After having coffee last night with a friend who waxed lyrical about my sister’s photographic skills (“she tells a full story with her photos, from beginning to end – amazing!”) I decided that it was time that I trotted out my own camera.
I had meant to photograph the banner I mentioned in my last books around the world post, but first thought: oh, I’ll just start with a few shots of my favorite mosque.
Silly, silly – what was I thinking? My favorite mosque sits in the middle of a sea of barricades, which protect civil and military outposts.
I heard the steps and the calls as two soldiers ran up to me, but ignored them – the sign of innocence. “Mademoiselle”, one (rather breathless despite the short jog) said, “this is a security area.”
Darn, I thought – I should have saved my innocent-foreigner capital for the shot of the banner.
I showed them the photos I had taken and they (clearly wondering why on earth I wanted to take a picture of some obscure mosque) let me keep them. They apologized; I apologized. I apologized again; they did the same. We apologized to one another once more, following some kind of three-time’s-the-charm Lebanese ta`arofi logic, and I walked off.
So, no photograph of the banner, but I do have one of the mosque:
For people more alert than I, those metal barricades lining the sidewalk would have been a good clue that photographs were not welcome.
Pouting, I made my way to the gym and a bit beyond, where I took a few (mostly dreadful) photographs of the sea. The waves were wild this morning – a product of the wind and yesterday’s rains. I could hear them crashing against one another – a sound I love.
My two radio stations this morning are utter vacuums of news: Radio Orient spent at least ten minutes giving the weather reports for western Europe (given by a dj I suspect of having overdosed on tranquilizers), while Radio Nour was broadcasting the latest episode in a musalsala (serial) titled “The Days of Hussein”.
Those looking for thoughtful commentary on the past week’s events – reflection that goes beyond the “Civil War LOOOOOMS” hype – will find it in another very nice piece by Andrew Butters: Covering the Street Fights:
For the moment there’s lots of ink being spilled in local newspapers about the possibility that Iran and Saudi Arabia might be able to broker some kind of deal between Lebanon’s government and opposition. More power to them. Though it’s unlikely that Lebanon’s internal problems can be settled for good without a full scale regional diplomatic agreement, anything that lowers the temperature in Beirut’s streets — even temporarily — is for the better as far as Lebanon is concerned, and from a shallow and self-centered perspective, as far as journalists like myself are concerned.
That’s because the pattern of these streets fights foreshadows a conflict that’s going to be pretty tough to cover. Beirut is a beguiling city, and Western journalists who cover the Middle East from their home-base here wouldn’t be the first foreign invaders to have been lulled into a false sense of security by the balmy Mediterranean lifestyle. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, one lives in Lebanon with ones’ guard down. On Thursday, I was eating a fancy turkey sandwich at a business lunch in a California-style restaurant. Thirty minutes later I was trapped in a firefight, without a flack-jacked or helmet, without my notebook, and when the city’s mobile phone network went down with the surge of phone calls, I also found myself pining for a satellite telephone.
Another problem is that no one wants coverage of their side causing trouble, no one wants to be blamed for starting a civil war, and everyone wants to play the victim. Your average Beirut street fighter (who may well be a finance or marketing MBA student) is pretty media savvy. He knows that he is going to have a tough time explaining why there’s a picture of him on Time.com with a Molotov cocktail when he goes for his next job interview at the Price Waterhouse Coopers Dubai office. So when I trained my camera on some Sunni guys throwing rocks on Tuesday, one of them decked me. Not long afterwards he apologized (which was nice) but his buddies then tried to get me to take pictures of their Shia opponents making mischief on the other side of the street. “I can’t believe you don’t have a telephoto lens!” one of them practically screamed at me. “Are you sure you’re a journalist?”
It was also hard to miss how many of the rioters on Tuesday and Thursday were so clearly enjoying themselves. Over and over again, I’ve heard how people in Lebanon don’t want to go back to the bad old days, and that only outsiders agitators are the ones responsible for causing trouble. But there’s a subsection of bored and underemployed young men who want to bring it on. Why else were they pouring into the neighborhood around Beirut Arab University from all over town to join a fight between students they didn’t even know? I was hiding from gunfire behind a soda machine a couple of streets down from BAU on Thursday, when some alpha male street fighter with a submachine gun ran around the corner followed by a wannabe entourage of about seven cronies, one of them carrying an extra ammunition clip, like teenagers trying to get a turn on their rich friend’s new toy. It was a scene from high school with small arms.
Obviously, the tragedy of what may happen here won’t be its effect on the foreign press. And of course we’ll figure out a new set of do’s and don’ts to keep working. And it’s true that anytime something bad happens in Lebanon, there’s a lot of breathless stories about a new civil war being on its way. (I just wrote one myself.) But defending for a second a profession that is often accused of wanting disaster to happen to other people so that they can write about it, I just want to say right now that I’d much rather Lebanon stays as it is, with its ski slopes, and beaches, and lifestyle that appears to be as superficial as I am.
