The nightmare returns

ENOUGH” by Mazen Kerbaj. View more of his work

“History is the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.”

— James Joyce (Ulysses)

It cannot be happening again: children ripped into ribbons of seared flesh, old women looking lost and small in the dark corners of temporary shelters, mothers shrieking in maddened grief over their dead babies, and grown men covering their faces in shock and sorrow, powerless to protect their families. Tall apartment blocks are again pancaked into ruins, buildings riddled with holes, their edges missing, resembling large chunks of cheese that have been nibbled by monstrous rats.

It cannot be happening again: the destruction of Lebanon, massive infrastructural damage, the cut-off of water, electricity, and state services for weeks, months — maybe years. The hospitals crowded with casualties, the floors slick with blood; the odor of corpses seeping from the jumble of concrete, wires and glass that encase their desecrated bodies.

It cannot be happening again: Israel committing war crimes with impunity, defending its insane actions as “necessary measures against terror;” shrilly insisting its attacks are moral and characterized by surgical precision while American journalists nod like sheep, unable to pose a single critical question.

It cannot be happening again: American politicians running blindly and mindlessly to Israel’s defense. Rational and much needed public debate deftly snuffed out as the mid-term elections approach; senators and congressmen scurrying to toe the line of the pro-Israel Lobby, which again deforms discourse and narrows narratives by claiming that its massive, high-tech, nuclear-armed military is existentially threatened by a technologically disadvantaged resistance organization, which it describes, predictably, as “evil,” “vipers,” and “a cancer.”

It cannot be happening again: A UN observer post in South Lebanon deliberately targeted by the IDF. And, like clockwork, Israeli leaders expressing outrage that a UN official could describe this as anything but an “unfortunate and regrettable mistake.”

But of course, it is happening again — the recurring nightmare from which I cannot awaken.

The Lebanon I last visited in 2003 has suddenly been transformed into the Lebanon of 1983. Israel made good on its promise to “bomb Lebanon back 20 or 30 years into the past.” In just two weeks, the death toll is four times higher than the number of those killed in Israel’s 16-day “Operation: Grapes of Wrath” of 1996.

The Lebanon I last visited in 2003 has suddenly been transformed into the Lebanon of 1983. Israel made good on its promise to “bomb Lebanon back 20 or 30 years into the past.” In just two weeks, the death toll is four times higher than the number of those killed in Israel’s 16-day “Operation: Grapes of Wrath” of 1996.

It has taken two full weeks for the sorrow, horror, rage and exhaustion of the war in Lebanon to knock me off the rails; two weeks for me to really grasp that this is happening again.

I lived in Lebanon from 1993 until 1998, not as a tourist, but as a naturalized citizen who planned to make that war damaged country her home for the long haul. My former husband and I visited his family in Beirut soon after our marriage during Christmas in 1991, staying at his mother’s battle-scarred house in the hills above Antelias not far from the US Embassy.

The first few nights there, I had nightmares that the war was still happening and that we were all in mortal danger. I woke up screaming during a fierce thunderstorm my second night in Beirut.

My brother-in-law laughed at my fears and told me not to worry so much.

“Beirut has been destroyed five or six times in its long history, but it always bounces back,” he assured me.

I asked him later what the origin of the name “Beirut” was. He smiled mischeviously and said: “It means: takes a licking, but keeps on ticking!”

My ex-husband, George, had not been in his hometown for nearly a decade. The day before Christmas, his youngest brother Kamil took us on a tour of the Greenline that had divided largely Christian East Beirut from largely Muslim West Beirut for 16 years. As we got out of the car in a whipping rain to view the lunar landscape of Martyr’s Square, I saw George cry for the first and only time.

“Why did they destroy this? Why did they take away all our memories?”

There was no answer.

We got back into the car and headed west, with the radio blaring George Michael’s funky “I want to see you naked, baby!” We were seeing Beirut naked, and I felt ashamed to stare.

We got back into the car and headed west, with the radio blaring George Michael’s funky “I want to see you naked, baby!” We were seeing Beirut naked, and I felt ashamed to stare.

