Monday, August 28, 2006

What I knew of Dahieh

What I know, or rather knew, of Beirut’s southern suburbs – the Dahieh – I learned through K.

His family has lived there for 12 years, since the civil war ended and they returned home from France. They didn’t particularly like it there – life in an over-crowded, under-served, traffic-ridden slum leaves much to be desired – but they had family living there, the rent was cheap, it was where all the other poor and lower middle class Shia lived, and after a while it became home.

The first time I went there, with K, I tried to act cool. I had been in the country long enough to know what I was supposed to see: signs commemorating Hizbullah martyrs, life size cut-outs of the various ayatollahs suspended mid-air, lots of wires crossing between apartment buildings, and women fully veiled in black. I wasn’t expecting all the children playing in the streets, stunning young women in skin-tight clothes, so many stores selling so much stuff. I wasn’t expecting the power cuts, which happen daily in Dahieh, and have been for years. I wasn’t expecting the convenience factor, with almost everything you could ever need within walking distance. And of course, I wasn’t expecting the overwhelmingly kind acceptance into K’s family that has kept me coming back for over five years.

After a while, I learned how to navigate Dahieh by myself, the basic location names and landmarks. Hay Madi, Masharrafieh, Mouawad, Haret Hreik, Bier al Abed, Jisr el Mattar, Ghobeireh, Hay el Sellum, Chiah. I learned to look for the clock on Moawad, and the dry water fountain. I learned to look for the Hi-Bye clothing store, for the Domex cloth and lingerie store, for the Club Sport adorned with Rambo paintings, for store next to their house that alternatively sells fruit and vegetables, or pajamas and scarves.

Not all of that is gone now, but much of it is. And what’s left, will never be the same. It was never pretty, or quaint, or charming. But it is home, to thousands of people. And while the political forces propagandize and politicize, Dahieh’s residents have been coming home, sweeping out the glass, washing away the dust, emptying the refrigerators and living.

None of the pictures below will shock you, they’re not new or dramatic, they’re just places that I knew. And all of the pictures were taken after the bulldozers carved roads and paths through the rubble. I should have written this weeks ago. I’ve been trying to.

1) The clock on Moawad Street.

For years this was my main reference point. Every time I got lost, I would ask for the clock, and find my way home from there. The clock has never, ever, told the correct time. The building K’s family first lived in is directly behind the main building in the photo, now surrounded on either side by the rubble of destroyed buildings.

2) The Hi-Bye store

The Hi-Bye clothing store is near the clock, and was another easy reference point. It was bombed, and then caught on fire, so you can’t see the truly scandalous clothing it used to sell.

3) Bier al Abed

Somewhere behind the rubble was a series of long, low buildings. Years ago a good friend left to go back to America, leaving behind a large carpet to be shipped. After looking for an hour, it was in one of these low buildings that K and I found a store which sold nothing but cardboard boxes, cartoneh, of all sizes. That’s all gone now.

4) The DVD and everything else store

Although Lebanon’s pirated CDs and DVDs can’t compare to Syria, it is still possible to find the latest film on sale for $4. On the ground floor of this building was a store that sold DVDs, and electronic trinkets, and pens, and notebooks, and cassettes and CDs, and probably a million other things. K’s sisters had just bought Munich from there a few days before the war began.

5) The Iraqi tailor

I never learned why he was in Beirut, when he arrived or how, but he was known throughout the neighborhood. He could hem pants in minutes, and finish more complicated alterations in days. K’s sisters took me there, all of us getting turned around more than once. But everyone knew where the Iraqi tailor was. I don’t know where he is now.

6) Haret Hreik

I walked this street for the first time two months ago, with K’s sisters, looking for curtain rods. We didn’t find what I wanted, although there were a few stores I was planning on going back to. We then walked through Jisr el Mattar and Beir al Abed – two other neighborhoods. When Israel started bombing, they hit this street, Jisr el Mattar and Beir al Abed on the same day. It felt a little surreal. Meanwhile, my curtains still aren’t hung.

