BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 28—Last Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting in a café in Hamra, the traditionally Muslim neighborhood in West Beirut, wondering why my cell phone had stopped working. There were plenty of units left in my Lebanese pay-as-you-go account and I’d charged the handset recently, yet each attempt to make a call or to send a text produced an exclamation point and an angry-looking error message on its greenish, pixelated screen.
I set the phone down and ordered a cup of tea. It was brought not by my usual waitress, but by the café’s owner, who wore a grim expression, introduced himself hurriedly as Raed, and—to my great surprise—pulled a chair up next to mine and sat down.
“Excuse me for bothering you, but I can tell you’re not from Beirut, and you may not know what has just happened.”
I certainly didn’t know, but felt—as one always feels in Beirut—that the news couldn’t possibly be good.
“Pierre Gemayel has been shot, in the middle of the day. Can you imagine? I recommend that you go home and stay there. It will be hours before your phone works again—the government turns off the mobile-phone service on these occasions. The important thing is to get straight home. This will mean war, you know.”
I can be a bit slow on the uptake where political topics are concerned, but discussing politics with a Beiruti always makes me feel especially dull-witted. Politics in Lebanon is often a life-or-death matter, and so naturally everyone takes a keen interest. Childhood nights crouched in bomb shelters, gauging whether the rockets were incoming or outgoing and decades spent following alliances and assassinations in Lebanon’s prominent families have a way of honing native political intelligence to a very fine edge.
I made a clumsy attempt to piece together the implications of this news, as the Lebanese do so instinctively and immediately. Pierre Gemayel was a government minister, I knew, but already that seemed beside the point. Gemayel was from one of the country’s important Maronite families, the grandson of the founder of the right-wing Christian militia, the Phalange. This meant that he was a symbol of Christian power in Lebanon, which meant that his enemies were many, which meant that those wanting him dead could be … well, almost anyone, really.
I turned to Raed. “Who do you think would have the most to gain from Gemayel’s death?”
Raed shrugged. “Almost anyone, really. The point is that our government is being destroyed. This is nearly on the level of the Hariri assassination. This will almost certainly mean civil war. He was shot, can you imagine?”
Pierre Gemayel was shot. It took me another hour and several more conversations with Lebanese friends to grasp the import of this fact. Here in Beirut, arranging a car bombing is seen as a relatively easy way to murder an enemy. But shooting a man on a crowded street in the middle of a sunny afternoon?
That takes daring. That telegraphs insouciance, power wielded in complete confidence. The message to Lebanon’s frail, Western-backed ruling coalition couldn’t have been clearer: You are no longer in control.
Beirut is a diverse and profoundly class-ridden city; the newcomer feels it immediately. But in peacetime, these things seem not to matter. The people seem cheerful, almost supernaturally exuberant. They enjoy watching each other and parsing the differences among them, the small matters that divide neighborhoods and religious groups. The things they mention usually sound to my ear like harmless snobberies, but I wonder how the city would feel if battle lines were drawn as they once were, during the long civil war, when individual neighborhoods became strongholds.
Beirut in the fall smells precisely like Paris in a damp June—there’s an ineffable, very French smell of motor oil and detergents, butchers’ shops and cigarettes. It smells European and yet looks unmistakably Middle Eastern. For all its diversity, it is a very compact city, and I walk almost everywhere. It takes me about 20 minutes to get from my apartment in western Beirut to Martyr’s Square downtown, where the big demonstrations are always held. It takes no more than a half hour to walk over to friends’ apartments in Achrafieh, the predominantly Christian eastern Beirut neighborhood.
It’s fun examining the differences between the neighborhoods, which up till now have seemed matters of mere sociological interest, often sweetly comical and occasionally sad.
Bourj Hammoud is an image of the striving, jovial Armenian jewelers who fixed my watch. Hamra is the saj bread seller who always corrects my accent in Arabic so that I “don’t have to sound like a Syrian.”
Haret Hreik—or “Hezbollah Central,” as my friend Andrew calls it—brings to mind a certain very enthusiastic taxi driver who took me on a tour of the piles of rubble that were the result of multiple Israeli bombing raids; in the garbage that had collected on the site of one destroyed building, I noticed a Pekingese looking aristocratic and improbably clean as it trotted around among the boulders of smashed concrete.
And then there’s Achrafieh, which in its self-regard and Francophilic pretensions is Beirut’s greatest gift to the amateur sociologist in search of amusement. The image of Achrafieh that sticks most in my mind is of a young housewife I once saw, impeccably coiffed and chatting gaily on her cell phone as she walked out of the Monoprix grocery store. A tiny, elderly Filipina maid trudged a few paces behind her with the goods; the maid’s dress—blue gingham with a lace-trimmed white apron—looked weirdly girlish framed by those stringy brown arms and wizened face. I had briefly mistaken the maid for the woman’s child, the gingham for a summer-school uniform.
Whether the Gemayel assassination will turn out to have been the opening salvo in a renewed civil war remains to be seen, of course. But more than half of the Lebanese people I speak to in an average day seem to think so, and since Lebanon is widely seen as the canary in the mine of the greater Middle East—regional countries from Iran to Syria to Saudi Arabia all have political interests in Lebanon, and the collapse of the government in Lebanon will have implications far beyond its borders—this is very bad news for the region as a whole.
Marwan, who runs the shop where I usually buy my lunchtime sandwiches, asks me to correct his English.
“I don’t give a shit about this government we have now—there is a nicer way to say that, isn’t there?”
“You could say ‘I don’t care about this government.’”
“Oh, yes—all my English is from the movies. I mean, I don’t care about this government—but the problem is that if Lebanon falls now, we maybe take all the rest of the Middle East down with us.”
Katherine Zoepf is working on a book about young women in the Middle East for the Penguin Press.