It reminds me in spirit of a piece he published last summer in the Washington Post, a comfort-the-afflicted-and-afflict-the-comfortable piece that broke through the dominant narratives of the summer war: “Disappointed in Lebanon“:
Not even a week after Israel started bombing Beirut, an act of war that inadvertently revived my failing journalism career, friends began e-mailing their concern and wondering whether my suddenly frequent appearances on television would finally change my luck with the ladies of Lebanon. But the reality of life under siege is not so glamorous. When the two French students living next door snagged a last-minute berth on a Greek ferry bound for Cyprus, they asked me to take care of their hamsters. “We’ll be back in September.” Great.
I plan to be here when they return. I’m making the usual preparations: buying a generator, setting up a satellite phone and finding a flak jacket for my driver. I’m also making the not-so-usual ones: After the Israeli air force attacked a dairy processing plant, I filled my freezer with yogurt. But if journalists thrive on other people’s misfortunes, I’m not even sure that will last long enough. Because Israel will probably never disarm Hezbollah by force, the war in Lebanon could become just another of the world’s seemingly endless, certainly stupid and ultimately boring conflicts — sort of like Turks and Kurds, Russians and Chechens, and, well, Israelis and Palestinians.
For one thing, the world — or at least its only superpower — seems to care more about Jewish than Arab suffering. How else do you explain that the United States has aided and abetted its client state as it creates half a million refugees on the pretext of two kidnapped soldiers? When I recently wrote a feature about Lebanon’s refugees for a major U.S. newspaper, the editor deleted a story about the father of one displaced family who said he survived an Israeli massacre in 1983. Israeli atrocities during that time are well documented. But the editor explained that this was a major allegation and that we had only the man’s word to back it up. I didn’t put up a fight; after all, I just wanted my article to run. But I wondered: If I had written about a Hezbollah rocket hitting the house of a Holocaust survivor, would any editor have doubted that Jewish person’s story?
Of course, I’m just as disappointed in Lebanon. When my country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of us lined the streets of New York to give blood that day. There has been no comparable outpouring of civic feeling in Lebanon. Most of my Lebanese friends with money and options and foreign passports left their country — during a time when it needs them most — to sit out the war in Paris or London or New York. Others seek comfort and safety in resort towns in the mountains, where the air is dry and cool and the hotel bars are packed and you can’t hear buildings disintegrating and illusions shattering.
The other day I found about 150 refugees living without assistance in a public school in south Beirut. It had taken them a week to make the three-hour trip from the war zone in the south, stopping in towns where they’d been gouged by taxi drivers and shopkeepers and had run out of money and food for their babies. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, there was an American-style supermarket groaning with goods. I started filling three shopping carts with water and bread and infant formula to donate, but when I told the other shoppers and the store managers what I was doing, not one person offered to help, chip in or give me a discount.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. How can you care about your country when your country doesn’t care about you? The warlords who run Lebanon and pretend to be leaders have reverted to type. They aren’t out filling sandbags or having their pictures taken with war widows, or doing what politicians do when they believe in democracy or the appearance thereof. They’ve retreated to medieval mountain fortresses or ersatz hillside villas, where they polish their gun collections and their armored Mercedes-Benzes as though readying for a gangland war. No matter how many hundreds die or thousands become homeless, they’ll still be here when the fog of war clears.
But if the Lebanese have their failings, then I also have mine. I left New York three years ago to write about America’s involvement in the region — not about Arabs and Israelis killing each other. Somehow I thought I could separate those two things, and write about the Middle East in a new way, avoiding the same old debates and the same old categories. So I worked in Iraq and used my Beirut pied-à-terre to blow off steam and hit the nightclub scene like all the other Iraq correspondents who made Beirut their Bangkok to Baghdad’s Saigon. I didn’t read books about Israel or care about Palestinians or go looking for Hezbollah. Instead, I wrote about Arab pop stars and Kurdish feminists and grouse-hunting trips in southern Iraq, and thought that the worst thing happening here was runaway development and environmental decline.
But sooner or later in Lebanon, history returns, usually in the form of a bomb.
So now I sit with my unpublished stories and my illegible notes in this spacious hipster hideaway in Christian East Beirut, the same home that I am wary of sharing with even a hamster. I think about a 12-year-old Shiite girl and her refugee family living with 20 other people in a schoolroom not far from here, and I remember she told me that she wasn’t angry at the Israelis for destroying her neighborhood. “God sees everything,” she said. The thought gives me no comfort.
I remember reading this article when it was first published, a time when comfort of any kind seemed very far away. I hope that today is quiet, and that we all can take comfort in another day’s tranquility.