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.

18 comments:

nemesis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonzai said...

welcome back.I missed your postings.
Regarding the kissing on the forehead,this is a very common practice in the region,showing respect.I was always asked by my father to perform the ritual and when I some times refused ,he just laughed.Lots of people kissed him on his forehead or on his shoulder.And why not?It doesnt have the european connotations,its a very ancient way of saluting and when you refuse to do it,as I witnessed in Jordan during the "coronation" of the actual puppet,it showed the displeasure of the tribal leader at this choice of a king,and was accepted as such.
Orient has a different body language as the west ,not substance and I think it should be accepted as it is.Body language.Not substance.Sorry if I repeat myself but I am ill therefore not entirely sure of my words.

Manar said...

EDB -

one of your best ...

- manar

EDB said...

Hi Bonzai,

Believe it or not, in the west people also kiss on the forehead and I do think it is an endearing gesture of affection between friends, family, lovers, you name it. I guess I just don't like the idea of a kissing a leader-- in the east or the west.

Anonymous said...

EDB,
Please tell me: was that tear gas canister empty?

As to your leaving Lebanon after the "opposition" strike, that really bothered me. Perhaps, like Thomas Friedman in his book from Beirut to Jerusalem: all the nonchalant cynicism with which he describes events, all that wit suddenly evaporates when reality sinks in. It makes me wonder if you really understand Lebanon. In one of your past posts you show a picture of a female Phalangist and you comment that she is shooting at Palestinian schoolchildren.
Really??
I personally dislike the Phalangists but if only things were as simple as your sweeping generalizations. We would then all sit around, drink beer and take rounds cracking witty comments while the skull-bashing party goes on outside.
Please be honest and tell me why did you leave for Dubai (which according to you gives you an urge to vomit) then came back to your favorite banana republic when things calmed down?
Next time you look into a mirror EDB, please look closely.
Perhaps you will see a reflection of the western double standards that you so well mock...
how sad.

EDB said...

Anonymous, I find it odd that you propose I owe you (an anonymous commentator) an explanation for my trip to Dubai. Suffice it to say that I visited for personal reasons and was intending to go even before the strike. Unless you are an immigration official, I don't you owe an explanation for why I returned, nor do I divulge on these pages what I do professionally, so mind your own business in that regard. I don't flee the country every time something happens. You would know that if you have been reading this blog for the past 10 months. It would seem self-evident that certain acts of violence are more disturbing than others. Is that a western double standard?

Anonymous said...

My apologies then. I guess I made an assumption about why you left. Maybe I over-reacted. But the prevailing attitude of "flee when it's bad then come back to enjoy zaatar w zeit" really angers me. If that's not you, then I am sorry for the accusation.

PS: was the tear gas canister empty? not that you owe me a response but it would be good to know.

Anonymous said...

EDB-

Thanks for this blog and this entry. It really is a good one. You have a way of cutting through the BS and showing things for what they are: absurd. And you do so with wit and a dry/dark sense of humour.

Anonymous said...

EDB,

Don't tell us that you are working for Che 'professionally' so to speak.

I am not sure whether a 50% white trash kid/ 50% Nazi like you has the maturity to comment on the last para of yours !

PS:Un/fortunately, I am a westerner too !

Anonymous said...

you brought a tear gas canister on a plane several times??? you are very irresponsible to talk about that with pride.
putting such a thing into a confined space is a hazard. if there is fire or an emergency landing of the plane, if the gas goes off infants and old people may suffocate.
it seems you like the thrill of doing something illegal like passing airport checkpoints. next time you need to get high, please come to Amsterdam and do it in a shop instead of endangering the lives of other.
another westerner.

Angry Anarchist said...

speaking of CNN.... i have to say, that the only time i was in awe of CNN was when rosemary church (i think that's her name) was interviewing a woman israeli spokesperson (i think after the massacre of Qana in the July war). ya3ni, it was so out of place for CNN to put an israeli spokesperson on the spot the way she kept asking her all those questions in a very provocative way........

Bonzai said...

Dear Edb,
I am half european and am married to an austrian the last 31 years.I lived almost all my life in the west,but never saw the forehead kissing.I frankly envy you to be in this banana republic,in a city that has always been half prostitute-half rebel,for I miss the wiseness of the people,the lebanese sense of humour and so many other things.I however dont miss the militias chiefs cum tribal leaders that have destroyed the country nor do I certainly miss the bogus 14 march revolution,a new-old clique of mafiosis bend on destroying the country like pyranas.I miss though the rebel spirit against western imposition,or arab one for that matter.Sorry that I expanded so childischly,its age probably!!

