Hope Over Hate: A Lebanon Diary

By Noah Pollak

Amid the violence and confusion, a strong nation may yet emerge.

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Before departing for Lebanon, the traveler who has been in Israel should purge himself of any evidence of having stepped foot in the Jewish state, from bus tickets and loose change to the notepad with Hebrew writing on the spine. The voyage from Jerusalem to Beirut could take, under different circumstances, four hours by car or forty-five minutes by air—the two cities are less than 250 kilometers apart—but today it involves a daylong travail of buses, taxies, aircraft, the duplicitous use of two passports, and the making of false statements to Lebanese customs officials.
Lebanon, like all but two nations in the Middle East, permits entry only to persons with passports free of any indication that Israel has been visited. But this sign of extremism should not be a diversion from the real Lebanon: While other nations indulge in this kind of practice with great satisfaction, many Lebanese find it ridiculous, one of the many reminders of Syria’s nefarious influence. One must also resist being distracted on the short flight from Amman to Beirut, where the theme of Israel-denial is again nourished, this time by way of the television screens that unfold from the cabin’s ceiling. A map of the eastern Mediterranean shows the aircraft’s progress toward its destination, dotted with the various cities of the region, such as Cairo, Amman, Tyre, Damascus, and Nablus—but missing are Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya, or in fact any city located within the borders of Israel. This is standard practice among the Muslim and Arab nations of the region, and it is one of the smaller ostentations of the ideology that requires the refusal to accept Israel’s existence in the Middle East.
I thought, as I watched the aircraft on the overhead monitor glide alongside the unnamed strip of Mediterranean coastline, that any fair-minded person who dwells on these petty gestures must bump up against an uncomfortable idea, a concession that undermines one of the most popular points of reference when debating the reasons for the Middle East’s perpetual restiveness: Must we believe that the blockade on showing Tel Aviv on a map—the most economically productive and financially prosperous city in the Middle East—is simply because of Palestinian grievances? Or might we take this gesture at face value, in which it reveals a precise unwillingness to accept the presence of Israel itself, and therefore the desire for its elimination? The Israel-deniers, one supposes, will take what victories they can get, and although they have failed to make Jews themselves contraband, they can enjoy the pleasure of ensuring that evidence that Jews live in their own nation in the Middle East has instead been made contraband.
But Lebanon, as it always has been, is a different story. For thirty years it was a nation in name only, existing unhappily as a Syrian vassal. In March 2005, the pressures unleashed by the Cedar Revolution drove out official Syrian dominance and inspired a new era of liberal democratic dreams. During my visit this past December, as in the months before and after, Lebanon was roiled by this new political reality—and by the old Lebanese reality, of a nation without a majority religion or ethnicity, a focal point of foreign patronage, a place where Christians, Sunni, Shia, Druze, and the various ethno-religious factions contained within them, perpetually assemble themselves, atomize, and reform in a turbulent competition for supremacy.
Lebanon today is either closer than it has ever been in recent history to its liberal dreams, or the farthest away. In the past two years it has been the recipient of a rush of foreign investment, media attention, and diplomatic interest—but it has also been the recipient of unprecedented sums of Iranian money and strategic attention, in the form of around $100 million per year paid to Hezbollah, and a complementary Syrian effort to restore its suzerainty. Lebanon is a territory from which much larger nations are waging war by proxy, and it is the outcome of these battles that will largely set the country’s course.
After landing in Beirut and making my way past a thankfully uninquisitive customs agent, a taxi took me to a hotel in the Achrafieh neighborhood of East Beirut. On the way, the cab had to wend through the streets (the ones that remained open) along the outskirts of the menacing conglomeration of Shia Hezbollah and Christian Aounist partisans who had struck camp in the open areas of downtown Beirut, shutting down the most economically vibrant (and Westernized) part of the city. These two factions had gathered in Beirut in a hasty marriage of convenience, having calculated that their chances of destabilizing the Lebanese government under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—their only common interest—were better if they stuck together, no matter how temporarily or improbably.
