Monday, September 04, 2006
Welcome to readingwhilefalling.
I began this blog at the start of the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and kept it up until the cease-fire.
In June of 2006, I scraped together my (paltry) savings and took off for the middle east, determined to get a better, first-hand understanding of the region, its people and all its purported complexities. In spite of my grand itinerary, my first and last stop was Beirut; three days after arriving, Israel bombed Hariri Int'l Airport and I was stuck.
I spent the war assisting a local NGO with its psychological relief program directed towards children who had had their homes destroyed and who had lost loved ones.
Also, I did my best to keep a record of my observations and experiences: RWF, a series of photos, quotes, conversations and (a pile) of thoughts.
Given the circumstances, the hastily written blog still has spelling errors and parts that need obvious edits. Nonetheless, at the request of a few and for authenticity's sake I've decided to leave the blog up, unedited, in case anyone (now or in the future) might find it useful.
So, if this is your first time here, I suggest you flip back to the first post and work your way to the front.
Good luck and thanks for reading,
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Today, I finished rwf.blogspot.com. This, the final post, is built on a collection of notes from the past ten days. Thanks to all who have read - and good luck. T
You are sitting in the American University - Beirut Medical Center. In the lobby. It's visiting hours.
In the past few days, you have dutifully gone about your work at the SDC as the immediate threat of bombs has all but dissipated from the collective consciousness of the people around you. Alongside Selim, you have finished a sound proposal for funding that he will be circulating. Already, there is a rumor of a contribution from a local embassy, from some French contacts. You reserve comment, hoping somewhere there is an American philanthropist that will do you personally proud.
The SDC has switched gears. Selim has worked with uncanny speed to transition to the second phase of his plan to build peace culture and solidarity among the affected and non-affected youth of Lebanon. Although you occasionally broach the conversation with Selim or others (volunteers, shopkeepers, cab drivers), the war belongs only to the diplomats, to the UN, to the media. Other than the infrequent metaphorical glance to the southern horizon it is business as usual, it is time for rest, to mull reconstruction. At least in Beirut.
This weekend, having prepped, planned, gathered, and trained a small army of volunteers and enrolled hundreds of young participants, Selim and the SDC will launch the first of two years' of weekend retreats and camps. Children will come from all over, from all different confessions and political ideologies lured by the fun of the camps; there, they will share stories, and will actually start to determine what their role is in designing the future of their country. Together, they will laugh and train and plan. Selim will offer them the opportunity to work collaboratively on projects - building kites, making food, pitching tents - and will quietly inform them of their rights and opportunities as 'a citizen'. But he will leave the choice to them.
Selim (to me): "You know, we are not just having them build a trash bin. We build the trash bin and we say, 'OK, now you have a rubbish bin - if you use it, if you put your trash in it, you don't get sick. If you don't, you get (scratches his arm to indicate a rash).' And then we let them choose. If they choose it, we say, 'OK, it is your right to have one - and if you don't have one, it is your duty to ask for one."
The retreat series this weekend kicks off with 200 kids (organized in less than a week); the SDC will run the program series for two years, train hundreds of volunteers, host 100,000 participants if all goes according to plan. If your proposal strikes a chord.
Although you take a massive amount of pride in having come to Beirut, in having assisted in the propogation of sound, simple, and extraodinary methodologies for peace (and sanity) building, in having put faith in your own ability to carry through on your principles and come out ahead and unscathed (against controversy), you are struggling now with the looming questions that came out of the dark at the moment of cease-fire. a) What is the worth and impact of your accomplishment? b) When and how will you know when it will be your time to leave this? c1) What is the composition of society at large such that it allows (even plans?) for such conflict and bloodshed?c2) What can you do and what tool can you create to focus those bloodthirsty elements of the human condition towards the active pursuit of peace, justice and prosperity?
You are hesitant to accept what people have been telling you, their "advice" to you when you share with them your mission of building new channels to focus energy into cooperative construction. You have been told that people are bad...that there is no hope. Are you unable to believe this because it sounds too simplistic? (on the boat from Cyprus to Beirut, you can still hear Tucker Carlson giving you advice after he heard of your trip into the warzone, telling you that he admired those that ran towards the sound of gunfire, but that you would be doing it a lot in the future if you kept it up, that it would benefit you to acknowledge the existence of real evil in the world. You shuddered then to recall that this idea was the foundation of Sean Hannity's diatribes and, frustratingly, of the strength of his convictions - or so you thought or think.)
Or, you do not know if you simply choose not to believe this because it is inconsistent with your own upbringing. You have been labeled many times (with a sneer) an "idealist", a Liberal, a progressive...still, you realize that your supreme faith in the good nature of man might (ironically) be the one vestigal thought that remains from your Catholic upbringing. Even after years of conciously trying to disabuse yourself of all dogmatic claims in the effort of piecing together your own understanding of human beings by your own processes and data, you realize that you have been holding on to one memory: a conversation you had as a child with your Jesuit uncle where he explained to you that people were good, that it was tempation by evil that led the good astray.
Sitting in the lobby, you are cursing yourself. You have believed your choices and your plans to be based on a larger pragmatism. But should it be true that underneath you clutch nothing more than a frail and childish 'hope', you have committed the same 'crime' that you have accused the neocons (from the US to Iran) of perpetrating: decisions and action based on what they would like to see rather than what the reality of the situation demands.
You are sick. You are anxious to bleed the 'idealism' from your system. Sitting in the hospital lobby, you are sure that your uncle had been simplifying the matter for your young ears. He continues to be an intelligent and cutting thinker. You wish to go back to that conversation and force him to address the Church's idea of original sin. Is baptism, then, just a way of getting people to the church? A way of hooking themin, just as you get the camera only after enduring an exhaustive tour of time-share condos while salespeople cajole you into making a substantial investment?
Visiting hours are well patronized. You are at once a) aggravated that the architect chose to design a lobby that seems an all too patronizing image of the gateway to heaven and b) immediately touched by the delicate and potent humanity you see play out in the gestures and faces of people as they pass. A group of elderly people - two couples - leave the visitation center, the women walking in front of the men in twos. There is gentle laughter, an air of relief among them - "They are going to be all right". There is quiet after they leave. Then, a family of five departs the inner hospital and parades humbly through the waiting area; three teenagers walk silently intent on the exit door, a husband lets them lead and occupies the empty space - some 15 meters - between them and the mother, who is lagging, who is averting her eyes, who is searching for a tissue now in her large bag to stop the tears barely willed back. A young mother erupts into the waiting area having completed her checkup; she playfully runs to her little son who has, to her joy, waited patiently in the same spot where she left him. There is a shower of funny kisses with he takes pains to wipe at quickly as the embarrassment stings his cheeks.
To your right, you find a grandaughter and grandmother waiting side by side in silence. The child bounces her feet over the edge of the chair while the woman watches the doors to the interior of the hospital, where patients and visitors alike disappear, from which visitors only emerge. You think that they look alike; you see a line between them, sixty years of life time experience occupying the inches between their heads. You think about what it would take to make sure that when she's sixty that the little girl doesn't look just as exhausted as her grandmother does.
You wonder about getting up. This is your last official errand for the SDC. You have accompanied SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer to the hospital so that SDCCRHV can have a meeting with one of the staff here. The SDC is producing a hygiene manual for children enduring tough conditions as their homes are being rebuilt. You have been told to wait as the meeting will last only 15 minutes. Over an hour has passed.
You take to the chair, only glancing up occasionally at the doctors and nurses emerging onto the balcony above the waiting area, silently and with straight faces and white coats watching the parade of people come in and out. The images of Qana roll through your mind as do the visions of destroyed bridges, the smoke rising from the port, the old man screaming in his bed, the filthy stickiness of the Beirut shelters, the overwhelming anger at how quietly this challenging and destructive failure of 'the system' and individuals seems to be slipping away, attention redirected to Iran or whatever new conflict currently brewing in the minds of the powers that be. Selim is convinced Israel will take the Bekaa Valley next, where Hizbullah is still strong and the International presence will be weak. By fear or by plan. And regardless, what has changed? There will be another conflict soon, there will be more dead given only a number to mark their graves. Some of them will be children. You are hit quickly with two successive impulses: 1) to rush into the hospital, to sit and chat and invest a comforting interest in the lives of those patients that have no one to visit them; 2) to shut up your stupid idealistic mind - who are you to do that job? You are certain that one of the patients would be upset with you for not being the rounds nurse that he has been expecting for over an hour with his pudding cup. Where is my pudding? Where is my pudding, dammit?
The doors to the interior hospital make a "whooshflpt" noise as they open and close.
