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Relative Calm

ISSUE:  Summer 2009
A large city at dusk, with towering buildings stretching into the distance, with a backdrop of mountains. The sky is gray, textured with heavy clouds.
Beirut at dusk. Aldas Kirvaitis / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So this is how it ends, I thought, kneeling in the dust on a dirt road behind a mosque with four Lebanese Army soldiers aiming their rifles at me. The noon sun beat down on my bare back, arms, and legs, a short, rough-talking major having ordered me to strip to my underwear. As he scrutinized my passport his men went through my notes and papers, which included receipts for hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and a second passport acquired in the event that an Israeli border official stamped my first one, thus preventing me from entering Lebanon. (The two countries were technically still at war.) I lacked a press pass, which made my presence in the war zone suspicious. And my problems would be compounded once the soldiers discovered that I had also gone to Syria, another enemy of Lebanon’s. How to explain the pair of laminated posters bought for my daughters at a convent near Damascus, the first showing translations of the Lord’s Prayer into French, Aramaic, and Arabic; the second a table of ancient alphabets titled, Syria Cradle of Civilizations? Why had I not left them in my hotel room?

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” the major shouted. “Keep your hands up!”

“Mistake,” I said. “Mistake.”

“You’re telling me,” he said. “A big fucking mistake!”

Before my mistake, I had been among a group of British, French, and Lebanese journalists covering the standoff at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp from the rooftop of an apartment building a few hundred meters away. Television cameras were pointed at the camp—a city, really, of 30,000—that borders the Mediterranean north of Tripoli, and all morning ambulances had raced to its entrance to remove the dead and wounded. But there was little else to record beyond the occasional crackle of small-arms fire. “Relative calm”—this was how the journalists described the confrontation between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni insurgent group linked to al Qaeda and, perhaps, to Syrian intelligence services. The insurgents had taken up residence in Nahr al-Bared eight months before, and then, one week ago, attacked army positions around the camp, killing thirty soldiers. Thousands of Palestinians fled the camp, and when car bombings resumed in Beirut and its environs the fear took hold that Lebanon’s worst crisis since its civil war (1975–1990), which claimed 150,000 lives, might spark another conflagration. Today, though, it was calm enough for a journalist to get a haircut. I needed a shave, but as I circled the roof, surveying our position—the white facades of the camp to the northwest, the orchard and gardens that lay between this building and the sea, the dirt road past the mosque to the west—the barber packed up his tools and left. The leader of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker al-Absi, had the usual terrorist pedigree—a history of dislocation, intelligence, ruthlessness—making him known in counterterrorist circles. Yet he remained a shadowy figure. News accounts suggested that he was born in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank, emigrated with his family to Jordan after the Six-Day War, and left medical school in Tunis to join Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Brigade. He was sent to Libya to train as a fighter pilot, flew bombing raids on Chad in a Russian MiG-23, and helped the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He rejoined Fatah in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and fought in the Bekaa Valley—from which he fled at some point to Libya, then to Yemen, and then to Damascus, where in 2002 he was arrested for plotting against the Syrian regime. In the same year, a Jordanian military court sentenced him to death in absentia, along with the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for the murder of an American official in Amman. Unaccountably, he was released after three years in a Syrian prison.

Those who saw Syria’s hand in the crisis at Nahr al-Bared, in a land just beginning to recover from the previous summer’s war with Israel, thought there was a connection to the impending UN vote to convene a tribunal to examine Syria’s role in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. Al-Hariri’s assassination had precipitated the Cedar Revolution—a series of demonstrations that led to Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The revolution had run its course, though, before the war with Israel—a war that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed as “the birth pangs of the new Middle East.” And now it seemed that Syria was causing mischief again in its backyard. When a Lebanese novelist moonlighting as a television producer offered me a ride to Tripoli, I leapt at the chance to see for myself.

From the roof of the apartment building it looked as though it would be easy to follow the dirt road behind the mosque down to the sea—and since nothing much was happening in the camp I decided to go for a walk. I had not gone far when a brown sedan drove slowly past, and as it neared the mosque a crossbar was lowered from behind a tree. Soldiers swarmed around the car, shouting at the driver, waving their rifles. I thought it best to turn back—and that was when the shots rang out. It took me a moment to realize that I was the target, and longer yet to stop in my tracks. The soldiers were running toward me, screaming; and when they shouldered their rifles, taking aim again, I raised my hands.

How in the hell had I gotten myself into such a mess?

A week before my journey to Tripoli, I was in Beirut, walking. I always like to take the measure of a place on foot and one metaphor in particular from Thoreau’s essay on sauntering seemed particularly apt: “every walk is a sort of crusade,” he wrote, “preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.” In Beirut, as outside of Tripoli, I set off on foot toward the sea, and within a block of my hotel a soldier stopped me to inspect my satchel. The sun was bright, the wind was rising, checkpoints were set up on every corner of the neighborhood. Troops at a roundabout climbed onto a camouflage-draped truck; an armored vehicle raced down a hill thick with billboards splashed with the face of Rafiq al-Hariri; at the sight of a pair of tanks guarding the last intersection before the waterfront it finally came to me that the city was on war footing. The sea was on my right as I walked down the Corniche Beirut, the promenade of palm trees that led to the St. George Hotel, outside of which al-Hariri was killed in a truck bombing on February 14, 2005. The protests that began a week later against the Syrian occupation, inspiring Hezbollah to organize pro-Syrian protests, culminated on March 14, when hundreds of thousands of Christians and Sunnis took to the streets—which soon forced Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, ending thirty years of occupation.

The protests gave rise to a new political movement in Lebanon, the March 14 Alliance. Led by al-Hariri’s son, it swept to power in parliamentary elections later that spring. And in the post-electoral euphoria some believed that the Cedar Revolution reinforced the democratic trends set in motion by the elections in Iraq, flawed though they were. But it turned out that al-Hariri’s assassination was just the first in a series of bombings, mainly targeting anti-Syrian politicians and journalists; by the next summer, when another war was on with Israel, hope for real change had faded. Lebanon was regularly invoked now as an example of what Iraq might become—a fractured society ruled by a weak central government, with competing blocs buttressed by their own militias.

War seemed far away on a Sunday morning by the sea as couples strolled by, teenage boys played soccer in the sand, and swimmers stood by the shore, debating whether to enter the glittering water. Yet there were signs of it everywhere: in the military vehicles wheeling by, in the piles of rubble, in the oil-slicked rocks—black legacies of an environmental catastrophe resulting from an Israeli attack on a power plant’s fuel storage tank south of Beirut last summer. I headed uphill, toward Raouché, a fashionable neighborhood at the western tip of the city. From the guardrail overlooking a pair of tall rock formations rising from the sea I watched a motor boat, in rough water, try to steer close enough to the arch under the larger rock to unload the boy on its prow. But the waves kept carrying the boat toward Pigeon Rock, and it was some time before the boy managed to jump onto a ledge by the arch and climb the steep cliff, slick with salt spray. He slipped near a cleft halfway up the rock and there he stopped, paralyzed. A wild expression came over his face, he hugged his knees to his chest, and long minutes passed before he inched back down to the ledge, where he signaled for the boat to return. But the waves were too high now for his friends to pick him up, so they circled the cove, between the shore and Pigeon Rock, waiting for the wind to die down. When I stepped back from the guardrail I noticed that the boy on the rock had caught the attention of an older woman, who did not leave until she saw that he was safely aboard the boat.

Crisis averted, I thought, and continued walking.

“We have harsh experience with this sort of thing,” the former prime minister said of the fighting at Nahr al-Bared. “And there is no visible way of resolving the problem.”

This was for Selim al-Hoss a variation on an old theme. An avuncular man in a drab brown suit, he joked that he was the only prime minister twice defeated for reelection. But he had also served (and survived) three terms. As he held forth in a sparsely furnished office next to his Beirut apartment, trying to puzzle out the insurgents’ identity, his country’s precarious position came into focus for me. Lebanon’s complicated political system, a product of the French Mandate following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, was supposed to reflect its demography, with parliamentary seats divided evenly between Christians and Muslims, and with high-ranking offices reserved for members of specific religious groups; hence the president was Maronite, the prime minister Sunni, the deputy prime minister Orthodox Christian, and the speaker of parliament Shia. But no census had been taken since 1932—the numbers would reveal that Christians were no longer in the majority—and it was hard to imagine how the necessary accommodations to changed circumstances could be made as long as larger countries (read Syria and Iran, Israel and the United States) continued to meddle in Lebanese affairs.

“All Arab-Israeli wars end in defeat for the Arabs.”

For many, terrorism was the preferred method of addressing the new facts on the ground. Menachem Begin, the paramilitary leader, Israeli prime minister, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said that terror was a matter of “dirtying the face of power,” an insight derived from the success of the Jewish resistance in driving Britain out of its Mandate for Palestine. And it was terrorism, al-Hoss admitted, not politics, that led Israel to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, his last year in office.

“All Arab-Israeli wars end in defeat for the Arabs,” he said—except for the one on his watch, which ended the Israeli occupation. But he took no credit for the resistance mounted by Hezbollah (the “Party of God” founded after Israeli forces invaded southern Lebanon in 1982): a campaign of kidnappings, assassinations, and suicide bombings that profoundly altered the political environment. The 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, for example, which killed 241 American servicemen, led the US to withdraw its troops four months later—a precursor to the Israeli retreat in 2000. Supplied with arms and other matériel from Syria and Iran, Hezbollah further dirtied the face of Israeli power in the 2006 Lebanon War just by holding out against a greater military force, inspiring other insurgencies—Hamas firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, Shia militias in Baghdad launching missiles at the Green Zone. And now Hezbollah had raised a tent city around Riad Solh Square, in central Beirut, to try to bring down the government, paralyzing the political process.

“If we had real democracy,” said the former prime minister, “we would not have so many crises”—the civil war, al-Hariri’s assassination, Nahr al-Bared, and many others. “Since 2004 we have been in a crisis punctuated by explosions. Somehow Lebanon could not translate its freedoms into democracy. We are very vulnerable, very open to imported storms, like the Iraqi storm. And the question is, why did America invade Iraq, if not for WMD, or 9/11, or freedom and democracy? I’m inclined to say for Israel. Iraq would always have been a lump of power in a regional war. Now it’s not. Now the focus has shifted to Iran.”

He rose to his feet—representatives from the Palestinian community had arrived, seeking his help in defusing the crisis at Nahr al-Bared—and on his way to the door he stopped, remembering something. “On the last day of the war,” he said, “the fighting was in the border villages. They went back to where they started after thirty-four days of war. This was the first time that Arabs stood up to Israel in a full-scale war. So Hezbollah is highly respected in the Arab world. Why, it’s even dreaded in Israel.”

The Hezbollah spokesman refused to answer my questions. A balding, bearded professor of law and political science in a blue blazer, he droned on in the lobby of the Bristol Hotel, describing the squalor of his childhood in a refugee camp, the birth of the PLO, and the savagery of the civil war—which in his telling was started when a Maronite Christian militia fired on a busload of Palestinians returning from a wedding, killing forty. The actual figure was thirty, and the professor neglected to mention the fact that on the same day gunmen killed four Christians at a church in East Beirut. His monologue brought to mind all the potted histories I had transcribed in the Balkans: politicians and poets, soldiers and refugees chronicling in numbing detail the perfidy of their enemies, which seemed to stretch back to the beginning of time. When I tried to change the subject—Hezbollah’s relationship to Iran was uppermost on my mind—the professor retreated even further into history.

“Shias have always been revolutionaries, since they began with a revolution”—and here he rehearsed the biography of Ali ibn Abu Talib, the first relative of the Prophet Muhammad to convert to Islam, revered by Shias as the true inheritor of Islam—“and so they view themselves as martyrs.”

I was not sure what this had to do with Iran, so I pressed him on the matter.

“Hezbollah’s victory in 2000 gave Palestinians hope,” he replied. “Remember that the second intifada began four months after the Israeli retreat. If the weakest country can defeat Israel, then there is hope for more. Hezbollah is not a party but a religious national movement in a place with no history of nation-states. The propaganda is that Hezbollah is an Iranian compound, but Hezbollah is first Lebanese, then Arab.”

I tried again but he began to talk about Iraq.

“The war is a curtain to block our view of other dark matters,” he said—namely, that Americans were using profits from stolen Iraqi oil to finance Sunni guerrillas in their fight against Hezbollah. “There is no doubt that the Sunni-Shia violent divide, the design of America, is to be repeated here,” he intoned. “It’s the same as when America and the Saudis financed the mujahideen in Afghanistan.”

“Is Hezbollah still committed to eradicating the state of Israel?” I said.

“The best way to bleed the Palestinians is to pit Fatah against Hamas,” he said.

I closed my notebook.

“They divided the Arab world into twenty-one countries,” the Palestinian said as nearby a sheik in a white robe climbed out of a Lexus with a Dubai license plate, “and now these people from the Gulf do not think of themselves as one people. But they are. I know it was decadent in the Ottoman Empire, but at least we were one people.”

“A war between gods is absolutely nuts.”

The Palestinian had buttonholed me in front of the hotel, so I asked him what he made of the car bombing in Beirut the night before, which had killed one person and wounded a dozen more, escalating the crisis.

“Every day is pregnant with things happening,” he said excitedly. “Everybody wants everything, and you can’t have peace like that. All the Israelis want to do is talk.”

The Jews lost their way when they were expelled from Spain, he continued, and now they work for the Anglo-Saxon corporation. The real massacre will take place when the Western powers decide to push them into the sea. Arabs would never do that.

“If the United States could be fair, then peace would come,” he said. “But these stupid people think the situation will last forever. It won’t.”

He rubbed his hands together, joking that people from Hezbollah do not like to shake hands because they fear receiving an electric shock.

“A war between gods is absolutely nuts,” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

The rooftop of the Bristol Hotel in Beirut had a good view of the drama unfolding after the second car bombing in two days. A white sedan parked at an angle on the next street had caught the attention of two soldiers, who dragged guardrails to either end of the block to close it off to traffic, snuck up to the car to look inside, as if to peek into a haunted house, then ran to hide behind a tree for a moment before returning to the car—a spectacle repeated several times before an officer arrived and ordered them to keep their distance. The latest car bombing, within blocks of the hotel, had wounded ten people.

An elderly Palestinian couple begged us to come inside. They were keen to introduce me and several American writers to the deplorable living conditions in Lebanon’s twelve refugee camps. Though they were eager to show us what life was like for the 400,000 Palestinians confined to the refugee camps—miniature Gazas, they called them—they feared that we would be targets in the camps as well as in Beirut. Claiming responsibility for our welfare, they decided to hire a van to drive us to Damascus in the morning. As I packed my bags, I remembered a conversation I had with an older woman on the corniche. We had been discussing the fighting at Nah al-Bared.

