Reporters are incommunicado, but not due to Y2K

It was the best indicator of whether the so-called Year 2000 bug would hit our millennium destination: Would cellular phones ring in the New Year, too?

5 min read
BEIRUT, Lebanon--It was the best indicator of whether the so-called Year 2000 bug would hit our millennium destination: Would cellular phones ring in the New Year, too?

Seconds before we welcomed the New Year to the Arab rendition of "Jingle Bells," and seven hours before the clock would strike midnight on the East Coast of the United States, we braced ourselves for darkness and potential chaos.

Would the sparkling lights along the coast of Jounieh suddenly extinguish? But in a country that has survived more than 15 years of civil war, a blackout is nothing new. Instead, we focused on the half-dozen cellular phones scattered across our banquet table amid the plates of local cuisine, including hummus, pita and the occasional platter of lamb brains.

It seems that everyone in Beirut, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, has a cellular phone. Our American host explained that the war that ended less than a decade ago had destroyed most of the telecommunications infrastructure in Lebanon. Many apartment buildings don't even have a phone jack.

Wireless networks, however, have found a home in Beirut. It isn't uncommon to spot a man riding his scooter down the freeway, one hand on the handle bar and the other holding a mobile phone. What first started off as a status symbol, locals say, has turned into a necessity--and an expensive one. One university student told us he pays $60 for only two hours of service.

"People won't eat, but they'll have a cell phone," he said.

It's safe to say that wireless phones are the most prominent piece of high-tech gadgetry in this city. There are a few Net cafes, and some offer Net telephony services for about $4 an hour. Microsoft even staffs a small office here. Yet not many people have a personal computer. So it's easy to understand that two minutes before midnight, while our friends danced, sang and clapped, we kept our eyes peeled on the phones.

Despite a suffering economy and a protracted conflict with Lebanon's southern neighbor, Israel, people here have a zest for life and celebration that we have hardly seen elsewhere. For the more than 300 revelers in the restaurant with us, worrying about a computer glitch was no doubt low on the list.

Then it happened. Cheers and kissing, dancing and more drinking--all under the comforting glare of the restaurant's lights. A clever young woman at our table almost immediately grabbed her parents' mobile phone to call her aunt, who was sitting right next to her with her own cell phone. At first, at least one phone seemed to be on the fritz.

"It's the beginning of Y2K!" our American friend quipped. Then the tech-savvy journalist, who lives and works in Beirut, tried her own cell phone. She called her boyfriend, who paid no attention and continued to down arak, the national anise-flavored drink. The call went through. A few minutes later, the phone belonging to the girl's aunt chirped, too. In fact, people throughout the place were gabbing on their mobiles, wishing relatives near and far a happy New Year.

To note, the lights did go out about an hour into the New Year. Although the outage was likely not Y2K-related, most of us laughed nervously until the lights came back on a few minutes later. Driving home, lights shone from a handful of office windows in the city's utility building. Outrageous holiday decorations that adorned the Libon Cell building still glowed red and green.

At 4:15 a.m., when we stumbled into our friend's apartment (embarrassingly early for Beirut), we felt secure that Y2K had likely left Lebanon unscathed.

The trouble didn't start until we woke up at 9 a.m. with a two-part mission: To make sure our trusty East Coast bureau chief was alive, well and online, and to try to file this story before the bug possibly hit our office and loved ones in California.

Net cafes were closed, and our friend's cell phone doesn't make international calls. We tried a local pay phone at a grocery store to no avail. A man there pointed us to the Ministry of Tourism.

In what seemed like an underground parking garage, a dingy, smoke-filled room held three phone booths. The keeper of the phones asked us brusquely for the numbers we wanted to dial, then patched us into one of the three glass booths. We tried our editor's cell phone and home number first, but no answer. Unfortunately, we didn't have numbers to the news office in Boston.

We were incommunicado because of human error, not because of some computer bug or faulty phone network.

Our journey for a line out of Beirut led us through the streets for at least two miles, inquiring--in bungled French and if we were lucky, English--if anyone knew where we could find a Net cafe open on New Year's Day.

After wandering sleepy streets, we spotted a storefront that sported a Lebanese URL. The guy there told us he had shut down his computer for the past two days to avoid what he called "that thing."

We kept moving, when we spied what has become a trusty sign of American culture: Starbucks.

Starbucks didn't have a Net connection, but it did have the same "grande nonfat latte" one of us has come to depend on. We didn't come for the coffee, however. A very pleasant cashier gave us the most accurate directions so far to an Internet computer center, which happened to be called "Friendship."

So an hour after the New Year struck in our home town, we finally found a connection to the outside world. We have no idea how much we are paying for this access, but we plan to expense it. What we do know by now is that life has gone on here and around the world without much distress stemming from the Y2K bug. The lights are on, airplanes are still in the sky, and ATMs and credit cards are still keeping track of our spending for the New Year.

Guess we will have to pay for this trip after all.