- The mass burial site for the victims of an Israeli air strike on Qana on July 30, 2006. (Feyrouz / CC)
“When we drove into Qana last year,” Joseph told me, scanning the gray concrete houses on either side of the road, “we heard flames roaring, the sound of the jets, people screaming, and the ringing of cell phones.” He looked at me and shrugged. “The relatives of people were calling to see if they were okay.” Joseph worked for the Red Cross during the 2006 war with Israel and was one of the first to enter the village after an Israeli bombardment massacred twenty-eight Lebanese civilians. Soft-spoken, slight, he was solicitous on the surface but, like many Lebanese, reserved, even wary. When I hired him as my driver and interpreter to take me south from Beirut, I knew only that he drove a taxi with his father and worked as a draftsman in an engineering firm to pay his way at Lebanese University. But then he offered to take me to Qana. He could show it to me, he said; he could tell me what he’d seen.
To get to Qana, we needed military clearance, and so we’d stopped at the central army compound in Sidon, one of the major cities in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese intelligence officer who handled foreign press was dressed in blue jeans and a checked oxford, his shirttail hanging out. His wire-rimmed glasses gave him a bemused air, and his thoroughly unmilitary bearing unsettled me. I knew that he knew that I knew he had all the power, and while he seemed to enjoy this, he also seemed to appreciate the absurdity of his own position. Why should he be the one to control who went to the south of Lebanon?
“This is not my decision,” he said. “You need to get permission from the military authority in Beirut.”
“But,” I explained, “when we came yesterday to the base, I was told that we were to talk to you and that you could grant us permission.”
“Who are you writing your story for?”
I tried to explain that VQR was a general-interest magazine and that I wanted to tell the Lebanese side of the story of the 2006 war against the Israelis. He could barely keep from rolling his eyes: how many times had someone like me come in and said the same thing? And which side of the war would that be—the Druze, the Shia, the Sunni, the Christians?
I wasn’t exactly a seasoned reporter—as a matter of fact, I’d spent most of my writing life as a poet. This was my first so-called assignment, and the role of foreign correspondent felt a little outsized. As the officer stared me down, I realized his checked oxford was, in fact, a cowboy shirt, complete with snaps and pocket flaps. And when I noticed his cowboy boots shining under the rickety metal table, on which a comic book and various official-looking papers were spread in casual disarray, I began to feel a little desperate, realizing that whatever I’d expected to find in Lebanon would be of an order of complexity beyond any of the books I’d read, or the people I’d talked to, in preparation for the trip. I started to babble about how close to Washington, DC, my magazine was, that it was read by important DC politicians. I could picture my editor grinning, exhorting: Shovel faster, boy-o, shovel faster. At last the officer smiled—quite genially, actually—and lifted his hand the way a casting director might to spare himself one moment more of a bad actor. He asked Joseph where we wanted to go.
Joseph, his face tense during the entire exchange, wanting to help but knowing how capricious the military authorities could be, said simply, “Qana.” The officer wrote a few words in Arabic on a scrap of paper and said, “This will get you where you’re going. Show it at all the checkpoints.” He then shrugged good-naturedly: “Beirut has many good nightclubs and shops. I hope you will visit them.” I assured him I would. Then he looked at me and said: “Everyone says that we Lebanese are good at two things. Fighting. And shopping.” I nodded and smiled, he nodded and smiled, and Joseph and I went back to the car.
On our way south we inched along in the dust cloud kicked up by dump trucks, by convoys of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and Lebanese Army transport vehicles. All the coastal bridges had been bombed to rebar and rubble and were now being jackhammered apart by work crews. As the sun beat on the sea in the distance and the rocks riled the waves into scuffed-up patches of foam, I remembered that Qana was the place where Jesus worked his first miracle. At a wedding feast, Jesus turns water into wine and inadvertently humiliates the bridegroom for serving up a wine far inferior to Jesus’ miraculous vintage. That I was on my way to this scene of biblical faux pas and realpolitik slaughter in a cab I’d rented for the day—the logo trust taxi emblazoned across the rear windscreen—was just the sort of irony that made Lebanon Lebanon.
Checkpoint after checkpoint, we flashed our flimsy scrap of paper and my passport at the soldiers lounging in their flimsy wooden booths, or just as often leaning on stacks of tires painted red and white. Between checkpoints, I studied the map, locating Qana, then searching out each of the twelve official Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon—though by now there was nothing camplike about them. These were established neighborhoods built alongside Lebanese neighborhoods, in the capital city of Beirut and throughout the country, and they were home to somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 refugees, depending on whose statistics you believe. Three generations had grown up in these makeshift cinder-block-and-rebar quarters since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and 1949, when over 700,000 Palestinians had fled or been driven from their homes by the Israeli forces. In the subsequent armed conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, Israel had labeled these camps “terrorist strongholds,” while Palestinians saw them as centers of resistance against Israeli aggression.
I hadn’t expected violence when I came to Lebanon. I’d originally been scheduled to leave the US in December 2006. But when a prominent Christian politician, Pierre Gemayel, was shot dead by three gunmen, and the country seemed on the verge of civil war, the trip was postponed to May 2007. By that time, everything was supposed to have calmed down. But the violence that had been building for months erupted the moment I stepped off the plane—and only got worse, in a series of car bombings, shootings, and a full-fledged siege by the Lebanese Army on a Palestinian refugee camp where Islamic fighters, led by Fatah al-Islam, had holed up.
To Joseph, now twenty-two, none of this seemed unusual. He was a child of war. During the first five years of his life, Beirut was a chaos of sectarian zones, a dizzying swap meet of shifting alliances, arms deals, and gangland struggles. He lived through the Israeli and the Syrian occupations, which ended, respectively, only in 2000 and 2005. And that’s not counting the everyday threat of political assassinations carried out by car bombings, an occurrence so frequent that you’ll see television ads for car-bomb detectors. “ProSec: For a World of Security.” A man dressed in an expensive-looking leather jacket holds a device emitting an electronic beam that senses plastic explosive under his Mercedes’s fender. A useful gadget, really, in a country where five anti-Syrian ministers of parliament have been assassinated in the last two years. What 1,000 kilograms of plastic explosive will do to a motorcade—enveloping in the blast not only the target vehicle but also anything moving within fifty meters—obsesses Lebanese news channels.
I confess that as we drove I was feeling a little paranoid, eyeing cars and their drivers. On TV two nights running, I’d watched cars exploding into flames—just as they do in movies—and later I visited the scorched remains. There were no “security zones,” just a casual-looking ribbon of yellow Caution Tape declaiming, in Arabic and English, STAY BACK. I could stand close enough to see how the blast-heat had annealed the body paint to a glassy blue-black sheen. Doors and windows blown away, upholstery fire-gutted. One skeletal chassis resembled the fossil remains of some docile, plant-eating dinosaur. The locals who walked by barely gave it a second glance. When Joseph spoke of this kind of destruction, he was deadpan, unimpressed by its drama for an outsider like me. “Welcome to Lebanon,” he said. Welcome to Lebanon: how often I heard it repeated, followed by a half-humorous, half-stoical shrug, when I asked about the car bombings. Cab drivers, hotel clerks, soldiers, politicians, professors, Palestinian refugees: Welcome to Lebanon.
“This is the first time for me to be in Qana since last year,” said Joseph. “It’s strange to see it so quiet.” Where bombs had fallen now resembled construction sites, rubble piled high on the side of the road, though clearly much of it had been removed. “There was another massacre here,” he told me, “during the 1996 war with Israel. They bombed a UN compound where the farmers came to keep safe. There is a memorial. People from all over Lebanon come here to see it.” One hundred six people died when Israeli howitzer shells collapsed the roof. The 2006 massacre was the result of two bombs—one almost certainly precision-guided and made in the United States—that exploded into a three-story building with a subterranean garage where members of the extended Hashim and Shalhub families had gone for cover. Twenty-eight of them were killed.
The Israeli Defense Force insisted it had proof that the building was housing Hezbollah fighters and weapons, including missile launchers. These claims were disputed by a top Israeli military correspondent, who said, “It now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time.”
“Our [Red Cross] team,” Joseph told me, “was called by the military on July 30, at 1:50 A.M., and we left Beirut as soon as they called. We got to Qana at 4 A.M., but the Hezbollah soldiers ordered us not to enter the village. They were waiting for the Israelis to tell them that it was safe to go in, that the bombing was finished. The Hezbollah soldiers said that they would shoot us if we tried to enter without their permission. We could see nothing but smoke and rubble. We wanted to enter the town, but they held us back for two and a half hours.”
Joseph told me it was common practice for the Israelis to issue general warnings about impending bombardments. But at Qana, he said, the villagers had been too afraid to leave while all the roads out were being so heavily bombed. When I asked him how he felt about Israel, he began to talk about the United States—something that happened again and again, from Lebanon’s former prime minister Selim al-Hoss to taxi drivers and hotel workers. “Before 9/11, all of us wanted to go to America to work or study, but that has changed. America is seen as not friendly to us. And also because of Bush and his support of Israel.” He glanced sidelong, as if worried he might offend me. “In our eyes, there is no difference between what Israel wants and what Washington wants. They are the same voice speaking.”
As we drove past makeshift scaffolding around half-rebuilt cinder-block houses, Joseph was careful to distinguish between the actions of the Israeli and US governments and ordinary citizens. And he had equally complex feelings about Hezbollah, which most Lebanese of whatever sect regard not as terrorists but as both a resistance movement against Israel and a mainstream political party. But nothing is ever simple in Lebanon. Joseph was ambivalent about their religious and social agenda—feelings only deepened by his Christianity, which in Beirut is almost a form of tribal identification. Since the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) pitted every sect against every other sect, with the major division falling between Christian and Muslim, survival depended on religious solidarity and the willingness to band together with other sects in sometimes surprisingly short-term alliances. Even the current legal system is divided. Lebanon recognizes eighteen different religious sects, called confessions, and each confession has its legally binding religious courts that handle social issues such as marriage, divorce, intermarriage among faiths, and inheritance. So eighteen different law codes operate simultaneously. For example, according to Muslim codes, a Muslim woman can’t marry a Christian, but a Christian woman can marry a Muslim—though according to Muslim law, she cannot inherit.
Joseph, despite navigating these divisions, was a fairly secular Christian who loved the Rolling Stones and didn’t seem much interested in politics as they broke down along sectarian lines. “During the Civil War, things were not good between Muslims and Christians,” he explained. “My father is a fireman—after a battle, the firemen picked up the bodies and put out the fires—and so he saw the worst part of the war. People stayed with their own people. But for my generation, it is different. As a boy, I played with Muslim children. To me, religion is much less important.” Still, he said, “if you are a Christian, you tend to live among Christians, marry a Christian. I have many Muslim friends, but your main connections are to other Christians.” Each sect is similarly divided over its view of America. “Because America is seen to be anti-Muslim, Muslims hate Americans. But we Christians tend to love Americans, because America supports us. Both points of view are wrong. All the leaders are wrong,” Joseph said, as we drove under a banner of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, a chubby, bespectacled cleric with a bushy, black beard. Beneath his smiling face ran an Arabic caption: THEY RESISTED. THEY FOUGHT. THEY WON. “We Lebanese are good at blaming the other side. There is enough blame for all sides. We must look at ourselves, but we are bad mirrors. All we see are the things done to us by the other side.”
Joseph let down his reserve for the first time. “I live war. I’ve lived only eight years my whole life in peace. But I lose my nerve when I hear this thing from this mother.” He spoke softly, but fiercely: “I saved children out of one home, two were suffocating under rubble and bricks, two had broken bones, they were two and seven years old, and their parents, their faces, they were stone—I cried as I worked, their mother did not cry, she said, ‘This is for Hassan Nasrallah.’ If I wasn’t in uniform, I would have killed her. I would die for my children. She said it was a sacrifice for Hassan Nasrallah. I would not sacrifice my children for anything. Yes, to see the reactions of the parents killed us. We all have martyrs, but I do not call a boy or a girl of seven or eight years a martyr. How many sins did he make?”
He parked near a mosque pocked by shrapnel. “We saw bodies of children. There was rubble and dust. We were four ambulances in all. Our first job was to look for the living. Then we took care of the most serious cases. I could hear lots of screaming, but it was sometimes hard to see where it was coming from. We found five children. I did CPR on one until we could get him to the ambulance. One had broken bones, and the other was wounded in the thigh. We put them in the ambulance, and then the driver took them to a hospital thirty kilometers from Qana. Three of the people we pulled out of the wreckage died on the way to the hospital.”
We walked by a house that had collapsed into itself, just the doorframe standing and a fragment of the back wall of what had once been someone’s living room. Joseph and I stepped through the doorway, and he pointed to a pile of mangled rebar and concrete. “This door was blocked by rubble, but the door was still on its hinges. We could hear two women screaming inside, but they wouldn’t open the door. They didn’t believe us when we said we were Red Cross. So we had to break down the door. We were all completely covered in dust and it was hard for them to see our uniforms. We could still hear the jets circling overhead, and they were scared that we were Israelis. They had a flashlight and lit our faces so that at first we were blinded. But they hugged us when they saw we were Red Cross.”
We walked past a bombed vacant lot where an old man in a Mercedes was assessing his property. A tall, dapper fellow, he offered us a cigarette, and told us how the Israeli bombs demolished his five stores and the villa that he’d built here for his retirement. “The Israeli drones must have spotted weapons here. Hezbollah was hiding rifles and grenades between my houses. So that’s why they bombed me. I am lucky to have family in Detroit. They all sent me money to rebuild. But since I have a green card to work in the US, Hezbollah would not give me any money, even though it is their fault this happened.” He then insisted that UNIFIL—the UN peacekeeping force—had told the Israelis about the weapons cache in the corner of his lot, and I could sense him trying to control the anger and frustration in his voice. “They are supposed to help us but they help the Israelis.”
Joseph gave me a skeptical glance, but many Muslims in southern Lebanon make this same charge against the UN forces. Whatever the merits of such accusations, the UN has been powerless to stop the fighting. During the five years prior to the war, the Hezbollah militia and the Israeli Defense Force shrugged off UNIFIL and played cat and mouse with each other’s fighters. According to the rules of the game, each side was supposed to restrict raids and combat operations to military combatants. Civilians were more or less off-limits. But it turns out that between the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion and the 2000 pullout, the 500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians killed “by accident” totaled more than the combined dead from the Hezbollah militia, the Israeli Defense Force, and the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy army. And this number was thirty times the number of Israeli civilian deaths. This kind of grim accounting breeds an internecine calculus of how many people you have to kill to get the other side to stop killing, and continually weighs blood shed against how much blood remains to be shed in order for scales to balance.
