Friday, July 14, 2006

Report from Beirut

The following is an excerpt from an email by my sister-in-law, currently trapped in Beirut by the Israeli siege. I thought that I would post it (with her permission) since it is a perspective I haven't seen much of on the net (which may simply mean I'm not reading the right blogs). For background, she is an American working for an international development organization. I fixed a few spelling errors; otherwise this is just as she wrote it. (It was sent this morning.)

As a lot of you know I spend 25% of my time in Lebanon for work. I've been here the past two weeks and was scheduled to fly back to Cairo last night, but with the continued bombings of the airport and approaching roads no flights will be leaving any time soon. The sea is blocked off and now many of the roads to Damascus - the one outlet - have been destroyed. So I really have no idea how long I might be here. My American mentality tells me that I should be able to get simply show my passport and be escorted out of the country and go home. It's just setting in that it could be a while before that happens. The embassy was talking yesterday about taking some of us out through Syria, but now that doesn't seem possible with the roads.

The atmosphere is changing tangibly. Yesterday things were open and people were out. Now almost all the shops, cafes, etc. are closed. Although luckily there are still a few shoe stores open near my apartment where I can buy horrendous stiletto-heeled shoes if I get really bored - the shoe and accessory shops seem to be the only places open, which I think is because those are the shops run by foreigners who don't understand the codes of doing business here. On my way to Starbucks this morning (also closed - a very bad sign) I overheard an argument between some of the Lebanese shopkeepers loitering outside their closed shopfronts and a Filipina woman who was starting to open the shop she works in over whether she could open the shop. She did - another shoe store. Meanwhile the food stores are mostly staying open but people are starting to get nervous and are buying out the food and water. I don't think there should be a problem with food any time soon as the roads from the North where much of the food is produced are fine. I'm just hoping this internet cafe will stay open for access to the outside world (Lebanon is one of the few countries that explicitly blocks Blackberry coverage so that's no help).

I've spent time in Gaza and the West Bank, but not extended enough lengths of time to really feel the impending sense of panic of being surrounded, bombarded, and completely powerless. I've certainly never felt that in the years I've spent in Israel - this is a completely different element and scale of aggression. That feeling is starting to settle in now. For my friends and colleagues here who have lived through this before it is acutely real - they know exactly what life will be like if this continues - the threat of taking the country back to the depths of the war, reversing the incredible reconstruction and development efforts - is unthinkable to me, but to them it is another cycle of what they've already experienced, and they continue to feel completely powerless, as many Lebanese are caught between this battle between hezbollah and Israeli. Although most respect hezbollah for the social services it provides to half of the country that the government is not equipped to do, most in Beirut and much of the rest of the country don't support waging war. But they've been expecting this. Last week one of my colleagues was lamenting that she had let her American green card expire which made her nervous in case something happened that she would have to get out. I couldn't quite imagine that something could be imminent that would serious enough to make her leave her life here. And obviously when it happens it happens too fast to expect.
Update: Leila left a substantive and interesting comment below; I encourage readers to check it out. She also has a bunch of related links on her blog here.


Leila Abu-Saba said...

Thanks Stephen for posting this. Very helpful, and I linked on my blog.

Here's a quote that jumped out at me:
"Although most respect hezbollah for the social services it provides to half of the country that the government is not equipped to do"

When I visited Lebanon in 2000 I was struck, unfavorably, at all the money being poured into luxury developments - hotels and villas and apartment buildings - while the middle and lower classes in the far reaches of the country were getting nothing.

THere was money to build a Disneyesque neo-Ottoman downtown playground for rich people, but no money for hospitals, schools and affordable housing. Why?

So then the Islamists stepped into the breech. Well. This is what happened in Cairo starting in the 1980s - there was a NY Times article about it at least 16 years ago, if not longer, in which the Cairo government had given up on many poor neighborhoods - no sewers or power, much less hospitals - and the fundamentalists were stepping in to provide the services.

Maybe providing services to the poor is unfashionable in current economic policy - it smacks of socialism - but FDR knew that at the very least it takes the sizzle out of popular unrest and social movements resistant to the powers that be.

More simply - let the poor starve and swelter in their own filth, let the extremists organize and take care of them, and then the poor will be loyal to the extremists.

Some of Lebanon's problems are of their own making. You cannot lift up only the rich and leave a vast swath of the poor and unhappy all around without consequences. Disarming Hizbollah is the least of it (but needed to have been done long ago). Why did the Lebanese government abandon the South? Why all the money poured into downtown BEirut, to attract wealthy foreigners, but "not equipped to provide services" to Sidon, Tyre and points south? There are many, many Lebanese (and Palestinian refugee residents of Lebanon) with the skills to provide those services. They needed money and infrastructure. Why wasn't this done?

Now we are all paying the price. No, it's not just that Hizbullah has guns and organization. It's that Lebanon ceded the South to them, politically, economically and militarily, out of snobbery as much as politics. And perhaps out of greed - building showy high-rises in Beirut was more fun and attractive than building pedestrian hospitals and housing projects in smaller cities.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

You know, after two weeks of this war, my comments above seem uncharitable and also presumptuous.

I am not a Lebanese and I don't really understand all the factors.

No matter what mistakes the Lebanese have made, they did not deserve what the IDF is doing to them. Lebanon's infrastructure is destroyed. Hundreds dead. Hundreds of thousands displaced.

And history will show that this war will not achieve Israel's objectives either.

It's a terrible, terrible waste.