Rasha Salti moved back to Beirut from New York on July 11, 2006, the day before Hizballah’s cross-border raid and Israel’s month-long war on Lebanon. We publish here excerpts from several entries in a diary she kept during the war. Her “Siege Notes” can be read in full at www.electroniclebanon.net.
The West Beirut café is filled with people who are trying to escape the pull of 24-hour news — like me. The electricity has been cut off for a while now, and the city is surviving on generators. The old system that was so familiar at the time of Lebanon’s civil war is back. The café is dark, hot and humid. Espresso machines and blenders are silenced. Conversations, rumors, frustrations waft through the room. I am better off here than at home, following the news, live, on-the-spot documentation of our plight in sound bites.
The sound of Israeli warplanes is overwhelming on occasion. They drop leaflets to conduct a “psychological” war. Yesterday, their sensitivity training urged them to advise inhabitants of the southern suburbs to flee because the night promised to be “hot.” Today, the leaflets warn that they plan to bomb all other bridges and tunnels in Beirut. People are flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food.
This morning, I wrote in my e-mails to people inquiring about my wellbeing that I am safe, and that the targets seem to be strictly Hizballah sites and the party’s constituencies. Now, I regret typing that. They will escalate. Until a few hours ago, they had only bombed the runways of the airport, as if to “limit” the damage. A few hours ago, four shells were dropped on the buildings of our brand new shiny airport.
The night was harrowing. The southern suburbs and the airport were bombed, from air and sea. The apartment where I am living has a magnificent view of the bay of Beirut. I could see the Israeli warships firing at their leisure. It is astounding how comfortable they are in our skies, in our waters. They just travel around, deliver their violence and congratulate themselves.
The French-speaking and English-speaking bourgeoisie have fled to the Christian mountains, out of a long-standing conviction that the Israelis will not target Lebanon’s Christian-“populated” mountains. Maybe this time they will be proven wrong? The Saudis, Kuwaitis and other tourists have all fled the country in Pullman buses via Damascus. They were supposed to be the economic lifeblood of this country. The contrast between their panic and the defiance of the inhabitants of the southern suburbs was almost comical. This time, however, I have to admit, I am tired of defying whatever for whatever cause. There is no cause really. There are only sinister post-Kissingerian negotiations. I can almost hear his hateful voice rationalizing laconically the destruction of a country, the deaths of families, people with dreams and ambitions, for the Israelis to win something more, always more.
Although I am unable to see it, I am told left, right and center that there is rhyme and reason, grand design and strategy. The short-term military strategy seems to be to cripple transport, communications and power stations. The southern region has now been reconfigured into small enclaves that cannot communicate with one another. Most have enough fuel, food and supplies to last until tomorrow, but after that the isolation of each enclave will lead to tragedy. Mayors and governors have been screaming for help on TV.
This is all bringing back echoes of the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. It was summer then as well. For three months, the US administration kept urging the Israeli military to act with restraint, and the Israelis assured them they were acting appropriately. We had the PLO command in West Beirut then. I felt safe with the handsome fighters. How I miss them. Between Hizballah and the Lebanese army, I don’t feel safe. We are exposed, defenseless, pathetic. And I am older, more aware of danger. I am not defiant. There is no more fight left in me. And there is no solidarity, no real cause.
I am furthermore pissed off because no one knows how hard the post-war reconstruction was for all of us. Our billionaire ex-prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, did not make miracles. People worked hard and sacrificed a lot and things got done. Every single bridge and tunnel and highway, each runway of that airport, was built with the sweat of our brow, at three times the real cost because every member of the government, every character in the Syrian junta, was a thief. We accepted the thievery and banditry just to get it over with. Every one of us had two jobs and paid backbreaking taxes. We fought and fought that neo-liberal onslaught, the arrogance of economic consultants and the greed of creditors, just to have a nice country that functioned, that stood on its feet, more or less. Public schools were sacrificed for roads to service neglected rural areas and for a couple of Syrian officers to get richer, and we accepted it, because the roads were desperately needed and there was the “precarious national consensus” to protect. Social safety nets were given up, like health care for all, unions were broken, public spaces were taken over, and we bowed our heads and agreed. Palestinian refugees were pushed deeper and deeper into forgetting, hidden from sight and consciousness, “for the preservation of their identity” we were told, and we acquiesced. In exchange, we had a secular country where Hizballah and the Lebanese Forces could coexist and fight their fights in Parliament, not with bullets. We bit our tongues and stiffened our upper lips, and it just takes one air raid for all our sacrifices to be blown to smithereens. It’s not about the airport; it’s what we built during those post-war years.