II. INTERNATIONAL CAST OF CHARACTERS.
There has been an cast of international characters: Iran, Israel, the US, Syria, Lebanon, the UN, the "International Community" (which you realize means 'Europe'), the Arab League, etc.
You are familiar with them like people; the country of Iran, the United States doppleganger. Similar in its conservative nature, in its political posturing, in its constant claiming of the moral high ground, in it subversive political maneuvering and coup staging...not just Hizbullah here but purported to be funding the civil war in Iraq to violence in Africa in the name of Islam. Almost parallel levels of hypocrisy from both administrations. You have learned from your Iranian friends that the rural areas go conservative while Tehran goes progressive. Different in that it uses words well, and effectively. Selim says that Iran is attempting to unify the entire Arab world under its call - from Pakistan to Lebanon. Different in that it has a massive human rights problem, in that it stifles its press (better) and that unlike the US, its progressive movement (by virtue of intelligence or circumstance) quietly stand in patience while US Democrats flounder in spite of what's been handed to them.
Syria, 'the little country that could': ruled by the son of a powerful man that died with the hope of re-securing the Golan Heights, of dipping his toes in the water; the ruling son is now under internal as well as external scrutiny - he is part of a minority group clinging to control of the country. His father's aides, questioning his ability to maintain control, seem to circle him like sharks. Syria, playing both sides against the middle in a desperate attempt to reassert itself as real power in the region; making deals with Iran and Hizbullah, denying International troops on its borders while begging the United States and International Community to be allowed at the peace table. Syria... in the corner.
Israel, the lost. After iterations of war-dependent leaders, a truly decisive blow to reliance on military force: policy has driven its thinking and its population into check. They are stuck. Now would be the time to begin talking if they could; they've caused too much damage and have lost too much credibility to even conceive of going to the table. They will have to continue to find a way to fight. They are in a broken washing machine stuck on the spin cycle.
You think of Lebanon caught in the middle, tired, divided. You were angry with Lebanon, but no longer. After only a few weeks, you realize you too are tired. It is your time to leave. Selim has told you that your greatest asset is that you are an outsider, that it gives you greater clarity. He admonished you for your foolish pursuit of destruction on the last day of the Beirut bombing campaign. You told him in response that you thought it beneficial to your future role as a negotiator to understand the whole people at your table and you still believe that; he acknowledged the sentiment but after losing two uncles in the civil war and pulling himself back from a period of intense rage, he advises you to stick to the sidelines, to mind your role as--at best--a referee. Above all things he says to avoid politics and focus on planning and civil society. He is a bit irritated with your declaration that you will be President of the United States in 25 years, that you have a long term plan to grow your heart and your mind and your skill set, that you will continue to work on a pragmatic plan that will catch the United States up with the rest of the world...to craft a potent long-term and short-term agenda. If you do the math, if you commit to years of training and planning and research and experience and fighting, you think you can tear progressive from its weak "idealistic" label. You can prove an internationalist and humanist policy can be an economically beneficial one. You can make enlightened choices concrete and popular in the minds of the American public. You can be part of the renaissance.
He says he won't give you a dime for your campaign because either a) politics will always be too corrupted and you won't get anything done (which you can't stand because, by God, you're smart and stubborn) or b) you yourself will be corrupted. Politicians are useless. You listen to this and it only fuels you. It's the very reason you plan to do what you're doing to do.
But Lebanon's exhaustion tames that flame. You have realized that you're no longer angry with the Lebanese for not giving you your silly dream of political reconciliation across sectarian lines - at least not the people. In fact, you think that they may have. On your walks to work, you feel the traffic pass, watch people able to live and work without being immediately mindful of 'threat'; on walks home, the clubs 'bump' again and you wade through the people mobbing Gezmayzeh. You like to pretend on these walks that nothing ever happened or--better--that it is the simple love of life demonstrated by the Lebanese that already binds them together in a way that politics never could. The thought is enough for you to consider other commitments for your life in spite of how antagonized you are by political (or any kind, really) weakness, stupidity and corruption. Your brain twists and you keep asking yourself: what do I do to prevent children from being hit by bombs? What's the big idea, here?
You think of the US…you think of the bombastic 12 year old that found his Dad's gun and uses it to lord over the neighborhood. His parents don't ever seem to be coming back...
SECOND TO LAST NIGHT.
You think of all of these things swirling around the one central question: what will it take? What would it take to focus mankind's drive towards elegant progress in all spheres? What will it take to place cooperative action over bloodshed as the only real solution to conflict? You are awake for days, searching your brain, looking at all the systems that have been designed, from self discipline, to the church, to the non-state actor, to the state, to the international community. You are wondering about what simple code of conduct, what preventative mechanisms (such as education) and what system of justice and enforcement unifies each of these and could be demonstrated to unify all people in a way that accounts for human error and weakness. You are in Selim's backyard, unable to sleep for the third day.
It is 2 am when Selim and Baha find you in the back, staring at a candle. Again, there is not electricity.
Selim (to me): 'Thomas, what...what are you doing?'
Me: ...I...am...trying to figure something out...I am trying to figure out what I have learned.
Baha is the grease to the wheel, the older brother to the young volunteer staff at the SDC; he sweats humor and humanity; he's just hysterical. He's aware that he speaks only broken English and uses it to his advantage in making you laugh.
You mean to say: I am trying to pin down what I have learned here before I leave, before the subject matter is taken off the table. It has to be now, because when I try to figure it out later the integrity of what I have witnessed and felt will undoubtedly be corrupted by time and distraction. It is difficult for you to voice this without sounding....like an idiot. Outloud.
Baha: "Thomas, Thomas...I was going to make ...a joke? but I will tell you (he talks with his hand waving as both sit at the table with you around the candle) – seriously – only you can answer this question."
Selim: Baha, you know, he speaks the truth. So you tell us, you tell us what you have learned.
You think and try to visualize. Me: I have learned that …there is the feeling that humanity is driving a car. Very fast. But instead of looking forward to decide when to turn or to stop, humanity is driving forward while looking in the rearview mirror. That's how it feels.
Baha has a degree in Political Science, has heart, has teeth for conversation - he has an emphatic way of talking that demands both your intellectual respect and pulls your heart at once. He answers this image as if he'd been waiting to tell someone what he held for too long; he erupts.
Baha: Yes, but...in America, what is in the mirror!? When you look back there is only space...there is...there are question marks? You do not have the history. You had a civilization, but it is gone. You took it, you... You have a history but this history is not like the way that they teach it to you. You have a history that is built on lies; this...the first colony?
Baha: ...it was a colony of prisoners!
Me: looking for gold.
Baha: Here we have had the Greeks, we have had the Romans, Ottomans, the Arabs, the French the British…
You remember that instead of taking a Guidebook with you to the Middle East all you took was a $4 Rand McNalley historical atlas of the world. In recent days you have been flipping through it, watching the area of Lebanon change color at almost every page, dominated by some new force...early in the book, the city of Tyre appears - on par with Carthage as one of the largest cities in the world 1000 BC. It's been leveled as of last month.
Baha: But ...and the history you have? You do not look to your history because you do not know it - only we see your history. Bush, Rice...they are saying that this is a new ...ah...it's a new...
Baha: it is the same, it is the same that happens with us again and again. This is the same experiment – it is the same as 1950s, as 70s, as 80s as 90s... it is the same again and again!
We go through all of of Middle East modern history. The creation of Israel, the series of conflicts, the US buying off Egypt to secure peace, the US funding both sides of the Iran/Iraq war which killed hundreds of thousands (IranGate under Reagan); we touch back on other issues. They raise the argument that the US Civil War has more to do with economic interests than anything as noble as the rights of the human being, talk about Native Americans, the Louisiana purchase, contras, Bin Laden (funded until even '96 by the CIA under Clinton)... you talk about 9/11, you talk about Pearl Harbor, you talk about the military-industrial complex. You see your country as having fallen down a very, very slippery slope.
The themes of economic interests and ideological interests and military posturing as intertwined appears...
Selim: You know, we kick Baha around and we call him a jackass for fun but you know he is speaking the truth. The United States, you like to let us grow big big big so you can cut us down, so you can claim a victory. You like to keep us broken up...
You all agree that this is a problem, a course of action that has failed...and you sit and watch the others still trying to figure out how to transition to a more forward-thinking foreign policy. How to cement in the mind of the average American the idea that neighborliness is actually strength? That supporting economic development of all regions is the only way to lay the cornerstone to peace ("you know, people will fight when they are hungry")? To inspire a new level of competition in American companies that will reform our education system in a way that promotes truly innovative, capable and creative minds. You ask them what should be done.
Baha: You must...you should play the.. broker.
Me: The 'honest broker'.
