Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mourning period math

Yesterday morning, 14 people were killed and a further 35 wounded in a bus bombing in downtown Tripoli. In response, Prime Minister Saniora called for "one hour" of mourning today. What happened to the three-day mourning period for every two-bit politician?

In case you harbored any doubts about the heart-felt priorities of the national power-hording clique, one "elite martyr" receives (1 x 14 x 24h x 3 days = ) 1,008 times the mourning period of your average, hapless, public-transportation-dependent citizen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Your government on the web

If you've never had the pleasure of perusing the Lebanese Internal Security Force's website, I highly recommend the English version. Not only will they advise you on some common sense means of "limiting snatching of handbags", such as keeping "your bag hung around your neck" (with a priceless photo of a woman in a short-skirt struggling to wrench her purse from the clutches of a thieving motorcyclist), but you can also learn about the history of the ISF.

Here's a highlight (emphasis in bold is mine):

"Emir Fakhreddine II is the founder of the modern Lebanese State. After a perturbed childhood, he acceded in 1589 and started working for the unification of the country, by destroying some independent objecting Lebanese families. In order to keep order and execute the usual police missions, the Emir created a group of armed men, “Zelems”, i.e. direct servants. There were also other little groups of “Zelems” for feudal lords. when internal disorders used to threaten the security of the country, the Emir did not hesitate to ask for the help of his professional elements “The Sikmans”, who were foreign mercenaries. Nevertheless, he avoided the participation of “Bedouins”, known to be thieves and murderers."

Nothing like a "perturbed childhood" to prepare you for the founding of a modern state. When in doubt, "destroy" objecting families and exclude those murderous, thieving Bedouins from your police force.

The rather self-deprecating forward by ISF Chief Ashraf Rifi is also well worth a read, which begins: "
Lebanon has always been the heaven of security and peace and the oasis of the East, in spite of the tragic circumstances he endured." (Note the final, "Good Willing" [sic].)

What struck me as odd, however, is the "Health Guidance" section, which offered three points of advice (with accompanying power point presentations): "25 Reasons Why You Should Start Drinking Green Tea Now", "Honey & Cinnamon" and "Brisk Walking."

In case you want to learn more about some of the less well-known lawmakers in Lebanon's new cabinet, you can also consult their public profiles on Facebook:

  • According to his Facebook profile, the new Minister of Justice, Ibrahim Najjar, is "conservative" and "married" but was recently hugged by an anonymous admirer.
  • Dr. Antoine Karam, Minister of Environment, only has 9 friends.
  • Gebran Bassil's profile is closed to the public but a group called, "Gebran Bassil is gay... I swear!! :D" boasts 96 members.

Cops, fireworks & summer savings

Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, has been running ads for a restaurant called K-33 on the Airport Road. For 33 days, between July 12th and August 14th, customers can dine and smoke narghileh for 33% off, to commemorate the anniversary of the July War.

This is perhaps the least volatile period I’ve witnessed in Lebanon; to deal with the unbearable calm, people everywhere set off fireworks all day long. Even the Armenian Patriarchy next to my house sporadically fires volleys of deafening fireworks from the top of their majestic compound. “What is it now?” I wrack my head for possible holidays and commemorations that might justify breaching the peace after midnight on Sunday. “Oh it’s this Saint’s day,” or, “Oh, its Mika—that half-Lebanese pop sensation. He’s playing in downtown. He has an eight-octave voice.” Occasionally, fireworks mix with gunfire; this usually signals a wedding or – to justify a whole day of nerve-wracking explosions—the publishing of the baccalaureate results.

But the wounds have not yet healed from the last 18-months of internecine strife. I spotted a few cars in Hamra with photos of the “Two Ziads” plastered on their rearview windows—the 12-year old boy and 25-year old man who were kidnapped and murdered last year in a vendetta killing, both “active members of pro-government parties” according to the pro-government propaganda outlet, Now Lebanon. In Caracas, a poster spanning the full-width of the street, displays a photo of a teenager who was kidnapped during the May events. In the picture, he is wearing a T-shirt with “Still Virgin” emblazoned across it in big block letters. I have seen this T-shirt slogan before—but I couldn’t figure out if the slogan was later photo-shopped across his chest or if the family decided this was a most fitting image to remember their son.