Even in the nighttime darkness and from within the trawling taxi, the scene in Beirut was classic Arab street theater, with loudspeakers that sent anti-Siniora tirades echoing off the walls of downtown buildings. But there was a telling homage to the presence of Western television cameras: While Lebanon remains a country in which the various ethnic and religious groups defiantly brandish the flags of their sects, almost all of the flags on display in downtown Beirut were the Lebanese national model, with two horizontal top-and-bottom stripes of red with a green cedar tree against a middle stripe of white; during the big rallies, the sectarian flags of Hezbollah and the Aounists were sheathed, obviously in an attempt to deceive observers into believing that the slow-motion coup being attempted was somehow on behalf of Lebanese sovereignty, or an expression of Lebanese patriotism. The “protesters”—a surly mixture of venal freelancers, ignorant fellow travelers, true believers, and cynical calculators of the political winds—attempted to cultivate the most familiar and idealistic image possible for the cameras that would capture their agitation and beam it westward: That of the 1960s protest movement. They referred to their campaign of destabilization as a “sit-in” and a “demonstration” against “injustice.”
On this portentous Mediterranean night, I found Michael Totten, the foreign-correspondent blogger and journalist, awaiting my arrival in his hotel room, a few blocks from the downtown scene. Totten, who is lanky, stubbled, and rarely to be found without his Nikon D200 hanging from his neck, lived in Lebanon for much of 2005 and earned his popularity covering the Cedar Revolution and its salubrious aftermath; he is a self-created combination of reporter, pundit, and photographer, and in this regard his work conspicuously diverges from that of the “mainstream media,” which insist, with diminishing credibility, on the objectivity of their offerings. His reporting is inquisitive and transparent, and his ability to work in Lebanon is both a reflection of and a contributor to the country’s openness. Totten is one of the few independent journalists who has made a career blogging from foreign lands, and in this he provides an answer to a charge that mainstream journalists levy with some credibility against bloggers: That they use traditional reportage as the foundation for their commentary, that they are, in the journalistic hierarchy, effectively parasites.
We hadn’t seen each other since the Israel-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006, which Totten covered from the Israeli side of the border. The war for him had elicited conflicting feelings: He was despondent at the bombing of his beloved Lebanon, or, I should say, despondent at the bombing of non-Hezbollah Lebanon and the anti-Israel animosity it provoked among the Lebanese groups who are natural, if not yet realized, Israeli allies in both their common Islamist enemy and their shared Western culture. (Several Lebanese Christians told us that in the opening days of the war they took to their rooftops to gleefully watch Israel’s bombardment of the Dahiya, Hezbollah’s headquarters in southern Beirut—but turned against Israel when its bombs started falling on infrastructure in Christian regions.) Totten, like so many Lebanese, had fervently hoped that the war would decisively cripple Hezbollah in the struggle for power that defines Lebanese politics, and thereby apply another layer of finality to the accomplishments of the Cedar Revolution.
Now, five months after the war, amidst Hezbollah’s (quite glaringly porous) containment by UNIFIL in the South, the ambiguous outcome of the summer war, and the upcoming formation of a commission of inquiry into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri, Hezbollah was attempting to assert both its relevance in Lebanon and the continued salience of its Syrian and Iranian patrons, principally by manufacturing instability and violence. Two weeks before my visit the prominent Christian politician, cabinet member, and son of the former president, Pierre Gemayel, had been assassinated, execution-style, in the streets of Beirut: Several gunmen had boxed in his car and emptied their automatic weapons into his body. Syria has perfected a particularly audacious art of intimidation that serves both to eliminate existing liberalizers and to terrify any potential replacements. Aside from intimidating the anti-Syrian coalition, the elimination of Gemayel, and thereby his cabinet seat, helped to expedite the destabilization of the Lebanese government, which must be dissolved and reconstituted should one-third of its twenty-four-member cabinet become unable to serve. Following the assassination, Hezbollah’s five cabinet members resigned (plus one Aounist), leaving the Lebanese government with a threadbare two-person cushion against dissolution. For all of these reasons, the Iranian-Syrian axis was desperate to push Lebanon as far as possible toward the brink, topple or marginalize the government, and re-assert Hezbollah’s primary role, which is to serve as Iran’s crisis-creator and deterrent capability in the eastern Mediterranean.

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