Pity the Nation

I recently finished reading Pity the Nation – The Abduction of Lebanon by award-winning journalist Robert Fisk. I had possessed this book for a while, but didn’t have the chance to read it until now. Being Lebanese this book particularly resonated with me as it covered the many dimensions of instability within Lebanon and the Middle East region for the last 50 years.

Below are some key excerpts from this historical masterpiece:

I think I was in Lebanon because I believed, in a somewhat undefined way. that I was witnessing history – that I would see with my own eyes a small part of the epic events that have shaped the Middle East since the Second World War.

At best, journalists sit at the edge of history as vulcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge through the smoke and ash at what happens within. Governments make sure it stays that way. I suspect that is what journalism is about – or at least what it should be about: watching and witnessing history and then, despite the dangers and constraints and our human imperfections, recording it as honestly as we can.

I hate the reporters who moaned about their ‘stress’, their need for ‘counselling, their walks through hell. We journalists are, after all, privileged folk. If we don’t like the heat, we can fly home. Club Class, to the glistening bubble of Europe or America, a glass of champagne in our hand. It was the Lebanese, the Bosnians, the Afghans who needed our pity, citizens of pariah countries for whom there were no planes, no visas, no safety, no life. And it was my doubtful, dangerous privilege – along with my colleagues – to be a witness to their suffering, to record their history, so that no-one could ever complain that no-one told them. So that no-one can ever say: ‘We didn’t know.’

What I did not realise then – but what I would discover the moment I embarked on my journey to those front doors – was that I had touched upon the essence of the Arab-Israeli war; that while the existence of the Palestinians and their demand for a nation lay at the heart of the Middle East crisis, it was the contradiction inherent in the claims to ownership of the land of Palestine – the “homeland” of the Jews in Balfour’s declaration – which generated the anger and fear of both Palestinians and Israelis. The evidence of history, not to mention the physical evidence of those land deeds, suggested a subject of legitimate journalistic inquiry: who legally as well as morally had the right to ownership of the property?

For another generation, this Covenant was to be held up as a model of political excellence within the Middle East, especially by the Western powers which gave it such approval but which did not have to suffer its consequences. It was supposed to be a paragon of democracy in an Arab world more familiar with dictatorship than freedom. But there were two fundamental flaws in the Covenant. The first was that the Maronite community which at best constituted only 30 per cent of the Lebanese – was almost certainly outnumbered by the Sunnis or the Shias. There had been no census since 1932 – nor was there ever to be a census again. The myth of a Maronite majority thus had to be accepted by the Muslims for Lebanon’s ‘democracy’ to work. For their part, the Muslims had already given up their claim to reunion with Syria as their price for participation in government under the Covenant.

To 1982 again, to the high-ceilinged room in east Beirut where Pierre Gemayel sits behind his large oak desk. He does not wish to talk further about his visit to Berlin in 1936. But he does not wait to be asked about the Palestinians. He calls them a ‘fifth column’ and he means it. They were a subversive presence here,’ he says. There was a war, not between us and the Lebanese, but between us and the Palestinians, who tried to conquer Lebanon and take Lebanon and occupy it. They wanted to dissolve Lebanon in the Arab world.’ And one is conscious as Pierre Gemayel speaks – unfairly perhaps but the parallel is there – of Gemayel speaks – unfairly of another, infinitely more vulnerable minority which another government blamed, back in the 1930s, for its own social ills.

In Lebanon, one shot, one bomb, has served to immortalise a cause. to make words unimpeachable, arguments irreproachable. To question the dead is sacrilege of a special kind. Look at the legions of martyrs on the walls of Beirut, all those who followed this wisdom of the dead. Study the confident, smiling eyes of Bilal Fahas, lionised by the Amal militia as arouss al-jnoub the ‘bridegroom of the south’, his last moments captured by Amal’s official war artist, driving his Mercedes car bomb into an Israeli armoured personnel carrier. After a while, a routine started; the martyrs would have their own show on television.

