On July 15th, we published a Letter from Beirut, written by my Israeli friend Moshe Behar’s friend, Rasha, who is in Beirut. That letter got wide exposure on the web, through many links, and since then NPR’s Radio Open Source has been publishing excerpts from her emails to them. (See here, and here.) Today, I have received a long email from Rasha which I have decided to publish here in its entirety:
My siege notes are beginning to disperse. I write disjointed paragraphs but I cannot discipline myself to write everyday. Despair overwhelms me. A profoundly debilitating sense of uselessness and helplessness. Writing does not always help, communicating is not always easy, finding the words, deciding which stories should be included, and which should not. The experience of this siege is so emotionally and psychically draining, the situation is so politically tenuous… I miss the world. I miss life. I miss myself. People around me also go through these ups and downs, but I find them generally to be more resilient, more steadfast, more courageous than I. I am consumed by other people’s despair. It’s not very smart, I mean for a strategy of survival.
My day started today (in effect it is Day 13 of the War, but just another morning under siege in my personal experience) with news from Bint Jbeil, reported on al-Jazira. Ghassan Ben Jeddo, the director of the Beirut office was analyzing the situation on the southern front in Bint Jbeil. He announced flatly that Hezbollah had conceded to the military surrender of Bint Jbeil, that the IDF had besieged the town, and that the town had been almost entirely flattened to rubble. My breathing became tight. I knew well, and had been told for days, that military defeats and victories were very tricky to determine in this type of unusual warfare, because a conventional army has clear retreats and advances whereas a band of guerrillas behaves in an entirely different way. The military defeat in itself did not really matter enough to cause tightness in my chest, although I was a little worried about the IDF feeling empowered to proceed with “scorched earth” plans or some other nightmarish fantasy. My breathing became tight because I immediately thought about some 1,500 people, making up some 400 families whom I had heard the day before were trapped in Bint Jbeil. Some were displaced from villages around Bint Jbeil. They were trapped there in two buildings, one of which was a government school. I could not imagine what they were living on. As the al-Jazira showed footage from around Bint Jbeil, there was a continuous soundtrack of pounding from Israeli tanks. I could only see them and hear that pounding: were they huddled together? Were they laid down on the floor, their hands over their heads? How does one survive 2 days of continuous shelling like that? Had they any hope of fleeing?
They stayed with me, the 1500 souls in Bint Jbeil. I went to the public garden where displaced people were now living, I went to the cooperative supermarket in Sabra, I went to an air-conditioned cafe with WiFi, and the 1500 souls were with me. I had lunch, tried to write, still with me. Until after sunset, a journalist friend told me he had interviewed the mayor of Bint Jbeil in the afternoon. The man had suffered a stroke this past Sunday and had been evacuated for treatment. By today he had recovered and was struggling to find a way to get the remaining 40 Lebanese-Americans trapped in Bint Jbeil. My friend allowed me to sigh with some relief, the trapped souls were 400 not 1,500 today… (Most of the residents of Bint Jbeil are Lebanese-Americans from Dearborn and Detroit Michigan.)
Is there a point to relaying on to you the events of the past few days? I am still stuck to the television. I am still living from breaking news to breaking news. I now get things from the second-tier horse’s mouth, so to speak, journalists whom I have taken to hovering around. Khiyam shall soon be rubble. As is Bint Jbeil. After Khiyam will be Tyre. The Beqaa has received pounding. Israelis targeted factories, some operational, others under construction. None were Hezbollah fortresses of course. They also hit a UNIFIL outpost last night killing UN international observers.
This will be a long note because it is a cluster from the past few days. It will most likely be a tedious read. It reflects my encounters these past few days, conversations and discussions with friends journalists and analysts as well as vignettes from Beirut under siege. As I attempt to tie all of these sections together, I am back at the Cafe with WiFi. Yesterday they played the soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know if they were aware of the “post-colonial” and “postpost-colonial” dimension. Condi was in Jerusalem. The Bedouins were firing rockets at Haifa. And Faisal spoke late into the night, promising the rockets would go further than Haifa. Today, they have a Charles Aznavour playlist. Somebody with executive power in this cafe is a shameless sentimental. This is the first sign of a return to normalcy in my experience so far. I, an unrepentant sentimental as well, am very fond of Aznavour, this playlist has been the soundtrack to my convalescence from amorous setbacks, it is a first tangible reminder that I had once a different life.
