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We turned on to Hamra Street, which although a little faded these days - and like much of the city, a victim of grey modern architecture - is still the smartest stretch of West Beirut and one of the most cosmopolitan and least sectarian areas of the whole city. Totten, who knows the city well, had promised us we would quickly find good coffee and places to buy a shirt and shoes.

He was in the middle of explaining how in May 2008 West Beirut had been taken over for several days by Hizbollah gunmen and their allies, when we came upon a signpost showing a red swastika-like device and a photograph of a man with a moustache.


The sign that started all the trouble

Totten explained that the red device was the symbol of the "Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party", whose cadres had fought alongside Hizbollah in May. Hitchens knew something of the SSNP - which is Lebanese despite its name-from his visits to Lebanon during the civil war (it was the SSNP who assassinated President Bashir Gemayel in 1982). Totten said that during the May 2008 takeover of West Beirut, the SSNP's masked gunmen had hung its black, white and red banners all along Hamra Street, while their comrades burned a nearby pro-government TV station. Though a small party-cum-militia with only a few hundred members, the SSNP has an intimidating reputation, and even six months after the takeover the local people - who are mostly middle-class Sunnis with little sympathy for the Shia Hizbollah and its allies - had been too frightened to remove the flags. "They only came down when the Prime Minister ordered it himself," Totten explained.

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