In the meantime, most people are buckling down to enjoy the summer at beach resorts along Lebanon’s polluted coast. An Italian scientist I met alleges that many hospitals dump their waste, untreated and un-incinerated, in urban areas. That perhaps explains the sheer volume of hypodermic syringes strewn across the sand at Beirut’s Ramlet el Baida beach, which is sandwiched between two sewage pipes. “If Beirut was on fire, I wouldn’t jump into that water,” F. says. And while forest fires are a regular occurrence during the hot summer months, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s own Saudi billionaire, can be counted on to pitch in and rent fire-extinguishing helicopters from Cyprus.

In the meantime, the Internal Security Forces have new toys, courtesy of the American embassy and MTV's Pimp My Ride.

It’s only a matter of time before someone starts sniping at their lights—which they have on at all times. “This isn’t an American cop show,” I yelled at one patrol vehicle, which was creeping along at a snail’s pace down Gemmayze street, blinding lights and wailing sirens in full regalia.

Not that the security forces have anything better to do these days. L.S. was reminiscing the other day about an old policeman who used to regulate traffic at the Bechara al Khoury-Sodeco intersection. The man was illiterate and therefore couldn't write up traffic tickets. Instead-- when faced with an infringing motorist-- he would damage the car, punching or kicking it, suitable to the amount the violating party would have had to pay in official fines. He passed away a few year ago. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Profane passenger

A few days ago, I hailed a servis from Geitawe to Raouche. As we were inching through traffic towards my destination–– after the other passengers had disembarked ––the driver began to ask me the usual questions:

Are you married?
Of course.
To a Lebanese?
Of course.
What religion does your husband belong to?
No religion.
Nothing? No. I mean, is he Muslim or Christian?
Not Muslim, not Christian. Nothing.
No he must be Christian or Muslim.
He doesn’t believe in God.
No, its impossible. He doesn't believe in God?
No. I don’t either.
You don't either? You must believe in God. You will be more satisfied. You must! You must!

As I reached into my wallet to pay him for the 45-minute journey across town, he refused payment with a plea to save my soul. I got out of the cab and left my godless wad of thousand lira bills on the back seat.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Telepathic handyman

I moved into a new apartment; to furnish it as quickly and inexpensively as possible, I borrowed a spare refrigerator from a friend. After we had moved, cleaned and let it sit for 24 hours for good measure, the refrigerator didn't work, instead emitting a sporadic rumbling sound.

Half-a-dozen of our new neighbors came to our rescue, offering their “best refrigerator repair guy”, until the shopkeeper next door convinced us that his “was the best in the entire region.” The handyman was duly summoned. “Don’t be worried, because he is a cripple,” the shopkeeper whispered loudly, as the repairman retrieved a wrench from his tool box using one of two deformed arms.

He never did put the wrench to use; instead he sat down at the kitchen table and over endless cups of coffee and half a dozen cigarettes, listened to the refrigerator hum–– his eyes closed, his chin resting on his chest. I sat across from him, pouring him more coffee. At times, I thought he might have nodded off, his breath perfectly synchronized with the soft rumble from the refrigerator, the ash from his cigarette growing longer–– a hovering, precarious arch. I nudged the ashtray closer. Then he would raise his head, his eyes still closed, and mumble, “It might be the thermostat, in which case you had best throw the whole thing away.” Or “It might be the motherboard. Don’t bother. It’ll cost you more than a new one to repair it.” After 45 minutes, I left S. and the repairman to their own devices. Not long after I left the room, S. discovered a dashboard with buttons, hidden behind the flap on the front door where he could adjust the refrigerator’s functions.

The handyman had another cup of coffee before he left; he refused payment. “Next time,” he said, waving a contorted arm at us as he shuffled out the door.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday jitters

I have come to dread Sundays in Beirut. Previously my favorite day of the week, Sundays now instill a sense of dread that the artificial calm might collapse-- with breaking news of street battles, car bombs; or that this time perhaps—Monday could dawn on a country at war.

