Sites of Truth
By Hanna Ziadeh *
We stood among the ruins of the legendary crusaderCastle of Beaufort. It was as if the three of us were following the ancient prescription of Arab poetry, the so-called “crying over the ruins”, al-buka` ala al-atlal. This required poets — even hundreds of years after they left the desert — to begin their poems with a few verses in which they shed metaphorical tears over the ruins of past settlements.
We had just endured thirty-three days of bombardment by air, sea and land, in which the explosives used on Lebanese territory were said to have equalled the total used during the five previous Arab-Israeli wars. For thirty-three days we had been subjected to a relentless stream of images showing fire, ash, burned bodies, severed limbs, screaming heads and blank eyes. For thirty-three nights we had argued and shouted, analyzed and explained, only to realize finally that this was all a futile exercise since any argument boiled down to apportioning blame, berating one side and defending the other. In the end I got the mad idea that if I could only get to BeaufortCastle a truth might emerge — that the castle itself, perched as it is on top of so much blood spilt over the centuries, might somehow give me a glimpse of the real war which the war of words had obscured.
So on the thirty-fourth day here I was, standing on the ruins of the once majestic towers of Beaufort. The imposing structure rises as a natural extension of the white rocks at the top of an exceptionally steep mountain. The more accessible part is towards the north, the steep side faces south and runs like a chiselled wall several hundred meters down to a stream that flows into the Litani, Lebanon’s only true river. The crusaders had an exceptional talent for finding sites for their fortifications. The castle surveyed all of the south of Lebanon as well as upper Galilee in northern Israel. From here you also have a view of Mount Hermon, which now separates Lebanon from Syria and on a good day you can glimpse the golden reflections of the Sea of Tyre.
The craziness of my venture hit me as I walked among the shapeless mounds of stones through which runs a streak of violence and blood barely interrupted over the last seven hundred years. First the Normans and Franks fought the “Circassians” in the eleventh century until the Ayubids terminated their 50-year presence. After them came the ultra-Sunni Mamlukes, who forced the Shi’a to move here from their strongholds in the northern ranges of Mount Lebanon in what must be the first recorded ethnic cleansing to take place in Lebanon. After them, in the sixteenth century, came the Turks who were to entrust this castle to warring Lebanese princes of the Mountain; then the French in 1920; then the PLO in the 1970s. Where else would a Lebanese look for truth but in such a place? If past atrocities were not sufficient, he can still hear the constant hum of warplanes, see fields strewn with mines and cluster bombs, and walk on a ground impregnated with so much gunpowder, steel and blood as to make him wonder whether this material is not in fact the only thing preventing Beaufort from falling apart — as by right it should have, given the recurrent and heavy bombardment it has received from Israeli planes and long-range artillery ever since the mid-1970s. Each step we took was a risk.
Mines and cluster bombs had been given as the reason for closing the site to the public. The order was easily overridden, though, because I was accompanied by two foreign journalists, a Danish TV reporter and his cameraman. I had persuaded them to accompany me to these ruins, not to shed tears, but in order for them see and understand Lebanon’s long history of conflict and violence which newscasters keep reducing to the obligatory thirty-five-second incantation:
The militant/terrorist, pro-Iranian Hezbollah began this conflict when one of its commandos kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on 12 July. Claiming its right to defend its northern borders, Israel responded with a major attack aimed at Hezbollah’s infrastructure. The Lebanese government and civilians are caught in the cross-fire of a conflict they neither condone nor control.
Such statements are reasonable when they form the beginning of an explanation, but not when — as so often — they are presented as the unquestioned truth which journalists then seek to corroborate.
This is also where the so-called Hezbollah-land begins. Once you leave the LitaniRiver which runs north to the Castle, you enter a landscape of paradoxes and contradictions. The first to strike an observer from this height is how suddenly the landscape changes at a certain point. Not only do the colours change from earthy brown with touches of green to green with large patches of earthy brown, but all shapes become more linear, more geometric. Up to the famous “Blue Line” that the United Nations proclaimed as a de facto international boundary between Lebanon and Israel, the landscape bears the imprint of chaotic and sporadic, though ancient, cultivation. On the other side of the line, the landscape is transformed, the plots of land are clearly divided into rectangles or squares, with deep colours showing the degree of extensive irrigation and cultivation. The area around the LitaniRiver, where water abounds like nowhere else in the region, is only green along the riverbanks, while forests of green oaks top the hills of northern Israel, even though it is subject to a more arid climate. But it is when you look at the changing pattern of villages and roads that you realise that here two continents and not just two countries meet: south of the Blue Line — actually lead grey as it is marked by Israeli barbed wire — the villages submit to a clear overall master plan, the houses resemble each other in shape and colour, the roads leading to them are a showcase of modern infrastructure. On the Lebanese side, houses are dotted here and there along the roads, unmatched in shape, size or colour. Almost no construction is ever really finished: either something has not been completed, and never will be, or something is still to be added. From a distance you can make out the original pattern followed by these villages: one is built on an accessible slope near a fertile wadi, another on a hill with a flat top protected from the north wind by a mountain. Yet as a rule, asphalt brings cement in its wake, and the landscape has been transformed from one of concentric villages with a mosque or a church and square at their heart, to a linear, open-ended suburbia made to accommodate the increasing use of the car.
