cyprus is a beautiful country. An island paradise with the benefit of hills for the socially autistic who don’t like city folk where one can indulge in great sceneries from hill tops and fantastic foods that can only be described as natural by Americans. Cyprus is one of the great natural wonders of modern history. A country that has had Christianity at it’s core with the advent of Turkish Islam thrown in like a Molotov cocktail. The end result is that the Greek side is affluent like the USA with Mexico as a bordering second cousin. The Turks are somewhat immune to progress. It is absolutely unbelievable that the EU moves forward like a Serbian donkey towards the emancipation of Kosovo. I just love progress.

Walking down Ledra street with John and seeing the artificial border created in the early 70s has an eerie feel of making a Lego block city with unnatural divides. On the other side there is the no man’s land like a 1950s sci fi movie with the aliens that look like us but they aren’t us. The slowly decaying buildings harbouring the scourge of land mines to separate people who were once part of a single community. At time like this one really appreciates the knowledge and guidance of our political leaders.

In Lebanon one can walk down the street and the only landmines are dog turds. There are police on every corner. What I love about Lebanon is the array of weapons that are displayed by the local police. This is where AK 47 meets M16. There is no uniformity. Here one thinks of the possibilities. The French are somewhat ubiquitous. A hospital around the corner sports the name of Hotel Dieu de France. My limited knowledge of French is somewhat picqued when I saw this. Their closeness to God only tortures the Italians. The French who have succeeded in capitalising on the victory of their allies since the Russians kicked their arses don’t seem to have any weapons being used by the local military anywhere in the world except where the Concorde fell over. This is probably not a good thing because apart from great pastries the French do wonderful things with diesel engines. Peugeot is a testament to that. So French guns should be good apart from their advertising ( never used, only dropped once) one should not confuse engineering with implementation. My little experience with UN forces reminds me of the Italians. These characters have the unique ability to make a uniform not a uniform. Simply consider getting your mother to resew your cams to get them to look like cams by Armani, this is the average Italian posted to the UN. Add to that designer Beretta shotguns(no ammo) and you have your average Italian on foreign service. I am thankful that they are part of NATO and not ANZUS. A good thing about the local Lebanese is that you can see that that they aren’t French or Italian. If they are going to fight they want to win.

Back to dog turds. Today I saw a few and one had a shoe print right in the middle. My knowledge of forensics is limited but I could feel the expletives of the owner of the shoe as I walked past. These dastardly devices were designed to maim rather than kill. The victim always tends to live and like a Stephen King experience I felt the power of pain as I walked past. I could feel the anguish of the victim the pain the soiled shoe, the heart rendering cry, followed by the scrapping of shoe against concrete and brick. But to no avail, The smell was still there. The squishing feeling that was not peat moss. Today is Sunday I am on the Christian side of Beirut. This when church bells resound. Most days I awake to the crowing of the mosque at 4.47am. A pleasant sound when announced at 9 am the church bells are not confronting. The local Christian that was maimed by the dog turd still lingers as I can feel their pain just by walking past. The imprint reminds me. The freshness makes me recoil. This only happened recently. Today. The turd is still soft without any crust, the brown is uniform with only a hint of oxidisation. Perhaps just before I got there. I am so grateful this is not Cyprus where the landmines don’t discriminate between Turks and Greeks. But the pain of the victim does not see the irony.

John was arrested here as a young man and as a recently graduated doctor in the 70s as he took photos of the border region. That was at a time when he had more hair and less concerns about the political views of others. The nice thing about him is that nothing has changed (except the hair) but that has its own appeal.

After a start at Larnaca when he picked me up at dawn we drove to Nicosia. Not a long way in Columbus terms but an hour’s drive along a very civilised highway punctuated by speed camera wielding policemen holding down the next victim of revenue and raising personal behaviour to new levels. I only saw one victim per offence. These police have a long way to go before they can realise their true potential. It reminds me of my short time in Serbia. Watching TV there gives one a particular insight into the culture and accepted norms.

The ad starts out with a Serbian policeman with a speed camera pulling over a new Audi and the speed measured is below the limit but he hails the car over regardless. The policeman is a little surprised that the driver is a Serb but he continues with his inspection of the car etc. On inspecting the licence he can only comment that it is a little faded. Apparently this is the cue for offering a bribe, no real offence but the bench mark has been set and hence a price can be agreed.

