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    Sunday, November 9, 2008

    From Hamra to Hezbollahland

    By taxi from Beirut to Baalbek, Lebanon - Sunday, Nov. 2

    Heading east from the Lebanese capital of Beirut, perched on the Mediterranean Sea, to the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border is not only a great way to this physically striking country, but also to get a sense of why Lebanon, a great idea in theory, has never worked in practice.

    Some days it feels like the most open and tolerant place on earth, with Christian women wearing giant crosses that dangle in their out-there cleavage sharing the sidewalks with Shia women sporting headscarves so tight that not a single hair is visible. Lebanon, as the Lebanese are so fond of saying, sometimes feels like the answer to the so-called "clash of civilizations." (The nightlife is also superb – Beirutis are famous for partying even as the bombs fall. These days, with the country experiencing a rare stretch of relative peace and stability, it's entry by-reservation-only at most of the city's top clubs.)

    But Beirut also wears the gruesome scars of all those times that the tolerance faded away and Christian fought Muslim and Sunni fought Shiite. Many buildings in the city centre remain uninhabitable shells of their former selves, torn to shreds by human anger expressed through lead.

    I left my hotel in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood today and headed east with my friend Jamal Jarbouh, a Palestinian refugee (his family is from Haifa) I'd met by chance in a gas lineup during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Our white 1991 Mitsubishi whined as we rose up into the tree-covered Mount Lebanon range and drove through a line of alternatingly Christian and Druze towns, scenic rest spots today that were regularly turned to battlefields during the 1975-1990 civil war. They nearly were again this May as tensions spiked during and after the Shia Hezbollah militia turned its guns inside Lebanon for the first time and carried out a lightning military seizure of West Beirut.

    As we follow the winding road through Mount Lebanon, Muslim villages are followed Christian ones less than a kilometre away. Unless you're Lebanese, you can only be sure of which you're in by looking at the political posters taped to telephone poles and the insides of shop windows. Christian towns are lined with billboards advertising the rival factions loyal to Christian leaders Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel. Druze villages are dominated by the red flags of Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party. All are leaders from the civil war era who are still revered by their followers today.

    We're stopped in the Christian town of Zahle by an intelligence officer who takes issue with Jamal's Palestinian ID papers (Lebanon's Christians and Palestinian groups were worst of enemies during the civil war year and suspicions still linger). We're allowed to pass only when I explain to the officer in French that I'm Canadian and Jamal is with me.

    Eventually, our car descends out of the mountains and we pass through a series of Lebanese army checkpoint on the edge of the Bekaa Valley.

    The army checkpoints are the last sign we see of the Lebanese state for some time. Around Baalbek, the ancient Phonecian city that more recently was the birthplace of Hezbollah, the militant Shia movement's yellow banner here takes precedence over the red-and-white Lebanese flag. Giant photographs of the Hezbollah "martyrs" who died fighting Israel hang from nearly every post. There's Samir Qantar, the murderer who was just released from Israeli prison after 29 years as part of a macabre prisoners-for-body parts swap between Hezbollah and Israel. Imad Mugniyeh, the Hezbollah military commander killed this year in a mysterious explosion in Damascus that was blamed on Israel, is the most honoured of the dead.

    Though just 85 kilometres away from Beirut and the bright lights of Hamra Street, Baalbek feels like a different country altogether, and in many ways it is. Here the power cuts on and off through the night (our Mitsubishi's headlights even got into the act, leaving us driving in complete darkness for a long stretch) and the mosques, not the nightclubs, are the centres of social activity. This is Hezbollahland.

    Jamal and I spend part of the evening drinking tea with the locals at a coffeehouse not far from the Roman ruins that draw the steady stream of tourists that are the city's main source of income. The tea-drinkers are poor and middle class Shiites who speak of Beirut - and the government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni - as something far away that is the source of all their problems. Few are willing to bet that the peace that currently prevails in the country will last through next year's elections.

    The trip from Beirut to Zahle to Baalbek makes me think of my travels in Iraq, where Sunni, Shiite and Kurd unwillingly live together for the arbitrary reason that British colonialists thought it was a good idea to draw the borders where they are today. Lebanon feels like a similarly false construct, two or more countries pressed together into one by their former French rulers who paid little attention to the demographic makeup of the state they were creating. As in Iraq, the errors of that time resonate still.

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