Summer is cancelled again in Beirut and pirates ahoy off Africa.
In Lebanon, you can never predict what will happen next. Write a story about how Beirut is mending beautifully and the day it is published, Israel blows up the country’s only international airport and launches a 34-day war with Hezbollah that razes large swathes of the country.
Still, even by Lebanese standards the past two years have been wildly unpredictable. Since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005 and the subsequent forced ending of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, there have been more than 20 car bombs, five further assassinations of leading anti-Syrian politicians and commentators, that war with Israel, and an open-ended sit-in by Hezbollah-led opposition forces that has strangled the city centre and the country’s economy and provoked the renewed flight of young, educated Lebanese.
Since 20 May the latest addition to that sombre list is an ongoing and (at the time of writing) low-intensity war between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a rather obscure Islamist group that has taken control of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. By 4 June, 44 soldiers and 66 civilians and militants had been killed. Ironically, Nahr el-Bared was the only Palestinian camp not damaged during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
The latest violence, which has also resulted in three car-bombs targeting shopping areas in east and west Beirut and holiday resorts in the mountains, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Arab tourists had started to come back and European cruise ships had also reappeared. Despite intense internal political bickering, the Lebanese had hoped that the situation would remain calm until the summer tourist season was over.
Clearly, that is not to be. As a result of the bombs, even areas not (yet) targeted, among them Beirut’s main entertainment districts of Monot and Gemmayze, are dead after 19.00. Meanwhile Ashrafiye and Verdun, which had benefited from an influx of shoppers unwilling to venture into the besieged city centre, are almost deserted. Despite the heavy presence on the streets of armed soldiers and police checkpoints and the proliferation of private security guards at public places, for now, people prefer to remain at home.
“Honestly, we saw everything during the civil war, so nothing seems unlikely or impossible any more,” says Ahmad el-Hajj, who is still a regular in Gemmayze. “Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
In the 16 years of anarchy that Somalia has endured since its government was overthrown in 1991, Somalia’s 3,000km coastline – the longest in Africa – has become one of the world’s most dangerous waterways. Pirates have fired RPGs at cruise ships, hijacked aid shipments and kidnapped foreign crews.
During the six-month period last year when the Islamic Courts ruled much of southern and central Somalia, piracy all but disappeared. Mogadishu and Kismayo ports reopened and pirates were arrested.
But since the Ethiopian-backed military action in December, which saw the interim Somali government installed in Mogadishu, piracy has returned. In May alone there were five incidents, including three hijackings.
The World Food Programme briefly suspended food-aid delivery by ship after one of its boats was attacked. Mogadishu businessmen have complained of a sharp increase in attacks as they try to bring food and materials from India and the Gulf.
“Right now, Somalia is one of the hottest areas for piracy and hijackings,” says Cyrus Mody, a senior analyst at the International Maritime Bureau. “The Islamists managed to keep piracy down and punished anyone caught in the act. Since they were overthrown there is no sort of governing body in the area which can mete out any punishment.”
Somalia’s interim government claims to be in control of the country but it is still battling daily with insurgents linked to the former Islamic Courts regime. Little is being done to tackle piracy, says Mody. “It is giving the pirates a free hand to do what they want.”
What city offers the best quality of life?
At the moment it is Beirut, where I live. It’s a city that keeps you awake. It’s complex and surprising and provokes you.
Is this also your favourite city?
Today it is, yes.
What makes a perfect city?
I like imperfect cities that have contradictions and a dynamic nature – this keeps me interested.
What are your favourite design features in other cities?
I am not a fetishist of places or destinations – I like the unexpected. I find beauty in the unusual or mundane.
What would you eradicate from the built environment?
Ideological certainties – I find this extremely dangerous.
On a more personal level, what is essential to quality of life?
Pleasure – what’s more important than that?