Monday, 31 October 2016

Former General's homecoming: the band plays on

As Michel Aoun becomes President of Lebanon, my Eyewitness sketch of his homecoming to Beirut in 2005, after 15 years of exile in France - first published in The Daily Star on May 9 2005.

By Michael Glackin
Beirut -- Eyewitness
The assembled members of the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan brass band stood resplendent beside the podium in their uniforms. Their ages looked to range from 17 to 70, and they were occasionally guilty of the odd bum note. But what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume, particularly if, as I was, you were standing right in front of them beside the stage.
Like the thousands of others gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band had come to welcome home Aoun, Lebanon's prince-across-the-water, and to his followers as near a messiah as you can get in politics.
Most of the overwhelmingly young and largely Christian crowd gathered in the square would barely have been school age when the man his opponents dub "Napol-Aoun" was airlifted to safety out of Beirut by the French government, to a long exile in Paris.
The Martyrs' Square statue, which by now must be the most-climbed structure outside the Himalayas, had a huge photograph of the former general in his military uniform hoisted to the top of it and, as always happens on these occasions, was bedecked in Lebanese flags.
The Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band, which in addition to its trumpets and drums is also the proud owner of the largest Lebanese flag I have ever seen, tried hard to compete with the appearance of a loud thudding beat booming from giant speakers on the stage. But at the first sighting of Aoun's motorcade approaching the square, the crowd went wild, which also unleashed a fresh enthusiasm in the band that heartily banged and blew new life into their instruments.
Suddenly the music stopped. The crowd chanted Aoun's name and Martyrs' Square caught sight of the general for the first time in 15 years as he appeared from backstage. My new-found friends in the band struck up another loud tune before finally giving in to the power of the speakers, which were by now playing the national anthem at a level that could probably be heard in Damascus.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a bullet-proof screen the former general, who cut such a dashing figure as a uniformed commander during the 1980s, looked more like a chubby middle-class businessman. Luckily none of his allies on stage tried to hoist him on their shoulders as his army colleagues used to do in the old days.
Oddly enough, when Aoun finished his speech it was met with polite applause rather than the rapturous cheering that preceded it. The gathered masses got more enthusiastic after their hero left the stage, dancing to more loud music blasting out from the stage. At that point my friends in the band gave up the ghost and downed their instruments to have a cigarette. "We go home for a drink now," they told me. "He's back and we were here to greet him. That is all that matters." It was indeed.

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