Covering The Street Fights

For the moment there’s lots of ink being spilled in local newspapers about the possibility that Iran and Saudi Arabia might be able to broker some kind of deal between Lebanon’s government and opposition. More power to them. Though it’s unlikely that Lebanon’s internal problems can be settled for good without a full scale regional diplomatic agreement, anything that lowers the temperature in Beirut’s streets — even temporarily — is for the better as far as Lebanon is concerned, and from a shallow and self-centered perspective, as far as journalists like myself are concerned.

That’s because the pattern of these streets fights foreshadows a conflict that’s going to be pretty tough to cover. Beirut is a beguiling city, and Western journalists who cover the Middle East from their home-base here wouldn’t be the first foreign invaders to have been lulled into a false sense of security by the balmy Mediterranean lifestyle. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, one lives in Lebanon with ones’ guard down. On Thursday, I was eating a fancy turkey sandwich at a business lunch in a California-style restaurant. Thirty minutes later I was trapped in a firefight, without a flack-jacked or helmet, without my notebook, and when the city’s mobile phone network went down with the surge of phone calls, I also found myself pining for a satellite telephone.

Another problem is that no one wants coverage of their side causing trouble, no one wants to be blamed for starting a civil war, and everyone wants to play the victim. Your average Beirut street fighter (who may well be a finance or marketing MBA student) is pretty media savvy. He knows that he is going to have a tough time explaining why there’s a picture of him on with a Molotov cocktail when he goes for his next job interview at the Price Waterhouse Coopers Dubai office. So when I trained my camera on some Sunni guys throwing rocks on Tuesday, one of them decked me. Not long afterwards he apologized (which was nice) but his buddies then tried to get me to take pictures of their Shia opponents making mischief on the other side of the street. “I can’t believe you don’t have a telephoto lens!” one of them practically screamed at me. “Are you sure you’re a journalist?”

It was also hard to miss how many of the rioters on Tuesday and Thursday were so clearly enjoying themselves. Over and over again, I’ve heard how people in Lebanon don’t want to go back to the bad old days, and that only outsiders agitators are the ones responsible for causing trouble. But there’s a subsection of bored and underemployed young men who want to bring it on. Why else were they pouring into the neighborhood around Beirut Arab University from all over town to join a fight between students they didn’t even know? I was hiding from gunfire behind a soda machine a couple of streets down from BAU on Thursday, when some alpha male street fighter with a submachine gun ran around the corner followed by a wannabe entourage of about seven cronies, one of them carrying an extra ammunition clip, like teenagers trying to get a turn on their rich friend’s new toy. It was a scene from high school with small arms.

Obviously, the tragedy of what may happen here won’t be its effect on the foreign press. And of course we’ll figure out a new set of do’s and don’ts to keep working. And it’s true that anytime something bad happens in Lebanon, there’s a lot of breathless stories about a new civil war being on its way. (I just wrote one myself.) But defending for a second a profession that is often accused of wanting disaster to happen to other people so that they can write about it, I just want to say right now that I’d much rather Lebanon stays as it is, with its ski slopes, and beaches, and lifestyle that appears to be as superficial as I am.

–Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut

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