Rasha Salti

Rasha Salti is based in Beirut.

August 10, 2006

Happy New Year From Beirut

[This was a New Year's Note that Rasha sent on December 31, 2005]
Dear Naeem,
I don't know if 2005 was a good year for you. Or for your people. Or for your astrological sign. I would like to try to stack words into sentences and convey optimism and hope for merriment, bounty and felicity, on the advent of this coming year and yet sound credible. My wishes spring wholly and truly from the deepest of my heart. The question is whether we can imagine that the world might become a less intolerant, unjust, unhappy and dark place for the largest share of humanity.

You have no reason to share my optimism, but I am writing from Beirut, a really small place in this world that believes itself to be a small vangard laboratory where the Great Powers that rule the world experiment with forms of social and political organizations. Beirut is many things, including the world capital of hubris, or the place where the largest amount of people that indulge in hubris live or spend their summer and winter vacations.
[Image: Zena el-Khalil]

Beirut is also a Nieztchean capital, or the capital city where the largest amount of people live animated (purely and exclusively) with the will to believe they are anywhere else but in Beirut. Beirut is a place in this world where the parochial is universal, the commonplace regional, the everyday world-historical, and where the news reads like a third rate noir and international intrigue novel.

Fearless of hubris, from Beirut, I dare express my optimism and wish you all a new year filled with felicity, bounty and merriment.

Hubrisless, optimistic and stubborn, Rasha.

Notes from the Siege 12 (Qana)

The history of earlier drives into Lebanon shows that even as the Israeli war machine gains momentum, so do the chances of terrible accidents and atrocities. In 1982, under the protection of Israeli forces, Christian Lebanese militias carried out the now infamous massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Ten years ago, during a campaign against Hizbullah similar to the one now underway, Israeli gunners blasted a United Nations monitoring post at the South Lebanese town of Qana, where terrified locals had taken refuge. More than 100 civilians were killed in a barrage that lasted only a few ghastly seconds. International outrage quickly forced Israel to end its offensive. The Israelis say they are being more careful this time around, not least because they don't want to be forced to stop. "The presidential approval by Bush, the surprising level of support he's giving Israel, the patience he's giving Israel—it looks as if there's a great amount of slack being cut to us," says a senior Israeli security source, who did not want to be identified by name because he is not authorized to speak on the record. "Absent a Qana, it might go on." –from the article "Torn to Shreds" in last week's Newsweek.
(This siege note I wish to dedicate to Maher)

Bearing witness to a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one's being (or home).
Coming into consciousness of, or bearing witness to, a massacre only a few kilometers removed from one's being (or home), feels very much like the experience of being in the proximity of a very powerful explosion only at an extremely, extremely slowed motion. Taking stock of the information on time, place, and the toll of victims, watching televised transmission of rescue workers piling a kindergarden in rigor mortis, is identical to the astounding sensation of the air being sucked from all around, that typically precedes the explosion. And at some point, it all sinks in, the information processes into information, and the images breakdown into their compositional elements (rescue worker carrying four year old with hand stretched to the sky and fingers wide spread), and you explode, or implode, with some sort of a system shut down. For a split second your heart does not beat the way it is used to, and your lungs don't quite inhale or exhale according to the book.

9:00 am, or somewhere around there. I am zapping between al-Jazeera, LBC, BBC, Future TV, and my new discovery of this war, Sky News. I have to finish some proposal text to send to funders to collect desperately needed funds to support the army of volunteers and the programs for displaced kids. I cannot disappoint "Nouna", I have to be at the library at 10:00 am with the text in English.

9:05 am, or somewhere around there. Yasser Abou Halileh, who just landed in Lebanon from Jordan is catching his breath on al-Jazeera. He arrived to Qana and just reached the shattered shelter site. Qana was carpet-bombed throughout the night. The air-bombing was not a "surprise" to anyone, because the Israeli army dropped flyers advising residents to leave. The bodies piled in the shelter ravaged to rubble were of people too poor to afford the ride from Qana to Sidon or Beirut, or people with disabilities.

Qana besides being an extremely poor village in the anemic economic orbit of Tyre, was also the site of one of Christ's miracles, then a little short of two thousand years later it housed a UNIFIL base (UN peacekeeping force), and a notorious Israeli massacre of fleeing hapless southern Lebanese villagers at said UNIFIL base. Yasser and his team headed for Qana because rescue workers alerted the media to the possibility of another massacre. The shelling did not stop as rescue workers lifted bodies from under rubble.
You know the rest of the story. An Yasser's story as well, it is no different from any correspondent that suddenly becomes a human being, a father, a brother, a son and Yasser was looking for words to put together into sentences to report the first report of the massacre. When he and his camera arrived, rescue workers were on site, slowly pulling bodies from under the rubble. Yasser is catching his breath and slowly, you can feel the air being sucked from all around him, children of all sizes, mostly small and extra small (some are barely a few months old), piled next to him, covered in ashen powdered concrete.
As Yasser must have been experiencing "the explosion" of "implosion", that's when I felt the air being sucked from all around me. I jumped from my bed and ran hysterically in the house looking for someone in my family to tell the news to. And when I did, I realized that a vacuum cloaked me. I heard myself speak, I saw myself put my shoes on, pack my bag, feel tightness in my chest, say goodbye to my parents, walk out into the street. Walk out into the street. Flash of the voice of Yasser hiccuping wiith emotion. Nothing unusual about this Sunday morning. Forgot the laptop. Forgot what I owed Nouna. Flash of the image of the rescue workers leaning in half to be able to go into the ravaged building. Back up. Back upstairs. Flash of baby lying on rubble, her cutie derriere dripping a pool of blood and powdered concrete. Al-Jazeera's screen. Zap, maybe it's a mistake. An exageration. Text message from Rula: "Are you watching al-Jazeera?" I grab my purse again, leave. Come back: the laptop. On the street, as I wait to hail a cab, I wonder why there is not a trace of powdered concrete in the air. I could taste it in my mouth.

10:15 am, or somewhere around there. Municipal building, 3rd floor, Beirut's Municipal Librairy. Elevator working. Flash of rescue worker carrying a baby girl, barefoot, covered in powdered concrete. Her arm sticking out, upright in rigor mortis, her palm wide and fingers stretched as if she were trying to reach out. At the municipal library that morning, there was a training workshop for the volunteers from the NGOs that are in charge of overseeing the settlement of the displaced in the schools around Beirut. A training workshop for educational games and activities around the book and storytelling. I walked in, greeted Nouna and another lady, I know I was not very present, the vacuum still cloaked me. I just said to them, as best as I could make coherent sentences "there was a massacre in Qana". Most of the volunteers had woken up and rushed to the workshop without hearing news.
I put my laptop in the office, and sat, stood up and started calling people. Everyone was choking in shock, rage and horror. Rula was out of her mind, zapping frantically. Only al-Jazeera showed images, BBC and CNN had a very down-played report. She beckoned me to make phone calls. Who could I call? I am nobody. I called friends, and more friends, people in the know and out of the know. Then a text message came: Protest in front of the ESCWA building at noon. I was beginning to breathe again. Condoleezza Rice was supposed to land in Beirut sometime around noon.

11:00 am, or somewhere around there. I was still sucked into the vacuum. Things moving around me were confusing, I could not quite mediate with reality. My mind was racing. The flashes of dead bodies were still coming. I needed to describe them, in gruesome detail to someone. Whoever I called, described them to me, in their gruesomeness: "Did you see that baby girl with her buttocks drenched in blood?" She was there in front of my eyes, off course I had seen her.
I typed something in English on the laptop. I called Nouna. We discussed it. I repeated the things she said to me so they would sink in. One of the attending volunteers could not hold still, who smoked outside, paced, and checked her cell phone about ten times, walked over to us and said she was going to the protest.

