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

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Why I’m staying

My mom wrote me an email yesterday, describing how every time she tells people that I’m in Lebanon, that I’m staying in Lebanon, they get this “that’s really dumb” look on their faces.

Of course, I should mention that many Lebanese, when they see me still here, also get a “you must be really dumb” look on their faces. Almost everyone, especially those who lived through the civil war (1975-1990) here, and those who have families, are desperate to leave.

I’m staying because Lebanon has been my home for the past six years. I’m staying because my heart is here.

I’m staying because every boat that arrives without the food and medicine so desperately needed, and leaves full of foreigners, is another gesture of abandonment, further proof that the world doesn’t value Lebanese civilian lives, doesn’t care about their innocence, doesn’t want to make the bombings stop.

To leave Lebanon now, after all the love and joy and knowledge given to me by the Lebanese and Palestinians here, is unthinkable.

To leave Lebanon now – when 600,000 people were forced to leave their homes, when almost 400 civilians have been killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – would be ungracious, and callous.

To leave Lebanon now, when refugees are flooding Beirut, sleeping in schools, parks and driveways, when the United States is actively sending more weapons to Israel with which to bombard Lebanon, would be the gravest of insults.

I’m staying because right and wrong have suddenly become crystal clear. It’s right to share our apartment with a family who just escaped yesterday from their village next to the border with Israel. It’s right that they get to sleep though the night, knowing they won’t be bombed in their sleep. It is right to spend all day helping distribute food to families suddenly homeless, to play with children who have left all their toys behind.

It’s wrong that Fatime, age 6, doesn’t know where her father is. It’s wrong that her mother had to shave her head so she doesn’t get lice from living with 24 other families in an elementary school. It’s wrong that hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, terrorized by Israeli jets bombing overhead, scared that if they leave, they’ll be bombed on the road. It’s wrong that families have lost their livelihoods, their homes, their futures.

I am staying because Lebanon needs help, and I can offer a little.

I am staying because staying feels right.

July 24, 2006

Bringing it all back home

I’ve known F. for years. A good friend of my fiancé’s, I watched as he transformed himself from a high school failure into a free lance journalist. With no big family connections or monetary backing (his father transports fruit and vegetables from their village to Beirut all summer long, and the family lives in Beirut’s impoverished southern suburbs in the winter), F. is completely self-made.

Until yesterday, his parents and two youngest brothers had been stuck in their village near the border with Israel. When we heard they had finally been able to escape, and needed a place to stay in Beirut, we were glad to help. The three other brothers were already staying with F. in a nearby apartment. Astonishingly, their uncle and his family had already been taken in by our friend who lives one floor above us.

They arrived sleep-deprived and shaken. They had been on the road since 5.30am, and only reached Beirut at 3 in the afternoon. They rode in a microbus with 23 other people. Except for some candy for the children, they hadn’t eaten. They came with a bag full of vegetables from their garden and some clothing for the kids.

They came with stories of an unceasing bombing, of buildings exploding around them, of a three-storey apartment building across from their house that was bombed flat. Moussa, who’s 9, keeps talking about the way the glass shards flew over their house into the garden. His mother is pretty sure no one survived.

Our apartment isn’t designed for kids, for more than two people. There’s no tray to serve the tea or coffee, there’s only four large plates, only one ashtray. F.’s mother is slowly taking over the kitchen, with some interesting results. Espresso makes very poor Turkish coffee, we’ve determined, and I’ve given up trying to explain why I buy strange salt with iodine in it. I can’t imagine how foreign everything must be for them here, how difficult to try to accept that both of their apartments may already have been bombed, that they may not have anything to go back to.

F.’s mother worries about her garden. If they can go back in a week, they’ll have only lost the tomatoes. If it’s two weeks, they’ll loose the green beans as well. F.’s father is full of stories about how he can fit 40 watermelons in his car and reach Beirut in two hours, making the trip three or four times a day in high season. Since the Israeli’s started bombing, they’ve lost an entire year’s income.