The short list of Bloody Sundays in recent memory include the Danish cartoon riots, the 2006 Qana massacre, the beginning of the Nahr el Bared siege, the car bomb at the ABC mall in Achrafiye, and the deadly riots in Shiyah last month. This might be a bogus calculation. On second thought, Tuesdays and Thursdays have a commensurate penchant for turning violent.

Frequently these days, there’s talk of a civil strife being an inevitability; we spend hours debating when—in hindsight—historians will say this war started. In 2004 with UN Security Council Resolution 1559? On February 14th, 2005? On July 12th, 2006? In November 2006, when Hezbollah and Amal quit the cabinet? Some of my friends argue with near conviction that Iran will be attacked by the US or Israel (which I don’t believe), that the region will go up in flames, and a global recession will usher in a world war. R’s mom—"Information Central"—is already carving plans for “after the war”.

Friends who were children during the civil war now customarily share stories— devastating stories of narrow escapes, of wedding parties under fire, of Picon processed cheese (a treat compared to the Ramek and Smeds variety, I am told), of munching on sunflower seeds holed up in a bomb shelter for hours, days.

Cab drivers pull out all the stops for an increased fare. In the seven- minute car ride from Tabaris to Mar Elias, a driver detailed how his mother, father and sister were killed by Israeli bombs in Marjayoun during the July War; a year later, his favorite nephew was wounded in Nahr el Bared, and now his car had not a drop of fuel left in the tank. Look at the gas meter. Empty! He expressed bewilderment that the car could even make it uphill. With every tragic detail, I found myself groping for extra cash in my pocket.

Unlike the deadly riots last January, the feudal political class has not responded to the proliferating incidences of street violence with hollow good-will gestures and talk of compromise. The rhetorical escalations continue with Sleiman Franjieh deriding the Maronite Patriarch as a senile old fart, then denouncing Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, as “a criminal, and to top it off-- an impertinent one”, who killed Franjieh’s mother. Jumblatt just made a speech that rivals Goebbel’s finest moments—"If you want chaos, we welcome chaos. If you want war, we welcome one."

The March 14th Forces have called upon their followers to come out in droves for the third anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. A source close to army intelligence claims that Hariri plans to “sweep” the tent city downtown. That would be an immeasurably reckless and stupid thing to do. I can already see the Grand Serail in flames.

I left Beirut to take care of some unfinished business and will return in March. The Martyr Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri Beirut International Airport (M.P.M.R.H.B.I.A., for short) is a deceptive gateway in and out of the country. After weeks of turmoil, departing passengers are left with the spurious impression of a stable, modern state. Shiny marble floors, tarted-up duty free saleswomen, eager baggage attendants, neon billboards which depict bustling cafes in downtown Beirut and other attractions, a competent immigration bureaucracy and a soldier who reviews your passport and asks you, “Please don’t leave Lebanon.”

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Anecdotes from a banana f**k midget republic

One of the most invasive features of blogging is the sitemeter, which allows you to trace all visitors to your website. Good blogger etiquette dictates that the sitemeter should be open to the public-- a nicety that some bloggers, such as GPC over at "Friday Lunch Club" have chosen to ignore.

With a sitemeter you can detect the location, operating system, domain name and time spent by each visitor perusing your blog. You can also see how people found your blog-- usually through a Google search or when another blog has linked to you.

For a while now I've been tracking "unique visits" and what led people to my blog. As I expected, most unintended visitors hoped to find information on the "Banana Republic" clothing label. With perplexing regularity, people in search of pornography are directed to this site. Some ten months ago, this blog ranked second in a Google search for "pooping female pictures" and "fucking girls Irbil" -- a city in northern Iraq.

Other highlights included Google searches for:

--Iraq + fatwa + women + banana + cucumbers (this blog ranks 2nd place)

--Nasrallah + son of virgin (4th place)

--What makes cheerleader uniforms so provocative?

--Do Lebanese people have Christmas?

--Midget + get + fuck

--Al Qaeda how to join

--fat fat Fatfat ass

--Lady using banana for fuck

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Energy riots & Sunday snipers

"This country is like a person with liver failure who continues drinking," L. said, her head in her hands, as news of the day's first casualties broke.

