On a hilltop overlooking informal settlements near El Kaa in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
I’ve come to believe that drivers in Beirut are all in on a giant game of Chicken that the rest of the world hasn’t really caught onto yet. Just how close can one get to the other drivers on the road before a vehicular accident is inevitable? Or worse, scratch the paint on the Mercedes.
Cars bob-and-weave through uneven lines of traffic at stressful speeds, getting close enough to pudgy delivery drivers to watch their rolls bounce with the tut-tut-tut
of their rickety mopeds. Traffic lanes are painted on the asphalt but are entirely invisible to the average Lebanese motorist. My cousin, a true Beiruti to his core, rocks his steering wheel back and forth within centimeters of oncoming drivers if he feels I’m falling asleep in the car. The Lebanese, not unlike the very pulse of the country itself, are determined to keep you on your toes.
I’m in Beirut filming for my master’s project on the Syrian border and have found that, as a student journalist on her own, reporting in the Middle East for the first time entails a similar chaos to be found on Beiruti freeways. Plans and expectations, no matter how many or how well laid out, are often followed through about as well as Beirut’s fading white traffic lines.
A young boy plays around at an old high school now functioning as a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon.
My third day in Lebanon I travel to Baalbek, a town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut to gather footage from refugee camps in the area. The Lebanese government does not allow for the foundation of formal refugee camps, a paranoia still seething in the wake of Palestinian camps-turned-cities in Beirut and beyond. The valley is dotted with tent villages of all sizes, many set between open agricultural fields.
My fixer, a local videojournalist, agrees to take me to the Syrian border near Arsal, where we surreptitiously set up my virtual reality camera out of range of the military presence at the border gate. Every so often my fixer will take out his own credentials and “film” the street to deflect attention from the blinking Freedom360 rig we’ve set up facing the barbed wire concrete wall from the median a block down. After a few minutes, I hurriedly set up the camera from another angle across the busy street, praying to the journalism gods that I can stow away all of my equipment in the SUV before a guy in uniform shows up.
A ten minute drive from the border takes us to a camp in El Kaa, an informal tent village baking in blazing Bekaa sun, surrounded by Lebanese fields to the west and Syrian mountains to the east. Children, playing barefoot in the dirt, spot my cameras and begin following closely at my heels. One boy in a striped polo and munching on biscuits observes me synchronizing my 360 camera and quickly memorizes the steps, pointing at each GoPro as I turn them on, just in case I miss one. An invaluable camera assistant for the day.
I take a moment of hesitation to consider my next few shots, long enough for a young man to come bounding up the dirt road from the entrance to the camp. He gestures to my cameras and begins speaking to my companions in Arabic. My translator turns to me and says “Let’s go.”
Frustrated and slightly concerned, I shove both of my tripods in the car, cameras still on from the last shot. I am told as we exit that the informal camp “chief,” or shaweesh
as they are called here, has been watching us from his perch on a nearby hill and has requested the pleasure of our presence. We declined.
Going through footage back in Beirut a day later, away from shaweesh
threats, border guards, and impatient fixers, I take a moment and decompress. Some of my interviews are just a hair too dark, some b-roll just a little shaky, and I’m pretty sure you can see my feet in at least one 360 shot. I resist the urge to hurl myself into the Mediterranean while I peruse my photos and replay the long tape of expectations and shortcomings I had in my head before heading to the Bekaa.
Three boys living in an informal refugee settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
A few more scrolls and deep breaths later, relief sets in.
From the last camp, three boys pose for a picture, full of pent up energy and curiosity. In another frame, a group of women sit beside each other outside a small market, lined up to be mic'ed and interviewed. Still one more shows a string of drying laundry and a playful kid at the end of the hall, his gleeful grin obvious even out of focus.
Despite all the missteps, close calls, and missed opportunities, my latest trip to the Middle East proved invaluable in ways that I'm still rediscovering miles away back in my own desert. Perhaps the most profound of which is the trust given to me by the many people I met along the way to tell their stories. I am eternally grateful for their time and patience.
For young international journalists, I would advise constant preparedness without the burden of well-laid plans. Be ready and open for anything to the best of your ability, but don't rely heavily on expectations. Give yourself plenty of time, always say "yes" within reason, and always check your equipment before heading out. Most importantly, make sure the people and their stories remain your constant guide and purpose, that above all
will keep your work moving forward.
And Beirut driving does not translate well back home in the States. Trust me.
A group of Syrian children at an informal settlement near Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.