Hezbollah by Day, Dunkin’ Donuts by Night

BY Arts Desk  January 12, 2009 at 1:01 PM EST

Hezbollah by day and Dunkin’ Donuts by night. And that was just our first 24 hours in Beirut. I didn’t go into the Dunkin’ Donuts shop; I just stared in the window. Wherever we go around the world, the brands follow us, of course, but only a few hours after visiting a Hezbollah office? And after walking the streets of south Beirut where you need the party’s permission to take out a camera? And after listening to the anger — at Israel, certainly, and also at the United States (home to the donuts) — over what’s happening in Gaza?

This is what I like to call an “Only at the NewsHour” trip. It’s not meant as a boast, rather as something that always fills me with some wonder at the opportunity to travel abroad to talk to artists, musicians and writers in places where we typically focus on politicians and generals. A year and a half ago, I visited Israel and the West Bank for a series of conversations with poets and writers. The idea was to view the Mideast conflict through their eyes and words. This trip started with a similar idea: The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is holding a three week Arabesque Arts Festival in February and March in which hundreds of artists from all over the Arab world will come to perform. Our idea: Visit some of these artists in their home countries ahead of time to tell their stories on the NewsHour and offer a glimpse of life in this part of the world.

So, we came for the art — but found the war. We always look for additional stories to tell whenever we have the opportunity to travel like this, but this time we didn’t have to look very hard. The fighting in Gaza is on every tongue and every TV set. (The images are much stronger stuff here than what we see in the United States — another interesting story in its own right). It’s not that the war is here. It’s that, it was here just a few short years ago and could easily be again.

Reminders of the battles of the Middle East are everywhere. Just one example: When I arrived in my hotel room, I immediately went to the window to see what kind of view I had (don’t we all do this?). I was quickly disappointed. Right in front of me is a construction site — a big ugly hole with lots of equipment. Rising many stories next to it is the shell of a building that I assumed was part of the work site. But this isn’t a new building at all. It’s weirdly disfigured, the balconies are bent and broken in all directions, and the interior — I can see right into it — looks charred and destroyed. And those are bullet holes — from big guns — that pockmark the exterior along its entire length. This, it turns out, is the old Holiday Inn, a very grim reminder of the 15-year civil war fought on Beirut’s streets by Muslim and Christian factions and Palestinian refugees, with interventions by both Syria and Israel.

On the plane over I had been reading “Little Mountain,” a short novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury set in 1975-76, the first years of the civil war, which captures the building-to-building, street-to-street fighting. “We were looking for the sea,” one character says. The Holiday Inn, with what must have once been quite a view of the Mediterranean, sits on one of those streets, not accepting guests to this day.

We’ve spent a good part of our time here looking at how the Gaza situation plays out and, to some degree, in the larger Arab world. Our report will air on Monday’s NewsHour, assuming all the technology works. (“Inshallah,” as they say here, “God willing.”) But we’ve also stayed with our original mission as well. We spent much of Sunday with Marcel Khalife, one of the region’s most renowned musicians and composers. More on that later.

Editor’s note: Below is Jeffrey Brown’s report that aired on Monday’s NewsHour.