Letter from Beirut III

by Rasha Salti

[NOTE: See Rasha’s earlier communications here.]

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.