Before long the policeman finds out that the Serb owns a house in Austria and is heading towards his house in Belgrade. The new Audi A4 is looking at the policeman like a new Platinum Amex card with underwriting from a number of property developments. Things are looking good for the cop with a bad day. After making allusions about the state of the licence he finally comes to the climax of his ask. He needs cash. The driver just laughs and says nema problema – how much? The amount is agreed and he offers a credit card. The policeman is dismayed and demands cash.

This travelling Serb is also dismayed and is perturbed over the need for cash.

Things are quickly resolved when the travelling Serb says that he is successful because of credit. His house in Austria and Serbia are all purchased on credit as well as the new Audi. He then asks why the policemen needs cash.

The policeman then concedes that he needs cash because he wants to buy his own intersection so he can privatise it. So he can collect the revenue. The next scene it one of the British banks offering their credit card services.

I can only say that the NSW government has set the standard and the Cypriots should seek financial advice from Macquarie Bank. It will help them evolve so much more quickly than Darwin would have imagined.

Am sure that John, as a Greek from a far away place, can see the Homer esq irony. I am not sure that I do, I am still stuck between the concept of a tragedy and a farce, maybe that is simply my lack of understanding of the joys of a classical education. All that aside Cyprus is beautiful. Without doubt it is up there as a place where one would park their bones. It has a raw beauty that has not been sullied by progress yet is as modern as any city in today’s world. A combination of history and modern conveniences, I can see why many people are flocking to Cyprus as their end destination. Hopefully when I get old it will be one of the places that I will consider. If not Alzheimer’s has already set in. Or the English Lager louts have beaten me to my resting place.

The joys of the Cyprus were only heightened when I crossed over the country with John and Anne to meet his first cousin on his mother’s side and we had lunch with her. It is a lovely little town about 50 km out of Nicosia in a village called Paleochoria. At first we explored the history when we inadvertently walked into a museum and had the benefit of getting about 300 years of history nearly first hand. The previous 400 years before that was a bit sketchy. Again I am hit with the bewilderment of how recent Australian history really is.

John’s cousin is one of the loveliest people one could ever meet. She lives in the house that John’s mother was born in, and I suspect that even then it was a long way from being new. A grandmother of unredoubtable qualities who had accepted me as John’s friend and shared a wonderful lunch of local foods. John as the only Greek linguist amongst us held fort and translated as we went. She told John that she still sneaks off into the fields to work and grow her own produce, still one of her favourite pastimes. It causes her children much angst who want to provide for her and spare her the messy details. It is times like this that one realises that we are a long way from having the answers. Her little house of which she uses about one quarter is an eclectic mix of something that the Romans built but has the conveniences of a gas stove and an electric refrigerator. She is very happy – something that most people I know still aspire to.

From here we drove to Agros. This is John’s father’s ancestral home. A long way in local terms. But really only two stops on the Sydney rail system. That too can be as wide as the cultural divide that tries to append Auburn to Bankstown.

Here another pit stop to the joys of coffee and wonderful people. Here meeting John’s uncle. A man once an accountant, who retired before I reached puberty gave us an account of what has been happening locally. By this I mean all of Cyprus. John has other relatives here and just the pot pourri of people coming out of the woodwork gives everything here such a rich tapestry. It is times like this that one realises that being just a tourist the best you can achieve is to glance off the environment like a passing meteor. When you have the benefit of being invited into the lives of the locals and sharing their environment it is such a privilege that it is so hard to describe in words of language. Ones knowledge of a place that is foreign soon becomes very less foreign. John thank you.

From here we travelled to Lemisos. A city that has far too many English and the odd Russian. A coastal resort that is just first class. A fantastic beach, and a history punctuated with buildings from many eras. The depth of history is something that it hard to grasp being from a country where history could be within ones own lifetime, let alone centuries of intrigue and conflict. Perhaps this is one of my own limitations.

At this point one of the obvious things that I forgot to mention was that they drive on the left hand side of the road. A simple relief for drunk drivers from Australia. Today that wasn’t a problem for me as John was very caring and drove the whole way. If he had issues we could always call on Anne to help out. The locals still brew their own stuff. This is something I will support regardless of the views of the Belgian based CWA types who would seek to disrupt the natural balances in the greater world. The EU is a great concept but it has its limitations.