7) The spice place

Matahin Bin Jamal, affectionately known as the spice place, was probably my favorite thing in Dahieh – following K’s family. It didn’t belong on the side street from crowded Mouawad, full of traffic and motorcycles all day long. It didn’t really belong in the 21st century. So narrow two people could barely pass, it was filled ceiling to floor with ancient wooden bureaus, each tiny drawer for a different spice. Three types of sumac, five types of zaatar, various peppers, sage, cumin ground and in seeds. I used to go just to breath in the air, and play with the drawers. Open one, and you see bright green zaatar (dried, crushed thyme) from Jezzine. Next to it, the deep earthy brown of crushed nutmeg. Cardamom, he only sold as seeds, because they lose their flavor so quickly once crushed. And everything was seasonal – you couldn’t buy zaatar or sumac in the spring, because it was already old and losing its flavor.

K and I celebrated finally getting our own apartment by going to the spice place and buying 150 grams of everything we could think of. Each spice you bought was placed in its own small paper bag, carefully weighed on a tiny scale, and stapled shut.

I’ve since run out of sumac and zaatar, but I can’t make myself buy from anywhere else. If I had known they were going to bomb the building next to my spice place, I would have bought a quarter-kilo of everything in every drawer. Then again, if you had told me they were going to bomb so heavily, so recklessly, I would never have believed you.

August 27, 2006

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

What remains

The families, those that can, are leaving for their homes.

It should be joyful. The sun should shine and the traffic flow in happy caravans and the families, all united, all healthy, all carrying extra supplies, ought to set off for Beirut’s suburbs, the South and the Bekaa Valley like rosy-faced pioneers reclaiming what is their’s, yet again.

But the sun can’t really shine, because the sky is full of the dust from collapsed buildings. The traffic can’t flow (it never does, anyways), and Israel has refused to lift its air and sea blockade. So there’s increasingly very little gasoline in the market, making transport home difficult and expensive.

Most families still aren’t united – the ICRC did another tour yesterday through Beirut’s schools looking for families from the Bekaa. They’re not healthy – although epidemics have not broken out in the schools – as 33 days of living with 200 other people, with very little fresh fruit or vegetables or meat, wears down the immune system. There are no extra supplies, because aid is delivered daily, and, again, Israel’s blockade has prevented most aid from being delivered at all.

And they’re certainly not rosy-faced. Not when Israel, despite accepting the UN Resolution, has issued warnings against civilians returning to their homes below the Litani River. Not when yet another civilian car was bombed last night, killing a family of five. Not when Israel bombed Beirut’s southern suburbs 30 minutes before the ceasefire took place. Not with over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead, and entire villages in the South flattened. Not when most families don’t know if they have a house to return to. Not when their only guarantee of safety is a poorly-worded, loop-hole infested UN resolution that seems to have been designed to fail.

But they’re going home, to what remains of home, defiantly.

Meanwhile, like some historian in a Marquez novel, I spent the day entering two-week old data from doctors’ visits to the refugee families in the schools.

Fatimeh, 26. Panic attacks.
Samir, 78. Arthritis and diabetes.
Ali, 14. Asthma.
Mariam, 5. Conjunctivitis.
Sawsan, 21. Respiratory difficulties.
Yasser, 33. Panic attacks.
Maya, 4 months. Skin rash
Ahmed, 45. Upper back pain and tension headaches.
Mahmoud, 9. Screaming nightmares.
Khadija, 47. Diabetes, hypertension and foot pain.
Hayat, 16. Panic attacks.
Rami, 13. Skin rash.
Souad, 69. Lower back pain and panic attacks.

The families are going home, to what remains. The other remnants, they will carry with them.

August 15, 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006

Messages, mixed and otherwise

Israeli jets announced Israel’s official acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – calling for a cessation of hostilities – by bombing Beirut’s southern suburbs 20 times within two minutes.