In a little village just beyond Qana we met an old man scornful of both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. “Six died at that house up the way and ten were wounded,” he told me as Joseph translated. “And none of the buildings that were bombed belonged to Hezbollah. But we, we have nothing left. In our fields we found two Israeli missiles ninety centimeters long. And as you can see, our house is destroyed.”
The old man’s disdain for Israel began long before last year’s war. From 1978 to 2000, the Israeli Defense Force had occupied a so-called security zone in southern Lebanon to protect their northern border population. The zone expanded by 1985 to comprise about 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory. This sparked Palestinian and Hezbollah militia resistance. When things quieted down, the Israelis told themselves that their policy was working, and had to continue. And when things heated up again—car and suicide bombings, Katyusha rockets, guerrilla-style ambushes—the Israelis insisted on the absolute necessity of the zone. On the opposing side, the notion that Israel would withdraw once resistance stopped seemed ludicrous to Hezbollah and to neighboring Syria, which was embroiled in its own conflict with Israel over the Golan Heights, a casualty of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Such is the nature of wartime logic: all signs of goodwill are interpreted as weakness, and any sign of weakness is to be exploited. And, of course, the weakest of the weak, those most easily exploited, were the unaffiliated civilians.
The old farmer and his wife now lived in two rooms—the only ones still standing—of what had been a seven-room house spacious enough for sons and daughters, children and grandchildren. Down the middle of his yard he’d cleared a path through the rubble which led to the remains of the bathroom, where only the mirror and a hanging lightbulb remained. “My wife and I stay here, but everyone else is gone to Tyre or to Beirut. We have sixty-three children and grandchildren, and when the bombs dropped we thought it was our last day on earth—the sea, the air, the ground, from every place there were explosions. One minute, and everything was destroyed.”
From the wreckage of his garden, the old man plucked three pink roses and a white flower that Lebanese Christians associate with the Virgin Mary. He gave them to me. Across the street was a dump truck painted with the Islamic symbol of the eyes of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. Fatima and Mary seemed weirdly at odds at that moment. As we left, he told us that his orange groves would go unharvested this year; his fields were seeded with Israeli cluster bombs, making it far too deadly a business to try to pick oranges.
While we walked toward the car, Joseph took me to where the most recent massacre in Qana had occurred. “When we arrived, we began to collect the dying people. I’m used to it, it’s ordinary to me, I grew up with dead people, people eighty or ninety years old who died not from old age but from war. They had no names, nothing to remember them by, they were just bodies to be picked up. Nobody could tell what body part belonged to what body. And all the time you were deciding what piece of flesh to put in which body bag.”
On most days, we would have seen buses of people who’d come to pay homage at the site, but there were none that day, probably because of the heightened security. And so the village was extraordinarily quiet for the middle of the afternoon. You could smell the oranges rotting, off in the distance, and see the hills’ outcrops. I thought of Armani clothes strewn across a showroom by the bomb blast in a Beirut shopping district (it was just as the intelligence officer in Sidon had said—fighting and shopping); I recalled the seismic pattern of the blast wave that knocked out windows on one side of a building but left the other side’s windows intact when the wave caromed among concrete walls. Such sights were beginning to seem commonplace. But I wasn’t prepared for what Joseph told me next.
“I couldn’t see anything, there was so much smoke and dust. But right here, yes, it was right here—” and Joseph pointed to a scraped-bare, chalk-white patch of ground near the edge of where the three-story building must have been—“I saw what I thought was a child’s hand. We had no tools, really, to move the rubble, and so I began to move rocks with my hands to dig the child out. And as I dug, I uncovered her head and had dug her out to just under her armpits. People were screaming, and I could hear a cell phone ringing. And I thought that if I could just lift her up under her armpits, then I could pull her free. And so I reached under her armpits and pulled, but she was not there. I mean the bottom half of her was not there. She had been blown in half.”
We stared at the spot he was describing and suddenly, at the same moment, saw the gleaming, flesh-colored plastic thigh and leg of a baby doll. I nudged it with my shoe, wanting to pick it up as a kind of gruesome souvenir, but restrained myself. It seemed a coincidence so bludgeoning that it made you disgusted with reality and the atrocious nature of a war that could unleash such banalities of heartbreak and despair. Joseph shook his head—as if there were something absurd and unsubtle and ludicrously contrived about that leg lying there in the heat of afternoon—then holding out his arms before the bomb site, he said, “All this . . . how embarrassing.”
Beginning our drive back to Beirut, we passed under a poster of Hassan Nasrallah that declared, in Arabic, DEFEAT HAS GONE WITH YOUR PATIENCE. Of course, the poster meant to praise the patience of the Lebanese people in their victory against the Israelis, but the real meaning lay in the ambiguities of the syntax. “What have they won?” Joseph asked softly. He stared into the dust cloud billowing from the military convoy ahead of us. “Here, they declare a holiday for the liberation of the south. But why not a day about Qana’s dead? We do not care for the dead.”
