Saturday, July 29, 2006

the enemy among us

“you’re going to Qasqas?”

“yeah. even if there’s no cabs it’s only a twenty minute walk.”

you’re standing at the Bishara al-Khoury intersection. Basta and greater west Beirut spread to one side and Nasra and greater east Beirut gather on the other. north the causeway empties into the sparkling, reconstructed downtown. South, the way ascends through Ras al-Nab‘a, Barbir, Qasqas, and beyond that the ruined Dahiyyeh – beirut’s southern suburbs – and points south.

the street is dark but for a lit street lamp every third block or so. there’s no traffic running north or south. overhead, the whine of an unmanned israeli reconnaissance drone sounds like a cross between a student-flown Cessna and an annoying blue-arsed fly. flies. there’s a second drone airborne tonight.

at some point on friday it formed in your head that you wanted to sleep in your own bed that night. the drone will keep you company as you walk.

sleeping in your own bed isn’t as problematic for you as it is for many in this country. for Lebanese who live in dahiyyeh, south Lebanon and parts of the biq‘a valley, sleeping in their own beds is either ill-advised [because the houses they reside in may soon not exist anymore] or impossible [because the houses don’t exist anymore].

in some cases, within those collapsed houses are still the bodies of dead relatives – the living unable to retrieve the dead because, 16 days into the conflict, it still isn’t safe to do so.

your own situation is more modest.

Qasqas is just north of dahiyyeh, which means it’s not threatened by Israeli warplanes or gunboats. this was less certain in the first week or so of the israeli attacks, simply because of the israeli military’s innumerable regrettable hits – or rather the number of hits it should regret – whether unarmed UN truce monitors, ambulances, relief trucks or civilian population centres generally.

but it’s in the cruel and dirty nature of this war that, if you’re a poor Shi‘a Muslim living among other poor Shi‘a, your life, property, and livelihood are more at risk of annihilation.

Qasqas is just close enough to dahiyyeh to make the first days of the attack unbearable. so you and your flatmates migrated a kilometre of two north. you stayed on there for a couple of weeks simply because the building your flat’s in, the ma‘rouf building, has no generator and no internet connection – both necessary for your work.

but the subcontracted international work - which arose in the first couple of weeks because the foreign media couldn’t get anyone into the country at first - has dried up. there’s still international news crews around, covering the conflict by day and taking photos of stylish lebanese women in beirut-area bars by night.

but, as was predicted, interest has slackened in the wake of the last foreign evacuations and will slacken still more as the story grows stale in the european and american public consciousness. arab women mourning the loss of a loved one, arab men, women, and children being killed by Israeli soldiers, or by soldiers dressed the way Israeli soldiers dress, is tragically commonplace in the media.

so you’re walking home, alone with the darkness. every now and then a car will pass, find an empty spot and pull over. at one point, a loaded flatbed truck blows past, obviously destined for dahiyyeh. the israeli drones witness all, though you have no idea exactly what they’re looking at.


geographically speaking israel, and therefore israelis, are very close to Beirut, but you rarely see them here. the first time you ever saw an israeli soldier personally was in may of 2000, when the israeli army made a hurried evacuation from its south lebanon occupation zone.

for a surreal few weeks, the only thing standing between the two countries was a few strands of razor wire, so it was possible to stand there and stare at helmeted solders in full kit as they stared at you, m-16s in hand. behind you, outraged and triumphant lebanese stood on the high ground hurtling abuse at the soldiers on the other side, taunting them for the outrages of a decades-long occupation.

now the israelis are back, but via many different media.

by now everyone has heard of the leaflets. dropped from israeli warplanes, they feature cartoons depicting hizbullah secretary-general hassan nasrallah in various unflattering caricatures - whether as a snake dancing to the tune of hamas, damascus and tehran, or an evil jinn rising up out of dahiyyeh to devour Beirut.

there are wide assumptions, too, that there are plenty of israeli mossad and special forces coming into Beirut with the international press corps. some of this is paranoia, of course – a product of having lived too many years in a town where conspiracy theory is both pastime and habit of mind.

but there is solid precedent for such suspicions too. we met several israelis here in 2000, in town to cover israel’s flight from the south and carrying american passports. If you can get in to do journalism, you can get in for something else.

you mention your amusing paranoia to your boss - lets call him Khalil. Khail’s seen a lot. He remembers, as a young man, cutting down a tree to block the road to Saida during lebanon’s 1958 troubles.

