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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies - 15: Quick Trip to Lebanon

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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies - 15

November 8, 2006

Quick Trip to Lebanon: Old Ruins and New

I was invited to lecture for the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut. So, I spent this Halloween expounding on Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and other nineteenth century travelers to the Holy Land to a hall of faculty and students on the beautiful campus overlooking the Mediterranean. The audience also included a deputy from the American embassy (with bodyguards) and the president of the university. I'd like to think that these dignitaries came because of my prodigious intellect, but it's probably more because of the fact that I had simply shown up. I had arranged to deliver the lecture before the recent war, and CASAR Director Patrick McGreevy asked me as soon as the bombs let up if I was still interested in coming. I told him that if he was open for business, I would be glad to come: business as usual, I felt, was a kind of defiance against war. It turned out that most of the other invited academics had had second thoughts and cancelled, and I was among the first to appear at AUB. Either I was a damn fool or they were misled. Or both. Now I am in the odd position of testifying to the fact that Beirut is quite normal - sort of.

I had last visited Beirut several months before the 1982 Israeli invasion, and the city was so very different then. Now there is a downtown around the Green Line dividing West and East Beirut instead of burned out highrise hulks; now there's a beautiful pedestrian zone with shops and restaurants. A building boom is evident, with cranes and half constructed buildings throughout the city. Before, there were rival checkpoints, artillery bombardment, clashes; and as the war with Israel loomed, it was the PLO that was the target. Not this time. In fact, as Lebanese fled from the south, Palestinians gave them refuge in their own refugee camps. A touch of irony.

Beirut has not been bombed to oblivion. Only certain neighborhoods were flattened. There was no bomb damage around AUB or in most other parts of the city, except for the Shiite areas. When I was driven outside of the city, I could see that narrow temporary bridges replaced ones blown up, unpaved dirt filled bomb craters in highways, and constant detours made driving like navigating a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the damage to Beirut was of the invisible kind: a shattered economy, masses of refugees in dire need, electricity and services cut off. During the war, most of the foreign faculty were evacuated (Patrick McGreevy stayed in his own act of defiance); but AUB students cleared piles of uncollected garbage around the streets outside the campus and volunteered to help displaced families, while the university's medical center worked around the clock to heal the injured. At the start of the war many Lebanese were critical of Hezbollah for provoking Israel. But when Israel bombed sites in Christian areas and devastated the bridges, roads, major utilities, and the rest of the infrastructure, the country rallied to Hezbollah's support. Israel's heavy-handed attempt to make Christians, Druze, and Sunnis turn against the Shiite party was a total failure. While the political divisions remain, just about all Lebanese are angry and disgusted with Israel. Not to mention the U.S., despite Bush's expressions of support for the Lebanese government. One sign over a bombed building explained it: Made in the USA.

Now that the war was over, the normal fun-loving hubbub Beirut is famous for has resumed. The university is active, the students hang out and rush to classes like anywhere else, and jeans remain the dominant uniform. My lecture provoked a lively, challenging discussion of Twain and Melville and how the idea of a Holy Land affected American attitudes towards the Middle East. Without question, the university's intellectual life is very much alive.

The night before I had dinner at a cafe' near the campus filled with students and their laptops, eating and gossiping as in any campus joint. In an adjacent smoke-filled room the sociology department was leading an extensive, impassioned discussion as part of its monthly "salon." After my lecture I was regaled with dinner at a wonderful Middle East/California fusion restaurant in the fashionable Hamra neighborhood. I chuckled to myself when I recalled people's shocked looks when I told them I was going to Beirut. Yes, I thought, I could tell them how too terribly soft the mattress was at the deluxe hotel where I stayed.

