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Sometimes, in the evening light, Istanbul feels too eternal to be ruffled by modern politics

Jeremy Bowen's Diary.

I can’t think of many countries other than Lebanon where you can eat and drink in bars that range from Mediterranean elegance to rooftop noise and bling, watch cabaret in a nightclub carved out of a stately old underground cinema and then set out in the morning to explore a conflict that goes back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

That was how I found myself, a little queasy, wishing I’d had more sleep, in the back of a big American car hurtling along the bouncy road that runs north through the Beqaa Valley to Baalbek. I looked through the haze across the border into Syria from outside a Christian village, picking leaves from a rosemary hedge and sniffing them in the hope that they might have some restorative quality.

Down in Syria, a grey slash across the landscape, were the remains of the city of al-Qusayr. It was the rebels’ main hub for smuggling weapons and men from Lebanon into their war. Al-Qusayr fell to the Syrian regime thanks to the intervention of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, enemy of Israel and the United States, and indispensable ally to President Bashar al-Assad and Iran.

Old wounds

The Syrian civil war – and Hezbollah’s unapologetic promise to do more for President Assad, if necessary – is shaking the fault line that divides Shia and Sunni Muslims, which was why I was in the Beqaa. As far away as Bahrain, a government minister told me that people could feel the sectarian trouble in Syria in their own streets and back alleys.

Shias and Sunnis are a bit like Catholics and Protestants, not in their beliefs but because an old dispute has been loaded with centuries of history and sometimes blood. The schism in Islam goes back to a row over the succession after the death of Muhammad in 632. Hezbollah and Iran are Shia; President Assad, like most prominent members of his regime, is an Alawite, a sect that is a Shia offshoot. Most of the rebel fighters in Syria are Sunnis. Some are allied to al-Qaeda.

After the blow Hezbollah inflicted on Syr - ia’s armed opposition, Sunni Arab authorities lined up to condemn Lebanon’s latest fighting export. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia called Hezbollah “loathsome and sectarian” and gave his approval to a call from Qatar by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the bestknown Muslim scholars, for Sunnis to fight a holy war in Syria. This conflict is turning into a proxy war between a Sunni bloc, led by Saudi Arabia and allied to the US, and a Shia bloc, led by Iran.

Storm warning

Not many minutes after we drove away from the statue of the Madonna and Child that looks down on the border with Syria, four men were ambushed and shot dead nearby. They were all Shias and two were from the powerful Jaafar clan. The killing seemed to be retaliation for the death of a prominent Sunni earlier in the month.

I asked a peaceable local man what he thought would happen next. “They’re going to look for Sunnis to kill.” When he went out on an errand, he took two phones and stuck a handgun in the pocket of his trousers. People carry guns in bad times in the Beqaa in the way that others in gentler places carry umbrellas. You never know when and where the storm will come. You just know it’s on the way.

The map of protest

My week started in Istanbul, with the antigovernment protesters in Gezi Park and Taksim Square. In the past few years I have spent quite a bit of time in the main squares of cities dotted around North Africa, the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean: Tahrir Square in Cairo, Green Square in Tripoli, Martyrs’ Square in Beirut and now Taksim in Istanbul.

That, by the way, is where I would stop when it comes to making comparisons between what’s been happening in Turkey and the uprisings and civil commotion that are still sweeping through Arab countries. Turkey’s human rights record is poor. The craven selfcensorship of some of the country’s broadcasters and newspapers shows how much isn’t right here. Turkish democracy has flaws, like Britain’s and America’s. Yet there are elections and laws. When the riot police were tear-gassing their way into Taksim, they made the mistake of violently breaking up a demonstration outside Istanbul’s main court building. They arrested 45 lawyers. As soon as they were in the police station, the lawyers hit their captors with such an array of legal rulings and precedents that the police offered to release them straight away.

That would not have happened in Mub - arak’s Egypt or Gaddafi’s Libya. What has been happening in Istanbul and Ankara is shocking enough for the Turkish people and their friends, but for reporters from the Middle East who spend much of their working lives dealing with men with guns and beards a whole layer of pressure just wasn’t there.

Out of time

In Istanbul, sometimes you get the feeling that the great business of the city goes on whatever the distractions of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s a time lord of a city, regenerating itself, from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul, too eternal to be ruffled by modern politics.

On the night of some of the worst clashes in Taksim, the BBC team was marooned in the building – a bakery – where we had a balcony for live broadcasts. Most of the demonstrators were non-violent but the men from the satellite company wouldn’t unlock the door, because they thought that a group of anarchists who were taking on the police outside might get in to wreck their equipment.

When we eventually emerged in our helmets and gas masks, bank windows had been smashed and cash machines vandalised; the street was clogged with burning barricades, tear gas and smoke. It was like a film set for a dystopian disaster movie. But the next evening, during a lull, I strolled in the fading light to the same street. The rubble had gone; so had the barricades and the broken glass. Restaurants were open and Turks and a few tourists were getting down to the serious business of having dinner.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets at @BowenBBCThe paperback of his book "The Arab Uprisings" will be published on 18 July

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland