Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I'll be back shortly...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Soundtrack for every "Divine Victory" party in Beirut:
The Red Army song, "Katyusha"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Drove to Tyre (Sour) and Abbassiyeh today. More on that tomorrow.

Arab Israelis on their increased alienation during and after the Lebanon war

Peretz announces that they are preparing for the "next round" of war


British mine clearance experts claim Israel "carpeted" the south with cluster bombs

Friday, August 18, 2006

Collaborators & the Return of the Khalijis

First there was the General whose army unit in Marjayoun was taken hostage by the Israeli army. Instead of resisting the occupiers, he served them tea and strolled through the courtyard of the barracks with them.

Then the wife of March 14th Minister Michael Pharaon, Mona Pharaon, was caught on camera raising her glas and toasting the "success of The Israeli army."("Je bois a la sante de l'armee Israelienne".)

Yesterday morning I had breakfast with a close relation of my former roommate, at a little foul & hummus bistro in Hamra. She, a Maronite, spent the entirety of the war in her village on Mount Lebanon. Squeezed in amongst a horde of heavily perspiring men wolfing down a heavy breakfast on their way to work, she told me (and her Shia boyfriend) how she dreamed of visiting Israel as a child, to visit her high-ranking SLA collaborator uncle -- who faces 20 years in jail if he returns to Lebanon. (She wasn't a child in 2000 when her uncle fled to Israel, but rather a few months short of adulthood.) She added, "I was speaking to my cousin in Israel the other day. She loves it there. I used to ask my mother if my uncle had killed anyone. She said no. He was just responsible for delivering things. My mother never lies."

The foul & hummus nearly dropped (or rather, drizzled) from my mouth; her boyfriend and I stared at eachother in disbelief at this public proclamation. In a hushed voice, he told her to keep quiet as the whole restaurant fell silent. Seeking to alleviate the tension, she added that her father was impressed with Hezbollah's military performance when the fighting ended, and that he was "not with Israel, not with Hezbollah."

That same Shia boyfriend then reported how he had seen his family's house in southern Lebanon on CNN, as it was being occupied by Israeli troops. Apparently they showed Israeli soldiers sleeping in their beds. What a bizarre romance.

I'm moving to a new apartment for the fifth time in 11 months. Every time I move, I employ the services of a certain Zuheir and his red pick-up truck. Zuheir refuses to go "up stairs", because he -- a hobby physicist-- knows that what goes up most come down, a fate that he seeks to avoid in his line of work. He insists that he will help load the truck; according to his superior judgement, this is best done by laying the dishes down one by one on the floor of the truck and placing the couch, cupboard, stove on top of them. This is his seasoned strategy, perfected over the years; he won't budge. I labored to find another pick-up truck service to no avail. And the Syrian workers haven't returned, so I'll be schlepping by myself. And Zuheir will watch the girls get sweaty, and occasionally glance at his watch to indicate that he is in a hurry to do nothing.

My new roommate, Maya, works for an NGO that provides relief for the displaced in Beirut and to villages in the South. Her Sunni Beiruti mother complains, "Why are you helping the Shia?" But she admires Hassan Nasrallah and has declared him a Sunni.

The expected droves of nations eager to contribute to the UNIFIL force have failed to materialized. The Bangladeshis are keen to come patrol the south, but Israel refuses troops from nations with which she does not have diplomatic relations. That effectively excludes Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia and a few dozen others. The French who wanted to "lead" the mission will now only contribute two hundred soldiers. Additionally, they demand a "clear mandate", as if dodging Israeli missiles accidentally lobbed at their outposts isn't enough to bide their time. They could also author a UNIFIL cookbook. UNIFIL "fusion cuisine" could soon be the newest hit in metropoles all over the world.

Dozens of people have been killed and wounded in the past week by unexploded cluster bombs in southern Beirut and in the south. A further casualty of the ceasefire is the return of the khaliji tourists, who fled Lebanon before Dan Halutz had time to sell his stocks. Apparently they are coming back to enjoy the rest of the summer. I want to rent a room on the top floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel, and drop pamphlets warning them: "Dear Khaliji tourists, as loyal allies to your royal families, we are giving you forewarning: All hell is going to break loose again. Leave while you can. Signed: The State of Israel." Or, "Saad Hariri would like to invite you to his birthday party/ barbecue along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Dress code: Shia. Bring your Hezbollah flags. See you there."

And this from Haaretz:

"Ministers recall that Olmert's aides joked about the possibility that he would make a victory speech in Bint Jbail, the site of Nasrallah's speech on Israel's spider web in May 2000. The Shin Bet security service's VIP protection detail would have never authorized this, but the mere fact that it was discussed is an indication of how surrealistic the conversations became among decision makers.

The IDF carried out three operations in Bint Jbail during the war, and did not conquer it because of its sprawling urban character."

Sprawling urban character? Bint Jbeil is at best a town, ordinarily home to 20,000 people. That would have been very Wilhelmian of Olmert to crown his victory in such a symbolic place on the enemy's territory. The Ministry of Tourism could then promote Bint Jbeil as the Versailles of southern Lebanon.

Maybe Olmert will give it another shot. The Israelis launched a commando raid today on a village in the Bekaa.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Not your war, not your victory

We've barely made it to day four of the ceasefire, and already the usual suspects (Syrian President Al-Assad, Jumblatt & co) are trying to stir the shit pot. And many Lebanese are falling for it-- the old sectarian trap, and the blame-Syria-for-your-bad-hair-day game.

A few Lebanese billionaire politicians announced that they would repair the infrastructure in and around their hometowns/ political bases. Hariri Jr. and his aunt Bahia will pay for bridges in Saida (Rafiq Hariri's birthplace), Najib Miqati will fund a few in the north, and the Hjejj family will cover the repairs to the Litani river bridges. Who needs a central government?

Yesterday evening, I witnessed a friendly tiff between the owner of the Internet cafe and a client. We were discussing the arrest of a Lebanese Army general who was caught on camera serving tea to the Israeli troops that occupied his barracks in Marjayoun. The client interrupted our conversation and flew into a fury, blaming the Syrians for the weather, his daughter's promiscuity, the flat tire his car suffered, the acute avocado shortage, and so on and so forth. The owner kept trying to divert the conversation back to the original topic. To no avail.

In that same Internet cafe, there are three employees, all roughly the same age-- in their early 20s, all business and finance students at American institutions, all boys looking to have a good time. Two are Shia, one Druze. Throughout the war, they worked double shifts together to cover for the employees who had evacuated or fled to Syria. They were exposed to the same airstrikes, played the same video wargames, day in, day out. Now that the war's over, the Druze boy is the subject of endless snipes about his leader, his people. I always contribute, "You Druze, you lose", which is lost on all of them, and then call the two Shia "terrorists" for good measure. This lightens the loaded atmosphere considerably; they in turn accuse me of being a spy, to which I add "and a prostitute/Jehova's witness."

Amin, the owner of Cafe Younes, told me that 4 of the employees from one of his coffeeshop branches returned to work today. They are all in their 20s-- two Shia, two Christians. Before the war, they would hang out off the job, go to nightclubs together. They are friends. During the war, one of the Shia girls who lives in Dahieyeh fled to the Bekaa valley, which was also heavily bombed by the Israelis. The Christians spent their time up in the mountains in Broumana, a Christian area and summer resort.

