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The loneliest planet

Cameras and Hebrew texts are a no-no. Underwear and toothbrush is all one needs to carry to Beirut, writes Shreevatsa Nevatia.

india Updated: Aug 05, 2006 03:47 IST

Let’s start at the very beginning, what the Israelis would say is a good place to start.

Ironically, the only way to make it to the Rafic Hariri International Airport is by car. Coming from the parts of the world that you and I belong to, chances are that you would be rather impressed by the swanky black windows, the New York-like lit tunnels that take you there and also the calm serenity that now overwhelms the place.

The only flying last recorded around these parts was by some Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircrafts that quite literally, bombed the scatological excreta out of this surprisingly plush and usually busy port.

And once you have seen enough of the rosy exterior, you drive on to see some flying of a different kind. You first think that its gold dust being dropped from heaven (Hallelujah!) but then a piece of paper hits the windscreen of your car.

Pamphlets that are in truth cautionary notices are dropped by the seemingly kind IAF. And since the Israelis have somehow resisted using a brand of sadistic humour, these notices have been typed out in Arabic rather than Hebrew.

The message is simple — because of all that ‘Hassan and his gang’ are up to, you are advised to evacuate the southern suburbs of Dahyeh and its surrounding areas. They have promised to level buildings in the Hezbollah stronghold with its roads.

Flipped fate

It’s perhaps a good thing that the Israelis have not chosen to be as generous as the Americans. The Yanks delivered two things to Afghanistan in late 2001: food packets and bombs. Imagine the dilemma of a starved Afghani — he sees an American plane hover around and tosses a coin. Heads — much needed food. Tails — instant death. But despite the tangential similarities, we are talking about Beirut here and not Kandahar.

Now you might just be an adventurous traveller. So you decide that the best place to go is where the action is. You pay your driver some extra dollars (they are just as acceptable as the Lebanese lira in Beirut) and ask him to take you south.

From a distance, you are able to see posters that have on them, the face of a somewhat cherubic but bearded Hassan, as they affectionately call him across the border. You might also see visions of Ruhollah Khomeini, whose face casts a shadow over much of these parts. Thus, carrying a Hebrew translation of The Satanic Verses might just have the same result as paragliding without a parachute.

If you are accustomed to travelling in auto-rickshaws on Indian roads, you would possibly be familiar with that inevitable bounce and the phenomena of open manholes. But all that collective experience cannot prepare you enough for what you will encounter during your travels. The Israelis have succeeded in changing the urban landscape with some deep craters.

Flash of life

Another piece of advice — tourism might just compel you to carry along that digital camera. Don’t, because you might just find it to be a nuisance. When you are approached on these deserted streets, the first question you will be asked is whether you are carrying a camera or not. Behind this mandatory question hangs a tale that is now doing the rounds as a slightly exaggerated urban legend.

Once upon a time (about ten days ago), a Caucasian-looking man entered Dahyeh with a camera in hand and pen around his neck. A journalist, one would think. He goes around asking the remaining residents a few questions and then chooses to go inside gutted buildings and take pictures of the area.

Three Hezbollah fighters get a little suspicious and decide to confront him. Once he is searched, they find ‘spy equipment’ and documents that prove his Israeli origin. A group of civilians arrive at the spot and each of them is able to comprehend what has just happened.

They ask for the suspected Mossad agent to be handed over. The Hezbollah refuse and a scuffle breaks out between the three men with firearms and those without. The ‘enemy’ is then captured by the ‘common man’ and a gasoline can is brought out. Guns are fired into the air but to no avail. The man pleading for help in a foreign language is mercilessly burnt alive. Thus the advice: cameras and Hebrew texts are a no. No!

Heavy fuel

And if this kind of adventure is not your thing, there is a lot else that Beirut has to offer. Porsche showrooms when you go downtown, the Rawcheh Rocks by an exquisite beach, Roman Baths in the Neimeh area and Paris-style cafés that surround Nejmeh Square, the centre of the city. It is, however, possible that you might not make it to these picturesque locales.

Gas stations in Lebanon now have regular long queues and the average amount of petrol that an automobile is now left with, is just about ten litres. Toothbrush and underwear apart, getting your own diesel might also help.