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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Aftershocks of War

Every drive south is a new experience along a different route, the construction is transforming the traffic patterns daily and there seems to be no ‘best route’ along some portions where cars are forced to abandon the main (and only) highway. I’m in no real position to talk about the ‘south’ as I have only been down as far as the Litani River, but it is far enough to be a dramatic shift of scenery from the heart of Beirut. Of course that was always true but now the chasm seems to have widened between these two segments of Lebanese society.

Beirut is getting back into the swing of things. The swelling number of people out and about is easily apparent in the bars and restaurants even in the time I have been back. The two major universities (
AUB and LAU) opened last week and with the air and sea blockades finally lifted there are plenty of flights to bring those who fled or were stranded back in to Lebanon.

In addition, all those who stayed were mostly isolated with their families in the mountains for the duration of the war. For young Lebanese, like everyone else, this was not the vibrant summer season they had anticipated and many are eager to return to their lives – whether that is studying at the university or dancing until the sun comes up at the late night hotspots like
BO18, where I was a week ago. Unfortunately I only made it until 4 a.m. but the line to get in as I was heading to bed was a clear testimonial to the commitment of the Lebanese youth to reinstate the vibrant nightlife that made Beirut a favorite for vacationers and businessmen across the region.

As the Lebanese socialites trickle back in from their summer vacations in the mountains and across Europe to fill the emptied streets of Beirut, the south is also swelling with returnees seeking to embrace a return to normalcy. But those in the south do not return to empty streets, they face roads blasted with craters, mountains of cement and rubble where the businesses and homes they frequented used to stand and croplands scattered with cluster bombs that continue to claim lives. As Beirutis return to long nights out on the town (arguably an important contribution to re-starting the economy and tourism industry), others spend long days trying to distribute food and aid to those even less fortunate.

Back at the Jaber Center in Nabatieh last weekend, I spent half the day filling bags for distribution – soap, powdered and fortified milk, antibiotics, instant cereal, washcloths, diapers and feminine products. In a huge room with boxes lining the walls I filled bag after bag as others outside faced the massive lines of women coming to collect supplies. Some impatient people banged on the door or yelled through the windows. Another one of the women at the center collapsed during the day. Everyone has been working long hours day after day with no end in sight and their exhaustive efforts are starting to take a toll, though no one will admit it or slow down. The stress and frustration is also rising among the people coming for supplies, with extensive lists and procedures I cannot claim to have a clue about, there are inevitably families or individuals who want more than what they are given, or to be attended to faster or feel as though they deserved special, different or more immediate attention.

I only spent one day in this space. What a dedication and work ethic. I cannot imagine how they are doing it day in and day out. Even as their own families struggle through this strange time of recovery and rebuilding.

Back in Beirut, September 11th came and went and marked, among so many other things, my first day of Arabic. While I am at last able to conjugate verbs, I wonder if this endeavor is really a surmountable task or if I will be forever forced to enjoy my ability to hold idle conversations while being entirely lost as soon as the discussion starts to get interesting. I understand just enough to know what people are talking about, and just little enough to not know what they have to say about the subject. Very frustrating.

I have found myself in some interesting conversations lately with amazing mixes of people; Armenians, Moroccans, Sudanese, Brazilians, Turks, British, French (and of course Lebanese). The level of discourse surrounding Lebanon’s current and future status has risen, which could be a positive sign of engagement among the people, although most seem to think little has changed in the overall equation. People seem stuck struggling between two emotions: the desire to believe in the (
repeatedly tested) strength, resilience and dedication of the Lebanese . . . and possibility that the transformation they had hoped so much for will never emerge from the cycle of violence that has continued to rock Lebanon, from car bombs through 2005 to the recent onslaught of rockets and cluster bombs.

One small shift since the end of the war has been in the discussion of Hezbollah itself. The name along used to only be whispered in hushed tones or marked with an almost unconscious cautious glance around the room. Now it is open season on the topic of Hezbollah, their role in Lebanon, the impact of the war, their actions and what will happen next.

It is still unclear whether more people in Lebanon will be coming or going now that the official state of war has ended. What counts as the end of war? Is it supposed to be finished now that the bombs have stopped falling from the sky? Does it feel that way to the families stuck in their homes or cautiously making their way down main streets as mine teams mark off unexploded ordinances? Or to the farmers who can now look out at their crops but not harvest them for fear of exploding?

It is a bit like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The power outages. The cluster bombs. Scuffles over food supplies and aid. The shifting demographics of the nation as thousands of international forces pour into Lebanon to protect. . .who? Lebanon? Israel? Why are they only on this side of the line?