I visited friends this morning at their house. People now gather in homes. Most cafés in West Beirut are closed, and the streets are quiet. In times like these, gatherings shift to the house of the person whose neighborhood has electricity, whose elevator works and who has elusive enough family obligations to host an antsy crowd eager for social exchange.
Among the group, I was the only one who seemed to have experienced weariness, to be genuinely frustrated with having to face another round of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Everyone else seemed resigned to enduring this dark and sinister moment, and they busied themselves with analysis and speculation. Mind games, fictions, chimeras. I regretted expressing my weariness with the fight, with having to summon the energy to face Israel and defy the destruction of Lebanon. I felt that I betrayed a principle, a value, that I disrespected people’s pain and suffering. I know a great number of people in Lebanon share my sentiments, and the political debates on TV seem to return to the question tirelessly. But, still, I felt “smaller” than the historical moment demanded.
Dementia is slowly creeping in, slowly, surreptitiously, at the rate of news flashes. This is how we live now, from “breaking news” to “breaking news.” A sampling: I have been in the café for one hour now. This is what I have heard so far: A text message traveled to my friend’s cell phone: A breaking news item from Israeli military command. If Hizballah does not stop shelling Galilee and northern towns, Israel will hit the entire electricity network of Lebanon. Hizballah shells Haifa, Safad and colonies in south Golan. A text message traveled to my other friend’s cell phone, from an expatriate who left for Damascus and is catching a flight back to London. “All flights out of Damascus are canceled. Do you know anything?” An Israeli shell fell near the house of the bartender. His family is stranded in the middle of rubble in Hadath. He leaps out of the café and frantically calls to secure passage for them to the mountains. Hizballah claims to down an F-16 Israeli plane near Hadath, bringing slight jubilation to a café that thrives on denial.
Does the world make sense to anyone? It’s not supposed to, I know, but these “surgical” military tactics are supposed to make sense to at least 15 people. And out of these 15 people, at least 14 disseminate the news, and since everyone in the world is about six degrees of separation removed, at some point, somebody has to know something.
By the fifth day of the siege, a new routine has set in. “Breaking news” has become the clock that marks the passage of time. You find yourself engaging in the strangest of activities: you catch a piece of breaking news, you leap to another room to announce it to family, though they heard it too, and then you text-message it to others. At some point along the line, you become yourself the messenger of “breaking news.” Along the way, you collect other pieces of “breaking news,” which you deliver back. Between two sets of breaking news, you gather up facts and try to add them up to fit a scenario. Then you recall previously mapped scenarios. Then you realize none works. Then you exhale. And zap. Until the next piece of breaking news comes. It just gets uglier. You fear nighttime. For some reason, you believe the shelling will get worse at night. When vision is impaired, when darkness envelops everything. But it’s not true. Shelling is as intense during the day as it is during the night.
I am obsessively thinking about these negotiators and diplomats. How they go through their day. How they initiate conversations, how they end them. Top on my list is ‘Amr Musa, Egypt’s star diplomat and gift to the Arab League. His handling of the Lebanese crisis is stellar, and comes after his handling of the assault on Gaza and, perhaps his crowning achievement, his handling of Darfur. How do these people receive dispatches announcing that hundreds of people are dead and decide not to act? I am fascinated by how they structure their consciousness. Not conscience, consciousness. I guess they become numb. I guess they believe that the sweep of history spares them. They probably see the world in a different way, that some people are condemned to be in Gaza or in Tyre and they are supposed to live meaningless lives and die anonymous deaths. They believe they fashion history writ large. They go through their day, enjoying sleep and meals. Air-conditioned cars, private jets, tailored suits, who’s coming to dinner, where to spend summer vacation. They are never to be held accountable for whatever they say or do.
How did ‘Amr Musa go through the conversation with the Saudi envoy, for example? The tall Saudi minister of foreign affairs was firm, emboldened with an unusual surge of virility. He must have said to him, “Screw the Lebanese. Hizballah has to pay. We support the Lebanese government, but we should publicly condemn Hizballah and demand a ceasefire.” And ‘Amr Musa said what? “I agree with you.” And felt good about agreeing with the Saudis. Did his stomach not writhe with a hint of an ulcer when he hung up? Did he not press on and say, “But the Arab League should take a vanguard role in ending this crisis as soon as possible and impose a ceasefire”?