Hezbollah, Now the Symbol
It took a few days into this war for Hezbollah to acquire a new power of signification. The semiologists, the political sociologists, and hords of regional experts and policy advisors have to watch this carefully, they better at least, if they are to understand this moment and the new political idiom. And they have quite something to contend with, Hassan Nasrallah’s pronouncements, al-Manar TV, the video productions, the manufacture of image and meaning.
Hezbollah have now become the only Arab force to have refused to accomodate, even slightly, Israel’s missives and caprices. They are undaunted by the military might of the IDF, its awesome ability to bring wretchedness to a people and a country and its ability to shrug at international laws regulating warfare, conflict and non-aggression. They are also undaunted by the moral highground provided by the US, and presently the Arab League and the International Community (whoever this construct stands for). In that, they have won the hearts and minds of Arab masses. The so-called Arab street (that vague beguiling force at once vociferous and inept that the western media have reified into a pressure valve of the potential/appetite for Terror –or anti-western sentiment) has been won in heart and mind by Hezbollah’s retaliation to the Israeli assault. The Arab world is mesmerized by this movement that has developped the ability to fight back, inflict pain and for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict pose a real threat to Israel. Hezbollah does not have the ability to defeat the Israeli army. No one in the region can and none of the Arab states is willing, in gest or merely using the power of suggestion, to challenge Israel’s absolute hegemony. (I don’t know whether Iran can or not, but in principle Israel’s military abilities are superior to the Islamic Republic’s conventional army.)
In its careful study of a military strategy for defense, conducted in full cognizance of the movement’s weakness and strength and of Israel’s weakness and strength, Hezbollah has achieved what all Arab states have failed to achieve. Since the war broke out, Hassan Nasrallah has displayed a persona and public behavior also to the exact opposite of Arab heads of states, he may be in the “underground” for security reasons, but he is not disheveled, he speaks in a cautious, calculated calm, a quiet dignity. His adresses have been punctuated with key notions that have long lapsed from the everyday political vocabulary in the Arab world: responsibility (for defeat, victory and the toll on Lebanon), dignity, justice, compassion (for the suffering inflicted on people and for the Palestinian Israeli victims of Hezbollah shelling in Nazareth and Haifa). A stark contrast with the political class in the Arab world that speaks of “calculated retreats”, “compromises for peace”, and the real politik convictions that induce Amr Moussa to cast himself as the gesticulating pantomime for the Saudis and the Americans. In an interview with al-Jazira, Ahmad Fouad Najm, the famous Egyptian popular poet quoted a Cairene street sweeper who said to him that Hassan Nasrallah brought back to life the dead man buried inside him. This is the “pulse” of the much-dreaded Arab street. This too is a measure of Israel’s miscalculation. Moreover, at the moment when Sunnis and Shi’as have been blinded in murderous rage in Iraq, when Idiot-King Abdullah of Jordan and a handful of barbaric Wahabi pundits babbled on about the dangerous emergence of a “Shi’i crescent” in the region, Israel’s assault has brought to the fore a solidarity that transcends the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Arab world, and consolidated a front of those who reject Israeli hegemony and those who cower to it in fear.
This new symbolic power beyond the boundaries of Lebanon was willed by Hezbollah in the postwar, it peaked in 1996, when Israel conducted its notorious “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. After the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed the credit for liberation. Some analysts saw the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied south as a strategic move to end the “Lebanon” file, and deprive Syria from a crucial hand in its negotiations with Israel (Hafez el-Assad died shortly after). Other analysts saw the Israeli withdrawal as Hezbollah’s defeat of the IDF in a long, long war of attrition. Nevertheless, Hezbollah represented itself in its propaganda machine as the only armed force in the Arab and Muslim world to have in fact defeated Israel.