Israel has announced it hopes to withdraw the last of its troops by the weekend. A big weekend to be sure – Friday sunset will mark
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the next morning (depending on the moon) will most likely mark the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and religious introspection. And the official onset of autumn.

Nasrallah himself has not missed the significance of this day either. He has called for a rally in Lebanon on Friday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the Hezbollah headquarters were housed and an area severely damaged during the war. Nasrallah encouraged all Lebanese to attend the rally and although the debate is raging about whether or not he will appear (since Israel has threatened Nasrallah himself is a “legitimate target” no matter where he is), I would bet that he will be there. Along with a couple hundred thousand Lebanese, foreign journalists and assorted other observers. And love him or hate him, blame him or praise him, he will be untouchable.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Long Days in Nabatieh

The energy and focus of everyone at the center may be directed at helping those most in need in Nabatieh and across the region, but every one of them has been through this war too, and slowly the stories start to come out.

Maria, her husband and their daughter had stayed in Nabatieh longer than most because of sick relatives, but finally fled to Beirut. By the time they left, Nabatieh was a ghost town as families and individuals risked the drive north toward Beirut, Syria and the mountains in search of safer ground. Maria said they opened up three houses in Beirut, filling them to the gills with about 60 families. Each morning she would go with her husband at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to stand in line for bread and other food supplies, then return to cook and take care of everyone.

Her home in Ansar, just outside of Nabatieh, sustained minimal damage, glass blown out by the blast from rockets on a nearby hillside. Only the fully closed windows shattered from the pressure of the explosion, namely the sliding doors in her daughter’s room (which makes me think if I was her, I would probably never close another window all the way the rest of my life. . . )

In the afternoon I found myself chatting in the hallway with Maysa. Quiet and sweet with a very strong work eithic, she is the administrative support and basically keeps the Shabab Center (and all of us) organized. French-educated and giggling with embarrassment as her brother teases her, she huddles against the wall to show me how she spent the first 15 days of the war -- fearfully planted in a corner of their room. She stayed in that corner, refusing to move, until she was finally coaxed out and into a car headed toward Beirut. Her brother Hassan, one of the theater teachers, stayed in Nabatieh for the duration of the war.

Ali Baalbaki stayed as well, volunteering with the Lebanese Red Cross. He is a psychologist by training and works with the environmental club at the Shabab Center. Speaking almost no English, though he understands it well, he has become a close friend as well as one of my best and most patient Arabic teachers, making me repeat words again and again (and again!) until I get them right.

Around 5:00 p.m. I go with Ali and his friend Ali (yes, it's like 'John') drive one of the girls from the center home. Ali points out buildings that were hit as we drive through town. I only got details about two of them.

We passed right along one home that had four young children sleeping in a bed together and their mother inside when it was hit by an Israeli rocket. Two of the children died instantly, the others are still hospitalized and the house is a mountainous pile of cement and fabrics ripped to shreds. I couldn't tell you how many stories it used to be if I had to, it has been reduced to complete rubble.

A second building, a school for the disabled hangs in tatters halfway up the hill, a huge building ripped open by a rocket. Luckily no one was inside but more than half the structure is missing and collapsed. Alone on a hillside it seems a strange target (though not as 'strange' as some like the Liban Lait factory).

According to Ali, during the war the air strikes would mostly come after dark, when it was far too dangerous to move around. There was nothing they could do but listen and wait for the light and the silence to settle across the empty town. Then they would race around in Red Cross ambulances, hoping the vehicles would keep them safe, and trying to identify where they had heard explosions during the night. Once they located the sites hit they could then try to get to those stuck under rubble before the next round of rockets began to fall.

Back at the center in Maria’s office, though she has been upstairs in meetings for hours, we all talk as people come and go. Everyone asks about whether I watched what happened from the U.S. and how it was portrayed in America. It is a difficult question to answer and I feel myself trying to explain . . . what do you say? How do I explain where the U.S. perspective comes from, about lobbying and political influence and the level of ignorance and war fatigue?

What kind of answers are these? What excuses? How do you look at people and say I’m sorry my country did nothing as you were attacked and struggling to save the lives of innocents hurt by missiles America sold to Israel? As children are injured by cluster bombs scattered through the homes and fields of farmers and gardeners? That someone decided your town and family and community are all acceptable casualties of a militarily-obsessed political strategy that is failing time and again but refuses to change?

I look at them and I hear Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pleading for help in the first week of the war, with already more than 300 killed, 1,000 injured and half a MILLION displaced LEBANESE (not Hezbollah):
“Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citizens of other countries?” he asked. “Is this what the international community calls self defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions? Is this the message to send to the country of diversity, freedom and tolerance?”