They met yesterday for the first time since the beginning of the war. The Shia girl was exhausted and traumatized by the continuous bombing; the Christian mocked her for it. She asked him, "What were you doing the whole time up in Broumana? Partying? Hanging out at the pool club?" He retorted, "What else am I supposed to do? This wasn't our war. We didn't ask for it." "Well its not your victory, either," she snapped.

Someone go tell that to Bashar al-Assad, Saad Hariri and a few other party crashers.

On another note, I crossed paths with Sudanese man today who was wearing a T-shirt that read (in German): I am a homosexual, retarded, asylum-seeking foreigner in Germany". I stopped him to be sure I had read correctly. "Do you know what your T-shirt says?" I asked. "No," he responded. I translated it for him, and then added that I think it was meant ironically. He shrugged, and continued on his way.

I forgot to ask him if he retrieved that shirt from a humanitarian relief package. Do they monitor the slogans on T-shirts donated to charity? Apparently not.

Which international force?

Will the international force to implement UN Resolution 11,798,701 materialize?

Here are some problems I foresee with the current pool of applicants for the new and improved "coalition of the willing":

Turkey: Lebanon is home to the largest Armenian diaspora community in the world. They don't want Turkish troops in their midst, and for good reason.
Potential for lasting peace: Bad. Armenians might take up arms. Why the hell not? Everyone else is doing it.

Indonesia & Malaysia
: Indonesians and Malaysians were outraged by the Israeli aggression against the Lebanese, and many wanted to come wage jihad against Israel. Here's their chance to fight the Zionists.
Potential for lasting peace: Bad. Hezbollah won't tolerate attacks on Israel from Lebanese land, and this could increase tensions between Sunni fundamentalists and the Shia, especially if Ahmed Fatfat keeps his post as Minister of Interior and licenser of Sunni extremist parties.

France: Former colonial power in Lebanon. Represent interests of Christians and their current allies, the March 14th movement; cultural missionaries in uniform.
Potential for lasting peace: Poor. This whole mess (Lebanon) is their fault in the first place.

Italy: Many fans of the Brazilian soccer team are still angry about the World Cup defeat. Violent skirmishes between Italian and Brazilian fans errupted in Beirut.
Potential for lasting peace: Not good. Brazilian flags rival Hezbollah flags in some of the bombed out villages I drove through in the south.

Spain: Spain expelled both the Arabs and the Jews from Andalusia.
Potential for lasting peace: A big no-no.

Australia: Last year, hundreds of white xenophobic beer-guzzling Australians beat up Lebanese immigrants on the beach in Sydney.
Potential for lasting peace: Good. The Lebanese can retaliate against the white Australians on their turf; Australians can keep busy surfing oil spills.

Germany: The German foreign minister already said that they don't want a situation where German troops might face Israeli troops, because of the "past".
Potential for lasting peace: Very good. If the Germans fire at an Israeli soldier, then the Israelis could retaliate by bombing Mercedes and BMW factories in Germany, and occupy Bavaria. They should have done that 60 years ago, instead of sticking it out in Palestine. It's only fair.

Conclusion: Go with the token Fijians and Indians. They won't have to stay long, because the Lebanese are gearing up for another round of civil conflict.
(More on that shortly.)

Ceasefire jitters

They broke the siege! A commercial flight is arriving from Amman this afternoon, and yesterday, some fuel. Soon we'll have avocadoes and electricity and imported everything again.

This from Monday night. Couldn't post it earlier:


Sitting in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel late last night to take advantage of their hi-speed wireless Internet and generator, I grabbed Mohamed’s hand every time I heard a loud noise outside. “It was just a car. The car door of a big GMC being slammed,” Mohamed said, or it was just “a car accident”, or “probably a window was blown shut by the wind.” He laughed exasperatedly; I threw him a dirty look. The fourth of fifth time, I stopped believing him. “What? What?” he asked.

It will take a few days, maybe even weeks, for my body to recuperate from this state of high alert. But maybe unexpected loud noises will torment me for the rest of my life.

My former roommate, Sahar—- who is from Baghdad and lived through the first Gulf War as a child—- was terrorized by the firecrackers children in our neighborhood set off during Ramadan. They would diligently rig a trashcan full of firecrackers, and place it so the blast would set off the alarms of all the cars on the street.

Later we moved to a Christian/Armenian neighborhood in East Beirut. One night in April, which coincided with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, there was a series of deafening blasts after Sahar had gone to bed. That day there were black-and-red banners hung all over the streets which read, “We will never forget our 1,500,000 martyrs”, and a parade from Bourj Hammoud to Downtown to remember the dead. The blasts woke her up, and she emerged apprehensively and wide-eyed from her room, to join me on the balcony. We were both very confused: Could it really be that they are commemorating the genocide with fireworks?
Pedestrians on the street level above ours, which we can see from the balcony, stopped and gazed in the direction of the port. I called to a soldier, his M16 dangling from his arm, intently watching something on the horizon that I couldn’t see, and asked what in God’s name was happening. He replied, ”It’s Orthodox Easter Monday.“ The absurdity of the coinciding commemorations, a half-an-hour display of fireworks on the eve of the Armenian Genocide anniversary, was too funny. Sahar was dead serious; she returned to her room in silence.

I woke myself up this morning when I screamed, “No, please don’t leave me here alone.” I jumped out of bed, and raced into the living room. “Mohamed! What happened?!” He was hanging the laundry. “Nothing happened.” “Do we have electricity?” “No.” “Why is the sky overcast?” “I don’t know. Because its humid?” He chuckled and shook his head. “It’s going to be alright. Everything will be alright. There’s coffee.”

I’m a nervous wreck. I must stop drinking so much coffee and caffeinated soft drinks. I don’t need to be sharp; dull and subdued would suit me much better. I no longer trust this city; did I ever?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What I'm reading

Seymour Hersh on existence of US and Israeli plans to attack Hezbollah and Lebanese infrastructure, prior to capture of Israeli soldiers

Head of IDF logistics branch says troops lacking food can steal from Lebanese stores

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz sold investments three hours after soldiers' capture

Ahmadinejad's official biography [link is down now, but a real bag o'laughs]

"Returning to their homes, the people of Lebanon claim victory"

Victory, disappointment & Israeli army chicks

J. and A. -– both business students at American universities in Beirut—are disappointed by the ceasefire deal. J says, “I didn’t want it to end this way.” He thinks the UN Security Council Resolution is too generous towards Israel, whose atrocities in Lebanon go unmentioned in the text, while laying blame for the outbreak of the hostilities on Hezbollah. I asked him if he finds fault with Nasrallah for accepting the deal. He replied, “Hezbollah often make decisions which don’t make sense to us at the time. We will soon find out what the benefits are.” J. trusts that they know what they are doing.

Most people agree that Hezbollah accepted a ceasefire with unfavorable terms, because it fears internal unrest. “They never wanted war anyway. They wanted to negotiate from the beginning”, another friend says. I am taken aback by the general consensus that we will see a civil conflict within the next few months. Maybe not the way Bush envisioned it—a successful uprising of Sunnis and Christians against the Hezbollah, as soon as the Israeli bombs started targeting civilian infrastructure. Jamal predict we will see an upsurge in car bombings again soon, as Israel and her allies in Lebanon attempt to assassinate Hezbollah leaders and sow fear and divisions amongst the Lebanese.

