Signs of life in Bint Jbeil

A living room in Bint Jbeil (Samia A. Halaby)

On Thursday September 21, 2006, I returned to Bint Jbeil, guiding members of the Netherlands delegation from D4. We walked again through the streets and I searched for our friend from the scarves store. It was 3:30 and I remember her saying that she goes home at 3:00. I was sad to miss her. But I was glad to see more signs of life in the town on the main road and in parts of the old town. We walked through the old town and I searched more carefully with my eyes for the remains of family life in the neighborhood. I remembered the destruction in Jenin and I could see that here the destruction was more complete, more thorough. It was as though the neighborhood was put in its entirety into a monstrous machine which ground it to dust. We stepped in many inches of fine beige dust, dust as fine as talcum powder.

In Jenin, I saw puddles of shoes and clothing, or batches of kitchen ware, or large bits of wooden furniture in specific sections of rubble. Here in Bint Jbeil’s old town, there were no such things. There were, however, strange bits of colored cottony clumps of fiber. I conjectured that the explosive power of missiles had blown things into clouds of dust and fiber and that the clothing, turned to fiber, had coalesced in the roiling air into these twirls of colored fiber with bits of stubborn woven parts. Only in a few places did I see complete shards of things like a fragment of a decorative lamp or a piece of a fork or a metal button.

In the old town, the structural facts behind the architectural style, that of arches and domes, was revealed. Arches, cross vaults, domes, holding floors above them, revealed the stone filling between the underlying structure and the floor above. I remember my father telling me that in his childhood that the builders, once they completed a dome, would build the side walls up to the next floor then fill the hollows with rubble. The children would then be invited to stomp it so that it would be compacted before the floor of the next level was laid. While this was a lesson in Byzantine building methods, it was also an indication of the precious old homes of the old town now ground to talcum and rubble. Israeli crimes against civilian life extend to crimes against the art and culture of ancient civilizations.

In the old town and up the hill of the old town, I saw and photographed several mosques which were damaged. I saw cars on the main road burnt and bent, melted metal carcasses now kooled, tossed askew against remains of walls.

As we were leaving the old town, we asked directions from some men clearing rubble and collecting scrap metal. They asked us if we wanted to see a spot where 45 people jammed together, taking refuge from the bombing, and we said yes. I tried to photograph the dark spot where they lit a faint little lamp for me. I saw clothing, pillows, toys, blankets, and children’s books. The place was low, a cellar open on one side as it was on the incline of a mountain. The ceiling was low and they warned me not to strike my head. They said everyone struck it many times each day. I said that I would not and I walked around with my head down but in the end, as I exited, I did strike my head on the cement.

I asked the men how it was that the town was defended and that the Israelis never got inside. They said that they were not there and had no idea how it was done, and one of them smiled as he said that, leaving us to conjecture what we might.

We finally found a cab out of Bint Jbeil. It was hard as it was evening and no one wanted to go out of town at that late hour. Still yet there were taxis available and the price was tourist-level high. We finally found a reasonable man who for a bit extra took us to Tire for us to see the family who had waved a white flag but was bombarded by a helicopter nevertheless.

Before we could go to the site where the 95-year-old mother had died after her daughter had waved a white flag, we had to get approval from Hizbalah. This was done via human telegraph - a method invisible to us. The dirver stopped and asked someone who ran off to ask someone and we waited till someone ran back with an OK. As we waited In Tire we watched men clearing rubble and trucking it out of town. Jihad al Bina’ was at work.

On the way back, our driver offered to take us to see the sites of the old and the new Qana massacres. We took a quick look at the old site and saw the long graves with the many names. At the new site, we were amazed to see that it had been completely floored over and had become a collective grave with special stone burials above it for the bodies of those who were killed. Arround the graves were families with children siting in chairs surrounding the graves receiving messages of condolence from those who came to give them. Some were reading from the Koran over the graves. Along the remaining wall of he building were place large cards holding the name of each one of the victims. Some had photographs of the victims in the beauty of life. Children came and went to some of them and arranged and rearranged the flowers or added some.

We saw the photograph of a fighter who had been martyred elsewhere and we saw the pictures of his children who died at Qana - pronounced Anna in Arabic.

Samia Halaby is a Palestinian artist based in the US.

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