A polite militia

A lot has been said about all the terrible things that happened in West Beirut last week: the burning of a TV station and newspaper office, the shooting up of buildings, the revival of civil war era turf boundaries, the list goes on and on. But few media reports have captured what appears to be a certain chivalry among at least some of the machine-gun toting men that temporarily ruled the capital’s streets. In fact, most were really just boys, and many, aspiring students at the American University of Beirut (pictured above) and other nearby colleges.

The American university is situated in the heart of West Beirut, which during the temporary coup of sorts was largely governed by the Syrian Socialist National Party or SSNP. (The party’s black and red flag is still visible in the image above, perched on a light post just above the center stone arch known as Main Gate).

The flag is intimidating enough–students and faculty are forced to pass under it on their way to and from class each day–but by many accounts, the party’s members are not. Three reliable sources have described their experiences to me and I have personally dealt with the militants once myself during a rather animated exchange at a checkpoint. Here is a brief summary:

The first source is an American professor at AUB who was temporarily detained by the armed men after taking photographs of them during a lull in the shooting. “They were polite,” he told me. “One of them described himself as a dental student.” The professor said the boys had pulled him aside and asked why he was taking the photos. When he replied by saying that pictures of the militants were all over the news and the internet, the boys were stunned: “It was news to them,” the professor said with a grin. The boys then asked him to delete any photos revealing their faces but assured him that he could keep all other photos. “They looked more scarred than me,” he said. “They were tired. They just wanted to go home,” he added.

A similar story was told by a friend who works for a major international organization. She had been dying to take a photo of one of the SSNP flags that was recently hung outside her house, but was too intimidated to do so due the presence of armed men constantly congregating around it. Finally, all was clear one morning and she went out to snap a picture. A few moments later she found herself surrounded by six men with scarves covering their faces. However her fears quickly evaporated when one spoke. “He was very well-mannered,” she said, blushing slightly as she admitted he had ‘nice eyes’ and a soothing voice. Again, the militants only asked to see if the photos revealed faces. “We don’t want to delete any other pictures you’ve taken,” they told her, then added warmly: “We are very sorry to have bothered you.”

My third account comes from another AUB professor, who enjoys his drink so much that he drove halfway across town late one night in search of an open bar, despite fresh gun battles. After having digested the fact that he was not joking about his desire to cross over to East Beirut for a glass of whiskey, three armed young men on scooters cordially advised him on a route around their checkpoint. It involved driving the wrong way down a one-way tunnel, they said, advising the use of hazard lights and honking.

Finally, my story. As I was driving home one night, I took a short cut through a West Beirut neighborhood. To my surprise, a narrow street that stood between me and my apartment was suddenly barricaded on both ends, a distance of less than 100 meters. Suddenly I was approached by a man in black with a walkie talkie. Before I could get a word out, he motioned to a couple of others who began pushing the plastic barricade out of the way. I sheepishly drove forward noticing a group of black-clad men seated in plastic chairs on my left starring as my car passed. A moment later, I pulled up to the next barricade at the opposite end of the block but this time the two men manning it scowled. At first they refused to make passage but suddenly the man at the other end of the road yelled out in Arabic “open it, let him through”, and hesitantly, they began pushing barricades. I couldn’t help but ask. I lowered my window and said: “Is this a new checkpoint?” An affable young man in his early twenties replied: “No, we’ve been here since the beginning–but we always let people pass who live in the area.” But, how did you know I live here, I countered. He produced a broad ‘i have my sources’ smile. “Good people are always apparent,” he said, with a slight wink.

I still wonder whether the men had actually kept tabs on my car, which I usually park on the street, or whether they were impressed by my beard, which had become quite thick during the week of street violence. In either case, they seemed rather trustworthy and decent, much to the contrast of their portrayals in the media.

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