Saturday, December 15, 2007

I failed to conclusively sign off. I'll be back at the beginning of January, right after the New Year. In the meantime, revel in the "betrayal" of the Cedar Revolution on a blog near you.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Travel ban for Lebanese opposed to Saniora government

Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons Responsible for Policies and Actions That Threaten Lebanon's Sovereignty and Democracy

A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America

"In order to foster democratic institutions in Lebanon, to help the Lebanese people preserve their sovereignty and achieve their aspirations for democracy and regional stability, and to end the sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon, it is in the interest of the United States to restrict the international travel, and to suspend the entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of aliens who deliberately undermine or harm Lebanon's sovereignty, its legitimate government, or its democratic institutions, contribute to the breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, or benefit from policies or actions that do so, including through the sponsorship of terrorism, politically motivated violence and intimidation, or the reassertion of Syrian control in Lebanon.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, including section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code, hereby find that the unrestricted immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of persons described in section 1 of this proclamation would, except as provided for in sections 2 and 3 of this proclamation, be detrimental to the interests of the United States.

I therefore hereby proclaim that:

Section 1. The entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of the following aliens is hereby suspended:

(a) Lebanese government officials, former Lebanese government officials, and private persons who deliberately undermine or harm Lebanon's sovereignty, its legitimate government, or its democratic institutions, or contribute to the breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, including through the sponsorship of terrorism, politically motivated violence or intimidation, or the reassertion of Syrian control in Lebanon;

(b) Syrian government officials, former Syrian government officials, and persons who meet the criteria for designation under section 3(a)(i) or (ii) of Executive Order 13338 of May 11, 2004, who deliberately undermine or harm Lebanon's sovereignty, its legitimate government, or its democratic institutions, or contribute to the breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, including through the sponsorship of terrorism, politically motivated violence or intimidation, or the reassertion of Syrian control in Lebanon;

(c) Persons in Lebanon who act on behalf of, or actively promote the interests of, Syrian government officials by deliberately undermining or harming Lebanon's sovereignty, its legitimate government, or its democratic institutions, or contribute to the breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, including through the sponsorship of terrorism, politically motivated violence or intimidation, or the reassertion of Syrian control in Lebanon;

(d) Persons who, through their business dealings with any of the persons described in subsection (a), (b), or (c) of this section, derive significant financial benefit from, or materially support, policies or actions that deliberately undermine or harm Lebanon's sovereignty, its legitimate government, or its democratic institutions, or contribute to the breakdown in the rule of law in Lebanon, including through the sponsorship of terrorism, politically motivated violence or intimidation, or the reassertion of Syrian control in Lebanon; and

(e) The spouses and dependent children of persons described in subsections (a), (b), (c), and (d) of this section.

Sec. 2. Section 1 of this proclamation shall not apply with respect to any person otherwise covered by section 1 where entry of such person would not be contrary to the interests of the United States.

Sec. 3. Persons covered by section 1 or 2 of this proclamation shall be identified by the Secretary of State or the Secretary's designee, in his or her sole discretion, pursuant to such procedures as the Secretary may establish under section 5 of this proclamation.

Sec. 4. Nothing in this proclamation shall be construed to derogate from U.S. Government obligations under applicable international agreements.

Sec. 5. The Secretary of State shall have responsibility for implementing this proclamation pursuant to such procedures as the Secretary, in the Secretary's sole discretion, may establish.

Sec. 6. This proclamation is effective immediately. It shall remain in effect until such time as the Secretary of State determines that it is no longer necessary and should be terminated, either in whole or in part. Any such determination by the Secretary of State shall be published in the Federal Register.

Sec. 7. This proclamation is not intended to, and does not, create any right, benefit, or privilege, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity, by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, instrumentalities, or entities, its officers or employees, or any other person.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty eighth day of June, in the year of our Lord two thousand seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first."


Lebanese Army Fires Live Ammunition at Protesters

My intention was to write a final post and bury this blog. That will have to wait. These eye-witness accounts of today's events tell a completely different story than what is being reported in the press. In all of the mainstream media reports I have read, witnesses remain undisclosed and army officials are cited anonymously.

According to Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish activist, the protesters were unarmed and possibly a few hundred meters away from the army checkpoint when soldiers opened machine gunfire on the civilians for two to three minutes. They opened fire again, injuring people who were trying to evacuate the wounded.

"Two civilians were killed, and 35 wounded, including 5 women, one
elderly sheikh, and 7 children below the age of 15 – including one
3-year-old child. Seven of the wounded are critically wounded, having
been shot above the waist."

Read the rest below.

Lebanese Army Fires Live Ammunition at Peaceful Protest in Solidarity
with Nahr el Bared Refugee Camp

2 killed, 25 wounded, 7 critical cases shot above their waist

Today, during the second day of a three-day peaceful protest in the
Palestinian refugee camp of Badaoui in solidarity with Palestinian
refugees from Nahr el Bared, the Lebanese Army opened fire on the
protestors in Badawi refugee camp, killing two people and injuring 25,
7 critically.

A peaceful protest began within the Badawi Palestinian Refugee Camp in
north Lebanon. The protestors had signs reading "Nahr el Bared is in
our soul" and "Nahr el Bared, we won't forget you." The protestors
were calling for an end to the violence.

Energetic male youth continued the protest outside the camp, against
the wishes and attempts of the organizers.

As they proceeded towards the Lebanese army's checkpoint, the army
issued verbal warnings telling the protesters to stay away. At this
point, women and children raced to the front to try to prevent the
army from firing upon the crowd. The Lebanese army shot two warning
shots into the air and then immediately responded with machine gun
fire at the crowd of approximately 300 peaceful protesters. The army
continued firing on people as they were attempting to retrieve the

Caoimhe Butterly, an activist and organizer, reported on what she had
personally witnessed. "The army first opened fire with 2 to 3 minutes
of sustained fire. When there was a lull in the shooting, we rushed in
with our hands above our heads. At this stage, the Army started firing
on the road again. Thus, people retrieving the wounded were wounded."

In response to the Lebanese Army's claim that a "significant number"
of the protestors had clubs, Butterly said, "the protestors did not
have clubs. Nobody had clubs. We saw the whole demonstration. They
weren't carrying anything. We went from the beginning to the end of
the demonstration. We saw it all, and no one was carrying clubs."

Furthermore, she continued, "the protest was never out of hand. They
weren't throwing stones. At the time the Army opened fire, women were
sitting on the ground at the front, and a number of people even had
their backs to the soldiers. At the time the Army opened fire, people
were getting quieter and had stopped shouting, as if shouting is
enough to legitimize open fire."

In response to the Lebanese Army's claim that the protestors were 10
meters away from the checkpoint, Butterly said, "We were at a distance
where we couldn't distinguish their faces; we could only distinguish
their figures. We were possibly at a distance of a few hundred meters,
and definitely not 10 meters. We were far away from the checkpoint."

Two civilians were killed, and 35 wounded, including 5 women, one
elderly sheikh, and 7 children below the age of 15 – including one
3-year-old child. Seven of the wounded are critically wounded, having
been shot above the waist.
The protest was held in a response to the ongoing siege of Nahr al
Bared refugee camp in an attempt to highlight the worsening
humanitarian situation and indiscriminate shelling endured by the up
to 3,000 civilians still remaining in the camp. The protest began
yesterday by initiating a three-day water-only symbolic hunger strike
in solidarity with family and friends in Nahr al Bared who are
presently experiencing the hunger, fear and vulnerability of facing a
second month under siege. The protest included a silent procession and
die-in to highlight the to-date 36 civilian casualties earlier this
afternoon and an open mike and opportunity for the press to interview
people throughout the day who have recently evacuated Nahr al Bared.

Eyewitness Contacts:
Caoimhe Butterly: +961 70 824084
Rasha Najdeh: + 961 3 963562

press release written by: Rania Masri, 961 3 135279

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bus bombs & the Blame (a Syrian) Game

Yesterday evening, at around 8.30pm, a bomb exploded in Sad Boushriyeh, in the eastern suburbs of Beirut. Ten people were injured. It followed a similar pattern of previous bombings-- evidently designed to scare, rather than inflict maximum casualties. I was sitting at my computer in my office, listening to music. These days, I habitually turn the volume down every few minutes to listen for ambulance sirens or dogs barking. I heard a thud from the east, followed by another smaller thud, but didn't make much of it. I often confuse the sound of shipping containers being carelessly unloaded at the nearby port with acts of violence.