The Israeli Cabinet’s decision had just appeared as breaking news on the TV broadcasts when the bombing started. Over the next few minutes – as the bombs continued to explode, and as the kids ran inside yelling, and as I flipped through all the channels trying to figure out where they were hitting – the breaking news continued with the specifications of who had voted how in the Israeli Cabinet.

“The Israeli (BOMB) Cabinet has announced its accep(BOMB)tance of Resolution (BOMB) 1701. The ceasefire (BA-BOMB) will take effect (BOMB) as of 0800 tomorr(BOMB-BOMB)ow morning local time (BOMB). The Israeli Minis(BOMB)ter of Defense abstained (BOMB BA-BOMB) from voting (BOMB).”


The other night, R. tried to talk to an Israeli.

“I figured, the Israeli military is always calling our phone lines with recorded messages, writing comments on our blogs, dropping flyers onto our streets, saying they don’t have partners for peace and all that crap… So I decided to see what they’re like, you know, to talk to them personally.

“So I went onto some of the IRC internet chat rooms and tried to find an Israeli. But I couldn’t find any Israeli who would agree to chat with me, so then I entered a chat room called ‘Israel’.

“But I guess the program recognized my internet connection address as coming from Lebanon, because I didn’t even get a chance to write anything. They kicked me out, directly.”

“How did they kick you out? The program closed on you?”

“No, they kicked me out, and a box appeared on the screen saying ‘Shit-listed!’”


There’s a new joke going around Beirut.

- What does it mean when Hizbullah leader Nasrallah makes the victory sign on TV?
- That there are still two buildings standing in southern Beirut.


The other day the Israeli army dropped propaganda fliers over Beirut, again. The message, like always, was about Hizbullah. But it didn’t really matter.

The fliers, white pieces of paper, came drifting down slowly. It was one of the rare sunny days – most days the skies are full of the smoke from collapsed and burning buildings – and the papers sparkled in the sun as they fell. Thousands? Hundred of thousands? Without the context of daily bombings, atrocities and starving families, it was almost beautiful, like a surreal moment in an Asian art film.

The sky filled, and still they fell. And then the streets filled with children. Refugees staying in West Beirut, they ran around, skipping and laughing, grabbing at the falling papers and spinning around.


So the big international aid agencies have all arrived by now, their fancy international crisis staff in tow. A friend, a doctor who’s helping coordinate medicine distribution between the government and the aid agencies, shows up to dinner in a foul mood.

“These stupid foreigners. They think we’re completely backwards. Don’t they know that we’re a developed country?

“They don’t know that you can just ask any Lebanese mother which medications her son needs, and she’ll know. They don’t know that you don’t need to go around offering immunizations because everyone’s already had their shots. They don’t know that they don’t need to bring truck drivers to deliver their medicines because we know how to drive here!

“Would someone please send them a message before they come next time telling them that Lebanon is not Djibouti?!”

August 13, 2006

Sunday, August 06, 2006

More tales and encounters

At the vegetable shop around the corner from my apartment, they’ve run out of moulakhieh, the other greens have all doubled, at least, in price, and the lemons have been thoroughly picked through. With the bombing of the eastern highway, and the continued bombing of all the roads leading South, the vegetable deliveries are becoming more erratic, and the prices reflect not just the lack of supply, but also the cost of the increasingly expensive gasoline.

Fruits, however –watermelons, peaches, plums, grapes, nectarines, melons and bananas – were in abundance, and are being sold at normal prices.

“What’s the deal with the fruit? What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
“Nobody’s buying it.”
“Not even the watermelons?”
“They’re not buying fruit these days. They’re saving their money for the vegetables.”


Two nights ago, after Israel announced it was going to start bombing Beirut again, the number of people in the apartment above us doubled. Extended family from Hay el Sellum (a neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs) showed up, bringing with them neighbors with nowhere else to go. They had all been staying at a school in Beirut, but once it seemed safe to go back to their homes last week, they did. And now there’s no more room in the schools in Beirut.

“It’s not really that crowded in the apartment,” Imm Faroukh tells me. “We just spread sheets across the whole living room floor and lined up, like we were fish for sale.”

