Saturday, December 13, 2008

Flashback Friday: Never badmouth Hezbollah

Today, for the first time in the history of Flashback Friday, you're getting a story straight out of Arabia. There are so many of these, I hesitate to dive into a big pile of them, so let's just leave it at this week for now. Next week, we might go back to awkward high school pictures. Now, without further ado, I bring you an account of the one and only time I was concerned for my bodily safety in the Middle East.

We were living in Damascus at the time. It was late fall of 2004 and Ramadan had just come to an end. Ramadan is an oddly festive yet stressful time of year, what with the businesses closing early, people fasting all day, socializing (and maybe working) into the night, waking up before dawn to get in a good meal, and doing it all over again the next day. At the end of it all, there is a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Everything in the city shuts down so that people can celebrate the conclusion of the month of fasting.

Jeremy and I both had a few days off of school and work, respectively, so we decided to take a trip to northern Lebanon to visit the ruins of Baalbek. In addition to being a modern-day town that serves as the seat of the Hezbollah political party (or terrorist organization, depending on your point of view), it is also the location of some spectacular ruins that we had been looking forward to exploring.

We spent the night in Beirut at a friend's house and left semi-early the next morning for Baalbek. We shared the taxi ride with an elderly Lebanese woman who was going to a small town 20km short of Baalbek. She was happy to engage in light conversation with us during the ride, but after Jeremy made a teensy-tiny joke about Hezbollah, all the lightness in her mood disappeared. She immediately launched into a stern lecture on the importance of not saying anything bad about Hezbollah while we were in the area. We reached her village just as she was winding down with her important advice, and she got out of the taxi, wishing us good luck on our visit.

In order to get back to the main highway, the taxi had to wind through the small town with we two Americans being the only remaining passengers.
The mood in the taxi was pleasant again, until I took a look outside the window at our surroundings and realized I was the only unveiled woman in the town, on top of being the only foreigner. This really only happened a couple of times during all the time I spent in the Middle East - once in a friend's neighborhood in Aleppo where every girl above the age of 7 or 8 was veiled, and another time or two in various remote areas. I was glad to at least be inside of the taxi and not walking around outside on the streets where I might have attracted a lot of attention.

That circumstance put me on edge, and I had already been fighting back minor feelings of nervousness because we were heading into the depths of Hezbollah territory. I hadn't thought too much about it until the old lady in the taxi had put the fear of the Party of God into us. As I looked around and saw all the party's posters, flags (above), banners, billboards, large Dome-of-the-Rock replicas, and brightly colored arches over the roadways featuring pictures of Nasrallah and others brandishing heavy weaponry, the nervousness turned into all-out fear. Although their days of kidnapping Americans appeared to be over (they have since moved on to Israeli soldiers), Hezbollah's relationship with America has never been a good one.

So it was in an on-edge, no-Roman-ruins-are-worth-being-kidnapped-for, no-matter-how-spectacular kind of mindset with which we continued driving through the town in the taxi.

Then came the part that actually scared me. I looked out the windows some more and realized that every kid in town had a gun and they were engaging in mini-guerilla warfare right there in the streets! They were toy guns, sure, but they appeared to actually be able to shoot pellets or something out of them, and the kids were having lots of fun shooting at each other and at a few passers-by. It was extremely unsettling. What kind of place was this?? I was sure at any moment that a kid would spot us in the taxi and decide that it would be fun to take a shot at the foreigners, and who knew what kind of trouble that would start with the local political party? We rolled up the car windows and tried not to make eye contact as the kids continued their war games. I slunk down as far as possible in my seat in a futile attempt to become invisible.

Somehow, we made it back to the highway unscathed, and continued to Baalbek. Within the site itself, you can almost forget about Hezbollah and kids trying to kill you with their toy guns, the ruins are that amazing.

To finish the story, on the minibus from Baalbek to Chtoura (where we could get a ride back to Damascus), we met some nice Lebanese guys who struck up a conversation with Jeremy. Somehow, the subject of all the kids in Hezbollah territory playing with toy guns came up and it turns out that it was just for the holiday, Eid. In other words, young children in that area don't generally play war games in the streets with pellet guns. The other passengers on the minibus laughed at us stupid foreigners when they realized that's what we had thought. I made sure not to tell them about how I had slunk down in my seat and feared for my safety.

And sure enough, when we got back home to Damascus, our landlady's son was busy taking shots with his new toy gun at his friends in the alley by our apartment.

And that's the story of the only time I ever felt scared in the Middle East.

Postscript: a few months after our trip to Baalbek, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut and tensions between Syria and Lebanon flared. After that, it really was too dangerous for Americans to visit the area. Then, a year and a half later, there was a(nother) war between Israel and Lebanon. Baalbek was in the middle of it all during a skirmish in August. So while I joke about being afraid while we were there, I don't mean to be insensitive to the actual bad things that have happened in Baalbek, both before and since our visit.

Before we finish up, take a look at this picture of Jeremy and me at Baalbek. These are the biggest columns anywhere in the world, or something like that. It might be the biggest ancient columns, or the biggest still-standing columns, but whatever the qualification, they are dang big. This picture illustrates that, because let me tell you why Jeremy is standing tens of meters closer to the camera than I am (I'm the black speck in the back). He set up the camera far enough away to get the entire columns in the shot, but the self-timer didn't give him enough time to run all the way back to where I am standing. Thus the strange staggering.


JackJen said...

So, I'm now feeling a little silly about slinking down in MY seat in some parts of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Actually, a lot silly.

Bridget said...

Please don't, Jen. It was kids playing the Arab version of Cowboys and Indians, without the political incorrectness. I've felt more unsafe in Tucson a dozen times over, so you have every right to be afraid in Cambridge.

Susanne said...

I liked your story from Arabia! Thank you for sharing it!

American Muslima Writer said...

SubhanAllah fora while as I lived in Lebanon I felt like this many times. Until I got to know more people involved in Hezbollah that were perfectly normal Non-terrorist people. And I don't mean involved in behind doors secret hezbollah stuff jsut people on the street that support them. It probally did help that I wear hijab and if captured my staus as a muslim would help. But there were times I remember seeing real guns checkpoints and hez flags and thinking, think small thoughts... Heh and yes the brutal nature of kids sometimes is unnerving no matter the country (tho in Leb there is higher rate). Good post...makes me itch to blog... and to go back and visit Leb again.

Nancy said...

Yeah, all the guns and fireworks/crackers during Eid are a little unnerving.

My friend Courtenay got shot by an air gun thingy just last week. Thanks unsupervised children, thanks.

And I think I remember you telling this story to us in Jordan. It was scary then, and it's scary now. I know I'm prone to think that I'm going to die if anything goes wrong...

Andrew said...

Yeah, like Nancy said, the (unsupervised) kids in Cairo during Eid al-Adha were doing the same thing, riding around on their bikes and shooting at the guys skinning the goats (and passing Americans)

They were even riding horses around large downtown midans full of cars, adding to the "Cowboys and Indians" effect.

Kids are crazy.

Liz Johnson said...

It's funny, because I never felt unsafe living in Mexico City either, and it's definitely thought of as a "dangerous" place. I even had friends that were kidnapped, but I never felt threatened. Weird.

And yeah, I have slinked down several times in podunk Indiana, and it's a constant theme anytime I visit Detroit.

Kristen said...

I like the staggering in the timer photo. Very cool.


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