“This happens every spring,” she said. “The planes are full, and then Syria makes trouble so that the tourists will go there instead.”

On the road to Damascus were scores of billboards of President Bashar al-Assad looking upward, as if slightly bewildered. Despite his puzzled countenance, there was no uncertainty about the outcome of the upcoming referendum on his leadership. Indeed the headline in the Syria Times made me think that the election had already taken place: “People countrywide voice full support for President’s national policy.” Evidently Syrians one and all had pledged their loyalty to the dictator, who was running unopposed. But with a stagnant economy, Iraqi refugees straining social services, the looming UN tribunal on the al-Hariri assassination, saber rattling by the White House, and chaos in the region, not to mention the fact that he was judged to lack his father’s political savvy—and ruthlessness—al-Assad’s grip on power was hardly secure. Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria with an iron fist for thirty years, until his death in 2000. Under his rule, the country was a police state like Iraq under Saddam Hussein (though the two Baathist dictators loathed each other); when the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against him in 1982, for example, he had at least 10,000 people (and perhaps as many as 25,000) massacred in the town of Hama—a rare instance in recent history in which the brutal suppression of an insurgency worked. (The Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square was another.) The constitution was amended after his death to maintain the line of succession, lowering the minimum age for presidential candidates from forty to thirty-four—Bashar’s age.

When we reached Damascus there were more billboards, with images of old men, women, and children illustrating captions like i believe in justice, i believe in history, i believe in childhood, and i believe in peace. The last billboard showed al-Assad, with the caption i believe in syria. He would take 97% of the vote to win another seven-year term in office.

Fifty kilometers from Damascus, my friends and I walked in the morning sunlight through a narrow gorge that had split apart, as legend had it, when Saint Thekla, companion of Paul and venerated in the Orthodox Church as a proto-martyr with a history of miraculous escapes from death and defilement, was alone in the canyon and prayed for deliverance from a pagan man intending to spoil her virginity. We crossed a trickle of a stream under cliffs rising thirty meters or more, the canyon opening into an amphitheater and swallows and pigeons contending for perches, and then ascended a rock face to a ledge in which graves were cut. We were coming from the monastery of Saint Sergios, which dates from before the Nicene Council, in 325, when Constantine’s bishops laid aside their differences to affirm the doctrine of Christ’s divinity: Light of Light, very God of very God … There was a semi-circular pagan altar around which Christians living in nearby caves had built their stone church. On the cool limestone walls were portions of recently uncovered frescoes, and our guide, a young woman with a beautiful voice, recited for us the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic—the language in which Jesus taught His disciples to pray.

At the entrance to the Convent of Saint Thekla, above an icon of her holding a cross and a scroll, was a photograph of al-Assad. The church was closed, so I climbed a flight of stairs carved into the cliff behind the convent to a grotto dominated by a grape vine supposedly growing since Thekla’s day. By candlelight in a further recess, a nun was braiding a prayer rope; against the wall of the cave in which the saint was buried were abandoned crutches—proof of her curative powers. Indeed she is regarded as the Mother of the Sick. Even the water dripping from the ceiling was said to cure flatulence. I followed an Indian pilgrim to drink from the shrine of a saint glorified as an equal to the apostles. Thekla’s faith was such that a canyon had opened for her, just as the Red Sea had parted for Moses. Or was it the case that she had not noticed the cleft in the rock until her life depended on it?

All too often we fail to see what is right before our eyes, refusing to heed the call of love and faith and truth—these things that depend upon our recognition of what lies in the here and now, in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.” Routes from the visible to the invisible are discovered in acts of attention—to the beloved, to the things of the world, to the historical record—and in this grotto it occurred to me that I had lost sight of something crucial. In Damascus the day before, revisiting the citadel and the souk and the Umayyad Mosque, I noticed little, wondering why on earth I had agreed to leave Beirut. And what I realized now, gazing at the mountains in the distance, was that I had to return to Lebanon. So a friend and I hired a taxi to drive us back that very day.

There was a long line of trucks carrying building materials waiting to enter the country, and while I waited for my friend to sort out a visa issue on the Lebanese side of the border I talked with an Iraqi businessman. He had taken a taxi from Baghdad and now he was waiting for his driver to hire a Lebanese taxi to take him to Beirut, where he would buy parts for his road-construction firm. I asked him how things were in Baghdad.

“Americans hate Muslims and Arabs,” he said. “All they do is bomb, and then they hand out a little money. It is the worst.”

He placed his hand over his heart, bowed, and walked away.

