Lebanon's close proximity to Syria made it a comfortable 3 hour car ride from Damascus to Beirut, and thus irresistable. Yet, modern Lebanon is just as complex as the small sliver of coastline the French carved off Syria as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement during WWI. The question I had in mind while traveling through Lebanon was: What was holding Lebanon together? Lebanon's history of religious conflict is as old as the country itself and what as the religious conflict still simmered in the background from a civil war that ended only in 1990. Countries who've fought civil wars have a 40% chance of relapse in the ensuing 3 years. By the 4th, there chances are pretty good and by about a decade later, the chance of civil war is almost eliminated. Yet, Lebanon has had a rather fragile peace and I wondered what had kept it from imploding all these years. I took off from Damascus to find out

After crossing the border, the first thing I saw was Dunkin Doughnuts merely a stone's throw from passport control. After driving half an hour or so, our driver stopped at a gas station where I received my next shock: an American style gas station! For anyone who's been to Europe, you'll have noticed gas stations here are small, tend not to have as many items as American ones, and sometimes don't even sell food or snacks at all. In Lebanon, they seem to have imported the entire buildings. In addition, American products lined the shelves and there was a small "restaurant" with a few tables. It felt like home. Lebanon is a schizophrenic mix of American, European and Middle Eastern influences like nothing I've ever experienced. My only regret is not purchasing the t-shirt of the late King Fahd (of Saudi Arabia) which I saw in downtown Beirut. Doh!

I saw about as many pictures, posters, stickers and billboards of Hariri in Lebanon as I saw of Assad in Syria. Here's one taken at night while walking home from a fabulous Lebanese restaurant.

Not quite sure what these were referring to. Perhaps the recent assassination? In addition, I saw a number of Hamas and Hizb ut-Tahrir posters scattered throughout the souq.

What was most unsettling in Lebanon was that just as often as you changed neighborhoods or regions, you'd also change political parties. On the way to Tyre in the south, as soon as our rickety old bus got into southern Beirut, Hizballah flags began to appear. Then came Amal whereas on my trip to Byblos and Tripoli, I'd seen Kataeb posters and flags everywhere. The not only visible, but extreme differences between areas does not bode well for Lebanon.

As we neared Tyre, huge billboards of martyrs began to appear as did Hizballah flags and posters of Nisrallah, its leader, holding an AK47. But after seeing such terrorist propaganda, the usual McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut chains popped up bringing with it some return to normalcy. Yet, the entire area is not completely safe, or so the government would have you believe, as I found out when stopped at one of the many military checkpoints on the way to Al-Khiam detention camp in the south. This former prison, now operated by Hizballah, lies within the "newly liberated zone." After visiting a Lebanese military base to seek permission, I found out it took a whopping 8 days to receive and that one has to have a military escort.

Baalbeck is known for two things and they both start with H. Guessed them yet? It's hash and Hizballah. The former seat of Hizballah and the main region for hash production. Though I oddly enough was not offered any hash, as others told me I'd be pestered about, Hizballah flags and posters were indeed omnipresent. What many people don't know about Hizballah and also Amal, is that they are not solely political parties in the western sense. In addition to their political activities, they have many other operations. Hizballah has an armed wing which engages in terrorism yet also a civilian arm which runs hospitals and schools for example. They both also run their own television and radio stations. Imagine if Democrats and Republicans did that. Also, lest I forget, one of the most shocking things was seeing a group of Hizballah boyscouts collecting donations at an intersection in southern Lebanon.

Anyone interested in the Roman history of Baalbeck should visit Wikipedia for more.

A few examples of Hizballah's propaganda:

After my trip to Lebanon, I have to admit I had more questions than answers. In a country suffering from multiple personality disorder, it's hard to see the future. One of the most unfortunate yet telling signs in Lebanon is the coast. Having traveled the entire length of it, I can say I didn't once see an undeveloped area. There's nothing left. What this means is that in a small country where most all of its population lives in urban areas, basic services provided by the state are increasingly important, yet these functions are largely managed by political parties in many areas as I noted with regard to Hizballah for example. If the state can't maintain its grip on these, how soon until its monopoly on violence will give way? Most successful multicultural societies such as the US, Canada and Australia were founded, they didn't develop. If even countries like France can't make it as the recent violence there has shown, what kind of chance does Lebanon have?

Lebanon is still divided along religious and political lines not only mentally, but physically as well. Combine that with rampant unemployment, the wildcard of having so many Palestinian refugees and the divisions of society which remain intact and unsolved, Lebanon doesn't seem to have a bright future. Add to that groups such as Hizballah which not only calls for the destruction of Israel but also aim to overthrow the Lebanese government and replace it with a Shia theocracy, the situation looks especially fragile. However, in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, where religious and political divides again became evident, Lebanon has a new opportunity for the future, yet no means to take advantage of it, or in other words, as a new road into the future opens up, the Lebanese are without any transport.

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