Sunday, July 16, 2006

Report from North of Beirut 2

Updated, see below.

The latest letter from my sister-in-law, trapped in Lebanon, north of Beirut. Earlier letters can be found here: one, two, three. (The last of these was temporarily removed, but has now been restored.)

When I wrote some of you on Thursday morning after the news of the airport bombings we still thought that this was an isolated target in Beirut and that the main target was in the South. I said I was planning to spend the coming days at the pool on the roof of my building in Beirut. I wasn't quite grasping the severity. That evening I went to my yoga class, where the instructor Tania asked us to dedicate our practice to peace in the South and in Israel. No one anticipated the scale at which the rest of the country would be bombarded. Yesterday as we saw that the bombs were targeting all along the coast to Syria it became clear that the phrase "nowhere is safe" was not an idle threat. Again, we don't feel that we are in any danger where we are. It's just that for vagabonds like myself and the others that are attracted to the development business what we find hard to handle is the sense of being trapped, immobilized, and for a rare moment in our over-active lives prone to inertia.

In the car yesterday on the way up to Batroun our project driver, Rabih looked back at me and said "shu, Adina, you are scared? You want to leave us?" He said this with just a slight condescending smirk of someone who has lived through things you have not. "You won't stay and fight with us? We will get you a kafiyah?" We laughed. Rabih is a good friend, he is scheduled to get married next week and had been upset with me at not extending my trip to be here for the wedding. He understands that my wanting to leave has little to do with being scared. It has to do with the fact that, as all my Lebanese friends have reminded me when deciding whether to stay in Beirut, I have no real ties here to dedicate myself to – this is not my home. Huda, our project financial director, was sitting in the front seat of the car, summoned up by our project director to work out some financial issues on the project. She looked back at me and said in her slow, straightforward way, "You see, Adina, we have been living this way for 30 years." She said it as though I were being picked up from the airport on my first trip to Lebanon and needed an orientation in modern Lebanese history. It's a trait of feeling victimized to want to articulate this victimization as often as relevant.

During the day the yesterday contingency plans were made for our project, one of which is that we have to shut down altogether and I don't come back to Beirut once we leave. When I left Beirut yesterday around noon my country director had told me to pack light and be ready for an evacuation that afternoon or the next day. I spend a quarter of my time in Beirut and stay in a furnished apartment there where I leave clothes and a few other things – mostly the short skirts and tank tops I can't wear in Cairo. Following instructions to pack light I left most of my skimpy wardrobe behind, along with six bottles of good Lebanese wine from a day trip to the Ksara winery with friends last weekend that I was planning to bring back to Cairo, where Lebanese wine is a hot commodity; some samples of products from the micro- and small- food processing companies our project works with – a few different types of honey and labneh in olive oil – from trips to the Beqaa last week to work on business plans and artisinal cheese making; a yoga mat; and a calligraphy print I bought in the old city of Damascus on my last trip by an aging Palestinian artist, which translates loosely, as my memory serves me, to "I spent my life looking for Allah, and just when I was about to give up my search, I looked in the mirror, and saw Allah in me, looking back at me." Obviously, my clothes, wine, and small piece of art are dust compared to what families are prepared to lose in conflicts like this one, but it gives me a tiny speck of the feeling of abandoning a home.

At some point during the late afternoon when a military post near our hotel was being bombed, both my Lebanese and Egyptian mobile phones lost service for several hours, and we were told by the hotel reception that internet was out permanently because of the bombing. I realized later that bombings simply offer great excuses for bad service, and found a cafĂ© down the street with high speed internet access. (My friend Sahar agreed with this assessment – apparently during the war people would avoid commitments and engagements they didn't feel like dealing with for ages, claiming that they could not get in touch because the phone lines were out). I got a little anxious, much more at the idea of being cut off from contact – especially after having established contact with so many friends and family – than at the idea of actually being bombed, the possibility of which has still really not hit me, remote as it is where I am.

After sending my last email last night I went for a beer with Kim, my friend with the infant in Amman being taken care of by her husband who reported proudly yesterday that he had taken their 9 month old swimming, only to admit that he put him in the water in jeans because he couldn't find the bathing suit, and had forgotten the sunscreen, and had bought him a hamburger for lunch. She needed a drink. While we were drinking our Almaza one of the other American contractors, the head of another NGO project here, came to find us and to tell us that flyers had been distributed in the area informing that a bridge just north of the hotel was being targeted and that we should get back to the hotel asap. We said we'd finish our beers. The table next to us of about 12 young Lebanese men overheard the conversation. "It is far," they said, "don't worry, it's far, not close." Having heard countless renditions of "close, close, not far" when asking directions in this region over the years I wondered if in this case the reverse would be any closer to reality. Then one said, "Don't worry, we are here. We will warn you…One, Two, Three, BOOM!" They all cracked up laughing, and more of them started joined in, this time counting in French "Une, Deux, Trois, BOOM!" and fell out of their chairs laughing. When we got back to the hotel at just after midnight the wedding that had just been starting in the evening had vanished – for an Arab wedding this was the like not having started at all. We found out this morning that the bombing had happened and that a local Christian youth had been killed and another lost his hand. The Israelis were apparently targeting some radar stations which they thought was how Hezbollah had located the ship they hit the other night.

