Just below my local supermarket in Sadat Street - I have been buying my daily cheese croissant - a car pulls up with a man carrying thousands of pictures of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The man marches into the Syrian mukhabarat office, a run-down four-storey building still jewelled with the bullet scars of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
Inside, I can see several heavily armed men, each one a factotum of Brigadier General Rustum Gazale, the head of Syria's military intelligence in Lebanon. Three glum Lebanese policemen stand round the corner, watching. The pictures - be sure of this - are for today's Hizbollah-organised rally in the centre of Beirut, a demonstration demanding the fulfilment of the Taif agreement that ended the war and which called - deus ex machina - for the progressive withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
I remember Taif in Saudi Arabia. That's where I first met a large, heavily moustached Lebanese-Saudi businessman called Rafiq Hariri who was smoking a cigar. He was dressed in a long dishdash gown and couldn't take his eyes off a black and white cowboy film on a television in the corner of the room. He wanted to rebuild Lebanon, he said. Some hope, I muttered to myself. And then he became the prime minister of Lebanon and rebuilt Beirut and mocked me for my lack of confidence in his ability.
Just over three weeks ago, he lay dead in the road, his limbs on fire, scarcely 500 metres from my home where I am writing this. The car bomb exploded directly opposite his SUV.
Gazale had once called him up on the phone and insulted him and Hariri hung up. Gazale was never rude again - though he was to other Lebanese ministers - and Hariri continued to walk a neutral path, neither inviting the Syrians to stay in Lebanon nor demanding their withdrawal. That was until he resigned last year and joined the opposition and - so we are led to believe - earned the undying wrath of Bashar Assad.
When Assad spoke to the Syrian parliament on Saturday night, my mobile phone bleeped for hours like a grasshopper. "I have never felt so insulted," a young woman friend shouted at me. "His voice was so patronising. And what are these 'shifting sands' he was talking about?"
One of them was obviously Syria's erstwhile ally, the Druze leader and super-nihilist Walid Jumblatt. After a somewhat rakish life, Jumblatt - whose cynicism should merit a PhD - has seized the moment. He has embraced his civil-war Christian enemies, accused the Syrians of murdering his father Kemal in 1977 and - when I call by to see him in his ancestral home at Mukhtara - I find a man waiting for death.
Huge Alsatians prowl the gardens. Armed men are at the gate. Jumblatt sits in his jeans and brown jacket, hands on his knees, looking at the floor. "Yes, I am a target," he says and looks at me mournfully. "Not long before he died, Hariri said to me, 'So which one of us is it going to be?' I was in my home in Beirut when the bomb went off. I thought, 'It's Hariri.' I called the Hariri people and they said they couldn't reach him. Then I knew. I was wearing a red tie and I thought, 'I should be wearing something more sober - but if I put on a black tie, it will mean that it is certain he is dead.' And after 15 minutes, I went upstairs and put on my dark tie and I knew he was dead."
Jumblatt's glorious wife Nora was in a downtown office and the windows crashed around her from the blast. "I thought, 'My God! It's Walid!'" I look at both of them and realise they now both live with death. Jumblatt went to the American University Hospital where Hariri had been taken. "We all thought he was in the operating room but the senior security officer took me aside and told me he was in the mortuary.
"I saw Hariri's son and got in the car with him and I said: 'I am afraid the news is bad.' I had to tell him."
Jumblatt and I talk about his father - he was shot dead on a road near Mukhtara - and I recalled for him a photographic book about Kamal Jumblatt which Walid had given me in December 2000, long before he accused the Syrians of killing his father. "I could be a nihilist," he had written to me on the first page. "Like my father, in a way, who refused, 25 years ago, Syria's Anschluss."
I drive to Beirut through Sofar - I note, as always, the delicate French mandate railway station perched on the cliffs - and there in front of me is a beat-up rubbish skip with a sleeping soldier in the back, grinding down to Aley.
It carries a triangular military code above the registration and the words "Jesh Suriya" - Syrian Army - badly painted on the tailboard. Here, then, is the monstrous Syrian army of occupation about who President Bush likes to hold forth, under whose Gestapo heel the people of Lebanon have been lying prostrate for 29 years, always forgetting - and this is an essential part of the narrative - that the Christian Maronites invited the Syrians to come here in the first place, to protect them from Yasser Arafat's Palestinians.
I remember still the day they entered Beirut. With the very first Syrian commandoes, I crossed the old front line below Martyrs' Square, treading my way with them through a carpet of unexploded shells and grenades, until we reached the smashed façade of the Beirut municipality building from which emerged a bunch of scrawny, unwashed Palestinian gunmen.
They put their weapons on the ground and their arms round the necks of the Syrians and wept like children. The Syrians had descended on Beirut in their thousands, bayonets fixed, their tanks preceded by a young soldier playing a flute. The Pied Piper of Damascus. There were 40,000 of them then. More than 60 per cent have been withdrawn since 2000. There are only 14,000 left today and they live, for the most part, in dank, vermin-infested bombed-out ruins from the war.
