Beirut 23 July 2006
This will be a disjointed “siege note”. Much has happened in the past two days; I no longer have the energy to chronicle assaults, retaliations, reactions, diplomatic activity. official pronouncements, and so on. I also realize that these existential and angry dispatches that are meant to say: “I’m OK” and meant to help me overcome what is happening around me, are held by readers (especially in Israel ) to surprisingly high expectations in journalism and reporting. An interesting community of facts-checkers has emerged south of Lebanon’s south. They find my “reporting” deplorable and send corrections that conclude with profound philosophical interrogations on who do I think I am, what I want from life, and if I am ready for a serious dialogue with the “other”. I am not a reporter, nor do I ever wish to be. I am not interested in dialogue with Israelis and don’t foresee that in the horizon of this conflict I will. I should have take the advice of my anti-Zionist Israeli friends and never even acknowledged the reactions to my emails south of my south.
Although the “evacuations” have provided the cover for some sort of a calm, there was nonetheless enough shelling in the past two days to cause grief and wretchedness (deaths, injuries and serious damage). Israel attempted several times to proceed with ground invasion but failed. Some reports claim that Hezbollah made incursions into Israeli territory! This is significant only in the sense that so far, Hassan Nasrallah seems to be the more calm, realistic and pragmatic interlocutor, while the various figures from the Israeli military as well as Minister of Defense seem to be drawing erroneous conclusions, making the wrong calculations and conveying unrealistic expectations. In fact, the Israeli military is beginning to behave publicly like the American military.
Finally the German and US governments were able to evacuate their passport holders (I no longer dare to say their “nationals” since classes of citizenship seem to be the rule) trapped in the south. People were shuttled in buses on circuitous roads from various points in the South under the cover of a lull in shelling. That lull allowed Red Cross ambulances to bring some of the very seriously injured to hospitals further from the zones of heavy shelling. It also allowed the cameras of journalists to travel and record the toll of shelling on border towns and villages or Israel ‘s recurring targets.
From tending to the injured but also packing the bodies of the slain, emergency rescue workers, doctors, as well as photojournalists and cameramen have all unanimously reported how unfamiliar Israel’s weaponry is. Bodies are disintegrating in unfamiliar ways. I plan to send a file to Shobak and ElectronicLebanon.net to post a set of photos. They are really gruesome, but they have to be made public. Rescue workers and doctors are urging forensic experts to try to find out what the exploding shells are made of or what have they been “reinforced” with.
“Cruise beyond your dreams” read posters pasted on the walls of the huge air-conditioned tent that functions as the final stage in processing the evacuees before they board the ship. The ship, as if someone wanted to amuse Edward Said for a brief minute, is called Orient Queen. It is part of a Lebanese-owned fleet of commercial cruises, AMC (Abu Merhi Cruises) and contracted by the US embassy to shlep American passport holders to Cyprus. Holders of American passports stranded in the south were shuttled by busses earlier that day to the port of Beirut. They were greeted by US embassy personnel, a small contingent of US Marines and Orient Queen crew. The buses were parked on the dock and passengers waited their turn for long hours to be searched, have their stuff searched their papers processed and then onto the ship.
The platoon or brigade or whatever the appropriate word is for the group of US Marines landed in Beirut some twenty years after the bombing of their base in 1983. In fact, to a renowned American journalist, they revealed that they were known as “the Beirut platoon”, or contingent or company … This twenty some years “return” of the Marines was presented as a big “to do” everybody had high emotions about it. Its significance escaped me. So what? They were going to be here for two days to evacuate American passport holders and then they went back to their lives. Their lives? As it turns out they were to return to Jordan where they were training the Jordanian army. (Oops, that was not supposed to be said. Delete it from the record.)
The marines were courteous in the manner that army personnel is trained to be courteous. Their coordination with the Orient Queen staff would have made sense only if it were a Monty Python film script. Some very very funny movie with prophetic visions of social and politcal horror to come. The Orient Queen has apparently a special brigade of Rio Brazil Dancers. I refrained from saying go-go, but the way they wiggled their hips and tied their yellow T-shirts to “celebrate their bodies” was all about go-go.