Soon we reached Hamra, the famous shopping district of West Beirut, which was decked out in bright decor for Christmas and flooded with happy shoppers, Muslim and Christian alike. The Lebanese are nothing if not resilient; their reputation for joie de vivre is legendary and well-deserved.

When the long war in Lebanon began in 1975, I was in high school and knew little of Lebanon or the Middle East. I remember watching the evening news and seeing the aerial pictures of Beirut’s tall buildings billowing smoke as thick and dark as the steel mills of my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I wondered how people could endure such a situation.

The year after I graduated from college, the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon and put Beirut to siege. I viewed this a bit differently than most of my family and friends. I had spent the previous summer on an archaeological dig at an early Bronze Age site not far from the Dead Sea in Jordan, and had visited Jerusalem, Haifa, the West Bank, and then Damascus before returning to Pittsburgh in the fall of 1981 for my last year of college.

At the dig site, I had learned some basic Arabic from the technical assistants from the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities. At least once a week the subdued sounds of digging and dusting at our site would be interrupted by the sonic booms of Israeli Air Force jets breaking the sound barrier along the border. My Jordanian colleagues would just sigh and shake their heads, sometimes saying “Begin majnoun bi-rukhsa!” ([Menachem] Begin is certifiably insane!).

Among the first Arabic phrases I learned on the dig was “hadha wad`a sa`ab” (“this is a difficult situation”), a reference to the overall regional political situation. Looking back, that simple sentence sums up all that I have learned and experienced about the tortured Middle East in the intervening 25 years.

Three weeks after I began graduate school, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon culminated in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which approximately 1,500 unarmed men, women, and children lost their lives as the IDF sent its allies, the Christian Phalange militia, into the refugee camps to clean out alleged “nests of terrorists.” I learned to mistrust that word and its pernicious uses then and there.

As I watch US television news coverage of Lebanon’s current sufferings, my mistrust and anger grow. Who, indeed, are the terrorists in this situation? Anyone and everyone who is killing and scaring civilians, foremostly the IDF, funded and equipped by my tax dollars.

I went to graduate school to study ethnomusicology and anthropology of dance. The political events of the 1980s, however — hostage takings in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Palestinian Intifada, the last horrific spasms of the war in Lebanon, which saw Christians slaughtering Christians, Shi’a slaughtering Shi’a, and further permutations of murderous violence against Palestinian refugees — drew my attention away from popular culture and towards politics, identity, conflict resolution, and law.

I never imagined, as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, that nearly two decades later I would find myself deeply involved in a legal effort to heal some of the deep political and psychic wounds of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in the framework of a court case brought by survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in the Supreme Court of Brussels in 2001. That attempt to use law to end impunity and bring closure to those who had suffered seemed the closest thing to “awakening from the nightmare of history” that I could imagine. The case brought hope to many in the Middle East, as well as those in the West eager to strengthen and expand the reach of international law and global justice.

But the old nightmare had staying power: In June 2003 US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a veritable factory of nightmares, crushed all possibility of progress in the legal case by threatening the Belgian Parliament that the US would see to it that NATO Headquarters was relocated to Warsaw if Belgium did not immediately rescind its progressive universal jurisdiction (“anti-atrocity”) law. The Belgians chose the nightmare over the dream, and the survivors-turned-plaintiffs were robbed of justice.

It was my own personal nightmare to visit the plaintiffs in Shatila in September 2003 and remind them that they’d made legal history, even if those responsible for their devastating losses and ongoing suffering would not have a day in court. I left feeling I’d just amplified and increased their nightmares by giving them hopes that were then cruelly snatched away. Soon after, I fell into a deep and frightening depression.

Never did I imagine, though, that Beirut would be subjected to another massive Israeli assault and its inevitable war crimes. Nor did I imagine that the media would still be able to spin the story as a war pitting the forces of good (i.e., the US and Israel) against the forces of darkness, evil and terror (i.e., Arabs and Muslims).

For five years, one third of my married life, I watched Lebanon begin to get back on its feet again. When I first moved to Beirut in 1993, I doubted it was possible to clean up the detritus and damage of 16 years of brutal urban warfare, to patch up the torn fabric of social ties, and to put Lebanon on the map again as a beautiful, fun, and enticing place to visit, work and live.