He looked at me, then looked away, and I told him that we could talk about something else—but he cut me off midsentence. “I hope that this is the story you are after. I hope you are satisfied, Mr. Tom, with what you have seen. But what did they win? They lost children, houses, they lost the trust of the people. I left the Red Cross because of the war. Do you remember Top Gun? Tom Cruise? He says the first rule of engagement is that you do not kill civilians.”
In September 1982, between 800 and 2,000 Palestinians (depending on whose estimates you credit, Israeli intelligence’s or the Palestinian Red Crescent’s) were slaughtered in Shatila and in the southern Beirut neighborhood of Sabra. The Christian Maronite militia, outraged by the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel—his head was blown off his body by a 200-pound bomb—bayoneted men, women, and children, trampled babies to death, slaughtering whole families in retaliation against the PLO, which had been driven out of Beirut by Israel a short time before the massacre. Gemayel’s militia carried out the killings, but Ariel Sharon’s invading army looked on and refused to intervene, occasionally launching flares over the area so that the two nights of hard work could be carried out more efficiently. And once the killing was over, they loaned Gemayel’s men bulldozers to facilitate the digging of mass graves. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested, but the Israeli government never condemned the incident.
But as Hicham Kayed, a Palestinian filmmaker, led me through Shatila’s poorly lit, narrow, winding streets, raw sewage spilling out from pipes here and there, I was more focused on keeping up with him and trying not to collide with anyone than on thinking about the massacre. As I stumbled and slipped on the hard-beaten dirt-and-gravel street, I kept glancing into the small, rudimentary storefronts: an open doorway leading to shelves piled with canned goods or clothes or used automobile parts and tires, and a surprising number of electronics shops selling all kinds of ancient gadgets and computer components. We were going to meet Hicham’s fixer, a man who knew Shatila intimately and secured permission for Hicham’s shoots.
At the fixer’s apartment block we climbed narrow, unlit stairs to the rooftop, from which we could see the entire neighborhood, rooftop courtyards like the one we looked out from looming over the expanse of cinder-block buildings. The sun was just starting to set, the moon had risen, and there was a heavy fog creeping in from the Mediterranean. Down below, you could make out thick vines of electric cable dangling just above the heads of passersby. The swooping lengths of bundled wires were fastened to the sides of the buildings in the most casual manner by what looked like U bolts, and though there must have been some form of urban planning, the jungle of branching wires indicated the haphazard, improvised aspect of Shatila. This gave the whole neighborhood a provisional feel, as if there was an unspoken understanding among the Palestinians that their exile in Lebanon would end, and everyone would exercise “the right of return”—go back to their homes in Palestine and resume their lives before the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), what Palestinians call the flight from their homes during the 1948–49 war between the Arab states and the newly founded state of Israel. A war that the Israelis, by contrast, call the War of Independence. Between catastrophe and independence, there is a vast and fiercely contentious literature about the founding of Israel, war atrocities committed on both sides, whether the Palestinians fled or were driven out by the Israelis. But up on the roof, the Sabra and Shatila massacre and the Nakba seemed historical events only.
We sat on an assortment of old wooden and plastic chairs while chickens roamed free from their coop, pecking for grain, their little eyes focused monomaniacally on that next kernel of feed corn, their heads jerking up and down as they wandered among our chairs, taking no notice of us. Hicham pointed to the chickens and joked, “Look at them, they all look like they are running for office.”
He had talked earlier that day about the way every political party in Lebanon was mired in its own corruption. They were all hypocrites spouting democratic slogans, he thought, and all they cared about was maintaining power. “At least Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah say what they stand for. Maybe I don’t like what they stand for, but at least you know who they are.” When I asked him if there were any younger politicians who gave him hope, he looked at me incredulously, smiled, and shrugged. “No. Absolutely not.” Amused by the gormlessness of my question, he asked, “Why would there be? The Lebanese president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Each of them wants to be the boss, and not just for their term of office—but forever. So whoever is in power tries to change the law to keep himself in power. This is why they are afraid to give Palestinians citizenship—a civil right that Palestinians should not have to ask for. The Christians want to give Christian Palestinians citizenship because they think that will give Christians more power. But not Muslim Palestinians—the Christians are afraid they will support Hezbollah. So to us to be a citizen means almost nothing. And many Lebanese still resent the way the PLO carried on a war against Israel from our soil. But what we are asking for is this—our civil rights. So no group or party in Lebanon wants to give you your right as a right but as a business move.”
Some Muslims are more sympathetic than the Christians to the Palestinian’s situation, but religious solidarity doesn’t go as far as you would expect. The PLO, with its often arrogant, gun-toting, thuggish behavior toward the local Shia population, alienated many southern Lebanese. Many blamed the PLO and the Palestinians in general for Israel’s continued military presence. Plus, the various sects, especially the Christians, worry how the Palestinians might change the way power is divvied up in Lebanon. And so the Palestinians are denied Lebanese citizenship and are subjected to legalized discrimination.