Presently my friend returned. On the drive to Beirut, which included several detours around bridges destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, we saw the scars of war: piles of debris, gaping holes in the road. The destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure in 2006 was of a piece with the damage done during the Israeli invasion in 1982, which had inspired Osama bin Laden. “As I looked upon those crumpling towers in Lebanon,” he said in a taped message in 2004, “I was struck by the idea of punishing the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America—giving them a taste of their own medicine and deterring them from murdering our women and children.”

Past another fallen bridge the weather changed abruptly, from brilliant sunshine to thick fog, which slowed our progress through the mountains and brought us to a standstill in the Druze town of Aley. The fog of war, we joked when the traffic eased. It was not until we arrived in Beirut forty minutes later that we learned about the car bombing that had just wounded sixteen people—near the main government building in Aley.

The café, founded during the war to take in refugees, was popular with the intelligentsia, and the panel discussion, in a shabby side room that served as a lending library for books in English (The Crusades through Arab Eyes, The State of the World, Running Linux) drew a crowd. Samir Kassir, journalist, historian, and critic of the Syrian occupation, had been blown up in his car on June 2, 2005, a victim of the Cedar Revolution, it seemed; the posthumous publication of Being Arab, his book on Arab malaise, was a call to action from the grave. But the mood in the room was somber. No assassination in Lebanon had been solved since 1976, according to the British journalist Robert Fisk, whose foreword to Being Arab included a haunting refrain: So who murdered Samir Kassir? The answer was plain to everyone here: Syrian intelligence agents.

But at issue this evening was how the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the Iraq War contributed to the malaise that, as Kassir wrote, had “hollowed out” Arab history. “What remains is a state of permanent powerlessness that renders any chance of a revival unthinkable.” No wonder militant Islam was for many Arabs their only recourse.

Rami Khoury, editor-at-large of Beirut’s leading English newspaper, the Daily Star, took up the theme. “You have 300 million Arabs,” he said, “asking only one thing: to be treated as human beings. We must not allow these historical traumas to turn us into animals. The Islamists must not allow victimhood to dominate the political process. They don’t give us a blueprint for positive change.”

But theirs was the most powerful movement in the region, and Arab intellectuals had to engage them, not submit to their dictates.

“We are all challenged to speak truth to power,” said Khoury.

This was what had distinguished Kassir’s writings against Arab victimhood, and it gave Khoury hope, like the Cedar Revolution, which was a kind of awakening—even though Lebanon remained hostage to regional and global conflicts.

“The first time the word freedom was used was in Mesopotamia, in what we now call Iraq,” he said. “We need one Lech Walesa, one Poland, one breakthrough in the Arab world to bring all the tyrants down.”

Kassir had gone to his grave less sanguine about the future. “But there’s no talk of optimism,” he wrote. “The Arab world, the Levant in particular, remains the prisoner of an apolitical and social system that may allow diversity to express itself, but never allows it to translate into any change in the decision-making processes.” Lebanon escaped the prison of Israeli and Syrian occupation only to be drawn into another war, which ended with Hezbollah on the rise. The assassinations of intellectuals added to the malaise. And now there was no telling what the fighting at Nahr al-Bared might bring.

After the panel I walked to Verdun, a Sunni district, to see the storefronts and apartment buildings that had been gutted in the second car bombing of the week. The sidewalks were empty, the streetlights out. I noticed a woman cleaning up glass from a shattered display window in a clothing boutique. Beirut had been called the Paris of the Middle East before the civil war, and even with the debris Verdun looked posh. The speaker of parliament and the minister of information lived nearby, the restaurants and banks would reopen soon, and the Russian Cultural Center had survived the blast.

Maybe the truth about the killing of the former prime minister would emerge from the investigation. Maybe someday the assassins would be brought to justice. But I had a feeling that even as the panel could not answer the real question of the evening—Who murdered Samir Kassir?—so the truth about the crime that touched off the Cedar Revolution would remain hidden, perhaps forever.

The occupation of Iraq—a study of decisions seemingly taken lightly, from the military’s refusal to protect ministry buildings and museums from looters, to the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, to the use of Saddam Hussein’s prison at Abu Ghraib—had stoked the fires of an insurgency, which was burning out of control. And if the inevitability of our failure in Mesopotamia seemed obvious to many Americans only in retrospect, hardly anyone I met in the Levant claimed ever to have imagined a different outcome.

Michael Young was the exception. The graying columnist for the Daily Star, who describes himself as a Lebanese libertarian (he was in fact half-American, with a degree from Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies), applauded Saddam’s overthrow—and mourned our failure to create a pluralistic society in Iraq.

“The only thing that interests me is freedom in the Middle East—freedom from these tyrants,” he said when we met in l’Antoine Café, in the ABC Mall—the site of the first car bombing of the week. He wore a blue blazer and jeans, smoked a cigar, and identified with the American neoconservative writers who had promoted the invasion of Iraq.

“What was important to me,” he said, “was that if you could get rid of one tyrant, it would affect the whole region. But the Americans screwed it up big time.”