“It’s shit,” her son Hussein tells me. “I got woken up at 4.30 in the morning.”
“Why? From the bombing?”
“No. It was finally my turn to use the shower.”


Marie comes from Bikfaya. (Bikfaya, among other things, hosts the official residence of the Maronite Patriarch.) In the last elections, she voted for the Phalange, a right-wing Christian political party and one-time militia. She always votes for the Phalange. Her family has supported the Phalange since Pierre Gemayel founded it in the mid 1930s.

K got to know Marie when they were both studying agriculture outside of Lebanon. “She’s a bit different,” he warned me before introducing us. “She’s not like the Beiruti arty NGO types. She’s from Bikfaya – you know – Gemayel and all that…” When I met her, I was struck both by the size of the cross she wears, and by how genuinely nice she is.

Since the war started, Marie’s called fairly regularly, checking in on us. “You’ll never guess what Marie is doing these days,” K told me yesterday, getting off the phone. “She’s volunteering at a school near her house. She says they have 200 refugees from the South, Shi’ites, and she goes every day to help out.”


So we’re having a quick beer with a guy called Angry. No, really – he answers to Ghadban (“angry” in Arabic, or “the angry one”). He’s one of West Beirut’s regulars, a pack of cigarettes and a whiskey on hand at all times. He was a fighter with the Communists during the civil war –when the Communists led the resistance against Israel’s earlier invasions – and speaks casually of the geography of Bint Jbeil and Aitaroun, or how to actually blow up a Merkava tank (apparently it’s much harder than you might think). I’ve never had the courage to find out if Ghadban is his nom de guerre, or if his mother was just really pissed off when she had him.

I open the conversation with the common, cavalier comment everyone’s saying these days: “Khallas, zi’it min hayda harb” (I’m so bored of this war).
Ghadban looks at me, unimpressed. “I was bored of this war before it started,” he says.
“It’s my first one,” I apologize.
“This is my fifth. I’m full. I’ve eaten too many wars and now I’m full.”


“Until two weeks ago,” Ghadban tells us, “I hadn’t spoken with my eldest son for 3 years. He left the country to work outside, and I didn’t want him to leave. I told him, ‘I didn’t fight all those years for our home so you could just leave the country and make money,’ but he didn’t listen, and I was upset. So we didn’t speak. For three years.

“Once all this started, he began calling the house everyday. At first, we still didn’t speak. Then, one day, I had enough. Fuck it. I called him up.

“‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I’m sending your younger brother to live with you. He’ll be flying in from Damascus.’

“So now both my children are out of the country. It’s better. This fucking war. They’ve fucked it all up.”

August 6, 2006

Thursday, August 03, 2006


We were standing in the middle of one of those stupidly large supermarkets – trying to decide if, given the increasingly limited electricity, we should buy any dairy products at all, and if so which ones – when a dull sort of recognition clicked in.

Everyone else in the store was suddenly moving more quickly, filling their carts with multiples of everything, talking on their phones and glancing at their watches. K pulled out his phone, which promptly started ringing. And, as was already becoming clear, we were told that Israel had announced it was going to start bombing Beirut, again. The dull panic – West Beirut being rather far from the areas of Beirut Israel had previously bombed – was offset by the absurdity of our surroundings, by the large-haired tantes chucking over-priced vegetables into their carts and scurrying to the cashier, their domestic maids in tow.

Leaving the supermarket, traffic in Beirut was horrific, but not necessarily in response to the news. The past few days have seen most of Beirut slowly return to a semblance of normality – itself a tragic absurdity as only hours away Israel bombs and villages burn.

The timing of Israel’s latest Beirut threat, then, is especially unfortunate, as Lebanon’s capital and main source of employment was just starting to function again, and people were returning to their jobs. Those employed by the government, the military, or large companies and banks will have received their July salaries by now, (assuming they have the means and ability to pick up their cheques.) But Lebanon’s economy is largely service-based, and the sorts of services supplied (luxury goods and beauty services, hotels, travel agents, restaurants, etc) haven’t really been much in demand as of late.