“Because I am not a Lebanese citizen and have not asked to be one,” Hicham said, “the law makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to inherit my father’s house. I might be able to live in it, but I cannot sell it or rent it. There is even a chance that it might go to a Muslim religious organization,” a possibility that gave him great amusement. “And for years there were seventy professions that Palestinians were barred from entering. Those restrictions have been loosened, but you still have to be a member of a professional syndicate, and only citizens can join them. And since we are denied our civil rights, and are not citizens, we cannot join, and so we cannot work.” Professions such as architect, engineer, doctor, pharmacist, lawyer, and journalist were proscribed. Hicham waved his hand as if gesturing to the whole camp: “And you see how everything is old and in need of repair and how crowded everything is. We cannot build beyond the borders of the camp so we have to build up. And for years we were forbidden from bringing in building materials, and the army makes sure of that by the checkpoints they man outside the camps. The government claims that if we are allowed to bring in materials and repair our homes, then Israel will think we no longer wish to return to Palestine. So the government is really taking care of us by not letting us live in decent housing.” He gave me an arch look. “The government is looking out for us by supporting our right of return by forcing us to live in overcrowded, substandard conditions.” He grinned and shook his head.
All the while the fixer’s wife, a young, pregnant, black-haired woman in a headscarf, brought coffee and fruit that she peeled and cut into quarters and handed to each of us on plastic plates, encouraging us to eat, eat. Her little boy ran in circles, pretending to be one of the airplanes that you could see in the distance. A minaret’s loudspeaker announced a funeral service for the next day, the crackling voice high-pitched and resonating in the calm evening air. The moon had risen and Hicham’s fixer passed out water pipes to us, what they call a “hubble bubble” for the bubbling sound the water makes when you inhale. We took a toke, drawing the cool smoke into our lungs. When Hicham finished exhaling, he said, “We are like your American Indians. This is our reservation. We have control over our internal affairs in the camp, but what is there to control when you cannot own property, you cannot work outside the camp except illegally in the worst jobs no Lebanese wants, you cannot go to school unless there is a place left over by the Lebanese, and you cannot have any say in Lebanese politics?” And then he shrugged at the absurdity of his own situation. “Yes, of all possible governments, this one is the worst.”
We smoked in silence for a while. Staring out over Shatila, I couldn’t help but think of what it must have been like to live through such a massacre, and of the Palestinian’s determination to endure by rebuilding the camp after its destruction. Only a few days before, I’d visited Quneitra, a Syrian town in the Golan Heights—a town that had been “razed to the ground.” The very term—razed—had always seemed like literary artifice from histories of the war between Carthage and Rome. But in Quneitra, the word was inescapable.
Before pulling out of Quneitra at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli army evicted the 37,000 Syrian Arabs living there, then stripped buildings of fixtures, windows, doors, anything that could be carted off, right down to the hinges and knobs. Once the town was completely picked clean, bulldozers and tractors moved in and knocked down most of the buildings. It was odd, disturbingly odd, to hear birdsong in the clear, quiet air, and to see a herd of cows, heads bowed to graze among the ruins overgrown with flowers and weeds, roses run wild in what used to be somebody’s garden. Now, Quneitra served the dual purpose of a Syrian memorial and propaganda site.
When, later that day, I had ducked into a carpenter’s shop in a Palestinian camp near Quneitra, I met an old man who invited me to his home. His house was modest but comfortable: cushions and an industrial-style brown carpet covered the concrete floor, a ceiling fan whirled close to a modest chandelier, family pictures and crockery were stacked in a wooden hutch, and plastic roses sat snug in a wall sconce. This was luxury compared to the bare, unadorned Palestinian homes I’d seen in Lebanon. The signs of domestic order—including an old computer and a TV—were hard won. “All you see in our camp we have built by ourselves,” he told me. “We do not have paved streets, no sewer system, no drinking water. People build their own sewage system, and it flows to an open outfall pipe at the end of the village. The international community keeps promising to improve things, but it’s just a lot of noise. Nothing changes. Still, our lives here are much better than in Lebanon. At least in Syria a Palestinian can work in any job, and we have most of the same rights as Syrian citizens. We are issued identity cards that are temporary, but they are valid until our return to Palestine.”
As he spoke the room filled with his neighbors, who listened intently. Most of them were too young to have experienced the Nakba or even remember a time when the right of return still seemed a real possibility. He paused to sip his tea, then continued in a low, strong voice, staring straight ahead. “In 1948, the Israeli army invaded my village. Right before my eyes they killed my mother, and four of my brothers. My father was hit by a bullet and died. We left the house while shots were still being fired. I was three years old, and I remember it with complete clarity. The house was blown up, and we were forced to go to Lebanon, then Syria. When we got here, we had nothing but tents, we had no shoes, no clothes against the cold. My first school was a tent, and my teacher wept for us. To live in such conditions, in a tent, was like living in a spider web in the heart of a well. I was raised here until preparatory school, then I went to Damascus to high school, and then to Saudi Arabia.”