Iraqis were the victims of what he termed the Bush administration’s lack of unity of purpose about the final aim of the war—a “classic bureaucratic shambles,” which he blamed on Condoleezza Rice. As National Security Advisor she had ignored her charge to serve as an honest broker of policy differences in order to preserve her friendship with President Bush. She told him only what he wanted to hear.

“America is stuck in a dilemma. Maybe it’s better that way.”

“She was a realist, then she was a utopian, and now she’s a realist,” the columnist said. “Nobody knows where she is.”

And nobody knew what to do about Iraq. Young foresaw a massacre if American troops were withdrawn, and yet their presence guaranteed more bloodshed.

“You have separate conflicts that feed off each other,” he explained, leaning back in his chair. “But if the Americans leave, what happens to Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, here, Iran? America is stuck in a dilemma. Maybe it’s better that way.”

Meantime Lebanon had to be saved. Young said that Syria was playing out its future here, and noted the proximity of the bombing in Verdun to the Russian Cultural Center.

“That’s what thuggish regimes do,” he argued, “intimidate and provoke a reaction contrary to their interests: the Security Council vote on the tribunal. The Syrians want to have a say in Lebanon—i.e., to regain control. In this crisis they have a veto.”

He accused the Syrians of systematically eroding the possibility of an independent Lebanon by assassinating their opponents, arming their partisans, and supporting al Qaeda and its affiliates.

“If it’s the Syrians,” he said, “it’s not subtle.”

Just look at what happened to his friend Samir Kassir, who had been killed down the street from the mall. Did he worry that he would meet the same fate?

Young smiled. “I hope to live a long life!” he said.

Then he turned serious. “Let’s win here, and then look elsewhere. Our societies are deeply wounded, and I’m afraid that in response to the suffering, we’ve moved toward religion. We had a moment with America, but it passed. The tragedy in Iraq is that they failed. Our only hope now is if Iran becomes democratic.”

After meeting with Young I walked down to Kassir’s shrine—an olive tree planted in front of the supermarket where the historian’s car had exploded when he switched on its ignition. I was copying the inscription on the plaque when a young man from the apartment building across the street demanded to know what I was doing. I said that I was a writer, which seemed to make no impression, so I showed him my book, pointing to my photograph, which he studied for some time before he walked away, shaking his head.

Three villages near Nazareth have been identified as possible locations of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, the first of his seven miracles recorded in the Gospel of John. One of the villages is Kafr Kana, the traditional site of the biblical Cana. This is where the Greek Orthodox and Franciscan churches attract pilgrims from around the world. However, some archaeologists think that the nearby ruins of Khirbet Qana may prove to be the true site—excavations have uncovered an important building complex there—while Lebanese Christians claim that on His way to Jerusalem Jesus stopped in Qana, now a predominately Shia village by the Israeli border, to give the first sign of His divinity. Wherever the truth lay, one overcast morning I hired a taxi to take me to Qana. The driver, a retired Druze engineer from the Chouf Mountains, near the fabled cedars of Lebanon (most of which have been cut down), stopped first at the Ministry of Information in Beirut. After my request for a press pass was denied, we set off down the coast, past fallen bridges, gutted buildings, a power plant attacked by the Israelis, a tank destroyed in an air strike. On the waterfront in Sidon, perhaps close to the place where Jesus is said to have healed the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman, fishermen draped fraying kilims over their nets, under the bleary eyes of old men smoking hookahs. Paul had sailed from here, in the custody of a Roman centurion, preaching the kingdom of God until his martyrdom, and for some along this coast, little had changed since his departure. Across a causeway and a marble column laid on its side, I came to an islet of ruins—a thirteenth-century castle built by the crusaders. When I climbed the tower I passed three Lebanese soldiers armed with submachine guns exploring the ground floor. From the roof I saw a freighter riding at anchor in the calm water. The soldiers’ laughter announced their arrival soon after, which was my cue to return to the taxi.

Our next stop was Tyre, the Phoenician port that in the early days of the Church offered sanctuary to persecuted Christians. As he navigated checkpoints, passing palm trees, smoking rubble, and green houses, my driver grew reflective.

“Maybe Israel will attack Hezbollah,” he said, “but it must wait for America to give the green light. Nobody knows when. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.”

He parked beyond a tank aimed at a Palestinian refugee camp, leaving me to stroll in the Roman ruins; in the midday heat I got as far as the triumphal arch, bordered by the columns of the aqueduct, before returning to wake him from a nap.

We drove inland on a heavily cratered dirt road, and beyond the UN checkpoint at the emerald Litani River we passed tobacco fields, terraces of olive trees, banana groves, scorched apartment buildings crowned with Hezbollah flags (a green logo—the first letter of the word Allah clutching a Kalashnikov—on a yellow background), and billboards of martyrs and Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. On one rooftop was a poster of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, with a banner proclaiming: “This is Hezbollah!” On another poster was a rocket launcher aimed at Israel.