In this present crisis, and from Hassan Nasrallah’s first pronouncement (the radio/audio adress he delivered), the “open” belligerance that Israel is conducting on Lebanon has been represented as a turning point battle in the saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A saga replete with humiliating defeats for Arab armies, a turning point because Hezbollah promised to deliver a victory (as it has achieved many victories in the past). In other words, he transformed this present conflict from a “Lebanese” question into an Arab and regional conflict.
The significance of defeat and victory is bearing a deep impact far and beyond the boundaries of Lebanon. This is one of the reasons Condoleeza Rice’s notion of a “New Middle East” smacks of first rate hubris. The “New Middle East” is taking shape elsewhere, or the real new Middle East is here, and there is little the White House, Ehud Olmert, 23-ton shells autographed by the beautiful children of Israel (the pictures are quite astounding) dropped in the middle of refugee camps to unearth underground bunkers of “terrorism”, can do about it.
In the first few days of the Israeli assault on Lebanon, there was barely any movement in Arab capitals. The Arab world seemed content watching us burn on TV, our fate seemed sealed with the Arab League meeting. I remember writing my rage in one of these dispatches. However, after Nasrallah’s first adress, which ended with the spectacularly staged shelling of the Israeli warship, Hezbollah’s sustained ability to hold its fort and to shell cities as far as Haifa and Nazareth, in addition to the sight of Israel’s sustained massacres of civilians and destruction of Lebanon, turned the tide. Hezbollah’s position in the region and in Arab consciousness is etched with an empowering, invigorating significance.
The New Middle East, Conspiracy and Hassan Nasrallah’s Televised Address
Condoleezza Rice showed up in Beirut two days ago. The message she carries is that the US will not enforce a ceasfire. Israel estimates it needs an additional week before the atmosphere is “conducive” to a ceasefire. This means they need a week to achieve their aims. Their aims have changed over the past two weeks, although they have formulated a set of demands to the White House and the G8.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora on his way to the Rome conference said he did not expect the meeting to produce a ceasefire. Only Kofi Anan seems to expect that from this high-profile meeting.
She did not speak of a New Middle East in Lebanon, in fact there were no public pronouncements made in Lebanon, but she did hold several press conferences in Israel, where reference was made to this new map. The “New Middle East” has not been officially unveiled by the Americans.
It emerges at a moment when Israel has failed at undermining Hamas with all the means the world has afforded to support it: diplomatic pressure from the US and EU, an effective paralysis of Hamas’ ability to govern, an internal conflict between Hamas and Fateh, the incarceration of cabinet members and parliamentarians, a humanitarian siege, and a full scale military assault on Gaza. The Palestinian population has yet to unseat Hamas or question the legitimacy of its position.
This moment is also when Iraq seems to have effectively slipped into a civil war and the US and UK occupation forces are neck-deep in a quagmire with violence escalating to frightful scale. Civil conflicts and violence develop a momentum and logic of their own that create their own hell, and Iraq seems to be teetering at the precipice of this hell with no sign of decisive and effective intervention to bring it to a halt. This moment is also when the negotiations with Iran over the development of nuclear weapons are taking baby steps and in circles.
With the war in Lebanon, the “moment” in which the “New Middle East” is unveiled is a moment where Hezbollah has emerged as a force that is able to humiliate the Israeli military on the field of battle, and represent the Israeli civilan leadership as reckless, confused and bloodthirsty. Hezbollah define their victory as maintaining their ability to deter Israel from assaulting Lebanon, namely, deterring a ground attack (the battle in a cluster of villages has been going on for 5 days now) but mostly firing rockets and missiles into the Israeli interior. In that regard, they are so far victorious.
So the question is on what grounds are the US, Israel and the EU imagining the “New Middle East”? And how do they imagine its implementation?