But a lot of time, energy, and logistical efforts over 15 years did indeed resurrect Lebanon. As a professor, a social activist, journalist and citizen, I experienced personally how hard and daunting that process was, and knew well how far it had yet to go.

Living in Beirut for five years, teaching college students who had spent more time in bomb shelters than in libraries, and getting to know the situation in the refugee camps at first hand, I knew I was living in a wounded, haunted place. The lingering nightmare could not be denied. Everyday I maneuvered through a post-war society peopled by men, women, and children scarred visibly and invisibly by cruelty, violence, death, betrayal, injustice, and neglect.

Sometimes it was hard to breathe thinking of the extent and depth of the damage done to so many people for so many years. It was overwhelming to imagine what would be required to begin healing that wounded country. It felt like being deep under water. But the healing happened. It took years, but the country rose again from the dust and debris. How long it took to rebuild. How quickly it was all destroyed again.

Sometimes it was hard to breathe thinking of the extent and depth of the damage done to so many people for so many years. It was overwhelming to imagine what would be required to begin healing that wounded country. It felt like being deep under water. But the healing happened. It took years, but the country rose again from the dust and debris. How long it took to rebuild. How quickly it was all destroyed again.

When I first moved to Lebanon in 1993, I had nightmares of tanks ramming into our apartment building, bombs falling in the garden, bodies rotting in the street. All of these things had, as it turned out, happened in that neighborhood of East Beirut where we first lived. My neighbor Francine told me her war stories as we sat on the roof of our building watching the sunset over the Mediterranean.

Lighting cigarette after cigarette, she related her shock—which had not yet subsided nearly two decades later—at watching Phalangist militia men dragging bodies of Palestinian refugees killed in Dbaye camp to be burned in a bonfire in the parking lot of the supermarket where we shopped each week for groceries.

She related that the Christian militamen checked to see which of the corpses had been circumcised. These were assumed to be Muslims, and into the fire they went. Christian corpses, Francine surmised, must have gotten the “honor” of a mass grave burial, maybe not far from our apartment building.

One day she described the smell of smoke, garbage, and rotting bodies wafting through the streets on a hot summer evening in the summer of 1982. She reached out, lightly scratched the back of my hand with her polished fingernails and said, “That is how deep civilization is, that is how thick. Scratch just a little and it comes right off. Once you know that, it’s hard to function anymore!”

But Francine did function—wonderfully. She was funny, thoughtful, kind, and lively. She was a great hostess, a devoted mother and a loving wife. And she helped me descend into the wreck that was Beirut and survive some of the knowledge that I found there, as did so many other women like her whom I came to know, love, and respect during my years in Lebanon.

Everyday I receive diary entries and updates for this site from friends and relatives in Lebanon that convey anger, fear, disbelief and desperation. My guilt at being far away and safe while they suffer in anxiety eats away at my stomach lining. My anger at the irresponsible and sloppy journalistic coverage of events in Lebanon and Israel corrodes my heart. My outrage and indignation at the impunity of the United States and Israel, and the general destruction of the Middle East over the last five years, prevents me from sitting still for more than fifteen minutes. I pace, check websites, curse at Fox News, and feel nauseated by reports that many of my fellow Americans view events in Lebanon as a sign that the “End Time” and the Apocalypse are nigh.

I am incredulous at the utter and obscene narcissism of the 20 percent of the US public that believes “the Rapture” is near, and which actually prays for further conflagration, death and destruction in Lebanon and Israel to hasten the return of their perverted idea of Jesus Christ.

And I can’t help but notice, with chagrin, that roughly the same percentage of the US public still approves of George W. Bush, possibly the most dangerous president America has ever known. So, just where do the scariest deranged religious extremists live again?

The nightmare is here, whether you are in Beirut, Haifa, Baghdad, New York City, or Washington DC. When will we awaken — or is it already too late?

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Laurie King is a social anthropologist and a co-founder of Electronic Lebanon and Electronic Intifada. From 2001-2003 she served as North American Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila.