Her shoes were blown off, torn from her feet. That’s all. And the other half of the room, the entire building, simply gone. She was thrown by the force of the blast against her desk, her shoes taken from her in the explosion along with those standing across from her, her friends. An incision was precisely drawn, and half the building was cut from life. How strange that only her shoes would be taken as a token by death, while her friends across from her desk were consumed.
We walk together through the streets of Fakhani, the crowded residential district that swept across that Israeli pilot’s computerized crosshairs only a few weeks before. Posters of martyrs on the walls, banners in Arabic draped across alleys, children skittering through narrow streets, until we come suddenly to a hole in the sky. Among the crowded balconies there appears only a hole. And beneath the hole a block is gone, just a mound of rubble remains. The horror appears more stark in the neighboring buildings which survived, the half crushed balconies, the roofs half snapped off, the half-exposed naked insides of bedrooms. The mute half which survives tells the whole of horror, a witness.
She is a cadre in the Democratic Front, showing the devastation brought upon the offices of her organization with a certain matter-of-factness. It’s hard to imagine her drawn, ironical face as a target. Obviously the Israeli pilots are trained at comprehending the faceless. She laughs at the oddness of surviving with only her shoes gone, and can’t remember how she was brought down from the maelstrom by rescue squads.
A bulldozer rumbles back and forth over the mounds. It’s been nearly two months now, yet the rubble still seems monumental, and everyday the bulldozer pushes heaps to the waiting dump truck. A man joins us, curious at the sightseeing on the part of strangers. She speaks to him in Arabic, and he converses. “He wants you to know that this was done by American planes,” she translates. He nods. I nod. He sighs.
Piles of broken stone looked upon by mothers leaning out of windows, children playing. I am told that the concussion was so intense that halfway down the block children were strewn, looking entirely fit, except for the massive internal shredding which killed them. We climb over one mound after another. A broken doll, a broken chair, all the remnants of home, and the roar of the bulldozer filling the emptiness.
Climbing, a thought seeps into me, some kind of memory. How can I have a memory of this? I have never been to Beirut, nor have I seen any similar scenes of war. Yet, as we climb over the ruins, the memory gnaws at me, disturbing me by a nostalgia that should have no basis. The hot sun bears down, glaring on the wreckage. Where have I seen this before? Where have I felt this sun, this barren heat, this pervasive demolition?
Of course, now I remember. The South Bronx! This is the South Bronx that I remember, the miles of rubble, the bare buildings burning at the hands of landlord arsonists, the miles of destruction….
I tug at my Palestinian guide. “This — this is just like the South Bronx. I mean, it reminds me of the South Bronx. Do you know what I mean?” I yell over the bulldozer. She looks at me askance. Americans are a slightly lunatic crowd, even the progressive ones — perhaps especially the progressive ones. She smiles at me.
I shut up, overcome by the intensity of recognition, of familiarity, and of how strange it feels to be comfortable because of remembrance, simply because of remembrance, when what is remembered is death. How mysterious are the ways of the lords of America! The results are the same, whether from the wingtip of an F-15 or the match thrown at the spilled gasoline. The South Bronx or Beirut, the warfare takes on a different character yet remains the same. When they seek to displace, dismember, tear the people from the tools of life; when they seek to expand their ownership, to demarcate who will sell themselves and who will buy, they have no preference for Lebanon or New York.
At the Front
“Now we will take you to the front,” Ahmad announces as we pile into the beat-up BMW. Traffic is an exercise of nerves and a deft horn in Beirut. Rules of the road, like the rule of the state, were always tenuous in Lebanon; now in the day to day life of war the ultimate rule is “Go!” We advance at fantastic speed through the narrow streets. After a while I notice the streets thinning out, less populated. The walls are more bullet riddled, pocked, ruined. Until finally we arrive at one street which is dead-ended by sandbags and an earthen barricade.
A young man is shaving, squinting at a mirror nailed to a wall, as we arrive. Quickly he wipes his face to greet us. This is the position of one of the communist groups lined up with other patriotic forces against the fascists. On the other side of the barricade we can see other ruins, fascist-held territory, in the near distance.
As we sit at the table behind the barricade our host informs us that a few days ago we couldn’t eat there. Sniper fire was so intense that it was not possible to linger anywhere in this area. I glance at the rooftops. He pulls out some Arab bread, some margarine and jam which we scoop up to our mouths. Presumably the sniper is gone. We can see the red hammer-and-sickle-and-AK-47 flag of his party waving on the facade of a ruin in no man’s land. I imagine the flag waves where once the sniper enjoyed his domain of terror. The boy soldier smiles with a broad grin.
He is sixteen years old, has been fighting since he was twelve. During the school year he attends classes and pulls guard duty at the front after school. I have a hard time imagining puberty during a civil war, the warfare of youthful hormones sparkling amidst the shelling. Still, his smile betrays his youth, his gleefulness….
Again we careen to another section of the front dividing Beirut into east and west. Again the traffic thins out as we approach, this time the Shatila neighborhood. Again we drive to a dead-end street with sandbags and earthen barricades. This street is peopled with small children running in and out of the barricades, bustling with activity.
There, across approximately a block of ruins, a building of several stories stands, its walls jagged, blown out. Looking over the embankment, I can discern the soldiers positioned behind a former wall on the fourth floor, enemy soldiers. I raise the camera for the shot, the blur drawing closer and closer, framing the scene of….
