Mahmoud comes from the mountains up North, but he has lived in the city for forty years, most of them working as a barman pulling pints of foamy Almaza bière à la pression. He has served many nationalities but never bothered much about learning other languages – even English. He has some handy phrases such as ‘another round?’ ‘one for the road’ ‘closing time’. He is good at mathematics and rarely gets a tally wrong when the time for l’addition comes. He has cautiously watched all the comings and goings since 1975 and has survived many hegemonies in West Beirut; Palestinians, Mourabitoun, Syrians, Israelis, Americans, French, Amal, Hezbollah and even the Phalange for a few crazy days in 1982. Mahmoud rarely expresses views on politics. But this year is different.
The volume on the Arabic news channel Al Arabiya is turned off and not being able to read the script I have to ask Mahmoud about the shockingly gruesome footage clearly coming from Syria. Mahmoud begins to rattle off in an Arabic English mélange the lists of demonstrations and casualties and atrocities. Mahmoud is clearly unhappy. We explore the subject gently. This is dangerous ground. Syria dominates Lebanon in many ways still, even though the troops are gone since 2005. The al-Mukhabarrat intelligence services are rumoured to be still present and rumours surface occasionally of people disappearing to jails in Syria. The present Lebanese Government is dominated by the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition led by Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal. The Syrian Government has been dominated by the Shiite Alawite minority for over forty years. There are many refugees finding their way across border despite efforts to stop them by the Lebanese authorities. Guns are being smuggled across the border to the opposition. Everybody is worried. Mahmoud is Sunni and he is worried.
We talk gingerly about the Assads — Hafez, Bachar, Rifaat and Maher, father and son and uncle and brother. Assad the father, says Mahmoud, ‘is the most bloodiest man in the whole world’, ‘more bloodiest than this Hitler or this Khadaffi’, neither of whom of course were Shiites. Mahmoud is still outraged about the Hama massacre of 1982 when Government forces allegedly killed 20,000 in crushing a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ahmad is more circumspect. He is a businessman in his late fifties, speaks good English, and like anyone of that age in Ras an Beirut should be treated with respect as a survivor of many years of appalling events. Ahmad even remembers the notorious Phalange leader Bashir Gemayel inWest Beirut in 1982 with a glint in his eye because of course Bashir was blown to bits a few days later by a bomb planted by a fellow Christian. Ahmad has been to Europe and America and even owns companies in the US. However he hasn’t been to East Beirut since the 70s and has never been in the South. ‘Once to Byblos, once to Jbeil, once to Saida and Tyr, why go more than once to these places, we have all we need here inWest Beirut’. Even though he too is Sunni, Ahmad is worried about what will happen if Assad is overthrown. Ahmad’s information is that Assad has 2 billion dollars and that this will help him hold on to power for two years. You get the feeling that Ahmad would prefer Assad to hang on because the unknown is so frightening.
A friend who works for a European government in Damascus thinks the collapse might come sooner. Conscripts have had their service extended. They are deprived of mobile phones, satellite TV and internet. They have been promised one weekend’s leave over the next two months and there is no telling how they will react when they find out what has been going on. There are already reports of groups of army deserters operating as guerrillas in border areas. This friend thinks that Bashar meant to reform when he took over but he was too weak to take on the entrenched Alawite officials in Government who are terrified of the vengeance that change might bring. Now nobody seems to know how to prevent a catastrophic civil war.
Ali drives me in Beirut when I am stuck. He is an engineering student and a Shiite from the southern suburbs. His district was wrecked by Israeli bombing in 2006 and is undergoing major redevelopment led by Hezbollah. He is guarded on Syria but talks about Muslim extremists misleading people into joining protests against the regime. Even Lebanese Christians are worried what will happen to all minorities, Christians, Kurds as well as Alawite if the Assad regime collapses.
Peace in Lebanon is fragile. Between 150,000 and 200,000 are believed to have died between 1976 and 1990 and up to one million wounded. The population in 2010 was 4.3 million. That is a lot of hurt in one small country. Peace in 1990 was enforced and maintained by Syrian forces, a Pax Syriana. If Syria collapses Lebanon will shake. Nabil is an Egyptian who has lived in Beirut for 28 years. He will stay. He says that there is nowhere else for him to go. Ultimately that might be the best hope. That the Lebanese too will realise that there is nowhere else to go other than their present fragile peace. Whatever happens I am fairly confident that Mahmoud will still be pulling pints and his clientele will continue their intense analysis of politics and life. Inshallah.