Tales from the Bunker

Christopher Hitchens

The Beirut Golf Club possesses many advantages for the overseas visitor seeking a vigorous nine, or even 18, holes. For one thing, its greens and fairways provide the only remaining enclosed parkland in a city where urban blight is an increasing problem. For another, its caddies are young and competitive and hire themselves out on a basis of keen but friendly rivalry. My own selection of Hassan, a lad of no more than twelve summers, proved especially fortunate. After judicious study of my game, he proffered advice on my swing which helped correct a lifelong tendency to slice. He also demonstrated resource and sagacity in dealing with the feral dogs which haunt the bunkers and, snarling and scrapping, constitute an unscheduled hazard on the longer drives and closer putts.

The modest green fee permits the foreign member access to the cool and well-appointed clubhouse. Here the emphasis is on sporting humour, with a lively series of captioned prints illustrating the rules and vicissitudes of the pastime; their combination of Scots authorship and French provenance – sponsorship of the series is by Perrier – affording an agreeable reminiscence, even at this Levantine remove, of ‘the Auld Alliance’. A handsome display of cups and trophies completes the picture. Copies of Al Sahraa, an excellently-produced magazine ‘exclusive for horse and camel events’, are kindly provided for the perusal of the weary and thirsty sportsman who has reached ‘the 19th hole’.

No course, however well-watered and tended, is without its unsightly divots. And I regret to say that this Edenic oasis is no exception. (An incautious nine-iron shot, for instance, may loft one’s ball into the abutting refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila; a mishap which the well-liked professional, Mr ‘Sami’ Ibrahim, counts as an extra stroke.) Other unwelcome reminders are not wanting. The honours boards tell their own distressing story. Recording as they do the outcome of past medal tournaments and friendly matches, they all too often carry the telltale words ‘not played’. The Ladies Captains Trophy, to select only one example, would seem to have been scratched every year between 1984 and 1990.

Another distraction, or so I found, was the odd tendency to read ‘Gulf’ every time I saw the word ‘Golf’. (I urge you not to surrender to this weakness, as George Bush is said to have done.) Reminders of the outcome of that unpleasantness are everywhere, most noticeably in the omnipresence of the Syrians who seized the chance occasioned by their participation in the all-annealing Desert Storm to legitimise then annexation of Lebanon. While it can be a relief to see the sturdy Damascene soldiery about their tasks at so many roadblocks and intersections, providing as they do a rugged answer to the pressing law-and-order shortage, there are undoubted qualifications to be added to this simple picture. I think of the beautiful Bekaa valley, now under uncontested Syrian stewardship, with the Party of God stalwarts at one end in the Baalbek ruins, and at the other the new votive statue of the Virgin Mary, beaming down at the happy peasants as they reap a bumper harvest of hashish.

Elias Khouri, Lebanon’s best-known novelist and the editor of the literary section of Beirut’s finest newspaper, As Safir, put it to me like this. Everybody in Lebanon has a reason to dislike the Syrians. But this does not mean that they are united in their dislike. The Mareonite and Orthodox Christians (Khouri being one of the latter) dislike Assad for obvious reasons. The Sunni Moslems are suspicious of the Alawite sectarian character of the Syrian Baath regime. The Shia extremists are well aware of the brusque manner in which their fundamentalist kinsmen were treated when they challenged Syrian central authority. The Druze have not forgotten the Syrian-inspired slaying of their great leader Kemal Jumblatt in 1976. And the coalition of leftists and secularists, once grouped under the generic title of Lebanese National Movement, cannot forgive the Syrian intervention of that year which cheated them of victory, alongside the Palestinians, in the early days of the civil war.

Men in the Sun, the novel written by Ghassan Kanafani before his murder by an Israeli team in Beirut, contains a lacerating scene of Palestinian migrant workers suffocating to death inside the hull of a petrol lorry. The lorry is being held up at the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. No matter what the tendency of events may be, it seems that the Palestinians always come out on the losing side. In Beirut just now, and further to the south in Tyre and Sidon, they are being made the test case for the restoration of authority on the part of the new, Christian, Syrian-backed government. Their forces are being disarmed, and their camps put under curfew. It is suggested to them, sometimes none too gently, that they might be happier in Jordan.

