31 October 2010

* Lebanon and Iran make uneasy bedfellows


I think it should be a Beirut Diary this week. Deep background, you understand. The truth. Believe me, it is.



When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the palace dining room to eat with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week – Saad being the son of ex-premier Rafiq who was murdered by ... we'll come to that later – Saad made sure that Beethoven was on the public address system. It was the Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Freedom". The moment the Iranian President sat down, he turned to Saad and said: "Let's skip the lunch. Let's have sandwiches and go to southern Lebanon together."
Now here was a problem. Saad is a Sunni Muslim; Mahmoud, of course, is a Shia, and the Iranian President was inviting a Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon to visit the Shia south of Lebanon where he (Mahmoud, that is) would declare that southern Lebanon – he was speaking less than two miles from the Israeli border – was Iran's "front line" against Israel. Saad politely declined the invitation and Mahmoud went on to Bint Jbeil to rally his lads and lassies on his own. Lucky that he was even in Lebanon. The Beirut air traffic control boys (they are, indeed, all lads) had already expressed their concern when the Iranian President's Boeing 707 aircraft made its final approach. Wasn't there a ban on ancient 707s arriving at Beirut's ultra-modern airport? Ban overruled.


Then there was the rally in the southern suburbs of the capital – Hezbollah's (ie Iran's) section of Beirut. Long live Ahmadinejad. Many choruses. Long live Lebanon. Many choruses. Long Live Hariri. Many booes. This was a difficult one. Is Lebanon the "lung through which Iran breathes" (thank you, the late Sayyed Fadlallah) or just the front line against Israel (potentially even worse)?
Posters the previous day on the airport road. Next day, they honoured southern Lebanon. Khomeini, Khamenei ("Supreme Leader", as we all know) and Ahmadinejad pictures clustered the houses of southern Lebanon. And that half-cut apple that is the symbol of the Islamic Republic. "Could we have our flags back?" the Iranian embassy asked the Lebanese army two days later. Indeed they could, immediately replaced with billboards of half-naked ladies and watches, swimming costumes and whisky. The Syrians were very pissed off with the Iranians. Why no posters of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria whose Hezbollah-Iranian relations are second to none?
Stopping over in Damascus, Ahmadinejad told Assad he wanted Nouri al-Maliki to be Iraq's prime minister. Assad told his Syrian cabinet – the source is impeccable – that "our friends want Maliki". And Ahmadinajed, like the Syrians, opposed The Hague tribunal which may – so Hezbollah's leader (Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, close friend and confidant of Ahmadinajed) – blame Hezbollah members for the murder of Rafiq Hariri.
Nonsense. Wasn't it supposed to be the Syrians who killed Hariri (or so The New York Times and the London Times would have us believe) that blew Hariri's motorcade up – along with the 21 others whose names we have all forgotten – on St Valentine's Day of 2005? Nope. Since the Syrians offered their assistance to the United States in Iraq, it's been the pesky Iranians (courtesy The New York Times and The Times of London) who, through their Hezbollah allies, have been blamed for the mass slaughter Notice, by the way, how the Syrians and Iranians were blamed for Lockerbie and then, post-Syrian help in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the Libyans?
Anyway. Amadinejad poured scorn on the UN's Hague tribunal which may – or may not (watch this space) – accuse Hezbollah of killing Rafiq (son of Saad) on Syria's behalf? And lo and behold, on Thursday morning this week, two officers of The Hague tribunal turned up in the southern suburbs of Beirut to examine the records of a gynaecological clinic.
Yes. GYNAECOLOGICAL CLINIC?, I hear you ask. Well, The Hague spokesmen/spokeswomen won't say what this is about. But I can tell you. Between 15 and 17 Shia Muslim women from the southern suburbs of Beirut – who are having pregnancy tests at the clinic – are sisters or wives of leading Hezbollah officials, and The Hague guys wanted their mobile telephone numbers to match them with calls made from the same numbers on the afternoon of Hariri's murder, perhaps by their husbands.
Now, 11 members of the Lebanese Alpha mobile company (Mr Robert's mobile, by the way, belongs to the same company) have been arrested and charged with spying for Israel. Hezbollah claims that Israel has inserted mobile calls into the record of the 14 February 2005 calls – the originals came from the British listening system on Mount Troodos in Cyprus – in order to plant evidence. So The Hague men arrived at the clinic with the usual horde of Lebanese security men to protect them. But they were met by up to 150 ladies, minibussed to the clinic by – Hezbollah? – to complain at this grotesque personal intrusion. Hezbollah denies all knowledge of the affair. Of course. But the women pulled the hair of the Hague's female interpreter and so jostled The Hague men that they managed to get their hands on one of their briefcases.
Needless to say, The Hague won't identify the nationality of their own two foolish officials who thought they could brazenly walk into Hezbollah's fiefdom with their secrets intact in a briefcase. I can reveal that one of them was French, the other Australian.
They had asked for a 9am appointment with the head of the clinic – this appointment was, of course, betrayed to Hezbollah – and they didn't get those mobile telephone numbers. They just lost their briefcase. As I write, the contents are being translated by Hezbollah. What hope The Hague tribunal? What hope Lebanon?



(independent/RFisk)

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Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.