Still, despite the evidence of normalcy, all is by no means well. I attended Professor McGreevy's "Introduction to American Studies" class and gave a small talk to the students on American culture as an expression of its settler-colonial history. Afterwards, I asked the students how they felt about the current situation. There was still a strong sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Patrick noted that an unusual number of students were asking for letters of recommendation to other universities outside of the country; a lot of people were ready to leave very quickly. The students nodded agreement. Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop - the US invading Syria, Israel bombing Iran, sectarian violence erupting in Lebanon. Even if something does not directly affect Lebanon, the repercussions could disturb the delicate political balance or undermine the fragile economic recovery. The beautiful crazy quilt of religious sects and politics that makes up Lebanon could fly apart, despite everyone's revulsion to resume the civil war.

Just the night before, Israeli jets had zoomed over Beirut and the south, diving down in mock bombing runs, in violation of the ceasefire, sending a terrible fright to the people. (This probably did not make the news in the U.S.: a small piece of flotsam in the vast sea of Middle East pain.) The Israeli authorities said they were looking for weapons, although a child could tell them that mock bombing runs was not the best intelligence-gathering technique. The UN peacekeeping forces warned the Israelis that they would use their anti-aircraft guns if they continued with such violations. People in Lebanon regarded such antics as psychological warfare, a reminder of Israeli impunity - you never can tell: one day the bombing run may be real - and it had its effect: the edginess persisted.

At one side of Martyr's Square, alongside a huge new mosque dedicated to Rafik Hariri, a large tent covers the graves of the prime minister and his aides killed in the notorious car bombing nearly two years ago. I saw the site of the bomb blast near the sea - the extent of the damage was immense, with shattered buildings all around the wide crater, which was now filled with dirt. Many suspected his assassination to be the work of Syrian agents, although it could have been done by others. Still, the assassination fueled the huge movement to drive Syrian troops out and forced a United Nations investigation of the murders. Tensions remain. Syrian allies like Hezbollah and others are calling for a national unity government, which the ruling coalition fears would blunt or even derail the investigation or allow for the return of Syrian influence.

Marcy Newman, a professor of American Studies visiting for the year from Montana State University, graciously drove me out to the Bekaa Valley to visit the famous ruins of Heliopolis at Baalbak, one of the stops Mark Twain and other nineteenth century travelers would be sure to make. Lack of signs and constant detours allowed us plenty of excuses to get lost. There were no posh restaurants in the impoverished Shiite districts of Beirut, but there were plenty of yellow Hezbollah flags and huge vivid billboards and signs celebrating the party's "Divine Victory." Back in my hotel room I would watch Hezbollah's TV station as it played triumphant montages of footage from the war; their production values were incredibly professional, as slick as Fox; and the TV channel was filled with a mix of panel discussions, interviews with Hassan Nasrallah, news, prayers, and soap operas. (Then, in characteristically Lebanese fashion, I could switch the TV to the Fashion Channel and watch women in skimpy lingerie parade down the runway.)

Still, nowhere in Lebanon did I see anyone dressed in what could be called a Hezbollah uniform. We passed checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army throughout the city and into the valley. Only the Lebanese army. Even in southern Lebanon, I saw only Lebanese soldiers, never Hezbollah. I imagine the guy changing tires or working the cash register in a small shop could become a Hezbollah fighter at the drop of a hat - or drop of a bomb. But for now they had returned to civilian life, remaining discreet to honor the government's truce agreement, and displaying, once again, their discipline. I was told that, as opposed to the lackadaisical responses people gave to Lebanese soldiers directing traffic, when Hezbollah militants would raise a hand for cars to stop, everyone obeyed instantly, meekly questioning if it were OK to turn this way or that. They commanded respect.

After climbing up the mountains and maneuvering through several traffic jams brought about by bomb damage, we descended into the Bekaa Valley. It was remarkable for its ordinariness. To many Americans, Bekaa Valley is synonymous with "Terrorist Base" or, at best, "hashish," and there are plenty of signs of support for Hezbollah, although the famous hashish crop seemed to have retreated to more remote areas. Driving through back roads, it was remarkable to see just how regular it all looked: farms, cows, goats, and vineyards. It reminded me of the Central Valley in California, with the mountains bordering Syria in the East looming up like the Sierras.

