Monday, July 24, 2006

internationals to the rescue

Now that the international press corps has arrived in Lebanon to tell the real story of what’s happening here – and making telephone and internet access that much more difficult for the rest of us – it seems fitting to set down some other international responses to the 2006 siege of Lebanon. Here’s four vignettes.

1/from Iraq

it’s early in the attack and you’re in the midst of crossing the old airport road, down Qasqas way, when our mobile rings. You notice it’s from Syria.


“Yes I must speak with Jim please!” a voice yells through a poor line.

“Yes, speaking.”

“This is Ahmad [let’s pretend his name is Ahmad]! Ahmad the sculptor!”

Ahmad is a former flatmate of yours from your brief stay in Syria in 2004. You were subletting a room in a house in Salamiyyeh, a district on the side of Mt Qasiyoun with a breathtaking view of Damascus.

Ahmad is the boyfriend of one of the French girls who shared the place with you. he is, in fact, a sculptor, working in bronzes. the running motif of much of his work is human-ish figures, usually striding forward. though winged, they’re always bound to the ground.

“Ahmad! Hi how are you?”

“I’ve been trying to call you for two days!”

“That’s nice,” you smile. “What can I do for you?”

“Habibi jim, you must come while you still can!”

“Come where, Ahmad?”

“To Damascus! Come immediately before it gets any worse.”

Ahmad is a Baghdadi, a refugee from the US liberation of Iraq, or rather the chaos that arose from the liberation. He approves of the American action, a fact that has less to do with his being shi‘a than it does his hatred of saddam hussein. “He wrote novels, you know,” he once confided, grimacing over his beer.

“Ahmad, thank you. but I have some work to do here.”

“Please promise you’ll come if things get too bad, ah?”

“I sure will.”

2/ from Juba

let’s say his name is Hillary. He’s a refugee from Juba. Few people, yourself included, had heard of Juba before. Conventionally people call it “southern Sudan” but he dislikes the term. he comes from a mixed muslim-christian familiy and raised a practicing christian of a vaguely catholic persuasion.

He was studying medicine at the university of juba when the Sudanese government transplanted the university – teachers and students - to khartoum.

“It took a few days before one of us asked the others, ‘what’s the university of juba doing in khartoum?’”

politics made Hillary a refugee. he ended up in the levant, spending a bit of time in Syria with his brother but eventually deciding to stay in beirut. for most of you acquaintance with him, he’s done manual labour, the drudgery accentuated by his unsuccessful efforts to find asylum in another country. Your encounters with him were usually in some bar or another – an environment that allows him to display his wit and intelligence to best advantage.

“as far as I’m concerned,” Hillary said a few days into the siege, “i consider myself fortunate if i get hit by an israeli missile.”

a year or two ago, Hillary made friends with a pastor of some obscure european protestant denomination. the contact got him an “in” with the local protestant theology school, so now he’s studying theology – something you applauded even while finding it amusing.

it’s been a challenging time for him and not because he’s not smart enough to get good grades.

shortly after he started he found that the Lebanese internal security wouldn’t grant him a student visa to study here. it seems washington was putting pressure on beirut to not grant visas to foreigners wanting to study religion in the region. al-Qaida’s influence is assumed to spread through students migrating around the muslim world to continue their education – so Hillary seems to have fallen victim to a wider effort to curb international terrorism. he remains on the case, though, and is still attached to the theology school.

He later had to contend with the racism of some of his Lebanese instructors. Then there was the challenge of the subject itself. “studying the old testament,” he said the other day, “will destroy your faith. it’s a book that justifies one people’s right to annihilate another.”

When you half hear him remark to Angus, a scottish friend, that he’d feel fortunate to be hit by an Israeli missile, you assume the joke hinges on this crisis of faith.

“why do you say that?” asks Angus.

“you know how much they cost,” he asks, “one of these israeli missiles. They cost a million dollars each. my insurance policy says if i die I’m worth $5000 to my family. that means if some Israeli kills me with his missile, my value increases.”

3/ from germany

you’ve known “Wim” for years. he was one of the founding members of the flat in Qasqas you share with another german, you usually call him “Otto”. It was while Wim and Otto were at the helm at Qasqas that the neighbours began calling the place “bayt al-alman” [the house of the germans], a practice that remains among the neighbours even though Otto is now the last german.