Driving around Beirut yesterday, I noticed that many more cabs and shop windows now display portraits of Nasrallah; even in Sunni neighborhoods where posters of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his goateed offspring formerly held a visual monopoly.

As early as yesterday morning, some cars blasted victory tunes from their stereos. But the atmosphere in Hamra was tense; everyone I spoke to was pessimistic that the fighting was over. After Nasrallah’s speech, many people were visibly relieved and confident that both sides were committed to the ceasefire. Last night teenagers drove through Beirut in their cars, hanging out the windows, honking the horn, and flying the flags of Hezbollah and Amal, and portraits of Nasrallah.

A statement from the office of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says Morocco, Indonesia, Italy, Turkey, Spain and Malaysia and France have agreed to send troops to patrol the south. I hope they open restaurants while they’re here. Bint Jbeil could be the ethnic cuisine capital of the Middle East! The Lebanese Armenians made it clear that they do not want the Turkish army in Lebanon. Someone remarked sarcastically that the Indonesians and Malaysians are eager to come fight Israel. We’ll see if this international force materializes. In the meantime, Anaconda’s conditions that there will be no return to the “status quo ante” in regards to Hezbollah, won’t be met. They will keep their weapons for now. Eventually they could integrate into the Lebanese Army as a special unit, a Golani brigade of sorts.

Unless the Lebanese Army splits and another Israeli/US proxy army emerges.

There were reports that the Americans requested a list of the names of Lebanese army officers who will serve in the south. They will not accept the participation of Syrian-trained officers, nor anyone suspected of “loyalty” to Hezbollah. Apparently they already vetoed some names. No Hassan’s, no Hussein’s, no Ali’s.

In the meantime, some Lebanese boys are sorry to be missing out on this:





Five-star bribery


A car returning to southern Lebanon

In his televised address yesterday, Nasrallah promised to cover the cost of a year's rent for an apartment with new furniture, for every family that lost their home; starting today. Additionally and in the meantime, they will finance the re-building of their houses. One of the boys who works at the Internet cafĂ©, whose home in Dahieyeh wasn’t demolished, joked that he would like to burn down his house to cash in on the offer.

The government is trying to buy off the Shia’s loyalty to Hezbollah, by promising to finance the reconstruction. "We have to treat displaced people as we would the clients of a five-star hotel,” the coordinator for Saniora’s aid committee told the AFP.

Nice try, buddy. The sectarian warlords and entrepreneurs who constitute "the central government" have always treated their constituents as clients rather than citizens, to further their own political gains and line their pockets. The Shia previously weren’t worth the “investment” to the Beirut power brokers, who didn't give two shreds about their living conditions. Now they are finally also entitled to the bribery and puffery! Does this five-star offer include the room service, available in many Lebanese hotels, provided by Russian “artists”? All-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, hot tubs, and Swedish backrubs for the destitute masses? I’d like to see the brochures:

“Dear Shia of the South! You are most welcome in Lebanon, the pearl/Switzerland/Paris of the Middle East/Mediterranean. Discover the land where the ancient Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans, French [not to mention the Americans, Saudis, Syrians and Israelis] have all left their mark. We hope you will bask in the many pleasures our country has to offer, our beautiful women and near-extinct cedar trees. Here, you can ski in the morning (as long as the regular crowd at Ferraya doesn't object) and swim in the sea in the afternoon (if it weren't for those damn oil spills). Signed: The State of Lebanon.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Rubble, rocking horses & the "divine victory"

This afternoon I accompanied my friend J. to his home in Haret Hreikh-- a neighborhood of Dahieyeh that sustained the most intense bombing in the southern suburbs. Taxis were already back on the roads, circumventing the rubble, and honking their horns to attract potential passengers. Despite the uncertain durability of the ceasefire, many people were returning to stay. Others came and discovered that there was nothing left of their homes; they were digging through the debris with their bare hands in search of salvageable items. Amongst the smoking mounds of concrete, the odd bookshelf, half a bed, or a rocking horse miraculously survived the impact of the bombs. I imagine the previously unretrievable bodies of the missing will soon be found amidst the tangle of iron rods, the wreckage of stone, crushed appliances and furniture.



All around Dahieyeh, the rubble was cordoned off with what looked like ordinary yellow police tape. Instead it read, "RESTRICTED AREA- NO TRESSPASSING. The Divine Victory." A fashion dummy, which had toppled out through the broken glass of a department store display dangled from the electricity wires by its synthetic hair. Another precariously rested on top of the cables.

Entire street blocks have been demolished, leaving clearings amidst the highrise tenements that resemble -—in size and magnitude-- the crater left by the World Trade center attacks. Some buildings were hit from the top and had collapsed in the conventional manner, as if sinking to their knees and doubling over. Other houses were destroyed from the bottom up, sustaining damage only to the lower half; 5-stories were intact on top of the wreckage of the lower 3-stories, surrounded by a massive deep gorge as if the explosion had taken place underground. Much of the paved roads were smashed, exposing the soil beneath. People were wearing protective masks; the stench of garbage, sulfur, burnt rubber, smoke, and what might have been undetected corpses or dead cats was unbearable.



J.'s house incurred damage only on the first day of the Israeli bombing, before the family had evacuated. The Israelis bombed a road approximately 150 meters from his house, and a sizeable chunk of concrete from the site catapulted in through the open balcony door into his bedroom. Luckily, J. was sleeping in his brother's room downstairs; the concrete slab landed right smack at the head of his bed, causing the whole thing to collapse. It would have crushed his face had he been sleeping there.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Countdown


Lebanese families in Baalbek hiding in a cave during an Israeli airstrike

There’s talk of a ceasefire that will take effect in 10 hours and 12 minutes. In the meantime, I hear a drone creeping up on us, as all other sounds of generators and the odd nocturnal motorcyclist grow dim, and you have ears only for him —-the unmanned aviator. You are being stalked by an airborne, robotic peeping Tom. What if he develops feelings for a pretty girl and no longer wants to level homes? I’m waiting for Spielberg to produce that heart-wrenching film.

They drop lots of pamphlets and flyers from the sky, but never customer satisfaction forms. “On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate the value/futility/sleep deprivation/cunningness/brutality of our latest bombing raid? What is your opinion of the price to quality ratio, in human and financial terms? When dining on shrapnel and cluster bombs, how can we improve the experience for you? Thanks for your time. Please leave us your name and address so we can memorize the coordinates and serve you better in the future. We are an equal opportunity bomber. Signed: The State of Israel”. The signing off as “The State of Israel” is very telling— it’s the you-don’t-recognize-us fixation, as if non-recognition entails not believing rather than not accepting. Here’s the empiric proof that we exist, motherfuckers. Bang, bang, boom.

They leveled residential buildings in Dahieyeh today. 20 bombs dropped in a matter of minutes, and a few more in the evening. And again, a few minutes ago. My roommate Mohamed, who ordinarily lives in Dahieyeh with his family, called his home phone yesterday to see if the house was still standing. He hasn’t been back there since the beginning of the war when they fled with only their personal documents, a few sheets, and a satellite dish. And he hadn’t called earlier, because there was no end to the destruction in sight. The phone rang; he was ecstatic. We made plans to go pick up his bike and a few other essential items tomorrow. Today they bombed his neighborhood anew, and it seems they will continue through the night, until the last minute. Tomorrow the phone might no longer ring; the remains of his home might be indistinguishable from the surrounding rubble.