“paranoid?” he said. “do you know how many phone calls i’ve received since this thing started? they’re all the same. ‘hello, I’m such-and-such a foreigner in beirut with good Arabic and I wonder if I could get a job with your newspaper.’ ‘i’m sorry,’ I say, ‘but we have no room.’ ‘okay. I hear you have lots of interns. I can just come and do that, right?’ ‘no I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘we have no room.’ ‘okay. can I just come in and sit in the newsroom and watch?’

“ya khayyi,” Khalil says, “they think we’re monkeys.”

during the first couple of weeks - when it was still a hacks’ market as far as selling Lebanon stories was concerned - you’d picked up a gig with a certain international magazine of business. there were parallel stories running from various writers around the region, including israel.

one day, this email materialises:

Dear Jim,

I'm Gideon, the guy in Jerusalem. ….

I have a question that you might be able to answer…
Israel says it is attacking Hizbullah
strongholds (right now the focus is on Bint Jbeil).
Are there several such places, well-identified, and
where are they distributed? I'd like to compare the
Israeli army's claims of what it needs to target
(insofar as it's willing to divulge them) with the
facts on the ground.

Thanks, and best wishes

you blink at the message for a second, then call one of your colleagues over.

“is this israeli journalist really expecting me to:
A/ know where hizbullah’s military strongholds are?
B/ tell him where they are?”

“and if so,” she smiles, “is he a spy or merely stupid? or does he just think you are?”

you politely informed “gideon” that such information was not generally available and - given israel’s massive air superiority and fondness for assassinating hizbullah leaders - not likely to be publicised.

for some reason the usual “thanks for your help” line didn’t come back.

you’ve reached the rubbish bins in Ras al-Nab‘a now. people have been noticing there’ve been a lot more flies in beirut since the israelis came back. it has the aspect of an old-testament plague about it, they’re so thick. it’s provoked some to wonder what the flies are feeding on.

on the other side of the road you notice a bus and a car parked on the side of the road. families are silently packing suitcases in the vehicles in preparation for leaving.


earlier on friday evening, a friend of yours from the paper walked hurriedly into dragonfly, a bar in the gemayzeh quarter, and felt the need to ask the waiter to stand between her and some guy. she’s a gentle, well-educated blue-state american who fled her country when the US supreme court appointed George W Bush president.

“what’s the problem?” you ask.

“oh my god. i just had this awful argument with this american guy. What a bastard.”

you soon see the cause of her problem when a belligerent-looking lebanese-american guy starts tearing into the waiter who’s been tasked with protecting her.

Dragonfly shuts early, so you drift next door to torino express, one of three bars that’s been open throughout the conflict.

You see belligerent man has ended up here as well. in a few seconds he catches sight of you and staggers over. you reckon he’s spoiling for a fight with some foreigners - all of you are hacks but only one, a woman, is lebanese.

“you journalists?” he asks, his lip curling in derision.


He casts an aspersion or two over the others, who blink back at him quizzically. he walks up to you, then, perhaps because you’re standing.

“you look like the leader around here.”


“how long you been ‘covering’ this?”

“covering what?”

“Lebanon! The war!”

“I’ve covered Lebanon for eight years. I live here.”

he blinks at you angrily. “this story. How long have you been covering this story?”

“since day-one. I was here when it started.”

“you gettin’ lucky?”


“gettin’ lucky. you gettin’ fucked a lot?”