Past midnight last night, al-Manar television announced they would broadcast a pre-recorded adress by Hassan Nasrallah. He wanted to present his views and reactions to the diplomatic activity that has been taking place in the past few days. He also wanted to send a message to the nation, Israel and the wider world regarding Hezbollah’s strategy in this conflict. For Nasrallah the “New Middle East” was the final indication that Israel’s assault was premeditated (and part of a greater US plan) and that Hezbollah’s victory would be the principal bullwark to thwarting the conspiracy of this “New Middle East”. He also revealed that Hezbollah had now received information that Israel had planned the assault on Lebanon and Hezbollah for September or October. Israel planned to roll a massive ground force across the borders, with a cover from the air targetting Hezbollah leadership and roads and bridges that aimed at crippling the movement from responding. The element of surprise was key to the success of that military strategy. With the present conflict, Israel had proceeded with its plans, but without the element of surprise. And that is one of the reasons Hezbollah have the upper hand so far. And finally, he reiterated the “surprises” that Hezbollah had delivered to Israel thus far: the warship, hitting as far into Israeli territory as Tabariya, hitting as far as Haifa. He announced that Hezbollah was now ready to hit targets “beyond Haifa”, at a time of their choosing. Did he mean Tel Aviv? Would he hit Tel Aviv? Was it his retaliation at psychological warfare?
This morning, Olmert’s office announced they had heard Nasrallah’s threat and would respond accordingly.
More on Being a Proud Arab
Saudi Arabia pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and whatever to help Lebanon in these tragic times. I wish the political class of this country had the spine and intelligence to reject this fortune or negotiate its political cost from the position of the empowered. Hezbollah is changing the terms, and unfortunately the cabinet of Fouad Saniora, as well as the Hariri movement is still behaving in total subservience to Saudi Arabia, protecting Saudi hegemony in this country and the region.
The Jordanians sent us a plane load of emergency relief supplies. It just landed in our destroyed airport. The Israelis gave the Jordanian plane the security cover. Jordan and Kuwait are sending environmental experts to help us clean the sea from the oil and fuel spills that Israelis dumped. Did I mention this? Did I mention that after their warships retreated to a distance safe from Hezbollah’s firepower, they spilled enough oil to cause an environmental disaster on our coastline? Did I mention that no one has been able to fish a fish and that the shores are now pitch black?
This said, I still cannot get over, or forgive the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian actions vis-a-vis the Israeli war on Lebanon. There was a chance to stand upright, to redress from the hunch of servility. For a moment there was an opportunity to salvage dignity and turn the tables for good. They chose to cower, to protect US and Israeli interest and extend moral cover for Israel to destroy this country. The Arab League is complicit in the destruction of this country. Fawwaz Traboulsi said it time and time again on television stations, they have a myriad means at their disposal to shake Israel and the US if only to impose red lines, to defend a notion of sovereignty. They could have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel, they could have suspended the peace accords with Israel, they could have threatened a regional escalation during the Arab League meeting. Saudi Arabia could have used its hegemony over the oil market or its deposits in US banks. Instead, Amr Moussa opined that the road map for peace was defunct. This is servile complicity.
Imagine how much they would have gained in the eyes of their societies and as regional actors, had they simply stood in one line-up in the face of Israel. Obviously, it is hubris on my part to imagine these heads of states capable of any action beyond humiliating subservience. This is one of the meanings of defeat. The total relinquishing of agency and dignity.
The political culture that prevails in the Arab world has a very select cast of roles for officials (whether elected or not), at heart they are variations on three main roles: taxidermists, court-jesters and kitchen undercooks (the more accurate word is in French, “marmitons”). They resurrect dead effigies, brandish defunct ideologies, they gesticulate and throw fits to soothe, distract, and deter, or they slice and dice, pick-up the peels and clean-up in the “big kitchen” of regional politics. This too is a face of defeat.
There has been much, much ink spilled on the impact of “defeat” on Arab societies, identity, political culture, etc. The other meaning of defeat is the inability to imagine political alternatives beyond the debilitating bi-polar pathology (and I use the metaphor with the psychic disorder in mind) of US/Israel vs. fundamentalist political Islam. These simply cannot be the two options for citizenship, identity, governance and political representation. (Perhaps it is impossible in Palestine because occupation is war, and war creates situations in extremis –and yet the Palestinians, Moslems and Christians, did not cower from electing Hamas into government, in cognizance of the costs). And so far, that “third” option (obviously not Blair’s “Third Way”) is not yet clear or cogent.