We arrived at Baalbak as dusk neared. The ruins of columns and entire walls are remarkable and quite substantial. They are the oldest Roman ruins in the Middle East, with remnants dating back to Greek and Assyrian eras and to early Christian and Muslim times. The town was fairly large, but the ruins stood in a kind of green park-like area extending into adjacent fields, a little grown over. Alongside rose a mosque dedicated to a Shiite saint, which we could see was damaged by a bomb near its foundation. Any concussion in this area obviously could have had a detrimental effect on the ruins - some of the columns tilt precariously - and international archaeologists did complain that Israel's bombs had damaged the cultural treasure, dislodging some of the pile. How odd to be the only tourists as we pulled into the parking lot. A woman selling Lebanese and Hezbollah flags and other souvenirs stood forlorn in the little plaza. (I sported a yellow Hezbollah baseball cap but declined to buy it: I could see some problems getting it through customs without me ending up in Gitmo.) Baalbak used to be overrun with tourists - the old stones would bustle with hordes of the living marveling over the works of the long dead. But now it was pretty much left to the dead. Although the main museum had already closed, we were allowed to walk through the grounds, stepping through the lush grass as water from a swollen creek rushed by and the setting sun gave the columns a rich, golden hue. Everything glowed in that light, weirdly luminous, magical, and we watched, alone.

We were stunned by the beauty of the place, particularly at dusk - but then we realized that we should be careful not to stumble over any cluster bombs. We began to look down in the gathering dark, gingerly picking our way through the rocks. Were we being a little too paranoid? After all, wouldn't the monument, the town's main tourist attraction, have already been inspected? I imagined so - except that, in another part of Baalbak, a school bus driver found a cluster bomb and brought it to the school principal, whereupon it blew up, killing the driver and injuring the principal. (The news reports were a little uncertain: the dead man was reported to be either a bus driver or a Hezbollah munitions expert. I reckoned he could have been both - although it seemed his expertise was not too great.) Students at AUB were organizing with others a mass demonstration in a few days against the use of cluster bombs (all of which were supplied by the U.S.). These weapons scatter small bomblets over wide areas, and many do not go off on impact. A farmer picking olives might find one lodged in a tree, a kid could kick a rock to discover it was something lethal. Hezbollah had its own monstrosities: rockets filled with ball-bearings and nails meant to slice civilians. But, once exploded, the damage was done. Cluster bombs linger; it was as if the Israelis wanted to leave a lasting gift.

I was also able to travel to the south. Basem Ra'ad, professor of English from al-Quds University in east Jerusalem who is visiting at Lebanese American University, arranged for a van with an expert driver from an NGO that supplies medical and social aid to people suffering from the war. Accompanied by Jean-Marie Cook, a retired English professor from AUB who has lived in Beirut for over 40 years, we drove along the coast. Huge piles of rubble rose up along the beaches in the southern parts of Beirut. These mountains resulted from the clean up of the flattened neighborhoods, and they were fast becoming an environmental disaster, oozing toxins and filling in waterways. In the rural areas, authorities feared that drivers found it easier to unload their dump trucks in some creek bed or gully, disrupting the local ecosystem.

To the south of Beirut, Saida (Sidon) and Sour (Tyre) seemed bustling and back to life, although there were few customers as we took a coffee break at a comfortable beachside pastry shop in Sour. Again, other than the roads and bridges, we didn't see too much damage. Then we drove deeper into the area close to the Israeli border, the towns where the fierce ground battles took place. The landscape got increasingly rocky, jagged, cut up by gullies and hills and steep valleys, dotted with scrub and low trees. Such a terrain would favor the defenders, simply because it was so rough. Villages dotted the area, their modest stone houses climbing up and down the hillsides. In every town, some kind of heavy equipment was removing the rubble of buildings destroyed by bombs or shells. Oddly, there were also huge villas, virtual palaces, that stood out by how lavish and how untouched they appeared. Jean-Marie informed me that they were houses of Lebanese businessmen who had gotten rich in America or Canada or Africa and had built their trophy houses back home. I don't believe I ever saw any damage to these homes. It occurred to me that perhaps Israel and Hezbollah did not want to deal with the consequences of attacking the rich. After all, what if they were American citizens? Too messy.