What to do between now and eight AM? What if nothing happens at 8 am —-kind of like the Y2K hype? Perhaps four months from now I’ll be sitting in a bomb shelter and trying to lighten up my neighbors with jokes about that that ceasefire deal, way back when, in August --or was it September? And what if it all suddenly ends, if quiet descends upon the land, and people crawl out of their besieged homes and villages to survey the damage, and infighting is once again the order of the day?

How did this all start again?

We’ll just have to wait and see. In any case, the clock is ticking. Rather than reaching the Litani river by land, they have finally realized they can just parachute down on its banks for the grand “Mission Accomplished” moment, the pacifier in photo op form.

Negotiations. Funny how that was on the table as an option 100,000 bombs ago. It feels like forever.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Escalatory ceasefire


Ceasefire shmeasefire. It's the one month anniversary of the war!

I love the way both sides say they will abide by a "ceasefire" for which the conditions are further and further from being in place. An "escalatory ceasefire". That's elegant. Good work all of you in New York.

In particular, I love this: "Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Saturday that Israel would press ahead with its military offensive in south Lebanon until the Cabinet approved the cease-fire deal. 'The logic would be that even in the framework of this successful outcome, if you hand over to the Lebanese army a cleaner south Lebanon, a south Lebanon where you have Hezbollah removed from the territory, that makes their [the Lebanese] troubles a lot easier,' Regev said.

A "cleaner south Lebanon"? Cleaner, as in smoothly leveled to the ground, ornamented with neatly arranged landmines and unexploded cluster bombs, immaculately decorated with squeaky clean oil spills, "martyred flowers" and hundreds of unburied corpses? Jeez, that does make the "trouble" of the Lebanese a lot "easier". Yes, in fact it creates lots of low-wage employment to be filled by the usual suspects, the Syrians.

I caught my first Israeli pamphlet today mid-air. I don't actually know who it was from, because it wasn't signed "The State of Israel". It added an air of mystique to the experience. For all I know, it was an unofficial citizen's initiative. I had to run and fight off hordes of children who stand and stare at the sky whenever they see the trail jets leave in the sky, in anticipation of material for building paper planes. It read:

"To the Lebanese citizens,
You can return the odor of cedars to Lebanon, if you want, if you shake off from your shoulders the destroyers of Lebanon."

What cedars? When was this authored-- 100 years ago?
The SLA must have advised them on this one; who else would have such a warped impression of the Lebanese identity? Probably more than half the country has never even seen a cedar; Beirut smells like garbage and gasoline on a good day. And why did they leave open to interpretation which "destroyers of Lebanon" to shake off?

But there was also a touching picture of Nasrallah playing hide-and-seek with his kids around a Christmas tree.



The war cost Israel an estimated $5.5 billion. The Lebanese government estimates infrastructure damage at $2.5 billion. Smart weapons indeed; those are some overpriced bombs that don't even inflict their money's worth in damage. And most of that damage was to civilian housing.

We'll see what the final temper tantrum brings. Only 17 hours and 45 minutes for Israel to indiscriminately toss its toys around.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pamphleteering & career advice

Israel has dropped 100,000 bombs and missiles over Lebanon since the beginning of the war. That's a generous ratio of 1 bomb for every 40 or so people on the ground.

My newsticker says that Ariel Sharon's son has been called up to serve in Lebanon. Maybe Nasrallah's son who is also fighting on the front will battle it out with him. If Sharon Jr. resembles his daddy in bulk, he'll make an easy target for capture; the ultimate war trophy. But Beirut is in his genes, so maybe that'll inspire confidence in the knackered Israeli troops. He's been hearing stories of the delicious falafel they serve here since he was a newborn babe. Except that falafel is no longer tasty; it tastes drab, like everything else. We talk about food all the time-- about cheesecake, and sweet fried plantains, and Sashimi, and Vermicelli, and salmon steaks.

I was at a cafe yesterday evening with my a few of my friends drinking flat beer; R. noted that the poster on the wall still advertised a conference on "Conflict Prevention and Transformation", which was scheduled for the first week of the war and cancelled. All over the city are posters and billboards advertising concerts and events that were postponed indefinitely.

Anaconda Rice has said from the beginning that there can be no return to the "status quo ante". And that includes Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. I suggest he take up stage acting, to further exploit his penchant for verbose melodramatic statements. What did he say? They "martyred our flowers", all the while leaping up to kiss the leathery cheeks of the enemy.

That line would just as well work in a TV soap opera. "Marianne, I can't believe you martyred the flowers I gave you for our anniversary." "No, Fuad, honey, I'm just trimming the stems. Please stop crying. Oh, dear..."
He could also open a candy store, and be a tragic, dopey, uncharismatic Willy Wonka, of sorts.

The Daily Star-- the biggest English-language daily newspaper in the Middle East-- has gone from a meager 12-pages during peace time, to an 8-page spread during the first weeks of the war, down to four pages. Four pages means one big page folded in half. They've run out of paper, not out of news to copy and paste from the wires. That's the good news.

The bad news is that there's no food in Tyre. They bombed southern Beirut from 4 am until 5.30 am continuously. When I dragged myself out of bed this morning having not caught a wink for most of the night, I saw pamphlets fluttering down from the sky. People were rushing to pick them up. I was terrified that they would say, "We are giving you 10 minutes to evacuate. Don't say we didn't warn you. 10,9, 8.... Signed: The State of Israel". Instead it was a list of 80-something names of Hezbollah fighters that have been killed. I counted at least 20 Hassan's, as well as one Mr. T, a Hussein Doubtfire, Divine Brown, Jihad F. Kennedy, Bobby Sue Nasrallah, Kim El-Sung, and Moishe Abou Ali. Maybe the Daily Star can start printing its drivel on the back of Israeli pamphlets and evacuation orders.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ali

Since the beginning of the war, I have parted with every piece of technological equipment I own. The morning the Israeli bombing started, my laptop gave up every sign of life. Two days ago I lost my video- and photo camera. I forget my USB memory stick at the Internet cafe every day, which exasperates the owner who rescues it after I leave. And yesterday, while rushing to a meeting from the site of the lighthouse bombing, I left my cellphone in a cab.

I noticed immediately when I reached into my bag to preemptively silence the damn thing that it was gone, missing. Having resigned myself to the loss of all other devices (I am lucky to lose a camera rather than a limb or loved one, I tell myself) and tiring of the meeting, I decided that I would fight to reverse my fortunes and reclaim my phone, by any means necessary. An American man known amongst my friends as "steroid activist", in reference to his obscene muscle bulk always on display in sleaveless sweatshirts, was holding a moving oratory about reclaiming "our land, our people"; I poked him in the side and asked to use his phone. Irritably, he complied.