Journalists who report wars have to be as dispassionate as doctors 3bout the physical aspects of mortality. We needed the psychological strength to convince ourselves that gruesome detail was also scientific fact; we had to interpret the smell of human decomposition not as something disgusting but as a process of chemical change that was natural if unpleasant. Yet all this is easier said than done. Death is frightening. If nothing else, the dead of Lebanon – the repeated experience of seeing bodies lying like sacks in roadways, ditches and cellars were a constant reminder to us of how easy it is to be killed. It is a necessary lesson. Just one little step across a very fine line, the slightest misjudgement over when to cross a road, when to smile or look serious in front of a gunman, could mean the difference between life and death.

For Arafat, the issues were simple if not simplistic. Palestinians and Lebanese had died in defence of a land that would ‘remain Arab through and through’. His was the path of the sleepwalker, the believer in the blood sacrifice. Those who had been steadfast in battle against the Israelis would know how to transform their ‘new revolutionary awakening into a beam of light and victory on the long road of pains, the road of Golgotha, towards liberated Palestine and to our noble Jerusalem. But Arafat was not going to Jerusalem. He was leaving Beirut onn a Greek cruise ship for exile in Tunisia.

Everyone is convinced that tithe IDF is more humane than any other army. “Purity of arms” was the slogan of the Haganah army in early ’48. But it never was true at all.’ , Politicians, according to Avneri, used the Holocaust as moral blackmail. But it’s real, it’s not invented – it’s there. It produces an odd kind of schizophrenic attitude. The Israelis will say: “We’ll never allow another Warsaw ghetto or Auschwitz to happen again.” Then they’ll tell you they can conquer the whole Middle East in forty-eight hours. No one feels any contradiction in this.’

But ‘terrorism’ no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge ~ for they too use the The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge — for they too use the word – are those opposed to the Palestinians.

The Lebanese Christians would have been the first to strip Israel of its illusions about the Shia Muslims of the south. If Sunni orthodoxy condemned the Shia as theological heretics, the Christians saw them ” in the words of one Lebanese academic as ‘the Albigensians of the Middle East’. In Lebanese politics, heresy meant betrayal, and the poverty of the hill villages of southern Lebanon, the historical neglect suspicion deep inside the framework of Lebanese Shia society. We would encounter this ourselves on visits to the south. Shia friends whom we had known for months, family members with whom we had stayed for weeks – men and women who had protected us during periods of would turn to us suddenly, without warning, at breakfast or on a car journey and ask: ‘Are you a spy?’

On a concluding note:

A quarter of a century. When I thought about it, I felt old. Yet working in the same region, watching the same tragedy, involves a kind of eternal youth. I still felt as young and fit as I was when I first came to Lebanon in the hot and terrible summer of 1976.1 was 29 then, with my parents’ energy and wisdom and my own schoolboy enthusiasm. My father had fought in the trenches of France in 1918 and in the year he died, I was in the city that sent him there, watching the continuation of the European civil war in Sarajevo. My mother had died six years later. in 1998.1 had no brothers or sisters. Sometimes I felt very much alone. But I had come through, I told myself. I made it. How very easy it would have been to die in Lebanon.

Yet Still as I write now, I fear the monsters. Perhaps I fear history and the frightening authority it has over our lives, its ability to persuade us to repeat our tragedies, over and over again. Maybe this is what draws me back to the slums of Sabra and Chatila year after year, with its garbage and rats and hopelessness. Balfour and the British mandate of Palestine, Hitler and Zionism – yes, and the Arabs – all conspired to imprison these poor people in the slums. Arafat had abandoned them for his garbage statelet in Gaza. In February 2001 I was back in the camps again, still trying to find one more clue – one more unheard witness – to the massacre of 1982.1 walked again those same roads. Here is where I found the body of the old man with the stick, Mr Nouri. Just beyond is the execution wall and, to the left, the spot where I found the two women and the dead baby. Behind me is the ward where Loren Jenkins and I hid beside the dead body of the newly murdered young woman, the one with the clothes pegs lying round her head like a halo. And right here, on this stretch of muddy road, is where Jenkins, sickened by the smell of death and the personal responsibility of one man, screamed: ‘Sharon!’ A day after that last visit of mine to Sabra and Chatila, on 6 February 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel.

A must read for anyone looking to understand the geopolitics of the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular.

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