These people, who I have worked with so closely, have dedicated their lives to working to change their communities and foster dialogue. These Lebanese who spend their time working to foster creativity, provide alternatives to violence and instill a sense of global connection in the midst of this ‘Hezbollah stronghold’. I am not saying the characterization is wrong, but it is never that simple (especially in Lebanon). There are good people everywhere. And people with different beliefs and perspectives. And back when we were small and thought there were only ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and the good guys always won . . . and we were always the good guys . . .

So what do you say?

What do I say? To Amer, our theater instructor, whose brother just died on Sunday.
A doctor who stayed behind to help those wounded in the war.

He died from injuries he sustained trying to help pull a family from the rubble of another home rocketed in the midst of all this chaos.

The whole town is mourning for him, he was a kind soul people tell me, the sort of man who would treat anyone even if they could not pay. “Goodbye…to the protector of the poor” one banner hanging across the street by his family’s house reads. A large tent extends from the house, creating an area for mourners to gather and pay their respects to the family. I climb the stairs to the porch with a heavy heart, holding Maria’s hand, it is 10:00 p.m. and we have just left the center. We stopped on our way out to visit Ghadeer, a kind, vivacious girl about my age who works at the center. During the afternoon she stumbled into the office and collapsed into a chair. Taking a sip of water she began to shake, sweat and mumble incoherently. I held her head and her hand as someone checked her pulse and patted a cool tissue along her brow and down the edge of her headscarf. Looking pale and shaking with increasingly violent spasms, she was carried out and taken to the hospital. Now at her home she is curled in bed, drained and being forced to rest. Her mother offers us fresh juice and cigarettes as we apologize and say we must head to pay our respects to Amer and his family.

I feel the tears well up in my eyes as we reach the porch and I see Amer step toward the door. He has no idea I am even in Lebanon. Mohammad is there too, I hug them both and say I am sorry, struggling to express myself and immensely aware of my deficient Arabic skills. But glad that I could be there. We sit for a bit. More cigarettes and Arabic coffee and then we head on our way, home to Maria’s house for dinner.

Around 11:00 p.m. we finally climb the dark stairs to Maria’s floor, always one farther up than I think. The power is out but once we get inside her husband goes to turn on the generator and we all slip into our pajamas before sitting down to eat. Curled on the couch, talking and watching the news, I feel myself starting to fade and realize Maria’s daughter has already slipped off to bed. And I do the same.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Arriving at the Shabab Center

We had left Beirut at 11:00 a.m. after waiting for petrol (the stations open at 10). After the intense drive down from Beirut to Nabetieh, I could hardly contain myself as we pulled up to the youth center where I have spent the last six months helping create the Shabab Center.

It is 1:30 p.m. and the building was abuzz with activity.
Mercy Corps has taken over one whole section as the coordination office for their relief operations in southern Lebanon. The main entrance was crowded with families and women coming to collect food and supplies as children and staff wandered in all directions.

The center itself has quite a presence. It is a huge building of white stone, two parking lots and a basketball court out front. Built on a hill, the entire upper level houses a massive open-floor theater with stage, plus a sitting room and one large office used by
MP Yassine Jaber when he is in town as well as by the director and others for meetings. The main floor of the building has three entrances and contains a library with six computers, the director’s office, Maria’s office, half a dozen classrooms, a new computer lab and a large open room (formerly for sports and folklore classes, now filled with tables piled high with biscuits, tuna, condensed milk and the like). Boxes are everywhere.

I probably know 2/3 of the people I see and only a few people knew I was coming so I cause a bit of a stir, lots of hugging and “I’m so glad you are safe” and me explaining how I would scan the pictures in the news looking, and hoping not to see, any of them.

The good spirits and energy of the center are impressive, the relief efforts have been in full swing since the moment the ceasefire (a-hem, ‘cessation of hostilities’) kicked in and they are in the thick of it, coordinating and distributing aid as well as preparing to resume regular activities at the center this coming week.

Maria is racing from meeting to meeting as her phone rings constantly and she greets me with wide open arms “Baby! It is so good to have you back! Can you believe the center?” she says. It is crazy, so much activity, everyone is working long days and late nights, some of the distribution crews got back at 1:00 a.m. she tells me, but mostly people are happy to be back in Nabatieh.

There is so much work to be done -- here it is not a question of right or wrong or who is to blame or who won the war -- it is time to salvage what can be saved, help those in need and do what needs to be done so everyone can return to their lives. There are discussions, snippets, comments here and there, but the focus is on rebuilding, helping and easing the suffering.