Stories from Afar & Up Close

Excursion to the other side

“BE-sides: Lebanon through the eyes of young photographers” is the exhibition we are on our way to visiting. Because the organization of the exhibition wants to increase communication and contact between different communities in Lebanon and they want to support the area hit hardest by last year’s war, they have chosen a location in Dahyeh – the largely Shi’a suburb south of Beirut. It’s in a place called Hangar, which is, according to the website, ‘close to such-and-such amusement park and next to a certain mosque’. Neither the driver, nor the co-pilot or my fellow-backseat passenger had ever been to Dahyeh, having grown up in the mainly Christian areas north of Beirut. It’s not the first time I am accompanying Lebanese Christians on their first visit to a Muslim part of the city, but although I am familiar with Dahyeh (an extremely densely populated area where the streets are always full of people), I had tried to attend a lecture in the ‘Hangar’ once before but never managed to find the place.

The girls have forgotten the route description in the office. They shrug it off, sure that we will easily find it. “The website said the place is next to a mosque”, my fellow backseat passenger tries to be helpful. I know we’re in for a long ride: Everything in Dahyeh is next to a mosque.

Once we get to the main road towards the suburbs, the tension starts rising; stereotypes about the Shi’a and Hezbollah are told with nervous giggles, our driver Maria swerves from one lane to another because she is afraid to miss the exit. I direct them to the general area where I know the Hangar should be and leave it up to them to ask for the exact location. It takes us three wrong turns and a hair-raising 20 meters backwards on the fast lane to get to the amusement park. It’s the wrong one.

Then, Lina remembers the name of the right park, and again we ask for directions. Maria gets more and more jittery, closing her window even before the guy has finished his last sentence. So once more we have to stop and ask. The friendly coffee-seller tells us to go back; “the other park is much nicer!” but we’re speeding off again. The sun has set, the streets of Dahyeh are dark, very dark – nothing but the yellow glow of the light-bulbs on the street-vendors carts and the neon signs on the storefronts.

Maria needs a smoke. Driving through Dahyeh with the windows open, dance-music blasting on the speakers; would this be the kind of ‘contact’ between different communities that the organization had in mind?

Finally we find the place in a tiny alley underneath, indeed, the mosque, behind a long white wall. Just as we step through the metal gate and Maria sighs “I could definitely use a drink right now…”, we find ourselves face to face with the local sheikh. Typical brown robe and a black turban – a descendant of the prophet, on top of that! Yet as at any gallery-opening, wine is served, and Maria gets her fill. Only when she leaves the Hangar to buy some cigarettes does a friendly neighbor tell her to empty the cup – it won’t be appreciated if she passes under the mosque with alcohol in her hands.*

On our way back, a more-than-slightly intoxicated Maria can no longer hide her nervousness, and when once again she thinks we are lost she panics and yells at a boy sitting in front of his cellphone-shop: “Where is the main road?!? How do I get to Ashrafiyeh [the Christian part of Beirut]?!? Tell me!! I need to go to Ashrafiyeh!!!” Lina and I can’t stop laughing. The guy ignores the fear in her voice and just waves towards the end of the road. “There, then left.” Another cigarette and then, finally, “we are out of there”.

---------- *Makes me think of one of my friends who used to live in Dahyeh and regularly had her friends over for a bit of alcoholic entertainment on the balcony. Only after the bombardments of last summer, when their building was completely destroyed, did they find out that one of Nasrallah’s apartments had been right across the street…