A few minutes later an instant message flashed at the bottom of my computer screen. "Did you hear the bomb?" Jamal inquired. "Was it coming from the east? Thought I heard something." "Yeah. New TV says in Industrial City, Bourj Hammoud." "Oh shit." I reached for my phone to call M. but the lines were already overloaded. I signed off the Internet and walked down to my apartment, stopping at the corner store for cigarettes and water. The shopkeeper was gone; his teenage daughter sat behind the counter, holding her head in her hands.

At home I turned on the TV and repeatedly tried to call M., to no avail. The explosion must have been very close to his house, I thought. Images of police army cordoning off the area around a bombed out bus and torched cars in a poorly lit street. After a short while I found myself changing the channel, in search of mindless entertainment.

I was watching the Democratic Primary "debates", when my neighbor Tariq appeared at the door, which I had left ajar. "What are you doing?"he asked. "Nothing. Watching TV." "We're going to the bomb site. Do you wanna come? You have one minute to decide." Tariq is a conflict zone-junkie, a reporter for BBC Brazil. He recently spent twelve-hours holed up in an apartment right next to army artillery positions on the periphery of Nahr el Bared camp. At all times he sports a khaki multi-pocketed vest; his press-pass dangles from his neck for convenience's sake. "Sure...", I hesitated, and turned off the TV.

We drove around in circles in search of the bomb site, following the smell of burning tires and petrol. We stopped to ask a man for directions. He matter-of-factly pointed us in the right direction with the usual polite formalities.

The outer perimeter of the cordoned off area was guarded by plainclothes men armed with automatic rifles. Tariq flashed his press card and slipped under the police tape. Teenage boys, women, men, photographers and soldiers were standing around outside the Mar Takla church, just 30 meters from where the bomb detonated.

The blue-and-white bus in which the bomb was allegedly placed was off limits to the press. Shopkeepers were already clearing the broken glass from their storefronts; the owner of a kebab joint had swept all the glass into a neat pile and continued to make sandwiches. The facade of a six-story commercial building across from the blast was damaged; twisted shutters hung from their hinges exposing office furniture and overturned filing cabinets.

Suddenly a commotion ensued, as four plain clothes men handcuffed a young man-- perhaps twenty-years old-- and escorted him to a white civilian car with Saida license plates. They shoved him into the backseat and closed the door. He sat in the backseat, straining his neck to peer out of the rearview window, terrified. A group of 10 to 12 men stood around the car. Occasionally they opened the door of the car and said something to him. I walked over and asked one of the younger men, who was wearing a T-shirt with "Jesus Soldiers" blazoned across the back, why they arrested the young man. He declined to respond, but his friend replied, matter-of-factly, "Because he's Syrian."

A tall man with a shaved head who seemed to be in charge, overheard this exchange and bellowed, "No, he's Lebanese. Please move away!" As we retreated away from the car, I made eye contact with the young man under detention or arrest, as the car drove off. "It's going to be a rough night for him..." Tariq muttered.

We left the cordoned off area, down an alleyway padded with broken glass.

I hailed a servis to go home. The cab driver-- a card-carrying member of Jumblatt's PSP party as he told me-- dropped off the other two passengers and promptly started railing against the Palestinians and Syrians. "What do they want from Lebanon? Can't they go back to their own country?" "Well, no..." I thought, as I reclined in the back seat. A young man on the side of the road signaled for us to stop. "To Ouzai," he said. The cab driver declined, drove on, and then suddenly hit the brakes. "He's Syrian!" he hissed, peering through the back window as if to reverse the car. "To Ouzai? I don't go to Ouzai..." "Please I need to get home," I interjected. For the rest of the journey he muttered to himself: Lebanon, beautiful Lebanon-- the mountains, the food, the sea-- alas! always at the mercy of others.

This morning M. finally called. His brother was in a car, ten meters in front of the bus when it exploded. I told him about the young man arrested at the scene of the bombing. "Yeah, I heard about it. They said he was trying to run away... I would run away, too, if a bomb went off."

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Day in the North Pt. II

Yesterday morning, I woke up and switched on the TV. The usual black and white smoke clouds above the skyline of Nahr el Bared camp. The army claimed it had advanced so-and-so many meters into the camp; miraculously only Fatah al Islam "intruders" were killed. The news update ended; a clip set to a bombastic marching tune praising the heroic Lebanese army. I turned off the TV and went to wake M. up. He was in his usual position-- face down, sprawled diagonally across the bed. "We want to go to the north. We don't know what's going on from watching TV. Will you take us?" "No. Take a bus," he mumbled, and went back to sleep.

M. is from the north; he knows Nahr el Bared camp and the surrounding area. Last summer he worked as a fixer driving journalists around Dahiye and the south in his rusty wreck of a Honda. It has seen twenty or more accidents and can barely make 60 km per hour. Half of the car's body is black, the other half grey with some splashes of white. The car horn -- a primary means of asserting yourself in traffic -- only works sporadically; this has taught him patience, he contends. M. knows how to talk to every type of authority. He has a knack for dialects and caters his word choice to each individual situation.

I consulted with my roommate Y. who was all dressed up and ready to go. I shrugged. "You ask him. He might listen to you." We returned to the room, and tugged on M.'s leg, like two pesky children begging for a goodnight story. "Please, will you go with us? We can't go without you. You know the roads. Please?" He yawned, rolled over, and obliged us. "OK, we'll leave in ten minutes. Go load the batteries for the camera and get us breakfast."

An hour and a half later, we turned off the highway north of Tripoli and headed towards the sea, along the same road I had taken only a few days ago, past the former army checkpoint 5 to 6 kilometers south of the Nahr el Bared refugee camp. Two very loud explosions from the mountains to the east caught us by surprise. We ducked; M. hit the brakes. A BMW skidded and raced past us. We honked, signaled for him to stop and pulled up next to him. "Is it safe to take this road? Are there snipers? We are trying to find the place where the journalists and medics are stationed." The young man behind the steering wheel was in a hurry. "You can go about 4 kilometers. The road beyond that is in the line of fire. You take a right up at the corner..." He broke off in mid-sentence and signaled for us to follow him instead.

We trailed him, along the coastal dirt road, lined with dilapidated houses and car mechanic shops. A few dozen men were tinkering away at their cars; women and children stood on their balconies or peered from the windows as explosions and gunfire erupted, seemingly from various locations. "It sounds like they are firing those new American 240 mm shells," M. said. "It's definitely bigger than a 155mm. Be really vigilant and on the look out," he instructed us. "On the look out for what? Snipers?" I inquired. "Just be alert," he replied keeping his eye on the road ahead.

The BMW we had been following now pulled over to the side of the road. "I have to turn off to the right here. The journalists should be at the next intersection, just up ahead. Be careful," he advised. We drove on slowly, but there was nobody at that intersection, nor at the next. "Have we driven too far," I wondered. "Is it even possible for us to get too close without the army turning us away?" My roommate in the back seat agreed that we should turn around, except then, just ahead I recognized the checkpoint at which last week's demonstration had taken place.

To my surprise it was unfortified and only manned by one soldier in the company of a tall, lanky man, sporting olive green fatigues, a hefty but well-trimmed beard, sunglasses and what resembled a straw safari hat. We crept towards them and rolled down the window. "Excuse me, where are all the journalists and medics?" M. asked the soldier. "Everybody's gone. They left," he replied with remarkable disinterest. "Where did they go?" "They went somewhere else. That way..." he replied waving his hand. "Is it safe to drive up that road?" "No," the bearded-man in the olive green fatigues interjected. "But go if you like..."

We reversed and drove back down the same road. "Can we drive really fast?" I asked, reclining in the seat. M. assured me that we would, as soon as we got further away from the checkpoint. "That man... the man with the beard-- he's not in the army," M., whose father is an administrator in the Lebanese Army, noted. "Who the hell was he?" I asked. "He was probably a militia man. Must have been. And his uniform was ironed. This wasn't some makeshift outfit. He wears that every day. That's his job," M. surmised, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. "He looked like an Islamist version of a platoon leader," I remarked. "Perhaps we just saw one of the 'third party' fighters." "I believe it now," M. concluded. "That was probably the militia they've been talking about. It's true what they've been saying."

We turned left at the end of the coastal dirt road to return to the highway. Three or four military jeeps passed us. None of the soldiers took note of us. Back on the highway, a procession of ten to twelve tanks, fortified with sandbags, each carrying 5-6 soldiers, their rifles cocked in every direction passed us en route to Nahr el Bared. "This looks like something out of World War II. These aren't the same boys who lackadaisically man the tanks in Beirut. They are here to fight..." I noted, as we slowed down to a crawl for the road block ahead.