12:00 pm, sharp. I was back on the street. I walked towards the ESCWA (basically the offices of he UN and UN-related institutions) building. The street was filled with people, men, women, children carrying flags, Lebanese, Hezbollah, and Amal, walked decidedly, almost angrily in the direction of the ESCWA building. By the time I got there, there was a mob scene in front of the building. Young men (and a few women) were banging on the gates, throwing rocks to the windows that were bouncing against the glass and falling back on them. The release of rage was collective.
The sheath of vacuum around me, inside me, dissipated. The explosion/implosion was now happening to me. I felt myself transform into a magma of anger and sorrow at once. I felt my own rage channel to the crowd, I stood on the sidewalk, sucked into the magnetism of the mob, my body totally merged with theirs. The flashes from the al-Jazeera broadcast were no longer caged inside me. They were wafting away. The flags were pulled down and instead the masts in front of the fancy structure were now flagging Hezbollah, Amal flags and portraits of Hassan Nasrallah.
(When people later criticized the mob scene for "attacking" the ESCWA building –"Was it necessary?"– I was surprised they did not have that rage, or that they could not comprehend it.)
The crowd that unloaded into downtown Beirut was at that point mostly comprised of the displaced from the southern suburb. They shouted: "Hezbollah, Nasrallah, wel Dahiyah killa" (Hezbollah, Nasrallah, and the whole of the southern suburbs.)
On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Media Center building where newsmedia post their cameras and microphones and their anchors shoot their live shots, people were screaming at cameras.
The crowd was growing fatter and fatter, now people were coming more prepared, they had signs and banners, in Arabic and English.
I came across Mohammad, a friend, and finally, finally I could cry. I burried my head in his shoulders and wept helpless.
Mohammad led me to the Media Center building. I sat in one of the offices with windows onto the street. More and more people were coming. Army and internal security personel were also arriving. They stood by and watched. At some point a truck carrying some sort of a load of something parked in the lot across the street from the ESCWA building. It became a stage atop which various spokespersons stood and delivered speeches. I guess someone brought a voice magnifier, and someone else brought a tape and a tape player because soon there were also chants blaring. The flags flying on top of the crowd were now of several political parties: the "Free Movement", the Communists, the Syrian Nationalist (the most overt supporters of Hezbollah). The most touching scene was of sunni and shi'i sheikhs huddled together, hand in hand almost talking and then delivering speeches. From the window of the 6th floor, I could see their round head coiffe and robes.
Randa sent a text message from Cairo. I asked her to call me. She was weeping and I begged her to call her activist friends and organize a mobilization in Cairo. I wanted to weep, and hated myself for stiffening my upper lip. I borrowed Mohammad's phone and started to call friends across the world, hysterically, begging them to organize protests. I was nonsensical. I woke my sister in New Jersey. My tears were now flowing silently.
I felt I was going to collapse. I had to leave and be quiet for a while.
I walked home, a long, long meditative walk in the punishing heat of a late July afternoon. It was 2:00 pm. Everyone urged me to write something, a "siege note" for Qana. I could not.
Instead I slept. My eyelids felt heavy from crying.

Unscathed
Maher called. I woke up. He said he was leaving with a team of journalists to Tyre. Did I want to come. (I did not know.) I should be ready in ten minutes if I wanted to come. I said no, I was not thinking and I regretted it for the rest of the day. Until now when I write, I regret it.
Maher is a filmmaker. When this war started he was in Paris. He went nuts after a few days and decided to return. He wanted to be here for the war. He came on one of the ships that the French sent to evacuate French passport holders. His voyage was surreal, but that's another story.
He has a project to establish a website to collect and disseminate the record of the lived experience of this war, lest it should lapse from the collective record again. He has started to distribute cameras to young filmmakers, artists, even volunteers to record, film, transcribe the mundane and the non-sensational everyday of surviving this war. The website is not ready yet, but as soon as it s, I will publicize it.
Maher had been itching to go to Tyre, closest to one of the sites of battle. He went with the convoy of journalists and humanitarian aid workers. If my rage took me to the street and the mob scene, his would drive him to the front, to the site where the hurt is most poignant. He told me he was going to Qana, and I was not surprised.
I called him the next day in the afternoon. He had indeed been to Qana, and visited the site, and smelled death. From his voice, I felt that something had happened, something that still impressed him greatly. His locution was more sullen than lazy, but I could barely make out what he said, and I kept asking him to repeat himself. He did not get exasperated, his voice was detached. He was speaking to me from a different world.
My heart sank. He said Qana was exactly what I saw on TV. He kept referring to going through Srifa as being very difficult. "Very difficult" he kept saying. Nearly all of Srifa is destroyed. Limbs covered in powdered concrete emerge from between the ravages of collapsed buildings. No one has had the energy or courage to pull out the dead. The Red Cross and Civil Defense ambulances have been targetted relentlessly by Israel. When the guns will quiet, we will discover that Qana is small-time compared to Srifa. There is a pattern emerging now: Marwaheen, Srifa, Blida and Qana: terror to induce forced displacement (or pardon my French, "deportation"). Scorched earth and mass graves, this is how we achieve the New Middle East.
Maher said nearly 60% of Bint Jbeil has now become flat rubble. Most of its central area. There two limbs stick out of collapsed buildings, and the smell of death is everywhere. While rescue workers pulled out the dead from that shelter in Qana, the IDF was shelling the only functioning hospital in Bint Jbeil, a day prior to Maher's visit. That's how battered Bint Jbeil was, even its hospital the IDF decided was a Hezbollah stronghold and posed a grave security threat on the well-being of the children of Kiryat Shmona who prefer to go to school and not dwell in shelters after they have kissed the shells that their army will shower on Lebanon to implement UN Resolution 1559 and eradicate terror.
In the convoy to Bint Jbeil, journalists outnumbered the rescue workers, and they found a group of elderly men and women who were trapped in a shelter. They could not ambulate without assistance and had not eaten for four or five days. They were carried out and given some water and driven to places where they could receive the care they needed.
The BBC produced a number of excellent reports from Bint Jbeil, in heir backdrop, I saw Maher's face. His demeanor confirmed the impression I had after speaking to him on the phone. Maher had seen the face of death. Not death as in the sorrowful but inevitable expiring of everyday life, and not the death of a soldier on the battlefield. He had seen the face of organized, carefully orchestrated, mass-scale death, the planned death of hundreds and thousands as a solution to restoring power hegemony in a region.
You never leave a mass grave unscathed. Maher had seen several that day. Even if helping survivors seems like a life-affirming release, it will not alleviate the burden, the imprint of the face of death. I know he has been branded for ever now and there is not much anything that can be done about it. My forever beloved Marwan worked on collecting the bodies of victims in Sabra and Chatila after the massacre. Seeing the face of death was so overwhelming he left the country shortly thereafter. He moved to London and did not return to Lebanon for decades. You can still feel the brand of that mass grave in the lining of the timbre of his voice, in the lining to his gaze, there is a mute inconsolable sorrow.
I don't know if Maher will leave Lebanon, but I know he will return to Beirut markedly changed. For the time being the pull of the mass graves, of the people trapped in shelters, of bodies surging through rubble is too powerful, he wants to be near them. While the journalists he drove down with have left Tyre, he called last night to say he is tempted to stay. His voice felt he called from a netherworld, Israel is now engaged in a massive ground offensive in the south.


This siege note took a couple of days to write. I could not find my words or sense of self after news of the massacre on Sunday.

August 05, 2006

The Bougainvilliers Are in Full, Glorious Bloom

This siege note is dedicated to Akram [Zaatari].

Akram is from Saida (in English it should be Sidon, but I don't have the patience to accomodate the white man or his burden in this siege note, won't you humor me?). Akram was my first friend from Saida. I had visited Saida before I met him, but it became a whole other story after I went there with him, and after I became familiar with his work. Akram is also one of the constitutional elements of my life in Beirut. Our friendship is peculiar because it has carved a world specific to it, a language of its own, replete with metaphors, a stock of memories, and piles and piles of images and stories. I like to think of it as a space, a retreat, like a small interior garden where a deeply anchored quietude prevails.