He paused again to sip his tea, then said in a quiet voice, “It was like a lake of blood, and the deeds are stained with blood.” I assumed he was speaking in metaphors, until he asked, “Would you like to see the deeds?” He called his nephew on a cell phone. A few minutes later a heavyset young man of about twenty arrived on a motorbike to show me the deeds to the family’s property in what is now Israel. I could see that the paper was discolored with blood, the legalese obscured by three long, brown, faded stains. “The deeds were found by accident when my uncle and cousin came over to our house—after the soldiers dynamited it—to see if there was anything they could do to help us. I saw my home blown up. But the worst thing I saw, the worst thing I ever saw, was my brother, still a baby, suckling at my dead mother’s breast.”
This was no rehearsed performance trotted out for my benefit. The effort to say this, to remember it, had cost him, and it had also cost us to listen. The old man’s words seemed to have nothing in common with the doublespeak of Lebanon’s ruling elite or Syria’s police state under Bashar al-Assad. Everywhere in Damascus propaganda photos of the president stared down at you, declaiming in Arabic and English: I BELIEVE IN SYRIA and I BELIEVE IN JUSTICE. Bashar’s father, the previous dictator, had once, after putting down a rebellion by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, bulldozed whole neighborhoods in the Syrian city of Hama and killed an estimated 20,000 Sunnis. Over Quneitra there was a banner that declared, apparently without irony, PEACE IS OUR TARGET: THE PEACE WITH RETRIEVES OUR OCCUPIED SYRIAN GOLAN.
But I found that the old man had accusations and agendas as well. I kept thinking of a quote from Robert Frost. “Politics is an extravagance,” he wrote, “an extravagance about grievances. And poetry is an extravagance about grief.” I confess that it was easier to accept the old man’s grief than his grievance. His voice hardened and grew louder, almost fierce: “The Israelis,” he said, “should return to the place where they came from. The Arab Jews, we love them, they are our brothers. But we wish that the colonial European Jews would go home to Europe.” He paused for a moment and said, “The blood of my brother is on these deeds. This proves that this land is for us, and not for them. Our only hope is that America will wake up. The Jewish lobby manipulates American opinion, even though they know nothing about Palestinians. Daily, the Israelis commit crimes that Europe and America do nothing about. The Nazis’ crimes are documented, and their crimes are as bad as the Nazis. The war criminals should be prosecuted, but the Americans help them. And as Arabs and Palestinians, we do not know how to talk with America and Europe. We must learn to do that better so that people in America will see the truth. I saw on Al Jazeera a film that told the story of Israeli crimes. But the Israelis know how to get their story told. My last word is this: we will resist the Jews by word, by sword, until the last drop of blood.”
Later that same evening, having left Quneitra, I spoke with a high-ranking member of the Syrian government. He wore a dark blue suit, a black-and-silver silk tie, and displayed the smooth manner of a professional diplomat—the courtly, subtle smile that indulges an opponent in his errors, the calm, reflective voice that seems somehow edged with steel. He had received his doctorate from a European university, and as we talked, he confessed a penchant for Graham Greene—for Greene’s obsession with betrayal, his weighing of treacheries and brutalities committed for good causes and enlightened reasons, his portrayal of characters who are inevitably corrupted by their own goodness. We sat in the minister’s office, a well-appointed, utterly nondescript room in one of the ministries in Damascus, and I was immediately drawn to his intelligence, his nuanced explanation of Syria’s support for the Palestinian people in their struggle with the Israeli Defense Force. That, and his deep appreciation for the opportunity to meet a writer described to him as “an important American poet.” In other words, it was farcical; it was like fog talking to fog, his words designed to get his message across and appeal to my vanity, my words to appeal to his civility.
Meanwhile, I kept wondering how much personal responsibility, if any, he bore for the imprisonment of Syrian activists who recently received brutally hard sentences, twelve years in the case of prominent human rights activist Dr. Kamal al-Labwani. Who was this functionary, really? Who was I, talking to him? It was clear to me, however, when I left his office, that I had made a good impression, and he, in fact, had made a good impression on me. I liked him. He offered to do anything he could to make my trip more enjoyable, and I have no doubt that he would have. Like him, I was shoving feeling out of sight, avoiding either grief or grievance in order to maintain a cordial decorum. I was as guilty as anyone of speaking the language of policy.
On my way out of the ministry building, I remembered a kitschy painting at the Quneitra propaganda center: Bashar al-Assad and his father, dressed in white robes and mounted on white Arabian steeds, their hands brandishing sabers at an enemy in flight, no doubt the Israelis being driven from the field by heroic père et fils. Somebody had painted the thing, and somebody had placed it right next to the door with the obvious intention of glorifying the Assads (though to my mind it emphasized the Assads’ wounded pride at having lost the Golan). I got a weird sense of multiple exposure, the old man’s straight talk overlaid by my minister’s spokesmanese overlaid by the painting’s anti-Israeli mythmaking.