Of the 900,000 displaced thus far, the Lebanese government estimates that at least 700,000 are being housed by relatives. A rough survey would indicate that practically all of these new households have lost at least one July salary, if not more. There is a 22-person household in Karm el-Zeitoun (a poor East Beirut neighborhood) where no one got paid at all this month. Of those living in the schools, especially the families displaced from southern Lebanon or the Bekaa Valley, most worked in agriculture, and thus have lost their entire year’s livelihood (as well as, quite possibly, their homes).

Some of the international and local relief organizations are starting to calculate food distribution for the households swollen with homeless relatives, in addition to the schools housing refugees, and the convoys which, rarely, make it out of Beirut. Certain schools – those known to be well organized and on the receiving end of numerous relief organizations – re-distribute the food and clothing they receive as needy families from the neighborhood pass by.

But most Lebanese, it would seem, are living off their savings – never large in the best of times – and the money sent in from family living abroad. A quick visit to one of the innumerable Western Union offices in West Beirut witnessed a line out the door, and everyone was there to collect.

We, absurdly, had been tasked with sending a relative’s salary to him in Syria. “You’re sending money out?” the young man in a Western Union polo shirt asked us. “No one’s done that all day.”

August 3, 2006

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Qana, again

This is, of course, what we’ve all been expecting. The deadly, dreary, re-enactment of massacres past and those to come. An inevitability, as long as F-16s battle above residential towns and villages against guerilla fighters carrying their rocket launchers on their backs. And now the TV is filled again with pictures of the innocent dead, petrified in their sleep, clutching each other forever, strewn across streets and under buildings, rigor mortis preserving for eternity their last, terrible, seconds.

But although it was predicted, expected, and even played-out like a miserable repeat episode in the southern village of Qana – the site of an earlier massacre by the Israeli Air Force in 1996 – it is still awful, it is still wrong, it is still evil, and it is still avoidable.

The facts will come trickling in, preceded by the excuses: the Israeli military will insist the civilians were warned, will insist Hizbullah fired from the village first; Hizbullah will deny firing from houses, will argue the Israeli drones, above the village all day, had recorded the civilians’ presence; the remaining, bereaved family members will say, again, how they had nowhere to go, no way to leave, and that the roads out have been unremittingly bombed for the past week.

But none of it will matter. Not to those who make callous, calculated decisions from their comfortable, removed safety, nor to those who sell and deliver the weapons. The innocents suffer, and only the impotent care.

The families will grieve. The children will grow up without their mothers. The memorial at Qana, already displaying the coffins of 106 civilian deaths, will swell by at least 55 more, at least 20 of them children’s sized. And the atrocities, tacitly and repeatedly permitted, will continue.

We need to find a way to make this stop. Not just in this war, nor just for this region. If justice cannot be served, cannot be used as an effective deterrent, then a new answer is needed. If we, the outraged, cannot offer anything better than official, inarticulate platitudes, then we are also to blame as the cycle of violence swells again. We must be more than pained voyeurs.

For today, an immediate ceasefire is needed. Let the dead be buried, let the families grieve, let food, water and medicines be delivered to the isolated villages in the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon. For tomorrow, we must do something more.

July 30, 2006

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tales of the absurd

Of towels

A shipment of hundreds of towels arrived today to the Nasra school in Achrafieh. Hundreds of hundreds, bagged-up by the dozen, creating a small multi-colored mountain in one corner of the open yard. No one is quite sure where they came from; apparently some lads arrived in the early hours of the morning, deposited them all from a small hatchback, and left without a word.

“They’re certainly not from the Memory-of-the-Martyr-Rafik-Hariri-Institution,” joked Abu Ali, “or the martyr’s face would have been sewn into each one.”

The population at the Nasra school is fairly small, and the distribution system well entrenched, so the towels just waited there, for Walid or one of the other organizing volunteers to hand them out according to family size. But Walid was late today, and the towels tempting.