At Qana we came to the site where scores of civilians had died while huddled in their apartment building's basement bomb shelter. A building next to it still stood, damaged, but all that was left of the one that was attacked was a cement floor with the horizontal grave markers of Muslim cemeteries. Fenced in, with loudspeakers permanently wired for prayers, and a billboard with a collage of the photos of the dead children and women and men overlooking the site, it was a small cemetery, the people buried where they had perished when an Israeli bomb made a direct hit. Not too far away there was a similar monument marking another tragedy that had occurred years earlier, the killing of civilians who had fled to a UN compound for safety only to become targets of Israeli bombs. Qana had the misfortune of having had hideous lightning strike twice.

We went further south, passing UN tanks and APCs painted white (tanks get the right of way!), our driver asking directions, getting lost, backing up, turning around, asking again, until we finally arrived at Bint Jabail, the scene of the first, last and most ferocious battles of the war, with the Israeli border running by the ridge just across the gulch below us. During the war, the Israelis would announce that they had gained control of the town only to be surprised again and again by Hezbollah fighters popping up from tunnels or other hiding places to resume the fight. In the end, Bint Jabail was never secured. I was struck by how large the town was. I had pictured the place to be a tiny village, but it was a fair-sized town, with residences spread up and down the hillsides in all directions.

Most of the damage was concentrated in what must have been the commercial section of town, and it was extensive. A derrick was breaking up rubble at the foot of the hill, but there were plenty of wrecked buildings still standing. Narrow streets worked their way up the slope with gutted, blown up buildings on all sides. Some looked like they had shops on the ground floor with apartments above. A book scattered in the rubble, a mangled car, a chair incongruously dangling over a window ledge. Our driver pointed to the sewer grates - places where the Hezbollah fighters would suddenly appear. It was eerie walking through the ruins - once in a while a cat came by or a lone little girl walked down from the still habitable part of town. This was where soldiers had fought not long before, where tanks hammered with their shells, and planes dropped their loads, block after block. Soldiers had died here, Israeli and Hezbollah, and no doubt civilians too, and its weird, empty stillness was powerful. This part of Bint Jabail was, quite literally, a ghost town.

This was the new Baalbak, the new ruins of our dying era. These were the leftovers of murderous conflict - the evidence of the incredible ability of humans to kill each other and wreck their world. They wouldn't last like Baalbak's monuments; these piles of rock would be hauled off. It was sad and bewildering. Again, we were the only "tourists." But as we pulled away a tall thin man in a suit and tie unfolded himself from a car accompanied by a Lebanese military officer and two bodyguards. Our driver recognized him: the gentleman was the US ambassador. It seemed that he had come to inspect the damage, just as we had. Was he evaluating American weapons systems?

Hassan Nasrallah announced during an interview that day that Hezbollah was negotiating with Israel for the release of the two soldiers they had taken prisoner in exchange for Lebanese captives. Perhaps some deal was in play. But from such a short visit I cannot pretend that I have become some kind of expert on current Lebanese politics or of Israel's doings in Lebanon. I did not meet with any politicians or militants as I had 25 years earlier. But living even briefly in a place helps focus reality, and you pick up all sorts of details and emotions unavailable any other way.

Ironically, Rami Khouri, a journalist for The Daily Star, Beirut's English-language newspaper, was finishing a fellowship at Stanford while I was in Lebanon. Before my trip I was able to hear him speak, and he made the point that both Israel and Hezbollah - and their respective populations - are equally motivated, determined, and willing to fight. There was an impasse in Lebanon and throughout the region, a kind of new and dangerous cold war. He called for all sides to take responsibility for their actions. In the end, everyone would have to address the central concern of the conflict - the need to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and for the creation of a genuinely independent Palestinian state, which would have a positive effect on Lebanon as well. Otherwise, he warned, these two determined populations, both driven by a sense of desperation and hatred, both convinced that their survival was at stake, could quickly resume killing each other.

I believe him. Both sides have gotten very good at doing just that.

Hilton Obenzinger
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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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