Since I have been back here, Akram has been stuck outside the country. Until this war, I had grown used to missing him, but from the moment the airport was shelled and the siege began, missing him has become a whole other story. I miss the "retreat", the quietude of our friendship. Conversations that expand over hours not because much is spoken, rather because whatever is, takes all the time it needs to be said. The sentences I have not been able to finish since this war began would have fallen right into place in our friendship/retreat.
If you can still remember the first days of this war, Israel's strategy was first and foremost to dismember this country. The network of roads and bridges in the south was practically all destroyed. Communication between the south's three main areas (or sections) was rendered very impracticable, but the roads linking the south to the capital Beirut were entirely severed. Saida and Beirut were usually a 20 to 30 minute drive apart, linked by a highway along the coast. Now the safe passage to Saida goes through the mountains that oversee that coast line. It's a 3 hour and the half long drive. Since the war began, people in the south have been forced out of their homes, home by home, hunted down by F-16 planes, car by car, family by family, to each a shell, sometimes two. As such Saida has transformed into a hub for southerners fleeing death and devastation.

If Akram's absence has been palpable, he certainly has been present in how I magined he would have witnessed the transformation of Beirut and, surely, Saida. Everytime I took note of the small, discreet changes that have taken place in Beirut, in my mind, I have reported them to Akram. I was lonesome for sharing our shared obsession for archiving the mundane, for compiling empirical and anthropological notes of the quotidian around us.

I admit that a few days ago, in a fit of selfishness, I wrote to him and suggested he should come back. (I am everyday more and more aware of how fragile I become under siege.) My arguments were pompous, they did not mask well my purely selfish longing for him.
Throughout the war, shelling , siege, grief and sorrow, the bougainvilliers have been in full, glorious bloom. Their colors are dizzying in their intensity: purplish red, boastfull fuschia, glaring white, and sometimes canari yellow. Most of the time, their bloom, which is the objective outcome of "natural" factors, namely, access to water, sun, heat, and even perhaps wind, has irritated me. Everything has changed in this time of war, except the full glorious bloom of the bougainvilliers. Other flowering trees have wilted, or shyed, as their franchised gardners or patrons no longer operate on the same schedule or have evacuated on the ships of the bi-nationals. On the road to Saida, I was struck, irked and even upset at the bougainvilliers full bloom. From between their abundant leaves and flowers, vignettes of the ravages appeared. Bridges torn in their midst framed by the purple and fuschia bloom of the bougainvilliers.

The Road to Saida: Trekking the Coast
Maher went to Saida and came back and told me I ought to go. I thought I would go to find Akram, the world where a lot of things that are very meaningful to Akram dwell. I wrote to him and confessed I was planning to visit Saida because I missed him so much. I described it, in my cruel selfishness, as an "act of love". Instead of sending me instructions as to guide my act of love, he gave me a phone number for Ziad, a photographer, video artist and filmmaker. Ziad too is from Saida. He now lives in Paris where he is pursuing some sort of a degree, but is very much the son of Saida's privilges and the son of Saida's streets. Ziad happened to be in Saida on a visit when the war broke out.
Israel had given us two days, forty eight hours of no airstrikes on the south to allow inhabitants in the "zones of combat" to flee from sure death (as per Qana). Yesterday was the second half of these 24 hours. I thought it would be the least unsafe opportunity. And after making a set of phone calls, I set forth on my journey. Maher wanted Ziad to film my trek through the city for his website.
It was difficult to hitch a ride and I ended up calling Ahmad, a very enterprising young man whom I had met when I hung around journalists, a week or so ago (time unravels at a different pace now). He found a 4-wheel drive and a driver, and decided to accompany me. There are two routes to Saida. A coastal road (the old and straightforward route) is deemed dangerous because it is unprotected from the ire of Israeli warships lounging in our seas. There is another route, long and circuitous that drives up through the mountain overlooking the coastal road and then back down to Saida. I climbed into the 4-wheel drive and Ahmad announced he preferred us to take the coastal road, but that the passage near Damour had just been shelled. I asked to stop at a shop for us to buy water.
The driver stopped at one of the main intersections a few blocks from the apartment. When I climbed back, the driver was gone. Ahmad sat in his place. He said the guy got scared and decided to go and see about getting a new passport but let us use his car. Ahmad smiled to comfort me. I decided I was not going to worry about that glitch, that the driver's fright was merely a glitch.
As we drove out of Beirut, the road was increasingly empty, there were a few trucks carrying boxes of supplies labelled "Medecins sans Frontieres" and "Hammoud Hospital".
The last available bit of Hariri's proud highway from Beirut to the south was the tunnel. I noted the graffitti: "W R = Love forever" and smiled. There was something comforting about that marking. Or the absence of other markings.
We drove along the old road. It had not survived unscathed. There were small holes in its middle, and pieces of rocks, cement and debris. From within the winding inner roads, the new highway was visible and the big craters from the shelling. Ahmad decided we ought to take a chance and go through the Damour passageway, the bridge had been bombed almost entirely, except for its extreme most edge, the width of a 4-wheel drive. An impromptu army post guided traffic. It was iffy, but we made it.
The moment we crossed Damour, the thick charcoal smoke bellowing from the Jiyeh power plant filled the air, the fire in the fuel reservoirs had not extinguished. The tanks were charred, the plant was deserted. And so was the small port next to it.
The coastal road would have been bustling at this time in the summer. Expats, bi-nationals, students on summer vacation, and tourists. This is the stretch of the south's most visited beaches. They range from the very fancy to the modest. At this time in the summer, the roads would have been busy with the town's handsome beach boys, tanned, strutting in swim trunks and a claim to some local fame. Everything was eerily deserted. Even army soldiers, posted in spots with seemingly no rhyme or reason, walked cautiously, expecting to duck for cover at any moment. Life all around had folded and packed. What remained was suspended in terror from the Israeli barges lounging with arrogance and too far from eyesight in the sea. The eye could not see them, but every muscle in your body was stretched stiff with anxiety under their watch. Life was at the mercy of the IDF's whims, they had shelled the entire coast repeatedly, as only to satiate their cruelty, to assert their might.
We drove on the small roads inside Jiyeh and inside Rmeyleh and the small towns in between. We drove by closed homes, doors locked, windows shut, shutters sealed. The last gaze of their dwellers still lingering on the front porches, the gaze of a hesitant farewell that quickly ran a checklist to make sure all was safely tucked and hoped for the best, maybe even whispered a prayer or invoked God or Christ's clemency and then hurried into the car and sped away for a temporary safer haven. Under the cruel watch of the Israeli warships, lounging with arrogance and too far from eyesight in the sea.

Saida
The bay of Saida appeared and the coastal highway leading to its seaside corniche was entirely deserted. The bridge that unloads traffic from the highway onto the corniche had been pounded. Carcasses of cars lined its sides, some buried under blocks of concrete. We drove around and turned and entered Saida from roads tucked behind, lined with orange groves and bougainvilliers in full bloom.
Ahmad sitting behind the wheel said nothing, and now Akram's voice was speaking to me, bits and pieces of conversations from our trips to Saida and further south. The orange groves were dizzyingly fragrant. I forgave their charms for Akram's sake and focused my irritation with the bougainvilliers. Car traffic inside the city was heavy. Pedestrian traffic was heavy.
Saida had received more than 100,000 displaced until two days ago. The numbers increase by the day. People were guided first to the municipality where they were processed and instructed to go elsewhere, to a school, a public edifice. I was told people were renting entrances of buildings to sleep at night, or the garages of cars. So far more than 85 schools were housing all these displaced, in addition to an old prison and the building of the court of justice.
Saida was delivered a serious pounding in the first week of the war, but was relatively spared in comparison with other places in the south. During that first week things went quiet, the city wound down a little. Those who could afford to leave did, and the bi-nationals evacuated. After it was cut off from Beirut, and seemed relatively safe, a semblance of a normal pace of life returned. The streams of displaced added an intense bustle to that pace, but the city still sleeps earlier than its usual.
I called Ziad. He had left his house leaving his cell phone behind. His mother instructed me to drive near the old fort and look for his red Polo car. She also instructed me to ask "The King" about him and he would dig him up for me. I did not know who "The King" was. "You don't know the King?", she asked surprised. That was Saida. A provincial capital. Everyone is one and the half degrees of separation removed. Ahmad and I drove by the old fort looking for a red Polo. No red Polo, but hordes of families lounging about, in the open-air, obviously out for air.
I called Abdel-Karim, following Maher's instructions.

