This siege note is dedicated to Akram. Akram is from Saida (in English it should be Sidon, but I don’t have the patience to accomodate the white man or his burden in this siege note, won’t you humor me?). Akram was my first friend from Saida. I had visited Saida before I met him, but it became a whole other story after I went there with him, and after I became familiar with his work. Akram is also one of the constitutional elements of my life in Beirut. Our friendship is peculiar because it has carved a world specific to it, a language of its own, replete with metaphors, a stock of memories, and piles and piles of images and stories. I like to think of it as a space, a retreat, like a small interior garden where a deeply anchored quietude prevails.
Since I have been back here, Akram has been stuck outside the country. Until this war, I had grown used to missing him, but from the moment the airport was shelled and the siege began, missing him has become a whole other story. I miss the “retreat”, the quietude of our friendship. Conversations that expand over hours not because much is spoken, rather because whatever is, takes all the time it needs to be said. The sentences I have not been able to finish since this war began would have fallen right into place in our friendship/retreat.
If you can still remember the first days of this war, Israel’s strategy was first and foremost to dismember this country. The network of roads and bridges in the south was practically all destroyed. Communication between the south’s three main areas (or sections) was rendered very impracticable, but the roads linking the south to the capital Beirut were entirely severed. Saida and Beirut were usually a 20 to 30 minute drive apart, linked by a highway along the coast. Now the safe passage to Saida goes through the mountains that oversee that coast line. It’s a three-and-a-half hour long drive. Since the war began, people in the south have been forced out of their homes, home by home, hunted down by F-16 planes, car by car, family by family, to each a shell, sometimes two. As such ,Saida has transformed into a hub for southerners fleeing death and devastation.
If Akram’s absence has been palpable, he certainly has been present in how I imagined he would have witnessed the transformation of Beirut and, surely, Saida. Everytime I took note of the small, discreet changes that have taken place in Beirut, in my mind, I have reported them to Akram. I was lonesome for sharing our shared obsession for archiving the mundane, for compiling empirical and anthropological notes of the quotidian around us.
I admit that a few days ago, in a fit of selfishness, I wrote to him and suggested he should come back. (I am everyday more and more aware of how fragile I become under siege.) My arguments were pompous, they did not mask well my purely selfish longing for him.
Throughout the war, shelling, siege, grief and sorrow, the bougainvillea have been in full, glorious bloom. Their colors are dizzying in their intensity: purplish red, boastfull fuschia, glaring white, and sometimes canary yellow. Most of the time, their bloom, which is the objective outcome of “natural” factors, namely, access to water, sun, heat, and even perhaps wind, has irritated me. Everything has changed in this time of war, except the full glorious bloom of the bougainvillea. Other flowering trees have wilted, or shied, as their franchised gardners or patrons no longer operate on the same schedule or have evacuated on the ships of the bi-nationals. On the road to Saida, I was struck, irked and even upset at the bougainvillea full bloom. From between their abundant leaves and flowers, vignettes of the ravages appeared. Bridges torn in their midst framed by the purple and fuschia bloom of the bougainvillea.
The Road to Saida: Trekking the Coast
Maher went to Saida and came back and told me I ought to go. I thought I would go to find Akram, the world where a lot of things that are very meaningful to Akram dwell. I wrote to him and confessed I was planning to visit Saida because I missed him so much. I described it, in my cruel selfishness, as an “act of love”. Instead of sending me instructions as to guide my act of love, he gave me a phone number for Ziad, a photographer, video artist and filmmaker. Ziad too is from Saida. He now lives in Paris where he is pursuing some sort of a degree, but is very much the son of Saida’s priviliges and the son of Saida’s streets. Ziad happened to be in Saida on a visit when the war broke out.
Israel had given us two days, forty eight hours of no airstrikes on the south to allow inhabitants in the “zones of combat” to flee from sure death (as per Qana). Yesterday was the second half of these 24 hours. I thought it would be the least unsafe opportunity. And after making a set of phone calls, I set forth on my journey. Maher wanted Ziad to film my trek through the city for his website.