When you met Wim, he was a sociologist, who did some journalism on the side. then he abandoned the academy and turned to journalism. then he moved over to ngo work, though his passion remains journalism.

Wim was trapped in Europe, on vacation with his lebanese girlfriend when the israelis started bombarding beirut international airport. one evening, while you were commiserating with Angus over a couple of whiskeys in gemayzeh, Wim bounded into the bar.

“you came back!” smiles Angus.

“of course,” he smiles back. “there’s work to do.”

“how’d you come?”

“from damascus,” he says matter-of-factly.

you and Angus glance at each other, surprised.

“i thought the damascus road was shut.”

“oh it is, but you can still cross the border there. We drove via zahle. The driver didn’t know the way, though, so I had to direct him.”

“how much did you pay?” you ask. the siege had driven up the market price for taxis to damascus, in excess of $500 in some cases. rumours had drifted out that some drivers were trying to raise the rates going the other way as well, and that some gormless international had paid around $800 for a one-way trip.

“well i took a service [a shared taxi],” he said, “it was much more expensive that usual.”

“how much more?”

“over twice the usual sum,” he said. “thirty dollars.”


4/ from Palestine

“Miriam” is the friend of a friend who’s adopted you as her own. there was no introduction as such. she just emailed you one day a couple of years ago. she said she was friends with this friend and that friend of yours, all foreigners. Then she asked you how you were and said she looked forward to meeting you.

this went on for a couple of years. sometimes it would be email, sometimes it was a phone call. these communications were always a little disorienting since they would drop out of the blue for no apparent reason and not really go anywhere. your efforts to make your way to bourj al-barajneh for a visit never came to much. though Qasqas itself is right on the border between beirut proper and the southern suburbs, a combination of work obligations and alcoholic social life centres your life in northern beirut.

Miriam would ask how you were and then share some of the happenings in her life. this is how you discovered that she’d suffered an accident of some kind that had left her confined to her house. you learned about her daughter who was nearing the end of her high school.

One day you and Miriam actually met. she rang one Saturday to say she was on her way to Ruth’s house.

“oh?” you reply. you had no idea who Ruth was.


There was an impasse for a few seconds while you wondered how to interpret this information.

“would you like to meet for a cup of tea?” she eventually continued.

“oh. okay, give us a ring when you’re done at your friend’s.”

another long pause as she processed your line of code.

“she lives near bliss street,” she continued.

“okay, close to hamra, then. I’m in hamra now myself”

after a pause, she sighed. “do you want me to give you directions?”

“uh, sure. you’re inviting me to your friend’s house?”

“you don’t want?”

“no no. I’d love to.”

Miriam and her family live in bourj al-barajneh camp, in beirut’s southern suburbs. The suburbs have been particularly badly hit in this offensive because that’s where shi‘a muslims live and shi‘a muslims make up hizbullah’s constituency. that doesn’t mean all shi‘a support hizbullah, of course.

the Palestinians aren’t shi‘a, though they’ve had more than their fair share of problems with the israelis. this is why Miriam and her family live in a beirut-area refugee camp rather than in palestine. this is why her family never had a chance to migrate to a country of their own choosing.

a few days into the bombing, the mobile rang. It was Miriam and you immediately feel ashamed for not having rung her first.

“How are you jim?” she asks cheerfully. “Are you fine?”

“better than some. Where are you? are you still in the bourj?”

“no,” she laughs. “we decided to spend some time around the Arab University.”

The arab university is about 10-15 minutes walk from the flat in Qasqas, not far from shatilla refugee camp. you’d left Qasqas with your girlfriend (visiting from holland) because it was too close to the bombing. no bombs have fallen into your neighbourhood, but the noise when the missiles and shells hit is horrendous.

“how are things there? Do you have everything you need?”

“oh yes. dalia is bored and wants to go home,” she chirps back. “we have everything here. it’s like being in the camp.” There’s a pause while she says something to her daughter. “I have to go now jim. Do you need anything?”

Jim Quilty, Beirut, 24 July


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