In the present conflict, a secular egalitarian democrat such as I, has no real place for representation or maneuver. Neither have I and my ilk succeeded in carving a space for ourselves, nor have the prevailing forces (the two poles) agreed to making allocations for us. That is our defeat and our failure. In Lebanon, we are caught in the stampede and the cross-fire. As I noted in one of these siege notes, I am not a supporter of Hezbollah, but this has become a war with Israel. In the war with Israel, there is no force in the world that will have me stand side by side with the IDF or the Israeli state.
It was my foolhardy hope, that the Lebanese front that emerged after the mass mobilization on March 14th would rehabilitate its nearly depleted political capital (depleted down to its most base and vulgar sectarian constituencies) and refuse to meet with Condoleeza Rice. Out of principle that the US and Israel are waging a war on one of the chief agents in Lebanon’s political landscape. Instead, all these handsome men and women showed up at the US embassy, smiling, wearing their Sunday suits, aping the display of servility that the Idiot-Kings and Senile-Presidents-for-Life display at the Arab league meetings. She showed up at the embassy and enjoyed this band of court-jesters and taxidermists society while the Depleted Uranium Smart Bombs were delivered from the US military base in Qatar to Israel.
Was I foolhardy to have once seen an opportunity for change when the March 14th mobilization swept the capital? Surely now, in light of this war. And you would think that by reading newspapers, this band of brothers (and sisters) would learn something. You would think that by watching what happened to their equivalent band of brothers in Fateh would inspire another behavior. To no avail. Look at the pathetic story of Mohammad Dahlan. Once a proud young man from Gaza, once a hero of the Palestinian resistance, once a prisoner in Israel’s gaols, once a popular leader in the streets of Gaza. He was so corrupted by power, he became the US Foreign Secretary’s Boy Toy. His street smarts became thuggery, his humble origins fed his appetite for cheap thrills: nice suits that he never hung well on his shoulders, fancy cars that he never had a chance to drive on decent roads, fine cuisine that he never knew how to order and first class tickets to capitals where he flew to surrender more and more and more servility. The story of Dahlan, although small and borderline insignificant should be told to children. I look forward to the day when he will not be able to walk in the streets of Palestine. Why do I single out Dahlan when so many others like him roam the unpaved roads of Palestine, because for a brief moment I believed he was a man. A time long ago that I cannot recall now.
In Lebanon, the Displaced, the Schizophrenia
Within Lebanon, the situation is different. The White House and Israel are hedging their bets on an internal rift. The most dangerous would be a Sunni-Shi’i divide. So far the country has been united, but warning signs are let out everyday. The sectarian polarization is still cut grossly along the lines of the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camps, they cut across the conventional sectarian rifts that polarized the country during the civil war, and to some extent in the postwar. In every speech, Hassan Nasrallah has hailed and expressed gratitude for the fantastic popular support that has rallied around the resistance. The council for sunni religious associations met yesterday, reiterating their support for the resistance and condemning the silence and cowardice of the Arab world.
It is compelling to see the hords of volunteers tend to the displaced. There are two main organizations channeling emergency aid and resources to the NGOs tending to the displaced, they are the Hariri Foundation and the National Relief agency. The management of relocating and lodging the displaced has been less than ideal, and I am of the opinion that the government has not really galavanized its full abilities to face up to the crisis. The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Health and other concerned public agencies are coordinating efforts to bring some order into the chaos. However, there is increasing critique that they are not marshalled as they were in the past. True the scale of displacement is harrowing and keeps increasing everyday and the government has never had to contend with a challenge so tremendous. We now count 800,000 people who are displaced. Access to shelters, schools and other sites of relocation has been uneven. Problems have begun to emerge. I have made an effort to collect as many anecdotes as possible, to get an overall sense of the situation. So far, I have not been able to. The overwhelming question seems to be managing the distress and frustration of the displaced and the exhaustion of volunteers. The crisis seems to drag, and longer term solutions will have to be implemented because immediate emergency solutions are usually not sustainable over time.