It was difficult to hitch a ride and I ended up calling Ahmad, a very enterprising young man whom I had met when I hung around journalists, a week or so ago (time unravels at a different pace now). He found a four-wheel drive and a driver, and decided to accompany me. There are two routes to Saida. A coastal road (the old and straightforward route) is deemed dangerous because it is unprotected from the ire of Israeli warships lounging in our seas. There is another route, long and circuitous, that drives up through the mountain overlooking the coastal road and then back down to Saida. I climbed into the four-wheel drive and Ahmad announced he preferred us to take the coastal road, but that the passage near Damour had just been shelled. I asked to stop at a shop for us to buy water.
The driver stopped at one of the main intersections a few blocks from the apartment. When I climbed back, the driver was gone. Ahmad sat in his place. He said the guy got scared and decided to go and see about getting a new passport but let us use his car. Ahmad smiled to comfort me. I decided I was not going to worry about that glitch, that the driver’s fright was merely a glitch.
As we drove out of Beirut, the road was increasingly empty, there were a few trucks carrying boxes of supplies labelled “Medecins sans Frontieres” and “Hammoud Hospital”.
The last available bit of Hariri’s proud highway from Beirut to the south was the tunnel. I noted the graffitti: “W R = Love forever” and smiled. There was something comforting about that marking. Or the absence of other markings.
We drove along the old road. It had not survived unscathed. There were small holes in its middle, and pieces of rocks, cement and debris. From within the winding inner roads, the new highway was visible and the big craters from the shelling. Ahmad decided we ought to take a chance and go through the Damour passageway, the bridge had been bombed almost entirely, except for its extreme most edge, the width of a 4-wheel drive. An impromptu army post guided traffic. It was iffy, but we made it.
The moment we crossed Damour, the thick charcoal smoke bellowing from the Jiyeh power plant filled the air, the fire in the fuel reservoirs had not extinguished. The tanks were charred, the plant was deserted. And so was the small port next to it.
The coastal road would have been bustling at this time in the summer. Expats, bi-nationals, students on summer vacation, and tourists. This is the stretch of the south’s most visited beaches. They range from the very fancy to the modest. At this time in the summer, the roads would have been busy with the town’s handsome beach boys, tanned, strutting in swim trunks and a claim to some local fame. Everything was eerily deserted. Even army soldiers, posted in spots with seemingly no rhyme or reason, walked cautiously, expecting to duck for cover at any moment. Life all around had folded and packed. What remained was suspended in terror from the Israeli barges lounging with arrogance and too far from eyesight in the sea. The eye could not see them, but every muscle in your body was stretched stiff with anxiety under their watch. Life was at the mercy of the IDF’s whims, they had shelled the entire coast repeatedly, as only to satiate their cruelty, to assert their might.
We drove on the small roads inside Jiyeh and inside Rmeyleh and the small towns in between. We drove by closed homes, doors locked, windows shut, shutters sealed. The last gaze of their dwellers still lingering on the front porches, the gaze of a hesitant farewell that quickly ran a checklist to make sure all was safely tucked and hoped for the best, maybe even whispered a prayer or invoked God or Christ’s clemency and then hurried into the car and sped away for a temporary safer haven. Under the cruel watch of the Israeli warships, lounging with arrogance and too far from eyesight in the sea.
SaidaThe bay of Saida appeared and the coastal highway leading to its seaside corniche was entirely deserted. The bridge that unloads traffic from the highway onto the corniche had been pounded. Carcasses of cars lined its sides, some buried under blocks of concrete. We drove around and turned and entered Saida from roads tucked behind, lined with orange groves and bougainvillea in full bloom.
Ahmad sitting behind the wheel said nothing, and now Akram’s voice was speaking to me, bits and pieces of conversations from our trips to Saida and further south. The orange groves were dizzyingly fragrant. I forgave their charms for Akram’s sake and focused my irritation with the bougainvilliers. Car traffic inside the city was heavy. Pedestrian traffic was heavy.
Saida had received more than 100,000 displaced as of days ago. The numbers increase by the day. People were guided first to the municipality where they were processed and instructed to go elsewhere, to a school, a public edifice. I was told people were renting entrances of buildings to sleep at night, or the garages of cars. So far more than 85 schools were housing all these displaced, in addition to an old prison and the building of the court of justice.