As the authentic local he was, our “fixer”, Bahaa, stayed back by the vehicle and could neither comprehend nor share our interest in these ruins. As I finally obeyed his repeated call to climb down, a thought came to me: maybe this is a conflict between two life forms, rather than two forces, populations or even religions.
Though the castle is bleak, nothing could prepare you for the landscape of still smouldering destruction that stretched all the way from Beaufort to the Lebanese-Israeli border. Neither the preceding experience of a 17-year-long civil war, nor the live television reports of bombs falling and limbs being torn apart, nor the hundreds of pictures in newspapers or even the stories of eye witnesses. For miles and miles you see the signs of every possible level of destruction; from shattered windows and broken shop doors, to totally pulverized buildings. The eye seeks anything intact, anything not blemished by the war machine. What was not directly hit and destroyed by air, sea and land bombardment was damaged by the vacuum caused by the huge air bombs. This is why not one single window or shutter was left intact on either side of the roads we took as we were looking for our next site of truth, Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah claim is the main reason for their continued armed struggle against Israel.
It was only after hours of driving though this desolate landscape that I realized something was missing from the picture. The Shiites have made the loss of their greatest martyr, Imam Hossain, into a daily ritual of mourning, and commemorate his martyrdom in the seventh century with an annual 10-day festival of mourning, weeping and even self-mutilation, the so-called ashoura. But no Shiites were to be seen weeping or crying over the ruins of their ancestral homes. The women who figure in an iconic way in most books on the Lebanese tragedy, and who by their wailing can wrench the heart of the most cynical of journalists, were nowhere to be found. Instead, on many of the bombed-out buildings, fresh Hezbollah posters declared that ”Beautiful Lebanon Defeated Grim Israel”. The One Party of God has given its verdict: the desolation should give cause for joyful cries of victory over the Small Satan — not tears of loss over homesteads, burned gardens and fields.
Al Khyam was on our way. The town is known for its infamous prison camp created by Israel in 1978 and managed by their Christian allies. In these old French barracks hundreds of Lebanese leftists and Palestinian partisans were held for years without trial, and exposed to systematic torture and long solitary confinement: it was a kind of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib before the age of satellite TV. Hezbollah took control of it and turned it into a museum of resistance, even though few of their followers were held there. It was here luminaries such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, who was a guest of Hezbollah just before this war, would come to express solidarity with the people of the south. Now the compound had been razed to the ground, and the captured Israeli ordinance run over by Israeli tanks. A pack of dogs had already taken over the place while a handful of journalists and some Lebanese war-tourists were posing to have their pictures taken. Another Israeli failure: visitors will now flock here to see how Israel is trying to cover its grim past.
We drove further east through fertile fields with dried up crops of honey and watermelons, the best in Lebanon according to Bahaa. We naturally had to stop at the outskirts of Shebaa village. Not only were the roads blocked, we risked being shot at by both sides. From a hilltop I showed my journalist friends the slopes of a mountain range, the piece of land that caused Hezbollah and Israel to put the world on the path to war. My travel companions were shocked.
“That is Shebaa Farms?” said the TV journalist, “I thought it was bigger than that.”
“The Lebanese part is even smaller,” I said. “There is no doubt that the largest part of it is Syrian.” A short pause to let the thought sink in. I added, “To make it all more confusing these slopes are only a khiraj, that is common grazing land, for the village of Shebaa, uncultivated and uninhabited land mainly used for grazing goats.” To put my stunned friends out of their misery I went on to the next level of Lebanese absurdity.
“Shebaa village is one of the rare Sunni villages in the south. So here you have a territory that has been under Syrian sovereignty since the late 1950s, occupied by Israel in 1967. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the United Nations placed it under Syrian sovereignty, but now this small stretch of uninhabited land, whose deeds are in the hands of a Sunni waqf, a religious endowment, is claimed by the Shiite Hezbollah who is using Shiite Iranian sophisticated weapons and getting the backing of the even more ultra-Shiite Allawi regime in Syria to liberate it. All under the resentful noses of the Sunni Lebanese and Arabs.”
“All I know,” the TV journalist said, “is that it is not worth fighting for.”
True, never have so many lives and so much ammunition been spent, at least officially, to decide the fate of such a small stretch of land.