Only late last night and this morning did I hear the first-hand accounts of the situation in Beirut. I talked this morning with my friend Zeina, who I spent part of Friday evening with along with her parents (who originally come from South Lebanon) her 6 month old daughter Zayan, her sister and brother-in-law and their four-month-old daughter Sara, all waiting for Zeina's husband Basel to arrive via Amman after being diverted from Geneva on a business trip. She sounded calm, saying that everything is still fine in Hamra where she lives, a few blocks from my apartment towards the water. Our other friend, Lina, who also lives in Hamra, and who along with her sisters and some other friends were the last people I was out with on Friday night before they got anxious and went home, trying to take me with them, sounded more nervous, saying the explosions are sounding closer and closer. My friend Perveen, a human rights lawyer I know from Cairo, had been planning yesterday to come and join us here in Batroun, where we have one extra bed in one of the rooms we are sharing because the hotel is full. Now moving is the scarier prospect. Everyone just wants to stay where they are. Even here, although we are now concerned about the possibility that the bridges between here and Beirut will be bombed making it difficult to get back if an evacuation happens, the thought of moving again is to stressful. We seem to be held here by inertia until someone forces us to make a move.

My colleague Imad praises the Israelis for one thing in all this – the destruction of the Manara lighthouse, which he hated. The original Manara lighthouse had been just inland from what is now the Corniche which runs along the edge of the sea in Beirut. The story is that Hariri wanted to build a large building that would block the historic lighthouse from view from the water and agreed to replace the lighthouse in a new location right on the water. The new lighthouse is an ugly structure painted in stark grey and white – but nevertheless a fixture of the new Beirut. I run by it several times a week and had walked by it yesterday morning when I finally left Hamra for a walk. We heard that it was destroyed yesterday afternoon. We've now seen that only the top part was destroyed, very disappointing to Imad.

This morning felt incredibly calm, and I went for a run along the coast. Not many people were out – a young couple huddled under a tree looking out at the sea next to their parked car, an old woman standing on her balcony under a massive Lebanese flag, also gazing out at sea, some men sitting on plastic chairs outside of closed shops, looking out at nothing, all seeming to be waiting for a conclusion. Finally, as I was finishing my run, I passed a construction site, a half finished house – with a team of six men working on building. The sight of construction during such impending destruction was somehow both incredibly uplifting and deeply depressing. For people with as acute a sense of intuition about the situation to come it seemed like the most positive sign I've seen yet. At the same time the sight almost sums up the Lebanese experience – the cycle of devastation and ingenuity that keeps them going.

We were told this morning by the embassy that they are planning to have a boat here to take Americans to Cyprus – on Wednesday or Thursday. We are still looking into possibilities of going overland to Amman today or tomorrow, but at this point a combination of nerves and inertia seems to keep us staying where we are. Meanwhile we have found a nearby bar called Droopies with wireless – the only thing open in Batroun today – so we have set up shop and dubbed ourselves the "Droopies groupies." I'll continue to keep you posted as much as possible.

Update: And then the following came several hours later (posted somewhat belatedly):

It's 3 am and I've been sitting in the hotel lobby talking with Mohammed, who works the night shift at the hotel's front desk. He is telling me not to worry, there is no war here in Batroun, it is safe. Granted the bombs falling around this area in the last two days are nothing compared with the devastation in the south and in the southern parts of Beirut, which we expect to be unparalleled tonight, when the Israelis plan to make vast progress in "cleansing" the country of Hezbollah. There are few such loaded verbs as "cleanse." Israel is admitting that Hezbollah can not be eliminated from the broader population through targeted air attacks and is essentially planning to demolish the entire southern part of the country, justifying the civilian losses with prior warnings.

With all of this destruction I have still not seen any of it up close. All of the clients and counterparts of our project in the South have surely been deeply affected, but we are still finding out the details. This experience of watching the country fall apart from within but afar is more and more surreal by the hour. But far as I am from the direct chaos I'm close enough to feel the sense of devastation of the region falling apart around us. Israel's ability to retaliate at exponential scale with support from the US and Hezbollah's insistence on keeping up its side of the antagonism with support from the region will very soon leave the two countries in a deep state of shock and disrepair. But clearly the scale of Lebanon's destruction will be incomparable. Israel's justification for this seems to be based on the presumption that the life of its citizens is more valuable than that of its neighbors and a grand sense of entitlement to maintain its sovereignty under whatever terms it claims for itself. But few of you need my commentary on this.

The other element weighing on us here is selfish – for the three of us who are not based in Lebanon and definitely leaving the country, it is when and how to go home. We cycle through the day – an hour debating exit strategies, an hour watching the news, an hour trying to relax, and then right back through. We're all exhausted from analyzing and weighing the scenarios – waiting for the promised evacuation or heading north through Syria, which has now opened its borders to Americans without visas, but which reportedly has up to a 36-hour wait to get through (a busload of Italians waited that long, only then apparently to be evacuated to Cyprus). Every moment a new factor comes into play, we debate, talk to our companies and partners, try again to get a call through to the embassy, and still fail to come to a conclusion. Again, somehow inertia prevails over the bizarre manic energy that takes over in the midst of this kind of chaose. And meanwhile the situation is escalating to a scale that none of us could have conceived of. The Lebanese have had their hearts broken by the plight of their country long ago. We foreigners are just experiencing that now. I feel like mine is being crushed from both sides with this war. I know that many of you feel the same. Wishing for peace to somehow find its way out of this chaos...

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