“I want to talk to you,” said Imm Hassan, pulling me aside into her family’s corner of one of the larger classrooms. Imm Hassan and I haven’t interacted all that much. She’s from Aitaroun, in southern Lebanon, and seems to spend most of her time yelling at her veiled 10 year-old daughter, and reciting incomprehensible – to me at least – aphorisms a propos of nothing.

“I need the pink towels,” Imm Hassan says.

“We’ll be distributing them very soon,” I reply.

“No, it’s important,” she says, “I need the pink ones.”

“Look, there’s lots of towels,” I say, “I’m sure you’ll all get enough.”

“Listen to me,” she says, gripping my shoulders and speaking louder, so I’ll understand. “I need the pink ones, to match the set I already have back home.”

Of towels, II

A similar impossibly large shipment of towels apparently was also made to the Karm El Zeitoun school down the road. Mahmoud, one of the volunteers, was trying to count them when he was interrupted by Khalil.

“We need them,” Khalil says, his son on one shoulder, two bags on the other.

“Let me finish counting them,” says Mahmoud, “and we’ll pass them out.”

“No,” Khalil says, “we need them now.”

Mahmoud looked around, but everything seemed normal.

“Please,” says Khalil, “I’m begging you.”

“Look, we’ll hand them out in a little while. What’s the rush?” Mahmoud asks.

“We’re leaving,” Khalil says, “up to the village. I want to go now, before they start hitting the road. But my mother-in-law, she says she won’t get in the car until we get our new towels…”

From the Dahieh

Imane is 11, and self-possessed. She tells me when my sneakers don’t match my outfit, and explains that if I veiled, it wouldn’t matter that my hair always looks so untidy.

“We visited home today,” she tells me. Imane’s family lives next to Hart Hreik, Israel’s main target in the Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“We went home to shower, because our bathroom is cleaner. But all the windows are gone. Mama said it’s ok, that everything is safe. So we showered. There’s nothing better than a shower in your own bathroom. But the towels were so full of dust that I got all dirty. Then the Israelis came back. We could hear them because the windows are all gone. So we came back to the school, and Mama made me shower all over again.”

From the Dahieh, II

We have a family staying with us, a mom and dad and two energetic little boys. They’re from southern Lebanon, but spend the winter in Hay el Sellum, another neighborhood in the Dahieh, currently threatened by Israeli bombings.

Our neighborhood is overflowing with refugees and new residents. Their children play on the streets, arguing over football and who’s taller/older/stronger. Our family won’t let their boys outdoors, despite their pleading, because they don’t know the neighborhood. Last night, we convinced them to take a walk on the cornice, by the sea.

Ten minutes later, we had managed to walk approximately one block. I had run into exactly no one that I know; they had met three families they knew from Hay el Sellum.

“You’re here, too?” they asked each time. “Of course. And by the way your neighbor from the fourth floor is staying two buildings down.”

From the Dahieh, III

The Israeli military talks a lot about its precision, its laser-guided explosives, its pin-point targeting. Khalo Ayman just got back from a visit to the Dahieh, where Israel’s precision is potently evident in the numerous buildings collapsed onto the ground.

“I met Fadi today,” he says, “he was walking down the middle of the street.

“‘You’re still here?’ I asked him.

“‘Of course’, Fadi said.

“‘I was asleep at home on the 8th floor when they bombed. I woke up falling, and landed in my hallway. I stood up, and the doorway was gone. Then I walked outside. The building was gone, under me, so I walked down the hallway from my apartment that had been on the 8th floor, and directly onto the ground outside’.”

From the Dahieh, IV

Most of the apartment buildings in the Dahieh are completely empty of their residents these days. In the window of a ground floor apartment near the main street of Mouawad, a family left their parakeet behind.

Hanging in its cage, the parakeet squawks if anyone comes near. If you get close enough, apparently, you’ll hear a difference in the squawkings. At first, it’s normal parakeet noises. Then it changes. “Booom! Booom!” the parakeet shouts. “Squawk, squawk, BOOOM, squawk.” And it ducks it head under its wing, hopping around the cage.

July 25, 2006