Saida was delivered a serious pounding in the first week of the war, but was relatively spared in comparison with other places in the south. During that first week things went quiet, the city wound down a little. Those who could afford to leave did, and the bi-nationals evacuated. After it was cut off from Beirut, and seemed relatively safe, a semblance of a normal pace of life returned. The streams of displaced added an intense bustle to that pace, but the city still sleeps earlier than its usual.
I called Ziad. He had left his house leaving his cell phone behind. His mother instructed me to drive near the old fort and look for his red Polo car. She also instructed me to ask “The King” about him and he would dig him up for me. I did not know who “The King” was. “You don’t know the King?”, she asked surprised. That was Saida. A provincial capital. Everyone is one and the half degrees of separation removed. Ahmad and I drove by the old fort looking for a red Polo. No red Polo, but hordes of families lounging about, in the open-air, obviously out for air.
I called Abdel-Karim, following Maher’s instructions.
Where Love Dwells, Dalal and Abdel-Karim
Maher’s instructions were delivered during our abbreviated phone conversations when he was in Tyre. They were brief because he could not really say much, and I did not feel I could pressure him to say much either. I call them instructions for kicks, to pretend I was on some sort of a mission. Maher wanted me to collect stories and footage or images for his project. Abdel-Karim and Dalal, his wife, are his life-long comrades, he runs a center in Saida that provides training for people with disabilities to be able to integrate fully in the social economy of everyday life. They receive local funding as well as funding from Europe.
With the outbreak of the war, the center’s life and role has been turned wholly upside down. Abdel-Karim and Dalal have themselves become displaced and Dalal, who has another job, has now become involved in the center’s relief work. They now reside in Saida, in a house shared by several other families. Abdel-Karim and Dalal don’t have any disabilities, but the vice-president, wheel-chair bound, who resides in Zreiriyeh a village further south, had to be evacuated and relocated to Saida, with his family.
In the space of a mere few days, the center’s administration realized they had to set-up an emergency plan. The center opened their fully equipped bathroom to all the women and children who needed to take a shower. The center’s kitchen, also fully operational offered meals to all those who need it. Two large pots with stuffed eggplant and squash were cooking in tomato sauce when I visited. A ceaseless clothes collection drive was provisioning people with clean garb. One of their ateliers was transformed to storing diapers, food rations and medicines. The computer class room was transformed to a sleep area, so was their exercize and recreation room.
Teams of volunteers were called and assigned tasks. By the time I visited, they counted more than 15 teams comprising four or five people, some had disabilities, others not. Their emergency plan began with tending to their “own” people, namely the community of people with disabilities they knew. They visited them in their homes and made sure they had everything they needed. As streams of displaced were guided to the municipality, volunteers from the center contacted the teams who were receiving families to inform them they had the know-how and expertise to handle people with all forms of disabilities and special needs and could be entrusted with their care. Two weeks into the war and the “census” according to the municipality’s paperwork showed there were only 20 persons with disabilities with special care. Abdel-Karim and Dalal were very skeptical. So Dalal assigned a team of volunteers that toured every single site where the displaced were resettled: schools, hospitals, public buildings. Wherever they went, they spread word that they would be able to answer the needs of the disabled. They found 250. They noted down the needs of each and everyone and have now assigned volunteers to visit them everyday and meet their needs. A simple example: bathrooms. Public and private schools are not outfitted for people with disabilities, so the center ordered for special devices from a local carpentry shop to facilitate bathroom use (more than 20 of these devices were purchased from the center’s budget).
People with physical and mental disabilities are severely marginalized in everyday life in Lebanon under normal conditions of life. During war their marginalization becomes heart-wrenching. As people were evacuating under duress, in haste and panic, families were separated, the disabled were sometimes entrusted to the care of others (more able) or left behind. Their special needs were disregarded (wheelchairs, crutches were left behind, long-term supply of medication, etc.). There are horrific stories. A man with grave mental and physical disabilities was packed in the trunk of car and driven for 80 kms until he was placed in a bed. An elderly woman who cannot walk was left alone (she could not fit in the taxi her family hired to flee) and was evacuated by the village mayor. He dropped her at the center and left. Abdel-Karim was relaying onto me these stories, and his voice became hoarse. He choked and repressed his tears as he told me the fatal ones: a woman had died because her vital doses of insulin were not administered and one of their volunteers died as he drove under shelling to rescue and evacuate three disabled persons left behind in the village of Qasmiyeh just above of Tyre. The three were eventually brought into safety and they did not know died on his way to their rescue.
I sat in the main office across from Abdel-Karim’s small desk cluttered with paperwork and a large computer monitor, Dalal was buzzing around us with missives and missions. The office was bustling with activity. It felt like the HQ of a major operation. People walked in and out, reporting on their “missions”, delivering things, taking things, the phone did not stop ringing, and yet there was not a hint of tension, anywhere. It was the first time since the outbreak of this war that I found myself in a place where love was palpable. Love as in the spontaneous convivial filiation that binds a community overpowered by a dark circumstance.
Abdel-Karim ended every transaction or exchange with a joke or a very affectionate note. I was mesmerized by his ability to smile as often as he did. He is a tall, thin man, dark-skinned, handsome, features chiseled finely. He exhuded so much tenderness and amiability that the fine angular chisel of his features melted to roundness. Dalal, on the other hand, is of short stature, but she exhudes so much energy, you cannot fit her being in the size she actually occupies. She is fair-skinned, with colored eyes and a killer laugh. She is a straight to the point, no bullshit gal, who cannot sit down for more than fifteen minutes. Theirs is a great love story, but that’s a whole other story.
They are both former fighters from the Communist party who have retired from the front decades ago. In the political landscape of power-wrangling in Saida, they are caught in the stampede of competition between the two”ruling” poles of Saida: the Hariri family and the Saad family. Sadly, actually the right epithet ought to be “sinisterly” but I don’t know if that’s exists in the Queen’s English, relief for the displaced (in all its aspects) has been severely politicized. Abdel-Karim’s gentle disposition turned to unforgiving rancor when he assured me that once the war is over, he will not let anyone get away with the corruption, the thievery and the banditry he has witnessed. To the best of his abilities he was compiling a daily log (too brief to become a journal) precisely to make sure he did not forget the crimes he was seeing. “This is our political class”, he said, “when it’s time to do politics, they do emergency relief, and when it’s time to do emergency relief, they do politics.”
Dalal had not shied from fighting in public with officials who withheld medicines for people she knew needed them badly. She has resorted to every imaginable stratagem: she has faked her voice and affiliation to secure beds for badly injured people in private hospitals that only open their doors to the wealthy and the well-connected (eight cases that I went to visit). They found her out after the eighth case. She caused a minor uproar in the press during an interview on al-Jazeera and revealed a corruption scheme regarding one of the medicines needed for people with mental disabilities. They both exploded in laughter as they recounted Dalal’s exploits. (A couple of days prior to my visit, the Ministry of Health caught one of their employees stealing medicines and selling them to pharmacies in Beirut. The Minister of Health had made a big brouhaha about the “scandal” to show he was in control of the situation.)
A young woman stepped into the office, shyly. She needed to use the phone. She asked Abdel-Karim for permission. She called her family who had relocated to some other town. She reminded me of the people I see lining at public phones in Beirut. In their gait you can read the list of questions they are burning to ask. She spoke hurriedly, so as not to distract the center’s phone line for too long. Her conversation was like a telegraphic ledger of who’s where and how they were doing. She reported her information and information was reported back to her. She hung up, smiled from within a veil of anxiety and thanked Abdel-Karim, shyly. He gave her a compliment about her dress. She giggled a little but walked out hunched from the weight of the information freshly delivered to her, her mind processing facts, recalling each one, nailing each one so none would slip her memory.
The center was now also helping people find their kin. They gave shelter to people who were sleeping on the street, totally stranded. Amongst those, a Sri Lanki woman who worked as a housemaid and whom the household that employed her had left behind.
A Red Polo and Killer SmileI was ready to receive instructions from Abdel-Karim and mostly Dalal (she had more of a bent for instructions) as to where to go. Ziad called. He was ready to meet me. I gave him directions to the center and went down to the street to fetch him. Ziad is in his twenties, he walks with a slight enough strut that you know his street smarts still run deeper than his engagement with video art. Ziad is tall, charming, ties his hair in a pony tail, wears a goatee-beard, and has an unforgettable, fatal, killer smile. And he smiles almost as often as Abdel-Karim. He came accompanied by a friend of his, Hussein. A Pentax dangled from Ziad’s neck and Hussein carried the video camera.