I called my phone. It rang twice; a young man answered. I embarked on a frantic plea for the return of my phone, elaborated how grateful I would be, and offered to part with swaths of cash because it is all I have to communicate with the rest of the world in these difficult times. Expecting him to demand a sizeable ransom in exchange, as has happened with other persons who have lost their cellphone, I was suprised that he was eager to return it immediately, at my convenience. He said he had called some numbers in my phonebook to report that he had found it. I thanked him profusely, and we agreed to meet at Starbuck's on Hamra Street, even though he was at the other end of town. He said his name was Ali; I told him I am German, to avoid saying, "I'm blonde" on the phone to a stranger, in a room full of activists. I fled the meeting and hopped a cab to Hamra.

There I waited for fifteen minutes, pacing around in the sun, inquiring of every man who passed if his name was "Ali". I encountered two Ali's; neither of them had my phone. Finally, a well-groomed teenager who I took to be no older than sixteen approached me and handed me my phone. He smiled shyly and avoided eye contact as I repeated how very grateful I was and asked if I could invite him for juice or a fruit cocktail across the street in return for his kindness and generosity. He declined. We parted ways.

Five minutes later, I received a text message from Ali-- evidently he procured my number while my phone was in his possession-- which read:

"Hi, it's ALI. I don't know your name. If you ever need any help, call me :)"

I responded, "Thanks again, Ali. I won't forget your kindness. Emily"

Two minutes later: "Hehe this is the habits of the south of Lebanon people. If u like to have a new best friend am here ;)"

Followed 15 minutes later by: ":O I felt that u seems angry becoz of the 2nd message. I meant I want to be a friend for u like ur brother. When u need to talk to someone I'm here:)"

Bomb-induced Bulimia

The episode this morning when Israeli missiles hit residential areas in Ras Beirut, threw many people into a panic. No one expects to die at noon; that's a breach of the patterns and rules to date. They just crept up on us from the coast and boom, Boom, BOOM. I was downstairs in this Internet cafe when I heard the first blast. I ran upstair and out onto the street. Two more explosions followed, one seemingly closer than the next. To my alarmist ears they always sound close, but this time people gathered on the street corner and pointed beyond my sight range to the road leading up to the Saudi Embassy. A cab drove by with a young girl and her mother riding in the back, both holding their heads in their hands.

Forget Dr. Atkins, diet pills, and Weight Watchers; bombing is the appetite supressant par excellence. When they bomb in close proximity,like they did today for the first time in weeks, you can't eat; the general sensation of weakness brought on by an empty stomach is indistinguishable from the near paralysis of fear and helplessness. Food would bog me down, hamper my reflexes; instead of jumping out of my skin, I mighy reflexively vomit. The latter does nobody any good, and scares little children. On an empty stomach, you wretch without losing your food and nobody notices.

Eating also requires patience that I don't have when the glass panes shake, when cars are tearing through the streets, people running aimlessly for shelter, having no sense of where the next one will hit. If they keep it up for a few days, everyone gets that hot gaunt look to them. No blush needed to emphasize your cheekbones.

Now there's a solution for those lamenting the harm inflicted by this war on the tourist industry: come to Lebanon for your terror diet. If you're severely obese, we can roll you down south where fear combined with shortages will forcibly slim you down. Guaranteed, or your money back.

For the persons who fled the bombardment in the south now forced to take shelter for weeks in Sanayeh park, the bombing in Beirut is unbearable. My friend K. who visits the park every day, says some of the women from villages in the south vomited when the missiles hit Ras Beirut this morning, and were crying unconsolably. So I was right about the vomit reflex. I assume that's why the Israelis aren't letting the relief convoys bring food to the south, right? It's a waste to feed people under bombardment if they just vomit it right up.

I am ashamed that I feel like vomiting over a missile that hit the tip of an abandoned lighthouse in my everyday vicinity, when I hear stories of a lone survivor from nearby Chiyah courageously burying 19 family members, less than 48 hours after their demise. Some people survived because they stepped outside to buy bread or a pack of cigarettes, and returned to find their entire family buried under the rubble of their homes.

Central Beirut hit

Three very loud explosions in Ras Beirut, one closer than the next. All the cars on the street pulled over, soldiers and individuals running towards the vicinity of the Saudi embassy. An old woman hysterical with fear being dragged across the street to safety by her daughter; Filipino maids panicking, children crying. Camera crews on mopeds racing off towards Raoche.

Update: They hit the old lighthouse in Raoche, which is surrounded by residential buildings. Going there now.

Update 2: Four missiles hit the old lighthouse in Ras Beirut this morning, approximately 150 meters from here. The lighthouse hasn't been in use for decades; it is situated between the Saudi embassy's compound, the Hariri family complex and the Lebanese American University. Two people were injured by shattering glass, and the damage was limited. Ambulances and press vehicles were driving around in circles, because nobody knew exactly where the missiles had hit. There was talk of it having been just a "sonic boom"; I hitched a ride with a Pakistani journalist who tired of searching for the sight of the attack and took issue with his driver/fixer for wasting his time. Another missile hit near Prime Minister Saniora's house on Bliss Street. Israeli jets also dropped pamphlets over downtown Beirut warning that they would expand attacks on Beirut, as well as pamphlets warning inhabitants of the southern suburbs Bourj al Barajne, Hey el Sellom and Chiyah to evacuate.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Uri Avnery on the "Junkies of War", Olmert and Peretz

Pat Lang
on the Lebanese Army's deployment to the south

Vast majority of Lebanese reject UN resolutions that are in conflict to the Lebanese government's plan

Post-war fears & Olmert's wet dream

The demographics and atmosphere of Ras Beirut changed when people with means and foreign passports fled, starting with the sex & shopping tourists from the Gulf countries, and thousands of displaced persons from the Dahieyeh and the south took their place.

Hamra street, which used to be mostly commercial with an ever increasing number of multinational chainstores, now has a familial small town spirit to it, with families hanging out on the sidewalk-- smoking, watching their kids play, bumping into other displaced neighbors from their suburbs and villages. Local businesses that survived no longer face competition from Starbucks and the Body Shop, which remain closed since the beginning of the war. They must have strict policies on not catering to their combat-zone clientele. But I don't miss the demographic that regularly consumed $6 mocca-flappa-poopachinos. And maybe my favorite coffeeshop, Cafe Younes, can borrow some coffeebeans when push comes to shove. I haven't heard any reports or evidence of looting until now, but we feel the shortages more and more every day. Soon the water- and fuel wars will errupt. Buy your Evian stocks now. I'll be using it to wash my clothes.

There are reports of skin diseases and epidemics in the overcrowded schools housing the displaced. A friend who works on the relief effort reports that her boss (a man) told her to distribute a single sanitary pad to every family. You get the picture.

But today was an especially glum day in Hamra. With the remote prospect that the Israelis might accept the presence of the hapless Lebanese Army in the south in exchange for their withdrawal, people seem increasingly anxious about their futures-- how they will house and feed their families, if they will find work, what the political consequences of this war will be, and what types of cancer and birth defects their unborn children will have.

The Russian UN Ambassador got it right when he said, that the UN resolution currently in play offers nothing "useful" to the Lebanese. No, it offers Israel everything it has demanded from the very beginning, including the exclusive right to "self-defense" in the name of which they can pretty much continue bombing until their heart's content. I'm waiting for them to claim that Hezbollah has managed to manipulate the physical laws of the speed of light (with the help of Iran and Syria, of course), creating mirages all across the country. They already mistook a well-digging rig in the unlikely Christian neighborhood of Achrafiyeh in Beirut for a missile launcher. What's next, in the name of self-defense? That kindergarden we just "liquidated" remarkably resembled a terror tyke training camp. We were sure Nasrallah's uncle's gardner's niece was playing hopscotch there. She had a beard. She resembled him. Not our fault.