M. routinely removed his sunglasses, earring and turned off the stereo. The soldier peered at us through the window. His eyes yellow and bloodshot, he mouthed "hawiyyeh," and signaled for an ID card with both his hands. M. handed him the document. "Tfaddal. Allah ma'ak," the soldier whispered hoarsely.

We turned off the highway and up the winding road to Badawe camp. Outside a shop, two armed Palestinian guards directed us to the back entrance of the camp. We parked outside a UNRWA school and entered the yard. Men, women and children sat around on plastic chairs seeking shade on the steps leading up to the school. A hand-written sign in the yard read, "Massacre is in Nahr El Bared. PRESS: Go there."

We crossed the school yard and entered the adjacent Ghassan Kanafani cultural center I had visited last week. In one of the offices, two members of Save the Children foundation were at work, labeling the positions of Fatah al Islam, schools and mosques on a Google Earth map of the camp.

A Swedish woman, a "child safety consultant," according to her business card, briefed us on the latest developments. "We are receiving pictures of the dead-- children, the disabled and elderly. Most of the people who remained are very old; others stayed because they fear not being allowed to return to their homes and being re-located to temporary encampments." "How are you receiving the photos?" I asked. "People are sending them in over their phones. I just received one of a sixty-year old woman, her head blown off. Just now they say a large building near the marketplace, in the densest area of the camp, collapsed from continuous shelling. The situation is bad. Bad. Very bad," she said, and returned to her computer. "Oh and the Lebanese press are denying there are still as many people in the camp," she continued. "There are at least 5,000 who remain inside. They keep reporting that only the Fatah al Islam remain. It's simply not true."

I asked her about the bus of refugees fleeing Nahr el Bared that was allegedly ambushed by militia men during the first ceasefire. That day, I had received text messages from people up north, reporting that civilians had been shot and tortured as they tried to flee; shot and tortured by a "third party militia". When I visited Badawe last week, I heard the same story from a young man and an elderly lady. The Swedish child safety consultant sized me up. "The thirteen year old boy on the bus, he was tortured with electricity. He survived. His grandfather has taken him out of the camp, because he doesn't want him to have to answer any more questions. An Amnesty International delegation is here looking for him." I replied that I had also heard of two survivors who were being treated in the Norwegian hospital at the camp's entrance. "Yes, that's what they say. I don't think they want to talk about it now," she replied cooly.

We left her office and wandered out into the yard. A group of teenage boys surrounded us. "Are you journalists? Who do you work for?" "Not really," M. replied. "We are just here visiting for the day." "Hey, do you want to drink some laban donated by Hariri?", Ali, who claimed to be seventeen, inquired puffing on a cigarette. "I don't like Hariri," I declined. "Neither do we. But it's good laban. Come!" he beckoned. We walked with him and his friends back to the UNRWA school yard and out into an adjacent parking lot. "If you don't want laban. We can drink whiskey," he suggested. "I will invite you for a night at Casino du Liban. They serve big platters of fruit with the drinks there," Ali mused. "It's very expensive. And full of khalijis," I replied. "No, it only costs 75,000LL ($50)," Ali insisted.

An elderly disabled man came over and handed us a petition, hand-written on the back of a sheet of baking foil. "We ask that the army and Fatah al Islam agree to take the fighting outside our camp." "It's like Jenin," another man interjected. Ahmed, who I spoke to last Tuesday hours he had fled the camp, was eager to re-tell his story to M. and Y. The frenzied pitch with which he spoke reminded me of stories of torture victims from the 1980s in South America. Many survivors were maddened by the prospect that nobody would believe them; their torturers had been careful to leave no exterior wounds, instead inflicting internal bruising and psychological injuries. "There is not one dead civilian. Not one. Many many many. Not one," Ahmed repeated.

While we were chatting with the kids in the street, a gunman from "Saiqa" asked us to disperse. "I'm really sorry, but we need to keep things calm," he said. "Things are very tense." We apologized as he horded the kids back into the parking lot. He offered us juice. "I was born during the summer of 1982. In a bomb shelter. Our situation now is quite similar," he remarked.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Day in the North

Yesterday I visited the outskirts of Nahr el Bared camp in northern Lebanon, the newest front of the US-led "war on terror". The camp-- the second largest in Lebanon, home to 40,000 Palestinian refugees-- is located just north of Tripoli, bordering the Mediterranean coast on one side, surrounded by luscious greenery and a highway on the other.

Just outside Nahr el Bared camp

The Lebanese Army has besieged and shelled the camp with the help of American weapons, express delivered over the past few days, in an attempt to eliminate 300-500 Fatah al Islam fighters who attacked and killed 27 soldiers earlier last week. Fatah al Islam is a fanatical Salafi group of Lebanese, Saudi, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Syrian fighters who set up shop there late last year, allegedly with the help of certain individuals in the pro-western Lebanese government. Claims of outright government complicity, which first surfaced in an article by Seymour Hersh in a January issue of the New Yorker have been substantiated through interviews with the Fatah al Intifada leadership and other sources. Locals in Tripoli claim the apartments used as a sniper nest by the militants belong to Future MP Ahmed Fatfat's son. Talk about a negligent landlord who doesn't notice his upscale rental is being used as a weapons cache by a gaggle of devout foreign men.

On the tenth day of the siege, the casualty numbers for civilians killed by army shells and Fatah al Islam gunfire, as well as sniper fire by a yet unknown third party, have not been confirmed as the fighting rages on. The army claims only one civilian was killed; the camp authorities and civilian population cannot clear the rubble or damage incurred to more than two hundred housing units, schools and mosques. Ambulances, aid workers, reporters and inhabitants are denied entrance or re-entrance. Estimated casualties range up to one hundred. Nahr al Bared inhabitants have drawn up a list of seventeen confirmed deaths and dozens more wounded.

Names and ages of the confirmed dead on a wall in Badawe camp

A protest was scheduled for 12.30 in the afternoon, about a kilometer from the northern entrance to the camp. This as close as the Red Cross, Red Crescent and media can get to the camp. An estimated 10,000-15,000 residents remain in the camp.

About two dozen people-- inhabitants of Nahr el Bared, some journalists and activists-- gathered, carrying banners: "More access for ambulances", "Against the restriction on coverage of camp siege. The right to know the humanitarian crisis" and "Condemn the assault on the army. Refuse to jeopardize the safety of the camp and its inhabitants."

Twice as many soldiers formed a line across from the demonstrators, occasionally ordering people to move back as sporadic gunfire erupted in the distance. The atmosphere was notably tense, the soldiers aggravated by the presence of cameras. A reporter from NBN was hauled in and detained by the army. They suspected he was filming them. Other reporters have been detained by the army since the fighting broke out last week.

After an hour, word came from Badawe camp that a group of displaced women and children, refugees from Nahr el Bared were going to walk to join the protest. We set off to meet them by car, to help them get through the army checkpoints. But as they were set to march from Badawe, the camp leadership prevented them from leaving.

En route to Badawe, an equal number of women and foreigners were assigned to each car, to prevent Palestinian passengers from being harassed by the army. As we stopped at an army checkpoint, the soldier peered in and asked us where we were from. "Beirut," the driver responded. "Killon, al chabab? (All the guys?)" he asked. He responded, yes, and we drove on, the displaced breathing a sigh of relief.

We drove around the periphery of the camp on the highway. Army tanks were stationed along the outer wall, which was lined with sandbags and mounds of dirt; we could see two or three scorched multi-story buildings and a damaged mosque.

Nahr el Bared; army tank and dirt mounds outside the camp walls

Refugees from Nahr el Bared surveying the destruction of the camp from the highway

We stopped at a building overlooking Nahr el Bared and climbed to the roof where a camera crew had set up shop before continuing on to Badawe.

Badawe Camp is ordinarily home to 16,000 Palestinian refugees, but has taken in an estimated 15,000 inhabitants of Nahr el Bared who fled the fighting between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army. Families have trickled in every day. Ahmed, a fifty year old man, had left Nahr el Bared just that morning. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes dirty. "They are going to destroy the camp tonight. For nothing. Fatah al Islam-- they will fight to the death." I asked him who funds Fatah al Islam and got the same response I received from a mukhabarat agent (army intelligence) in Gemmayze on Saturday night. Saad al Hariri. "We knew it all along. But why do they have do this now?" Ahmed puzzled, shaking his head.

At the Ghassan Kanafani cultural foundation, a young man showed us a map of Nahr el Bared, the areas he believed to have been shelled and five places where Fatah al Islam are holed up in along the periphery.

