When Beirut Comes to Syria

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As Fouad Wehbe sucks on his houka pipe at the Rawda coffee house around the corner from my apartment on Sharia Pakistan in Damascus, the irony of his current plight is not lost on him. Last year, Wehbe, 26, joined thousands of his countrymen on the streets of Beirut to call for an end to Syria's domination of his homeland, and threw a heady, vodka-fueled "Liberation Festival" in his Hamra apartment when they officially withdrew. Then, last Thursday, the graphic designer, his parents and brother paid a cabdriver $2,500 to drive them out of Beirut to the heart of Syria, and safety.

At Rawda, where the men start puffing flavored smoke from their nargilehs soon after the sun rises, Wehbe's unlikely presence is only one of the things that are out of the ordinary. Usually, the only background noise at the coffee house is a low murmur of conversation, and the click of marble pieces on a hundred game boards as men puff on their houkas, finger wooden worry beads and play hours-long backgammon marathons. Now, there's a new addition to that symphony: half a dozen TV monitors tuned to al-Jazeera's coverage of the mayhem in Lebanon.

For Wehbe, anxiously puffing on his pipe this morning as he stole glances at the screen, the contrast with the cosmopolitan city he left behind — and the thought that a return might be years away — was almost as demoralizing as the dire reports themselves. "If I have to stay here another week, I think I'm going to go crazy, that's the honest truth," Wehde moaned. "I need to stop thinking about this, but it's impossible. If there were any girls here, that would help. But there aren't any, not really. The ones there are, they're religious. They won't talk to you." For now, he says, his only plans are to check e-mail once an hour, and spend a lot more time with his houka.

Wehbe's hometown of Beirut was, in many ways, a kind of Middle Eastern New York: a vibrant cultural capital where an educated homegrown populace rubbed elbows with a parade of jet-setting foreigners. By contrast, the far more conservative Damascus gives off an Arab-flavored Soviet vibe, from the paranoid residents and omnipresent secret police to the 30-year-old junkers rolling along the streets. The flow of refugees from Beirut to Damascus, therefore, has made for an odd tableau: the normally dreary city is suddenly teeming with sharply dressed Lebanese and foreigners figuring out their next move.

Indeed, for many of them, Syria's capital is a temporary way station, a one-horse stopover on the way overseas. Others are determined to ride out the war in the relative safety offered by the Assad regime. The government, eager to bolster its image as a benevolent protector of the Lebanese people, has sponsored refugee relief centers throughout the city. There, Syria's new guests can pick up staples like bedsheets and bottled water, and sign up with the Ministry of Labor for help finding work. (Less lucky are the hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrant workers suddenly back home and jobless — the legion of cheap labor that built the recent wave of pricey new Beirut high-rises, and cleaned the apartments inside.)

The mood in Damascus, home to a major faction of Hizballah's leadership, is undeniably tense. But the full-on panic of last fall — when local commentators seemed to calculate hourly updates on the odds of a U.S. invasion — is, so far, largely absent. The U.S. and Israel seem as anxious as officials here are to avoid open conflict; that relative security makes for a safely defiant atmosphere. Hizballah sympathizers take to the streets with bullhorns, engaging bystanders in an angry, fevered call-and-response drawn from party slogans or the latest news. Motorcycles and cars sport yellow-and-green Hizballah banners. Many store windows feature the most popular new poster in Damascus: a photoshopped grouping of a grinning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a grim Syrian president Bashar Assad and an inscrutable Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, surrounded by daffodils, roses, and red tulips (the symbol of Islamic Iran).

Not that everyone here is cheering Nasrallah. Syrian citizens may have granted him sudden rock-star status, but Damascus is increasingly a city of diverse refugees, with the newly arrived Lebanese joining thousands of Palestinians and Iraqis already waiting out their own ongoing national crises. Many of these temporary residents, particularly the newcomers, don't seem to be spoiling for the fight that Hizballah is engaged in.

That sense of lukewarm support is strongest in places like Al Jidadeh, a short drive outside the city. The big crossing point in the commute between Beirut and Damascus is nearly always crowded. But for the past week, say Syrian relief workers, managing the checkpoint has been like trying to force a sea through a tiny spigot. The recent conflict may have created as many as 700,000 refugees; more than 200,000 of them have journeyed overland to Syria since the fighting began, that number surging over the past few days, as the risk of air and sea travel rises. Not all of them are as lucky as Wehbe, who knows he will spend each night in a comfortable hotel room paid for by his parents. Over the weekend, thousands waited in dazed and nervous clumps just inside Syria, beside the armada of taxis that had carried them over the border. Children slumbered in the backs of cars; groups of head-scarved women sat in silent groups under makeshift tent shelters, waiting for meals of donated pita and canned meat.

A weary-looking woman in a black track suit and pink flip-flops said she had made the decision to leave Lebanon early that morning, as Israeli bombers returned to strike her area of Baalbeck. Her fiance was still in Beirut. "I just couldn't handle it anymore. I had to get out." She left behind nearly all her possessions, but managed bring along her wedding dress. "Sometime, we will have the wedding," she said firmly. "If we're both still alive."