Meanwhile, Lebanon was being shelled to rubble. And ‘Amr Musa must have felt “pressured” to offer something to the “Arab street” (that elusive demon). The foreign ministers agreed in unanimity that the best course of action would be to raise the question at the UN Security Council meeting in September. To the embarrassingly weepy mother of the decapitated child, to the embarrassingly nagging child of the charred mother, to the “steadfastly valiant” Palestinians in Gaza and the “hapless” Lebanese in the south, they figured they owed something, a statement to relieve them in their grief. Their groundbreaking insight? The Arab League officially deemed the “peace process to be dead.” No one, no one expected such enlightening wisdom from the council of foreign ministers. I am still enraptured by its profundity.
I had the opportunity to leave tomorrow by car to go to Syria, then to Jordan and from there by plane to wherever I am supposed to be right now. For days I have been itching to leave because I want to pursue my professional commitments, meet deadlines and continue with my life. For days I have been battling ambivalence toward this war, estranged from the passions it has roused around me and from engagement in a cause. And yet when the phone call came informing me that I had to be ready at 7 the next morning, I asked for a pause to think. I was torn. The landscape of the human and physical ravages of Israel’s genial strategy for implementing UN Resolution 1559, the depth of destruction, the toll of dead, injured and displaced, had bound me to a sense of duty. It was not even patriotism; it was actually the will to defy Israel. They cannot do this and drive me away. They will not drive me away.
These “siege notes” have been receiving a number of responses from Israelis. One of my impromptu interlocutors despaired of my position vis-à-vis Israel, and took generous time and space to explain to me that Hizballah must be crushed because if they were to win, they would destroy Israel and me, because of my values and lifestyle. This view, along with other views prominent in Western (particularly American) media, of Hizballah betrays ignorance. It is fatal ignorance.
The most gross miscalculation Israeli strategists are making is the assumption that Hizballah is not a legitimate political entity in this country and is made up of extremists, so that its “elimination” would leave the Lebanese construct unscathed. In point of fact, pushing the Lebanese population to “rise up” against Hizballah is the worst-case scenario for all regional “parties,” because the country would then become the jungle of violence and killing that Iraq is today.
Because I am a staunch secular democrat, I have never endorsed Hizballah, but I do not question their legitimacy as a political actor on the Lebanese scene. They are just as much a product of Lebanon’s contemporary history, its war and post-war era, as are all other parties. If one were to evaluate the situation in vulgar sectarian terms, when it comes to representing the interests of their constituency they certainly do a better job than all the political representatives present and past. It would be utter (in fact, murderous) folly to regard Hizballah as just another radical Islamist terrorist organization. (There is something about the stubborn will to misunderstand in the US that betrays an intention to see a crisis linger.)
Hizballah is a mature political organization with an Islamist ideology, which has learned (very quickly) to coexist with other political actors in this country, as well as other sects. If Lebanese politics is a representation of shortsighted, petty sectarian calculations, the lived social experience of post-war Lebanon was different. Sectarian segregation was extremely difficult to implement in the conduct of everyday social transactions, in the conduct of business, employment and all other avenues of commonplace life. And that is a capital we all carry within ourselves. There are exceptional moments when the country came together willingly and spontaneously (as with the Israeli attacks in 1993 and 1996), but there are other smaller, less spectacular moments that punctuate lived post-war experience and that every single Lebanese can recall where sectarian prejudice was utterly meaningless, experienced as meaningless. When Hariri was assassinated, and the country seemed divided into two camps, the consensus was still overwhelming that we will not revert to fighting one another, to eliminating one another.
It took a few days of this war for Hizballah to acquire a new power of signification. The semiologists, the sociologists, the regional experts and the policy advisors had better watch this carefully, if they are to understand this moment and the new political idiom. They have quite something to contend with — Hasan Nasrallah’s pronouncements, al-Manar TV, the video productions, the manufacture of image and meaning.
Hizballah has become the only Arab force to refuse to accommodate, even slightly, Israel’s caprices. They are undaunted by the military might of the Israeli army, its awesome ability to bring wretchedness to a people and a country and to shrug at international law. They are also undaunted by the moral high ground 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) has been won in heart and mind by Hizballah’s retaliation against the Israeli assault. The Arab world is mesmerized by this movement that can fight back, inflict pain and, for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, pose a real threat to Israel. Hizballah does not have the ability to defeat the Israeli army. No one in the region can and none of the Arab states is willing, even in jest, to challenge Israel’s absolute hegemony.
