Darkness Falls on Beirut

Does anyone else have trouble grasping, at first, the magnitude of tragedies? I’m not sure if it’s distractedness, self-absorption, or optimism, but the realization that things have gone terribly awry always takes a while to sink in for me. I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around what is happening in Lebanon. Maybe it’s because in the Middle East violence has been so recurrent these last years — no day seems to go by unpunctuated by car-bombs, suicide-attacks, civilians turned into “collateral damage,” acts of police brutality…

Of course the news that Hezbollah had killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two, and that Israel had retaliated by bombing and blockading Lebanon, was instantly troubling. But it took a few days for it to dawn on me just how monumental, how devastating, how insane the damage was.

And then — as the bombs continued to fall, day after day — to wonder why nothing was being done to stop this. I’ve had my share of surreal moments, working as a journalist in Cairo; I’ve seen my share of cynicism and cruelty. But that the entire international community should draw up ring-side seats to the systematic killing and terrifying of tens of thousands of civilians, only proffering a few polite murmurs of disapproval — this was hallucinatory.

I certainly don’t defend Hizbullah (although asking any questions about collective punishment, as veteran reporter Helen Thomas did at a White House briefing last week, apparently makes you a supporter of Hizbullah. I don’t want to argue Israel’s right to defend itself. But certainly a more measured and humane response against Hizbullah was possible. Certainly pounding an entire country to rubble does not seem like self-defense, or even just retaliation.

Hizbullah, which comprises Southern Lebanese Shia Muslims and was formed as a national resistance movement, wouldn’t exist if Israel hadn’t occupied Lebanon for 18 years (as Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister, admitted recently to Newsweek). The Lebanese government was not responsible for Hizbullah’s attack and has never been capable of controlling the militant group (although it had been trying to transform Hizbullah into a political group rather than a military one). And most importantly, of the over 400 Lebanese who have been killed thus far, and the half a million driven from their homes, almost none are Hizbullah militants. They’re civilians, and what’s been done to them is a crime against humanity.

What I find staggering is the sheer mean-spiritedness, the historical callousness, of demolishing a country that has just valiantly clawed its way out of a devastating civil war. I can’t help thinking of friends and artists I know who live in Beirut, of how attached they are to its fragile freedoms, of the love they feel for their bruised city. Before and after Lebanon’s decade-long civil war (and even during), the country has always been a center of art and culture, of poetry and music — above all, it’s always been a beacon of improbably beauty.

This summer, Fayrouz — the legendary Lebanese singer who more than any other artist has become a symbol of the country’s resilience against the ugliness of war — was scheduled to sing at the Baalbek festival. It would have been a triumphant assertion of the country’s return to peace.

Rally in Troy, Michigan

I was in Beirut myself for a few weeks in the summer of 2004. It looked to me like a sprawling Southern Italian city, all sunshine and sea breeze, new cement and satellite dishes. The beaches and the stylish night clubs were packed, beautiful girls danced on tabletops, tourists filled the streets. It was impossible not to be impressed by the city’s remarkable reconstruction. The civil war had been almost entirely plastered over. Downtown Beirut was full of gleaming new buildings and construction sites. It was almost possible to forget the war; it was almost a surprise to notice, now and then, a façade pockmarked with bullet-holes, or a whole building missing one wall, looking like a ragged doll-house, its long-ago abandoned apartments open to the sea breeze.

Now, I think back to a night in a café in Cairo last year with Basel Ramsis, an Egyptian filmmaker who has made a movie about Beirut. He told me how much the city had always meant to him and his generation, how obsessed they had always been with it, with its whiff of danger, sophistication and sex (for one thing, the first erotic films to come to Egypt were made in Lebanon). Since the beginning of the bombings, Basel has been sending out frantic, furious emails from Madrid, where he lives, calling on us all to sign petitions and join solidarity marches.

Now, I’m thinking about all the places I visited when I was in Beirut: the packed offices of the Daily Star newspaper (which I used to write for from Cairo), or the Arab Image Foundation, whose rooftop office houses a wonderful collection of archival photographs that I hope will survive. Seeing the names of neighbourhoods I walked through back then in the newspapers now gives me an anxious pang. I read about residents who are refusing to leave. I’m in awe of them, and of artist Mazen Kerbaj, who not only has decided to stay in Beirut but every day posts wonderful, sad, witty little drawings about what he’s going through.

Poor Lebanon is all I can think, poor little Lebanon. Lebanon is being destroyed because it’s weak. Because it has no army and no powerful protectors. Because in the Middle East today there is no dialogue, no justice, no compassion, no binding international conventions or international rulings. The region is one big, bloody chess board — and Lebanon a light, glistening, expendable pawn.

Israel, which seems to have lost its moral compass altogether, has decided once again — despite the fact that this has never worked so far — that it will brutalize its opponents into submission, that it will exact ten-fold revenge for its losses. But even if Israel manages to destroy a lot of Hizbullah’s weapons and even if some Lebanese blame the Islamist group for irresponsibly dragging the country into this mess, Hizbullah can’t be eradicated this way. Killing Southern Lebanese civilians and bombing their homes won’t diminish support for Hizbullah. Instead, Israel has probably managed to make itself as hated in Southern Lebanon as it is in the Occupied territories, widening the swath of loathing that surrounds it. But what does that matter, I suppose, when Israel and everyone else has entered an entirely uncompromising, military frame of reference. The Southern Lebanese — who supposedly hide Hizbullah’s rockets under their beds — are clearly enemies, unredeemable.

The unconditional US support for Israel under these circumstances is appalling, simply shameful. The Pentagon actually expedited a shipment of bombs to Israel. The US refuses to call for a cease-fire. Condoleezza Rice reaches peaks of Orwellian disingenuousness, speaking of the “birth pains” of a new, democratic Middle East, while one of the region’s only fragile democracies is kicked to the curb, and hundreds die. The mainstream American media has strived, as always, for “balance” (when one side is experiencing casualties ten times more elevated) and joined our political class in refusing to condemn any of Israel’s actions.

I’ve lived in the Middle East for four years. I’ve lived here through the invasion of Iraq, through more terrorist bombings than I can remember, through all the talk of “democratization” and the victories of Islamist parties and the election-rigging that followed. In my opinion this is the region’s lowest point. In Cairo, public demonstrations of solidarity with the Lebanese are repressed by government police. The Egyptian and the Saudi regimes turn their backs on Lebanon, and instead try to use the crisis to make deals with the US: pressure on Syria and Hizbullah in exchange for an end to all calls to democratize at home.

Welcome to the Middle East today, where brute force reigns more supreme than ever, where the lives of civilians are worth less than nothing, where there is no accountable leadership on the horizon. Where every actor is an ugly Goliath, or a craven wanna-be Goliath, or a blood-thirsty David.

This will go down in history as an infamous summer, the summer Lebanon-with all its hopes, its charms, its weaknesses — was abandoned.