Someone tell Olmert that "liquidate" isn't a nice word. It's just a tad too Stalinesque. Perhaps that term is part of his every day vocabulary, as in "I nearly liquidated myself laughing, when Anaconda Rice was in town. We had such a jolly time plotting the new Middle East over a meal of 'tasty fishes'."

Operation nocturnal gasoline theft

The Lebanese love to drive big cars-- Hummers, Jeeps, GMCs. Principally if you own a car, you never walk anywhere, much like in the US. With the fuel shortage, fights have been breaking out at gas stations all around town; it only takes one person to try his luck by skipping the line and making a mad dash for the pump while dozens of people are waiting for hours in the hot sun. Then the fists fly.

Late last night I was riding home in a servis (collective cab) through Ras Beirut. We drove past a gas station, which has been roped off and closed for days; five or six men had cracked open the pump, and were siphoning gasoline in the dark. A man in a black suit was coordinating this, and our cab driver immediately backed into the station to fill his tank. There was a lot of hissing and whispering, as every car and van that passed followed suit, backing into the station, striking a deal with the man in the suit, and then hastily driving off. The cab driver explained that the man in the suit was a Hariri guy. Business must not be going well, if they have to resort to robbing gas stations.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Kleenex shortage & an Israeli war trophy

I was awakened at 5.30 AM this morning by a deafening crash, the kind that haplessly tears you out of your sleep, and out onto the balcony before you gain full consciousness. I am often very confused in the morning and thought perhaps my phone rang, or the unhinged kitchen cabinets came crashing down, until another bomb --they usually come in pairs-- dropped. Even after 27 days, I invent excuses for the rude awakening. Since it was dawn, I could see the smoke rising from the general vicinity of the south-eastern suburbs, and heard dogs barking; but I don’t know why they were so much louder than usual. And there was no electricity to watch TV to find out.

Arab foreign ministers have gathered in Beirut today to discuss the current crisis. For the occasion, the Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat honored the democratic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt by placing a ban on public demonstrations for the day. There was a protest planned against the pro-American Arab regimes outside the UN, near the Grand Serail where the meeting is being held; about 20 people showed up, only to be chased up the street by the army.

There is a 1km line of cars waiting to get gas on Hamra Street. Some of the drivers are pushing their cars, others leave and go for coffee or a sandwich while they wait. Hospitals announced yesterday that they have less than a week’s supply of fuel. The owner of Cafe Younes only has a ten day supply of coffee left. Water is scarce, and Sukleen is paying Lebanese the handsome wage of $25 per day to clean their streets, in lieu of the Syrian and other low-wage workers.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saniora is crying on TV again. Somebody tell him there's an acute Kleenex shortage, and that we're expecting many more grieving mothers, who should have first dibs on the scant supply.

To compensate for the relative ease of my life in besieged Beirut, I mutilate my senses every night --electricity willing-- with a dose of CNN. Last night's highlight was the riveting special, the "Arab Anger Edition". Fifteen minutes of coverage for the 12 IDF reservists who were killed after they failed to heed a warning that rockets were about to descend on their location, was followed-- not by an account of the 17 Lebanese civilian casualties-- but by a segment on how Arabs are, by nature, angry. CNN should merge with National Geographic, or at least call upon an anthropologist or two to elucidate this phenomenon.

News update: Not only did Israel threaten to liquidate Nasrallah today (which makes it sound so easy; just drop him in a jar of sulfuric acid) but they even "captured" a portrait of him. That's dash cunning of them. There’s only like 30 portraits of Nasrallah in every village in southern Lebanon. What will they demand in exchange for the portrait? Will Nasrallah surrender to secure its release? Stay tuned to CNN to find out.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Personalized Propaganda

The Israeli propaganda effort is a reliable source of amusement amidst the incalculable violence and destruction. They drops pamphlets, which inform the Lebanese that "Hezbollah is destroying your country and homes," followed by a barrage of American-made bombs that level entire villages. They interrupt radio- and TV broadcasts. Sometimes the images are just scrambled. While watching the news on Al Jazeera, the weather reporter morphs into Hillary Clinton-- a grave injustice to say the least. During a re-run of Hassan Nasrallah's latest televised address, I gleaned valuable information from a banner obscuring his face that read, "I am a member of Hezbollah". But they also individualize their efforts by bombarding cellphones with pre-recorded messages.

Yesterday, a young man named Hassan walked in to Cafe Younes, while I was discussing the shortcomings of Israeli propaganda with the owner of the cafe. Hassan told us of the phone calls he has been receiving from the Israelis, repeatedly between the hours of 4 and 6am. The first time they called, a voice said, "Hassan!" to which this coincidental namesake of the Hezbollah leader responded groggily, "Yes. What is it?" The message continued, "...the coward, is destroying this country." After the third or fourth call, Hassan recognized the number and stopped answering.

There are approximately 34,000 persons named Hassan in Lebanon, according to Information International.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Rage against the Drone

From last night

They’re bombing Beirut, and we’re watching Underground by Emir Kusturica, which is set in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. We found the DVD, a rental, at a friend’s house who left on vacation before the war and never made it back. I remind Mohamed for the second time that we should return it; he declines to respond. It’s by no means urgent. Two bombs drop somewhere, one closer than the last. “They’re early,” Mohamed remarks. We continue watching the movie. After a few minutes, I go out on to the balcony to see where the sky has turned pinkish. I decide to work and sit down at my computer. Mohamed occasionally stops the movie to switch to the news. “What, what?” I ask irritatedly. “Nothing", he mumbles. "They’re not saying where exactly it is.” He returns to the movie.

Anticipating a bomb is like holding your bladder for an open-ended car ride. Since they suspended the uninterrupted night raids over Dahieyeh a week ago, I have been anxiously awaiting their return. After a few days of quiet, daily life reaches an unsettling plateau of normalcy, which is hampered by the the constant reminder of the misery plaguing the south and east. And the anticipation of "we're next". You know that the longer they wait to bomb Beirut again, the harder it will be to adapt. Now the waiting is over.

Four days from now, I will long for just one night of peace and quiet; after a week, I won’t even notice if I’m asleep or awake when I lie in bed at night.

I’ve been avoiding Barbar’s, the reliable war bistro, so that I don’t tire of eating there when the other cafes and sandwich shops close again. I have not managed to cook a single meal since this started and I’m too impatient to walk anywhere; I run or hail a servis.

An old friend sent me a one-line e-mail: Are you talking to bombs?

In fact I am. I habitually mumble profanities at those menacing drones, similar to the way old disgruntled couples in movies curse each other under their breath. Just now while I was brushing my teeth. When you’re finally absorbed in something, a plane overhead violates your concentration, like a pesky, obscenely cheerful waiter who interrupts your conversation to inquire if the food is to your liking. I embarass myself by doing it in public, too. In the middle of a conversation with the owner of my favorite cafe, I instinctively lunge towards the door to tell the IAF pilot to go shove it. It's personal, when you're on the receiving end.

