Postcard from Beirut – IV

It’s night and I’m walking home, from West Beirut to East. The wealthy and isolated developments in the center of town are always empty compared to the thrum of the rest of the city, but tonight they are especially still. I have a long way to go, but I bend my course far around downtown. The police cordon that always surrounds the central few blocks has been expanded, and I add my own buffer on top of that, essentially sticking to the dark highways that ring town. Earlier in the day, when I was moving east to west, there was no missing the police mobilization. There were more of the things one always sees—soldiers, guns, streets closed off with the familiar cocktail of concertina and concrete. And there were things I had not seen before—a light tank astride a commercial intersection; a unit of female soldiers, all in gray camo, bearing assault rifles and immaculate eyeliner. A protest was coming and the police had their part to play. Back along the highway, I can see, far up the hill, the serenely lit dome of the blue mosque and the floodlights bathing the gathered protesters, though the crowds themselves remain out of sight. Cheers—indistinguishable, really, from those at a sporting event—drift down to me, because I have passed out of the aural shadow of some building or because the crowd is newly asserting itself, I don’t know. At first I think the exhaust from the rushing cars has clotted my sinuses and stung my eyes, but there is tear gas in the breeze coming off the hill. I can see more of it—or the smoke of burning trash, maybe—hanging under the floodlights. In a moment, the wind shifts and my distant little brush with the police action floats away. In a few more blocks I am clear of the Green Line, the center of the city where conflict has settled for many years, and back in the neighborhood that is home. Narrow roads and dim streetlights that tonight are cozy and welcome. It’s Thursday and men and women sit on patios and in open air restaurants eating and laughing, smoking with casual relish, lining up to get into clubs, happy, as I am, to leave downtown to others.