Suggest Shia’a to a Western academic, and you may hear some mention of the Safavis, Qaramatians, Ahmedi Najad — his real media name — or someone’s Pakistani friend. Hussein-u ya Hussein, wain ghayib, ghayib wain — crackles through a storefront window. Hear this mention of bananas; bananas, pineapples, and oranges.
Cola station west Beirut — a kind of tin can heap of garages — nest to a brood of old German vans. The neighborhood looks as though it re-grew in-between the standing rubble left by the civil war. The few new apartment buildings stand beleaguered next to their bullet-rattled neighbors. Cola itself is frenzied, the raa’i, the herder, stands on the curb that is the outer wall of the bay of vans in front of the garages, and calls the names of various destinations, pulls travelers by the arm into vans. An old French VBCI stands corroded, encrusted in years of inaction, under the highway, the road from the airport that allows travelers to pass most of west Beirut entirely. Lebanese soldiers play cards on one of its eight dry-rotted wheels in their variously positioned berets.
Wain raayih ya khaiy, where-e you going mister, the herder says grabbing me by the arm. ’a-Sour, to Tyre. A kid sitting next to a cooler in one of the garages wants one thousand lira too much for water. I can see the hesitation in his brow as he leans on a stack of repaired mufflers. Everyone is sweating. As in the rest of Beirut, there are soldiers everywhere — carrying a mixture of predominantly American and Russian equipment. Some soldiers get into the van; they have sweated through their camo, sleeves rolled up to their armpits.
The humidity only increases as we drive further south in the minibus. Everyone is carrying something, cardboard boxes and thighs stick to the cracked vinyl seats. The driver drops his cigarette through a hole in the floor of the van, that is the end of that, khara, shit. It is still Ramadan and there is a silent sense of fate in his lost cigarette, evident in his reluctance to light another. After my time in Palestine I became anxious about what people were carrying. I sat behind a man carrying a few hundred hypodermic needles in his family’s luggage on a minibus ride to Nablus. Here, fruit, imaginary AK cartridges, or pants, it is all anxiety, packed neatly away in cardboard boxes. It is a particular anxiety that is ridiculous, unwarranted, and the kind of sensation that the traveler is in fact travelling for. The nail-biting suspicion of Lebanese checkpoints, our frail imagined explanations for distant gunshots, all are partly born of a desire to exoticize. Micro-orientalization. Old news. Indeed the traveler creates this anxiety for his own entertainment. But there must first be something there for elaboration, a kernel of truth, a real pearl wedged somewhere into those layers of structure. Calm down look around. Tawakil a’allah, count on God, ya khuwi, dude.
A mana’eesh stall on the side of the road is barraged by the dust cloud surrounding our bus. Mana’eesh is a Lebanese icon, essentially a small pizza topped with any kind of Mediterranean staple; thyme and sesame, ground lamb and paprika, cheese. It is an eternal working-class and late-night east-Beirut-set drunken favorite — one of Lebanon’s ambassadors to surrounding Levantine countries. You might not realize that the road from Beirut to Tyre, via Sidon, is only a few hundred yards from the ocean at its furthest. The ocean is so infrequently visible as the road lies in a sea of banana and pineapple plants between the shoreline and hills to the east. The pineapple plants closest to the road are always the sickliest, covered in a layer of dust and garbage thrown from the street; they are a kind of necessary buffer between the road and the fields. It is a sight strangely reminiscent of the olive fields in Jordan or Palestine, the trees closest to the road for the most part forsaken to inevitable strangulation. Except here, if it were not for the road and its small strings of mana’eesh stands and crumbling housing blocks you might forget you were in the Levant at all, it is humid, lush, Mediterranean, and Shia’a. Every handful of kilometers a small Shia’a mosque squats in a nest of electrical wires while Hezbollah or Amal martyrs’ posters constrict the sidewalks in a silent gravity that is easily ignored by anyone who has been living there long enough to remember their faces.
There is a tangibly different sentiment on the road to southern Lebanon than there is in the north. Gone are the mountain shabab in their floppy camo hats, tank tops, and chopped-up half-century-old Volkswagen beetles, their humor in the makeshift. There is something of a fresh wound in southern Lebanon. The sprinkle of bullet holes over Tyre are not yet pock marks on the face of a conflict forgotten by a new generation like the shelled-out buildings in Tarablus. There is none of the humor that exists around a partially healed wound. Take Hebron — everything is shit? Of course it is! TRUTH and reconciliation Where did you think you were going? Beirut? Settlers steal my cable television! Hah, says a Khalili in a fake Burberry polo. Hebronites are always telling jokes, people tell jokes about them. Three Hebronites in a pond are arguing over who will pay for dinner, they decide that whoever stays underwater the longest will not have to pay for dinner. All of the Khalilis drown. In Hebron, when you pass through a traffic light, there is a sign afterwards that says, “caution traffic light behind you.” A Khalili says to his friend, should we take the bus? His friend: no let’s run alongside the bus and save a lira. The Khalili: ‘I have a better idea, let’s run alongside the taxi and save five lira.’ But here, outside of Tyre, white dishdash-wearing farmers wheel cartloads of bananas down the street and the shabab, the youth, sit aimlessly around cassette stores in track pants and greasy long hair — picking their noses with the grown-out pinky nail that is so popular among Levantine youth.