Angry Anarchist said...

here you go. :D

A shame that Rosemary didn't get to put her in the place on that last attempt to evade the question, or maybe she did and the video doesn't show it.

Achille said...

Whatever your reasons were for going to Dubai, I agree with the general theme of anonymous' response. The reasons you watch CNN are similiar to those that draw me to your posts. Your description of Wolf Blitzer in the helicopter somehow made me imagine you sitting in a Hamra cafe at your computer. Am I really that far off...?

Anonymous said...

Achille,
I beg to differ:
For an anchor of major news network to fly around in an armored helicopter, as if the "human side" of the Israeli attack was with the poor IAF pilots does not compare to a blogger sitting in a cafe on the receiving end of those bombs.

I thought anonymous point was that EDB left because of the violence but she explained that this wasn't why. What are you talking about?

Anonymous said...

Too many anonymous comments :)
I am the one who questioned EDB's reason for leaving to Dubai so I thought I owe an explanation.
The way she describes her leaving beirut: chain-smoking to the airport, telling the officer she's not coming back...etc etc made me think that she chickened out when the violence became unpredicable. She says that was not the case and I choose to believe her.
As to anonymous comment about"being on the receiving end of the bombs"... well, anyone who's lived in lebanon knows that the israelis are usually selective in their targets. often very cruelly so. Trust me, it didn't take a lot of courage to stay in downtown beirut/Hamra/Bliss or pretty much any non-Shia region of Lebanon during the past summer. In fact, even Shia villages in the south that are affiliated with AMAL and NOT Hizbollah were spared.
It doesn't take a lot of guts to keep your calm through an Israeli attack if you're in a "secure" zone, but it takes real courage to keep your calm when the situation arounds you slides into chaos...Baghdad style (or Arab University riots style).
In my belief, the foreigners who fled on the evacuation boats during the summer war with israel, were not fleeing real danger, they were perhaps trying to salvage a ruined vacation by making up for it elsewhere.

EDB said...

Ok anonymous the last, I don't think you can generalize about why foreigners (and many Lebanese foreign passport holders) left this summer. I went and saw the evacuations here in Beirut and I thought it was quite a silly scene -- with entertainment committees for the cruiseliners evacuating Americans, etc. But when I saw the scenes of people evacuating from Sour and places in the south, people who had managed to escape Bint Jbeil or villages under heavy bombardment many weeks into the war, it looked like a nightmare-- in particular because of the policies of not letting spouses who don't have the same nationality evacuate with their families. I remember seeing a woman boarding a lifeboat to meet the big ship out at sea, and her baby being left behind; children crying because they were being evacuated without their Lebanese parent. Most of the foreigners who left were Lebanese with dual citizenship. People have their reasons for leaving. I was disappointed that many able-bodied young people who do NGO work and the likes decided to leave when their help was sorely needed (some of them Lebanese), but I respect their decision in hindsight. The Sudanese guy I met in Bint Jbeil wanted to leave after spending three weeks surrounded by corpses in the basement of a bombed out house. Can you blame him? That doesn't apply to me of course, but people have families, fears and primary concerns outside of their love for Lebanon, solidarity, etc.

And yes, Ras Beirut was safe, unless you were standing next to the Manara lighthouse at the wrong time. But many areas were hit that would have been considered safe-- the bridges in the Metn and in the north, Christian villages in the south, the Marjeyoun motorcade, roads and border crossings anywhere in the country, Chiah, the list goes on. The whole thing seemed so utterly irrational and senseless from start to finish that (at first) you couldn't know how extensive the targeting would be.

nemesis said...

With regards to the evacuation and the double standards:
I know from friends who got evacuated that some of the passengers on board would sweet talk the US soldiers for favors (flight arrangements, cell calls back home, food etc) but when discussions reverted to politics, it was always: "Allah Yonsor al Sayyed Hassan" (ie may Hezbollah Win).
I wonder how many of the Lebanese with dual citizenships actually pay their taxes in their new countries? How many of them make use (or abuse) the welfare system of the said countries? How many hate their new countries but want the luxury of living in lebanon while traveling with a sexy foreign passport when needed?...

I don't have the statistics but I am guessing the jaws of the Canadian consul dropped to the floor as the evacuation unfolded and as the numbers of the unregistered Lebanese-Canadian evacuees were adding up.

So when it comes to the double standards game, the "East" may well beat the West at it.