Day 5 of the siege

The aftermath of attacks by Israel on Lebanon, 17 July 2006. (Peter Speetjens/IRIN)


A quiet night in Beirut, more or less, compared to what the inhabitants of Tyre and the south and the Beqaa and Tripoli experienced. They were shelled from the air and sea with little respite. Tyre is in a tragically dire situation. 30,000 are displaced; the mayor was on TV screaming for help, his voice choking with despair. They are out of supplies, they have more wounded than they can handle and the city’s reserves in fuel and other basic amenities are nearly depleted. (The IDF wants to “clear” three provinces in the South: Tyre, Marja’uyun and Bin Jbeil, in preparation for the “20 km buffer zone.”) The port of Tripoli was bombed, the port of Beirut was bombed. The range of targets has expanded to new zones of hurt: civilians, civilians, civilians, and reservoirs of fuel (Jiyyeh, power station feeding the south, and the airport again), storage facilities of vegetables and fruits in Taanayel (Beqaa) and in the south, and Lebanese army barracks. The roster of martyrs of this war now includes poor soldiers, reservists who were stationed in their posts, idly watching the country go up in flames. The intention? Probably to cripple the population even further, to make survival harder and harder and to corner the Lebanese army. The promise of “scorched earth” did not really happen yesterday; the inhabitants of the south were served a good dose of Israeli virility, but not to the level of “shock and awe”. Maybe it will come in small calculated doses (The IDF are a “calculating” military, not like us rogues - we don’t calculate). Who knows? What makes sense anymore?

Dementia is slowly creeping in - slowly and surreptitiously, at the rate of news flashes. This is how we live now, from “breaking news” to “breaking news”. A sampling: I have been in the cafe for one hour now. (The cafe is an escape from home, but in itself another island of insanity.)This is what I have heard so far: 1) A text message traveled to my friend’s cell phone: A breaking news item from Israeli military command. If Hezbollah does not stop shelling Galilee and northern towns, Israel will hit the entire electricity network of Lebanon. 2) Hezbollah shells Haifa, Safad, and colonies in south Golan. 3) A text message traveled to my other friend’s cell phone, from an expat who left to Damascus and is catching a flight back to London. “All flights out of Damascus are cancelled. Do you know anything?” 4) Israeli shell fell near the house of the bartender, his family is stranded in the middle of rubbble in Hadath. He leaps out of the cafe and frantically calls to secure passage for them to the mountains. 5) Hezbollah downs an F-16 Israeli plane into Kfarshima (near Hadath). Slight jubilation in a cafe that thrives on denial. Does the world make sense to anyone? It’s not supposed to, I know, but these “surgical” military tactics are supposed to make sense to at least 15 people. And out of these 15 people, at least 14 disseminate the news, and since the world is about 6 degrees of separation removed, at some point, somebody has to know something…

I started writing these diary notes to friends outside Lebanon to remain sane and give them my news. I was candid and transparent with all my emotions - the ones I had and the ones I did not have. They were more intended to fight dementia at home, in my home and in my mind, to bridge the isolation in this siege, than to fight the media black-out, racism, prejudice or to break the seal of silence. Friends began to circulate them, with my approval. By the third diary note, I was getting replies, applause and rebuke from people I did not know who had read them. It’s great to converse with the world at large, but I realize now that candor and transparency come with a price - a price that I am more than happy to pay. However, these diary notes are becoming something else, and I realize now that I am no longer writing to the intimate society of people I love and cherish, but to an opaque blogosphere of people who want “alternative” news. I am more than ever conscious of a sense of responsibility in drafting them, they have a public life, an echo that I was not aware of that I experience now as some sort of a burden. I have been tortured about the implications of that public echo. Should I remain candid, critical, spiteful, cowardly, or should I transform into an activist and write in a wholly different idiom? There is, of course, a happy medium between both positions, but I don’t have the mental wherewithal to find it now. And I don’t want to sacrifice candor, transparency and skepticism at the risk of having my notes distorted to serve some ill-intentioned purpose, or in the vocabulary of official rhetoric, “give aid and comfort to the enemy.” The enemy does well without the aid of my rantings (they have a nuclear bomb, a hero soccer player form Ghana, the gift of democracy, fantabulous drag queens, and a right wing freak whose first name is BiBi). Notes from a hapless stranded thirty-something caged in Ras Beirut (ie, the privileged of the privileged), I believe, will not really make a difference. I am reminded of the many, many, many e-diaries that Palestinians send when the Israelis want to “secure peace” and give them a virile dose of justice with sieges, shelling, checkpoints, sniping, maiming, beating, and all that Israel has developped in the vein of practices to strengthen its democracy and territory and of course contribute to the blossoming of the peace process. Well, my rantings are far from the emails of my Palestinian brethren. They are charged with ambivalence and anti-heroics. In Palestine things are less complex, less dirty, more starkly contrasted and clear. What Israel is now administering to Lebanon is a small dose of what it delivers to Palestinians. Intense, condensed, but a small dose. However, the complications of Lebanon’s internal politics and the very, very complicated involvement of Lebanon with regional politics renders enduring, witnessing and documenting this war more confusing.

So, bear with me. It’s lonely being an anti-hero. My Palestinian friends are protesting that the Israeli campaign in Gaza has been eclipsed from the world’s attention and concern. Beirut is now attracting attention. Don’t look away from Gaza. The same cannons are firing. The same children are orphaned, the same people are being displaced, shoved outside history and the attributes of humanity, rendered to integers in the logs of NGOs for donations of bags of flour and sugar. The same.

