Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat-Reporting from Beirut these days is anything but easy. The current Israeli reprisals for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers have rendered an already complicated place to become even more difficult.
Prior to the present crisis in Lebanon, traveling around Beirut was challenging enough. With only a few citizens referring to streets by their names, and no apparent numbers on buildings, reaching one’s destination involved a journey full of stops to ask for directions.
Today, this process has been made even more difficult for foreign journalists who are new to the city. With bilingual drivers scarce, and the increasing fear of more attacks, moving around is becoming progressively difficult each day.
As a resident of Beirut for two years, the foreign press contacts me to answer its numerous questions. From print to visual media, my contact details have become widespread and I am asked about coordinators, bilingual drivers and prices.
Prices, however, are on the rise. The cost of communal taxis has doubled. Yesterday, hiring a taxi to stay with me for an hour cost $15 (US), in comparison to two weeks ago when I would have paid $7 after negotiating for the same journey.
In one area, near the southern neighborhood of Dahiyeh that has been shelled everyday by the Israelis, sugar that used to cost 60 cents per kilo now cost $3.35. Cigarettes and bread are a third more expensive, whilst meat and chicken is hard to find.
As I rushed off with my crew to film evacuees, we briefly stopped for food and falafel was the plat du jour.
However, not only are shortages affecting prices and availability, foreign journalists are also having difficulty in accessing American dollars.
Next to the ATM outside HSBC bank in Hamra, is a sign that reads, “No US dollars available”. In some of Beirut’s banks, there are dollars; however, Bank of Beirut is only dispensing American dollars in small amounts.
Communications is another problem area. Residents have been unable to set up monthly phone lines for their mobile phones and can only use the top-up services, the SIM card for which costs approximately $100 and increases in price during the summer season.
As a producer for an American network, calling cards are essential to contact associates. The average cost of the cards that I use on a daily basis is $120. The increase in prices from $53 to $61 per card does not only cause problems for journalists for whom communication with others abroad is essential, but also for local residents who have become impoverished by the situation.
Besides the issue of logistics, there is another important factor to consider, namely the consistency of getting stories, in a country that has an extremely complicated geo-political and cultural history.
Since living in Beirut for two years both working and completing a Masters degree in Middle Eastern affairs and Arabic, journalists have called me to answer their queries. I debriefed Anton from the Russian edition of Newsweek, who having recently finished a story on Chechnya, flew to Beirut to report on this crisis. How does one begin to explain this place to newcomers?
Lebanon is not only a complicated place to get around physically, but its political map is even more complicated. Without understanding the subtleties of the system, the risk of running black and white statements can lead to erroneous reporting.
Lebanon is like a nerve for the Middle East. Not only does the diversity of the sectarian communities that also integrate through inter-marriage reflect a complex system of allegiances, so too does the international backing of the various communities. Who supports who affects the scene of Lebanon.
On the ground, not every Shiaa supports Hezbollah and not all Lebanese supported the escalation with Israel. In reflection of Lebanon’s diversity, there is a multitude of opinions of the current crisis. Civilians are affected by the events, and their livelihoods and their country are at stake. Nevertheless, as the shortage of resources increases, as one refugee in Beirut explained, “I wouldn’t mind fighting and becoming a Mujahid in the fight against Israel”.
Opinions however vary, which makes it difficult for journalists to assess the editorial make up of their articles. As they stroll from place to place talking to the people, one can see that the best approach would be to talk to as many citizens as possible to comprehend the level of differences in opinion.
For others, such as an Arab producer for an American network who knows the region viscerally, he explained that as he listened to refugees talk about their situations, “I have been very affected as these are my people. I know this story well and it is very important”.
In conclusion, the situation is complex and quickly changing. The blockades and Israeli bombardment on trucks from Syria containing supplies will only make life for both civilians and journalists more difficult.