The Beirut blogs: People under siege tell their stories online


SCITUATE, Massachusetts: “I don’t want to be a war story … I just want to be me … not what is imposed on me … I don’t want to be another depressing story in your Inbox.” Beirut-based artist Zena al-Khalil began sending email updates to her friends, colleagues and contacts on July 13, the day Israel began bombing her city. Those email updates quickly morphed into a blog entitled “Beirut Update: War diaries of a 30-year-old woman … with love from Beirut.”

“This siege is so emotionally and psychically draining. The situation is so politically tenuous. I miss the world. I miss life. I miss myself. People around me also go through these ups and downs, but I find them generally to be more resilient, more steadfast, more courageous than I.”

Like Khalil, writer and curator Rasha Salti started organizing her thoughts into “siege notes.” Her missives, poignant, personal and rife with pointed political analysis, are now posted online at “Electronic Lebanon” - an offshoot of Electronic Intifada that launched within hours of Israel’s attack of Lebanon’s infrastructure and citizenry.

To cop a term from Beirut artist and theorist Jalal Toufic, Lebanon has once again become a site of radical closure, a place subjected to such extreme and sudden violence that it seems to be imploding on itself, losing its connection to an outside world that’s chosen to look away rather than grab hold and save it.

A siege may be, by definition, its own kind of radical closure - think Sarajevo in 1992 or Beirut again in 1982. What may set this siege apart from those is the advent of the blogosphere.

With a blockade in place, and cellular communications under attack, Internet connections are among the only remaining links between those in Lebanon and the outside world - indeed, in some areas, among those living in different parts of Lebanon.

Prior to July 12, Lebanon already had a fair share of dedicated blogs. These bare-bones Web sites - functioning as online diaries and informal debate platforms - arose largely in response to the euphoric Beirut Spring, when it seemed Lebanon’s then-fragile (now-desperate) democracy was gathering strength from popular street demonstrations.

Sixteen months after the million-strong-march on Martyrs Square, the urgency and anxiety of war has pushed Lebanon’s blogosphere into overdrive. At least three dozen new blogs have started, mainly though not exclusively by young people in their twenties and thirties.

So significant is the volume of Lebanon-based blogging activity nowadays that their writers have caught the attention of mainstream global media outlets like CNN and MSNBC.

Even the office of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has a blog (of sorts) titled “Lebanon Under Siege,” which offers up-to-date information on relief efforts (grim) and diplomatic initiatives (bleak). The site lists locations for shelter and aid distribution, along with a tally of damage, casualties and official statements. Significantly, the site is available in three languages and the third one after Arabic and English isn’t French.

The motives driving Beirut’s other blogs are many.

The blog of “Samidoun” (“Steadfast”), is primarily concerned with spreading the word on how people can get involved in the relief effort by assisting those displaced from South Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs. Connected to the Sanayeh Relief Center, it serves as a kind of information clearing-house on worldwide protests against Israel’s military campaign.

“Lebanon Updates” is seemingly a daily shot of straight information - posting minute-by-minute accounts of the war alongside comprehensive maps detailing bomb sites across the country.

“Beirut Live,” by DJ and Time Out Beirut editor Ramsay Short and Zawya’s Tarek El-Zein, compiles articles by the likes of Robert Fisk (a moving elegy for Beirut) and Gideon Levy (a tough editorial penned for Haaretz), along with provocative artworks by Nadine Touma and Joe Kesrouani, all as the war unfolds.

“Beirut Live” has so far honed in on three themes otherwise unexplored in the mainstream media: the destruction of Beirut’s cosmopolitanism, the quantifiable damage done to the economy and, for the sake of debate, lively polemics on the roots of terrorism in the region.

“Siege of Lebanon” pulls together narrative contributions by an array of contributors, Lebanese and local foreigners. Like an anthology of online anecdotes, these entrees highlight how war, once again, becomes routine. They also call attention to Lebanon’s imminent humanitarian disaster. No matter how many times those two words are bandied about, it still isn’t getting the media attention it demands.

“They arrived sleep-deprived and shaken,” writes Sonya Knox. “They had been on the road since 5:30 a.m. … 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.

“They came with stories of an unceasing bombing, of buildings exploding around them, of a three-story 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.”

Other sites, like Zena al-Khalil’s “Beirut Update,” musician and cartoonist Mazen Kerbej’s “Kerblog,” “Ritta Baddoura Parmiles Bombes,” Joumana Mattar Moukarzel’s “Hopeful Beirut,” “Little Paper Beirut,” “Distorted Reality,” “Raytch” and “Glass Garden,” are far more personal, serving as creative outlets for those who have had their lives and plans shut down by a war not of their making. Many of these blogs are the efforts of artists and present the works of their devisers.

As usual, some of the most recent entrants into the blogosphere are propagandistic at best. There is much cross-referencing of material, particularly those photographs of chipper children signing their names to rockets in Nazareth juxtaposed to images of kids who have been killed in the South.

Sometimes the postings are depressingly banal (self-consciously produced to stave off boredom). Sometimes they are visceral and full of rage (written to capture the experience

of a war that seems doomed

to continue).

Either way, they are collective memory in the instant, a readymade archive not to be lost or forgotten. At base, if those blogs are still online, then so are the bloggers. So too, by extension, is Beirut.

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