"Fatah al Islam are shooting from homes right next to my house, but my house was not hit by the shells. But other areas were all over the camp," he told a group of activists and volunteers. "This area by the beach, we call it Jounieh [a Christian port town to the north of Beirut]. It's very nice," he grinned. He detailed the same story I have heard from numerous parties but have not been able to confirm, since the first busloads of people fled the camp during a ceasefire last Tuesday. Apparently one of the busses leaving the camp was stopped by unknown militiamen. They ambushed the bus, shot the driver and a pregnant woman, stole her valuables and tortured and mutilated other passengers, including children. One of the survivors is allegedly recovering in a Badawe clinic. "We have their names, the names of those were attacked and killed," he avowed.

At a school in the center of Badawe, volunteers and displaced inhabitants of Nahr el Bared had planned an evening of activities in protest of the destruction and siege of their camp. The principle of the school refused to let them host the event in the school's yard. "They are selling us out," a young man protested. "They have orders not to let us protest even inside the camps." After an hour of deliberation, it was decided the event would take place without the permission of the school principle. Loudspeakers were set up as hundreds of children roamed around, playing, helping to put up banners, shouting and clapping.

"I am from Nahr el Bared," a seven-year old boy told me. "But now I live in Badawe". "But you are going back to Nahr el Bared," I replied. "Inshallah," he said cocking his head defiantly.

A young boy selected women's boots from the relief donations

A little girl and her friends came over to tell us that "their" camp is much nicer than this one, as if apologizing for a messy house to unexpected visitors. "My camp is beautiful. Not like this," she said, waving her hand dismissively at her surroundings.

Then it was time for poetry readings, speeches and finally a slide show of four hundred pictures taken from inside the camp. Much of the evening seemed geared towards the media and outside world. "Are you a journalist? Are you a journalist?" screeching children tugged at our clothes. But the media was curiously absent, and the slogans-- many of them in English-- might never be seen beyond the gates of the camp.

Two or three young men dominated the evening's events, shouting through a microphone. S. said, in disbelief, "they are yelling at them not to accept food and aid and sit around helplessly."A little girl read a statement she had written from a piece of paper, to loud cheers from the crowd; a boy recited Koranic verses which were received with whoops of Allahu Akbar.

Fairuz's "Al Quds fil al Baal (Jerusalem on my mind)" played; a slideshow of destruction and dismembered bloody bodies was screened from a projector. I sat next to Noor, a ten year old girl from Nahr el Bared.

She began to sob at the sight of a little boy with bloodied legs followed by a photo of amputated arms; a pair of sandals abandoned in the middle of the street. She dried her tears and asked me about Germany. Candles were handed out and snatched up by all the kids.

The event was over and we drove back to Beirut, mindful of slowing down at army checkpoints and the less evident random paroles. Five people have lost their lives, having failed or refused to stop for the army during the past few days. Oh, but one of the men, a cabdriver shot at a checkpoint near Beirut airport was a criminal, a forger of papers, and Syrian to top it off.

To the readers who complained that I failed to express sympathy for the soldiers and did not condemn the brutal attack against them last Sunday by Fatah al Islam, I have this to say:

I sympathize with the families of the young men and when I first head of the events I was horrified. But their killing does not justify the collective punishment of the camp's inhabitants, who are not to blame for Fatah al Islam's presence in their midst. On the contrary. While much of this country is misdirecting their anger and desire for vengeance against Palestinian civilians and failing to blame the parties who funded and/or tolerated Fatah al Islam, while that same army is blocking the media, paramedics and inhabitants from returning to the camp, and is executing orders that are against international conventions and law, I am more inclined to condemn the political leadership (and of course the kooky fanatics) for those soldiers' deaths.

Support the army from those who put them at risk by funding Fatah al Islam; prevent efforts to split the army along sectarian grounds; protect the army from orders to fight a dirty war against civilians and their homes, against waging a losing battle against a group that should have been denied access to this country, the camps, funds and weapons in the first place.

These civilians are helpless; the army is not, certainly not with the gung-ho support they enjoy on Facebook and from some of my readers.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Palestinian civilians fleeing Nahr el Bared refugee camp

Pop Quiz

Who Said It?

1. We will hunt down and kill the terrorists/ We will not surrender to the terrorists

A. George W. Bush
B. John Kerry
C. Ariel Sharon
D. Elias Murr
E. All of the Above!

2. Support our troops/ the army

A. The Yanks
B. The Phoenicians
C. The Israelis
D. All of the above!

3. They hate us for our Freedom/our Tribunal

A. George "He Tried to Kill my Daddy" Bush
B. Walid "They Killed my Daddy and I didn't mind until 25 years later" Jumblatt
C. Saad "They killed my Daddy. I am Saad Hariri and I am for Chapter Seven" Hariri
C. Nayla "They killed my Husband and I kept silent while on mukhabarat payroll" Mouawad
E. All of the above!

Send your answers to Winners will be announced at a mass grave in Nahr el Bared. The winner receives an "I love Life & the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces)" bumper sticker for the back of their armored hummer.

And here's the Bonus Question:

Which parties previously funded -- directly or indirectly-- terrorists that they later tried to hunt down and kill?

A. Reagan & the Bush dynasty
B. March 14th
C. The House of Saud
D. All of the Above!

The winner of the bonus question gets a free midnight shopping spree at any of the malls mentioned on the UN's list of possible targets.

Bewareth the Mall & Rallying behind the Troops

Monday night at R. and L.'s house in Mar Elias.
I invited R. and L. over to my house, but they declined. "We're staying away from Jesusland for a while." Nearly every car bomb during the past two years has occurred in the "Christian areas" where I live. I took a servis from Achrafiye at around 9 or 10 pm. The streets in Saifi and Gemmayze were almost empty, save a street cleaner or two. "Nobody is out tonight," the car driver noted, expressing his displeasure with the fare we had agreed upon during this lull in business.

At R. and L.'s house, we sat in the living room and discussed the situation. "What are we going to do?" I asked. "You mean where are we going to hang out," L. replied. "We are not going out." "I am not going out ever again," R. said. "It's house party season from now on."

"I've been preparing myself. If a war starts, I will not start smoking again," L. said reclining on the couch as R. and I puffed away. Fifteen minutes later, L. left the room to fill a pitcher with arak in the kitchen. R. and I were deep in conversation, when we heard a thud in the distance. We continued speaking for a few seconds. "Did you hear that?" L. rushed in from the other room. "Did you hear something?" The landline phone rang. R.'s mother, who is also known as "Information Central", walked in puffing on a cigarette in her robe, and answered the phone. She spoke for a few seconds and then hung up. "It's in Verdun"-- an upscale shopping district-- she said and left the room again.

We turned on the TV. Nothing on the news yet. I sent a text message to a friend in Dubai, to my roommate who was at home in Achrafiye, to another friend in Zahle. The lines were already overloaded. I had to re-send each message five or six times. "It will take a few minutes before its on the news," R. said, flipping through the channels. The phone rang again. "It's in Verdun. Near Scoozi restaurant." New TV interrupted its broadcast and confirmed that an explosion had occurred in Verdun, that security guards were pushing people away from the scene of what might have been a targeted assassination. "Who could it be?" We listed the politicians who live close or nearby. Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, Ghazi Aridi. "Please let it not be Saad Hariri. I won't be able to stomach the campaign-- father and son, reunited in heaven."

"Now they have consecutively targeted both the upper crust Christian and Muslim areas in Beirut. I bet over in Achrafiye they're relieved its not in their neighborhood again," I remarked. "I passed by there twice today," L. muttered as we watched a chaotic scene unfold on TV. Dozens of people and policemen gathered around torched cars; flames spit from a commercial high rise building. The camera scanned across the fearful face of a woman of southeast Asian origin, perhaps a tourist, and zoomed in on the smoking facade of Joe Raad's salon-- the hairdresser to the stars. "Where is Nancy Ajram going to get her hair done?" L. remarked. "Perhaps a rival beautician is behind this one."

"This can't be Al Qaeda. Why wouldn't they target Starbucks or Dunes mall instead of a side street?" I posited. "Al Qaeda don't do damage control. They aim for maximum casualties. Usually they ignite a bomb and then wait until the paramedics have arrived, then set another one off. If they did that in Beirut, with all the by-standers rushing to film the explosion on their cellphones, we'd really be screwed."

Twenty minutes later we were channel surfing again, in search of entertainment. "How short our attention is dedicated to such events. After twenty minutes we have already come to terms with it. It seems like old news."