Where Love Dwells, Dalal and Abdel-Karim
Maher's instructions were delivered during our abbreviated phone conversations when he was in Tyre. They were brief because he could not really say much, and I did not feel I could pressure him to say much either. I call them instructions for kicks, to pretend I was on some sort of a mission. Maher wanted me to collect stories and footage or images for his project. Abdel-Karim and Dalal, his wife are his life-long comrades, he runs a center in Saida that provides training for people with disabilities to be able to integrate fully in the social economy of everyday life. They receive local funding as well as funding from Europe.
With the outbreak of the war, the center's life and role has been turned wholly upside down. Abdel-Karim and Dalal have themselves become displaced and Dalal who has another job has now become involved in the center's relief work. They now reside in Saida, in a house shared by several other families. Abdel-Karim and Dalal don't have any disabilities, but the vice-president, wheel-chair bound, who resides in Zreiriyeh a village further south, had to be evacuated and relocated to Saida, with his family.
In the space of a mere few days, the center's administration realized they had to set-up an emergency plan. The center opened their fully equipped bathroom to all the women and children who needed to take a shower. The center's kitchen, also fully operational offered meals to all those who need it. Two large pots with stuffed eggplant and squash were cooking in tomato sauce when I visited. A ceaseless clothes collection drive was provisioning people with clean garb. One of their ateliers was transformed to storing diapers, food rations and medicines. The computer class room was transformed to a sleep area, so was their exercize and recreation room.
Teams of volunteers were called and assigned tasks, by the time I visited they counted more than 15 teams comprising four or five people, some had disabilities, others not. Their emergency plan began with tending to their "own" people, namely the community of people with disabilities they knew. They visited them in their homes and made sure they had everything they needed. As streams of displaced were guided to the municipality, volunteers from the center contacted the teams who were receiving families to inform them they had the know-how and expertise to handle people with all forms of disabilities and special needs and could be entrusted with their care. Two weeks into the war and the "census" according to the municipality's paperwork showed there were only 20 persons with disabilities with special care. Abdel-Karim and Dalal were very skeptical. So Dalal assigned a team of volunteers that toured every single site where the displaced were resettled: schools, hospitals, public buildings. Wherever they went, they spread word that they would be able to answer the needs of the disabled. They found 250. They noted down the needs of each and everyone and have now assigned volunteers to visit them everyday and meet their needs. A simple example: bathrooms. Public and private schools are not outfitted for people with disabilities, so the center ordered for special devices from a local carpentry shop to facilitate bathroom use (more than 20 of these devices were purchased from the center's budget).
People with physical and mental disabilities are severely marginalized in everyday life in Lebanon under normal conditions of life. During war their marginalization becomes heart-wrenching. As people were evacuating under duress, in haste and panic, families were separated, the disabled were sometimes entrusted to the care of others (more able) or left behind. Their special needs were disregarded (wheelchairs, crutches were left behind, long-term supply of medication, etc.). There are horrific stories. A man with grave mental and physical disabilities was packed in the trunk of car and driven for 80 kms until he was placed in a bed. An elderly woman who cannot walk was left alone (she could not fit in the taxi her family hired to flee) and was evacuated by the village mayor. He dropped her at the center and left. Abdel-Karim was relaying onto me these stories, and his voice became hoarse. He choked and repressed his tears as he told me the fatal ones: a woman had died because her vital doses of insulin were not administered and one of their volunteers died as he drove under shelling to rescue and evacuate three disabled persons left behind in the village of Qasmiyeh just above of Tyre. The three were eventually brought into safety and they did not know died on his way to their rescue.
I sat in the main office across from Abdel-Karim's small desk cluttered with paperwork and a large computer monitor, Dalal was buzzing around us with missives and missions. The office was bustling with activity. It felt like the HQ of a major operation. People walked in and out, reporting on their "missions", delivering things, taking things, the phone did not stop ringing, and yet there was not a hint of tension, anywhere. It was the first time since the outbreak of this war that I found myself in a place where love was palpable. Love as in the spontaneous convivial filiation that binds a community overpowered by a dark circumstance.
Abdel-Karim ended every transaction or exchange with a joke or a very affectionate note. I was mesmerized by his ability to smile as often as he did. He is a tall, thin man, dark-skinned, handsome, features chiseled finely. He exhuded so much tenderness and amiability that the fine angular chisel of his features melted to roundness. Dalal, on the other hand, is of short stature, but she exhudes so much energy, you cannot fit her being in the size she actually occupies. She is fair-skinned, with colored eyes and a killer laugh. She is straight to the point, no bull-shit gal, who cannot sit down for more than fifteen minutes. Theirs is a great love story, but that's a whole other story.
They are both former fighters from the Communist party who have retired from the front decades ago. In the political landscape of power-wrangling in Saida, they are caught in the stampede of competition between the two"ruling" poles of Saida: the Hariri family and the Saad family. Sadly, actually the right epithet ought to be "sinisterly" but I don't know if that's exists in the Queen's English, relief for the displaced (in all its aspects) has been severely politicized. Abdel-Karim's gentle disposition turned to unforgiving rancor when he assured me that once the war is over, he will not let anyone get away with the corruption, the thievery and the banditry he has witnessed. To the best of his abilities he was compiling a daily log (too brief to become a journal) precisely to make sure he did not forget the crimes he was seeing. "This is our political class", he said, "when it's time to do politics, they do emergency relief, and when it's time to do emergency relief, they do politics." Dalal had not shyed from fighting in public with officials who withheld medicines for people she knew needed them badly. She has resorted to every imaginable stratagem: she has faked her voice and affiliation to secure beds for badly injured people in private hospitals that only open their doors to the wealthy and the well-connected (8 cases that I went to visit). They found her out after the 8th case. She caused a minor uproar in the press during an interview on al-Jazeera and revealed a corruption scheme regarding one of the medicines needed for people with mental disabilities. They both exploded in laughter as they recounted Dalal's exploits. (A couple of days prior to my visit, the Ministry of Health caught one of their employees stealing medicines and selling them to pharmacies in Beirut. The Minister of Health had made a big brouhaha about the "scandal" to show he was in control of the situation.)
A young woman stepped into the office, shyly. She needed to use the phone. She asked Abdel-Karim for permission. She called her family who had relocated to some other town. She reminded me of the people I see lining at public phones in Beirut. In their gait you can read the list of questions they are burning to ask. She spoke hurriedly, so as not to distract the center's phone line for too long. Her conversation was like a telegraphic ledger of who's where and how they were doing. She reported her information and information was reported back to her. She hung up, smiled from within a veil of anxiety and thanked Abdel-Karim, shyly. He gave her a compliment about her dress. She giggled a little but walked out hunched from the weight of the information freshly delivered to her, her mind processing facts, recalling each one, nailing each one so none would slip her memory.
The center was now also helping people find their kin. They gave shelter to people who were sleeping on the street, totally stranded. Amongst those, a Sri Lanki woman who worked as a housemaid and whom the household that employed her had left behind.