The anecdotes tell stories of everyday heroes and everyday greed and sectarian prejudice. It’s a mixed bag. Unanimously however, the work that Bahia Hariri, sister of slain former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and parliamentarian from Sidon (the northernmost first city in south Lebanon), has been stellar. Using the arm of the Hariri Foundation in Sidon, she is housing 12,500 displaced from the south (mostly Shi’ites) and tending to all their needs. There are ironic anecdotes too, for example schools in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh have been opened to house Lebanese refugees.
The brunt of this war are felt unevenly in the country. The eastern suburb of the city and significant areas in the mountains have been more or less spared from shelling and violence. Occasional Israeli air raids spread fear. The targetting of the broadcast tower for the major Lebanese television stations that claimed the life of an employee at the LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) was a poignant reminder, but the astounding wretchedness inflicted on the South and the Beqa’a have not been inflicted elsewhere.
This is not atypical of Lebanon’s exprience of its civil war and of the postwar occupation of south Lebanon. This dysynchrony in “experiencing” the Israeli assault translates sometimes to a schizophrenia. There are people sun-tanning, partying, taking it easy while others are displaced. This too is part of the political class’s engagement in the war. They could inspire a different mindset.
In the Israeli invasion of 1982, I was in West Beirut. I was 13 years old. All my friends and classmates fled the siege of West Beirut. The political rifts were different then, but I remember that when I returned to school after the withdrawal of the Israeli forces that fall, I carried the burden of the trauma of the siege while my classmates had memories of fun and games of that summer spent in the mountains. While they recalled witnessing shells fall on Beirut from a distance, I recalled their sound as they exploded. I resented all the stories they told of that summer. They were all happy stories. I shut my ears when they recalled them. Until now, there are a set of songs that were popular then, that I cannot hear without feeling a pinch of anxiety in my stomach. It’s the impact of that trauma. Part of the reason I cannot leave Beirut is that I don’t want to become like them. It’s like a pledge I made to myself. But this is happening again, on a smaller scale, because the shelling has reached beyond the southern suburbs of Beirut and the south.
These distances that separate the people of this country have to be bridged somehow. The “united” front has to find a more cogent gel. We have everything to win if we are able to meet that challenge. We have our country to win. If we remain hapless victims who beg, and who remain beholden to the “charity” of Arabs we will never have full sovereignty… Hezbollah’s victory can be articulated to become Lebanon’s victory (this too might be naive folly on my part, but I need to believe this, at least for the next few days, so just humor me). Particularly now that the Syrians are making noises about plans to roll their rusted tanks and army of underfed and illiterate soldiers with its thuggish command back in the country.
I am so weary of the return of Syrian control over Lebanon. The Syrian people, all those pictured cursing the Lebanese for their arrogance and lack of gratitude should protest against a re-entry of the Syrian military into Lebanon. And if the self-described “last fort of dignity of the Arabs” are inspired to fight Israel, they have the entire front of the Golan to do so. The Lebanese will not liberate the Golan, the Syrians will have to. You don’t subcontract liberation. Moreover, Hezbollah has claimed time and time again that they are prepared for the long haul and don’t need a bullet from any of the Arab states.This is another reason for the Lebanese political forces to band around the resistance and shield the country.We might have a chance to rebuild this country without owing a percentage of every contract to a thug from the Syrian junta, and that feels like humane relief.
I will end this siege note with another of the obsessions that taunt me. People caught under rubble. In describing the surreptitious commonplace horror of the civil war in a televised interview perhaps ten years ago, the famous Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury drew the following scene. While everyday life was taking place, traffic, transactions, just the mundane stuff of life, and as you walked passed buildings, you knew that in the underground of that commonplace building, there might be someone kidnapped, waiting to be traded or simply held in custody for money or whatever reasons militias kidnapped for. And you walked by that building.
I am haunted by the nameless and faceless caught under rubble. In the undergrounds of destroyed buildings or simply in the midst of its ravages. Waiting to be given a proper burial.
UPDATE (1:17 am, 7/27/06):
I am happy to see that Rasha’s dispatches from Beirut have also been picked up by the London Review of Books, now. See here.