At around 4pm this afternoon, dozens of men--mostly followers of Nabih Berri's Amal Movement-- gathered near the Mar Mikhael Church in Chiyah (in Beirut's southern suburbs) to protest electricity shortages. Riots over living conditions have been an almost daily occurrence in recent weeks; some neighborhoods outside central Beirut receive only 2 hours of electricity per day.

When the impromptu rioting broke out, the army routinely moved in to clear the burning tires from the road and disperse the angry crowd. They were met with a barrage of rocks. A scuffle between soldiers and protesters ensued; and then-- sniper gunfire from an unknown location. A local Amal leader shot dead. On TV later, continuous rounds of gunfire could be heard; panicked soldiers ducked and elbowed their way along the ground as protesters tried to flee the scene.

We had been at R.'s house in Mar Elias earlier that afternoon and had just left to go to a cafe in Clemenceau. R.'s mom called and insisted she come home immediately; she called back five minutes later and told her not to come home at all that night-- the protests had spread to their neighborhood and other areas. On TV we watched a mass of young men light garbage cans on fire just a few feet from her house. One young man interviewed on New TV yelled, "Let's see whose stronger now. Sunni or Shia!" Everyone gathered around the TV set gasped. "Why are they showing this? Can't they edit it out?" S. complained.

Outside Mar Mikhael church--more wounded, more dead, amidst reports that the army had retreated under fire. The violence continued into the night. I finally decided to take a cab home. R. and S. took down the driver's name and told him to take me straight home to my front door. The driver and his friend-- who was riding shotgun-- were on their way to Casino du Liban for a night of gambling. They invited me to join; I politely declined.

At home, more bleak news: a grenade attack wounded 5 people in the Christian neighborhood of Ain el Rummaneh. An RPG was fired in Chiyah. Just before midnight Hezbollah security finally stepped in to help the army control the situation. Snipers were apprehended and arrested. The tally-- 8 people killed, and more than 22 wounded.

S. works in Burj al Barajneh -- originally a Palestinian refugee camp that now is also home to many Shia, poor migrant workers from Syria and southeast Asia. That area has barely received any state-supplied electricity and so most people are forced to subscribe to power supplied by a generator. The man who supplies the generator power to her building-- a Sunni Beiruti merchant, as she describes him-- was mobbed by dozens of angry residents last week when the electricity went out every five minutes. He was reportedly stabbed five times, but survived the attack. J. reports the same from the southern coastal city of Tyre, where his local generator supplier was shot after he announced a hike in prices. "Our standard of living only seems to decrease here," L. laments.

Prime Minister Saniora just declared tomorrow--Monday-- a "national day of mourning". All schools and universities will remain closed. Yesterday was also a national day of mourning, in honor of the 10 victims who perished in a car bombing the previous day. It seems we now have a day of mourning, followed by events that warrant a further day of mourning. "One day yes, one day no," to borrow from my first Beiruti landlord-- a phrase she employed to describe the erratic supply of potable water.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The current blog layout is a work in progress... do not be alarmed by my inability to color coordinate.

The banner photo was taken by my friend Hisham Ashkar on January 23rd, 2007.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ashura refreshments

On Saturday I attended my first Ashura in Nabatiye, which commemorates the anniversary of Imam Hussein's martyrdom in Karbala some 1300 years ago. I had warned my friend D. before our early morning departure from Beirut that this might be the only Lebanese event where there is no street food and insisted we stop for a manaeesh on the way down south. But in fact there were plenty of refreshments being sold -- the metallic smell of blood didn't deter bystanders from wolfing down kababs, chickpeas and corn.

Ashura in Nabatiye is a pretty bloody affair-- young men (age 3 to 30, usually) participate while the rest of the town and visitors watch. As soon as we arrived, groups of 10-12 young men started to pour into the street from the local mosque, white cloths draped around their necks and bleeding from a (superficial) cut in the front of their heads, which they smacked with a sword or their hands, creating a flow of blood down their faces and staining their clothes. (I thought that a good advertisement for laundry detergent would show a mother trying to wash blood out of her sons clothes after Ashura).

Banging the wound ensures that the blood doesn't clot and continues to bleed, but it also means that bystanders are often covered in specks of red. I was standing back a little behind my friend S. who was getting the brunt of the spray. Suddenly a serious amount of liquid hit the side of my face. I dabbed it with my hands-- the liquid was clear and smelled acidic. Then-- another splash of liquid, this time drenching the sleeve of my jacket. I turned around and realized-- to my relief-- that I was leaning against a juice cart and was being sprayed by freshly squeezed orange juice.