The weekend came to a close as they finally found Larnaca and disgorged me on the tarmac of life. I found my way to the departure lounge only to find that the plane was delayed and I had to wait pre departure in the entrance foyer. A 4 hour wait to check in. When you are 190 cm in a land of Lilliputians there is a particular joy in sleeping where you want. I picked the seats right next to the police outpost. These diminutive chaps at first took umbrage that I slept on their couch. When they approached me I explained in my best Bankstown English that I wasn’t a Turk and they should bugger off. This did not work as they used the power of an unloaded AK 47 to explain to me that I should sleep elsewhere. All was resolved shortly after when I pointed out that they should use loaded weapons before entering such a dialogue and I wasn’t a Turk. We became best of mates when they asked about emigrating to Australia. I said it is just like Cyprus , a little bigger and they send boat people off to wonderful tropical islands for a holiday before the change of government. After that they can just turn up get a Medicare card and have a go at those others who aren’t pulling their weight.

At this point I should get back to Lebanon. One of the most telling parts is how people drive. I am now very used to people parking on corners. And a the few who double park on corners. There are no rules as to how one parks. One of my first impressions of Beirut was how unorthodox was the parking convention. I was appalled at first and if I had put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or something more delicious, it would have been to lament on this point. Today it is of no consequence. I am so used to the way people park, drive etc. That I am not tickled by the simple peculiarities. I must admit the one thing that I still have an issue with is highway driving.

A recent rip down south. Yes very close to where Jesus was born. This is something that the average Catholic should take note. The Vatican is a long way from Bethlehem. And so is Jerusalem. A lot of people just like me fail to realise that Jesus was born just down the road from here. Not where the Pope currently chooses to reside. About an hour and a half away. You need to add a road blocks and check points. So it could be a significant time delay. Apparently there are a few at the check points still looking for the three wise men. I think that they will be waiting a little longer than expected. Perhaps this is why most people take a little longer to get through.

Back to the tenet of the main theme. Driving along the highways of Lebanon I was curious about why so many cars were driving in reverse. Not just reverse but faster than Starsky and Hutch would ever dare. Here we have Batleb but he is very limited, a stolen WRX and a bridge somewhere in Bankstown. But these drivers are reversing at speeds in excess of 80k careening towards law abiding citizens just going about their business on the right side of the road. After a short while I realised that this is very acceptable. If you miss your turn off you don’t drive to the next one . You slam it into reverse hit the accelerator and go as fast as reverse will take you. This is akin to driving in first gear with your eyes closed, but very fast.

Today I witnessed my first driving accident. Next the Beirut river. Another story all by itself. Here a hapless local driving a 90’s model BMW somehow changed lanes and slammed into a parked car. For a minute I thought I was in Lakemba. He was changing lanes and somehow miss judged his line. Then right in front of me he did a hard right so he wouldn’t miss the parked car. I just love it. Then everyone disgorges from the car. It is hard to believe that you can fit seven juvenile males with matching eyebrows into one car. The amazing thing is that they have matching eyes. A kind of swivelling thing two beads in unison under one brow. They were about to run away realising that the car was unarmed. This was somewhat thwarted by many locals appearing instantly on hearing the collision and they appeared like the throng from I am legend. Albeit the head banging was limited to a sustainable bash. The culprits had to wait until the apparent owner could be found. I did not wait to record the outcome. Perhaps yet again I have missed the salient parts of evolution.

The other thing about Lebanon is that it is still physically divided along religious grounds. The east side is very Christian. To the point that neon crosses adorn some intersections and in the pictures you will see many little JC figurines. I just love how we move with the times. There is one picture with JC not at all uncommon, sporting a light in front. This one is clearly a modern movement. Instead of the usual candle there is a plastic light. That in itself is not unusual. Until you see that the label on the new light that says MADE IN ITALY with a matching barcode. There is this eerie feeling that comes with talking to Italians who believe that JC grew up playing soccer under the leaning tower of Pizza

Moving on. Lebanon does not have an aged care problem . This is mainly due to the fact that smoking is mandatory for males over the age of 9 and females over the age of 11. Add to this the driving skills, aged care is not an industry that foreigners should invest in here for some time to come. I think that most of the locals will be very healthy until they suddenly expire. Great from an infrastructure management point of view.

More recently I spent a few days in Cairo. This is a wonderful city were traffic chaos takes on new dimensions. Here I realised my own cultural limitations. I as one who took a very scientific view of life suddenly realised that reincarnation was possible.

