Friday, May 09, 2008

Crisis in Beirut (Again)

Things Gone Awry
If things went as planned, I will be blogging this entry from Beirut about about my European trip. Instead I am now blogging from an Istanbul hotel about the unrest in Beirut.

During the transit in Istanbul with Xinyi after my Prague business trip and our 2 weeks vacation in Europe, it was announced that our Beirut bound flight on late Wednesday night was cancelled.

Approaching the Turkish airlines transit desk for more information, we were joined by many others who were also from the same flight. Personnels at the desk explained that Beirut airport was closed because Hezbollah and the Lebanese army started fighting and the airport was blockaded by either one of the factions.

The Lebanese passengers however told a different story. The airport was merely closed due to a strike. As usual, nobody knows the clear situation in Lebanon, even the Lebanese themselves.

After diverting some passengers to limited seats on flights to Jordan and Syria, the remaining passengers were shuttled to a hotel in Istanbul early Thursday morning to try for the late evening flight to Beirut should the airport be opened by then.

As I have the 'highest confidence' in the Lebanese when it comes to resolving political issues, I am sure that the airport will not reopen that soon. It seems like my vacation still hasn't ended and I will be visiting Turkey. Also I had to mentally prepare myself to be out of a living base for a while for the second time.

An Earlier Than Expected Visit To Turkey.
We were already planning to visit Istanbul in May for business and for a short vacation. In fact, we bought a guide book for Turkey in a book sale when we were in Holland. It was strange that we are unexpectedly in Turkey and the book became handy. Was buying the book a premonition?

Thursday was spent visiting various tourist sites in Istanbul by taking advantage of the hotel's good location within Istanbul old city. We admired the awe-inspiring domes of the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), scoured the outskirts of the Aya Sofya museum and park (it was past closing time), shopped for Turkish apple tea and doner (shawarma) at the world's largest covered bazaar (4,400 stores!).

During dinner, it was apparent that things in Beirut don't look so good (heavy street fighting) and the airport will remain closed. Turkish airlines extended our hotel for another night and we will decide alternative travel options the following day.

In the evening, joined by two Dutch men, a German guy and a Lebanese lady, we visited Taksim for drinks. Taksim, in contrast to Istanbul old city, was full of trendy restaurants, chic pubs and modern stores that caters to a vibrant and young Turkish crowd and foreigners. There seem to be no restrictions on public drinking even though the entire population is Muslim.

By Friday noon, it was common knowledge that Beirut is off limits indefinitely. Foreign visitors opted for alternate destinations such as Israel to fly to or return to their home countries. Lebanese passengers chose to fly to Damascus where Turkish airlines will arrange transportation for crossing the border to Lebanon.

I felt that Turkish airlines responded to our cancelled flight situation very professionally and timely. For instance, we were entitled to a good hotel and three meals. However, it would be much more appreciated if the airline management could inform a bit earlier about our options after learning the closure of the Beirut airport.

Situation in Beirut

It seems guilty to be having fun while Lebanon is in crisis and some colleagues were left behind.

Most expatriate colleagues and family in Beirut were being evacuated to Syria when the situation was getting critical in Beirut, some expats and all the Lebanese colleagues remained.

A Columbian colleague contributed on the ground correspondence through sms. He had to spend Thursday night in his favorite Hamra pub with other patrons and staff because gunfire and explosion were going off on the streets. But at least he got free wine.

A Japanese colleague was unable to leave Beirut because his passport has been detained by the authorities for residence permit renewal just prior to the outbreak of violence. The unlucky guy has to live through two nights of street violence.

Eventually, I got information that both of them and all Lebanese colleagues were able to be somewhere safe away from the violence.

I'm not sure how things in Beirut is going to play out. Although the situation in Beirut received some major international attention, it has been downplayed by the cyclon disaster in Burma. Perhaps the world is starting to say to Lebanon that it is time for the Lebanese to solve their own problems instead of depending on others.

Interesting Trivia:
Number of flights cancelling on me: 2 (in France, 2006 and in Turkey, 2008)
Number of times I was lucky to be out of Beirut when the shit hit the fan: 2 (July 2006 and May 2008)
Am I beginning to see a pattern here?

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