F. visits twice a day. He’s trying to juggle reporting with organizing the distribution of food and medicine to five schools. When his parents first arrived, he went out to buy food for the house. He came back with enough dry goods to feed the entire building, with his mother’s favorite brand of soap, with toys for his brothers and a carton of his father’s cigarettes. He came back again, later in the day, with mattresses and towels. Today I watched his little brothers leap around in excitement as he delivered new sandals and shorts, and a soccer ball.

We are safe here, we are fed and clothed and loved. We are incomparably lucky.

July 23, 2006

The calm before the storm

Today, we tried to buy clothing.

At the Nasra School in Achrafieh, both a 1 1/2 month-old baby and a 7-month pregnant mother of three are in dire need of pajamas, and of the 10 boys only 3 have more than one pair of shorts. It’s July in Beirut – meaning hot and sticky – and only so many families can hand-wash their laundry per day. People are donating clothing, but somehow we keep ending up with bags full of plaid business suits dating back to some winter in the mid-80s.

Gasoline, like everything else in Lebanon, is becoming scarce – and expensive – and we didn’t want to have to drive very far. It’s also hard to predict what stores will be open where. The last few days in Beirut we’ve experienced very little bombing – Israel is not going to bomb Beirut while the foreigners are being evacuated on prime time TV – so a semblance of life has briefly returned to the city. There was even a traffic jam in Hamra, in West Beirut.

After two hours, we had driven through almost every commercial area of Beirut, and still hadn’t located affordable PJs or shorts. Clothing in Lebanon is over-priced at the best of times, a reflection of the lack of local industry here. Now most of the shopkeepers say that their suppliers can’t make deliveries, that they have more clothing, etc, in warehouses but can’t get to them.

A sickly miasma of the calm before the storm is settling everywhere. The price of powdered milk has sky-rocketed, up to $12 per 3 kilo bag. There are no more candles on the market. At the Sabra Coop (a supermarket chain in a low income neighborhood) I saw women sweeping entire shelves of tomato paste into their carts, then moving on to the pasta and doing the same. The pharmacies’ cabinets are empty. The lines at the gas stations are impossible. Pampers for babies, cleaning detergents, rice, salt… everything is becoming more expensive as supplies dwindle.

As for fresh fruits and vegetables – what’s left is for the rich. Lemons are 5 times more expensive than normal. All the roads leading from Lebanon’s farmlands (the Bekaa valley, the South) are being bombed. And of course, all those ships coming in to evacuate the foreigners can’t manage to bring with them food or medicine.

Regardless of whatever the Israelis do to most of Lebanon (carpet bombing, land invasion, etc), Lebanon will be a humanitarian crisis. One that could have been avoided: had Israel not blockaded Lebanon and destroyed the country’s entire infrastructure; And one that could have been mitigated: had any country or international NGO refused to respect the blockade and brought in supplies.

Over 600,000 people have already been displaced, with hundreds of thousands stuck in the South trying to leave and too scared by the Israeli jets overhead to risk the roads. Lebanon’s population is only 4 million, so easily ¼ of the Lebanese may end up refugees. Beirut doesn’t have the supplies or ability to help. There are rumors that the big international NGOs have sent in relief crews with insane budgets ($1 million for food, etc) and are unable to spend it. There’s very little left to buy.

Meanwhile, back at Nasra School, Imane the infant is sleeping in a t-shirt knotted at the bottom, pregnant Oum Hassan is wearing her husband’s clothing and not leaving their classroom at night, and the boys are getting filthy.

Back at my calm apartment, I stand in my kitchen, and worry.

June 22, 2006

Tales and Encounters

Barbar Take-Out on Spears Street

“Yesterday, this guy ordered a falafel sandwich. I was just about to roll up the sandwich when he makes me stop. ‘Wait, wait! I don’t want any parsley with it!’ he says. ‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘there’s no more parsley left in Beirut.’

“Is there really somebody who chooses to eat their falafel without parsely?”

Fatima in Nasra School, Achrafieh

Fatima is 10. Her head is shaved, because the whole family got lice at the first school they stayed in, coming up from the South.

“Hello, what’s the situation?” Fatima asks, holding my phone upside down to her ear.

