Paradise lost

Returning to Tyre after 20 years, Samir El-Youssef finds a diverse city has given way to a sectarian

Reporting from Tyre during this summer's Israeli campaign against Lebanon, John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, lamented the fate of the bombarded city: until recently it had looked, according to him, like the French Riviera. Until the age of 21 I lived only a few miles from Tyre, and for me neither its supposed likeness to Cannes and Nice nor the ancient ruins - Phoenician, Greek and Roman - which surround the old town were what made it special. This Lebanese coastal city had its own unique charm. But when I visited again in May this year, I realised it had been lost. It is a tragedy that happened long before the latest Israeli assault.

For me, as for many Palestinians born and brought up in the refugee camps of southern Lebanon, Tyre was physical proof of the existence of a better life. I first visited in the early 1970s, when my mother took me with her for shopping and to visit relatives. This was my first encounter with city life where, to my amazement, plenty and variety were the norm. Tyre astonished me with its crowded streets and busy markets, its huge modern buildings, cinemas, cafés and bookshops, all extending side by side through the Old City with its long winding alleys that led to the sea and the bustling port.

The exhilarating life of the streets was matched only by the allure of our relatives' homes. Though they were just Palestinians like us - politically and legally speaking, they were refugees - they were nothing like the scruffy lot among whom I lived back in the camp. The way they looked and behaved, the comfort, and - in comparison to our poor homes - the wealth they enjoyed made them unmistakably city people. And this city was hospitable enough to make them feel at home.

Tyre in those days accommodated people of different backgrounds: Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, Lebanese farmers and Palestinian refugees from neighbouring villages and camps. Generations of Lebanese and Palestinians were educated in its schools, enjoyed modern entertainment in its cinemas, theatres and concert halls, and took an interest in politics. There were supporters of left-wing parties and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and also supporters of the Lebanese army and right-wing organisations. Predictably, there was tension, and occasionally clashes occurred between political opponents, but most people were tactful when expressing their opinions. And yet, unfortunately, Tyre, like so many Arab cities, proved unable to survive the politics of the Middle East.

First there were military clashes between the PLO and Israel that culminated in two Israeli invasions, in 1978 and 1982. From the early 1970s until 1982, the PLO was a dominant force in southern Lebanon, which it used as a base to launch rocket attacks against Israel. Then came the civil war of 1975 and ensuing clashes between various local militias, all of which deepened sectarian feeling among the Lebanese, particularly in the Shia community.

The chaos created a rift between the PLO and its left-wing allies, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Shias, who made up the majority of the population in Tyre and the south in general. Believing they had always been victimised, the Shias attempted to strengthen their identity by establishing their own militia, the Amal movement, led by Nabih Berri, the current speaker of the Lebanese parliament.

When Israel drove the PLO out of Lebanon in 1982, Amal was grateful - some of its fighters even volunteered to help the Israeli army in its mission. But even with the PLO gone, Tyre managed to maintain some of its liveliness and diversity. In spite of the ruthless Israeli occupation, those were some of the most fruitful years of my early life. I studied Marxism, hung out with supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party, read books and frequented seaside cafés. A group of us in our late teens used to sit in a café a few feet from fishermen mending their nets and telling tall tales about the huge fishes they had seen at dawn, while we debated left-wing politics, discussing the great service Marx paid to Hegel in turning his philosophy upside down, or whether it was appropriate for committed communists to take Louis Althusser seriously.

The Shia-Israeli honeymoon did not last, however, and life in Tyre became extremely hard. But the worst of it came after the Israeli withdrawal. Amal took over and set about destroying the city's multifaceted identity: supporters of left-wing parties were harassed and arrested, Christians were confined to their quarter, Palestinian civilians were expelled and the surrounding refugee camps were put under siege. In what seemed to be a gradual process of turning Tyre into a purely Shia town, members of Amal, their supporters and their families were encouraged to occupy the properties of those who were compelled to leave.

It is said that in the past decade, no project has gone ahead in Tyre without the consent of Randa Berri, the Speaker's wife. Amal's aim is apparently to ensure that its rival, Hezbollah, gains as little influence as possible in the city. That Hezbollah is the only foil to Amal is little consolation to those who knew Tyre in its heyday of openness and secular politics.

Tyre made me fall in love with city life, but when I visited it a few weeks before the start of the war between Hezbollah and Israel, I felt stifled and couldn't wait to leave. I hadn't seen it for nearly 20 years. Now, on this brief and unhappy visit, I tried to revive memories of childhood and youth, but everything had changed: relatives and friends had left long ago and the fishermen's cafés where we discussed Marx, Hegel and Althusser have turned into the huge cement offices of companies that have seemingly won the blessing of Randa Berri. Tyre has been rebuilt and enlarged in the best modern fashion, but it didn't feel like the French Riviera: rather, it was like one big village, or a sectarian enclave where all the people knew one another, or at least shared the same loyalties and prejudices.

Samir el-Youssef is an award-winning writer based in London

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