There is a famous story amongst trade unionists in the New York-New Jersey about a solidarity between teamsters and airline attendants during the Reagan administration and teamsters supporting airline attendants during protests. Fearing the teamsters’ homophobic proclivities, the trade unionist that drove the truckdrivers to the site of the protest had the wisdom to rent a bus with a VCR and bring along the only two “choices” that might pacify his constituency: The Godfather or porn. Porn did it. By the time the teamsters had reached New York , they were pacified. I recount this story because the only way to describe the chemistry between Brazil-Go-Go dancers and US Marines is to evoke that story.
The moment you come across a member of the US embassy personnel they correct you, “it’s assisted departure, not evacuation”. They explain that it’s how they manage the feelings of the Lebanese. Evacuation seems too terminal, too definitive and only those who choose to leave, do. No one is forcing anyone to leave. True. But evacuees are almost all in a state of shock. They were trapped in the South under the unrelenting shells of Israel ‘s campaign. Most testify that the arsenal of weaponry is entirely new, unfamiliar, a lot more frightening.
Rumors claimed that the evacuation fee on the cruise ship is up to $5,000 person. The US government provides loans to those who cannot afford to pay up front. After protest in Congress, the fee would later be waived.
Letter to Maria
One of my closest friends, my beloved sister really, Maria left two days ago. Up until a few hours before she was supposed to follow instructions from the British embassy for evacuation, she could not get herself to leave. She has two boys aged nine and five. Maria and her husband lived in London for a long while and earned citizenship there. Everyone who matters in her life called and urged her to evacuate with the Britons. She had moved from Beirut to the mountains on the second day of the siege. She and I had maintained contact by phone. Maria is so close to my heart, she is one of the foundational elements that make up my world. From the moment this horror started, our sentences had shortened, the tone of our conversations become contemplative, inconclusive, incapable of circling to some sort of closure. We could not even say “goodbye”, invariably we ended conversations with “I will call you back”. It felt better to say that, to claim the exchange of information and emotion not yet complete, than the opposite.
We called one another to exchange pointless information, “breaking news” that we had heard and had no hope of breaking “fresh” to the other. We repeated headlines to one another and news of other friends: so and so moved to there, so and so left, so and so went nuts … Although absurd, our phone conversations had the rare virtue of being “constitutional”, they charged our respective systems and reminded us of the people we once were, the lives we once lived. We asked the same question over and over, “should I leave?”, “should you leave?” She did not want to but felt she ought to for the boys. The eldest of the two was aware of almost everything: Israel, Hezbollah, the “daisy cutters”, bunker busters, and kidnapped prisoners. And at age nine he was seized with anxiety and panic at the escalating horror of the military campaign.
She caved in two days ago. I called as she waited on the docks with her two sons. Her husband did not want to leave. “It’s awful, it’s awful …” she kept saying. “It’s awful, it’s awful …” I echoed her. “Have I done the right thing?” she pleaded. “Absolutely,” I replied without a hint of hesitation. I could not help telling her that I would miss her. It felt selfish, childishly needy in the way children can be self-centered and dependent. In truth, I was terrified of living through this siege without her. I felt like a good part of my heart, at least a good part of what I love about being in Beirut, was standing at the docks waiting with her two sons. We spoke three times. Three times my tears flowed uncontrollably, three times I did not want her to feel anything in my voice, three times I said “I will call you back”. I cried like a scared little girl. How am I going to survive without her? How will I make it through without her?
She did not know where she would go after Cyprus. I have not had the courage to call her husband and find out where she is. As I write this, my tears are flowing. Silly, isn’t it? I have all the privileges in the world, in Beirut, I have so many safeguards, and yet I draw emotional and mental strength from the friendship of people like Maria and when she is forcibly driven away, my privileges feel futile, useless.
Evacuations are not “assisted departures”, they are uprootings, they borne from decisions made under duress that feel nothing like decisions. The extent of the evacuation does not bode well. In fact, standing on the docks watching the American passport holders who were shuttled from the south in busses I got a full sense of what the evacuation means when you’re the one staying behind. Whether rational, reasoned or reasonable, or not, there is a faint, inchoate sense of extinction, death, perishing. These people may very well one day remember us, all of us they have seen and witnessed and interacted with before they boarded the ship. I don’t know where we will be when they will remember us.
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.