“This is Fatima Hashem, reporting live from Beirut. We have one hundred people here in the school. They’re sleeping on the floor, on mattresses. Last night I couldn’t sleep because it was hot. So I went outside. Then Mama came out and told me not to go outside anymore at night. So tonight I get to sleep next to the window.”

Walid, volunteer at Nasra School in Achrafieh

“My uncle is staying with us. He had a building in Tyre, and three stores in the same center in Dahieh. First they bombed his building in Tyre, then the same day they bombed the building in Dahieh, and it collapsed. ‘It’s ok,’ he told me, ‘I still have all the keys’.”

Oum Hussein in Nasra School, Achrafieh

I’m sorting donated clothing. Of 15 bags of clothing, half isn’t usable. Oum Walid, mother of four, is heavily veiled.

Oum Hussein: “Do you have anything long?”

I hold up a woman’s business suit.

“No, something I would wear.”

I find tracksuit pants and matching top.

“No, something suitable for me, like a jalibaya” she says.

We search and search. Finally, Oum Hussein asks, “all these clothes, where are they from?”

“From the neighborhood,” I say. (Achrafieh is a Christian part of town.)

“Nevermind,” says Oum Hussein. “We’re lucky they didn’t give us all their miniskirts, as well.”

Hassan in Nasra School, Achrafieh, talking to volunteer Yehyia

Yehyia: “We’re going to buy some toys. What do you want?”

Hassan: “Get a soccer ball. And tennis. And dolls for the girls. And a rifle.”

Yehyia: “A rifle? Why?”

Hassan: “Because Baba is worried because he left his behind.”

Mahmoud, volunteer at Karm el Zeitoun School, Achrafieh

“There’s this little girl, Zeinab. She acts like the boss of everyone, always dragging her little sister around. So I was leaving yesterday, and I told her to take care of herself, and to take care of her sister.

“She tells me: ‘No, you take care of us and I take care of my sister’.”

Hussein in Nasra School, Achrafieh

“My fiancé just called. It’s the first time since three days ago. Her parents took her with them to the Bekaa. We were only engaged for 2 months. They left the same day the Israelis bombed the road in Chtaura. I spent three days not knowing anything. And now she calls. And after 2 minutes, her uncle takes the phone. He wants to know if there are any dollars left in Beirut.”

Ali in West Beirut

Ali is 4. He just moved in next door. We met for the first time in front of the elevator. “I’m going downstairs!” he announced.

“Really? Me, too,” I said.

“Baba said not to use the elevator!” So we walk the stairs together.

“Are you going outside?” I ask.

“Baba said not to use the elevator, not to play on the balcony, and not to go outside,” he says.

“So what are you doing now?”

“I’m going up and down the stairs!”

Fatima in Nasra School, Achrafieh

“I’m going to call Baba,” she says. She takes my phone, and dials randomly on the back of the it. “Five, five, six, one, seven, two – That’s his real number,” she tells me.

“Hallo, Baba, this is your daughter Fatima.

“Is the store still open in Shebaa? Are you coming to Beirut soon? Make sure you stay on the small roads.

“And Baba! They called. They’re getting us a new apartment. It has four balconies, so you don’t have to go outside to smoke anymore.”

July 20, 2006

The sounds at night

Last night we didn’t have electricity. Sitting in the darkness, in safe West Beirut, this is what I heard:

First, there’s the new voices in the neighborhood, the refugees that were lucky enough to escape from Southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs before Israeli started bombing.

Then, there’s the whine of the generators – Israel’s land and sea blockade of Lebanon means not enough fuel can get into the country, so the government is rationing hours of electricity across the country. Generators are surprisingly loud.

Then there’s the semi-constant drone of an Israeli F-16 or MK overhead. With the Beirut airport bombed, if you can hear a plane, that means it’s Israeli and, thus, dangerous. Which means you have to wonder: surveillance, on the way to an attack, or just back from one?

Then there are the booms themselves. In West Beirut, the loudest, the ones that shake your windows and make the CDs topple over, are those from Israeli gunboats, shooting their shells over your head into the port or the southern suburbs.