“He’s going to shoot! Take cover!”
We duck low behind the embankment waiting for the report, scrambling back away from the line of fire.
As I had focused my sights on the fascist soldier, just as the blur became acute, he had been focusing his sights on me! Perhaps the bullet would have pierced through the lens into my mind’s eye! He was going to kill me! I’m stunned, dazed against the building walls as the kids keep screaming and playing in the line of fire, as the Palestinians who had brought me laugh at me, at my lesson in war.
Suddenly a drunk reels out from behind doorway sandbags, roaring with no shirt on, waving his arms, howling. I don’t need to know any Arabic to understand classic drunk. “Hey, take my picture! Take a picture of me!” he yells. With a nervous laugh I take aim as he throws one arm up way over his head and places the other over his belly. “He’s a menace,” my friend tells me. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s already been shot once by a sniper.” The drunk wheels off amidst the chattering kids like some idiot savant, only able to get drunk and whoop with genius amidst bloodshed.
We climb steps to an apartment in one of the buildings facing no man’s land. The windows facing the zone of rubble are boarded up. Walls are bullet-ridden. A family lives there who invite us in, offer us coffee. How can they live here? What’s going on? This war is too strange, too casual. To live on the edge like this is no psycho-philosophical attitude but a material reality. Why are the kids running in and out of the sandbags? How can you sleep at night when the shelling commences? I begin to reel, my image of war as a non-stop gun battle between trenches gets wrenched out of whack. For those who are well-versed in war, it seems there are as many forms of it as there are names for snow in Eskimo.
“So. We heard about your little adventure at Shatila,” a cadre smiles when I return to her office. “So, what do you think of Lebanon now? Hey?”
“It’s so strange,” I reply. “It’s too casual. That’s what’s so unnerving. You could get picked off in the middle of eating a falafel, taking a photo.”
“And that’s just what happens. The worst are the vegetable stands. When the fascists decide to shell, you can’t hear them coming, no whistle warning you above your head. Maybe in the country you can hear, where it’s quiet. But in the busy streets you get no warning, nothing. Suddenly there’s an explosion. That’s it, just like that. The worst is when the people are buying vegetables at a stand and a shell lands in the middle of it. Tomatoes and blood? pffaff! Then, after everyone takes cover for ten minutes, people clean up the mess, take away the bodies, and go back to their business. What choice do they have? The only choice is to leave — and of course half the population has already made that choice. Those who stay do so because they have no resources, no other alternative, or because of commitment, because they’re stubborn and this is Lebanon, the watan, the homeland or the neighborhood or whatever. So they stay.”
Exhausted, I twist and turn that night in my hotel room. Half awake, I dream that the Israelis launch a full-scale assault, the fascists begin wholesale shelling. Chaos erupts. I’m cut off from comrades and friends, alone, unable to speak Arabic, stripped even of my passport. The Syrian tanks alongside the hotel begin booming, at which side I have no idea. Frightened and alone I cower in the ruins of my hotel room wondering what to do amidst the shooting. “Hey, don’t shoot, I’m an American! Er, no…. Don’t shoot I’m a Jew, I mean anti-Zionist…er, no. Wait! I’m a poet…. I’m alive, don’t shoot!” Finally I realize my only choice is to head for the American embassy. The American embassy? Am I kidding? I shoot bolt upright in bed, my sheets a sweaty mass, my nerves jangled.
I sit out on the balcony, listening to the gunfire in the distance. The Lebanese communists and the Islamic fundamentalists are exchanging fire despite the fact that both purportedly face the same enemy.
Finally, the incident with the fascist and the photograph sinks in, and I start to shake, shivering in the warm night air. I may be a visitor only, but I am a target as well. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. My battle lines had been drawn long ago, even so far away in San Francisco. Yet the impact of a brush with death, while delayed, chatters my teeth.
But then my fear mingles with anger and amazement. My entire life has been tracked down by the Holocaust. And there I was, my sights trained on a fascist, that blur in the lens the embodiment of all that I detest, there I was face to face with my enemy — and the only weapon I had was a camera! Would it be just so casual, the urge to kill, the squeeze of the shutter and my subject framed in blood and bits of brain on my negative?…
Yet the moment seemed inescapable, forever poised and frozen. Each was focused on each; across the no man’s land the lenses met, converged, repelled. For a brief second all the questions were asked. Smoking cigarettes as I paced on my balcony that night, listening to the distant gunfire, I realized that I had finally made it to the Warsaw ghetto, that Beirut was the Warsaw ghetto of my soul.
Beirut, surrounded by the Phalangists on one side, by Israelis from the air and from the sea, aided by allies in the Arab world who cannot be trusted, whose indifference is often matched only by self-serving betrayal — yes, I had finally made it to the Warsaw ghetto, perhaps moments before its final resistance and destruction.
“Can you understand?” I explain to Ahmad, my Palestinian host, the next morning. “All my life I’ve felt like something has been incomplete. Plagued by a Holocaust mentality that always expects the Gestapo to knock at the door, now I’ve finally gone and done it. This place is Warsaw! Warsaw!”
Ahmad, always calm, bemused and thoughtful, listens to my exclamations with his eyes growing wide. He looks at me, drinking in the kind of mania that might motivate an anti-Zionist Jew. Finally, he nods and replies with a slight smile, “Ah, but not yet…not yet. Comrade, join me for some coffee.”