Selim: No no no, it's not gonna work. You can't, the United States can't do that anymore. You already have declared your stake. With this, you know, this changes things. You have to look at that stake first.
Me: Well, if I were president what would you tell me to do? You're my political advisor...
Selim: You have to figure out...what is the deal that the United States has with the Arabs?
He's right. We have no real foreign policy, no system in place, ad hoc decisions based on playing favorites...
Selim: To do that you stop funding Israel – no not stop funding - just fund who is right, who does the right thing. Play by rules. You have a stake now. America was built to be a republic, not an empire. You are not set up to do this. And look, look at what happens when you try to go against your own design? Look everywhere...this is just an embarrassment to the United States. This is a real embarrassment. With Clinton he did great things but they didn't take, they were weak and he left office. But still, he understood. With Bush? This guy... ..I know the Syrian Ambassador to the US, I have met him personally. And the Syrian Ambassador, who is a real jerk I don't like this guy, he told me this story. When he first arrived in the United States, he went with his wife to meet with the President. It's a custom to go and meet and introduce. He goes to meet with Bush. And Bush he turns to the ambassador's wife and he says 'so how do you like America?' and his wife says that she is bored, that she wants to find a place to continue her studies; Bush says, oh, what are you studying? Computer engineering. Bush says to her – and I cannot...he says to her: 'they let women study in the middle east? They let them go to college?" this is the most powerful man in the world! This is the man who claims to have a new plan and he does not know a thing about what he is doing!
Baha: "Thomas, Thomas look at me. I want for you to promise that you will do me a favor. Only to your friends, I want you to tell your friends. Tell them we have internet. Tell them we do not – we are not bombing things all the time (mimes bombs strapped to his chest). Tell them that we read books! Please Thomas! Ha ha ha! I am serious, you have to tell them. Tell your friends. Tell someone. Tell them we read books. Tell them these things.
Selim: We have culture here. Thousands of years.
Me: So, why the fighting? Because you would think with culture...you would think with age would come...
Selim: Because along with culture, we do not have a strong economy which means we do not have the best schools. Without good education the people turn to religion as a crutch, which leads to divisions. This is not just the middle east – this is everywhere, this is how people are, you know? And where the religion leads, the people support.
Me: I know the answer to this question - I know what I think, but what do you think of the idea of redrawing the map?
Selim: I really don't mind the idea of the theory, but it's just that it's a stupid idea that will never work. It's never going to work. Democracy it means different things to different people; it's a good idea but it has to come from the people; if it doesn't organically grow from the people over time, it's just not going to take. Anything imposed from the outside just doesn't work. And lots of times it's just a lie: Israel created Hamas to take Arafat out of power, you know? So to tell you what to do as president - ask yourself what your real stake is. Economic development: just be fair. When you start picking and choosing you loose credibility. Democracy can take care of itself from the inside, the system will adapt. There are plenty of progressive movements in the middle east, all good people. When you pick sides, when you damage the name of democracy, these people they lose hope and credibility.
You tell him the idea of eternal vigilance. That you think America is so used to climbing to the top and being the best that you get the feeling that once it achieved the best it just had no idea what to do with itself. It started looking for immediate thrills, a child with a loaded gun. The new kid on the block is a little weird and increasingly unpopular.
Selim: You know, Baha I kick him around and all we make fun of each other and he doesn't have a French education; but still he knows the history of your country much better than you do. You hear what they tell you they do; we see what they do. I went and I gave a lecture to a group of US students studying conflict resolution in the middle east. This was their course of study. Before the class started I drew the outline of the United States and Canada on a map and I erased the borders and things and just drew land and water. And I said, ok here we have a blank map of the middle east – please, students, come and tell me where is Lebanon? Where is Israel? And they started pointing to places on the map! – it was a map of the United States! And I said 'ok that's it, lecture's over'. If you don't know yourself, how can you know about anything else?
Selim: You know Thomas, I want to tell you something. I know that I - and I am being serious here – I know that I am fighting a losing battle.
Selim: I know that I am fighting a losing the battle. You will always lose more than you win in what we do. People, it is in their nature to fight with one another.
And this runs contrary to everything you've seen up until that point. You look back on the entire conversation, the conflict, the senselessness, the way your country has acted, you scroll through the Rand McNally atlas in your head. These words from Selim make you want to vomit. You need to believe in solutions. You refused to leave having just 'endured', having just put a band-aid on the deep laceration.
You: People are not evil. They fight because they are looking to secure resources.
Selim: But still, they choose to fight.
It erupts. Selim invokes Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, realpolitik, the realists, the idea of naturalism.
And he is right, you agree. You agree that that this is not a question of good or evil but that good and evil are value judgements based on the actions people take when they feel their survival is threatened. Still, you defend the nature of man as good before these acts are committed. You persist in saying that fighting was the first solution to limited resources, to threat. But that it is equally a part of human nature to build tools, to build systems, to find solutions. That if you can clearly and unquestionably demonstrate to people the true effects of their actions, that they will choose cooperation - if you can show the revenge cycle, how it comes back around, you can build a market for new tools, for new policy. You just need to teach a different way of cooperating, of diffusing the tension fear and doubt and focus on solving the problems – which can and will be solved. You just need to provide new training in this. You think of all the ideas you've had for governance classes for high schoolers, for philosophy as a requirement for high school. You say it is already happening in minor ways, particularly with environmental issues - data shown makes the threats of global warming take root in the public mind. It takes persistence, it take a novel approach...the only limiting factor, as you see it, is the limited life span of human beings. There is so much to learn - but with a new era of international conflict comes a new opportunity to learn collectively. It can be done, it will just take the right people to do it! It will take an agreed upon vision of the future. You tell about your idea for www.readingwhilefalling.com - an open source wikipedia style interface where instead of telling of history and current events, people actually - by the design of the site, by consensus - design the future of the United States - from education to economy, from interest rates to city planning ordinances... It will take only the creation of vision! A workable goal! A light that we can all aim and work towards instead of being tossed back and forth by events and self-interested politicians!
Selim: You know, you just read realpolitik. It will never work, Thomas. They will fight over the design of the site.
You raise your voice and as you speak Baha leaves the table to the hammock - he has said what you are about to say to Selim before, he has taken the stance of the pragmatic idealist, has argued that people might resort to fighting but with proper alternative outlets - better outlets and better social training - that we, together, can solve this. Baha, as you are about to, has called Selim a hypocrite for this naturalistic stance: You do this. You do this! You stand apart, you stand apart! How can you claim to be losing the battle? How can you tell me my ideas on this don't hold merit!? You act under altruism and cooperation and you work it, you make it work. You are changing things in this very manner! You are tapping into the cooperative elements of human nature!
You have seen it with your own eyes. You have seen the rubbish bins.
Selim is quiet for just a second, thumbing the table.
For weeks you have seen eye-to-eye on policy, on politics, on methods of training and fundraising, on language for the SDC literature. You appreciate the same canonical texts and you both hold them close. But you are suddenly touched by his urging to 'stay out of it'; you start to understand that after all of the talk of outside factors, of history, of everything that has swirled about you, that most of this had been talk - just talk, by design. With passion, with intensity, granted. But it has been dinner conversation, not your training. You think of how serious his face got when he told you about how disappointed he was that you had taken off to see destruction, to see pain. And how he followed it up with his own personal story of loss, about how it got him nowhere.
You realize that he is so good at his job - so good at showing people a way beyond fighting - because he has been forced to put himself through it. You see him still struggle for a moment to find his footing; you realize that being good at being good means understanding the mindset of the 'bad', and that to be really good, you have to really understand the bad, keep it with you...and you see this as a burden, this idea of constantly having to vie against such a formidable foe as what has been called "human nature".
He is protecting you. You see a complicated man, whose mind and heart are pulled in two directions by personal history and intelligent hope. He is attempting to spare you some pain, you think. And you feel young and looking at him, your stomach is torn up by the first real understanding of all that will be sucked out of you if and when you attempt to implement your progressive ideas into the public mindset, guerullous and unforgiving. You see, just for a second, the absolute weight that he holds, you think of the face of the old woman, you think of your own face tired after only a few years of grassroots work. You are furious.
And Selim, as always, returns to calm, to light.
Selim: Because, what else am I gonna do, you know? I believe I am losing the battle. But I will tell you this one thing and then I will go to sleep. (He rises from the table; it is past three; Baha has passed out in the hammock). Let me tell you, as long as there is one person left that is willing to practice being a citizen and wants to do it and they have a heart that is beating in their chest, I will give it everything I've got.
You stay up until dawn, plotting the next twenty-five years of your life.
On your last day in the office, you pull out old Lebanese bills - currency from 20 years ago - and show them to the staff. A cab driver pushed them on you as a gift - you're still not sure why.