The numbness has set in again. I woke up in the morning and looked at my reflection in the mirror. That slight tan, the detached gaze, the dusty early summer sunlight pouring in through the window-- it was all too reminiscent of last summer.

Somehow it's a relief to be absorbed entirely by outside events; you abandon all other concerns and complaints, when you see 15,000 desperate Palestinian refugees fleeing on foot and by car. But that knot in my stomach has returned-- that sensation of dread and helplessness. And anger.

I promised myself not to spend twenty-four hours a day glued to the TV. If something happens, I will know before it's broadcast on TV or over the Internet. In Lebanon, you either hear an explosion first hand, or someone calls you; at the very latest, a cab driver or shop keeper informs you. The Lebanese are professionals at rapidly dispensing information; everybody knows that you have to be the first to call, because the system will be overloaded within minutes, as an entire nation simultaneously messages and calls their friends and relatives.

The pressing need to know will eventually subside if this continues. Perhaps we will all go about our business during the day and ensure to be safely home before nightfall for the rest of the summer. Maybe we will experience a lull as the wheelings and dealings pick up behind the scenes.

It seems ironic that in a place with as many intricate and entrenched variables for conflict, a phantom group would appear on the scene as the greatest threat to stability. And at the end of the day, I suspect the moment will pass and Fatah al Islam will be overshadowed by other developments; their affiliation with Lebanese Salafists with whom highranking government officials enjoy close ties, will ensure that the threat is played down. A policy of "tolerating" them will ensue in exchange for God knows what. Or the Lebanese Army will announce "a victory"-- at what expense?-- and we will never see the evidence.

In the meantime, I will listen to sirens whiz by and try to predict where the next attack will occur. I will recall the nauseating patriotic display in the US after September 11th, and with a heavy heart accept that it is perhaps all too human to rally behind the troops and state apparatus, to so desire a simplistic narrative involving good and bad guys-- "our boys" versus "the terrorists" and their alleged Syrian sponsors, and to reap satisfaction in the futile display of indiscriminate and overwhelming force against "them", whoever they may be. Perhaps 40,000 helpless Palestinian civilians deserve a break.... You're either with us or you're with the terrorists, an idiot once said.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dubious Militants & the Violated Sanctity of the Bathroom

It's summertime and Lebanon is making headline news again. "Lebanon hit by worst violence since civil war" the first headline on the Google News aggregator screeches (as if the last summer never happened.)

Well it was about time. The events in Gaza were getting way too depressing. The rhetoric of "severe and harsh" responses, the "promise" of a painful escalation emanating from that profane hole in Olmert's face were just a tad too familiar. So it's time for something new and slightly more esoteric:

Fatah al Islam-- a kooky Salafist group, which nobody had heard about until recently-- has set up shop in the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp and is battling it out with the Lebanese army. The group apparently also own prime real estate in an upscale neighborhood of nearby Tripoli -- worth a million dollars and upwards-- which they used as snipers' nests during the house to house gun battles yesterday.

The fighting erupted early Sunday morning when soldiers raided an apartment inhabited by militants to arrest the suspected perpetrators of a bank robbery. Fatah al Islam subsequently stormed the army posts outside the camp, lining up and executing eleven soldiers. At least 47 dead in yesterday's clashes, without an updated casualty count from the besieged Nahr el Bared camp where 40,000 Palestinian refugees live. Fighting continued today.

Nobody really knows who Fatah al Islam are or what they want. Their members reportedly hail from as far as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh. They stand accused of having ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq and of carrying out the Ain Alaq bus bombing, which the group denies ( very un-qaeda'esque not to claim responsibility.) According to a spokesman, they seek to "protect the Sunnis of Lebanon" and a sheikh associated with them recently complained that only the Shi'a are allowed to yield weapons. The militant equivalent of penis envy, perhaps. Either way, they need better PR.

Saniora's government claims Fatah al Islam, a breakaway group of the Palestinian Fatah al Intifada, work for Syrian intelligence. Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker in January proposed an alternative explanation:

"Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, 'The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.' Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. 'I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,' Crooke said."

Apparently, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa granted entry visas to 2,000 Al Qaeda-associated militants in December 2005 who never left Lebanon, but rather set up shop in that same camp. Read the rest of Hersh's piece to learn how Saad al Hariri intervened to release Salafist militants from prison. New TV just reported that a framed picture of al-Hariri was found in one of the homes of the militants in Tripoli. Oops!

This is all old news, of course, and the western media is doing us all a great disservice by blindly regurgitating the Saniora government's claims about Syrian sponsorship, and by ignoring these embarassing little details. Fatfat, the minister of Youth, Sports & Caffeinated Beverages, put in his two cents arguing that the violence was intended to derail the International Tribunal. Nayla Mouawad-- just now on CNN-- reiterated the same, and said something about no longer tolerating the "extra-territoriality" of the Palestinians. Lovely. The dumb bell CNN anchor who looked as confused as ever listening to the convoluted ramblings of Dame Nayla made it seem like Fatah al Islam represented the entire Palestinian nation in exile.

What seems clear is that whoever once sponsored or gave orders to Fatah al Islam has unleashed a beast they no longer control and a policy of trying to contain (or tolerate) the group is no longer working.

In the meantime, the army which is not allowed to enter Nahr el Bared, is shelling the camp "indiscriminately", according to a PFLP spokesman earlier today. The wounded are not receiving medical attention; fires are raging. "We want ambulances to be allowed into the refugee camp to transfer the civilian casualties. We also want fire brigades to enter the camp and put off the fire in many buildings." A cloud of black smoke envelopes the camp, and rescue workers who were trying to evacuate the wounded were fired upon.


Last night, I watched a cheesy thriller on TV as a respite from the bad news. My tolerance for cinematic suspense is low, a hereditary condition handed down by my mother who leaves the room at least 20 times in the course of an episode of "Columbo". After the movie, my friend M. went home and I went to the bathroom. With the ominous film soundtrack still ringing in my ear, I was just sitting down on the loo (excuse the details) when I decided that it was best to close the window behind me, so as not to have my back to it (they always attack from behind in movies.)

Suddenly I heard an extraordinary blast, which shook the whole bathroom. For a moment I thought the noise was in my head, that I has suffered some sort of brain tremor, that my vision was blurred and my ears were ringing from combusted brain cells. I heard something fall in the kitchen. I leaped up and ran into the living room to call my friend M. who had just left the house minutes earlier. By the time I dialed his number, he was pounding on the door.

"What was that?" "A massive explosion. There was glass breaking outside," he said, hurrying past me into the living room to turn on the TV.

There were no reports on TV, so we climbed up to the roof. Most of the neighbors were standing out on their balconies. Nobody spoke, except for the policemen who guard the minister's home across the street. They were frantically trying to re-assume their position in front of the house they are supposed to be guarding. Billows of black smoke and the smell of burning carbon filled the air.

I sent as many text messages as my shaking hand allowed-- to family and friends. Conflicting reports about the exact location of the bombing appeared on various news sites, until-- about forty-five minutes later-- it was established that a car bomb had exploded in a parking lot next to the ABC Achrafiye mall, just a few hundred meters away. The bomb tore a 3 m wide and 1/5 m deep radius into the ground. A wall collapsed on a 63-year old lady in her nearby apartment. 12 others were wounded by broken glass.

Lebanon is making headlines again; the Palestinians are bearing the brunt of it, and we are chain-smoking ourselves to death in the early summer sun.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Evil of Banality: An alternative approach to the Virginia Tech Tragedy

I've been following the saga of the Virginia Tech shooter with some fascination. Yes, it's a tragedy and no, the students' deaths are no less senseless and outrageous than -- just to name one example-- the 198 people who perished last Wednesday in Baghdad. Americans have come to expect that kind of violence in the less "civilized" parts of the world, so they are not shocked nor do they comprehend the grief of losing your child to liberation bombing or the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East. Most Americans don't shop at market places so the Baghdad market bombing seems remote, outlandish. They do however aspire to send their kids to college, which is why the killing spree of Seung-Hui Cho (misidentified as Cho Seung-Hui for the past week) qualifies as "senseless" while other more political tragedies are met with indifference (unless they claim the lives of "our boys").

For days now, every television station has broadcast the video clips Seung-Hui Cho mailed to NBC in between his morning and afternoon shooting rampages (with a disclaimer, of course; these "disturbing images" are being screened to satisfy your inner amateur psychoanalyst.) The emphasis is always on the pre-meditated factor of his killings; not a word on the presentation or content. "It shows he meticulously planned and carried out his murderous spree." No shit, sherlock.
The plays he wrote as an English major in college are available online. Not to encourage the starving and neglected playwrights out there to follow Cho's example and have their work widely read and critiqued, but always apologetically presented as further evidence of a disturbed and violent mind. People seek to comprehend why Cho committed these crimes. To prevent a similar tragedy from transpiring, creative writing instructors must henceforth learn to distinguish between assignments that reveal actual violent intent or just plain old shock value.