Al Jazeera is now showing the Israelis unload truckloads of mines. They intend to make the south uninhabitable; and in Beirut it will be a case of the more the merrier, right? Good night.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Waiting for Hassan

Hassan Nasrallah (not the grocery keeper/ construction worker who was captured in the Baalbek raid) just spoke on TV. Everyone gets excited when they announce that Nasrallah will imminently make an appearance. You call your friends to ask what they are doing, and they treat you like a common criminal: I'm waiting to watch Hassan speak, of course. How dare you suggest we go out for a meal or a beer when Hassan could appear at any minute? Call me later. (Slam down the phone)

That's right, folks. Disconnect the phone, get into your PJs, light some candles, make some popcorn and wait for the man and his surprises.

Nasrallah looks like he's fresh from the barbershop, after that rather scruffy appearance during the first week of the war. He warned that if the Israelis hit Beirut, the Hezbollah will hit Tel Aviv. "I'm not saying 'beyond Haifa', I'm saying 'I'm going to hit Tel Aviv'." I wasn’t paying attention now, but he just said "Condoleezza Wice". Gotta love that lisp.

He told Olmert, "You'll never be like Sharon or Rabin, as a leader. You'll only be like them as a criminal. So get over that little psychological complex of yours."
He said that the Hezbollah did not target Israeli civilian sites during the promised 48-hour cessation of air strikes so that they (the Israeli civilians) would have time to evacuate from the north. In other words, I'm deliberately playing as fair as they are.

Israeli planes dropped pamphlets over the Beirut suburbs, warning people to evacuate. My friend J. said, "It’s going to be a long, hard night." He always says that. The Beirut area is back on the map of targets. Shops and restaurants will close again only to re-open with the next "lull".

In many ways the Lebanese thrive under Israeli attacks (as long as they’re not simultaneously killing each other). Even in peace time, they are in war mode-- speeding, loitering, chain smoking, and cutting corners whenever they can. Now that behavior is entirely appropriate. You want to get everywhere as fast as possible to limit your exposure to the drones and fighter jets; you loiter because there's nothing else to do; you chain smoke because you're a nervous wreck; and you break the rules because there's no one to enforce them.

Every incident of violence or unrest I experienced prior to this war-- cartoon rioters burning embassies, other rioters smashing cars, the army on high alert and searching every car on the highway —-there was always someone who calmly and kindly responded to my question, “Is something wrong?” with “La, habibi, ma fi shi” (No, there’s nothing, darling); even as they’re reversing at full speed on the highway to avoid getting their windshield smashed by an angry teenager wielding a baseball bat.
Mohammed Hassan Nasrallah (14), shepard, on his capture by Israeli soldiers.

New Knesset laws will ban Arab MKs who identify with or support terror organizations

Big Brother Hariri Jr.

Walking through Hamra this morning, I stopped and gazed up at the mansion of Saad Hariri, the son of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. I was standing three blocks away from the bombastic heavily-guarded complex, with a view of the banner draped across the front, which depicts Hariri Sr. standing on an executive-looking lawn with a bed of roses in the background. While Saad Hariri hasn't set foot in Lebanon since the beginning of the current war, his security apparatus commands a cordoned-off 5 block radius of this residential- and commercial area. The word on the street is that Hariri opened his mansion to Saudi citizens seeking refuge when the bombing started, but not to Lebanese.

Glancing around to ensure the absence of security and army personnel, I took shelter in the doorway of a house and whipped out my camera to take a picture. As soon as I snapped the photo, the door to the house flew open and an elderly gent hissed, "Watch out! They will catch you. It's forbidden to take pictures in this area." Startled by his dramatic appearance, I asked, "What should I do? Should I erase the picture? Should I toss the camera?" "You should come in for coffee and stay until it's safe," he whispered, raising his bushy eyebrows conspiratorially.

I declined politely, but was still anxious about what would happen if I continued on my path towards the Internet cafe, which is only a block away from Haririville. "They're everywhere. They watch us all the time, constantly filming our every move. They've probably already captured you on surveillance camera. They know everything about you," the man said with disgust. "Sneak around the back," he suggested, "and keep a low profile."
Robert Pape in the NY Times:

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

In terms of structure and hierarchy, it is less comparable to, say, a religious cult like the Taliban than to the multidimensional American civil-rights movement of the 1960’s.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.

What these suicide attackers — and their heirs today — shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has proven to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force."

Nasrallah hiding in the mountains!

The Israelis staged a spectacular raid on a hospital in Baalbek two nights ago; 300 Israeli soldiers fought fiercely and successfully for seven hours with anywhere between 4 and 10 Hezbollah fighters (Hezbollah claims the former, Israel the latter; take your pick of ratio, 1:75 or 1:30). They captured Hassan Dib Nasrallah, a construction worker, his family, and Mohamed Nasrallah, a 14-year old shepard, who was later released. They also secured computers with sensitive dental records of the Hezbollah leadership and the database for a sperm bank.

I happen to know of another Nasrallah hiding in Lebanon, whose abduction would make for a golden photo op and break the back of the Hezbollah power base:

This Nasrallah is an old geezer residing in the mountains (Hezbollah have used similiar mountains to launch rockets.) He is known to wear black, sports a beard, and commands quite a following. He lives in Bkerke and is armed to the teeth, but 1000-2000 special forces could probably secure his capture.



Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch

Google Home

Google Earth now offers updated satellite pictures of Lebanon. Yesterday a customer at Cafe Younes in Hamra laid out the before and after shots of Beirut and the surrounding suburbs. While I can't read a road map without getting dizzy much less make sense of a satellite view of this city, a swarm of anxious people immediately gathered, in the hope of locating their homes.
Many of the inhabitants of Dahieyeh, the densely populated southern suburb that has been hit repeatedly with missiles and vacuum bombs since the beginning of the war, haven't been able to return to survey the damage. They don't know if their house is still standing, if it has been pulverized along with all their belongings. A young man scoured the photos, and finally recognized a football field adjacent to his apartment block. But he couldn't make out any buildings; just a dark rectangular void where a cluster of high-rise tenements once stood, one of which was his home.

Escape to Khartoum

I met Mohamed at the Rest House in Tyre. A group of BBC reporters were sitting around a plastic table, set on the lawn facing the beach. Mohamed sat silently among them, a paper plate of assorted fried foods in front of him. On better days, the Rest House in Tyre is an all-year resort and restaurant, popular with UNIFIL staff and Beiruti weekenders. It now serves as a hub for displaced persons seeking evacuation to the north, and as headquarters for much of the international press.

The BBC crew looked like they were on the set of Baywatch; deep tans and red flack jackets. Mohamed, who I took to be a 12-year old, was wearing blood-stained clothes and a bandage that resembled a yamuka on the back of his head. He is 22, from Sudan, with a slight build and unremarkable pleasant features. Physically reserved as if he's consciously trying to take up as little space as possible, he wears an attentive, playful expression when spoken to and keeps his answers short and cordial, in very proper English.