By Day 5 of the Siege, a new routine has set in. “Breaking news” becomes the clock that marks the passage of time. You find yourself engaging in the strangest of activities: you catch a piece of breaking news, you leap to another room to annoounce it to family although they heard it too, and then you text-message it to others. At some point in the line-up, you become yourself the messenger of “breaking news”. Along the way you collect other pieces of “breaking news” which you deliver back. Between two sets of breaking news, you gather up facts and try to add them up to fit a scenarioo, then you recall previously mapped scenarios, then you realize none works. Then you exhale. And zap. Until the next piece of breaking news comes. It just gets uglier. You fear night-time. For some reason, you believe the shelling will get worse at night. When vision is impaired, when darkness envelops everything. But it’s not true. Shelling is as intense during the day as it is during the night.

There has been “intense” diplomatic activity between yesterday and today. UN envoys, ambassadors, EU envoys, all kinds of men and women coming and going carrying messages to the Lebanese government from the “international community” and the “Israeli counterpart”. Officially they have led to nothing. But we are told, officially on the news, that the “secret” channels have started working, and these are the ones that work. The secret channels were launched when the Lebanese Prime Minister met with the US ambassador and the Lebanese head of parliament in a closed door meeting at the head of parliament’s home. There is supposed to be some sort of press conference after that. And Jacques Chirac (Lebanon holds a special place in his heart) is sending handsome Dominique de Villepin to Lebanon this afternoon. He is scheduled to arrive at 5:00 pm. He’s the genius who created the CPE, the genius who finally “listened” to the dark-skinned and maladjusted children of France during the last round of riots. I guess we should be glad he’s not sending Sarkoczy? Or is the ugly Pole going to Israel? In the final count, we are a “banlieue” of France, the bad boys are at it again, burning cars and breaking the “fragile” status quo in the region. When de Villepin is here, we could have a lull in the shelling. Maybe. Maybe that’s when they’ll evacuate the “foreign nationals”. The foreign nationals are a new issue now. With so many expats visiting for the summer, and with so many Lebanese holding dual nationality, it’s been tough for the G8 to plan their evacuations. Two hundred thousand Canadians (8 of whom perished yesterday in the south)! Fifty thousand Frenchmen… What to do with all these bi-nationals? Create categories. Category A are the real, genuine, white-skinned, tax-paying valuable natives, Category B are the recently integrated, recently assimilated, brown-skinned, tax-paying not so valuable natives. The best evacuation plan is the American. They are directing their “nationals” to a website (ha! with electricty power cuts it’s kinda funny) where they promise an airlift from the airport (although the air strips have been destroyed) to Cyprus. But the seriously unfunny part is that there is an evacuation fee. And for those with no money, the US government generously offers a loan. Isn’t that brilliant? Loans and fees are processed in Cyprus.

There is ultra-secret channeling mediated by the Germans as well. The Germans negotiated the last round of prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel. “The Germans know their way with Hezbollah,” noted a newscaster. Isn’t it funny how these conflicts find their interlocutors and negotiators?

I am obsessively thinking about these negotiators and diplomats. How they go through their day. How they initiate conversations, how they end them. Top on my list is Amr Moussa, Egypt’s star diplomat and gift to the Arab League. His handling of the Lebanese crisis is stellar, and comes after his handling of the assault on Gaza and perhaps his crowning achievement is his handling of Darfur. How do these people receive dispatches that hundreds of people are dead and decide not to act? I am fascinated by how they structure their consciousness. Not conscience, consciousness. I guess they become numb. I guess they believe that the sweep of history spares them. They probably see the world in a different way, that some people are condemned to be in Gaza or in Tyre and they are supposed to live meaningless lives and die anonymous deaths. They don’t. They believe they fashion history writ large. They go through their day, enjoying sleep and meals. Air-conditioned cars, private jets, tailored suits, who’s coming to dinner, where to spend summer vacation. They are never to be held accountable for whatever they say or do. How did Amr Moussa go through the conversation with the Saudi envoy, for example? The tall Saudi minister of foreign affairs was firm, emboldened with an unusual surge of virility, he must have said to him, “Screw the Lebanese, the Hezbollah have to pay. We support the Lebanese government but we should publically condemn Hezbollah and demand a cease-fire.” And Amr Moussa said what? “I agree with you.” And felt good about agreeing with the Saudis. Did his stomach not writhe with a hint of an ulcer when he hung up? Did he not press on and say, “But the Arab League should take a vanguard role in ending this crisis as soon as possible and impose a cease-fire?” Of course his president, Hosni Mobarak, had his own pep talk with the press. And it was inspiring. I think it’s easier being Hosni Mobarak because he’s senile. Senility is his understanding of freedom. He’s a few inches away from absolute freedom. Egypt is waiting with bated breath for when he comes out and displays the joys of having absolutely not a single hint of remembrance or cognitive perception of the world around him. Meanwhile Lebanon was being shelled to rubble. And Amr Moussa must have felt “pressured” to offer something to the “Arab street,” that elusive demon.

The foreign ministers agreed unanimously that the best course of action would be to raise the question at the UN security council meeting in September. To the embarassingly weepy mother of the decapitated child, to the embarassingly nagging child of the charred mother, to the “steadfastly valiant” Palestinians in Gaza and the “hapless” Lebanese in the south, they figured they owed them something, a statement to relieve them from their grief. And the groundbreaking insight said that “the Arab league officially deemed the ‘peace process’ to be dead.” No one, no one expected such enlightening wisdom from the council of foreign ministers. I am still enraptured in its profundity.

Breaking News: It’s not clear Hezbollah downed a plane. The al-Manar TV is now describing it as a “foreign body”. Will the Israelis add it to their list of casualties?

Day 5 of the Siege is promising to be more enthralling. More mad ramblings tonight…

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.

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