Friday, January 12, 2007

Celebrate your love for Aishti* and unbridled capitalism at Biel on January 25th. (Thank you Rasha and Lina.)

*an overpriced clothing store.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Spies, "intellectual terrorism" & Paris III

In Lebanon, politics either take the form of spectacle (bombing, mass demonstrations, assassinations, street clashes) or under-the-table deals. We are now coming out of the latter phase, which was pleasantly uneventful. Ariel Sharon has been in a permanent "vegetative" state for over a year now. Walid Jumblatt ought to be declared clinically insane.

I am told by the well-connected Shia sitting next to me that four Israeli fighter jets tried to hijack the plane in which Hezbollah Deputy-General Naim Qassim was returning to Lebanon from the Hajj, and to force it to land in Israel. The Saudi royals intervened because Qassim was their guest and this would have not reflected well on the guardians of the two holy sites. Apparently nobody has reported this, even though it transpired days ago. As I have no way to confirm this, I am reporting this as evidence of how the offspring of politicians barter "insider" information to impress members of the opposite sex.

Yesterday's protest by the labor unions and opposition near the Ministry of Finance attracted a miniscule crowd. I can no longer tell if I'm watching re-runs of other protests when I turn on the TV. The protesters were far outnumbered by the army and police who blocked off and patrolled all the surrounding roads and highways. 95% of the protesters were male; a large number, security staff and kaak salesmen. I don't understand the opposition's strategy. The sit-in downtown, now in it's fifth week, and the "escalation" with smaller groups blocking the roads and intersections near ministries, amounts to nothing more than a nuisance. Since they can't afford further escalation which might end in bloodshed or confrontations with the army and police, they will achieve nothing, except roadrage from exasperated commuters and cab drivers. Unlike the teacher's union protest in May, which drew participants from all sects, yesterday's demonstration was clearly a Shia-Aounist affair.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the CIA received a green light to conduct covert actions against Hezbollah.

Crossing Fuad Chehab bridge during my daily pilgrimage to Hamra I noticed that a car had broken through the railing on the highway overlooking Riad el Solh Square (the site of the opposition sit-in). The car must have landed just feet away from the tents housing the protesters. Someone driving a Hummer had too much to drink.

Returning from Hamra, I told the driver to drop me near Mistachfa Roum (the Orthodox hospital). Every passenger we picked up en route requested a ride to a different hospital in Achrafiye. We sneezed and coughed in unision. The driver was amused and seemed unperturbed by the sheer concentration of bacteria in his car.

For the record, Michael Totten-- after whom Tottenism is named-- is a bigotted simpleton, a beggar and a paranoid ill-informed fool. And he thinks he's a good writer. In the comments section on his blog, he compares himself to Fisk and (indirectly) to Orwell. At best his writing resembles Tom Friedman's, riddled with mixed metaphors and annoying cliches. Totten needn't actually travel; his opinions are unbending, pre-contrived, and governed by the "American national interest". Which is not only boring but downright offensive, and reminds me of an all-too familiar saying: "Yes, but is it good for the Jews?" A rhetorical question appropriate to every dilemma-- from political crises to the rising price of toilet paper-- it reveals a frightful tribalistic mindset. And in my opinion, Israel is not good for the Jews, so why worry about anything else? By that same measure, American national interest is not an approriate lens through which to view and judge the rest of the world. "Hard-headed liberal", my ass.

Totten can't distinguish between the people (or terrorists, as he sees them) and the party he holds in contempt because they shout "Death to America!" I, too, am an American passport-holder and I can think of better reasons to dislike Hezbollah. He must have terrible nightmares about Shia children shouting anti-American slogans.

I have now added him four times to my sidebar under "scoundrels". If I was an ultra-Orthodox rabbi I would declare a "pulsa danura" against him. He e-mailed me once to procure a free contribution to his pamphlet-book, alleging that he would not profit from the venture. But on Amazon it says that 20% of the proceeds from the pamphlet-book go to supporting his writing. Needless to say, I declined. I couldn't live with myself if I had unwittingly contributed to Michael Totten's hate-mongering against "militant" toddlers.

I don't understand enough about economics to give you a qualified rundown of why Paris III stinks. But the type of structural adjustment reforms that Siniora proposes did an excellent job of plunging much of Africa and South America into debt and poverty in the 1980s, and have been largely discredited by most reasonable economists.

But I have overheard people expressing enthusiasm for Paris III. Is it possible that some March 14th supporters believe that all the theft and waste of the post-Taef era was due to the Syrian presence, and that these same embezzlers would not line their pockets with new "soft cash loans"? Paris III will offer the ruling coalition a symbolic victory, in the form of a "generous" donation that will do little to alleviate the economic and political crisis.

Saad Hariri complains that Lebanon faces "a new wave of political and intellectual terrorism that coincides with the ongoing preparations" for the Paris III conference. You heard correctly.
Only someone who seriously doubts his own mental abilities could bemoan the threat posed by "intellectual terrorism." What's the remedy? Book-burning? Hariri is desperate to buy up the remaining public industries for chump change. Any argument against unbridled privatization makes his little head throb.

Friday night I was at a bar in Gemmayze. An acquaintance of a friend, a young American of Lebanese descent, struck up a conversation. Thirty seconds into our smalltalk, he gave me a funny look. "Are you perhaps from Germany?" He continued, "You know I think you were kicked out of my house once." I was puzzled and told him that I have NEVER been kicked out of anyone's house, not even when I was fourteen and puked on my friend's carpet from drinking too much tequila. He insisted that yes, his cousin had kicked me out of his house a few months ago, while he was out of town. "You said something about throwing all the cedars into the sea. He looks like me. Don't you remember?" I scrutinized him, noted the resemblance, and recalled the following incident:

Sometime in early May, my former roommate, R. from South Africa, was visiting Beirut. We were out in Gemmayze, and R. who had had too much to drink was sloppily kissing some dubious character with long greasy locks at the bar. He kept telling her he was Italian; it struck me as odd that a Lebanese would try to pick up a foreigner by telling her he was from Europe. When their open-mouthed kissing became the focus of much of the bar's attention, I decided it was time to go home.

I dragged said friend R. out onto the street and hailed a servis to Hamra. She wanted to eat at Zatar & Zeit on Bliss Street. Two young men, preppy Americans in khakis and striped shirts, got in the cab. They told us they both worked for USAID eradicating poppy fields in Afghanistan. And now one of the two, who said he was Lebanese but spoke no more than a few words of Arabic, had relocated to Beirut. I shall refer to him as Lebanese Yank. His friend Jack B. remarked, "Can you believe these broads?" as if we were in som bad 1950s American movie, set in the parking lot of a drive-in movie theater.

Anyway, they ended up joining us at Zatar & Zeit, and the Lebanese yank invited us to eat our manakeesh in his garden just down the road. My friend R. was quite enamored with Jack B. So we walked to their house. Soon R. was asleep, her head face down in Jack B.'s lap.

The Lebanese Yank and I discussed politics, while Jack B. was preoccupied with the mop of hair in his lap. It was evident that we disagreed on almost all counts, on the success of the "Cedar Revolution". He was enamored with March 14th, the economy's performance, the country's stability, US designs and intervention in the region at large. The conversation ensued politely at first, until he raised his voice and cut me off mid-sentence. "Women shouldn't talk politics! You don't know any Lebanese people. You don't know anything!" Suddenly I became very angry. I shouted that if the US invades Iran it will be stupid people like him, who attended community colleges in middle America and now work for the CIA or front agencies like USAID, with little to no knowledge of the language and country, who pretend to be natives, who will be to blame. His jaw dropped, which amused me greatly.

Since I had no desire to further indulge my rage, I got up to leave, grabbed my jacket and told R. that we were leaving. "Why?" she asked raising her head from Jack B's lap. "Because they work for the CIA." "Are they going to kill us?" "No," I said helping to disengage her from Jack B's crotch. I turned back to the Lebanese Yank and held a final fiery oration, denouncing his proxy nationalism for a country he barely knows, the embezzlers and killers he admires, the near-extinct cedars, and disgusting conditional terms of USAID aid packages.

I turned to leave. "Hey. Don't leave! We can drink a few more beers," he insisted. "I do not drink beer with people like you. We have nothing further to say to you," I snapped, and bundled my friend R. out the front door. Jack and Lebanese Yank followed us out onto the street, yelling at us to come back. My friend R. was confused. "You have to explain all this to me in the morning," she mumbled.

Fast forward to friday night. The cousin of Lebanese Yank claims I was "kicked out" of their house, which is patently untrue. The fury I reserve for rabid American zionists and Michael Totten overwhelmed me. I found myself reiterating the same accusations, about USAID being a front organization for the CIA. "Your cousin is political scum," I informed him, waving my hands in the air. The cousin looked a little startled, and evidently regretted having raised the issue. "Let's agree. You were not kicked out of our house, and you are always welcome there. We are hospitable people! But my cousin does not work for the CIA." I think I told him I would burn his house down before I set foot in there again, and that he was lucky I didn't report his cousin. "You really are crazy," he exlaimed and suggested we have a drink to forget about the whole thing. I accepted, but only because my friend-- who had initially introduced me to Lebanese Yank's cousin-- shot me that, "Please don't do this to me now" look. The rest of the evening transpired amicably.

I am becoming soft in my old age. I'm twenty-five this year. By the time I'm fifty, I'll be downing cocktails with the retired Jeff Feltman.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Good Riddance 2006 & 'I Love Life' Goons

Happy 2007 and good riddance 2006.

I have never been gripped by such unease on the eve of the new year, nor have I experienced a collective malaise in anticipation of the impending political escalation. Should one be grateful for the respite politicians politely granted for the holiday season? I don't make much of the Lebanon's "diviners"-- whose predictive powers are held in high esteem. (2006 was going to be a "hot summer." Duh.) But the shit-hit-the-fan talk does coincide with an abundance of regional disaster scenarios. A US/Israeli attack against Iran still tops my list.

