Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Siege Notes by Rasha Salti – first hand account of living through the assault on Lebanon

London Review of Books | Vol. 28 No. 15 dated 3 August 2006

14 July. I am writing from a café in the Hamra district of West Beirut. The electricity has been cut off for a while now, and the city has been surviving on generators. The café is dark, hot and humid. Espresso machines and blenders are silent. Conversations, rumours, frustration waft through the room. Occasionally the sound of Israeli warplanes overwhelms us. They drop leaflets. Yesterday, they advised inhabitants of the southern suburbs to flee because the night promised to be ‘hot’. Today, the leaflets warn that all remaining bridges and tunnels in Beirut will be bombed.

This morning, I sent emails telling people that I was safe, that the targets seemed to be strictly Hizbullah sites and their constituencies. I regret typing that. Until a few hours ago, Israel had only bombed the airport runways, as if to ‘limit’ the damage, but then four shells were dropped on our brand-new terminal building.

The apartment where I am living has a magnificent view of the bay of Beirut. Last night I could see the Israeli warships firing at their leisure. It’s astounding how comfortable they are in our skies, in our waters.

The French and English-speaking bourgeoisie has fled to the Christian areas in the mountains. Most of the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs left the country in Pullman buses via Damascus, before the road was bombed. The contrast between their panic and the defiance of the inhabitants of the southern suburbs was almost comical. This time, though, I have to admit, I am tired of defying whatever for whatever cause.

This is all bringing back memories of 1982. It was summer then as well. The Israeli army marched through the south and besieged Beirut. For three months, the US administration kept urging the Israeli military to act with restraint. And the Israelis assured them they were doing so. The PLO command was in West Beirut then. I felt safe with the handsome fighters. How I miss them. Between Hizbullah and the Lebanese army I don’t feel safe. We are exposed, defenceless, pathetic. And I am older, more aware of danger. I am 37 years old and scared. The sound of the warplanes frightens me. There is no more fight left in me. And there is no solidarity, no real cause.

I am also pissed off because no one realises how hard the postwar reconstruction was. Hariri did not work miracles. Every single bridge and tunnel and highway, the airport runways, all of these things were built at three times their real cost, because of kickbacks. We accepted this just to get things done. We wanted only to have a society which stood on its feet, more or less. A thriving Arab civil society. Schools were sacrificed for roads to service neglected rural areas or so that Syrian officers could get richer, and we accepted that the road was desperately needed, and that there was the ‘precarious national consensus’ to protect. Social safety nets were given up, as was universal healthcare, unions were broken and co-opted, public spaces taken over, and we bowed our heads and acquiesced. Palestinian refugees were hidden from sight, and we accepted it. In exchange we had a secular country where Hizbullah and the Lebanese forces could coexist and fight their fights in parliament, not with bullets. We bit our tongues, we protested and were defeated, we took to the streets, defied curfews, time after time, to protect that modicum of civil rights, that semblance of democracy. And it takes just one air raid for the fruits of all our sacrifices to be blown to smithereens.

16 July. The day was heavy with shelling from the air and sea. So far the night has been quiet, though we were advised to brace ourselves. Most advice is about as reliable as reading tea-leaves, however.

I visited friends this morning. Most cafés in West Beirut are closed and the streets are quiet. The city huddles in its neighbourhoods; main thoroughfares are avoided. People now gather in the houses of those who have electricity, whose lift works, whose family obligations are minimal enough to enable them to play host to an antsy crowd eager for social exchange. Everyone this morning apart from me seemed resigned to the siege. Israel’s aim is not only to dismember this country and cripple communication, but also to challenge support for Hizbullah. When I complain that my life is a small hell and I can’t take it anymore, as I did yesterday and maybe a little bit today, I am being an agent of Israel.

I am still dumbfounded by the response of Arab regimes. Do we not deserve their outraged support? Do we not deserve mass mobilisation? How does it feel to watch Beirut go up in flames? There is continual TV coverage only on al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the Lebanese channels. The ‘war’ is just a news item on the other Arab stations.

17 July. I started writing these diary notes to friends outside Lebanon to remain sane and give them my news. I was candid about my emotions, the ones I had and the ones I did not have. I was trying to overcome the isolation of the siege rather than to fight the media blackout, racism or prejudice. Now that they will have a wider audience I am more than ever conscious of a sense of responsibility in drafting them. Should I keep on being candid, critical, spiteful, cowardly, or should I write in a wholly different idiom? There is of course a happy medium, but I don’t have the mental capacity to find it at the moment.

I have been in the café in Hamra for an hour now. This is what I have gleaned so far.

A text-message to my friend’s cellphone: breaking news from Israeli military command. If Hizbullah does not stop shelling Galilee and northern towns, Israel will take out Lebanon’s entire electricity network.

Hizbullah shells Haifa, Safad and colonies in south Golan.

A text-message to another friend’s cell-phone, from an expat who went to Damascus to catch a flight back to London. ‘All flights out of Damascus are cancelled. Do you know anything?’

An Israeli shell fell near the bartender’s house. His family is stranded in rubble in Hadath. He frantically calls to secure passage for them to the mountains.

