I’ve had close calls working in the Middle East (rocket attacks, roadside bombs, food poisoning), but nothing beyond the usual occupational hazards of an American journalist–until Sunday, when I was mistaken for a Dane.
I had recently returned to Beirut from an assignment in northern Iraq and was thinking of spending the morning in my pajamas, when my friend Katherine, a reporter for a U.S. newspaper, calls. There’s an angry demonstration forming a few blocks from your apartment, she says. They’re heading for the Danish Embassy to protest the cartoon defamation of the Prophet. By now, everyone knows the story of how a Danish newspaper decided to make a point about free speech by running cartoon depictions of Mohammed. Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet blasphemous, and, true to form, reactionary elements in the Muslim world have responded in total caricature of themselves.
Katherine picks me up, and we head down to the demonstration. By now, this should be a Beirut routine–get a few quotes from sexy girls waving Lebanese flags and be done in time for brunch at Patisserie Paul. But it soon becomes clear that much has changed in Lebanon since the so-called Cedar Revolution last spring, when the whole country seemed united in wanting peace and independence. “That sounds like shooting,” says Katherine as we pass through a line of soldiers who tell us to go back, and, suddenly, there are burning cars, young men with beards and green bandannas throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, and riot police firing tear-gas grenades. I see a mullah in a turban and flapping gown waving his hands at the stone-throwing shebab, and I am reminded of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, helpless to stop the broomstick army that he has created.
Neither of us knows where the Danish Embassy is actually located. But the rioters are just as clueless. Several thousands of them are moving up a tree-lined avenue into the heart of Achrafiyeh, a ritzy Christian neighborhood in East Beirut that is home to the offices of a few European countries too small to merit their own embassy compounds. The mob attacks anything that is vaguely Danish, which, since no one really knows much about Denmark, amounts to open season on luxury consumer-goods shops and the occasional church.
In Syria, religious rabble-rousers have also attacked Danish symbols–but with no real political or economic consequences. (Danish imports to the region seem to consist mainly of shortbread cookies and butter.) Lebanon, however, is a country that, not long ago, fought a 15-year civil war, and such events are refracted darkly through a sectarian lens. So, when the television shows a mob burning the Swiss flag, Lebanese Christians don’t think, “Look, those idiots don’t know the difference between Switzerland and Denmark!” Instead, they see a Muslim mob burning the cross.
The police do little to stop the rampage, and, as the government dithers, we wonder how long it will be before Christian militias take up arms and patrol their neighborhoods. In the meantime, Katherine and I wade into the stream of angry young men. This is not as insane as it sounds. Even in a mob, there is often room to work, especially along the fringes occupied by the more civilized sort of rioter. Still, I’m nervous enough that I don’t even bother taking out my notebook. Katherine does the interviewing, and I keep watch. Suddenly, the crowd panics and there’s a stampede. We climb the stairs of the nearest building, a brown stone office tower, but, in the process of getting out of the way, we’ve exposed ourselves–two blue-eyed Westerners of visibly northern European descent (I’m even a goddamn summer blond)–to full view of the mob, which begins pelting us with stones from across the traffic divider. A group of good Samaritans hustles us inside the building and out of harm’s way. We take cover behind a bank of elevators in the empty, mildly ransacked lobby. Katherine points to the battered signs that list the building’s tenants, and one is clearly visible: Royal Danish Embassy Office. “Butters, we’re in the Danish Embassy,” she says. I reply, in effect, “Dude, we need to get out of here.”
Back outside, we head straight for the nearest mullah to ask for protection and an escort out of the demonstration. But, by this time, Katherine and I have become such a spectacle that a knot forms around us, and not everyone has gotten the memo about Islam being a religion of peace. We can’t move. One of the middle-aged Samaritans who had taken us inside the building returns. “Why didn’t you stay inside?” he asks. “Because that’s the Danish Embassy!” I reply. At that moment, our friend Ghaith appears out of nowhere. “I’m an Iraqi journalist,” he shouts in Arabic as he pushes his way toward us. “Iraqi” is the magic word, and the crowd backs off as if in the presence of Zarqawi himself.
Katherine and I squeeze free and flee back down the avenue, turning away from the riot at the nearest cross street, which happens to lead in the direction of Ghaith’s home. His British fiancée, Wendy, has been holding down the fort. “Not a good day to be blonde in Beirut,” she says, and she makes us spaghetti carbonara with pork bacon and Danish butter. We turn on the television, and there’s the office building in which we had hidden, only now it’s no longer abandoned; it’s getting the full fatwa treatment. The mob is throwing files out of broken windows, prying stones from the façade with crowbars, and setting the offices on fire. I can’t help but think: Whoops! Did we tip off the mob? Is that our fault? Would they have ignored the building but for us?
Katherine begins filing her story, but, since I don’t have anything to show for the day, I return home to work on an assignment I owe Men’s Journal, a one-page guide to Lebanon for adventure travelers. What the hell am I going to write? Great food, stylish women, and rampaging mobs of young Muslim men burning cars: Yes, Beirut is once again the Paris of the Middle East!
Andrew Lee Butters is a writer based in Beirut.