The taxis here tend towards the bizarre. A short while after arriving in Cairo and being told that I needed a visa after standing in queue for at least a pyramid long I saw yet another irony. Every Renault 12 ever built is a Taxi in Cairo. These bastions of French engineering that have died in every other corner of the globe are here. Yet here they have been reincarnated as taxis sporting the black and white of sheriff cruisers from the mid west. These little bonsai versions of automobiles are yet another exaggeration of French dominance. I just wish that the French stick the few things that they are good at. The drivers in Cairo are unshaven locals who have forsaken their Stetson hats and real cruisers for hash cigarettes and aging French automobiles. A glum look of the forlorn looking for the next ride. The Nile is still there and so are the pyramids. The rest of the current locals are still seeking some sort of assimilation with their geographical past.

This leads me to my dear friend Alzo. A charming man and military colleague. I have always had a great affection for him, from the time we were first thrust together in the usual military way of this is your lot so deal with it, to the realisation that I could learn a lot from this man. Luckily I took the option of learning from him and to this day I am very grateful that I took heed of his knowledge and experience. In the military days he taught me well and my life was very much the better because of it. It is sad that at the time I did not have the maturity or experience to thank him. Perhaps as we get older he will forgive me for my short comings. I am still very grateful for his guidance.

Today he at 60 years of age and is sporting child number 5. Young Judi has just drawn her first breath. She will should be very grateful that she has chosen Alzo as her father. There are a few wives associated with his dilemmas but this should impede young Judi’s benefit of life.

His new wife, of local Egyptian extraction and younger than his first born is doing her best. He epitomises how life should be run. Never give up and never he has stopped reproducing. I am sure that on reading this Alzo will adjust my interpretation and I will receive a revised program and new training material, but until then why let the truth get in the way of a good story. Alzo my deepest affections are with you and if we have to hide in another country – so be it.

It is now that I realise that I don’t have the skill to extract all of the crap that enters my mind in my travels. Seeing so many things like the trash in parts of Cairo where the term desert flowers is lost. The outrageous rubbish piles that are being mined by locals as a natural resource to me seem like an environmental travesty. The more I see the less I feel that I am competent to judge. So my friends enjoy the day but don’t take my views too seriously, because between myself and my good friend Johnny Walker perception may be the real reality.

To finish off for now I realise that I have sadly missed the great muse of my time here in Lebanon. Andrew who has recently departed for Kosovo because he saw upturned UN vehicles in flames somewhere in Kosovo courtesy of CNN proclaimed that Beirut is very boring and he must be off. No bombings, no explosions, things that were promised by all concerned on his reappearance but did not eventuate. Here am I still in Beirut only to comforted but the story of a shooting on the corner near the hotel. Andrew is really a modern day Che Guevara. A fallen medical doctor although he did practice in a few countries, albeit even successfully. Che could not claim such achievements. Andrew has even greater attributes. He is a man that has a great turn of phrase. In simple terms his description of passing events has the ruminations of Dickensian proportions with a Shakespearian barb. A simple line that leaves one with a colourful mental mosaic and few words. For the simplicity of his description of complex events I will be eternally grateful.

Looking for excitement the story somewhat fizzles. A woman standing on the corner outside the pharmacy suddenly experienced severe chest pain and difficulty in breathing. She was rushed off to hospital. Not a great feat as it was only 200 metres away. Hospitals like universities seem to be everywhere. Great education, great opportunity, experience, lets leave that alone.

On arrival at the hospital she was examined and the doctor and he noticed a small incision below her collar bone. Her breathing was laboured and she had all of the presentation of a Floridain woman suffering from the vapours. The xray revealed foreign material in the gut region. This also revealed some serious damage to her heart and lungs. Her heart fascia was torn and her lung was punctured. Somehow she was still alive. Financially she was going to cost the system. After the open heart surgery and general surgery to repair the lungs and liver it was revealed that she was struck by a stray bullet from the March 12 party celebrations. This was apparently the celebratory machine gun firing into the air by supporters of Nasrallah the local Hizbollah leader in parliament. Nasrallah apparently was giving a speech to which some of the locals felt he needed to be supported. How little I know confronts me at times like this.

To finish up I go back to the little line in the newspaper. On his speech there were fireworks and small arms fire into the air. The police have asked the citizens to refrain from the use of celebratory grenades during such political speeches.

How limited we are in Canberra.

My dear friends I hope this finds you well and safe. The world is simpler than anyone can begin to realise.

(Nothing Follows)

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