“name’s jimmy.” he sticks out his hand. “what’s yours.”


jimmy blinks at you again, as if surprised. over jimmy’s shoulder you see the concerned-looking face of the gentle, potato-shaped man who was with him earlier in dragonfly. He’s sitting at the bar, looking over his shoulder at you, his eyes radiating silent pleas that you forgive his friend’s rude behaviour.

“you carry a camera,” jimmy accuses

“no. i’m a writer.”

“you’re a photographer.”

“no. i write.”

“‘i write.’ what kinda goddamn touché is that? ‘i write.’”

“what do you do for a living?”

“doesn’t matter -”

“- sure it does. you asked what i do so I can ask you what you do.”

“i have the GM dealership here.” he throws his shoulders back and glowers at you.

“this shit must be hard on business.”

“don’t matter,” he spits. “business was shit before.”

“well, people here seem to prefer german cars.”

“Lebanese are stupid that way. GM is the best cars in the world but they can’t see that ‘cause they think everything European is better. stupid fucking lebanese.”

“how long you live in America?”

“texas. I lived in texas.”

“how long?”

“I left here in 1981. I came back in 2003. you American?”


“Sudafed,” he smiles gleefully. “You got Sudafed there.”

You blink at him.

“do I look like a criminal to you?” he asks.

absolutely, you say to yourself, then smile, “You look like a guy in a bar to me.”

“i smuggled Sudafed into the states from canada.”

“why would you have to smuggle Sudafed into the states?”

“it’s illegal,” he fumes triumphantly. “you know why? they use it to make crack cocaine!”

eventually you disentangle yourself from jimmy, and wander over to say hello to a Lebanese filmmaker you know – let’s call him rafiq. Rafiq lived in America for a long time too – studying film in Montana, of all places, before returning to Beirut. he still keeps a house in California and just came back from there a couple of days before the Israelis ruined beirut airport.

Rafiq sips on a shot glass of vodka and explains why he thinks this war is finished. there’s been a lot of such enthusiasm in Beirut for the last couple of days. there’ve been no strikes on dahiyyeh – no concussions to remind beirutis that people are dying in the south.

“did I tell you about my phonecall?” rafiq asks.

you shake your head.

“i got woken up by an international call the other day,” he chuckles. “I thought it was my wife, so I picked it up. Turned out to be from Israel.”

“Israel? How’d you know it was from Israel?”

“this guy said in perfect Arabic:

“‘this is the state of Israel. we want peace for the Lebanese people and we want you to help us battle the devil nasrallah. We urge your compliance for the sake of peace between Lebanon and Israel.’

“But don’t quote me on the exact wording,” he peers through his glasses. “it was early in the morning, and I’m drunk.”

You arrive in Qasqas and are astounded to find the lights in the mar‘ouf building are on. Lights are on in east Beirut at night, so you’d been anticipating an 11-storey-long walk up a darken stairwell to get to the flat.

you turn on the computer and sit down to write for a few minutes before the booze and the weight of the day send you spiralling into your own bed.

the amount of electricity that’s been available throughout this siege has been remarkable. there’s been only nominal rationing since the mess started – odd considering that the power plants run on diesel that’s being kept out of the country by the israeli blockade.

perhaps there’s something to those rumours that Syria, with whom Lebanon shares a regional power grid, has been sending those amps in for free. if so, you wonder how grateful Beirutis will be after it’s all over.

Jim Quilty, Beirut, 29 July


Blogger Rachel said...

I think you people would get a lot further by stating truthful comments. Hizbollah started this war by attacking Israel’s civilians. Hizbollah fires rockets at Israeli citizens while hiding behind Lebanese citizens, using them as shields. Hizbollah is responsible for all the deaths on both sides. Israel has every right to defend itself like any other country. Israel has over 1 million people forced from their homes (refuges as you call them). You should be saving the world from Hizbollah.

No matter how you feel about it, the truth is:
* If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence.
* If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous saveaworld said...

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9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You removed my post because you dont like the truth.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous, You will find that if you say anything that is against the terrorists that it will not stay here for long.

Israel has a right and justfull fight that it will win

3:24 PM  
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6:23 PM  

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