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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

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.


  • wow. thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 AM  

  • Hey, great stuff! Eric G. sent this blog to me; if you like, I'd like to put it on my own blog (a link in the blogroll, that is).

    That blog is http://free--expression.blogspot.com.

    Lemme know! It would add about 6 readers. LOL. But every little bit helps!

    Great work you're doing.

    By Blogger Doug, at 10:45 PM  

  • Hi Doug,

    Thanks, glad you like, you're welcome to add it! Hope I can keep it up and good to know people are reading...

    By Blogger prairie, at 1:40 AM  

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