Part One: East and West Beirut.
First year of law school was fun. I was going to the University of Saint Joseph situated on the border of the eastern side of Beirut. In 1985 Beirut was already divided in two parts.Christians were on the eastern side of the capital and Muslims took the seaside part of Beirut, which was politically and strategically known as West Beirut. I was only 9 years old when the war started in Lebanon and I could hardly remember what the west side of the capital looked like. As a Christian, who was living on the east side, it was forbidden for me to go to the west side. I remember the last time I went to West Beirut, was in 1975 the day the war started. I was with my mom and dad, sister and brother, and it was like we had a feeling that something big was going to happen, so we all went for a last farewell. I remember that day, it was a Sunday, riding my dad yellow Buick Century, we went to the newly-opened Kentucky Fried Chicken on the seaside of the city. My mom was very fond of the gloves they gave us with each order. When we came back home, around 2:00 p.m., with our boxes loaded with greasy crispy chicken, there was already shooting on our streets and the borders have started to close.
The first year of law school was certainly the beginning of freedom life for me; it was also the case for Nada.
Nada was a beautiful young lady whom I met in the amphitheatre of the university during a lecture about the Lebanese Constitution and the political systems in the world.Nada and I were very much alike; we had the same height and shared the same love for adventure. Beside boys, we were very intrigued about what might be going on in the other side of the capital, in West Beirut, and we constantly spoke and fantasized about going there. “How are the people on the other side?” “Do they have shopping streets and beautiful cafés trottoirs where boys hang out?” “Do they look like us?”
All we knew about West Beirut was the deadly gifts it send us every other month: the bombs. Those flying missiles went from, basic, to long-range, as years went by. Little we knew that the militia in our side of the capital was doing the same thing to the residents of West Beirut, bombing them ruthlessly, with more sophisticated arsenal, since our armaments provider was Israel and their supplier was the Soviet Union. Going to West Beirut was not only out of the question, it was very complicated for different reasons. No one would take the risk of loosing their life just to go to the other side of the city. For 10 years, each community learned to live independent, and self-sufficient, in their own part of the city. Young people, who grew up during the war, had only resentment about the people who lived on the other side. My mom and dad would constantly tell us stories about their wonderful Muslims friends whom they used to see before the war started, but it was so hard for me to imagine that those friends were in fact the same people living on the other side, where the enemy was.
So Nada and I, in our wildest adventure, had to discover on our own, what people really looked like in the other side of our city. When I think about it now after more than 24 years, I shiver at the idea of crossing the border to West Beirut, during the most heated war period.But when you are 19 years old, I guess the adrenaline rush is the only thing that matter, and flirting with death was a game that Lebanese of my generation mastered early in our lives.
Ιt was a sunny day in Beirut, Nada and I decided to sneak out of the Civil Law class and meet at Gaston.
Gaston was a small café where all the students meet for a cheap cup of coffee or a croissant. The place was small and cozy, despite the stonewall décor. As small as it was, it used to somehow manage to contain all the students hiding away from the boring classes about law and regulation. It was extremely ironic to hear our professors talking thoroughly about the rule of law, when all we could witness, in our daily lives, was chaos, division and rules set by warlords.After we ordered our one-dollar-cup of coffee, Nada started talking about going to West Beirut: “I heard that in West Beirut they have the best shopping street called Hamra” her eyes start widening as she went on about the Hamra street: “it used to be the best place to be in the entire Middle East region before the war started”. Nada went on and on talking about how international celebrities used to be photographed in Hamra Street, sipping their coffee in the famous multiple cafés all along the sidewalks.
As she kept going on with her description, the place sounded better than the Champs Elysées. I was a little skeptical, and all I could think about was the name of the street: Hamra. Hamra means red in Arabic, and reminded me of blood. The bloody street wasn’t a pretty image in my head, especially that I heard on the news, the night before, that lot of random shooting took place on that street. So I said: “but Nada, Hamra street lost its good reputation years ago, didn’t you hear the news lately? West Beirut communities are having problem maintaining their internal security, because of the division among the militia”. “No, no” she said, “the shooting doesn’t happen every day”- hopefully it didn’t happen the day we were there- “Hamra street is back, especially after the complete destruction of downtown Beirut” and she concluded “Hamra is the IT place to be!”
She was right about downtown. Unfortunately the heart of Beirut, with stone paved old souks, had become a ghost town. In the sixties “Albalad”, the Arabic name for downtown Beirut, was the main commercial district, not only for the country but for the entire Middle East region, mainly because of its strategic location on the Mediterranean sea. When the war started, downtown became the landmark between East and West and a no-man’s land, where Christian and Muslims meet to fire at each other, for no obvious reason, just because they could.
That morning, Nada and I put an entire elaborated plan to go and conquer the West! We had to make more research about how to do it, and when was the best time to go. The timing had to be during those long cease-fires that both sides of the city enjoyed for days, sometimes for weeks, for months or for an entire season. But the lengths of cease-fires were unpredictable for us. We were just ordinary citizens who underwent other people’s plan of destruction, so how on earth could we know when the bombing were not going to start on our chosen day? So we decided to make it spontaneously, and to do it on one of the mornings when class was boring. The random choice of the day sounded, back then, like a very wise judgment. When it came to the how to get there, this was a bit of a challenge, but made the whole plan seem more attractive. With the help of other friends we soon found out the secret of Ali Baba’s door to the West.
After days of asking people around us, on how to cross the line to the other side of the city, we discovered the following: Civilian who wanted to cross from East to West Beirut had to use the Mathaf check point, famously known as the Mathaf Passage, and then cross the no-man’s land, which was a 10 minutes walk among debris and ruins. The passage was a narrow dirt road in the middle of what used to be a big main boulevard leading to old downtown. The travelers were asked to stay on the passage, because of the land mines planted on both side.
No one really explained to us what to expect once we reached the other side. But I imagined that it could be like a big wide door, that will lead us to the beautiful seaside, from where we could pass by the endless sand shore, and eventually arrive to Hamra street, where will see some celebrities.
I had no clue that the end of the passage was firmly protected by armed men from the opponent militia. I should have known better; if your city is under siege, the least you can do is to monitor who is showing up at your door.
Days went by and finally Nada and I set a date. Wednesday morning will be the day when we will go to West Beirut.
To be continued…read here part two: One day in 1985, in Beirut (part two)
“…The taxi driver looked quickly at us, and nodded.
In his mind, he was evaluating the circumstances that led us to go to this macabre place.
In fact, all he cared about, was to find the shortest and safest road to Mathaf. Also, he wanted to stay as far as possible from the range of visions of the snipers…”