But Assad wasn’t the only one putting out propaganda. As I traveled back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, every government source I spoke with—and without exception these ordinary men and women were courteous, hospitable, even likable—directed me to websites showing powder-burned children and heroic rescue workers pulling them from rubble. Another click of the mouse would link me to almost hysterical charges and countercharges about the authenticity of such photos. It’s as if each side’s partisans—and certainly our own media is no exception—fear that the emotional immediacy of grief will verify the righteousness of one side’s grievance, or one’s sense of grievance will be weakened by having to feel the other’s grief.
But given the hard conditions in the Lebanese Palestinian camps that I visited, the real extravagance would be decoupling politics and grievance from poetry and grief—hence the old man’s desire that the Palestinians find a way to get their side of the story told in the West, not as propaganda but as a collective truth. Mahmoud Darwish, who, if there were such a thing as a Palestinian homeland, would be the unofficial Palestinian national poet, a man who endured al Nakba, as well as the personal Nakba that every refugee undergoes, has a poem called “Murdered and Unknown”:
Murdered, and unknown. No forgetfulness gathers them
and no remembrance scatters them . . . they’re forgotten in
winter’s grass gone brown along the highway between
two long tales about heroism and suffering.
“I am the victim.” “No. I alone am
the victim . . .”
The voices seem to compete for the honor of victimhood, as if Darwish were satirizing as much as memorializing the collective wound. Or as a Hezbollah official said to me about the Israelis, quoting an Arabic proverb, “He hit me and then he cried.” Of course, it didn’t seem to occur to this official that this same logic might also apply to Hezbollah.
Once you refuse to see someone else’s grief and focus strictly on your own grievance, it becomes far easier to reduce your rival victim to a villain—someone you need to protect yourself against and, if necessary, harm before he can harm you. But in Qana, where Joseph wanted to kill the woman who said that her child was a sacrifice to Hassan Nasrallah, he resisted the impulse. True, his grievance sprang from his own grief at what he saw, and certainly his urge to kill her was tied up with his sense of grievance, possibly with his Christian upbringing, his lifelong experiences of war, and his understandable anger at what he thought was her unfeeling response. But some powerful inkling of the woman’s grief, her need to see her child’s suffering and death as a sacrifice for the community rather than just another random event of war, must have kept him from harming her, must have let him get on with what he’d come to do: save lives, not take them.
But Darwish’s poem hints at something darker. Most of the people I met—the old Palestinian man, Joseph, the people I talked to in Qana—were just trying to lead their lives. Some of their relatives indeed had been murdered, and were, for all the world cared, virtually unknown. No one would much notice if the survivors thought of themselves as victims or not.
It was pitch-black as Hicham drove us back to downtown Beirut, the night strangely edgy, the streets almost deserted except for soldiers in camouflage who manned tanks and armored vehicles at checkpoints throughout the city. The UN had just approved the formation of a special tribunal to look into—what else?—the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a Sunni and the former prime minister of Lebanon—and one of the richest men in the world—who was killed by a car bomb of 300 kilograms of C-4, the explosive equivalent to 1,000 kilograms of TNT. Seventeen other people, “murdered and unknown,” died with him in the blast. Because Hariri had had a conflict with Bashar al‑Assad, it was widely assumed that the Syrians were behind the assassination. But then a story was also circulating that he’d been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, a follower of Osama bin Laden. And there were other stories, all equally plausible, all equally unsupported by hard evidence.
I saw Hicham tense up when we drove through a neighborhood in which hundreds of flickering candles, celebrating the approval of the Hariri tribunal, lined the streets. While making a left turn we were stopped by a group of Sunni men. They wanted to know if we lived in the neighborhood, and if we didn’t, what were we doing here? Hicham explained that he lived on the next block, and so they let us pass. I had never seen Beirut so deserted, and it seemed that the bombs, and the anticipation of violence at the announcement of the tribunal, had worked a kind of fatal magic on the populace. Everyone was hunkered indoors, eyes glued to TV screens for news of the next bomb, the next killing, the next atrocity in a never-ending series of atrocities.
After Hicham parked the car and we said a hasty good night, I took a cab back to my hotel. I paced nervously in my room, waiting for some sign of violence to break out, for the pro-Syrians to attack the Hariri supporters, and vice versa. And then I heard it: the rattle and crack of gunfire down in the street just below my window. I ran to the light switch and turned off my lights, but my curiosity got the best of me, and like a fool I opened my balcony doors, stepped out, and looked down into the street. Two small boys were running away from a string of lit firecrackers.
The moon was high now, and I could see on the horizon a silver light that must have been reflected back into the sky by the invisible sea. Below, in the dark, a little farther down the street, a Lebanese soldier, palm leaves woven in his helmet mesh for camouflage, lolled behind his tank’s gun turret, talking amiably with another soldier. His friend was making an obscene gesture known the world over, and the one up on the tank burst out laughing. I gripped the balcony with both hands and tried to catch my breath, all the while half-expecting to be shot and knowing that I wouldn’t be. I caught a heavy whiff of jacaranda mingling with the sulfurous odor of gunpowder drifting up to my window. I was shaking with fear, and felt utterly ridiculous, a real drama queen. Welcome to Lebanon, I said to myself, welcome to Lebanon.