May 05, 2015

Levantine days

I've been thinking a lot about Rafik Hariri today. He was the former Prime Minister of Lebanon who was assassinated in a massive car bombing ten years ago. Other car bombs followed in its wake, like echoes, murdering those who would investigate Hariri's death. Wissam Eid, who performed remarkable cell-phone metadata analysis to tie the assassination to Hezbollah, survived a 2006 car bomb but not a 2008 follow-up. Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, Hariri's former chief of protocol, was killed three years ago by another huge car bomb in downtown Beirut that killed eight and wounded 120.

Both the Hariri and al-Hassan assassinations happened within a kilometer of where I sit and type, the Saifi Urban Gardens in downtown Beirut, a rather nice modern hostel with rooms for $50/night. Large swathes of Beirut are rather nice and modern. No, that's too half-hearted; extremely nice and ultramodern. There is, very apparently, a ton of money in this city. A Ferrari dealership is a few blocks away. Beyond lies an entire district which is largely a high-end open-air upscale shopping mall. Further yet is a marina seething with expensive yachts. Everywhere you look, downtown, there seems to be yet another crane throwing up yet another gargantuan new steel-and-glass tower.

But that's downtown. Go for a long walk, or simply drive from the airports to the suburbs, and see the other reality--dense warrens of concrete high-rises, drained of colour by decades of baking Mediterranean sun, cracked and fading and/or scarred by the shrapnel and snipers of the not-so-long-ago Lebanese Civil War that killed an estimated 120,000 people, densely peopled with the poor. Power shortages mean Beirut's residents go without grid electricity for three hours every day. The rich switch seamlessly to generators; the very poor just go without. I don't know what Lebanon's Gini coefficient is offhand but I'd guess in Beirut at least it's fairly spectacular.

This is a city with a long, long history of tumult. It is older than the Pyramids and has been a center of trade for most of that time. (That doesn't make it especially old, in these parts. Byblos, probably the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet, is a bit north of here; Tyr, as in "Nineveh and Tyre," a little ways south.) Beirut has been conquered by the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs (following a massive earthquake and tidal wave in 551 AD that almost depeopled the city), the Crusaders, the Arabs again, the Ottoman Empire, the French, the English, the Syrians, and the Israelis. Today it is trilingual: English, French, Arabic.

It's a remarkably pretty city. Hills rise steeply up from Beirut, a ridge along the Mediterranean coast populated by seemingly endless clusters of apartment towers, climbing up to mountains that, I'm told, are snow-capped in winter; if you time it just right, you can famously ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. The climate seems even more perfect than San Francisco's. The wine and cheese and olives are all excellent. Its law school was pre-eminent in the Eastern Roman Empire, and it still boasts the finest university in the Middle East, the American University in Beirut. Such a shame about the politics, and the neighbours.

If I got up and rented a car right now, it'd be about an 80-km drive to the Syrian border, and another 20 to Damascus -- a land wracked by civil war and the Islamic State, where hundreds of thousands have died, and millions more have been injured or rendered homeless. Lebanon's four million citizens are currently hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, and counting. (Damascus itself has gone largely untouched. So far.) South is Israel, whose eruptive relationship to Lebanon requires no introduction. It's odd and disconcerting to be in a non-island nation that one cannot leave by land.

Wandering the streets of Beirut, passing ancient mansions and countless cafes, along winding little streets and staircases lined by doors and iron grates, being honked at by countless SUVs with tinted windows en route to valet parking and five-star hotels, it's hard not to imagine it as a city full of secret places, steeped in hidden currents. Which of course it is, quite starkly and literally.

I don't want to try to unpick the bloody fractal jigsaw puzzle that is the modern Middle East in this post, but for instance: those scarred suburbs south of the city are Hezbollah territory. Hezbollah, the "Party of God," was midwifed by the Syrians some decades ago, and are now repaying them by aiding the Syrian government against the rebels, with assistance from fellow-Shiites Iran. Arrayed against them are Lebanon's Sunni muslims, and Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia, who further south are launching airstrikes against the Shiite Houthis, who are battling Sunni Al-Qaeda. And that's without even getting into the fear and hatred of Israel throughout the region, and/or the complicated role played by Lebanon's many Christians. (There are churches everywhere in Beirut.)

Hence my contemplation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and the densely baroque nature of the net of conspiracy that drew in around him, one that would make John Le Carré blush. From this magisterial New York Times article on the subject:


The green group consisted of 18 Alfa phones, purchased with fake identification from two shops in South Beirut ... the blue group originally worked according to the same rules as the green group, but its active membership increased from three phones to 15, with seven connected to Alfa and eight to MTC Touch ... Eventually, the yellow group was added, and its 13 members seemed to share surveillance duties with the blue group ... it was the purple group, the prosecution says, that handled the cover operation ... The last cellphone group to go into action was the red group. These phones, investigators believe, belonged to the inner circle of the Hariri surveillance team in the days before the attack — and to the actual suicide bomber.


(If anyone ever questions the meaning or importance of metadata, just point them to that article, a breathtaking real-world example of what can be gleaned from it.)

Last night I dined with a German hacker who told me unsurprising tales of how the upper echelons of Lebanese society run: on their own unspoken rules, protocols, and payments, little or nothing to do with the law as printed, spiting the city's ancient and illustrious legal history. It really is quite romantic, this notion of a kaleidoscope of secret alliances and societies, dark machinations, meetings in occult places, manipulation of and by foreign powers. If only one of its possible endgames wasn't all too apparent, in Syria just over the mountains from here: a dusty sea of bombs, blood, bullets, and seemingly endless anguish.

It's a beautiful and fascinating city, this, in a lovely country. I hope it stays that way.