Orange juice man hard at work

Two boys enjoying orange juice at Ashura


"Gaza plunged into darkness"-- last night's headline read on the BBC website.

Doctors in Gaza are being forced to choose between heating the maternity- or the emergency wards in hospitals. The Israeli government yesterday maintained that the humanitarian catastrophe was "exaggerated... because they have an interest in exaggerating" and a "ploy to attract international sympathy." After five people allegedly died in hospital wards from the shut down of Gaza's power plant, Olmert proclaimed that the Strip's residents "can walk" and added, "We won't allow the Palestinians to fire on us and destroy life in Sderot, while in Gaza life is going on as usual." 'As usual' in the relative sense, I'm sure. Because life is usually a fucking tea party in Gaza.

In Beirut we usually have 3 hours of electricity black-outs, which is totally manageable. Today I went downstairs to use my neighbor L.'s washing machine. We loaded the laundry, filled the detergent drawer and pushed the 'on' button. "It'll turn itself on when the electricity returns," L. said pragmatically. Then we went to make breakfast and coffee in the kitchen. When L. lit the stove top, the flame flickered and extinguished. No gas left in the tank. So instead I took the pan with the raw omelette upstairs, made coffee and breakfast on our camping stove, and brought it back down to her house. On the stairs I passed our neighbor M. He laughed when he saw me carrying a pan and a steaming pot of coffee. Even with neighbors like L., in Gaza there's not much you can do under a total blockade.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Authority

M. tells us the following story:

Late one night, his friend Samir is driving through Beirut in the torrential rain. He passes under a bridge; suddenly his car is submerged in a massive puddle, a veritable pond. Water begins to flood into the car's interior. Samir calls for help; he calls his friends, his family, his acquaintances-- to no avail at this late hour. Finally he dials 112-- the emergency operator-- and explains his situation, only to be informed that this did not fall under the jurisdiction of the police department. Well who do I call, Samir asks. I don't know. Try another number.

Samir waits. He again attempts to rescue his car. A passing motorist stops to help. Knee-deep in water, Samir gives up. He's cold, he's wet. He calls the emergency responder again. The same officer picks up. "Listen you son of a bitch. I'll screw your sister, you useless piece of shit..." Samir unleashes a stream of vulgarities and personal insults. "You idiot, I'm fucking insulting you. I'm cursing your mother and your sister. Come and fucking arrest me. I'm under this bridge. And please rescue my car while you're at it." He hardly got a rise out of the guy. Again he was politely informed, that such emergencies were not the business of the police department.

On Loss

We met S. at my neighbor L's house. A tranquil, portly man in his late 30's with a neat beard and a penchant for guzzling vodka, S. works as an architect. He nestled on the leather couch cradling his drink and said very little for most of the evening. After the first few minutes of animated chatter (I haven't seen L. in months), she introduced S. "This is S. by the way. His house burned down two days ago!" M. interrupted her, grabbing my arm. "Burned down, you say? He lost everything! Every last item he owns! You won't believe it, man. He sunk 20,000$ into that house in renovations. He had just moved in four days before the electrical wiring caught on fire." M.'s laughter rumbled; S. nodded. A jovial grin spread across his plump cheeks. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, he added, "You know it's funny that 25 years of civil war couldn't do to my house what the fire did in 3 hours." Laughter all around.

My friend D. asked if S. was sad about the loss of his house. He thought about it for a while. "You know, once I had a friend who died. And I only started to miss him a year later. Perhaps it will be the same with my house."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Feltman's farewell

A roadside bomb targeted a US embassy motorcade this afternoon as it passed through Dora, along the coast to the north of Beirut. We were up on the roof in my pied-a-terre in Rmeil, when we heard a massive explosion; I jumped up from my seat and looked out the balcony window. A vertical gray smoke cloud shot into the sky near "Normandy"-- a picturesque grassy landfill of garbage, just off the curving coastline. "Its in Dora," S. observed. "Probably a gas explosion of some sort. An accident." T. had just come over for coffee. "Well we can still have coffee, " I suggested, opening my laptop to inform anyone online of the explosion.

