On February 14, 2005, a truck bomb filled with one ton of TNT ripped through the armored motorcade of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Soldiers and policemen gathered around the enormous crater the bomb blasted out of the road. Rescuers dragged charred bodies from flaming cars. On Future TV, the anchor wept as she announced that Hariri, the billionaire businessman who owned the television station, was dead. Angry crowds gathered at Hariri's mansion, just up the street from where I lived, chanting anti-Syrian slogans. Outside the hospital where the victims were taken, women rocked and sobbed and held one another.
Just hours after the killing, opposition politicians gathered at Hariri's house and drafted a statement accusing the Syrian regime and Lebanon's reigning pro-Syrian government of his murder. Hariri had never officially joined the opposition, but he was planning to run an independent slate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and opposition politicians believed the Syrian regime killed him in order to prevent him from challenging its rule over Lebanon.
A week after the assassination, Hariri's supporters called for a massive demonstration. No party banners, instructed party leaders, only the Lebanese flag. Employees of global advertising agencies unveiled a brand: a red-and-white color scheme and the word "Independence" in English, Arabic, and French. Thousands of protesters marched toward downtown holding signs: STOP SYRIA. SYRIA OUT. TRUTH, FREEDOM, INDEPENDENCE. One massive sign said simply, in giant block letters: HELP. Once the demonstrators arrived in Martyrs' Square, they set up a tent city and vowed to remain until the government fell and Syrian troops left Lebanon.
For the next few months, downtown Beirut hosted something between a wake and a rave. Money, posters, flags, and food flowed in from political parties. Teenagers pounded tent stakes into the earth. Middle-aged men wearing bespoke suits walked around clutching bags from Patchi, the upscale chocolatier, and passing out flagpoles. At night, singers and emcees would shout slogans from a giant stage. Hundreds of people strolled up and down, mostly young girls and boys dressed in their best, strutting and preening like joyful, revolutionary mall rats. The Lebanese called this peaceful uprising the independence intifada. The Bush administration declared it the "cedar revolution." American pundits proclaimed it proof that the Iraq war had been worthwhile: the January 2005 Iraqi elections had awakened an "Arab spring," a wave of democracy that would sweep through the region, starting with Beirut.
My husband Mohamad and I spent most of our nights downtown that spring. Dinner downtown became a ritual: We would eat dinner at Al-Balad, a restaurant just off Sahat al-Nijmeh that served Lebanese country food, and then walk around talking to the young people that filled the square. They were thrilled to be part of a mass movement; they spoke eagerly of throwing off years of humiliating Syrian rule. Most of them believed that once the Syrians left, all of Lebanon's economic and political problems would leave with them.
By now, after being based in Lebanon for about a year and half, I was beginning to see the deep vein of depression that ran through Beirut. You felt it even among those young enough to have missed most of the country's 1975-1990 civil war. Lebanon was particularly cruel to its young: About a third of college-educated Lebanese had to migrate abroad to find salaries that matched their qualifications and the high cost of living in their own country. The income from Lebanese working abroad made up almost a quarter of Lebanon's GDP. But the young people who were forced to leave their own country in order to keep its economy afloat were not even allowed to vote from abroad. Zuhair al-Jezairy, an Iraqi journalist who spent part of his own exile in Lebanon, described it mournfully as "not so much a country for its children as a staging post for their future exile."
If we spent our dinners downtown, among the flags and banners of the young revolutionaries, weekend lunches were a different ritual. Every weekend, Mohamad and I went to visit his parents, Umm and Abu Hassane, for a homecooked meal. They lived in dahiyeh, a 15-minute drive (on a good day) and a world apart from Martyrs' Square.