“Before the war,” said my driver, “no one heard of Nasrallah. He’s from Lebanon, but he takes everything from Syria and Iran.” His greatest fear was that Hezbollah would convert Lebanon into a theocracy. And when we arrived in Qana he said, “Do something for Syria. They don’t know anything about democracy. Let America do that.”

As it happened, six American C-130s had just landed in Beirut to deliver ammunition, night-vision goggles, communications equipment, and armored cars to the government, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was warning Israel not to repeat the mistake of the previous summer by attacking Lebanon, promising to “cut the root of the Zionist regime from its stem … Sixty years of invasion and assassination is enough!”

There is no doubt that war crimes were committed.

There may be doubts about the setting and authenticity of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John, but there is no disputing the fact that Qana, Lebanon, was the scene of two devastating Israeli attacks, in 1996 and 2006—the first of which killed over a hundred civilians seeking refuge in a UN peacekeeping compound, mostly children. The memorial commemorating the victims of the 1996 massacre, which occurred during what is known in Israel as Operation Grapes of Wrath and in Lebanon as the April War, consisted of marble tombs laid like plinths near the deserted UN barracks. In the exhibition hall were photographs of the horror, and from an old man I bought a grainy videotape shot in the aftermath of the attack. The opening sequence was set in the hospital, where the wounded were arriving in cars and ambulances. There were burned and bleeding children, doctors and nurses running from room to room, a rescue worker searching for pulses in two boys wrapped in a single body bag, women shrieking, men throwing up their hands—and then the video cut away to the scene of the massacre, the UN dining hall, where the walls and roof were gone and the dead lay in a great pile. Some peacekeepers hauled the wounded to waiting cars, some dragged corpses from the rubble or covered them with blankets, one dumped a dead child out of a plastic bag, another carried off body parts.

The journalist Robert Fisk and investigators from the UN and Human Rights Watch have documented the events of April 18, 1996, and while Israel disputes their findings there is no doubt that war crimes were committed, perhaps on both sides. What happened was this: after Hezbollah fighters in a cemetery three hundred meters from the UN base opened fire on Israeli soldiers laying mines along a Hezbollah infiltration trail, an Israeli artillery battery laid siege to the base, where eight hundred villagers from the surrounding area had taken refuge. For seventeen minutes anti-personnel shells rained down on peacekeepers and civilians alike, while a surveillance drone and an AWACS plane monitored the action from the sky. The United States and Israel accused Hezbollah of using civilians to shield its fighters—a charge that, if true, constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions—but this did not absolve Israel of the crime of launching indiscriminate retaliatory strikes.

The cement floor of the dining hall was still covered with dishes, bits of clothing, bloodstains. There was a smear of oil on the rusted Israeli tank whose turret was aimed at the church on the next ridge. A plaque read, “Your silence makes you an accessory.”

I remember when news broke of the massacre. I was in Barcelona for a UNESCO conference on the reconstruction of Bosnia’s higher education system. I remember thinking that history could not have ended, as an American scholar famously proposed, if we were still fighting over the maps drawn up after World War I. For even as peace took hold in the Balkans, among the South Slavic successor states of the Ottoman Empire, war was breaking out again among other of its successor states in the Levant. The Bosnian delegation had survived the siege of Sarajevo, the terror and privations and war crimes, and the news from Qana, which we monitored from the hotel bar, brought back the darkest memories. One professor recalled watching a CNN report about a sniper attack down the street from his apartment in Sarajevo that showed an ambulance delivering to the hospital a girl shot in the leg: his daughter, as it happened.

The issue in Barcelona was memory—the artifacts, records, and multiple meanings of which academia preserves, explores, and disseminates. And it became clear in our discussions that the reconstruction of Bosnia’s higher education system depended less on raising money to rebuild the libraries, museums, and universities damaged or destroyed in the war (although considerable funds would have to be earmarked for that) than on designing ways to ensure that scholars and students could pursue knowledge in a rigorous manner, unfettered by fear. The Bosnian delegates argued that truth could not be discovered without a proper knowledge of what happened and why—not just in the distant past but in the war that had torn their country apart—and that without the truth there could be no justice for the victims of Serbian crimes against humanity. Classrooms and book collections could be rebuilt, but if there was no honest reckoning of the Serbian-run concentration camps, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and massacres (notably of eight thousand men and boys in Srebrenica), the likely result would be generations of embittered Bosnian Muslims.

Just so, Qana had become a rallying point in the Middle East. Two months after the Israeli attack, Osama bin Laden declared jihad against America, citing the massacre as a reason for Muslims to rise against the infidels. And the Islamists’ righteous anger was redoubled in the summer of 2006, when Israeli jets struck an apartment building in a village near Qana, killing two families. History was repeating itself, they said.

I came to another plaque with this inscription:

18 APRIL 1996

It was monstrous to compare what happened in Qana to the Shoah—and yet it was commonplace in this part of the world. The silence of the marble tombs said more to me about the horror of the crime than any spurious conflation of it with the Final Solution. Likewise the verse, from the Sermon on the Mount, inscribed on the plaque celebrating the service of the Fijian peacekeepers in Qana: blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of god.