The proposals are complete, the literature is written, the camps are set to start in a day or two. The shop is tidy as far as you're concerned and if and when grant money comes you'll return. Selim has offered you a post under the prerequisite that you learn Arabic. Well. Until then, it'll be school in ethics and then development/econ/sociology and law. At least four more years of school.
Before that, it'll be a planeflight home to see your mother. You show SDCCurlyHair volunteer the old bills and she tells you the story of the day that as a child she was yelled at by a shopkeeper for trying to use them to buy chocolate, the day they had gone out of use. She asks you if you like Beirut and you struggle to find an answer that doesn't involve the word 'war'. She tells you have not had a social life and so you have not learned a thing about the Lebanese. She says you have to see the rocks at Rouche. You leave the office together; one last time you wander the city. You visit the coffee shop and inquire about Khawlah. She is gone. Not coming back, says the girl behind the counter. Still, you are pleased to find a gentle crowd in Nejmeh - more people than you've seen in weeks.
Together, you go to Rouche. In the dark, you stumble down a path on the other side of the guardrail fencing the coastal road from the cliffs. You climb out onto one of the rocky outcroppings and sit. Listen to the traffic and realize you are listening to traffic. Traffic. There is little light and you can barely see the stars through the haze that covers the coast, the dust and smoke and moisture. But you can see a plane approaching and you remember your tickets. "The last seat!" the travel agent proclaimed to you as he handed the tickets to you. He was saying it to everyone but you're still certain that it was one of the last that would get you out in time for school.
You lean back on the rocks in silence and stare up to watch the plane approach Beirut International. You watch it come in slowly along the coast, decending, searching through the night in front of it with its small nose light, dependent upon the lights miles ahead to guide it safely through the fog.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
And then there was ...nothing.
When I woke up Monday and got ready for the trek to the Sustainable Democracy Center, I found myself looking to the faces of people staying in the Hostel or going about their business in the street for some sign, some proof that the cease-fire didn't take. Or the opposite--that everything seemed to be smooth sailing.
Smiles, frowns, furrowed brows, irritated hustle...?
For three days – Monday through Wednesday – the streets remained quiet in Beirut. Those that left the city for areas in the north waited to see if it was OK to return. Cars have begun to trickle back into Beirut during the past two days. Simultaneously, many of the displaced just up and left. Showing up to the SDC on Monday, I found some of the staff saying goodbyes; a number of our volunteers were from the South. They were going against Israeli warnings and heading back to see what was left of their homes.
At first, this wasn’t the case for all of the displaced--but over the week, waves of those willing to risk the trip grew larger. By Wednesday, Senayeh Park - which was once full of camps, tents, clotheslines and children - had been cleaned out. Literally cleaned - no trash, no scraps of clothing or dirty diapers. I stood outside the gates Wednesday night trying to frame a photograph for you…How do you frame nothing?
On Monday, we called the school that had scheduled us that afternoon to contine Selim's Crisis Phase activities. Our contact at the school told us coming was unnecessary, that the place was nearly empty. By Wednesday, Selim had stopped most of our current war-related programming and moved us into launching his enormous two-year response (phase two) to this conflict. I’ll get to what it is (i.e. the one hopeful element I’ll take away from this entire situation) later in the post.
Waking up in Beirut has been like waking up in an episode of the Twilight Zone. There is little talk of war...little talk of much at all. No tension, no joy in the expressions of any of the shopkeepers. Not even relief. Although in the cafes you’ll hear the occasional war-related comment (“What did you think of Nasrallah on the television last night?”) you would never guess that this was the same population that seemed fraught with anguish and urgency and frustration just days ago.
Perhaps it’s because I come from a country where growing up you are taught to associate the end of a “war” with ticker-tape parades and pictures of sailors kissing nurses, or banners that read “Mission Accomplished” (granted, not exactly an ‘end’). But even so, I don’t think that it was too much to expect something – some show of solidarity…some bookmark…
SDCSuperNiceVolunteer (to me, in the Prague coffeehouse): "This is just how it is! This is the Lebanese! Yesterday we have war, today is for the cleaning and tomorrow good as new. Back to life. Already they have ...what do you call them, I don't know, metal pieces across the bridge to the airport. The airport will be ready soon. Back to normal."
In the afternoons, the SDC staff has taken to moving over to the Prague coffeehouse for the cafe's semi-consistent streams of electricity and wireless internet; rolling blackouts still affect most of the city, the SDC office no exception. I am typing up the outline of Phase Two of Selim’s long-term plan for building Lebanese solidarity after the war. I am confused and because I appear to be alone in my confusion I am frustrated, trying to figure out why the silence is driving me up the wall.
Me (to SDCSuperNiceVolunteer): “Fine, that’s great. I admire a people that can get back to work, can get back to rebuilding. But what are you rebuilding exactly? What’s going to change after this? I just don’t understand why thus far there hasn’t been…there’s been nothing! There’s been no real unifying statement by politicians, no parade, nothing to signal...I guess I don’t understand how an entire country can suffer through something and not then feel some need to come together afterwards, to ….I (I am stammering)…I…I mean…who will mourn the dead? Who will mourn the dead?!?”
SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer: (To me): “Hizbullah will. Hizbullah. Nobody cares. Hizbullah - if under Hizbullah you die, this is a good thing. you will go to heaven. So no one really cares and they will speak to the people there. You are made a Martyr.”
Me (to myself): You’re not a Martyr if you’re a four year old that got a bombed dropped on them. You’re…you’re a tragedy. You’re an egregious error that demands…at least a thought?!
Perhaps I am just impatient. In truth, perhaps the immediate strain deserves some immediate rest. Pehaps, too, people are still quietly waiting to see what happens in the south what the disarmament/international force/basic reasons for this war to still be all but up in the air. Still, the course of action still seems a powerful prelude to a full on return to the status quo here. And that's...that what I don't understand. More on that later.
The only overt sign or bookmark or whathaveyou that this painful and destructive military conflict had met its end was a tiny, pathetic fireworks show that I watched from Martyr Square on Monday night. Hearing them start while sitting in Talal’s I assumed that the cracks were gunfire. I wandered out anticipating the show, the rallying of hundreds in the streets, screaming in catharsis. Instead, other than the occasional cop or empty taxi passing by, I was alone in the city center of Beirut. In the Southern Suburbs of Beirut, Hizbullah supporters were shooting them off; at such a distance, they barely broke the horizon. Tiny little sparks and flashes in the sky... the sounds of the display distant, just echoes muted by the air between them and me.
A small line of cars and scooters - a group of Hizbullah supporters from the south, traversing the city in a hastily assembled parade. Together, there may have been 10 or 15 vehicles, moving like an amoeba up and down the still-abandoned major throughfares. I caught them just as they were passing the UN building; they stopped there to taunt the guards out front, to wave their one or two Hizbullah flags with ferocity. I barely caught them to get even this picture - the group was so small, moving so fast. I realized upon seeing them that they were not politicians, elected officials or even some group representative of a commonly held idea or opinion. It was simply a bunch of teenagers - 14, 18 some 22 yrs old - no older. It was a bunch of kids with a reason to ride mopeds through the streets and yell. This was no noble demonstration of a nation's or even of Hizbullah's 'victory' - this was...nothing.
For the past few days, I have oscillated between these feelings (a-d):
a) The feeling of angsty confusion at the Lebanese themselves for not coming together post-conflict!:
I want to scream on a soapbox: Yes, you are a war-torn country. Yes you are divided by confession, by politics, by history…but…did you all not suffer through this together? Hariri’s death, the spark of March 14th – the “Cedar Revolution” – was a different event, a different time - but not also so similar? Some have said that he was the one person that could have brought Lebanon together – but it wasn’t true! You did it, you all chose as individuals to join together under the flag, to march in unity. To rid your country of violence, of Syria - Is that dead now? Are you tired? Is that it? Should I hold off here and just let some time pass? Is that the right way to be? Am I...ugh...am I being too American?
The feelings reminded me of conversations with friends from Iran. Talking politics, we all agreed that as it stood those currently in the seats of power in Iran were not 'good news' for the people there. You get on the edge of your seat: "well, what can we do"
IranianFriend: "You can do nothing. You should do nothing. We will do it. We have to do it. It will take many years, a very long time to change things for the better. But we do not want war, we do not want revolution. Not like the last revolution - what did we get from that? All we got was blood. We will do it our own way."