The jury is still out on the White House's record-- if the destruction unleashed in the region is due to sheer arrogant incompetence or a grander lucrative "controlled chaos" plan to fuel sectarian and factional violence. Or a combination of the two. Perhaps this year will tell. Don't promise yourselves too much from Pelosi's reign.

I had an illuminating meeting with Sayyid Hassan's favorite "foreign journalist". If I take the man by his word then the hawks are willing to use any means to keep Hezbollah from increasing its share of power in the government. You don't need the Lebanese Forces hustler Michel Hayek to tell you that there will be more assassinations.

Needless to say I did not attend the "I love life" festivities at Biel, despite my voyeuristic instincts and occasional desire to mutilate my senses. Nor was I downtown with "the people".

You don't need to go to the official event to suffer noxious exposure to their campaign. They obstruct traffic with their "I love life" promotional trucks and their "martyr" Christmas trees are a sorry sight. Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea love life? I noticed that Dani Chamoun has a martyr tree downtown, too. I wonder who killed him?

I nearly had a violent altercation with some of the life-loving elves who were blocking my path in Achrafiye. They offered me a pamphlet, which I politely refused. They persisted. I told them that I find the whole campaign sickening. Within seconds a mob of rabid elves descended upon me, accusing me of loving death and being a Hezbollah sympathizer. It felt like some sick twist on the "Night before Christmas" story.

Apparently some people don't know that "I love life" is a March 14th ploy. One friend who recently returned from Beirut mistook the massive billboards for Exotica ads.

"I love life" mission statement reads, "We believe that Lebanon stood up to all angst because it has always embraced the Culture of Life." Really? Always?

"We understand the Culture of Life, as opposed to the Culture of Death, as a deep, well-developed sense capable of discerning true values and interpreting authentic needs in our communities and society."

Well that all sounds fine and dandy, indicative of the blossoming "maturity" of Lebanon's political culture. The former bloodletters and Syrian stooges are desperately prying themselves free from the "forces of darkness" (to quote that madhatter Jumblatt). Jumblatt now accuses Iran of a "Zionist"-like plot to buy up real estate under "false names" in his neck of Mount Lebanon. What a paranoid wreck. Things must not be looking good for Walid Beik.

The "culture of death" of course refers to the Shia who all want to martyr their children for Imam Hussein and plunge this country into perpetual war. How can you say you're either with us or you worship death? Hey poor people, we love life and unbridled capitalism. Get with the program!

The tent arrangments in downtown now resemble a semi-permanent slum city. Tarps have been hitched to the walls of nearby ruins and construction sites. And some tents are even equipped with satellite dishes. There area is almost deserted during the day, perhaps due to the recent cold spell. Many of the steadfast revellers lost their homes during the war and the government isn't doing anything for them. Paris III won't do anything for them. A heated tent isn't worse than crashing with the neighbors or sharing an overcrowded apartment.

I watched a film entitled "Notes on War" by Maya Mikdashi last night. The filmmaker(s) conducted interviews with displaced people in schools and shelters during the summer war. It was a sobering reminder of those "invisible people" who were most effected by this war, how utterly helpless they were, ignored and abandoned by the government. Many of them railed against the Arab states whose complicity in the campaign to "eliminate" Hezbollah wasn't lost on them. Some of the interviews reminded me of the squandered"non-sectarian" potential of present in every class and sector of Lebanese society. "Squandered" because these people are constantly pushed around, forced to seek help from their own, categorized and marginalized by sect.

An older lady who suffered a severe eye infection during the war was interviewed. She recounted visiting Nayla Moawad's house, to ask the Minister for help. The guard at the door asked if she was "Sunni" or "Shia". When she told him she was nothing, he told her to go see Nabih Berri. "My husband and children are Sunni! I don't want Nabih Berri. I don't want Hassan Nasrallah. I want someone to treat my eye," she complained. Eventually she traveled to Syria to seek medical treatment and returned to the shelter in Lebanon. She spoke about how dissappointed she was with the inept Siniora.

Yesterday evening at the height of rush hour I spent a good 45 minutes stuck in a traffic jam on Fouad Chehab bridge, just above downtown. The army had blocked off all the surrounding streets bringing the entire area to a standstill. And so people turned off their engines and got out of their cars to see what all the fuss was about. Finally, the Turkish Prime Minister's motorcade whizzed by at a million miles an hour. This enraged the hapless drivers who furiously honked and yelled, as if to say, "Spare us your hollow diplomacy, asshole! You're wasting our time!"

It reminded me why I love this city and brought to mind stories about the late Hariri's obnoxious motorcade blocking cellphone reception and causing traffic jams everywhere he went. When I first arrived in Beirut, someone told me that the widespread outrage with Hariri's security measures was enough to get anyone killed.