A Red Polo and Killer Smile
I was ready to receive instructions from Abdel-Karim and mostly Dalal (she had more of a bent for instructions) as to where to go. Ziad called. He was ready to meet me. I gave him directions to the center and went down to the street to fetch him. Ziad is in his twenties, he walks with a slight enough strutt that you know his street smarts still run deeper than his engagement with video art. Ziad is tall, charming, ties his hair in a pony tail, wears a goatie-beard, and has an unforgettable, fatal, killer smile. And smiles almost as often as Abdel-Karim. He came accompanied by a friend of his, Hussein. A Pentax dangled from Ziad's neck and Hussein carried the video camera.
I asked Ziad what he'd been doing. The first week, like most people, he had squatted at home, but as soon as the shelling let a little, he started going out and thinking about his life, the life of the city as it adjusted to this war. He was filming, but he was not a "voyeur" he told me, and did not chase after the gore and misery. "When your work is not about capturing the moment, you take your time to think and decide what to film," he said to me. The previous week he had put together something on the increasing shortage of water in Saida. And this week he was working on the fuel shortage. He had been going to gas stations that were selling gas and filmed the long lines, the tedious negotiations, the angry outbursts.
I led him and Hussein up to the center. They filmed. Dalal recommended I visit Dar es-Salam, a care center for the senior and the elderly. Since the outbreak of this war it started receiving patients with special needs, namely physical and mental disabilities that need monitoring on the longer-term. I wanted Ziad to take me to his Saida, or Akram's Saida.
Ahmad appeared suddenly as we paused on the street, he seemed nervous. We agreed on a time to leave and he insisted, the sooner the better. Had he heard something? "No," he said. He was just cautious. First the driver takes off, then Ahmad wants to leave barely an hour after we set foot, I commended myself on my skills for organizing adventures. I negotiated for two additional hours. He smiled. He had a kind heart and a kind face, Ahmad.
Ziad, Hussein and I climbed in the red Polo. "Where do you want to go?", he asked. (Killer smile.) I answered, wherever he wanted to take me, whatever he wanted me to witness, I had no plans really. He was now the navigator. So he said we should go to the Hammoud Hospital. He went looking for a physician who was a friend of his family and who told him about some sort of a case in her care. Ziad just presented us as "press". We parked, we walked up to the front desk. Ziad presented us as the press again. A few days earlier I had appeared on al-Jazeera (I was interviewed about these damned siege notes) and the front desk staff thought I was a newscaster. "You're on TV, right?", was the question. "Yes," was the self-assured reply. The lobby of the hospital was busy with activity, but the movement of limbs, bodies, the pace of conversations, the weight of gazes, all was encumbered with an additional gravity.
The physician was not available. We left. "Where to now?", Ziad asked. I reluctantly took the lead, and replied Dar es-Salam. As we winded through the streets of Saida. Ziad teased Hussein about his supposed affinity for the Saad family. Hussein played along. But it was clear the city was quite polarized and that competition had pervaded to the small rituals and habits of everyday life. Oussama Saad (the heir) is rumored to be distributing food rations with a clear label that reads "Made in Syria", to underscore the Hariri family's feud with the Syrian regime as a pro-American, anti-Arab stance. Oussama Saad had apparently made statements that he had dispatched a commando of fighters to the front to participate with Hezbollah in the battle. Hussein retorted something regarding the Hariri family. I stopped listening as we drove by the municipal building and was dumb-struck by the sight of incoming displaced.

Dar es-Salam
The building stood on a hill overlooking old Saida and the fort. There was a soft gentle breeze and all was quieter up on that hill. We went through the charade of introductions, and finally, it was Ziad's family name (his father) and my own (my father) that allowed us entry. We requested to visit only those new patients who had come as a result of the war, those with "special needs".
We were guided by one of the administrators in charge of the institution. The floor was innundated with natural light. Even the corridor was well-lit. The rooms were spacious and fit with four beds. The floor was not at full capacity.

In the first room, Amal and her two brothers. The brothers are not able to walk, she has only slight physical disability but stayed with them. A round soft face, amiable, gorgeous black eyes. When we walked in she was adjusting her coiffe. One of her brothers leaned by the window that gave onto the garden, and the other lay on the bed, not engaged with us. Their family was relocated to a school, they came to visit them. They had been at the hospital for 11 days.
In the next room, lay a man on a bed with severe mental and physical disabilities. "He was packed in the trunk of a car", the administrator said, "and driven from Aytaroun (now practically destroyed) to Saida. His brother drove him here, left Mahmoud, his son to take care of his uncle, and drove with the rest of the family somewhere else." Mahmoud was a fifteen year old boy that seemed a little too short for fifteen in my opinion. He had a bright, bright, radiant, gorgeous face. Wide hazel eyes. Mahmoud struck Ziad's heart. He walked up close to him. "I wanted to take care of my uncle", replied Mahmoud to someone's question. That implied changing diapers, feeding and bathing, explained the administrator. My heart dropped to my knees with sorrow. Mahmoud and his uncle had been there for 11 days. When his father dropped him off with his uncle, Mahmoud had no idea where his family would end up. He was without news for days. Mahmoud thought they would stay in one of the schools in Saida. Somebody reported seeing them in one of the schools, but it turned out to be false news. His father called one day from Syria. Unfortunately, Mahmoud had gone to the mosque to pray. One of the patients in the neighboring room answered the phone call and took down the information. Mahmoud was deeply saddened to have missed the call.
The administrator praised him a lot and the extent to which his spirits were positive, but reported catching the boy standing by the window looking sorrowful and mournful into the horizon.
In the next room, there were two men, both had sustained serious injuries and were recovering at Dar es-Salam to alleviate pressure on the hospitals. The first man did not speak. At least not when we were there, he is from Aynata (the village received a pretty dramatic pounding). He had two injuries in his legs. He asked the administrator for crutches. In the second bed lay an elderly man with an injury to his leg as well. He had been rescued by the Red Cross, from the same village (Aynata) and driven to Tyre, from there he was transferred to Labib Hospital in Saida, and from there to Dar es-Salam. He was in good spirits. His family was relocated to a school next door.
In the next room, lay two women. One was of an advanced age. Her son sat next to her and was caring for her. Across from her was an elderly woman that had physical disabilities and could not walk. She was from Abbassiyeh. She had been left behind. The mayor of that village had dropped her off and left. She did not speak. No one knew anything about her. She carried no identity papers. She lay in bed and stared into the garden. Her gaze was not unfocused. In fact it was intent. I have rarely seen such sharp, pure and focused sorrow. We moved around her room and she did not budge. The hospital administrator greeted her, to no reply.
In the next room four elderly women were lodged. One was from Zreiriyeh, a diabetic whose legs were amputated, and was on dialysis. She had piercing green eyes. Ziad (Killer smile) got the old ladies to talk. He walked in and asked each one where they were from. To the old lady from Zreiriyeh he asked if she knew the Kojok family. She said she was born a Kojok, "I recognized the green eyes", he replied knowingly. Her neighbor was from Adloun, she needed cataract surgery and had been there for 20 days. One of the women nudged me to ask her, and I asked her, and she said that she was from Srifa. "You will hear about the massacre of Srifa, you will hear," she said to me. She had driven with her family to Tyre, then to Saida, but her mother, who shared the room with the other eldelry ladies, had walked a week later from Srifa, "walked for three days, without respite," she kept repeating. "An old lady like me, walking for three days. We saw death and we could do nothing but walk."