Selim (to me): “You cannot be upset at this. This was humanitarian solidarity, yes, but this was not political solidarity. Look, here, there are four kinds of voters. The first kind is the kind that is fanatically devoted to their confession and to that confession's politician and to the block. The second kind is the kind that votes because of the services that their politician will get for them. And then there is the third kind and I hate this kind! – the kind that vote just because this person is the best of the worst, you know? There is the fourth kind - there are a few that will go through the categories and erase the names on the cards and instead of voting for a block will pick and choose…”
Me: “How do you vote?”
Selim: “How do I vote?”
Me: “In the last election how did you vote? Did you vote for all the categories?"
Selim: “There was no one that I thought was good. But I voted. I went to the box and I dropped in a blank card.”
b) The feeling of anger at the Lebanese gov't for not coming together post conflict:
One of the root causes of this conflict was the lack of a strong centralized government of Lebanon. The government - as I’m sure we all know – is divided along sectarian lines. An AUB professor explains to NPR the basics of the divisions here.
The voting system demands that you vote for a set number of politicians from each confession. Politicians will organize themselves into blocks, will hand voters a filled out card with then names of their blockmembers from each confession already filled in.
The sectarian system has always been destined to breed corruption. Imagine being grouped politically by something as personal as religion. Say you had a truly miserable politician representing you – it would still take a lot for you to consider ever voting for someone outside your religious fold – how could you trust that they would understand your point of view? Once in power, Parliamentarians here keep their people assuaged by giving them gifts. By providing them with the sort of public services and things that the central gov’t could and should; but the central gov’t is weak and divided because politicians continue to promote their ideological conflicts rather than build bridges for the common. Divisions grow, the same oligarchy remains in power, lines pockets… It’s an endless cycle, a debilitating circle.
It's a dirty understanding but this, at least, is how I've come to understand how the system works through conversations with the people here...when you can get them to invest in a conversation that is easier to avoid. I remember how Khawlah simply got quiet when I asked her...
Because of this and of the idea that it might just be too son, I cannot hold a grudge against the Lebanese citizen that simply returns to his shop with a mute expression and continues focusing on the one thing he truly has control over: the tomato display outside his shop.
With Hariri’s death, there was at least a figure, a leader, an icon to rally around. Now, it seems, the country can’t even decide what flag it likes best. A few recent polls allude to the allure of Hizbullah. Although, from all that I've seen ...people here don't strike me as pro-Hizbullah because they're committed to the overarching ideology of the group or military action...it's probably much different in the south. But up and down the country I think the overarching appeal of Hizbullah is simply that it acts. In some ways, it works.
Perhaps too because of the up in the air questions...perhaps it's just too soon to expect anything great from the government...still, the feeling that the moment has passed, that an opportunity is being lost...is just...it's just me, I know, it's just my vision of how this conflict might have motivated a subtle shift that might ensure against future conflicts...
In the ensuing days, Talal’s shifted once more. The war reporters left, replaced by another breed of freelancer – a more gentle type – the “reconstruction coverage” freelancer. A whole crew from Spain. All nice people, all asking me questions about where the stories were. I could tell them that the taxi drivers were no longer haggling quite as hard as it seems to be the common consensus that fuel will be widely available again soon. Other than that, I had nothing for them, my stomach in knotted disappointment every time they asked. Talal no longer sat on the balcony and stared at the port in anticipation during the nightly blackouts. Instead, he went back to more quotidian pursuits without a word. There was the matter of the new air conditioner to be installed, etc.
Only one cab driver from the Southern suburbs remained at Talal’s after the cease-fire. He’s probably about sixty or so. Since I’ve known him, I’ve heard him introduce himself to all of the ‘guests’ that come in and out of the place the very same way: “Hello. You know why I am here? I have a house! I have a house, I have many houses! They are gone (arms gesticulating) they are gone. This is why I am here.” All this in relatively garbled English on top of a speech impediment caused by his toothless lower jaw. “I have – I have many sons. 45, 43, 42 (years of age). They are not here. They are (hand wave ‘up’, which I've come to think means 'up North' and not 'Heaven', which is what I thought originally). You (to any tenant) you are like my son.”
When he said this to me the first time, I thought that he meant he had a son that sat around staring at the wall and thinking about how to crack society’s ills. After you hear him say it to four, five, eight people night after night, his loneliness starts to make its impression.
At night, sleeping in the same room, you will notice two things about ToothlessTaxiDriver. A) he is overcome with flatulence (particularly after he drinks) and b) he screams in Arabic in his sleep. I stayed up on Wednesday night unable to sleep, watching him gesticulate unconsciously.
Who will mourn the living?
The next morning, I checked out. Thursday. I carried my bags to the office and told Selim I needed to stay with him. I told him that the Hostel was exhausting me. I was intent on getting my head straight. Intent on sticking by him, on working on ideas to keep this momentum driving, every minute more acutely aware of what this man has been up against for so long, of the systemic roots of his intellectual prowess, his empathy and his indefatigable sense of humor. They’re tools.
The politicization of even major catastrophes is nothing new to any of us. It’s commonplace. The spin, the use of the public’s raw emotion for some political gain. Here, the various political factions all set up shop in the shelters across the city, happily providing services to the temporary residents with their flags and banners properly hung.
In Nejmeh Square, the centerpiece of Hariri’s reconstruction, the Future Party has made the best attempt at garnering some solidarity that I’ve yet seen.
Still, even this seems empty--a series of signs; hung in a city center that has been empty for weeks. Before the war they had been frequented mainly by the wealthy and trendy.
As I sat by and listened to ToothlessTaxiDriver scream and fart, I comforted myself by indulging in the act of planning. I thought more about the concert idea. I came to Selim on Thursday with a new plan:
Me (to Selim): "Just, just hear me out on this, OK? We're not going to be able to hold a simple relief concert without some politician just putting their name all over it, right? Which is b*******; so I think that we should just go in knowing that. We go in, we look for four or five powerful politicians to OK this idea but say 'look, here's the thing - just allow the people to do something good for themselves here without hijacking it. All we want is a simple concert - this isn't your publicity event, just let us have some relief. Right. So then, they'll obviously say 'no'; THEN, we go to the net. We start a net petition simply stating the very simple concert idea, that we wanted if for the people, by the people but that we weren't allowed to do this thing without some politician wanting to buy into it. We circulate that, we get hundreds ...whatever we get as many signatures as we can and then we take out a few newspaper pages saying "Look! Look! The people wanted the simplest thing in the world and the government couldn't do this - we make a huge deal about it and we keep hitting them until they respond."
Selim (to me): “I am telling you that – look, I have been doing this for 15 years. And I admire you – I admire that you have will. But just let me offer you my experience. The people will not come without the politicians. It is a two-way street here. This is Lebanon. And who is this concert for now? You’re not gonna do it for the displaced – they are all leaving. They are going back to their homes.”
This is where I get caught, always. I so admire the idea that people are actually going to rebuild. That they will, that in spite of the exhaustion and loss they are back in their cars and going to do it. And you’re caught again – right after that thought – in the cycle; what are we doing to prevent them from having to rebuild again in five years? Five weeks?
What are we doing? What are we all doing? How do we better understand and play our roles?
Me (to SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer): “At least they get the virgins right? Isn’t that the Martyr’s fate? The 40 virgins and…there’s gold involved?”
SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer: “It will be a mess.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer: “It will all be fighting. They will all be fighting over the virgins. They will be trying to trade them. No! (thinking again) It will not be like that. If you die and you are the sort of person who would fight about virgins, you would not go to Heaven. So it will be peaceful.”
Me: “So they all go to Hell? You should probably tell them that. Who goes to Heaven then? If no fighters?”
SDCCRHV: “No one! None of the Lebanese! We fight. We are fighters.”
Me: “I don’t get this. I don’t get the ‘still fighting’ thing. I get the history. I get the struggle. It just seems at this point people would be probably really tired, probably really willing to talk - not out of weakness - just because...that's what always happens. It always goes to talking - fighting does not work. Before this whole thing started – why not – if you’re Israel or you’re Hizbullah you arrange a trade – you say, look we will exchange prisoners for rockets? Where is the other idea? Is that it? What if you took some time to imagine this place without fighting…I mean, what is your vision of the world without fighting?”
SDCCRHV: “They would never do it.”
Me: “Humor me, humor me – what is your vision? What would it look like?”
SDCCRHV: “They wouldn’t do it.”
Me: “I’m not talking about NOT fighting, I’m talking about focusing all this at something else - at construction, at economic growth, at research and education, at building railways between nation capitals, about tourism, about …about…”
SDCCRHV: “They would fight about who will build the railroad.”
So, to c:
c) The feeling of sickness that this was not only a war between individuals in seats of power at the expense of the innocent in the middle (tending to his tomatoes), but even at this level there has been no change. It seems, really and truly that this was almost all for nothing on even a state and worldwide level. That over 1000 people on both sides died for ...what? WHAT!?