In its careful study of a military strategy for defense, conducted in full cognizance of the movement’s weaknesses and strengths and of Israel’s weaknesses and strengths, Hizballah has achieved what all Arab states have failed to achieve. Since the war broke out, Hasan Nasrallah has displayed a persona exactly opposite that of Arab heads of states. He may be “underground” for security reasons, but he is not disheveled. He speaks with a cautious, calculated calm, a quiet dignity. His addresses have been punctuated with key notions that have long lapsed in 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 Hizballah shelling in Nazareth and Haifa). It’s a stark contrast with the political class in the Arab world. In an interview with al-Jazeera, Ahmad Fu’ad Najm, the famous Egyptian poet, quoted a Cairene street sweeper who told him that 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‘a have been blinded by murderous rage in Iraq, when Idiot-King ‘Abdallah of Jordan and a handful of barbaric Wahhabi pundits babble 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‘i divide in the Arab world.
There has been much ink spilled about the impact of “defeat” on Arab societies, identity and political culture. The other meaning of defeat is the inability to imagine political alternatives beyond the debilitating bipolar pathology (and I use the metaphor with the psychic disorder in mind) of the US/Israel vs. fundamentalist political Islam. These simply cannot be the only two options for citizenship, identity, governance and political representation. So far, that “third” option is not yet clear or cogent.
In the present conflict, a secular egalitarian democrat such as myself has no real place for representation or maneuver. Neither have we succeeded in carving out a space for ourselves, nor have the prevailing forces (the two poles) agreed to make room for us. That is our defeat and our failure. In Lebanon, we are caught in the stampede and the crossfire. I am not a supporter of Hizballah, 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 Israeli state.
It was my foolhardy hope that the Lebanese front that emerged after the mass mobilization on March 14, 2005 would rehabilitate its nearly depleted political capital and refuse to meet with Condoleezza Rice when she came to Beirut, on the principle that the US and Israel are waging a war on one of the chief agents in Lebanon’s political landscape. Instead, all of these handsome men and women showed up at the US embassy, smiling, wearing their Sunday suits, aping the 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 while the 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 14 mobilization swept the capital? Surely, in light of this war, yes.
I will end this note with another of the obsessions that haunt me: people caught under rubble. In describing the commonplace horror of the civil war in a televised interview perhaps ten years ago, the famous Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury sketched 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 basement of any building, there might be someone who had been kidnapped and was waiting to be traded for money or whatever else militias kidnapped for. And you walked right on by. I am haunted by the nameless and faceless caught under rubble, underneath destroyed buildings, waiting to be given a proper burial.
9:05 am, or thereabouts. Yasir Abu Hilala, who just landed in Lebanon from Jordan, is catching his breath on al-Jazeera. He arrived in Qana and just reached the shattered shelter site. Qana was carpet-bombed throughout the night. The bombing was not a “surprise” to anyone, because the Israeli army dropped leaflets advising residents to leave. The bodies piled in the shelter ravaged to rubble were those of people too poor to afford the ride from Qana to Sidon or Beirut, or of 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 2,000 years later it housed a UNIFIL base, and a notorious Israeli massacre of fleeing, hapless southern Lebanese villagers at said UNIFIL base. Yasir 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.
12 pm sharp. I was back on the street. I walked toward the offices of the UN and UN-related institutions. The street was filled with people — men, women, children, carrying the flags of Lebanon, Hizballah and Amal, walking decidedly, almost angrily in the direction of the UN building. By the time I got there, there was a mob scene. Young men (and a few women) were banging on the gates and throwing rocks at 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. 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 al-Jazeera broadcasts 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 Hizballah, Amal and portraits of Hasan Nasrallah.
On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Media Center building where anchors shoot their live shots, people were screaming at cameras. The crowd was growing bigger and bigger, and people were coming more prepared. They had signs and banners, in Arabic and English.
I came across Muhammad, a friend, and finally, finally I could cry. I buried my head in his shoulders and wept helplessly. Muhammad 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 personnel were also arriving. They stood by and watched. At some point a truck became a stage atop which various spokespersons stood and delivered speeches. I guess someone brought a loudspeaker, 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: Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the Communists, the Syrian Nationalists. The most touching scene was of Sunni and Shi‘i sheikhs huddled together, hand in hand almost, talking and then delivering speeches.
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 Muhammad’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 pm. Everyone urged me to write something, a “siege note” for Qana. I could not.
Instead I slept. My eyelids felt heavy from crying.