Edward Said reflects on the fall of Beirut

I never thought that Beirut was the Middle Eastern Paris, nor that Lebanon was like Switzerland. This does not make the country’s present agonies any less horrible, or Beirut’s relentlessly detailed self-dismantling – much of it performed on prime-time television – any less unprecedented, and interminably, senselessly miserable to witness. The whole process has by now become a large-scale version of the Laurel and Hardy film of two men who vengefully destroy each other’s car and house piece by piece, tit-for-tat, and while they glower and puff through many ‘take thats’ the world around them gets wiped out. As the struggle for power and territory continues in Beirut, very little will be left of either when, and if, a final victor emerges. A close friend of mine who has lived through the entire ordeal told me last week over the phone from Beirut that quite apart from the bombing and mayhem, reading the epidemic of local newspapers would certainly drive anyone crazy: no two of them say the same thing, and trying to figure out what is happening or who is fighting whom for what reason is like catching clouds.

Members of my immediate family still live in Beirut, as does the largest part of my wife’s family, which is Lebanese. These incomprehensibly brave people are too stubborn, too unwilling to start lives over again, too anchored in the city to leave. As a Palestinian I haven’t thought it prudent to visit Lebanon since the spring of 1982, although my wife Mariam and two young children have made a couple of visits since the Israeli invasion. My widowed mother valiantly hangs on all alone in her West Beirut house, quite sensibly focused on the problems of her health, the failures of electricity and telephone service, the difficulties of getting help, the collapsing Lebanese pound. I see her and our other relatives intermittently when they emerge for short spells in places like London and New York; they are fortunate in still having the means to travel. After 1983 or thereabouts Mariam and I stopped trying to note the changes in their faces or manners after a particularly trying ‘round’ (as the bouts of killing are called). Their mere survival, in ways we can neither trace nor reconstruct, seems miraculous. We find ourselves avoiding consideration of the inner damage they must have sustained. Most of our younger cousins, nieces and nephews who have grown up in ten years of unremitting war tend to speak interchangeably of computer games, football scores and massacres, and their easy way of pointing out differences between Grads, RPGs and Katyushas is chilling: nevertheless their parents persist in giving them ‘normal’ lives. Ordinary, everyday vocabulary, for the most part, has hardly changed. Politics are, eerily, ‘out there’, as are most of the militias, leaders and rival parties, even though of course the war is simply everywhere.

For the past two weeks, Sabra, Shatila and Bourj el Barajneh – the ugly, sprawling Palestinian refugee camps lying just south of Beirut – have been beseiged, bombed and periodically ravaged by the Amal Shi’ite militia, originally armed and trained by the Palestinians. In spite of immense odds and numerous announcements of victory by Shi’ite spokesmen, Palestinian resistance to Amal continues unabated. In 1982, Sabra and Shatila were the sites of massacres by the Maronite Phalanges acting under the aegis of the Israeli Army. A different season now, but the same victims. Only yesterday, Nabih Berri, Amal’s leader (who holds an American ‘green card’, the permanent resident’s badge), threatened Israel with an alliance between Amal and the very Palestinians his men were killing, unless Israel withdrew completely from South Lebanon.

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