I’d be willing to take a modicum of solace from any change. All seem generally negative, though. Possibly, Hizbullah has gained some supporters, possibly Iran is more popular here, possibly the Israeli public is searching for a different way to go about this. Perhaps there is some good; perhaps the US public is breaking ranks, perhaps the US has used Israel through this whole thing only to learn that hitting hill-burrowed targets (see: Iran) with missiles doesn't work; perhaps all states have finally learned some lesson about dealing with non-state actors, perhaps they have finally learned that military operations do not work.
One can only hope that it's actually true that the NeoCon crew is rethinking the idea of remapping the middle east, has realized that ideas and influence cross borders and what are you going to do to "redraw the map" (whatever that means, even) whenever there's a new idea? Or the reverse, say the ideas stay in place - wouldn't the resultant neighboring communities will be so opposed, so out-of-touch with 'the others' on the other side of the border that war would simply be viewed as a more justifyable course of action (over talking) than it is now? With no background of relatability, no common humanity, wouldn't enemizing the other to whatever end be all that more simple? What about sticking to what you're supposed to do? What about bolstering civil society so that instead of creating divisions you work on enhancing the societal skills of the constituency? If we can teach young people calculus by 18, can't we teach them how to talk? How and why to cooperate? Perhaps the role of the State - the powers it does and does not have - might finally be becoming a bit clearer.
Of course, this is all useless unless we remember and hold to account. Unless we remain vigilant.
In the south, the same palpable threat and looming question that essentially sparked this conflict remains the same. There is, of course, a new addition to the equation - the presence of a more robust international force. Were this addressed before the conflict, were this the first step rather than the full scale invasion of the south perhaps the hundreds on both sides might not have had to meet such stomach-turning deaths. Selim (to me): "Sometimes, you have to escalate the conflict in order to solve the conflict". How many times do we have to 'escalate', I wonder? What is the appeal of war as a mechanism for change? The immediacy? The graphic nature of it? What alternative catalyst for change could you deploy around an issue to gain popular support for healthy change/negotiation/solution development other than killing? What other incentives exist?
d) The potent feeling of embarrassment: Was I was just a sucker to have imagined this as a potential catalyst to Lebanese solidarity and reform? A sucker to have never opened myself to the idea that this has happened before, that this happens? It's just wait and see, it's just wait and see...the conflict still steams, things are still far from ultimately settled...we'll wait and see if something sparks. I admit fully, humbly, that I am eons away from understanding the collective mindset of the region.
For the most part, (a-d) is over.
Selim (to me, today): "Saturday, don't make any plans. We are going to the South. Don't make any plans, ok?"
Me: "What plans would I make? - I don't do anything except sleep and then go to the SDC office."
The SDC continues to run its Crisis period programs ad-hoc; but as the numbers dwindle, the crew spends more and more time preparing for the future of the organization. Selim has developed the "Save Tomorrow's Humanity Today" program - we launch the 'Post Crisis' phase in two weeks. Phase Two will go for two years - it's Selim's long term plan to build solidarity. It's large and impressive. The SDC will launch a series of national activities (all designed to be fun with a social incentive twist): bus tours from the northerly/non-affected areas to bring those untouched by the war to the South, to witness the destruction, to speak with the residents there, work on projects together. Selim has this amazing bag of tricks - a series of fun activities that he does with people to help them work together. For the coming two years, he'll be using the war as conversation piece to bridge divides. There are summer camps planned (again for the coming two summers) which will also take place in the south. Selim will host thousands of children, will walk them through exercises in identity, will introduce them to the idea of being Lebanese, of building solidarity.
I have begun to realize how large and deep a problem the ongoing conflict know as the Middle East actually is. Looking at the sentence, I feel young and dumb...I have known from reading and talking with others how it has affected them, have been able to see it from the outsides and say 'well, that seems incredibly complicated'. But it has been an entirely greater education to actually feel it. It has been a powerful lesson to absorb, so large that I fought accepting it for the past few days as it seemed simply too big. For days, I've been up at night again. Pacing, feeling exhausted, trying to just breathe.
I was wrong, though, about it being too big. I came to Lebanon with conviction – granted on shaky legs, but still standing strong - empowered by the idea that one person (the individual, the empathetic human being) was the single most powerful force in conflict resolution. That the presence of empathy (buttressed by forward thinking and pragmatic planning, granted…cautiously made steps) could be relief in itself.
This is true--with one caveat. Empathy and trust building require incessant turning of the other cheek, require steadfast commitment, require an enlightened understanding that any falter is total loss. You must be on, all the time. You must "be the change you want to see", etc. You cannot simply 'employ' empathy as much as it and other qualities such as strength, intelligence, commitment can be tools. You have got to live it. You have to bleed it. You have to accept the role of being the best link in the chain.
I think most believe that this sort of person is some sort of fantasy, that that level of commitment (that I can only assume the coming years of international conflict will demand from each of us) no longer exists. It's been interesting, then, for the past few weeks, to have sat next to and worked alongside such an individual.
It didn’t come as a surprise to me when Selim told me that his undergraduate education was in architecture. He'll sit here, next to me in the office at times during the day facing his laptop. I watch his eyes. He’s building in his head. Assembling the pieces and the path he will lead the children on through his ‘summer camps’ in the coming two years; working through how he will develop solidarity among the youth of Lebanon through games and activities. You can see the corners of his mouth turn up just slightly now and again when he gets to the end of a successful mental run-through of a camp session or a weekend retreat. I imagine that in his mind’s eye he is witnessing how startled the children are to realize that they have made a true friend with a person of an opposing ideology.
He is doing it. He is certainly one of the most intrepid men I’ve ever met, but I don’t consider him uniquely gifted. Selim has simply committed himself to living his life in service to the ultimate good. He now employs the gifts I think we're all given in a more consistent way. He lives to build new tools to release the potential of us all. He has made his choice. He has made and continues to make his Stand. And he makes it look easy.
Tomorrow we go to the South. I'll spend the day helping Selim and the team work out logistics for the camp sites, the base of operations for the solidarity building camps and retreats for the next two years. I'm painfully aware of how - particularly after all of my negativity on this post - one might assume that this is a fool's errand.
It's not. Selim knows how to draw the people in with fun, with the proper incentives. As fractured as the people of this country and region are, they are capable of such unity. I have witnessed it.
I first arrived in Beirut on June 9th--the night of the World Cup. Perhaps thinking that what I had seen then - just a mass of people, a crowd of Lebanese all huddled about projection screens set up by the Nejmeh Square cafes - might possibly have been a single group, just Sunni or Shi'a or Christian or just one party dominating the place, I asked Selim in the car today what groups had comprised that crowd. Had there been only one group represented there that night?
Selim (to me, in the car on the way to the office): "Oh no, oh no. No they were all there. We all come out for the World Cup."
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Goliath is right and wrong, at least according to popular opinion and the common interpretations of 1701 which is set to go into effect at 8 am tomorrow, local time. The strength of the resolution, of course, is in question around the world.
Selim (to me, at the SDC today): "You said you would be leaving us when there is a cease-fire, right?"
Me: "Right, right. Well, plans change. But that's the plan-ish." (I've elected to go to graduate school in the fall. The only program of its kind that I could find - an MA in 'Human Values and Contemporary Global Ethics". I'm supposed to be there in late September. It's a 'working plan'.)
Selim: "Let me tell you something, there is not going to be a cease-fire. No one respects these resolutions. Hizbullah did not respect them, Israel sure as heck does not respect them. You will be with us here for a while."
Selim repeated the sentiment later on in the day. He had decided that after weeks of continuous work, the SDC crew deserved an afternoon of rest; he put together a barbecue for us. Two hours into the celebration (while Selim was leading us in chants and cheers - there were traditional Lebanese songs and dancing - I was trying to figure out how it was that the pelvises of Lebanese women could gyrate with such autonomy from the rest of their body without actually dislocating from the spine) Israel shook Beirut again. I went for my camera.
Selim: "Look, they will be back. You're going to go? They will be back - this is never the end." (In Lebanese bars - once everyone is good and tipsy - one of the 'dirty jokes' you'll hear from the war-weary patrons trying to make light of the situation is: "You are American? Let me tell you about Lebanon. Lebanon is like a woman, yes? It needs to bleed every month. And it will never go to the menopausal stage, this woman.") Me (to Selim): "It's just something that I need to do...I just want to see it before I go. I think now there's a chance they will stay away from Beirut."
