Archive for October, 2010

The Syrian Social Nationalist Hamra

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Rue Hamra, first week of October, 2010

SSNP brochure: distributed in front of Main Gate, AUB - One month before student elections.

"Students are the focal point at the national work." -- Antoun Saadeh

I “met” the SSNP two years ago, during the 2008 May events. They’ve found a cozy home in Hamra. The following is something I wrote then, when they “won” the neighborhood…


May 22, 2008

Just two weeks ago, Beirut was a somber city crackling with red defiance. After almost two years of a governmental impasse, provoked namely by the July 2006 Lebanon War with Israel, fires, road blockages, including roads to Syria, and the closing of the airport kept most citizens (those who were not tempted to the streets with their house-warmed weapons) claustrophobically locked within four walls watching news and feeding their despondency with an array of food, fruity hookahs, and playing cards. Outside, masked armed men controlled the streets while the just-recent-“valiant” army (Nahr el Bared) stood on the sidelines, purportedly incapable of staying neutral in our infamously sectarian country. The opposition, namely Hezbollah, unprecedentedly took the streets of Beirut in refusal of the government’s untimely demands that they dismantle their underground telecommunications network and camera surveillance in the airport that are used purportedly to spy on Israel, who is commonly know here in Lebanon as “the enemy.”

On the first day of the unrest, May 8, the Ras Beirut neighborhood, the pre-civil war “cultural center” of Lebanon, was quiet. Universities, schools, and businesses were closed with the exception of Cafe De Prague, which kept its doors open and where plenty took refuge for the day. I sipped my favorite black black coffee while flipping between work, emails, news, and political speeches on my laptop. After eight hours and Hassan Nasrallah’s inflammatory speech, I was finally ready to go home. I ordered the bill while thinking of the long nap I would take as soon as I got home. The speeches and news and Internet in general had exhausted me. But Hamra was not gonna let me nap.

Just as I pulled my cash out, bullets panged outside; they were definitely not the common sound of fireworks. The cafe workers poked their heads out and soon enough closed up all the windows, shutters and door. I moved quickly and sat still on a table away  from the windows, while I tried to appear less afraid than I was. I was sure that some of the others had experienced wartime, and so I did my best to hide my thumping heart so not to seem too squeaky clean, or American.

We spent the night in Cafe Prague – about 15 of us including employees and leftover customers. Three girls who worked for the UN were picked up after thirty minutes, but UN workers only. “Sarah” gave me a a corner of paper with her phone number and said, “If you need anything, let me know.” I was speechless, for the only thing I would need Sarah for was to evacuate me from Café De Prague. Anyway, I didn’t want to leave,  abandon ship. My friend noted right away that it reminded him of Hotel Rwanda. Immediately, I recalled the wrenching evacuation scene of the based-on-true movie where all the Rwandans were left behind and the foreign, white folks looked ashamedly from the bus window. I wondered what use was the UN anyway?

Quickly, the De Prague staff popped open a bottle of cold rose and poured for the house. We were the most spoiled “refugees” you’ve ever seen. We had electricity, couches, extra boxes of nicotine, and labneh sandwiches, omellettes, and fattouch spread in front of us, as we dimmed the lights and gathered round together like a family.

After an evening of close and heavy fighting and a night of relative quiet, we woke up at dawn to the sound of bullets and RPG’s. I wondered how long I would be stuck there. And then worse… what if they found out about us and invaded? I had lived a peaceful life in the Illinois, where my parents took refuge thirty years ago, when this ongoing war started. What was the nature of this war? We could see militiamen walking past the front of the cafe through the slivers of light visible between the windows and the shutters.

At 6 a.m., the general manager told us that Mekdassi Street was quiet, and after a phone call to his friend, he led five of us out into the dusty dawn and a looted street. Syrian Social Nationalist Party militiamen stood along with their rifles, and empty bullet shells littered the pavement. The plant pot in front of Kakaya, the hookah bar a few doors down, lay in the middle of the street; I looked around and tsk-tsked at the things broken. I tried to avoid eye contact with the men and only nodded at a few, who I recognized from DePrague. Turns out you can be sitting right next to a militiaman at your favorite café. Turns out that your favorite café has an ideology and a favorite party flag; turns out in Lebanon, most do. They were familiar, young, tired, and in black street clothes, their only accessory extra bullets. I distinctly remember one of these young men lift his head to the sky, revealing his gold molars. And slightly beyond, the symbol of their takeover, their black flag with the red abstract swastika, flapping on tin barricades…