"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.
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)