That violent intent is rather harmless without the liberal means to commit such an act (purchasing guns requires a five-minute transaction; ammunition is readily available 24/7 at your local superstore), is not up for discussion. Not over Bush's dead body.

Well here's my two cents on the disturbed and violent mind of Seung-Hui Cho:

Reading the plays and watching his video manifesto, it strikes me that the killer must have suffered an immense inner void. The dialogue in his plays is as lame as the plot, the violent episodes unoriginal ("You want me to stick this remote control up your ass, buddy?") and childish (stuffing a half-eaten candybar down somebody's throat.) Cho's play "Richard McBeef" is an astounding testament to a confused assimilation into American culture; his use of violent phrases and insults are muddled in their grammatical use and context, a bland and banal expression of unfocused rage. He might as well just have scrawled Shitfuckshitfuckshitfuckshit over 12 pages. Home Alone is fifty times as originally violent and macabre.

The video-taped manifesto is eery not only because of the violent intent it expresses but because his presentation seems so apathetic and insincere. For the most part he is seen reading off of a paper, stumbling over his own awkward cliche-riddled phrases: "You made me do this... I did this for my children." "Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have your throat slit from ear to ear?... Thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ, who inspired generations of the weak and the defenseless people." If Cho had auditioned for his own role as mass murderer in a play, he would not have gotten the part.

Seen from this angle, Cho's killing spree at Virginia Tech perhaps exemplifies the "evil of banality" and nothing more; that someone as empty and stupid as Cho can be driven to madness by his creative shortcomings. Cho's suicidal rampage could embody a case of mediocrity of the mind turned murderous. Hitler too was a bad artist and apparently frustrated and driven to megalomania by his lack of talent.

My father complained after two days of non-stop TV coverage that he was "profoundly bored" by the whole affair. I myself was slightly disgusted by the crowd roaring, "Go Hogies!" at the funeral service for the deceased, or whatever their silly varsity team is called. What did make me very very sad, is the public letter written by his sister and the interviews conducted with his ancient toothless great aunt in Seoul. "I loved my brother. Now I don't feel like I know that person anymore", his sister wrote. TV psychologist Dr. Phil generously recommended that one must have "sympathy" for the family for "they too require our support." May his victims rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ban Ki Moon, british sailors & the good news from Iraq

I'm back.

I lost my sense of humor for two months and a few weeks, after watching fourteen year olds bash their skulls in during the "opposition" strike on January 23rd.

I left Lebanon the next day, chain-smoking in the cab en route to the airport, where I was finally made to part with the canister of tear gas I have been lugging around in my handbag for the past six years. The baggage screener smiled sympathetically when I told him that my concealed weapon had sentimental value-- it was with me when I departed JFK airport from New York a few days after the World Trade Center attacks ("Ma'am are you carrying nasal spray in your handbag?" the baggage checker asked me, to which I responded "naturally"); it was in my possession at Heathrow airport just a few days after the liquid bomb scare.

He didn't seem to care why I carry it in the first place, but rather inquired when I was coming back. "After yesterday? Perhaps never", I said, instantly regretting the bitterness of my response. Before I boarded the flight to Dubai my duty free purchases were handed to me in an "I love life" plastic bag. The final insult.

The following day a student brawl at Beirut Arab University turned bloody when snipers shot at students and army personnel. The surrounding neighborhoods were soon patrolled by militiamen who set up checkpoints. The army enforced a curfew for the first time in ten years. I got my first taste of what it's like to watch Lebanon descend into violence from a distance, surrounded by Lebanese who register the events with a pained resignation. Ever since then, I couldn't bring myself to contribute lofty "anecdotes" about the state of affairs in my favorite banana republic. And so I remained silent here on these pages.

Well my sense of humor is back thanks to Ban Ki Moon (try saying his name in a Scottish accent: Baan Key Muuuun). Mr. Moon apparently stepped out onto the balcony of his hotel room while he was visiting Beirut and expressed astonishment at the dazzling view of the "Atlantic Ocean."

One of my favorite features of living in Beirut is the frequent visits of expendable dignitaries such as the newly-crowned UN Secretary-General. I understand that it's hard to be briefed in short on the Lebanese mess. I don't blame Nancy Pelosi for spouting all that nonsense about the "historic Cedar Revolution." Everybody knows full well that she doesn't have a fucking clue what's going on here. But you do get a sense of how out of touch these world leaders are and how their words fall on hollow ears with the local population when you foolishly attempt to go from A to B while they are being shuttled around the city. The only tangible effect of their diplomatic efforts are excruciating traffic jams. I love waiting in the midst of angry cab drivers while the police and army block the streets. Then when a motorcade finally goes whizzing by everyone is outraged.

Ban Ki Moon's motorcade consisted of the usual jeeps and 4 x 4s filled with the nation's most able armed men. But Moon himself was whisked around in a low-riding Mercedes Compressor, to which my cab driver remarked, "A small car for a small man."

The rest of this post will be dedicated to my favorite masochistic pastime, watching CNN.

For the first three weeks of the July war, I couldn't bear to tune into Fionnuala Sweeney and Hala Gorani reporting from downtown Beirut. Late one night I caught a glimpse of Wolf Blitzer braving the "northern front" in a helicopter embedded with the IDF. I'd had enough. But by the third week of the war, during the "lull" when Israel concentrated its missiles and bombs on the south and out of my hearing range, I felt guilty for the increasing normalcy that returned to my three-block radius in Hamra. I wanted to share just a bit of the pain of people in the line of fire. And so I turned on CNN to hear their narration of the day's events.

Twenty-minutes of coverage that evening was devoted to 12 IDF reservist soldiers, struck by a katyusha missile in a parking lot in Galilee when they failed to heed to the warning sirens. That was followed by -- no, not extensive coverage of an airstrike in the Beirut neighborhood of Chiah in which 56 civilians perished when two apartment buildings were flattened -- but rather by the "Arab Anger Exclusive", which sought to answer the question on everyone's mind: Why are they so fucking angry?

Two weeks ago I again reached for the remote control and searched for CNN, curious to see their coverage of the British sailor hostage crisis. (Note that they are always referred to as "sailors" as if they weren't military personnel, but rather a jolly bunch of fishermen whose love of adventure drives them out to sea, time and time again.)

I happened to tune in just in time to catch CNN anchor Jonathan Mann narrate an "exclusive special" (they love specials, don't they?) on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Except that in this case the emphasis was on Iranian REVOLUTIONARY guards. "This isn't an ordinary army or batallion, Sue," that blue-eyed lout told the other anchor. "Much like the PARTY of GOD Hez-bow-laaa, the REVOLUTIONARY guards are..." and so on and so forth. Doesn't that just strike fear in your heart? These REVOLUTIONARY guards want to deprive your children of their well-earned right to consume cookies and milk and spend slothful hours in front of the TV.

Notice also that CNN anchors always strike a cheerful tone when announcing the bad news. "FIVE-HUNDRED people were killed at a fishmarket in Baghdad today" comes right on the heels of "Billy Sue McGee miraculously lost FIVE-HUNDRED pounds on the new tape worm diet." Get off the prozac, I say. They also have regular specials entitled "The Good News from Iraq", where they interview three little girls at a dance school in Irbil who are finally fulfilling their life-long dream of learning ballet. Just now there was a "special" on university students. A CNN anchor visited a class at Baghdad University. She asked the students if they identify as Iraqis first rather than Shia, Sunni or Kurd. Many of the students shook their heads. The anchor concluded that "Yes, yes, yes, they feel Iraqi" and that there is "hope" in this classroom.

CNN's obsession with Ahmadinijad almost trumps that of AIPAC. Frequently I have heard the newscaster confuse Iran with Iraq. A few days ago I was watching the weather report when the world map behind the weather woman was suddenly replaced with a full-screen picture of Ahmadinijad raising a clenched fist in the air. The weather woman continued to detail the tsunami warning for the southern Pacific to this backdrop of pure evil.

Finally I would like to say that I have nothing but contempt for the ruling elite in this country. The last months have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that while street-level violence might seem spontaneous, it is in fact always ordered and controlled from above. The streets of Beirut are as calm are as ever while the respective war lords, semi-mortal cultish clerics and heirs to their political thrones battle it out in Riyadh and on TV.

