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."