BEIRUT, Lebanon - On a recent trip from Damascus to Beirut, we left just before dawn to try and avoid the crowd.
The journey, which in better days used to take a mere two hours door to door, now potentially soaks up half of your day. There is frustrating idleness while waiting for your turn at one of the half-dozen Syrian checkpoints on the way to the border and more frustration while standing in chaotic lines at the Lebanese border. It is through there that thousands of fleeing Syrians enter every day.
I had traveled this journey many times over the years, spanning various political eras.
There were the turbulent '70s, when my parents packed us up in the car and fled war-torn Beirut under a barrage of gunfire. We sighed with relief upon arrival in then-tranquil Damascus, my birthplace, where sparrows chirped and jasmine trees waxed aromatic.
There were peaceful times when both cities thrived, like in the early 2000s. That was when the journey used to take me those two hours, with relaxed immigration and customs at the border crossing. The ease of travel encouraged Lebanese shoppers to flock to Syria, where prices are unbeatable and the flavor of things is, as the Lebanese put it, “authentically Oriental.” Syrians made the reverse trip to shop in Beirut for imported brand names and get away from the sometimes asphyxiating mood inside the police state.
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“I need Beirut to breathe some air,” a friend used to say, referring to her monthly trips to the port city.
There were tense times, after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 and accusations that the Syrian regime was behind it.
You could always guess at the political situation from the mood at the border. Sometimes, you had to pay the exit stamp of $10. Sometimes, it went up to $20. Sometimes, it was totally waived. It all depended on whether the powers-that-be in the two countries respectively wanted to reach out or punish each other.
Then there are the stereotypical -- and not too inaccurate -- ways of the border guards.
“Both can mess with you, but at least the Lebanese do it with a smile,” my driver used to say, echoing my favorite cliché about the stern-faced Syrians in uniform.
But on this day, everyone is tense. Hardly anyone smiles. The usually gregarious Lebanese guards seem overwhelmed by the pressure that the civil war in Syria keeps building at their border crossing.
Once we cross over, our car radio picks up a Lebanese talk show with Lebanese women from villages along the Syrian border. They complain about the Syrian shelling and fighter jets that periodically target their villages, which the regime suspects harbors rebels.
“We flee from one home to the next, and the shelling follows. From one village to the next, and again the jets follow,” said one woman.
Her repeated displacement sounds too familiar, a constant state of being for millions of Syrians today. In my hometown of Damascus, I see it everywhere. Damascenes fleeing violence from one suburb to the next, only to flee again when the violence spreads. Too numerous to count, there are families displaced four or five times in as many months.
Recently, there have been fears about a full-blown spillover of the war from Syria to Lebanon, a worry especially voiced by Syrians who have been displaced into Lebanon.
“So far, an unfounded fear,” one longtime journalist based in Beirut said. “It seems there is a reverse spillover of violence from here into Syria, not the other way around,” he said.
He is referring to the two competing Lebanese factions that are now sending their fighters for jihad, or holy war, to fight along opposing sides in Syria.
On the one hand, there is Hezbollah, the Shia Muslim militia group with allegiance to Iran that operates like its own nation within the state of Lebanon. Hezbollah is sending its fighters to support President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in the fight against rebels. Villagers and rebels in Syria swear that many among the regime’s merciless snipers, responsible for shooting women and children -- and the occasional stray cat that crosses the street -- are Hezbollah. Regardless, there are numerous documented cases of rebels capturing Hezbollah fighters and even more numerous coffins returning to Lebanon with Hezbollah fighters killed waging battle in Syria.
On the other hand, there is Ahmad al-Assir, a Salafist Sunni Muslim cleric and relative newcomer to the arena of Lebanese politics. His influence is no match for Hezbollah, which is still riding on the tails of a a perceived military victory after the 2006 war with Israel. Nonetheless, al-Assir has publicly called for jihad inside Syria, drawing an impossible-to-verify number of Sunni Muslim fighters from around the world to join what has sadly become a sectarian proxy war in Syria.
Social media is rife with Syrian activists and regular civilians lamenting the sectarian flavor that is increasingly coloring Syria’s conflict. They post reminders that the country’s uprising began with a call for dignity and freedom, not a call for sectarian jihad.
But just as rife on social media is the sectarian talk.
"Hezbollat," one user posts, instead of Hezbollah. The word is loaded. It’s a play on meaning. Hezbollah translates to the party of God, whereas Hezbollat is the party of Lat, a pre-Islamic pagan god whose followers notoriously waged war against Islam’s prophet Muhammad. The sentiment inflames sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Al-Assir, who is trying to rise as a symbol for Sunni Islam in Lebanon and whose mother is a Shia Muslim, is careful not to fall into the sectarian trap.
At one of his recent rallies, a small group among his followers started chanting along the lines of “Hezbollah is Hezb As-Shaytan,” which means party of the Devil. Al-Assir swiftly made them stop, explaining that it is not Shia Islam that is the enemy, nor the followers of Hezbollah “who are as pious as any of you.”
“It is Iran that is the problem,” he railed. “Iran’s approach to Shia Islam is fundamentally different from the organic Arab approach. Iran’s Shiism focuses on the infallibility of the religious leader, an idea that is alien to the Shia tradition in the Arab world.”
In Beirut, none of this drama seemed apparent.
On a balmy afternoon by the sea, where a cooling wind blew and occasional clouds gave respite from the sun, lunch arrived in abundance; fresh Sultan Ibrahim, a small variety of red mullet, served fried alongside perfectly dressed tabouleh salad and raw cabbage leaves.
One of the guests was Ghada, a physically fit artist in her late forties who spent most of her life in Lebanon, including the 15 years of civil war. Asked whether she worried about a spillover of the war from Syria, she burst out laughing.
“That’s such a passé question,” she said, unable to contain herself. “We’ve been living with the threat of war since, oh, I don’t know when. What’s changed?”