The Bougainvilliers will be Forgiven
I know Ziad will return to see Mahmoud. We drove away and decided to get coffee. On the way Ziad was struck to see a gas station was operational and was selling gas. The line of cars was huge. People were tense. I said I did not mind him filming. We zigzagged through the cars, off course he honed in on the pretty girls and pretty women. Off course he negotiated filming them in some sort of a sequence after flashing that killer smile. I did not follow him. I stood watching the rhythm of stillness and anxiety.
As they drove me back to meet Ahmad, Ziad was playful again: "The crucial question in this war is, where are the women of Saida? How could they have disappeared?" Hussein replied that they all moved to Broumana (the mountains) or evacuated with the foreigners. "Damn our luck, all the women of Saida are bi-nationals!". "They're all gone? There must be some left, we must find them." Hussein chuckled.
Ahmad and I drove back the same way. I looked forward to the fragrance of orange blossoms and was now forgiving to the full glorious bloom of the bougainvilliers. My heart had never felt as heavy. There was a lot to hang on to, I mean for hope or strength or whatever it is that keeps people going, but there was so much wretchedness.
... The sorrows I have seen.

July 28, 2006

Map of Lebanon Attacks


Please find a map of the attacks on Lebanon from July 12 to 22.
Best, Rasha.

Lebanon Siege: Day 11

[Image: Rashidiyyeh Palestinian refugee camp, south Lebanon, near Tyre.]
Every day, I have to ask at least twice or three times what day it is, where we are now in July (Please tell me this war will be a July affair only). The calendar of the Siege barely sticks in my head. It's Day 16 or 17 when I am writing now. I don't know.
I have also tried to the best of my abilities to keep up to date with professional commitments from my former life. It's almost impossible, but if I stop I know I will fall apart entirely. It is surreal to write emails following up with work. The world outside is decidedly distant. The mental image of my apartment in New York is practically impossible to summon. Avenue A, the deli at the corner and the Yemenis who own it, all lapsed. This is what happens when you are under siege. Or these are the first effects of the siege, maybe when time will pass, my perception of the world will change and my imagination will be back at work, I will have this imagined geography of where I once was and people I once knew. I know I am not alone in this. My friend Christine said to me yesterday that she forces herself to go to the office to keep from going insane, but she cannot remember anything about her work before the siege started. The renowned Lebanese novelist, Elias Khoury, said this morning on al-Jazeera that he is so reminded of past experience with Israel's wars that he feels he is living between a time of memory and the present time. This war is not exactly a replay of 1982, but we cannot help recalling 1982. I keep joking that the "veterans" of 1982, those of us who endured that Israeli murderous folly, should get some sort of a break, a package of mundane privileges, free internet, free coffee, parking spots.
Beirut has been spared and life has resumed an almost normal pace. The sound of Israeli air raids comes every so often just low enough to spread chills of horror and fright. But the droves of displaced who arrive here every day have transformed the space of the city. Their wretchedness is the poignant marker of the war.
We live from day to day. The scenarios for the conclusion of this war seem very difficult to articulate, even to imagine. The US is intent on the continuation of the war, Israel has suffered a defeat and the goals it has set to determine some sort of victory don't seem fathomable. The Israeli press was beginning to ask a few intelligent questions until the IDF suffered losses in an ambush set-up by Hezbollah. One damn ambush, a mere handful of soldiers, and the entire press corps went ballistic overnight. They were all about flattening Lebanon, hurting the government, bringing out the big guns, more troops. One damn ambush where a mere handful of soldiers were faced with a reality they were not prepared to contend with: that Hezbollah guerrillas are well trained and will fight without blinking to defend the land from a ground invasion. What a funny army! What a funny society! What do they expect when they go to war with a guerilla?
One of their pundits (or officials) said that Israel was only using 10% of its military capacity. Imagine, 10% for a mere 3 or 5 kms squares! The arithmetics in Israel are suddenly emerging. For a very long time I have wondered what the equation is between the death of brown people and a single "white" life. There must be some sort of a secret arithmetic someplace in someone's drawyer that guides "outrage" in the western world. Off course Rwanda came to shatter all notions of an arithmetic. Then came the killing of Rachel Corrie, a white face with a brown heart. She did not count. Or at least it took a lot of pull to make her death a reason for outrage in the mainstream of the western world. In this war, other equations have emerged, for the still breathing life of a single Israeli soldier, the deaths in Gaza are enough to crowd a cemetary. And just recently, we had the famous equation, for every shell in Haifa, 10 buildings go down in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (This was verified on Tuesday: 23 shells brought down 10 buildings). But I digress...
It's a losing battle and they should negotiate a settlement and avoid more bloodshed and wretchedness for us all. This a time to be smart, not bloodthirsty.
The shelling in the south has been astounding. People are trapped in villages for days without anything: no food, no water, no electricity, no medicines. They were sending out calls for help and no one could get to them because the Israelis would not let ambulances come near (two were shelled in the past two days). The UN has been allowed to deliver some basic rations of food and medicine but they have been scarce. The Beqaa has been shelled ruthlessly as well.
The humanitarian tragedy is beyond description. One of the local television stations airs the cries of help from citizen trapped in their homes under shelling: so and so has not eaten for a week, so and so needs diabetic medicine, so and so needs his chemotherapy, so and so needs to be let out, so and so, so and so... The messages scroll, and scroll, and that's all I can see and hear. I can think of very, very little else. In fact, I obsess over these messages, of people trapped under shelling, bodies under rubble. I keep having fantasies of a huge, huge civilian procession of human shields walking alongisde convoys of food, medicine, ambulances, that defy Israeli's military superiority in the air. A similar mass of people that took to the street when it was aggrieved by former Prime Minister Hariri's death that walks fearless and relentless to the south. A human convoy of hundreds and thousands of people just taking back the country and lending their bodies to rescue their brethren trapped in villages. Civility turning the tide on barbarism. A crazy dream that ought neither be crazy nor a dream. Perhaps one day...

My Palestinian friends are irked again that because Lebanon is "sexy", the world watches Lebanon while Gaza is being sliced and bled. This is due to the ruthlessness and savvyness of the western media. On the Arab media, there is as much coverage of the Israeli horrors in Gaza as there is of the dose administered to Lebanon. In all cases, as Israel is now waging a war on these two fronts (in addition to its adventures in Nablus), something unexpected has happened. The two fronts are now inexorably linked. Gaza is nothing like the entire geography of Lebanon, politically, sociologically, culturally the two geographies could not be more different, and yet, as the same shells explode and kill there and here, and the flow of images from there and here is uninterrupted, the geographies have merged. The tacit alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah could not have achieved this proxiness. Their dead are now our own, our siege is theirs, there is a tandem of solidarity, of tragedy, of resilience, of defiance.

I have stopped accompanying journalists, I started to hang around the schools and other sites where the displaced have been relocated. I go from disappointment to outright rage at the governments' failure at responding appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. The other face of this country's victory is and will be its handling of the humanitarian crisis. The challenge is of an unimaginable scale. It is clear that the government neither has the wherewithalls or the know-how for handling it (and I would add will because when there's a will, there is a way). Closer to a third of the population is displaced. The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Health, and a slew of other public institutions have been subsumed in the pettiness of internecine political fighting. Not a single appointed official has had the guts or displayed the resolution to tend to the problem appropriately. If a crisis will erupt and I believe it will, they will have to be held accountable.
They parade on TV and in the streets, with their neat hair and pressed suits, moving from their air-conditioned meeting rooms to restaurants for "power lunches" and so-called coordination meetings, while hundreds and hundreds of volunteers are actually carrying the burden of this problem. What a shame this political class has proven to be. To make matters worse, they whimper and nag about how the Lebanese state has to be "reinforced" to diplomats and foreign envoys, while their OWN people sleep on mattresses (if they are lucky to have been given one) and walk around barefoot in circles wondering how they are expected to make a living.
In wars, there are two fronts: the battlefield and the civilian front. The critical civilian front in this war is not the unaffected handsome and well-to-do of Lebanon, but the 800,000 displaced. If Hezbollah are waging the war on the battlefield, the other field has been left to be tended to by bands of NGOs and charity organizations. The NGOs have shouldered the brunt of the burden, but only a handful charity organizations are not attached to the extremely petty ambitions of a political figure or group. And the ugliness of their short-sighted calculations (just as during the parliamentary elections that followed March 14th) have prevailed as they hand over sacks of sugar and rice. Some charity organizations have had the arrogance to force those who receive relief aid to hold up a photograph of the so-called political figure! Others ask them to pledge their loyalty or simply pledge their vote! This is how the political class is "rallying" around the country! This is how they face Israel's might!