At the end of Nasrallah's most recent televised address, I didn't like his ceremonial kissing of children and the revering shower of kisses on the forehead he received. Call me squeamish, but it reminded me of Stalin or Hitler. I was almost waiting for that scene from "The Great Dictator" where Charlie Chaplin (as Hitler) picks up a little child for the cameras and it pees on him. Also I'm glad that gigantic billboard where he is depicted raising the back of his hand has been removed from Fuad Chehab bridge in downtown and on the airport road. Humility goes a long way in my book. And I, too, am a people of the book. Whatever that means. I like saying it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Who wants the Truth?

According to New TV, Sergei Brammertz's latest report reveals which countries are refusing to cooperate with the Hariri investigation. Here is a line-up of the truthseekers:

That's France, Israel, the US, Jordan, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany and a few others (supposedly Iraq and another Gulf country.) Enjoy your tribunal with an "international character".

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sirens & Stagnancy
I barely pay attention to the hysterical wailing of sirens whizzing by, perhaps on their way to diffuse bombs planted in potato-chip bags or to remove a crate of TNT deposited next to an overflowing garbage vat. I no longer ponder why the Lebanese security agencies successfully hunt down liquid bomb detonators and uncover terrorist cells and spy networks, but fail to resolve a single assassination case. When I opened the newspaper over my morning coffee I chuckled at the suspect sketch issued a year-and-a-half after an unsuccessful attempt on Elias Murr's life. I am enjoying the stagnant calm.

The suspect has short dark hair, a smudge on his forehead, and a rather sullen expression. If you recognize him, you know what to do.

Occasionally I mistake the late-night chorus of screaming cats, screeching tires, slammed doors and raised voices with an ominous sign that the lull is over. But I reassure myself that whatever happens will catch me by surprise, at a moment when my mind has drifted from politics to the banal-- plans for dinner, or during a weekend out of town. In Lebanon you can theoretically ignore the news and rely on your friends and acquaintances to inform you of momentous developments by text message.

The young men slugging it out for their respective sects and feudal lords have no say in any matter, despite the vitriolic hatred they muster towards each other. Riyadh, Mukhtara, the White House and Tehran, et al. will ultimately decide what's best for you and yours.

In a recent interview, Saniora made no secret of this when he called for the "eleventh" cabinet member to be hand-picked by the Saudi King. The Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon rejected Siniora's suggestion: “Regarding PM Al-Sanyurah’s proposition that Saudi Arabia names the eleventh minister, Khoja said: 'With all due respect to PM Al-Sanyurah whom we appreciate, respect and trust, we do not interfere in such issues. Maybe PM Al-Sanyurah said that out of his love for Saudi Arabia.'" What's there to love? Yuck.

The "opposition" botched the timing and ends of their bid for increased power. By giving the pro-government forces the time to conspire with the White House to draw Hezbollah into a sectarian internal feud, by begging for crumbs, they lost momentum and meaning. Their sit-in has become as watered down and senseless as any other choreographed spectacle. The lifeless tents in downtown are surrounded by the 24-hour buzz of Solidere's inequitable construction enterprise. In villages in the south, people squat a single room in a bombed out house, they live crowded into the homes of extended families and neighbors; in Dahiye bombed out crater holes serve as massive garbage depots, while Solidere erects more unaffordable luxury housing and commercial buildings a t a frightening pace, unperturbed by the opposition's trivial demands. The cruel foundations of dispossession and privatization upon which Solidere was established, the iron grip of the embezzlers and warlords whose faces adorn every billboard and building in the country remain unchallenged by this "opposition". And still their demands are not met! Siniora will infuriatingly remain the unabashed kind of his castle, until someone in a far away capital blows the whistle.

But any settlement between the government and opposition would leave open the door for so many variables of violence. If Jumblatt is betrayed, what then? Will the Lebanese be satisfied if Berri and Hariri agree on a "no victor, no vanquished" formula, if the ruling class goes back to sharing Syrian sweets for the cameras around a roundtable?

"March 11th" is as conceptually preposterous as Lebanese political movements come, not to mention the irony that this date coincides with the anniversary of the 2003 Madrid train bombing. As if this country needs another silly date, another demonstration, another flag to parade under; as if a sectarian middle ground exists.

On Friday night, I sat outside a cornerstore in Gemmayze with a few young men from the Internal Security Forces. They readily accepted my friend's invitation to share a bottle of vodka (I don't drink that stuff). One of the young men, Bashir, age nineteen supports Aoun; the other young man who he is on duty with is follows the Lebanese Forces. "We are like brothers. We would never fight. That is why I hate my job. But there are no other jobs. Otherwise I would never work for them," Bashir said. Their captain arrived and swigged from the bottle before he drove off to quell a disturbance somewhere.

Sectarian school outings
My friend R., a teacher at a snazzy private high school, recently took his students on a paint ball outing. Instantly they organized into political factions-- PSP and Future versus Hezbollah and FPM. "It was like a prelude to the war", R. said with characteristic exasperation. Whenever a student was hit by a paintball and -- as per the rules-- had to leave the game, his fellow party members would instead use him as a human shield.

Natural Selection

A friend who teaches at AUB overheard two of her students discussing her class. One of them was complaining that he had to drop the writing course she teaches because of a conflict in his schedule. The other student responded, "Drop the other class instead. This teacher, she's from the M. family. They are from Baalbek." (The assumption being that they are Shia.)

I., a Palestinian born in Lebanon, volunteers as an architect down south in Aita Shaab, a village on the Lebanese-Israeli border . His father came down to visit. They drove to the border village Marwaheen, because --they say-- you have a view all the way down the coast, to Haifa. A UNIFIL jeep pulled up next to them (you rarely see UNIFIL outside of their armored vehicles.) The UNIFIL soldier told I. and his father that they couldn't stand there and look. I. asked, "Why not? It's forbidden to look?" "Yes," the UNIFIL soldier responded. "Who gave you those orders?" I. asked. "The Israelis," the soldier replied. "They don't want you to stand here and look." "Well this is my country and that is my country. So I should be allowed to look, shouldn't I?" I. rebutted. The UNIFIL soldier shook his head, and waited in his armored vehicle until I. and his father complied, and drove off.

Mandate II
I have been following the misconduct of a certain guard stationed near Hariri's palace in Qoreitem. Dressed in plain clothes, this blimp-like imposing figure takes pleasure in humiliating and occasionally smacking around Syrian workers-- street cleaners, bottle collectors, and long-term employees at local establishments. Two days ago I watched him apprehend a young boy, no older than nine, who might have looked Syrian to his scrutinizing gaze. Perhaps some of you March 14th supporters would like to report this to your goateed zaim? Unless of course these security measures are absolutely imperative...

Priorities of a Ne'er existent state
The south is in shambles; reconstruction is slow, funding is politicized and additionally complicated by the pervasive pessimism that another war with Israel is on the horizon. Living between adjacent generations of rubble does not inspire confidence in a better future. Apparently some school children in Aita Shaab are refusing to study for their exams or to apply for universities, because they are sure the war will start soon enough.

The new face of chocolate

The boy whose face adorned the Kinder chocolate package for 32 years has been replaced
with a little goody-two-shoes punk ass who probably doesn't let people copy his homework.

I grew up in Germany; I know his type.

I am boycotting Kinder, and I suggest you do the same. Change for the sake of it is frequently good, but not in the case of Kinder's packaging. I feel my childhood being torn asunder.

Meanwhile, Emir Peretz is busy trying to retroactively christen Israel's misadventure in Lebanon this past summer. Initially coined "Operation Just Reward", the 34-day bombing campaign was apply re-named "Operation Change of Direction" by the army when things started looking bleak. That doesn't suit the families of the fallen IDF soldiers, who don't want to bury their sons under some lame wishy-washy title-- "Schlomo G. 1987-2006 fell in southern Lebanon due to a royal fuckup."

How about "Operation Kidnap the Grocer"? Please e-mail any suggestions to Knesset member Yaakov Everi by Monday at

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Acute shortage of good guys

"We're all orphans without Joseph," H. a young journalist at Al Akhbar said as we stood outside the Church of St. John Chrysostomos on Damascus Road before the service began. He looked exhausted, emotionally undone. A few hundred people-- colleagues, friends, readers, admirers, some dignitaries -- Aoun, Berri, Saniora and Lahoud sent representatives, and members of the Lebanese Communist Party gathered on Sunday to bury Joseph Samaha. His body was returned from London less than 24 hours before the burial, where he suddenly passed away last week.

