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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Corniche Revisited

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I walked down to the Corniche for the first time since I got back late Friday afternoon. Like so many things it was in many ways as I remember it, but with subtle shifts that mark changes far more significant than their initial appearance.

It was the usual crowd of people, children on bikes, chasing each other around in circles, cruising around on rollerblades or futilely attempting to consume an ice cream cone faster than it drips. All while parents watch on, seated in folding chairs or leaning on the rail, talking, smoking hubbly bubbly or eating figs (now in season and the best thing about Lebanon in August, or so I have been told). The families are matched in numbers by small groups of girls walking together and even larger numbers of boys lounging against the railings watching the day go by.

There are a few fishermen scattered along the rocks and even fewer, but definitely present, number of men swimming in the water. Brave souls. Or crazy. The beautiful rocks on which they are all perched are only the white stone I remember above the waterline, the rest has been darkened to a grimy black by the oil slick that has now affected at least 105 miles of the coast and is spreading out into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Beirut coast is not as bad as some parts of the coastline, and much of the slick has dispersed but the damage is done and getting worse by the day.

Somewhere around 15,000 tons of oil were dumped into the sea when Israel made the horrific decision to bomb a power station in a three-day attack.

This is almost the same magnitude of the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska, which was 40,000 tons, but this situation is worse in many ways because the initial strike was July 13-15 and the oil has been spreading, sinking and contaminating continuously since then.

The immediate and long-term impact on marine life and the full extent of the slick will take time to assess, and billions to clean, not to mention the impact on the greatly anticipated and now evaporated summer tourist season.

The cleanup alone is expected to take more than a year, cost more than $64 million and so far Israel has refused to authorize helicopters to perform an aerial assessment of the spread of the slick (though I hear this may happen in the next few days).

As I walked around a bend in the Corniche and approached the Riviera I looked up to see the lighthouse, which had been struck by the Israelis in another attack. About half of the top section containing the beacon is gone but the rest of the structure is entirely intact and the café down below was filled with people.

I stared captivated as always by the rhythmic movement of the water along the rocks, discarded bottles strewn across the surface, clear waves and pools of water shimmering the rainbow colors of oil. Next to me two guys puffed away on a hubbly bubbly and watched the girls passing by as two kids racing on tricycles careened around the pedestrians.

Is it really so different? Is it really so much the same?

You can’t wallow in it, you can’t act like it didn’t happen…how do you live with it, through it, after it, beyond it.

I cannot tell. I cannot tell. I do not know how to feel or what to believe or what will come next. I guess no one does. It feels as though I have been gone for years. So much has changed, people have come and others have moved away, businesses opened and closed, buildings have been destroyed and the population has shifted.

AUB (American University of Beirut) is re-opening tomorrow and I spoke with someone from there on Friday who said they have no idea if either the students or the professors will show up. It is a complete unknown. With the airport taking steps toward re-opening, despite the sea and air blockades still in place, the question is will more people be coming back to Lebanon? Or leaving?


  • If Hezbollah turns into a truly (non-Iran-backed) *Lebanese* organization that doesn't attack Israel, then there's hope for the country.

    If Hezbollah stays a Lebanese organization (but backed by Iran) and continues to harass Israel while currying local favor by funding schools, clinics, etc, behind which to hide, then there's no hope for the country.

    By Anonymous John L, at 5:15 AM  

  • I hadn't heard about the oil spill...so tragic. Your descriptive walk helped me "see" areas I have been reading about.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:38 AM  

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