I spent the afternoon yesterday in Karm el-Zeytoon, a neighborhood in Ashrafieh (that translates literally to "olive grove") where some schools have been opened to house some of the displaced from the south and from Beirut's southern suburb. I went to visit friends who were in charge of the Nazareth Nuns school (a public school). A band of dashing young men and women, not yet thirty years of age, that have taken upon themselves the task of ensuring the well-being and safety of some 120 or so men, women, children and elderly. Some in that band of volunteers belong to the Democratic Left movement, and the school, as are two neighboring other schools, are under the charge of the Samir Kassir Foundation.
Although they have established a schedule of shifts so as not to have their entire lives taken over by their volunteering, still, their entire lives are on hold and all they do in effect is tend to the displaced. The atmosphere inside the school was convivial, slow-paced but a low-grade tension is impossible to ignore. All throughout my visit I was smitten by their grace. They have had to organize every single aspect of everyday survival in that school: spaces where people sleep, the use of bathrooms, the overall hygiene of the place, "house-cleaning", collection of garbage, preparing meals, keeping stock of supplies, medicines, medical needs of the group, fun and games for the kids, security of the site, etc. That night, they were going to have the first attempt at screening a DVD in the school's open air courtyard (Finfing Nemo). They are not yet thirty years of age and yet they have to sort through the everyday problems that arise between adults their parents' age.
A nine-year old boy came nagging to T. (one of the main volunteers), as he and I chatted in the makeshift "salon" (a broken table and school bench at the side of the gateway to the school). He wanted T's permission to go to a printer's shop where he had heard he could find work on a day to day basis. He implored him. T. promised he would talk to the boy's father that night and they would see. The boy told him that some man in the group assured him that he would find him work. T did not have the heart to lecture him about the ills of child labor. The boy was in turmoil over the humiliating state of his family and was eager to share the burden with his father (a taxi driver whose earnings have gone extremely low).
At the opposite end of the open courtyard, R. (another volunteer) was trying to settle a dispute between two women. Khadijeh was upset with Hanadi because Hanadi had gotten all uppety and defiant that day and reneged on her duty to clean the bathroom and her sleep area. Khadijeh had cleaned in her place just to avoid a clash with other people in the group. Hanadi and her were related by marriage, Hanadi had provoked her. She had gotten uppety because her husband Ali, who works as a mechanic somewhere in the southern suburbs had gone back the day before and opened shop and earned some hard-needed cash. He claimed to have come back with 1,000$ in his pocket, bragged about not needing hand-outs and charity. It was probably a lie, but his wife was so tired of the brunt of humiliation she no longer felt obliged to abide by the rules that regulated their lives in that shelter. The women's screams got loud at some point, until Khadijeh walked away. It took some time for them to cool down. The other residents looked away, a discreet gesture to give the two women space for privacy. That's all the privacy afforded to people there, a gaze turned away. Otherwise, strangers have had to live with each other, their privacy shattered, their intimacy stripped.
Half an hour later, R. went to the back of the school building, I saw her, Khadijeh and Hanadi sit around a pot of freshly brewed coffee and cigarettes, sorting things out in gentler tone.
Another volunteer walked in carrying medicines for the group. He held a list in his hand and the bag of prescription drugs in the other. He went looking for each one, he knew them one by one. An hour later, a volunteer doctor came in, and that same volunteer went over the cases with him. He knew them one by one, who was allergic to what, who was breastfeeding and could not take that particular prescription, who had not reacted well to that medicine... I was in awe.
R. finished her seance with the two women and came back to sit with me. I played cards with a six year old with one elbow in a cast and eyes sparkling with humor. An elderly overweight woman came over and asked R. to find her and her sister a room. She could not tolerate the heat or the mosquitoes in her old age and health conditions. She begged her. She wanted to die in dignity, not like that, on a mattress in a school. She could barely hold back her tears.
I left them reluctantly. I was worried about the volunteers as much as the displaced. Until when could they go on on like that? Civil society is not equipped to supplant the government in that daunting task.
Two days ago, a TV station caught Walid Eido (a parliamentarian from Beirut, and one of the particularly mentally challenged from Hariri's al-Mustaqbal movement –God forgive Hariri for plaguing us with his own band of court-jesters), lounging on the beach, playing cards. They split their screen and aired images of the hapless displaced. The contrast was sinister. The next day, this illustruous representative of Beirut rushed on television to seem busy and babbled on as if he were in the "know". I hope that this war will be the end of his ability to walk the streets of Beirut. Do you understand my rage?

In my last siege note, I ranted about the Arab political class. Yesterday morning Hosni Moubarak served me with another stellar illsutration of his mugnificence. On his way back from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, he stated publicaly that Egypt would never go to war with Israel for Lebanon. Egypt is a country that is currently struggling with its development and was negotiating growth and could not put all this at risk for the sake of Lebanon. That same morning, the Egyptian government raised the price of gas by 30%!
Dignified! Contrast that sense of dignity with the Lebanese injured who refused to be flown over to Jordan for treatment because of the King's support of the Israeli war on Lebanon.
On a final note I would like to correct something I wrote from my last "siege note". I said that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Lebanon. I need to ammend that and say that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Gaza, in the increase of settlements in Palestine, in the construction of the apartheid wall and in the genocide in Darfur. These are its 2005-2006 achievements that linger in my memory. There could be more.

Lebanon Siege: Day 9/10

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. 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, 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 targetted factories, some operational, others under construction. None were Hezbollah fortresses off 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 tangibe 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 pause 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 discheveled, 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 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 peeked 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, envigorating significance.

The New Middle East, Conspiracy and Hassan Nasrallah's televised adress
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 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. Awaiting to be given a proper burial.

Lebanon Siege: Day 8

I have to confess that writing is becoming increasingly difficult. Writing, putting words together to make sentences to convey meaning, like the small gestures and rituals that make-up the commonplace acts of everyday life, has begun to lose its meaning and its cathartic power. I am consumed with grief, there is another me trapped inside me that cries all the time. And crying over the death of someone is a very particular cry. It has a different sound, a different music and feels different. I dare not cry out in the open, tears have flowed, time and time again, but I have repressed the release of pain and grief. My body feels like a container of tears and grief. I am sure it shows in the way I walk. Writing is not pointless per se, but it is not longer an activity that gives me relief. The world outside this siege seems increasingly far, as if it had evacuated with the bi-national passport holders and foreigners.

The past few days have been MURDEROUS in the south and the Beqaa Valley. The death toll has been increasing in a horrific exponential envigorated with the White House giving a green light for the military assault to persist. Beirut has been spared so far, but not the southern suburbs. Today is Day 12 of the war, the Israeli military has conducted 3,000 air raids on Lebanon in 12 days. Out of the total deaths so far, which range close to 400 (numbers are not definitive), almost 170 are children. The numbers of the displaced are increasing by the hour. Have you seen the pictures of the deaths? The mourners in Tyre? Have you seen the coffins lined up? And the grieving mothers.
It is impossible not to grieve with them, it is impossible to shut one's ears to their wailing. It haunts me, it echoes the walls of the city, it bounces off the concrete of destroyed bridges and buildings. In trying to explain what drove Mohammad Atta to fly an airplane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, someone (I forget whom- sorry facts-checkers) once said to me that Atta must have felt that "his scream was bigger than his chest". That description stayed with me, I don't know if I agree with it, or if that's how Atta felt in reality, but it comes back to me now because I feel that my grief is bigger than my chest and I have no idea how to dissipate it.