Mohamed had been in Lebanon illegally for two months, working for a family that owns a restaurant in Bint Jbeil (4km from the Israeli border). When the Israeli bombardment began, the family sent the women and children north to Beirut. Mohamed stayed behind with the men of the house. On July 18th, Day 6 of the war, a missile hit the house. Everyone was killed; Mohamed survived with a head injury. For 13 days he hid alone in the basement with no news, while the Israeli army tried to take the city and fighting raged. He had food and water, and he bandaged his head with some tape and tissues. "Everyone was dead, no one was alive", he says, his smile excessive. In general, he fields my quieries with patient bemusement, as if I am slightly daft but well-intentioned.

The morning after the Israelis announced a 48-hour cessation of air raids, rescue workers came to remove the bodies of the family from the house. Mohamed emerged from the basement and they drove him to Tebnin, a town to the north-west of Bint Jbeil. On the street in Tebnin, my friend Fouad who works for the BBC as a fixer, found him. Mohamed had no passport, no documents and no money. Fouad promised to return for him and take him to Tyre.
In Tyre, we offered to take Mohamed to Beirut. The journalists in the car complained that there wasn't enough room. I was happy to have Mohamed along as a buffer to the Californian journalist and his endless rambling and poking me for a cigarette or napkin. I slept in the car and when I woke up, Mohamed said, "I think you are very tired. I said, “Jeezus, you must be exhausted.” He laughed, “No!”.

We stopped for shwarma in Saida; Mohamed wasn't hungry. He asked for cigarettes instead-- full-flavor Galouises. We bought him a sandwich anyway and insisted he eat it. He dutifully devoured it. "This is the second time you've been force fed today", I remarked. We sat in the car, ate and smoked. “This isn’t war anymore, is it?”, he asked. I'm not sure he knew that the Israelis had promised a temporary cessation of airstrikes.

Back in Beirut, I took Mohamed home to our apartment in Clemenceau. There was no electricity. I asked him if he had spoken to his family. No, they don't even know that I'm alive, he replied giddily. We went out in search for a phonecard. No luck. We stopped in at my favorite Internet cafe; the owner immediately volunteered his phone. Mohamed called and spoke to his brother in Khartoum, at a mile a minute. "I saw death with my own eyes," he said. I promised to take him to the embassy the next day, and asked him to sit and watch TV while I checked my e-mail.

A few minutes later, the owner of the cafe called us upstairs and said that an employee of the Sudanese embassy was here. They chatted a bit about Mohamed's neighborhood in Khartoum, very few formalities, and he promised Mohamed that they would fly him home the next day via Damascus. Mohamed was delighted. "I will see my brothers and sisters tomorrow. I am sooo lucky. But how will I see you again?" I couldn't promise I would visit Sudan, so we exchanged addresses.

Mohamed left this morning for Damascus. Before he left I asked him to climb out onto the roof with me through a little hole in the wall, to try to siphon water from the neighboring apartment to fill our empty tank. We must have been an odd sight for the Israeli surveillance drone flying overhead: a blond girl in a nightgown and a Sudanese guy, buckets in hand, climbing up the huge vats of water to peek in, fiddling with pipes, and gazing over the side of the building, giggling about our futile endeavor. Do you ever want to return to Lebanon, I asked him, trying to get a sense of how Sudan compares to Lebanon. Never! he replied.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Spiritual guidance

According to Naharnet, Israel hacked Hezbollah's Al Manar TV station, and interjected the following message: "Hassan sent men to fight the Israeli army, an army of steel, without preparing them. Stop listening to patriotic hymns for a moment, reflect and bring your feet back to the ground."

Reflect. I command you to reflect, under ceaseless bombardment. Get your yoga mats out. Light some incense. Align your big toes. Stretch. Now breeeeeeathe...

Why does "army of steel" remind me of some Jane Fonda aerobics video from the '80s? Oh that was "Buns of Steel". Not Jane Fonda. Some other floozy. Sorry.

Olmert's Adventures in Generatorland

To the untrained ear, the sound of Israeli drones is almost indistinguishable from the roar of generators. We've had serious power shortages over the past few days. I'm talking 15 minutes of electricity per day. Don't start your washing machines! They'll stay on the pre-wash cycle for a week.

After the civil war, I've been told, generators were all the rage in Lebanon (for those who could afford it), because of acute electricity shortages and damage to the infrastructure. People grew accustomed to the noise, and would even bring generators on picnics to the countryside, to power their stereos or what not. If I stay in Beirut, I'd like Santa to bring me a generator for Christmas. Would the IAF target an old bearded man in a deer-drawn sleigh? Appropriate headlines: Rudolph the terrorist deer hit by a missile. Israel intercepts sleigh-load of toy weapons bound for Lebanon.

"War menus" accomodate indecisive people; the American obsession with unlimited options never suited me. Eating in Beirut is like a visit to Wok'n'Roll, that fabulous Chinese food court joint. Do you have beef? No. Do you have tofu? No. Do you have pork? No. Chicken, chicken. We have chicken. Only chicken. Spicy chicken, super spicy chicken, swee' en sauwa chicken.

So the Israliens (that's what they call them here, no pun intended) have launched a large-scale invasion. A guy told me yesterday, "the more soldiers on Lebanese territory, the more targets for us". I assume Olmert --which must be the Israeli name for Homer on The Simpson's, since it's 'Omar' in the Arab version-- knows that. Even though he's an idiot, who stranges his strategy/ tactics/ objectives/ demands every other day. Sigh, the decisive predictable brutality of Sharon is sorely missed. I've heard quite a few people lament his absence. Now the Israeli troops seem to be spreading out, rather than amassing in one place where the "invisible" Hezbollah fighters can attack them all at once.

I didn't see any Hezbollah fighters when I was in the south the other day; they must have been disguised as dead toddlers. I did see beefed up UNIFIL soldiers, though, at the Rest House hotel in Tyre. I expected them to look scrawnier, armed with paperclips and other weapons that are banned from handluggage on airplanes. I didn't even know they have automatic weapons. They do. But they just sit around a lot and pose for Benetton commercials. Very colorful bunch indeed. If Israel has its way and NATO is sent in to enforce a lasting ceasefire in the south, they won't want Indians and Fijans to do the job. I suspect their first pick will be Americans and Britons, and a few other parties from the grand "coalition of the willing" in Iraq.

Speaking of which, why hasn't anyone suggested a bufferzone in the north of Israel? The Lebanese have a case to make for feeling existentially threatened, after three invasions and countless bombing campaigns during the past 30 years. Five kilometers on either side would do the trick. Who can argue that that's not a fair solution?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Operation Post-Menopausal Vengeance

Call it what you will, as of yesterday it's no longer the "July War". Apparently we're in it for the long haul now with the Israelis launching a full-scale invasion and Olmert talking about sacrifice, blood and tears (what about sweat? Olmert didn't consult his labor party allies when he made that speech?)

Charles Glass points out that this Israeli operation is sorely lacking a name. I guess it's hard to outrival "Grapes of Wrath". They should learn to practice restraint in tossing out the most ominous titles, before they finish the job. If all else fails, there's always sequels. Grapes of Wrath 33 1/3.

Or they could take Condi up on the "birth pangs" theme, but keep the crucial element of "wrath" by substituting with a synonym: Vengeful Birth Pangs. Pangs of Vengeance. How about just Operation Ouch? But as Jamal Ghosn points out, what does a post-menopausal virgin know about birthpangs?