Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thinking about Lebanon

The bus left Budapest for a snow-covered outdoor museum in the suburbs. Sun shone down on the Hungarian December, but the temperature was unkind, and a biting wind ensured that I would not feel any comfort during my visit. Yet I would not miss the object of my destination for any weather. I was going to Memento Park to see the communist statues.

As an American who grew up in the eighties when glasnost and perestroika had made it seem like the United States of Capitalism had triumphed over the evil of the Soviet Empire, communism seems almost quaint or unreal, like it had only existed in the movies. Yet as a student of East-West relations dating back to my college days, I knew that it was real, and I wanted to see the remnants of it to prove it.

I had just left a two month stint in Bulgaria, where I saw plenty of Soviet leftovers, from the communist stars stuck on buildings in Varna to the statue of Stalin stored in a garage beneath a museum in Veliko Turnovo, its nose missing and bird doo splashed upon its head. I had had many talks with Bulgarians about life under communism. I was curious. What little I knew of oppression came from history books or flashes of images on television. It was no accident that I discovered the existence of the Memento Park, for I had actively searched for vestiges of the communist era.

As I rode the bus to the park, I reflected upon the idea of conflict tourism. My curiosity about conflict had been piqued when I studied in Europe during my junior year of college. I went to Auschwitz and a few other concentration camps. I visited museums of the world wars even in the smallest of villages like Clarveaux, Luxembourg. I toured the murals of Belfast. I followed the outline of the Berlin Wall and stopped at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I saw all of these things through the eyes of one whose home had never been threatened by conflict.

Yet it was Memento Park that made me think about conflict tourism. I was not the only one – countless Americans I encountered were equally as curious and made it a point to visit these types of sites. And why? Did we find it entertaining? Was it something to check off a list? What drove us to conflict sites?

I’ve moved on to another part of the world since then, a part of the world that has yet to find the peace that Europe now enjoys. I spend much time these days in Beirut, where the same molten rage that must have run beneath Europe in the first half of the twentieth century boils below. Lebanon is only twenty years removed from a fifteen year civil war that left Beirut looking like the apocalypse had hit it, and in those twenty years have not been peace or stability, but occasional flare ups in armed violence and political assassinations. The sectarian tension at this moment is very real, and the weary Lebanese face the possibility of another violent interruption in their lives.

When I first set foot in Beirut, I marveled at the bullet-riddled buildings that still stand as if the war had just ended. The former Holiday Inn that had housed rooms with stunning views of the Mediterranean now casts shadows over construction sites, its towering presence an eerie reminder of the destruction that had come to what was once known as the “Paris of the East.” In that trip, before I had seen the grand ruins of Baalbek or Byblos, I walked the Green Line. It was the line that separated East and West Beirut, Christian and Muslim, friends and enemies. The line ran from the candy blue of the sea along a road that eventually leads all the way to Damascus.

Before his assassination, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri rebuilt much of downtown and included a massive mosque with blue domes and minarets shooting towards the heavens like missiles, but beyond downtown, the Green Line is very much still the Green Line, with buildings full of bullet holes and a sadness that seems to have taken up permanent residence. In some buildings, people live on the bottom floors, but bombed out levels remain bombed out above them, with only the ghosts of Beirut past inhabiting them.

Along the Green Line sits the National Museum, which once held great treasures of the ancient orient, but its location made it a battleground, and much of the collection in the museum was destroyed. The most fascinating and thought provoking exhibit in the museum was the very last thing I saw during my visit: artifacts that had been melded together from the heat that war had brought to them. It was as I stared at these mementos of destruction when I had to hold back tears. How could people do this to each other? Why? For what purpose?

And then perhaps I found the answer to my question about why we venture into conflict tourism. We’re looking for clues into the nature of conflict because we cannot understand its existence. We as Americans have been blessed to live in a country where, 9/11 aside, war has not touched us, and we cannot figure out why others can’t live in peace. So when I sit in Beirut, wondering if there are any people with the courage to stand up and cut the fuse to this ticking time bomb, I hope that my Lebanese friends finally get the peace that they deserve after so much suffering.

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