The irony of the pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah using the liberation of the Sunni Arab Shebaa Farms to justify their attacks on Israel is certainly not lost on the Sunnis, neither in Lebanon nor in the rest of the Arab world where they constitute the absolute majority. Hezbollah’s phenomenal success in monopolizing the role of champion of Arab and Islamic causes, the heroes who can beat Israel, is the result of a process of radicalization in the course of which moderate social groups and historically central communities were discredited as incompetent or subservient to the West which ironically considered them too radical or too independent-minded. Thus the liberal Sunni urban elites, who failed to deliver on such central issues as independence from the West and independence for Palestine, were pushed aside by the nationalist military and security establishment led by young officers like Nasser, Gaddafi, Assad and Saddam, who were socially rooted in the religious petit bourgeoisie. These military regimes failed even more miserably, however, and were in their turn knocked off their pedestal as national champions. The nationalists were discarded in their turn in favour of what had been even more radical fringe groups such as the religiously conservative Salafis of the popular Islamic Brotherhoods and the more elitist, radical Usuli groups, such as al-Qaeda and other jihadists. Even if the nationalist juntas have, on the whole, retained power because they have been better than their opponents at killing traditional civilian elites, the Arab and Islamic masses have given their allegiance to the more radical movements whose ranks swell daily thanks to their simplistic, self-indulgent rhetoric of hate.
The dislocation and marginalization of established communities can also explain the shift of Arab and Islamic “resistance” from the centre to the increasingly radical edge in the fight against what the majority of Arabs and Muslim see as an aggressive Western interventionism. A direct line leads from the first aborted Arab revolt in 1905, led by the aristocrat Urabi, which was actually a civil disobedience movement against the British in the streets and squares of Egypt, to Bin Laden and his elite gangs in Tora Bora in 2003 and Hassan Nasrallah and his 1500 partisans in the hills and tunnels in south Lebanon in 2006. This line is produced by Western cynicism, miscalculation and intransigence, and Arab radicalization, disillusionment with the Western model of society and escapism into history’s numbing glory. The line reveals itself in the long list of successive enemies of the West, each branded the “new Hitler” of his age, and each followed by even worse specimens. The independence fighter Urabi in the 1900s, the nationalist Nahas in the 1940s, the national socialist Nasser in the 1950s, the civilisation warrior Zawaheri in 2000: this is the apostolic line of dissent and resistance in Egypt. Who can remember how the spin machine of Likud turned PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat into the devil incarnate? Is the leader of Hamas, Muhammad Mashaal, now living underground in Damascus courtesy of the Syrian regime, going to deliver one hundred per cent in the fight against terrorism, and for security and peace? The last leader in Lebanon to draw hundreds of thousands into the streets to listen to him speak was the aristocratic Druze socialist leader Kamal Jumblatt, who looked to Gandhi as his ideal, but was considered a threat by Dr Kissinger, the predecessor of Dr Rice, and subsequently liquidated by the then pro-American Assad Senior. Unlike Hassan Nasrallah whose hiding place is said not to be known even to himself, Jumblatt worked politically from his open mansions in Beirut and the Mountain, met people, travelled, read avidly, wrote about “The Importance of Good Manners” and could speak many languages. In Lebanon we witnessed how the old patrician Sunni families of the coastal cities who flew the flag of liberal Arabism were replaced after the great defeat of Pan-Arabism in 1967 by more radical “socialist” and “fascist” mountain-based clans and “liberation fronts” in refugee camps and misery belts in the revolutionary 1970s. After the Israeli invasion of 1982, which unlike this last invasion did succeed in “uprooting and annihilating” the PLO, Hezbollah and other radical groups emerged. Hezbollah at present overshadows a plethora of small, even more radical groups waiting for the big tree to fall in order to take its place. Not least of these are a number of fundamentalist al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the Palestinian camps.
It is with dread that I look at the innumerable sites of destruction — the same sights that Bin Laden saw in 1982 and said motivated him to go on his egocentric Jihad — and wonder who will succeed Nasrallah once his radical message is no longer perceived as radical enough. For I am sure that Nasrallah, who prides himself daily on having sacrificed his own son in the holy fight against Israel and who has declared that he wants his own life to end in martyrdom, will be succeeded by someone who cherishes death, the colour black, and martyrdom even more than he does. The West will have to adopt a new authentic language of compromise and co-operation with leaders like the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Senioura, and find a way of dealing with the issues of occupation, security and development that will give the moderate government in Lebanon what Hezbollah claims to be able to gain by force. The recourse to violence as the sole way of addressing Arab issues will only lead to more radicalization.
Of one truth I am certain: Lebanon has many Zarqawis in waiting.
* Hanna Ziadeh (حنا زيادة), born in Beirut; he is PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and specialized in the modern history of the Arab world. Source: firstname.lastname@example.org – www.ahewar.org, 11.12.2010