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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.


  • Did you go to the rally in Dahiye? I read that people are walking all the way from the south to attend. What was it like?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:26 PM  

  • Hey P--just wanted to say hi, and that I'm thinking of you guys over there :).

    By Anonymous Jenny, at 9:18 AM  

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