The bus out of Damascus is dirty. The windows are smeared and little children are sleeping along the floor. A Syrian petrol-pump mechanic is trying to practice his English. “Welcome. Now Leban-non. Leba-non. Good country.” But I feel nothing but thick-sweat and back-ache as we draw up at the border.
There is thick dust on the road. Five lanes are filled with taxis, trucks and banged-up ‘70s cars, each being inspected by the Syrian border guards. I am beginning to see that a militarised society isn’t a concept – it means gruff and unshaven guys, our age, everywhere and armed. But that isn’t the menacing thing about Syria – mostly conscripts just sit around and chain-smoke on the street corners. It’s the posters that get you.
I count six placards of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad stuck to the lampposts. There are different types, of course. His favourite appears to be ‘Bashar – businessman.’ Sharp-suited, wearing a beautiful black tie and a stern look. He could almost be a behind-the-times French Lawyer. But there’s also ‘Bashar sportsmen’ – where the leader is smiling, fist-forward and wearing gold-rimmed aviators. You can’t move fives minutes in this country without him looking at you.
I shuffle with the bus-passengers, a hijabbed and bearded crowd of stress, into the passport control. On the door of the hall a faded poster of Bashar al-Assad looking rather grumpy reads. ‘I believe in Syria.’ I’m not sure Syria is something you can ‘believe in’.
The hall is filled with scenes I thought only existed in old-movies. Twelve fans rotate ominously above. Clumps of shepherds wearing dish-dashes and red-kaiffyahs, the ones you see as passé fashion items back home, are being inspected. Khaki-officers are leading a turbaned man into a plastic see-through booth for questioning. Lines of badly dressed men, mostly wearing lumber-jack shirts for some reason, are queuing in the line for ‘Syrians.’ Next to it a group of Saudis are waiting in line under a sign that says ‘Arabs.’ Immaculate white-dresses. Like a priesthood of pure money, clutching the keys to their SUVs. The box for foreigners is closed. So I move to the sign that says ‘Diplamats.’ There are eight pictures of al-Assad, one for each wall. And a small one of his dad.
A bald man in epaulettes stamps my passport while an over-made up woman with blue eye-liner writes my details down in biro. Formalities finished we climb back into the bus and pull through the gates. The vehicle dips through a water-pit, then gets knocked on by some troopers. That appears to be it. I can see the Lebanese Cedar flag.
I notice a man actually sigh with relief as we leave the Ba’athist Dictatorship. But the first sign of change can be read in the faces stuck to the walls. A nervous looking General, with big bags under his eyes, is plastered about everywhere. Sometimes alongside the Hezbollah leader, turbaned and open-mouthed – the famous Hassan Nasrallah. Along the road to Beirut the pictures keep changing as we climb into the mountains. In some ways this is actually more stressful than being constantly glared at by one man. Some villages are covered in posters of a bald man with a thin moustache wearing a wooden cross. Others are adorned with the pictures of a white-haired man with a fat dyed-black moustache alongside what can only be his son. This is how you read the sectarian divisions of Lebanon. There is no clear racial divide between the sects, or even for the most part in how they dress. But the faces and the graffiti tell you who owns what.
An hour later the bus pulls above the capital. I get it in an instant. My eyes are bulging. Dozens of skyscrapers, at least six more than in Tel Aviv. The city curves into the sea, surrounded by wealthy suburbs that could belong in either Athens or Naples. A city of Western buildings and Arab façades. You can feel the money – this is a prize worth fighting for and it’s not what I imagined. This is Beirut.