We arrive in Tyre, Sour in Arabic. I walk between a few bus stations. New Sour is all concrete, five stories — a several-block-deep front to one of the Levant’s larger series of Palestinian refugee camps. The characteristic red and white Lebanese army checkpoints act as corks to the camps that leak out from in between these concrete attempts at reclaiming the street front. The Lebanese cedar is spray-painted via stencil all over these alcoves, as a kind of totemic seal. The camps are known as government-free zones in the Lebanese media, ever since the War of the Camps in the 1980s they have retained some degree of autonomy. There are the familiar signs of all Palestinian ghettos, Arafat posters either faded or ripped off of old concrete walls, passive graffiti wars between Hamas and Fatah, and barbed wire. Barbed wire is everywhere, rusted apart, or cast aside, half-removed strings sit at the corners on top of concrete walls.
The Bas camp in Sour has an old Lebanese fortress shrouded in gille nets diagonal from its cedar-festooned entrance. There is a machine gun pointed at the ground in front of the entrance to the camp. The Bas camp, like the others, sits inside an inconsistent concrete wall and an outer layer of one- or two-story bare concrete housing buildings. One can just glimpse some of the tin roofs used to complete the unfinished concrete shelters and damaged houses inside. From the top of the seating mound to the hippodrome you can see small Palestinian flags lying alongside laundry, and a McDonald’s in the valley opposite the camp.
My classmate from Amman, whom I had been travelling with throughout Lebanon, decided that we should buy two of the Russian camo utility vests in any one of the surplus stores scattered around Sour, famously worn by bin Laden and other Jihadis, as a kind of reward for having travelled the rest of the Lebanese countryside successfully. We walked back past the minibus station, the crowd of drivers in tank tops shouting uncouthly, attracting the attention of a UN guard on patrol in his white van. Green and red Amal flags fluttered contentiously about the sidewalks just past the ghettos — one of the PLO and Fatah’s oldest enemies in Lebanon. It is still Ramadan, and we have become as accustomed as possible to only drinking in private to avoid offending anyone, but seeing a pack of young men puffing cigarettes in front of us we seize the chance to sip a bit of water to stifle the asphyxiating sensation of dehydration that hovers just above all travelers during Ramadan. When you take a bus during Ramadan, about thirty miles after beginning the journey someone will inevitably begin to sneak sips of water as there is a rule that stipulates you may drink after travelling so far from your home. The same applies for cigarettes it seems, 30, 100, 500, feet from home, who knows? We arrive at the door to a military surplus store and see Hezbollah scarves and shell cases sitting about the patio. A look inside the door reveals a countertop displaying pistols, and rifle racks about the walls. A few young men sit grimly about the counter in their floppy camo hats and sweat-stained tank tops. We immediately loose our gall and float silently away from the stacks of shirts patched with old Lebanese platoon insignias.
We continue back towards the minibus station, attempting to shake off an extraordinary feeling of shame, kicking a rock down the sidewalk, whistling, encouraging the sweat and dehydration compounded by our confoundedness. Travelers are masochists. Amal, Hezbollah, Fatah, Hamas are here, to the foreigner, the political faces of an individually indiscriminate mass. We see the Nasrallah brothers every other moment, the famous rivalry, Sheikh Hassan heading Hezbollah, his nearly identical brother a prominent figure in Amal. They stare determinedly out towards the ocean in their own discreet strings of posters about streetlights, building tops, and storefronts. We come to a particular storefront where a group of shabab has gathered. They are staring at a cage of monkeys, some languishing in the corner of the enclosure, others sucking at the nipple of the water dispenser, others looking negatively at the faces of the youth. We could smell the cage before seeing it. “Look at those fucking monkeys,” says my friend. One of the kids picks his teeth with a grown-out pinky nail, another tosses a cigarette butt to the curb.
I felt as though I had seen our driver before, bearded, tank top. The simultaneous exhaustion of having walked all day and the cloud of cigarette smoke growing inside the van lulled me into a sleep interrupted only by our circumnavigating the Dahiya — The Southern Sacrifice — the Shia’a neighborhood to the south of Beirut destroyed during the 2005 conflict. Amal, Amal, Amal flags. There are people everywhere in the streets. We change minibuses on the edge of the Dahiya, it is a sobering moment. Curtains flutter in the windows of bullet-speckled apartment high rises while houseplants droop out of open windows.