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.