Across the Bay

Monday, March 07, 2005

From Brooklyn to Beirut

Lee Smith is on a roll! He just put up the first part of a five-part travel piece on Lebanon that he did for Slate.

I was with Lee in Lebanon during his visit, and so was Josh Landis. We had a blast.

Lee has graciously written a segment on me and Josh (and our friend Elie):

Josh and Tony are an interesting example of the latter. This is the first time they've met, even though they've been debating each other on their excellent Levantine blogs for close to a year now. After Hariri's assassination, Josh's Syria Comment and Tony's Across the Bay became useful and often important clearinghouses of information on Syria and Lebanon. That the former is usually posted from Norman, Okla., and the latter from N.Y.C., is a further indication that authoritarian Arab regimes and their official media outlets are losing their monopoly over describing Arab reality.

For all the good U.S. forces in Iraq have done in rearranging the Middle East's political landscape, Elie argues that the Beirut model is what's making it happen so fast. "Look around," he says. We're walking through the downtown Place de l'Etoile when a group of four totally veiled women hurry by us. "That's the past," Elie says. "Maybe some of these women want to stay veiled, so they'll stay veiled. But you're not going to be able to keep them that way, not now. Television, the satellite stations, movies, Internet, e-mail, mobile phones—the forces going against the old ways are too powerful. It's happening right in front of us, look around.."

We're standing under the big clock downtown surrounded by thousands of young Saudi men and women chatting, laughing with each other, flirting, and trading phone numbers. They're all talking freely here in the cool night air as a Mediterranean wind blows in off the sea, and everything seems so bright right now in the light of their happiness—especially the future.

"That's why they're here in Beirut," Elie says. Me, too.

So even now as the Syrians are trying to sow chaos in Beirut, it is (due to its historic peaceful protests that pressured a government into resigning, but also as the prototype of what Dubai is making itself), and will continue to be, as Elie said "the model." It's still the most liberal city in the Arabophone ME. That's why it's an important piece in the new US policy in the ME.