Not even a week after Israel started bombing Beirut, an act of war that inadvertently revived my failing journalism career, friends began e-mailing their concern and wondering whether my suddenly frequent appearances on television would finally change my luck with the ladies of Lebanon. But the reality of life under siege is not so glamorous. When the two French students living next door snagged a last-minute berth on a Greek ferry bound for Cyprus, they asked me to take care of their hamsters. “We’ll be back in September.” Great.
I plan to be here when they return. I’m making the usual preparations: buying a generator, setting up a satellite phone and finding a flak jacket for my driver. I’m also making the not-so-usual ones: After the Israeli air force attacked a dairy processing plant, I filled my freezer with yogurt. But if journalists thrive on other people’s misfortunes, I’m not even sure that will last. Because Israel will probably never disarm Hezbollah by force, the war in Lebanon could become just another of the world’s seemingly endless, certainly stupid and ultimately boring conflicts.
For one thing, the world — or at least its only superpower — seems to care more about Jewish than Arab suffering. How else do you explain that the United States has aided and abetted its client state as it creates half a million refugees on the pretext of two kidnapped soldiers? When I recently wrote a feature about Lebanon’s refugees for a major U.S. newspaper, the editor deleted a story about the father of one displaced family who said he survived an Israeli massacre in 1983. Israeli atrocities during that time are well documented. But the editor explained that this was a major allegation and that we had only the man’s word to back it up. I didn’t put up a fight; after all, I just wanted my article to run. But I wondered: If I had written about a Hezbollah rocket hitting the house of a Holocaust survivor, would any editor have doubted that Jewish person’s story?
Of course, I’m just as disappointed in Lebanon. When my country was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of us lined the streets of New York to give blood that day. There has been no comparable outpouring of civic feeling in Lebanon. Most of my Lebanese friends with money and options and foreign passports left their country — during a time when it needs them most — to sit out the war in Paris or London or New York. Others seek comfort and safety in resort towns in the mountains, where the air is dry and cool and the hotel bars are packed and you can’t hear buildings disintegrating and illusions shattering.
The other day I found about 150 refugees living without assistance in a public school in south Beirut. It had taken them a week to make the three-hour trip from the war zone in the south, stopping in towns where they’d been gouged by taxi drivers and shopkeepers and had run out of money and food for their babies. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, there was an American-style supermarket groaning with goods. I started filling three shopping carts with water and bread and infant formula to donate, but when I told the other shoppers and the store managers what I was doing, not one person offered to help, chip in or give me a discount.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. How can you care about your country when your country doesn’t care about you? The warlords who run Lebanon and pretend to be leaders have reverted to type. They aren’t out filling sandbags or having their pictures taken with war widows, or doing what politicians do when they believe in democracy or the appearance thereof. They’ve retreated to medieval mountain fortresses or ersatz hillside villas, where they polish their gun collections and their armored Mercedes-Benzes as though readying for a gangland war. No matter how many hundreds die or thousands become homeless, they’ll still be here when the fog of war clears.
But if the Lebanese have their failings, then I also have mine. I left New York three years ago to write about America’s involvement in the region — not about Arabs and Israelis killing each other. Somehow I thought I could separate those two things, and write about the Middle East in a new way, avoiding the same old debates and the same old categories. So I worked in Iraq and used my Beirut pied-à-terre to blow off steam and hit the nightclub scene and I didn’t read books about Israel or care about Palestinians or go looking for Hezbollah. Instead, I wrote about Arab pop stars and Kurdish feminists and grouse-hunting trips in southern Iraq, and thought that the worst thing happening here was runaway development and environmental decline.
But sooner or later in Lebanon, history returns, usually in the form of a bomb.
So now I sit with my unpublished stories and my illegible notes in my spacious hipster hideaway in Christian East Beirut, the same home that I am wary of sharing with even a hamster, and I think about a 12-year-old Shiite girl and her refugee family living with 20 other people in a schoolroom not far from here, and I remember she told me that she wasn’t angry at the Israelis for destroying her neighborhood. “God sees everything,” she said. The thought gives me no comfort.
Andrew Lee Butters is a freelance journalist in Beirut.