Hizbullah downs an Israeli plane over Kfarshima (near Hadath). Slight jubilation in the café; we thrive on denial.

‘Breaking news’ marks the passage of time. You catch a piece of breaking news, you leap to the next room to tell your family although they heard it too, and then you send it on via text-messages to others. Along the way you collect other pieces of breaking news which you also deliver. Between the two sets of news, you assemble the facts and try to fit them together. Then you recall the other attempts you’ve made to do this. Then you realise none of them works. Then you exhale. And zap. Until the next piece of breaking news comes.

The foreign nationals are an issue now. With so many visiting for the summer, and so many Lebanese holding dual nationality, it’s been tough for the G8 to plan their evacuations: 40,000 Canadians (seven of whom died yesterday in the south); 20,000 French. What to do with all these people? Create categories: on the one hand, genuine, white-skinned, tax-paying, valuable citizens; on the other, recently integrated, recently assimilated, brown-skinned, tax-paying, not so valuable citizens.

The best evacuation plan is the American one. They are directing their ‘nationals’ to a website (with the power cuts, that’s kind of funny) where they promise an airlift from the airport (although the air strips have been destroyed) to Cyprus. But there is an evacuation fee. For those with no money, the US government generously offers a loan.

19 July. It’s 11.30 p.m. I have about half an hour before the generator shuts down. Most of Beirut is in the dark. I daren’t imagine what the rest of the country is like. A few hours ago I was offered the chance to leave tomorrow morning. I hold a Canadian passport because I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I left when I was two, and have never gone back. I could leave here tomorrow by car to Syria, then to Jordan and onto a plane. For days I have been itching to go because I have a job to do, deadlines to meet, a life to live. And yet when the phone call came telling me to be ready at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, I asked for time to think. I was torn. The destruction, the number of those dead, injured or displaced, bind me here. It isn’t patriotism so much as the will to defy Israel. (I suppose I am no longer tired of defying.)

I am a secular person and I’m democratically inclined. I have never supported Hizbullah, but I do not question its legitimacy as a political force in Lebanon. It would be folly to regard Hizbullah as just another radical Islamist terrorist organisation. It is a mature political organisation with an Islamist ideology. It has learned (very quickly) to coexist with other political agents in the country, as well as other sects. There have been exceptional moments when the country has united willingly and spontaneously (as during the Israeli attacks in 1993 and 1996), but other less spectacular moments have punctuated the lived postwar experience of every single Lebanese, in which sectarian prejudice was easily set aside. When Hariri was assassinated, the country seemed divided into two camps. There was, however, an overwhelming consensus that we would not go back to fighting one another. If Israel plans to annihilate Hizbullah, it will annihilate Lebanon. Hizbullah is an essential element of contemporary Lebanon.

I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave. The roads to Damascus are shelled every day.

20 July. I went with journalists to the US Embassy compound to watch the evacuation. US personnel instruct you not to use the word ‘evacuation’. ‘Out of respect for the Lebanese people’, you are told, the massive evacuation effort is referred to as ‘assisted departure’. It is important to emphasise ‘agency’ and ‘choice’. No one is ‘forced’ to leave.

After several body searches, we were ushered into a tiny waiting-room. People were seated in small groups. There was one woman sitting alone with her head bowed. She wore a long black dress, black open shoes and a headscarf. When eventually she raised her head I saw she was a white American. She’d come from her husband’s native village near the border. She has three children, all very young. They were visiting her husband’s family for the summer.

‘You should not go to the window,’ she said, ‘but I am curious, you know, human beings are curious. So I looked out of the window, and I saw a house fly up in the air. I saw that.’ Her husband decided the children should not go through this. He drove the family to the US Embassy, though they didn’t know about the evacuations. It took them 14 hours to reach the eastern suburbs of Beirut. As they tried to find the embassy, her husband’s wallet with all their ID was stolen along with $400 in cash, which seems to be all they had.

She came originally from Portland, Oregon. Her husband had never applied for a passport and was not allowed inside the compound. He was sitting in the car with the children. By the time we left the compound, along with most of the Embassy employees, she was the only person in the waiting-room. It seemed to me she could neither leave Lebanon nor stay.

Maria, one of my closest friends, left yesterday. She has two boys aged nine and five. She and her husband lived in London for a long while and eventually took citizenship there. She had moved from Beirut to the mountains on the second day of the siege. We kept in touch by phone. Invariably we ended conversations with: ‘I’ll call you back.’ We called one another with pointless information, breaking news. Our conversations reminded us of the people we once were, the lives we once lived. We asked the same questions over and over: ‘Should I leave?’ ‘Should you leave?’ She did not want to but felt she ought to for the boys’ sake. The elder was seized with anxiety and panic at the escalating military campaign. She caved in yesterday. I called her as they waited at the docks. ‘It’s awful, it’s awful,’ she kept saying. ‘It’s awful, it’s awful,’ I echoed. ‘Have I done the right thing?’ she pleaded. ‘Absolutely,’ I replied. Three times I told her: ‘I will call you back.’

Rasha Salti, a curator and freelance writer, lives in New York and Beirut.

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This entry was posted on 5 August, 2006 by in Empire, War and Terror, Israel Watch, Lebanon, Middle East, USA.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"