I asked Ziad what he’d been doing. The first week, like most people, he had squatted at home, but as soon as the shelling let a little, he started going out and thinking about his life, the life of the city as it adjusted to this war. He was filming, but he was not a “voyeur” he told me, and did not chase after the gore and misery. “When your work is not about capturing the moment, you take your time to think and decide what to film,” he said to me. The previous week he had put together something on the increasing shortage of water in Saida. And this week he was working on the fuel shortage. He had been going to gas stations that were selling gas and filmed the long lines, the tedious negotiations, the angry outbursts.
I led him and Hussein up to the center. They filmed. Dalal recommended I visit Dar es-Salam, a care center for the senior and the elderly. Since the outbreak of this war it started receiving patients with special needs, namely physical and mental disabilities that need monitoring on the longer-term. I wanted Ziad to take me to his Saida, or Akram’s Saida.
Ahmad appeared suddenly as we paused on the street, he seemed nervous. We agreed on a time to leave and he insisted, the sooner the better. Had he heard something? “No,” he said. He was just cautious. First the driver takes off, then Ahmad wants to leave barely an hour after we set foot, I commended myself on my skills for organizing adventures. I negotiated for two additional hours. He smiled. He had a kind heart and a kind face, Ahmad.
Ziad, Hussein and I climbed in the red Polo. “Where do you want to go?”, he asked. (Killer smile.) I answered, wherever he wanted to take me, whatever he wanted me to witness, I had no plans really. He was now the navigator. So he said we should go to the Hammoud Hospital. He went looking for a physician who was a friend of his family and who told him about some sort of a case in her care. Ziad just presented us as “press”. We parked, we walked up to the front desk. Ziad presented us as the press again. A few days earlier I had appeared on al-Jazeera (I was interviewed about these damned siege notes) and the front desk staff thought I was a newscaster. “You’re on TV, right?”, was the question. “Yes,” was the self-assured reply. The lobby of the hospital was busy with activity, but the movement of limbs, bodies, the pace of conversations, the weight of gazes, all was encumbered with an additional gravity.
The physician was not available. We left. “Where to now?”, Ziad asked. I reluctantly took the lead, and replied Dar es-Salam. As we winded through the streets of Saida. Ziad teased Hussein about his supposed affinity for the Saad family. Hussein played along. But it was clear the city was quite polarized and that competition had pervaded to the small rituals and habits of everyday life. Oussama Saad (the heir) is rumored to be distributing food rations with a clear label that reads “Made in Syria”, to underscore the Hariri family’s feud with the Syrian regime as a pro-American, anti-Arab stance. Oussama Saad had apparently made statements that he had dispatched a commando of fighters to the front to participate with Hezbollah in the battle. Hussein retorted something regarding the Hariri family. I stopped listening as we drove by the municipal building and was dumb-struck by the sight of incoming displaced.
The building stood on a hill overlooking old Saida and the fort. There was a soft, gentle breeze and all was quieter up on that hill. We went through the charade of introductions, and finally, it was Ziad’s family name (his father) and my own (my father) that allowed us entry. We requested to visit only those new patients who had come as a result of the war, those with “special needs”.
We were guided by one of the administrators in charge of the institution. The floor was innundated with natural light. Even the corridor was well-lit. The rooms were spacious and fit with four beds. The floor was not at full capacity.
In the first room were Amal and her two brothers. The brothers are not able to walk; she has only slight physical disability but stayed with them. A round, soft face, amiable, gorgeous black eyes. When we walked in she was adjusting her coiffe. One of her brothers leaned by the window that gave onto the garden, and the other lay on the bed, not engaged with us. Their family was relocated to a school, they came to visit them. They had been at the hospital for 11 days.