My driver said nothing on the way to the shrine, which opened just before the April War in a bid to attract pilgrims to what might be the site of the marriage feast. It was possible that Jesus came through here after His ministry in Tyre and Sidon, then walked up the valley to Capernaum before going on to Jerusalem, perhaps following what would become a Hezbollah infiltration trail. The parking lot was empty, and there was not a soul in sight as I walked under a grape arbor to the ticket office. A corkscrewing path down the side of a hill took me to a cave filled with candles where, according to local tradition, Jesus, His disciples, and His mother rested. At the wedding, when Mary told Jesus that there was no wine, He replied, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? My hour is not yet come.” And so she told the servants to do whatever He said, which was to pour water into six stone pots, like the jars excavated from this site, and He turned the water into wine.

Then I saw something remarkable: inscribed in a rock wall was the figure of Mary holding the infant Jesus. Then thirteen figures—Jesus and His disciples—and a profile of Him, all carved, so it is said, by early Christians fleeing persecution, determined to celebrate their rabbi. “Blessed are the merciful,” He said, “for they shall obtain mercy.”

The sun burned my neck and shoulders, the stones in the road bore into my knees, and the soldiers surrounding me kept waving their guns. Nevertheless I felt a strange sense of calm, as if I were floating a couple of meters above the ground, watching a ritual in which someone who looked like me knelt in his underwear, leaning forward like a penitent, with his hands behind his head and an army officer screaming at him.

“Do you know what these men do?” the officer cried. “If I wasn’t here, my friend, you would be a dead man. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Don’t you fucking understand,” the officer shouted. “You have a beard. You have dark glasses. You have a hat. You have a black bag, for God’s sake! You could have been a suicide bomber. What am I going to do?”

He paced around in a little circle, flipping through the pages of my passport, then stepped away to make another call. When he returned, he looked even more agitated.

“This is a military zone, man,” he said. “Do you know how tense it is here?”

Again I nodded.

“Do you understand?” he repeated.

“Yes,” I said.

He ordered me to put my clothes on, and when I had dressed, he paged through my passport again, carefully examining each visa, each entrance and exit stamp, as if he had missed something the first time through. Malaysia, China, Mongolia, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and all the new countries in the Balkans—Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. And Myanmar and the DMZ in Korea. And the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine, Germany and France, India and the United Kingdom. And Lebanon. Places marked by division and conflict.

“People go to war as if they were going to a movie.”

I was standing between two walls, two gardens, with my hands raised and a siren wailing near the camp, as a soldier read my notes: “Our relationship with tomorrow is sick,” a Lebanese writer had told me. The word tomorrow means something different here than in Europe or America, where it means tomorrow. Here it means maybe.

“There’s something funny in Lebanon,” the writer said. “People go to war as if they were going to a movie. Why not do something to stop it? Lebanon is like a fragile plant growing in harsh terrain, with elephants stomping all around it.”

There were notes from a conversation with a French-Moroccan journalist who had borrowed clothes from a Palestinian woman to sneak into the camp, which she called a tomb. She was a striking, sharp-tongued woman dressed all in black (black shirt, black sweatpants, black sneakers), and, after recording a dispatch for a French news program, she walked from the apartment to the restaurant across the street and sank into a couch to smoke a hookah. “When I went out, it was like I had been in the dark for three days,” she said. “It’s a laboratory of terror. A big jail. It’s the same in every camp, and the international community won’t do anything about it. When they want to invade Iraq in one year, one month, they do it.” The terrorists, the hard men of Fatah al-Islam who had come from various parts of the Middle East and in some cases married women in the camp, were ready to die for their cause. “We are not against them, the civilians say, we are not for them. We are against the army that bombs us indiscriminately.”

A crowd was gathering at the end of the road, including a British camerawoman I recognized from the roof. I figured that having witnesses reduced my chances of being killed, though not of being arrested and perhaps beaten. The officer looked at his soldiers, whose rifles were still trained on me, then tapped my passport on his palm.

“My men are on high alert,” he said. “They would have shot you if I wasn’t here. Do you understand?’

I nodded.

“Do you understand?” he repeated, his voice rising.

“I understand,” I said.

He shook his head. “You’re a journalist, but you don’t have a press pass.”

“I write books,” I said.

“And you don’t have a camera,” he said.

“I take notes,” I said.

He stared at me for a long time, shaking his head.

“Do you have any children?” he said finally.

I cannot say why, but I was certain that my fate depended upon my answer.

“Two daughters,” I said. “Six and eleven. I would really like to see them again.”

His eyes bored into mine for what seemed like a very long time.

“You are a lucky man,” he said at last. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Believe me,” he said, “you have been given another life today.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He motioned to his men to put everything back into my bag. “Check your papers,” he said to me. “Make sure nothing is missing.”

I hastily looked through my notebooks, passports, receipts.

“It’s all here,” I said.

“Then go in peace,” he said.

And so I did. 


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