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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Still Here. Still Proud. Still Waiting for Change...

You can see more on TV than you almost ever do in person, but there is always something unique about actually being there.

Knowing that, and aware that sweeping aerial shots and cutaways often mask some of the realities and emotions of large events, I found myself in a service taxi toward the Hezbollah rally on Friday, Sept. 22. It took some time to find a service willing to take us toward the chaotic and crowded streets, but finally we hailed one and the woman riding with us adopted a motherly attitude toward us as soon as we stepped out into the streets. She was probably in her 60s, no more than 5’ 3” tall with a black headscarf and a sweet smile. We had been dropped off far from the main rally site but as close as any cars were driving at that point as waves of people moved through the streets. I struggled to speak with her in Arabic, easily discussing the usual topics, where I am from, how long I have been in Lebanon, what I do here and what I think of the country (this is the moment where everyone thinks my Arabic is great, then launches into another topic of discussion that I absolutely cannot follow).

But on this day there was no time for long discussions anyway, we were late and making our way hastily toward the rally site. People had begun gathering in the morning, crowds and caravans had left from parts of the south days earlier, driving, walking, carpooling their way to the city in response to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s call for a ‘victory rally’ in the war-ravaged southern suburbs of Beirut known as the Dahiya (or 'suburbs' in Arabic).

The charismatic Nasrallah and this rally celebrating ‘The Divine Victory’ received significant media attention and made for a
great visual (the crowd was estimated from half a million to 800,000) but paint an inaccurate picture of the real mood in Lebanon. Our motherly guardian kept an eye on us as long as she could-- walking with us, directing us to make sure we were headed in the right direction and looking over her shoulder as we made our way through the streets -- until finally she disappeared into the growing masses.

Almost everyone in the crowd was in an upbeat and jovial spirit, there were groups of youth dancing and singing, with Hezbollah supporters vastly outnumbering anyone else but a distinct presence of the
green flags for Amal, the other Shi’a political party, as well as the bright orange of Christian leader Aoun'sFree Patriotic Movement, and an array of Palestinian groups, Communists and even some people sporting several of these flags at the same time.

Notably absent were any supporters of the
March 14 forces, a coalition of political parties currently controlling the Lebanese parliament. The alliance consists of several groups including Saad Hariri's Future Movement, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces. The March 14 group is named after the massive protests held in Beirut on that date, one month after the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

With Aoun's Christian party and the mainly Sunni-based Palestinian factions showing their support, the break does not fall along religious lines but distinctly into anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian alliances. These rifts are just the rumblings of a major political debate about the future of Lebanon that was underway before the fighting erupted and clearly must be addressed in one way or another. Only time will tell if it will be through dialogue and transformation or violence.

But that is a challenge for another day. On this day the focus was on the excitement of being alive amid the rubble and witnessing the emergence of Nasrallah for the first time since July. Many people came to the rally for that reason alone. “I am not a Hezbollah supporter but I support Nasrallah,” one woman told me, and several others said they were just there to see him in the flesh and hear him speak live because he has become such an icon.

We navigated our way through throngs of people in an attempt to move toward the main rally, even the side streets blocks from the stages were filled with people who had chosen to watch from the comfort of a plastic chair with a hubbly bubbly at their side, clustered around TVs placed outside so large groups could gather around.

There were leathery faces of farmers, the pale skinned conservative women with black hijabs to their chins and robes to the ground, children with painted faces, fashionable girls with Hezbollah flags and matching yellow hair ribbons, shirts and assorted accessories, teenage boys in packs and families with young children on their parents’ shoulders.

Finally we had moved as far into the crowd as we deemed possible without risking actually being compacted, jostled by those still trying to move and mingling in the hot sun and sweat of the crowd just at the edge of the main rally location (long-filled hours before our arrival). Pinned alongside a young Muslim girl in a beautiful light blue hijab with Gucci sunglasses and an older man with a leathered face dripping in the heat, I looked up at the surrounding buildings at the groups of people watching from the comfort of their balconies and rooftops. Security guards were also clearly present, peering down from the roofs of residences, gas stations and businesses as well as along the gated perimeters controlling the flow of the crowds.