In the next room lay a man on a bed with severe mental and physical disabilities. “He was packed in the trunk of a car”, the administrator said, “and driven from Aytaroun (now practically destroyed) to Saida. His brother drove him here, left Mahmoud, his son, to take care of his uncle, and drove with the rest of the family somewhere else.” Mahmoud was a fifteen-year-old boy that seemed a little too short for his age. He had a bright, bright, radiant, gorgeous face. Wide hazel eyes. Mahmoud struck Ziad’s heart. He walked up close to him. “I wanted to take care of my uncle”, replied Mahmoud to someone’s question. That implied changing diapers, feeding and bathing, explained the administrator. My heart dropped to my knees with sorrow. Mahmoud and his uncle had been there for 11 days. When his father dropped him off with his uncle, Mahmoud had no idea where his family would end up. He was without news for days. Mahmoud thought they would stay in one of the schools in Saida. Somebody reported seeing them in one of the schools, but it turned out to be false news. His father called one day from Syria. Unfortunately, Mahmoud had gone to the mosque to pray. One of the patients in the neighboring room answered the phone call and took down the information. Mahmoud was deeply saddened to have missed the call.
The administrator praised him a lot and the extent to which his spirits were positive, but reported catching the boy standing by the window looking sorrowful and mournful into the horizon.
In the next room, there were two men, both had sustained serious injuries and were recovering at Dar es-Salam to alleviate pressure on the hospitals. The first man did not speak. At least not when we were there, he is from Aynata (the village received a pretty dramatic pounding). He had two injuries in his legs. He asked the administrator for crutches. In the second bed lay an elderly man with an injury to his leg as well. He had been rescued by the Red Cross, from the same village (Aynata) and driven to Tyre, from there he was transferred to Labib Hospital in Saida, and from there to Dar es-Salam. He was in good spirits. His family was relocated to a school next door.
In the next room lay two women. One was of an advanced age. Her son sat next to her and was caring for her. Across from her was an elderly woman that had physical disabilities and could not walk. She was from Abbassiyeh. She had been left behind. The mayor of that village had dropped her off and left. She did not speak. No one knew anything about her. She carried no identity papers. She lay in bed and stared into the garden. Her gaze was not unfocused. In fact, it was intent. I have rarely seen such sharp, pure and focused sorrow. We moved around her room and she did not budge. The hospital administrator greeted her, to no reply.
In the next room were lodged four elderly women. One was from Zreiriyeh, a diabetic whose legs were amputated, and was on dialysis. She had piercing green eyes. Ziad (killer smile) got the old ladies to talk. He walked in and asked each one where they were from. To the old lady from Zreiriyeh he asked if she knew the Kojok family. She said she was born a Kojok, “I recognized the green eyes”, he replied knowingly. Her neighbor was from Adloun, she needed cataract surgery and had been there for 20 days. One of the women nudged me to ask her, and I asked her, and she said that she was from Srifa. “You will hear about the massacre of Srifa, you will hear,” she said to me. She had driven with her family to Tyre, then to Saida, but her mother, who shared the room with the other eldelry ladies, had walked a week later from Srifa, “walked for three days, without respite,” she kept repeating. “An old lady like me, walking for three days. We saw death and we could do nothing but walk.”
The Bougainvillea will be Forgiven
I know Ziad will return to see Mahmoud. We drove away and decided to get coffee. On the way Ziad was struck to see a gas station that was operational and was selling gas. The line of cars was huge. People were tense. I said I did not mind him filming. We zigzagged through the cars, of course he honed in on the pretty girls and women. Of course he negotiated filming them in some sort of a sequence after flashing that killer smile. I did not follow him. I stood watching the rhythm of stillness and anxiety.
As they drove me back to meet Ahmad, Ziad was playful again: “The crucial question in this war is, where are the women of Saida? How could they have disappeared?” Hussein replied that they all moved to Broumana (the mountains) or evacuated with the foreigners. “Damn our luck, all the women of Saida are bi-nationals!”. “They’re all gone? There must be some left, we must find them.” Hussein chuckled.
Ahmad and I drove back the same way. I looked forward to the fragrance of orange blossoms and was now forgiving to the full glorious bloom of the bougainvillea. My heart had never felt as heavy. There was a lot to hang on to, I mean for hope or strength or whatever it is that keeps people going, but there was so much wretchedness.
… The sorrows I have seen.
Rasha Salti is the Cinema East director at ArteEast, a New York-based non-profit organization established in 2003 to present contemporary Middle-Eastern artists to a wide audience in order to foster more complex understanding of the region’s arts and cultures and promote artistic excellence.