I had a very jolly Beirut lunch with Hani Hindi, one of the founders of the Arab Nationalist Movement and somewhat luckier than Kanafani in that, when his car was wired to a bomb by the Israelis in Cyprus, it only tore up one side of him. Now running a research institute in the city, he points to a general tendency to use Jordan as a dumping ground for the Palestinians. The Kuwaitis have pushed out nearly 300,000 gastarbeiters, with perhaps another 100,000 still to come. The Saudis are following suit. The airline running this airlift is Egyptian-owned yet, despite the fact that many of the displaced Palestinians are from Gaza, there is no question of their being permitted to stay over in Egypt. This is ominous enough in itself, says Hindi. But if Arab countries decide to ‘relocate’ their Palestinian minority in Jordan, what is to prevent a future Israeli government from doing the same? And from charging ‘double standards’ if there is any complaint?

Jimmy Carter never spoke a truer word, says Hindi, than when he said he’d never met an Arab leader who, in private, supported the idea of an independent state for the Palestinians. The evident stupidity of Arafat in gambling upon Saddam Hussein was partly a response to the deadliness of this reality, but also, of course, a tremendous reinforcement of it. Didn’t he realise that the Palestinians are not allowed to make any mistakes?

A few days later, in the gorgeous Ottoman courtyard of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, a game of chess with the one I love is interrupted by a reporter from Israeli radio. It seems that Mikhail Sergeevich has been overthrown. Almost at once, everybody asks – will the PLO do it again? Will they hurl themselves astride the wrong horse, which happens to be conveniently tethered close by? Early samples of opinion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank disclose a grim sort of glee. What have we to show from perestroika? Of what benefit to us the New World Order? Save your pieties for those who can relish them. This is instantly written down by all known journalists as yet another example of the well-attested Palestinian death wish. Yet the Palestinians, and many Israelis, have a central preocupation which takes a moment or two to become apparent. If Mr Shamir succeeds, in his own words, in linking ‘a greater immigration’ to ‘a greater Israel’, then Israel will willy-nilly become a binational state. The territories will be annexed de facto, and the new arrivals from Russia will be the unwitting excuse for a two-tier society. Alas and lack-a-day! The United States says that you may not conduct this questionable experiment in international law while paying for it out of the American Treasury. Suddenly it is the Israelis who seem out of sync with the larger developments. On the other hand, they are allowed the time to make a mistake – even to reconsider it.

Evidence for this is waved tantalisingly before my gaze a few days later, on the Golan Heights. Here, in what the locals call Talh Asorakh or ‘The Hell of Shouts’, is a deep but fairly narrow ravine. Through it runs the border with Syria. Across it, every Friday for decades, the locals have gathered in order to exchange gossip and encouragement with their neighbours. The dialogue is by megaphone – hence the name. The inhabitants are Druze, and on the day I saw them were breaking the news of a death in the family. Try doing that through a loud-hailer. The very raucousness and defiance of the process, however, is another reminder that the Golan Druze insist on the very thing the Lebanese repudiate. They insist that they are Syrian. Offered Israeli identity cards after the annexation, they rejected them by means of a stubborn, jaw-set general strike. Invited to participate in the Intifada, they agreed to send blankets and bandages but politely reserved their non-Palestinian position. Syrian to the core. Well, you can’t please everybody.