A stream of five or six women in black hijabs and their children aggressively pushed around me just as a rowdy group of Palestinian supporters tried to make their way forward through the crowd from the right. The ebb and flow continued throughout but as Nasrallah stepped to the microphone no one moved or cared, there was only cheering and chanting. Throughout the speech the mood of the crowd remained upbeat and positive. Although I couldn’t understand most of it, I know “Amewika” and “Condoweezza” (yes Nasrallah speaks with a lisp) when I hear it, but while most ‘booed’ the real emotion remained festive and jubilant -- more on a loud celebration of the end of hostilities, the survival of Lebanon and the loud proclamation that Lebanon has survived this ordeal and will not be silenced or bullied.

People seem happy to be alive, happy it is over and proud of the resilience of the country. Regardless of the politics I hear this as a sentiment. The anger and sadness are there, mixed with a sense of total abandonment by the world. There is a deep disappointment and fury over the rampant destruction of Lebanon, the use of American-made weapons to wreak havoc and suffering on the entire Lebanese population and the sense of never-ending exceptionalism offered to Israel by Western powers -- yet that is exactly where the strength and energy of the crowd comes from, celebrating one tiny nation’s ability to stand up against all of that and survive.

These sentiments are echoed across the city, often in the form of banners or graffiti. In the Beirut suburbs and across the south there are bright red banners across rocketed buildings that read “
Made in U.S.A.” One wall in the city reads “We are not afraid. We are Lebanon.” and there are several other more graphic comments to be found.

Despite the size of the 'victory rally' and the attention it received, it is only one in a wide range of events and perspectives that are shaping this turbulent chapter in Lebanon and the region. Most of the Lebanese I know stayed at work during the rally and continued on with their normal activities. Within days of this event,
other rallies were held and speeches delivered by the predominant anti-Syrian political leaders including Saad Hariri (Sunni politician and son of slain former PM Rafik Hariri) and Samir Geagea (leader of the Lebanese Forces – a Christian-based militia turned political party after the civil war).

As the struggle for power through politics, posturing and reconstruction gains momentum, it is also important to note that while the U.S. may have dubbed Hezbollah a ‘terrorist organization’ similar allegations could be leveled at many of the key political players in Lebanon. Most of them led militias and carried out attacks, authorized assassinations and betrayed alliances and committed crimes of all scales against one another throughout the fighting in Lebanon during 1975-1990. Despite the management and participations in these transgressions, Geagea was the only one of the militia leaders (some would say warlords) to ever be imprisoned for his actions. He spent 11 years in solitary confinement until the Lebanese Parliament an amnesty law releasing him in 2005. A broader
amnesty law was passed in 1991 (the first law passed by the reconstituted parliament) and pardoned all Lebanese individuals and groups for virtually any crimes committed before March 1991.

No reconciliation, investigation or national dialogue was ever held. Maybe this is due to the significant Syrian military and political control of the country until 2005. This could also be partially due to the fighting in southern Lebanon, which lasted another ten years after the end of the civil war. By the time Israeli troops withdrew in 2000, large reconstruction efforts had already been underway for years in Beirut and the northern parts of Lebanon.

Regardless of the reason, this gaping lack of discussion and examination results in virtually no accountability, forgiveness or divulging of information that may help Lebanon and the families of those killed, tortured and abused (as well as those who participated in all those activities) to accept the past as that and move on to what has the potential to be a new era for Lebanon. For now, the history books remain unrevised, crimes remain unpunished and families remain without answers.

While other countries have tried truth and reconciliation commissions and international or national tribunals, Lebanon appears to be solidly embracing the idea that such a phase can be skipped entirely.

Is it possible to just sanction a national amnesia and go forward? What impact does this have on the victims, the perpetrators, the leaders and the nation? How does it affect the families, communities and children living in the environment those violent times created (physically and politically)? And if there has been no open dialogue or exploration of how and why it happened, what is to keep the same from happening again? How much has really changed?