Cruising out of Beirut

19 July 2006

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American citizens Fouad Gellad, left, and his wife Mona drink, from Baltimore, Md., drink glasses of orange juice served by a cocktail waitress from the Orient Queen cruise ship in the port of the capital Beirut in Lebanon Wednesday, July 19, 2006. Hundreds of Americans wiped tears, hugged relatives and grumbled about delays in evacuation efforts as well as confusing directions as they boarded a luxury cruise ship on Wednesday that was to evacuate them from war-torn Lebanon to Cyprus. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

In the early evening, we watched from our apartment balcony as a huge white cruise ship glided past west Beirut toward Cyprus. Aboard were several groups of evacuees, including a number of US students from American University of Beirut. A few minutes later, another colossal cruise ship came by in the opposite direction; we heard it was a French ship that would be taking out more evacuees tomorrow. It looked like time for a Caribbean festival. At our apartment were gathered a group of about 10 AUB faculty and staff, and one young Filipino woman. The phone rang: it was an AUB official who needed immediate answers. The time had arrived: each of us had to decide whether to stay or go. Some had made their decision already. For others, it came to them on the spot. And for a few, the matter of having to choose seemed the greatest violence of all. Beirut had gotten under everybody’s skin. One man, who had just decided to take the boat, said he had decided that Beirut was the place he wanted to spend his life. Perhaps he will have that choice. On this, the 6th day of the Battle of Lebanon, very little seemed certain.

The AUB hospital sent out an urgent call for blood donations. Others were organizing aid to refugee families housed in schools and other make-shift shelters. A protest against the Israeli bombing has been scheduled for Thursday at 11 am in the city center. Will anyone be listening and watching? Lebanon has only words and pictures with which to fight. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” By now, Lebanon must be the wisest of nations. Not everyone finds it easy to transmute pain into wisdom like Gibran’s Prophet. “Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.” I fear that, for most, pain creates a reservoir of revenge: a pool of hatred in which to baptize another generation of killers. Does terror ever really work? And what becomes of the bombardier’s soul? In the film The Fog of War, former US Secretary of Defense McNamara admits that, had the Japanese won World War II, he would have been convicted of war crimes for his involvement in the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II. But who gave him, or anyone else with the power to win and write history, the license to kill?

Are the weak and the losers reduced to a mere muffled cry? Plenty of wisdom: plenty of blood. Is Lebanon’s cry audible?

Patrick McGreevy heads up the American Studies Program at the American University of Beirut.

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