Less loud, but more frequent, are the bombs from the F-16s, which can happen at any time. Sometimes at 10.30am, when you’re finishing a late breakfast. Sometimes at 4 pm, when you’re driving back from visiting a friend, watching her try to help her parents, grandmother and sister leave a small village in Southern Lebanon. Often at night, waking you up at 1.30am, and then again at 2.10am, and then again at 2.20am, and so on. And then a final shot at dawn, in case you had actually managed to sleep.

And then, finally, there’s the crying. No constant, but devastating. Over 150 Lebanese civilians have been killed in the past 6 days, and thousands more are in immediate danger. Anywhere you go, someone’s in tears.

July 19, 2006

Some observations on life here

It’s not that the Lebanese are good at war, but rather, that the Lebanese (and the Palestinians, etc. that live here) are good at dealing with life under war. Everything just continues. Not as nicely as before, and large events are of necessity cancelled, but the daily routines proceed. It’s of course disturbing that so many people are so accustomed to living under these absurd and dangerous conditions. But it’s also comforting.

I woke up today to the smell of garlic and green beans being cooked – loubia bi zeit – one of my favorite Lebanese dishes. “That’s a wartime dish,” I’m told. Loubia bi zeit is, apparently, the ideal war dish, as once cooked the vegetables can last for a long time without refrigeration, the dish improves with age, and can be eaten hot or cold, with or without bread or rice. A quick walk around the neighborhood revealed at least two other households were also cooking loubia bi zeit.

All the little stores near my apartment are fully stocked with candles, batteries and water (unlike the giant chain stores, which ran out of water and candles on the first day of Israeli bombings). Recently I witnessed a well-coiffured older Lebanese woman trying to buy pine nuts. “Don’t tell me,” she said, “that you’ve stopped bringing in pine nuts for water…” “No,” she was told, “but you’ll have to move 50 cartons of water to get at them.” Meanwhile, the one store carrying alcohol has been very busy as of late, abounding with running jokes about what you can drink warm: “No ice: no Arak and whiskey. No refrigerators: no beer. Khallas, we’ll drink wine.” “And when the wine runs out?” “We’ll drink our whiskey warm.”

My neighborhood, near the American University of Beirut and therefore traditionally a safe place during times of crisis, is filling up with refugees. First they came from the Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs and one of Israel’s main targets. They came with their TVs and spare mattresses, moving in with friends or family, and into the spare apartments lent out by absent owners. The parking situation here, typically a source of much drama, has luckily eased because so many residents here have left for their villages. “It’s always like this,” a neighbor tells me, a suitcase in each hand. “Israel bombs. We move out, they move in…” When Israel’s initial barrage began on the Dahieh, our new neighbors called out to each other from the balconies, detailing which streets were hit, which buildings were still standing. Not all of their old neighbors got out in time.

A second wave of refugees recently arrived, from the South. They came with cars filled to bursting, with large, extended families. I tried to buy small-sized bread from the local bakery, but they’ve stopped baking it. “No one’s going to buy it,” I was told. A friend recently told me about his family in South Lebanon. Before the bombing had intensified, five households nominally related had gathered together. “There’s easily 50 children under one roof,” he said, “all under 10 years old.” “Don’t worry,” another friend said, “this is how the next generation of resistance fighters gets trained.”

Not everyone in my building, however, is here to stay. Opening my door this morning, I saw my newly-moved in neighbor carrying three suitcases. “Hamd’allah bi salameh” I said, welcoming him back safely. “Thanks,” he said, “but we’re leaving for the Gulf.”

Saturday afternoon we visited some Lebanese friends in Hamra, in West Beirut. They all grew up during the civil war, and over a three-course meal of various meat dishes (“best eat it now, while it’s still fresh”) they joked about how things have changed. “Cell phones, how nice… at least until we lose electricity and we can’t charge them anymore.” And “I’ve spent the past 10 years saying ‘that was just fireworks, right?’ so yesterday, of course, what does my niece say to me?”

Someone else related a story about his elderly mother, who’s living alone, in the same house for 50 years. “I called her up expecting she’d be all scared. ‘I’m so glad you called,’ she says, ‘I was worried for you. I realized that you might not have enough battery-operated lamps, and luckily I still have three from the war…’”

July 16, 2006