There had been one thing sticking in my mind since my encounter with the freelancers: I had judged them (publicly) as blood thirsty while having no idea what they had been through. E (intrepid freelancer who had disappeared into the South for a few days and had been pushed into a van full of bodies) had mentioned that the freelancer goes into a mode, a professional way of being when gore was shoved into his face. He framed it with his camera. And I do that too--as evidenced by this blog. My way of pacing out the overwhelming waves of emotional input that hit me: I frame them, command them, they are mine. I am no longer at their whim...I can reflect on them, learn and grow.
Was the 'blood thirst' not their inherent nature but instead simply their human (perhaps extreme) reaction to the situation? Their one and only way of dealing with all that they had seen? Was I wrong to judge?
Mona (to me, on the Corniche, by the sea): "She just sits in her room. She has been there for days. She is just crying...crying all the time. I tell her, 'you must eat you must do something' - she is going to go blind, I tell her."
Mona and Rafik - along with a few hundred others - have come down to the shore to collect the latest message from the Israelis. Leaving the the NetCafe in Hamra, I heard ...like a party-favor but perhaps 100 times as loud. I ran, rounded corners, looking to the skies for smoke or to the sides of buildings for evidence of shelling even though I knew by the noise what I had heard couldn't have been a shell or a strike. Still, everyone poured into the streets. We all looked up to see the flyers floating down like sick sparrows. I had seen the flyers from the Israeli army many times in the past, but had never had a 'capsule' of them explode right over my head.
Once we'd all realized that it was just another 'letter', the majority of the folks in the street started to laugh and crack jokes. I haven't been able to figure out what the Israeli army has hoped to gain from any of these messages. I suppose, like any propaganda, the aim has been to win support for their campaign or at least turn the tide of thinking against Hizbullah. But the whole idea of dropping warnings and strongly worded notes "from the skies above" hasn't served to frighten or change the minds of the people here, at least in Beirut. If anything, it's backfired-- they are further antagonized, and convinced that Israel is either a) ignorant of the Lebanese mindset, b) single-mindedly militant or c) just kind of dumb.
Mona: "It says the names of the Hizbullah that have been killed. These are the names that Israel says they have killed."
Rafik: "But this is not true! This is never true! They have done this before and the next day, one of the soldiers that they said that they killed came on television and he said 'Look, look am I dead!?' How would they know who has been killed?"
Me: "Well, how do we know who has been killed?"
Rafik: "When a soldier is killed, Hizbullah presents a gift to the family of the martyr - this is how we know. Israel has said they have killed 450 - there have only been 45 killed! We know this! Nasrallah - he tells the truth! He tells the truth and he wants peace. All Lebanese want peace. We do not want war."
We watched some of the children in area giggle as they tracked the falling paper; most of it had blown into the sea while falling. I asked Mona and Rafik why they were still in Beirut.
Mona: "We are working with many volunteers. Helping the people. Helping the people without shelter. They are living in the garbage, most of them. We give them food, sometimes clothes. There is one - do you know Qana? Do you know what happened? We have a woman from a place close by - also hit. She is staying with us now, crying all the time. When the bombs, when the missiles hit the house there was a huge explosion and her children - you have seen the pictures of the children who are burned? - her daughter was killed. The bomb burned the child's skin and hair off. The skin it fell off. The woman, when she found her child, she took her hand and brushed the child's hair away to see its face and the woman took all the child's skin and hair off in her hand. She just sits in her room. She has been there for days. She is just crying...crying all the time."
What did i come here for? I've moved passed the idea of representing 'America'-- an impossible task + ineffectual: Why narrow the potential of individual choice within the limited framework of the definition of the State? The individual: so powerful. The Stand.
So, if as an individual my goal is simply to provide an strong, human presence and apply whatever applicable skills I have towards securing relief for innocents caught in the cross fire, what fuels and guides that process? What is it that helps me to make good decisions in a situation like this? To be not just here, but effective while here?
Simple strategic thinking gets you where you need to be to make the impact; I found my way back, found a great organization doing progressive and intelligent work to address the root causes of continued conflict. But I've found that it's just sheer empathy that shows you how to be when it comes time to speak, to be there - to be there for kids, or to struggle through conversations with people who look at you the wrong way at the outset. You're there to build the bridge. To do that, you need to know the direction the bridge needs to go. Empathy as a skill.
In spite of all the 'showing up' I've done, all the conversations I've had, all the assistance (even the small amount) I've feel I've been able to provide in one way or another, I realize that I am still too far away from knowing the zip code of where the other end of the bridge needs to go. In truth, there's never one 'other end'; everyone is always different. Everywhere. Empathy as a skill: listening, searching for clues to inform your identification.
But with this demographic, with so many traumatized in the middle east, with an entire region so painfully accustomed to war, it would benefit that process of creating case-by-case bridges by doing all that you can to equip yourself with a strong understanding of the society, the events, the people. For now and for the future conversations. I am at the point where I need to know more about loss.
Simply, Selim looks saddened. He has organized this wonderful outing for us all; I feel sheepish telling him that I'm going to chase down a taxi and go to the impact site from the bombs we have just heard. I suddenly feel my nationality and all that it implies here. "There will be other times." Me: "I know, I know there will be other times." There will be for him, but my path will take me out of Beirut at some point soon. If by some small chance the cease-fire holds, this will be the last time in broad daylight I will be able to see the aftermath of twenty bombs delivered from above in quick succession, that cost, that loss. I have felt the bombs, I have seen the smoke from the distance...but no, I have never seen a burnt child at my feet, I have never seen a head being put into a bag. It's a sickening desire to have, but I just want to know.
Selim: "You take this then." He is worried, he hands me his glass of Arak and water. "Cheers." I drink and leave.
The French Educated Reporter is at the party; she has been on the phone since the echoes of the strikes; she has connections, knows where the hits were and knows where to tell the taxi to take us. She will find us a safe route, she says. We drive, she is on the phone and I hate what I am doing.
We are going to the southern suburbs. "It is forbidden to you" FER says to me. Me: "Just get me as close as you can."
The backroads we take turn out to be a tour through the past few weeks of strikes. Bridges are bombed out and taped off. At the top of one of the hills, the taxi driver stops the car. He starts speaking with FER. She looks back at me. "He will not go any further. We are asking him to put his life in danger. He wants to turn around."
Me: "How much money will it take?"
FER: "He wants to turn around."
We had reached a hill overlooking the city. Around us, others had stopped their cars; from the road, you could see the smoke in the distance. We watched the plume - one of the largest in the entire offensive - drift up for a few moments; it seemed farther away to me then than similar images I had seen with my own eyes or on television.
I'm still struggling with the paradox that caged my brain on the way home - the conflicting feelings at remembering Selim: 'It's never over'. I was struck first with the feeling of comfort - I would again have the opportunity to feel through such an experience and grow for the sake of service later on in life...should the need again arise to provide that service to someone that might need the helping.
The second feeling was disgust at having actually looked forward to some travesty happening somewhere for the sake of personal gain - even with the best of intentions.
Tomorrow at 9 o'clock I will head back into the SDC. Selim and I will talk cease-fire, what it means, will talk about the transition the organization will begin to consider making from 'crisis-mode' to 'post-crisis'. We will brew coffee on the gas stove on the porch of the office. All the plans will be tentative. Everyone's plans now are tentative. With a toothless resolution, a veritable war by proxy, and influential western partners seemingly occupied by other happenings, the people here are saying that a continuation of a conflict without oversight or accountability - a slipping back from even this tiniest of steps forward - is where we should make our plans. Here, there is only the faintest air of hope. I try to breathe it in and hold it.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Two days ago, Israel expanded its bombing campaign in Beirut for the first time into an area that included Christians - the Eastern Europeans, the Spainaird and the New Zealander were all there moments after the strike.
Me (close to midnight, in the hostel): 'How did you get down?'
EE1: 'We took a taxi. We got in and told him where we wanted to go. He said 'I know where is it, I just escaped from there. Really good luck."
Freelance reporters are more savage than most of the staff reporters I've come to know at any of the networks or papers here; they're working to make a name for themselves, they're in it for the risks, for the shock. They are vultures. They sat in the dorm room until well past one loading up their jpegs onto portable Macs, exasperated in joy at the sheer carnage they'd be able to capture. It was like kids picking over their candy after a successful Halloween.
EE1: "How did you get this!?" (It was a picture of a man putting a human head into a plastic bag.)
NZ: "He climbed up there, onto the roof where the bodies that had been inside had to go up."
S: "They were bringing the bodies up there, the ones they couldn't bring down...the whole roof. Where I was, there were all the bodies and the parts. They were putting them in bags because they will have to wrap all the parts."
EE2: "But you need...(poking his leg)...you need flesh, you need flesh!"