In discussion with one Salman, of the Golan Academic Association, I heard reason to believe that the Israelis will reconsider their long, intransigent adherence to this almost forgotten occupation. The Golan Heights, he said, have lost their totemic value because the range and accuracy of modern missiles no longer depend on advantages of terrain. If the damn place has any totemic value left, it is registered only in two quarters. These are the private counsels of Hafez al-Assad and of the Israeli Labour Party. Assad was Minister of Defence in Syria when the Golan was lost, and is believed still to take this personally. The Israeli Labour Party, per contra takes particular credit for having secured and settled the Golan, and is also the dominant political party in the adjacent Galilee. The Golan never featured on any of the ‘revisionist’ maps of Eretz Israel promulgated by Jabotinsky. In other words, they are less Biblically and ideologically vital than at first sight appears. Add to this the fact that the water and the Jewish settlements are mostly in the south of the Golan region, and you have a fair recipe for a deal on the return the Heights themselves. Given the new fondness in Washington for the Syrian Government, it is hard to think of any concession which, even after a quarter-century of official petrification, will be welcomed more moistly as a sign of ‘flexibility’.

Proceeding across the Allenby Bridge to Jordan. I was surprised by the unexpected sprightliness on so many sides. The Plucky Little King (he is actually called The PLK by all officials in Washington as a matter of course) has actually succeeded in making himself rather popular He has played host with a good grace, not just to almost half a million new Palestinians, but to untold numbers of Iraqis now on a much-needed furlough. There is a reasonable facsimile of a press and, following elections in which the fundamentalists did better than many people would have liked, a fair impression of a Parliament. One quite famous Jordanian dissident told me of being telephoned by the King on the night of these elections and told: ‘Soon they won’t be able to say they are the only democracy in the Middle East.’ An impressive tribute to the indirect effect of repeated propaganda: in this case, interestingly choosing to focus on the element of truth in it rather than the element of falsehood.

A few months ago. King Hussein looked like an obvious loser in the Gulf War accounting. Now he is being courted again by James Baker, as perhaps the only person who can square the self-imposed American circle whereby the Palestinians pick a non-PLO delegation. And a White Paper has been issued in which the Jordanian position on the war (no foreign troops, a regional solution, the concept of linkage) is recalled with pride. Perhaps nowhere more than in Amman does the emptiness and nastiness of Desert Storm seem more evident. No pre-war problem has been resolved; several pre-war problems have become more acute and in the meantime Iraqi society has been devastated and destabilised. This might have seemed a high price to pay for removing Saddam Hussein from power, but it’s an unbearably steep price for keeping him there. Many Jordanians who might perhaps not choose to phrase things in this way have also learned something about the untrustworthiness of pan-Arab rhetoric. But this in turn has made them look more affectionately at the imperfect statelet which they do have. Pictures of Saddam can still be seen here and there, but their very rarity is more telling than their complete absence would have been. Cantering around Petra, the exquisite city of the Nabateans, we said half-jokingly to our guide that if not for the hero of Baghdad we would not be the beneficiaries of a deserted tourist site. He put me in my place by saying that we were on this ride to discuss civilisation and not politics.

Returning to Washington, the city which is famous for not being able to consider more than one thought at a time, I found that the whole compass of the Middle East had been shrunk. Gone was the discussion of Lebanon whether as the site of American defeat, Syrian victory or hostage calvary. Gone was any but the most spasmodic interest in Iraq or in the Kurds. Absent was any feeling for the Jews of Russia – once a cause which generated enough passion to put a crimp in détente – or the least concern for the rights of the Palestinians. Instead, there was obsessive facination with the old standby of American amour-propre. Could the country afford to be publicly defied by some minuscule Levantine politician? Was the Republican Party trading on anti-semitism? Didn’t American money mean that the American writ should run? Finally, or perhaps to begin with, there was the matter of whether ‘the Lobby’ would be defeated at last. John Sununu, the bulbous Arab-American frequent flier, was reported to have been rebuked for gloating on this point by Brent Scowcroft, the gaunt WASP Cold Warrior and all-purpose strategist.

Time and again I’d heard Jordanians and Palestinians be wistful about the days when the United States had not been able to have things all its own way. As soon as I got home, I found the nation’s most powerful conservative lobby saying the same thing: the friends of Yitzhak Shamir versus dollar imperialism. If this is the end of ideology, give me more. But it was a far cry from the clean sportsmanship of the Beirut golf course.