You know when you have entered the Hezbollah district of Beirut. You cannot fail to miss the flags proudly and defiantly on display that demonstrate allegiance to groups and individuals that Western governments would regard as terrorists and evil to all that is good in the world. Not more than a few meters of street wall space can you pass without coming across graffiti that states a desire for death to their enemy and affirms certain glory to their leaders. Also on the walls are posters of young men in army greens, brandishing intimidating automatic guns: Sleek, black and modern. I have often stopped and stared into the eyes of these poster boys of Hezbollah. I see no hatred, no lust for killing; only pride and excitement, along with a noble sense of duty and honour. These posters are, to the very last pixel, like Hollywood movies posters; except these soldiers are all too real and their enemy is my nation’s government and its allies.
Yet, if I were to cast myself as brave and heroic for wandering through the Hezbollah area of Beirut and talking with the people, I would be lying. Of the two months I spent in Beirut, I spent many an enjoyable hour in the Hezbollah area; and passed through it every day on my way to Hamra. The area is a collection of streets beneath and besides a flyover that takes the number 2 bus along its route from Gemayse to Hamra: two of the wealthy and Christian parts of the Lebanon capital. The area’s main focal point is Al Basta Al Tahta: A busy street of shops that sell everything from spit-roasted chickens to rare antiques.
Between the unbroken lines of parked cars and the sprawl of market tables, the people wander. They pay me little attention. I don’t regard myself as an enemy of these people, so I guess I don’t appear as such. The most aggressive reaction I have received is a hard stare; that was only once. I had taken my phone out of my pocket and held it as a camera to my face. Without a word spoken, I was made to understand that I was only allowed to watch and record mental notes.
In the Hezbollah area, you are surrounded by the results of obvious neglect from the city council and come in contact with people who are used to making-do and getting by with what they have. There is a sense of community that I have rarely found elsewhere in Beirut – and certainly not in the Christian parts.
A short cul-de-sac surrounded by tall residential dwellings is a play area for some kids. They often partake of a makeshift game of football or play tag. Sat at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, a severely disabled teen sits in his tatty, old wheelchair; his hands are curled at the wrists and his eyes and head unable to be still enough to focus on the games, but he enjoys the playful screams from the other lads who lovingly and respectfully include him as best they can. On one day, I saw the same boy in a Barcelona football top. I wanted to film him and the other boys, but like so many events in Syria and Lebanon, this one had to be confined to memory, due to the suspicions between our peoples.
I am called into a cafe by the owner. He invites me to eat, and suggest a crapé with chocolate. He is impressed that I can ask in Arabic for banana to be added. He tries to talk to me some more, but my language skills are not up to the task, so he waves over another customer who speaks a level of English. Along with his friend, the translator joins me, the cafe owner and his assistant in mixed up, confusing conversation about Lebanon and Syria. The assistant comes from Syria, and I want to find out more about why he is here and what he feels about his country. I don’t get much out of him. Much is lost in translation, but we all get by and enjoy each other’s company.
I ask the owner if I can take a photo of the poster of a soldier. “No,” he says, with some regret. “Afterwards, I would get people come here and many questions asked.”
Strip away the politics and there is almost no difference between the Hezbollah area of Beirut and the run down parts of cities in western countries. Areas of depravity that offer little hope beyond their immediate surroundings, run by governments and councils that offer the people even less. No wonder the residents turn to the army and to war as a means of escape and a chance to improve. These poorly educated people, although far from simple, hold the belief that issues are divided into two camps: Right and Wrong. They are then fed the myth that they are in the right, so anyone who thinks differently must be in the wrong. Along with the educational constraints come the physical trappings, including graffiti declaring allegiance and animosity. There is the clothing that indicates support for a particular group or belief.
Close to where I live in Newcastle in the UK, is an area called Scotswood. It’s a run-down council housing estate with few amenities. Graffiti declares that the area is the area of the ‘Scotty Boys’ and proud to be so. They wear the clothing of the local football team and have a hatred for the football team from the near-by city. It would be a brave and heroic Muslim who would walk into Scotswood and take photographs.
I pass a table displaying glasses. I want a pair. A smartly dressed old man sits by the table and smiles at me. “Adesh?” I ask, picking up a pair I like. “How much?” The man tells me a number that is way above their real price. We barter a little and agree on a price that is still more than I could pay elsewhere, but this is a battle I willingly lose in the Hezbollah area; the man has a warm, friendly smile.