Lebanon, for me, is a place where time has stood still. I am still 29 - my age when I first came to Lebanon - and I still work the same streets, live in the same home on the Corniche. From my balcony, I have watched the Lebanese army and the Syrian army and the UN armies and the invading Israeli army and the American Marines and French paratroopers and even, briefly, in 1983, British troops, staring out across the Mediterranean from this same road.
The Israelis left in ignominy, the Americans and French and British in humiliation. I was standing on my balcony in 1992 when a car hit a garbage truck and dragged it across the road with a terrible grating roar.
A few hours later, my mother called to say my elderly father, a soldier of the First World War - the war which created Lebanon out of Syria - had died. And my landlord, Mustafa, and his niece shook hands with me in the way that Arabs express condolences, so much more dignified than the twee hugs we give the bereaved in Britain.
And now I sit in Mustafa's little shop downstairs and he tells me things are "very, very bad". He has stocked up on water, checked the emergency electrical line. He tells me to take care in the coming days. Ever since I was badly hurt on the Afghan border, his sister lights candles for my safety when I am away from Lebanon. But in a sense, I am never away.
That night in December of 2001, after my beating at the hands of Afghan refugees enraged at the death of the their loved ones in a US air raid, I was lying in bed in great pain, my face stuck to my pillow with blood, when my phone rang. A familiar voice boomed down the line. "Robert. This is Rafiq Hariri. What happened? Tell me from the start!" And, after I had talked for five minutes, he offered to send his private jet to pick me up in Quetta - his friend, Pervez Musharraf, would give immediate landing permission - and bring me to hospital in Beirut. But of course, I don't take gifts from prime ministers and I turned him down. And two days ago, I stood at Hariri's graveside, watching Musharraf mourn his friend.
"There is fire under the ashes - we must all take care," an old friend tells me. He used to work for Middle East Airlines. We are watching Hizbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, on television. "Only the Lebanese flag will be flown," Nasrallah says. No Hizbollah flags at the Hizbollah rally downtown. All are welcome. They'll be supporting the Taif agreement - Taif, which calls for a Syrian withdrawal but, unlike UN Security Council Resolution 1559, does not insist on the disarming of the Hizbollah. "We are a resistance movement," Nasrallah says, "not a militia."
So now Hizbollah is fighting for its life and I remember how Nasrallah described to me the mind of a suicide bomber, how the bomber was like a man who is in a sauna and is very hot but knows that in the next room there is air-conditioning, classical music and a cocktail waiting for him. So he opens the door.
We are all praying no one will open any doors in Beirut in the next few days. The Hizbollah will not turn on the Lebanese. But the men who killed Hariri are still here, I am sure, in Beirut. Were they not the same men who tried to car-bomb Jumblatt's Druze friend, Marwan Hamade last November. "The Syrians will do nothing for the moment, habibi [my friend]," the old airline executive says.
"We have a saying when we are angry: that 'our eyes are red'. And, at the moment, we are all looking with red eyes at Syria. Maybe later, something will happen."
And then I am driving through Beirut and a woman who works for Hariri's Solidere company rebuilding the centre of the city calls on my mobile. "Bashar Assad and Lahoud [the Lebanese president] have just met in Damascus and the Syrians are not leaving this week. In April, maybe. And maybe only to our side of the border."
I walk in to the downtown AP bureau. Two Syrian lorries have been seen at the Mdeirej ridge above Beirut carrying furniture. Furniture? Are the tables being withdrawn as well? And there is Bashar on the screen, flanked by his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharar, and there is Lahoud, sunburn red and next to him, slumped in a chair, is his elderly and uninspiring prime minister, Omar Karami.
It's only a few days since ex-President Hrawi, an old friend of Hariri, was asked for his feelings and broke down in tears and wept for three minutes, right there live on the television until, choking on his words, he said: "If Hariri had died when I was president, I would have resigned." And the point was not lost on the Lebanese. Lahoud has not resigned.
I am back downtown, taking coffee with old friends beside the oldest mosques in Beirut and there, across the road, is the municipality building, rebuilt by Hariri, and the same doorway through which Palestinian gunmen emerged in front of me 29 years ago. Half my life ago, I had walked through the shells on this very street with the Syrian commandoes. And now they are taking their furniture home.
On Hariri's grave there are 30 doves stalking around on the wax of a thousand candles. The Lebanese have written messages of love on walls. Hariri was a tough cookie, a ruthless businessman with political enemies and was also a supporter of the death penalty.
But he was a kind man who had no militia and had no blood on his hands and had, I suspect, become over-confident. I am reminded, looking at those fresh flowers on his grave, of another conversation, long ago, in which the unthinkable question came up. What would happen to Lebanon if he died?
Hariri raised his hands in front of me, open either side of his face. "So keep me alive!" he roared. And of course, we did not.Reuse content