Beirut Diary

The Beirut government has been trying to clear away the martyrs. Technicolor billboards of Hizbollah's suicide bombers have cluttered Ouzai and the airport road for more than a decade, but Rafiq Hariri's cabinet has decided that illustrations of young men blowing up Israeli tanks in southern Lebanon are sending the wrong message to tourists and would-be foreign investors. So amid much muttering from Hizbollah - its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, archly suggested that the government had better follow its clean-up campaign by improving the phones and electricity supply - the posters have come down. A number can be seen stacked outside Hizbollah's mosque in Ouzai; goodbye, therefore, to Hassan Burro and his comrades, with their blood turning into tulips and their heads, quite literally, in the clouds.

But, propped majestically above the main road into Beirut from southern Lebanon, there remain the 20ft warrior of the 1860 war against the Christian Maronites and his modern-day, Kalashnikov-wielding equivalent, hero of a hundred battles (and quite a lot of throat-cutting), both statues guarded by three sinister field guns. Beirutis dutifully ignore the symbolism. They don't even talk about "east Beirut" or "west Beirut" any more - when I asked for new computer disks for the Independent in a Muslim-owned shop the other day I was told I could find them "in another part of town" - which meant, of course, that they could be found in a Christian-owned store.

A rather more serious clean-up has been going on in the restaurant trade. With Croesus-like generosity, Beirutis love to dine out, but new government inspections have listed a raft of fine cafes allegedly serving up food past its sell-by date. They include the splendid sea-front Spaggeteria, beloved of all wartime correspondents, not least because of the shrapnel- cracked mirrors it used to boast - and, "in another part of town", the one-time watering-hole of General Ariel Sharon, overseer of Israel's 1982- 85 military debacle in Lebanon.

So it was good to eat Lebanon's traditional Sultan Ibrahim fish yesterday in the pristine confines of Nasr's, high above the Pigeon Rocks; not least because, after only two fish, I espied the dapper figure of Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan, the all-powerful head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, sitting down with a covey of colonels at the next table. Now there's a restaurant that definitely won't dare give its customers food poisoning.

But even at home, it's difficult to keep food fresh when the power still comes only 12 hours a day. The Irish Electricity Supply Board is helping out in the power stations and a group of bullet-nosed Frenchmen are wiring up my local street for 220-volt electricity - much bowing and Gallic scraping was necessary to stop them running a fist-sized cable under my balcony. Two months after they first announced the switchover, however, I'm still on 110 volts. Then there's my local phone line, which emits an incendiary crackle whenever the Independent's foreign desk calls; it gets worse throughout the day and dies completely at around deadline time. The trouble, it seems, is caused by nests - not the ornithological kind but the electrical variety. Across the city, thousands of utility poles are infested with hundreds of wires, all of them strung up by home-owners stealing power off the mains. On one pole, I counted 168 wires this week, half of them phone links, the others leaching electricity.

At least things are going a little faster in the old civil war ruins down-town. Teams of archaeologists have unearthed a treasure trove of Roman columns, statues, glassware, roads marked by chariot wheels, the whole classical shebang from ancient Berytus, along with a mosaic inscription which advises that "jealousy is the worst of all evils, the only good about it is that it eats up the eyes and heart of the jealous".

Builders, meanwhile, are getting a little jealous of the archaeologists' patch and want to start erecting the new Beirut. Just after the classical chaps went home last week, one construction company showed its lack of patience by sending a bulldozer down to the old Decumanus Maximus Roman road. There it quietly ploughed up 60 square metres of Byzantine mosaic pavement, turning to dust in 10 minutes what had lasted for almost 2,000 years. The public prosecutor, as they say, has been informed.

What the Beirut tabloids would tell their readers if tabloids existed in Lebanon: that five lady members of Beirut's "velvet society" - the richer, shop-owning classes - have been questioned by the police about drug-running; that Beirut's Roumieh prison, with space for 1,000 inmates, now contains 2,100, most of whom will be released because the police hold anyone questioned about drug offences until the completion of their investigation - even though nine out of 10 are said to be innocent; that the Americans are again fingering Lebanon - without proof - as the source of the new US dollar "Supernote" forgery.

Fresh from gaining an extra three years for his presidency after some extremely odd changes to Article 49 of the Lebanese constitution, Elias Hrawi was busy receiving guests at the presidential palace at Baabda when a Shia lady arrived to congratulate him on his continuation in office. Wishing to remind Mr Hrawi that, as a Muslim lady, it was not her practice to shake hands with a man, she touched her right hand lightly to her chest, a traditional female greeting in Lebanon.

Not to be outdone, the 68-year-old president, who under the constitution must be a Christian Maronite, placed a white handkerchief firmly over his right hand so that it was not possible for his flesh to be touched. Then he held out the decorously mouchoired presidential hand - which the somewhat stunned Muslim lady dutifully shook. Both were clearly blissfully unaware that this Gilbertian scene had been watched on live television across Lebanon by tens of thousands of viewers.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map