The Southern Suburbs
I accompanied journalists to Haret Hreyk two days ago. I suspect I am still shell-shocked from the sight of the destruction. I have never, ever seen destruction in that fashion. Western journalists kept talking about a "post-apocalyptic" landscape. The American journalists were reminded of Ground Zero. There are no gaping holes in the ground, just an entire neighborhood flattened into rubble. Mounds, and mounds of smoldering rubble. Blocks of concrete, metal rods, mixed with furnishings, and the stuff that made up the lives of residents: photographs, clothes, dishes, CD-roms, computer monitors, knives and forks, books, notebooks, tapes, alarm clocks. The contents of hundreds of families stacked amidst smoking rubble. A couple of buildings had been hit earlier that morning and were still smoking, buildings were still collapsing slowly.
I was frightened to death and I could hear my own wailing deep, deep within me.
I stopped in front of one of the buildings that housed clinics and offices that provide social services, there seemed to be a sea of CD-Roms and DVDs all over. I picked up one, expecting to find something that had to do with the Hezbollah propaganda machine (and it is pretty awesome). The first one read "Sahh el-Nom 1", the second "Sahh el-Nom 17". "Sahh el-Nom" was a very popular sit-com (way, way before the concept was even identified) produced by Syrian TV in the 1960s. It was centered on the character of "Ghawwar el-Tosheh", who has become a salient figure in popular Arab culture. I smiled mournfully, at the irony. Around the corner passport photos and film negatives covered the rubble.
Haret Hreyk was a residential area. The residents, I was told by our driver who lived a few blocks away, were evacuated by Hezbollah to other places before the shelling began. Those who refused to leave then, left after the first round of shelling. Haret Hreyk is eerily ghostly, there are practically no people left in that neighborhood. In the two hundred meters radius removed however, life is on-going. Residents testified that Hezbollah was securing food, electricity and medicines to all those who stayed.
Haret Hreyk is also where Hezbollah had a number of their offices. Al-Manar TV station is located in the block that has come to be known as the "security compound" (or "security square"), the office of their research and policy studies center, and other institutions attached the party. It is said that in that heavily inhabited square of blocks, more than 35 buildings were destroyed entirely.
Hezbollah had organized a visit for journalists that day, as they had the day before. They provided security cover for the area for the international media cameras to document the destruction. There was a spokesperson greeting journalists. A small rotund man, dressed in a track suit, fancy sunglasses, a two-day old stubble carrying two state of the art cell phones. He spoke in concise soundbites and was affable. There was nothing menacing about his demeanor, in fact were it not for the destruction around him he looked more like he would be an assistant to Scolari (similar dress code and portend) than part of the media team of a "terrorist organization".
The security apparatus of Hezbollah was also impressive, underscoring the identity of Hezbollah. They were all affable, welcoming, dressed casually and unarmed. They all held walkie-talkies, and when looming danger of another Israeli air strike seemed tangible, they all ushered the group of some 30 (and more) journalists to clear the area. They issued their warnings calmly and confidently.
One of the buildings was still burning. It had been shelled earlier that day at dawn. Clouds of smoke were exhaling from amidst the ravages. The rubble was very warm, as I stepped on concrete and metal, my feet felt the heat.

Israeli Warfare Mystery
Doctors in hospitals in the south have testified on television that they a number of bodies that have reached them have an unusual, unfamiliar skin color. Some of surviving injured exhibit a pattern of burns that doctors have also never seen before. The question is beginning to get attention for the world community of physicians and human rights organization. Israel is suspected of loading its missiles with toxic chemicals. The fear, in addition to their toxicity being immediately lethal on its victims, is that the waters and earth may now be poisoned. The inhabitants of the south may have to suffer from Israel's wrath for a very, very long time, in chilling cold blood.
The as-Safir newspaper, the second largest running daily in Lebanon, has taken up the task to investigate the question.
Beyond the crime of toxic poisoning, the type of shells and bombs used is also astounding. I met a woman who was displaced from the borderig village of Yater. She is a native American, blue blood and apple pie, but with a hijab. She, her husband, her three babies and her husband's family, a total of 14 people were trapped in one room in their house in Yater. On the 6th or 7th day of shelling, she cracked and her kids could not longer handle the violence. Risking their lives, they jumped into their car, and decided to take their chance. They drove straight without stopping, taking circuitous ways when the main roads were impossible to tread. They expected to die on the road. After 14 hours of driving they made their way to the US embassy in the northeastern suburbs of Beirut. They were not aware of evacuations. They were lost on the way, and someone stole her husband's wallet with the 400$ in cash they carried (the totality of their fortune), his green card and her US passport. I came across her at the US embassy compound. She was trembling. She could barely tell her story coherently. She repeated over and over that she had seen houses fly, that the shells made the houses fly in the air and then collapse on the ground. She repeated that she ought not to have gone to the window, but she could not help it, she was curious, and she saw the houses fly.
As a holder of US passport (and real native) she had been allowed into the embassy. Her husband, only a green card holder, was not. The US embassy changed their policy, I was later told by people and journalists, but at various stages in the evacuation, green-card holders were not included in the evacuations plan. Pardon me, in the plans for "assisted departures".
I don't know what happened to the American mother from Portland Oregon and Yater south Lebanon. I know her babies are lactose intolerant and their only food was the stock of soy milk she had with her. She was very young, a face earnest, her skin transluscent white. In her pale blue eyes there was despair and fright that she will not recover from for a very long time.

The Displaced
The displaced have been dispersed in the country. They have been placed in schools, universities, government owned buildings. Aid is arriving, but still in chaotic manner. Volunteers are beginning to get tired. However nothing compares to the distress of the displaced. They are in a state of complete emotional upheaval. Their presence has already changed the habits and rituals of the neighborhoods where they have been placed.
As the sun begins to set and the harshness of its rays begins to dim, you find families strolling on Hamra street (a main commercial thoroughfare in West Beirut). Shops are closed, sandwich shops are closed, cafes are intermittantly open, but the sidewalk provides an opportunity to escape the confinement from the shelter where they been relocated. You can see it in their walk, their body language. Their pace searches for peace of mind, not for a destination, their lungs expand drawing in oxygen to inspire quietude and calm, not for cardiovascular pressure. They have a deep, mournful, sorrowful gaze. They left behind their entire lives, maybe even their beloved.
In Ras Beirut, small backstreets have come to life. To escape the heat of indoor confinement, displaced families relocated to old homes or government-owned buildings, have grown in the habit of placing plastic chairs and their narguiles on small front porches or entrance hallways of buildings. I had to walk home after a long day of working with journalists, two nights ago, and as I zigzagged through these back streets, I was comforted by their gentle presence. They chatted, softly, quietly, huddled in groups, watching the night unfold, fearful of the sound of Israeli warplanes.
The ceaseless newscast from a radio kept everyone informed. It too sounded softly. It was a gentle summer night, and the families dispersed and uprooted surrendered to the gentleness of the night.
On the next block, three young woman stood in line, queuing for access to a public payphone. That too has become a familiar sight in Beirut. People lining at public payphones. They stood, clearly tired but resilient. To my "good evening", I was greeted back with smiles and another "good evening". I was relieved to see that they felt safe, that they roamed the city at night without qualms. How long can they afford to pay for these phone calls is another question. There is a definite need for a long term plan. This emergency solution will soon reach a crisis, and state structures need to be prepared to face the anger and frustration of nearly 500,000 people.
On the next block, a Mercedes car packed with people was parked at a corner, in front of the entrance of a building. The car's doors were flung open and the radio broadcast news. It was a visit. Two displaced families on a nightly visit. Everyone was gentle, and a soft breeze blew with clemency.