S: "Look here" (pointing to pictures of arms, etc)
EE2: "No no, is an arm - is part - just, you need just flesh - flesh!"
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Selim took some time to joke with the SDC staff yesterday about Israel's recent note to the civilians of Beirut. They've been dropping pamphlets all over the country recently to let people know that they should leave, should not drive large vehicles, etc.
Selim: "It says Hassan – because we all know him, we all know him by his first name – it says he played with fire and now the people of Lebanon are getting burned. Do not support Hizbullah. Shalom!" The staff laugh.
Diana: "But now he is going back on his words." Diana and Goliath independently confirm for me the general opinion of the public - Nasrallah is changing his tune. He couldn't keep the border, he has had to backpeddle; instead of "drive out Israel" he's switched his message to one of death in-country. Still ominous, but a clear sign of defeat.
Diana and I are driving to Sanayeh Park. I believe her to be the Lebanese goddess of winding her (family's) SUV through unsettlingly small openings in the traffic/people until she hits a tow truck.
Me: "It's your family's car? You're family is still here?"
Diana: "Where would we go? We do not have a place in the mountains or villages. We are from Beirut, all of us."
Me: "Are they involved in the relief effort too?"
Diana: "My Father - he asks me why I am doing this. He says this is Hizbullah's doing. They should do what you're doing, he says. I don't believe it's that. I don't believe that this is a question of 2 prisoners. This is a question of political autonomy for Lebanon. They don't like us to have democracy, to have political independence."
Me: "But why? Why wouldn't Israel want to actually have peace with Lebanon?"
Diana: "This is not defense. No, it is economic. Why would they do this to the whole country? Why do all of this?"
We pass one of the few gas stations in the city; I realize that the deadlocked line of cars and trucks leading up to it is the cause of the multi-block traffic. People here are allowed a few liters three times a week and line up hours in advance to get as much as they can before the fuel delivery runs out. Cops and military personnel oversee the delivery of the fuel, screaming at cars to back off and allow a red-cross truck in to fill up. Everyone is suffering.
Diana: "The tourism of Lebanon, the industry here takes from the Israeli network. Arab tourists come here rather than go to the south of France or Spain. I have been, I have studied in France. All of the tourist places are owned by Jews or Americans or people sympathetic to the Israeli network. This is not self defense, this is economic."
As we pull up to the garden, we're waved to circle the block and find some other place to park by yet another soldier. Inside, there has been a fight; there are military, police and ambulances trying to bring order to the people as we enter.
The second thing we see is the work of another group:
The SDC specializes in fostering Lebanese solidarity in a non-political, non-confessional way. Our goal with kids is to keep them positive, remind them that anything is doable, get them thinking about visions of the future and non-violent solutions to war. Other groups in Lebanon do not share that mission. They've been using this atrocity as a means of solidifying a certain kind of hatred in the kids' minds, having them draw only pictures of what they've lost and what they hate.
Diana (in the park): "But most people here they don't support Hizbullah. 80% hate them but they will never speak out. They are the only armed ones." Another volunteer, a girl of fourteen still in braces touches my shoulder. Diana: "Oh, she is saying that we do not touch the children in the park. It's much dirtier in the park than in the schools. Here, the children…how…what is the word? They have…"(makes little crawling motion on her arm).
They have fleas.
Diana gathers the kids in Sanayeh Park together for the day's activity. It's a young group today, 3-6 year olds mostly. We explain the exercise and do it alongside them. It's simple. On one side of the paper you draw your house after the attack; on the other side you draw your dream of your house in the future or what you're looking forward to doing after the war.
After I finished taking pictures with the kids and showing them to them (my primary way of communicating), I started taking photos of the rest of the park/camp/shelter.
There were three news crews when I got there. One Norwegian, one local and one Iranian woman from the Iranian national press.
IranianReporter (whispering to me as I framed the birdcage): "It's like the Israeli occupation." I lowered the camera and laughed with her. Some of the dark humor lately has been pretty comforting (this video has been playing on various computers in the net cafe for the past few days...) She smiled. She stared at me. "Where are you from?"
"United States - I'm working with -"
"Oh, you support Israel then"
"Actually - ah, I definitely don't 'support' anything here, either side in this. You just have all these people in the middle -"
"You support Israel. You are American. It is the same as Israel." That smile! Just beaming at me...
"No, it's not."
"It is. You are a murderer."
I have this bad habit of walking away from people that I think are frustrating. Then I went back to her.
"Exuse me, would you please take that back?"
"What you said right now to me, would you please apologize for it?"
"You are American-"
"America is a big place and not all of us want what's happening here for a lot of different reasons. And, whatever the reasons, I'm just here to help this organization work with these kids."
"But you vote for Bush!"
"49% of 300 million did not vote for Bush - that's a lot of people - It was a polarized election and there's a lot more to what's happening in that country -" (we're pretty much a foot apart from each other now - she is smiling while I am gritting my teeth...I am doing a stupid thing.)
"Oh you vote for Kerry – he is the same as Bush! You sell the bombs. You give Israel the bombs"
"Um, I haven't ever built or sold a bomb in my life. Again, I'm here just spending time with these kids."
"You are a murderer, yes? You kill people. You are a murderer." Gah! Smile!
"I think you're pretty crazy and really pretty ill-informed for a reporter. Have a good day." Walk away. Hate walking away. Hate having to shake head and walk away.
I went back to the kids and asked Diana to translate what one of the little girls was talking with her about. Diana: "She says she is going home tomorrow – (leaning in to whisper to me) they tell all the children that. Tomorrow, they tell them."
Diana tells me as I'm leaving that they fight in the park had been caused by a notorious family here that will often attack new families that have recently arrived.
Diana: "The park is different than the schools. They come here and stay here because they like the freedom here. These are the people who do not want to go to the schools. They steal food and blankets. Curfew in the schools is normally 9 or 10 pm. I have a friend helping in the mountains. There, four adults - they came and asked for a woman!"
Me: "Were they joking?"
Diana: "No! They said it was an emergency need. Normally you ask for milk or blankets…The women now, they are asking for…the pill--contraception? An old woman asked for a small private room for her son and his new wife. She said they were newly married and they didn't have the chance to…you know….to practice!
D: "Yesterday we went to the school. There was a pool of waste water. Horrible. Sewer water. I tried to pull the kids out to distract them to do something else. You know what they did? They kicked it at me, the water, with their foot. It was like a game."
Selim told me that story when came back from field work yesterday, too. He immediately announced that as part of the hygiene-in-the-shelter course for kids, we would be buying the children soap. "I don't care, we're buying soap. We will tell them this it is a pet or something that they must keep with them all the time."
Yesterday, I didn't go to the schools; I was busy doing the org's budget for the coming two years of relief programming. Halfway through the afternoon I heard shelling and realized I needed to enter in a new line item: "Emergency Relocation Fund (in case of destroyed office)".
Before leaving the park I stopped to take a picture of an old man's prayer beads.
Old Man: "I am praying although I know we will have a victory soon."
Diana: "Look, when you have children drawing these, I think we already have a victory."
OM: "Look at this - this is not defense. Children? They have no guns to defend themselves. There is a song -'Lebanon is a piece of Heaven'. I believe this, I believe we have God. Where are you from?"
Me (stomach tight): "I'm from the United States...sorry."
OM: "Why are you sorry?"
Me: "I get strong reactions when I say that here."
OM: "Why? We don't' hate Americans here! In Lebanon? No. But if you apologize to me you are saying to me that you have done something wrong to me. If you are that image, if you are that image then we will judge you as that image. The people of Beirut, we do not hate Americans. We hate the policy, yes, but you? You are here! Not you. We like Americans. You must be proud, you are doing good."
Me (to Selim, back at the office): "Selim, can you tell me something? Am I....I hope you understand this...but to you am I ...do I like...you know the MidEast has this perception of 'all Americans'...is that me? Am I that?"
Selim (laughing): "You are losing your nationalism Thomas! You are losing your nationalism!"
Me: "I don't know - I don't know where I am with this - I know that I still love my country but ...seems really far away from where I am...very far away from what I'm doing. I don't know - I LOVE the United States...just frazzled...I don't feel like a United States citizen...I...it's like some of my identity has been worn away by this."
Selim: "This is good. You love your country, this is good to be a patriot. But when you start thinking of yourself as unique, you start to have something to protect, you start to have conflict. I think that you are a patriot yes, but you are not a nationalist. To me. I will make you a certificate if you want. Look, it's good to be part of your country. Look, we had a memorial here; there was a gathering in the city to mourn the dead in the conflict. And nobody went. Here, they do not care. 'This is a Hizbullah problem' or 'this is somebody else's problem.' They do not mourn even the dead of their own country! This is what we must change."