We all tried to make phone calls but the lines were already overloaded. The power had been out for two hours that afternoon; when electricity is rationed, it usually turns on after three hours in our neighborhood. "Hey look, the electricity went back on just seconds after the explosion," Danielle noted. "It's our consolation prize."

For the next half hour, I re-loaded the news websites to look for updates and chatted online. Sirens wailed as ambulances raced to the scene. First, they reported that 10 were wounded; the source of the explosion yet unknown. Then three dead. Then four. I told my friend Danielle, who is visiting from New York, "Usually when they bomb during the day it means somebody has been targeted. The symbolic bombing that is just meant to scare people usually happens after nightfall." She looked at me as if I was trying to convince her of something utterly unscientific.

A few minutes later then, the news broke that one of the targeted cars had US embassy license plates, that in fact outgoing US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman had been on his way to a farewell party at the Phoenicia hotel. Then they said, two Americans were wounded. Then the State Department denied any Americans were wounded. J. claimed an American guy called "Matthew Clayton"-- an Evangelical preacher, apparently-- was wounded and brought to Geitawe hospital. D. -- who lives in Washington D.C-- kept us informed of live news coverage on Al Jazeera, because we don't have a TV. No Americans were wounded, he said, but a "Lebanese personality" from March 14 was riding in one of the Embassy cars. Apparently the car that was hit was a decoy for the Ambassador. And so on and so forth.

Two and a half hours later, I'm getting hungry. Feltman's farewell bash at the Phoenicia hotel was canceled. I told J., "Just yesterday I said something was going to happen this week." He replied,"Oh really?!? Well if this were Sweden, I'd be impressed."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Back in Beirut

Man in Hamra straddling two ladders

I found Beirut much as I left it six months ago—stagnant and uneasy. At night, the army and darak (police in gray camouflage uniforms) patrol Beirut’s abandoned streets; tanks sit idly stationed at every big intersection. R. complains that –since the end of the Nahr el Bared campaign— the army soldiers have started to behave obnoxiously. “It’s gotten to their heads—all the praise. Now they’re behavior is indistinguishable from the darak.” On our third night in Beirut, a soldier menacingly trailed us through the streets as we walked home-- just a foot or so behind us, not a taxi in sight.

Billboards and advertisements tailored to the current woes of the Lebanese line the highway from the airport to Beirut: for the many citizens dependent on remittances from abroad--Western Union pledges to “Send Peace” with your money order. The city’s billboard-scape also boasts USAID’s newest PR campaign—“A gift from the American people to the Lebanese”, as well as a few new entries to the martyr hall of fame. Regal portraits of Army Commander General Michel Suleiman, the unlucky president elect, have been erected under the banner “Our Savior.” Rafiq Hariri has been dead for 1000-and-God-knows how many days, according to the gigantic counter at the entrance to Hamra; my friends joke that they want to erect an additional counter to track how many times the presidential elections have been postponed. Is it 11 or 12 now?

Prices for every day things have gone up; an Almaza beer will cost you 1250 LL, a manaeesh jubneh up to 2000LL, a one bedroom apartment in Rmeil or Jeitawe $400. Narcotic- and alcohol abuse is rampant; on Sunday afternoon the little bars in Gemayze are packed. "I drink because it makes me calm," S. says. "For twenty-five years, I lived in a bomb shelter. Now I'm free and I drink to forget those twenty-five years."

On Tuesday, then, a series of violent incidents down south—a car bomb targeted a UNIFIL vehicle wounding two Irish peacekeepers--hardly upset the routine of most Beirutis. People were preoccupied with the possibility of a surprise visit by George W. Bush. R. called. "Do you know if he's coming or not?" she asked. "How come the shit hits the fan as soon as you arrive in town?" Hezbollah threatened to bus in hundreds of thousands of protesters in the eventuality of a presidential visit, to put him under a "tight siege" but prevent any "assault" against him by Al Qaeda or the likes.

I am writing all this from a cafĂ©-bar where the house specialty advertised on the menu is a “Sex with the Bartender” cocktail. More soon.

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.