Inside the Church we overheard a man telling his friend: "Everyone here is either black or white. They are either terribly sad or secretly happy to see him go." The flag-bearing CP members stayed outside during the service. Rounds of prayers for his soul were conducted by a gaggle of clergy men. A priest spoke, rather loudly. He said Joseph's presence was needed up there, for he tells the truth, and they, too, need a newspaper. He also said, "we waited for you to go to drag you to Church... Even if you don't believe, the Church is like a mother who is proud of her sons. No matter what." Then Yakoub Sarraf, the resigned Minister of the Environment, bestowed an award of presidential recognition on behalf of President Lahoud.

Eventually people poured in to lay a bouquet-- a single yellow rose and a red feather bound together-- on his coffin. Then the pallbearers-- young journalists, colleagues, family members and admirers-- seized his coffin, raised it above their heads, and carried out the church doors and down the steps. Handfuls of rose petals were thrown over the coffin as it made its way towards the graveyard.

The young men shouldering the coffin-- it was as if they were seizing responsibility for the sudden vacuum left by Joseph Samaha's departure. This country --or perhaps this age-- suffers from an acute shortage of good guys. Maybe it's always been that way. We couldn't afford Joseph's loss, but now there are shoes to fill. A close colleague who went to London to bring back his body mumbled, we have to continue our work. It is the best thing for Joseph. He said it as he had been repeating it to himself for days on end.

As I stood in the back of the Church listening to the prayers I thought long and hard about the term "martyr", which still confuses me, in all its nuances and intended meanings. I don't agree with the pedestal martyrdom is placed on. Or perhaps I only appreciate the term in its narrowest sense, as a way to lend meaning to the death of a young man who has died fighting for his freedom and dignity. Joseph Samaha wasn't a martyr-- cigarette smoking and a hereditary heart condition do not lend meaning to his untimely death. But what if his death serves to mobilize people into action, to take over in his spirit, where he left off?

Perhaps he was lucky to have left the way he did, rather than as a consequence of his refusal to live by strict security measures.

The people mourning Joseph in the Church were also mourning the state of the country. Every person present yesterday exuded a profound loneliness, the loneliness of living without Joseph's friendship, his words and thoughts, his support. H., the young journalist at Al Akhbar, went on and on about how supportive Joseph was when he penned his first pieces.

That's all you'll hear from me in the form of sentimental revery.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Visa requirements, carpet lovers & checkpoints galore

Beirut International Airport. February 25th, 2007. 12:55 AM.

"Thank you. I'm very happy to be back."
"Where are you coming from?"
"Dubai." (I signaled the urge to vomit.)
"You like Lebanon?"
"Yes. Too much."
"Will there be a war?"
"Yes, I fear so."
"No, don't say this. Will there be a war?"
"Inshallah la. (God willing, no)".
He smiled, stamped my passport and half-a-dozen other forms and handed it back to me.
"Welcome, welcome."

It's been weeks since I posted anything substantive. I left for the Emirates and smug Europe without saying goodbye (no point in calling it "old" to a Mediterranean audience), and upon my return the what-is-occupation lobby had paid me a visit in the form of dozens of redundant comments.

Bugger off, will you? Aren't you busy smashing up Nablus?

At Beirut airport, I was handed an "I love life" plastic bag with my sinful duty free purchases. Right outside the airport, a massive billboard depicting a neat row of Lebanon's elite martyrs towered above me. The culture of life indeed. "What is this? A police line up?" I asked my friend L. who kindly picked me up from the airport. "No, it's the Spice girls," she responded. "That's scary spice and that's wealthy spice...." And so on and so forth. The Sri Lankan maid killed in the February 13th Metn bus bombing was curiously absent.

I noticed before I left that Elie Hobeika's martyr billboards were hung in Ein Mreisse and other neighborhoods in Ras Beirut (in time for the anniversary of his assassination.) I guess his murderous machismo holds a cross-sectarian appeal. The resurrection of Hobeika sums up March 14th quite nicely for me. Along with this lovely list and the slogan, "We are against sectarianism, but God is with the Sunnis."

In addition to the opposition's co-opting of the preposterous, hypocritical "I love life" slogan ("in color", albeit in a lower color resolution,) the private sector has followed suit. Iwan Maktabi now runs "I love carpets" advertisements. And there's also "I love fish" and "I love life-- in diamonds". (Carpets -- in American vernacular-- is a reference to female pubic hair.)

Yesterday Suleiman Franjieh accused a member of the Lebanese Forces killing Pierre Gemayel ("the prince of youth", according to the poet-in-residence at the Grand Serail.) The Lebanese Forces refuted his claim as "baseless" and accused Franjieh of violating the "code of honor" agreement signed by Christian leaders from opposing factions. (No "yo momma" jibes and swearing in front of the kids.)

I suppose that amounts to a denial. Speaking of "baseless", Siniora used the same term today to refute Seymour Hersh's claim that his government is cooperating with US covert operations in Lebanon.

In regards to Lebanon's long bloody history of assassinations and indiscriminate attacks, I will make the following analogy:

Let's say Pierre and Susie are having a lovers' quarrel in a restaurant. Susie gets up and yells at Pierre, "I'll strangle you if i catch you ogling that blond waitress again." Many people in the restaurant overhear this. An awkward silence sets in. I now have a scapegoat, an alibi for killing Pierre, who I secretly resent for his athletic build and boyish good looks (I am a man in this case.) Then Pierre's corpse is found a few days later, floating face down in a swimming pool, strangulation marks on his neck. Everyone will blame Susie. Right?

It is not to be excluded that-- in many cases--- the "obvious" party might in fact not be responsible. I am suspicious when Marwan "Dick Cheney" Hamade rushes to attribute the bus bombing in Elias Murr's home village to the recent confiscation of Hezbollah's weapons. Hamade added that whoever bombed the commuter buses was also responsible for the assassinations of Hariri, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, etc.

Really? That doesn't follow. The bus attack was the first of its kind in decades and Hezbollah doesn't bomb busses in Israel, so why would they do it in Lebanon? I know who I suspect and I'll leave it at that... I wouldn't want to violate the "code of honor" that I signed secretly and bilaterally with each individual za'im at the Patriarch's behest.

There are army and Internal Security Forces' checkpoints all over town, within a few hundred meters of each other. On Saturday night a checkpoint was erected outside Element nightclub, as the army goes about protecting the state's most valuable institutions.

But militia checkpoints are also becoming a facet of life again. Many incidents of violence are going unreported or underreported. Everyone has a checkpoint story to share with you over coffee. My friend R. who works at a fancy private school in a Druze village was confronted by a black-clad young man, roughly 19-years old, armed with a machine gun who demanded to see his papers. When he refused, the young man became very agitated and angry. Only when an elderly man who knows R. intervened did he let him pass. R. also reports that his friend Elias who lives near Antillias drove through a Lebanese Forces checkpoint. They ordered him to shave his beard. He now carries a gun in his glove compartment. "Everyone is armed now," R. said.

At night young men in cars cruise the streets at top speed. There are hardly any women out and about, even on a Saturday night in Gemmayze. A collective malaise and unease has gripped my friends and acquaintances. I recognize the war mode, familiar from this summer, in people's hardened expressions.

Seventy-five businesses (roughly half) have reportedly closed in downtown Beirut since the beginning of the opposition sit-in in December. And there's no end in sight. While I still think the opposition's demands are too trivial (i.e. a bigger share of the same rotten pie), the stakes are getting higher and higher with the Siniora government's refusal to give into (at least) half the population's demands. They're not asking for much, but alas! Siniora's hands are tied.

Hezbollah can't put more pressure on the government without risking a very serious escalation. Now that Jumblatt and Geagea have unleashed their dormant penchant for sniping, incitement to violence, blackmail and the militia way-of-life, it seems Hezbollah's will not remain forever restrained by the threat of Sunni-Shia violence. They bear the greatest burden and have the most to lose if the conflict takes on that flavor (in regional standing, as well,) and March 14th have knowingly used it in their favor. Neither side can back down. Where does that leave us?

Joseph Samaha, the Editor-in-Chief of Al Akhbar, passed away yesterday in London at the age of fifty-eight. The tragedy of his untimely departure is no lesser because his life wasn't taken by violent means. He will be sorely missed. He had a very reassuring presence (when I met him briefly,) and while I only read his columns in translation, I know from his many loyal readers and admirers that he was a proverbial gem amongst columnists. He was a man of integrity, F. said. It's odd how the sudden withdrawal of someone's creative output can utterly unnerve you.

Joseph Samaha (1949-2007)