Day 3: Training day one, walking through downtown Beirut

This shwarma business is located in the Hamra section of Beirut. The dish is a sliced meat sandwich where the meat is cooked on massive roasters and rotisseries before being sliced directly onto the bread before being wrapped.
This shwarma business is located in the Hamra section of Beirut. The dish is a sliced meat sandwich where the meat is cooked on massive roasters and rotisseries before being sliced directly onto the bread before being wrapped.

The third day of the conference may have been the most exciting yet. During the actual conference part of my day, I attended two workshops. One, by Sam Houston State University professor of criminal justice Mitchel Roth, Ph.D., who gave a lecture on where to find basic information for a foundation in covering organizations and tribunals like the ICC, ICJ, ICTY, ICTR, STL. Second was a workshop on covering international justice for print media by Malise Simons of the New York Times. I’ve had a chance to talk with her on several occasions and she is a real character. You can easily tell why she is both well liked and well respected. Her workshop was an emotional, heart-felt session where she went beyond the basics of covering a war crime trial. She told us stories that she used to help put a human face and emotion into an otherwise boring or dry topic.

One story she told was of a mother in a small African village who was forced to watch the military cut of the heads of her three children and stuff them into a sack. The military then forced her to march down to a lake and throw the sack full of her children’s heads into the river. Another story was of a father who rescued his son. The military in the town which a father and his son lived forced all of the men to sacrifice one hand to the military (for reasons she did not explain), he gave his left hand. He then begged for his son to be spared, which he was. However, it was in exchange for the father’s remaining hand. Simons went on to describe how the father now says that his son  is his “hands” and that his son is forced to feed him, shower him and aid him in using the bathroom. This session was both chilling but educational. It definitely will aid me not only in the future, but to help me find a human face for my own stories.

After my session with Marlise, I traveled with Robin Johnson, Ph.D., of SHSU; Naythan Murrell of the SHSU Global Center for Journalism and Democracy; and Khalid Abdallah, a photojournalist for CNN and a MCIJ presenter; in addition, a friend of the Samir Kassir Foundation’s director, Ayman Mhanna, was our tour guide as we made our way around downtown Beirut, Beirut’s Central District, and the Hamra area. To be honest, I was scared of being hit by the cars during the entire trip, traffic is totally different in this area. Our guide said, “If you can drive in Lebanon, you can drive anywhere.” I believe it.

He first took us to see the Samir Kassir Square named in honor of the Lebanese journalist who was assassinated in 2005 after speaking in favor of Lebanese democracy. The military presence in the city wasn’t overwhelming but was definitely noticeable, especially when we walked near the SK Square. From there we walked through shops where cafe owners and employees would do their best to get you into their well-priced restaurants targeted at tourists. We made our way to Najme Square where the Lebanese parliament is housed and has a giant Rolex clock tower in the center. The tower was a gift from a Lebanese-Brazilian emissary. Surrounding that clock tower were tourists, locals, cafes, shops, and further down was the Central District’s souks (markets). There I found a book by Samir Kassir on the history of Beirut, which had been recommended to me by three separate individuals, plus I’m a sucker for history books. Once escaping the souk, our group walked by several old buildings, hotels and a cinema that had still not been rebuilt following the Lebanese Civil War. You could still see bullet holes and rocket damage to the building. It was very similar to the holes in the statue located in Martyr Square in the no-man’s-land between the Islamic and Christian areas of Beirut.

Another interesting, and I consider under appreciated relic, are the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. We saw Roman baths on the slopes of Serail Hill, which has the Lebanese Parliament sitting on top. You could still see the water marks and grooves that were cut deep into the stone from where Roman citizens could bathe and get massages and the like. One area had more of a ‘VIP’ area of the Roman baths fitted with an elaborate fountain, smaller baths, and more private areas. The other side was the common areas that had hundreds of stone seats. Interestingly, the seats served a dual purpose not only to give a resting area and place to bathe, but also to create bubbles for the people there. It kind of makes it like an ancient Jacuzzi.

After visiting the Central District and downtown Beirut, we drove to the Hamra area, which is much more affordable than the downtown area that before the civil war was an area for the poor of the city. On the way we saw the are where former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s motorcade blew up in front of the St. George’s Hotel. Very surreal.

Walking through Hamra was also surreal. There were beggars who persistently asked for more and more money no matter how many times you said no, or you didn’t have what they wanted. That was sad. However, the cultural richness the area gave to me was in the atmosphere. This was the area where our group got shwarama, a rotiseri style cooked meat sliced into a wrap. Robin got falafel. All of which was delicious. You may remember shwarama from the final scene in the Avenger’s where they all went to eat after battling.

Once we got back to the hotel it was time to go to the reception at a place I wasn’t told. All of the foreign participants were invited by Ayman to eat, so we all loaded the bus and made our way to a very upscale area of Beirut located near the Argentinian embassy. The building had been converted from a residence to an office building after it was threatened with being demolished and a group of investors swooped in to buy it and preserve the building’s integrity.

During the dinner/reception I had the chance to talk with Khalil, Saalma (a economic development student at Belgrade who is both Egyptian-American and a native of Dallas) and Geraldine Coughlan.

Khalil covers the White House as a photojournalist, so he Saalma and I all talked about our stories of meeting former presidents and it was interesting to hear the different viewpoints of how we all approached the same person. Saalma and I also discussed internships that she has been on, the future of journalism, cable news moving to talk show formats, and her journey to Switzerland. Geraldine is one of the most interesting people I’ve met. She is the director of GCC Media & Law, a group that “reports stories no one else will,” as she said. Her company is based out of the Hague, The Netherlands. Interestingly, she is originally from Ireland, which you can tell from the hint of Irish brogue that is still present in her voice.

In addition to the folks I met at dinner, earlier in the day I ate lunch with Michael Bochenek from Amnesty International where he is the director of a segment of the group that deals with legal issues. He, Naythan and I talked about our families, the work Michael did, the Trevor Project and several other human rights related topics.

Overall, a wonderful day with interesting people.

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