Friday, January 22, 2010

To Lebanon and back

I have not been in Lebanon for more than 3 years. I was there last days before the Israeli attack on Lebanon. I remember meeting with someone you all know days before the war and commenting: that I smell an Israeli conspiracy the likes of which I have not smelled since the civil war in Lebanon. I left the country only to watch the war on TV from the US: that was quite agonizing. I received threats from Lebanon and people in Lebanon and the US who love me and did not want me to go when it was not safe. I waited and waited until I decided to go. The same day that I was to leave London for Lebanon, I received a well-meaning letter from a Lebanese professor (someone I have not met) and he strictly advised me to abstain from eating food at public places and also advised me to resort to strict security measures. I was offered bodyguards by a couple of political leaders but of course turned them down. That would have been awkward, and I am accustomed to travel around in taxis and service, and to being abrupt and spontaneous just as I am. I arrived at the airport to have a high ranking military officer call my name just as I left the plane. That can usually means something bad or something not bad. It was not bad: the chief of security of the airport (the same man whose attempted dismissal by March 14 led to May 7 events) sent his men to expedite my passport verification and such. And my trip to Lebanon started. I met many people and politicians but I now am always warned: do not put this “on your blog”. So much of what I heard and learned is off the record, or according to Chatham House rules as people like to say in conferences these days. I was pleased to note that young people are rather disgusted by both sides in the conflict. Both sides don’t deserve your support. A new movement is required to meet the aspirations and hopes of the young people of Lebanon. One thing I need to say before I proceed: some Lebanese who don’t know me personally expressed displeasure and sadness regarding my constant attacks on Lebanon and the Lebanese. I need to clarify. I am in principle opposed to the very idea of Lebanon and to the Lebanese entity, and want its dissolution. That notion will become more attractive once we have a decent regime in Syria and Lebanon. It is economically smart: it is, or will be, the Rational Choice of people in the future. But as far as the Lebanese are concerned: they are like any other people. There are offensive and disgusting trends in Lebanese culture: and many Lebanese subscribe to them but there are wonderful Lebanese that I like and love. These are the ones with whom I spend time with when I visit Lebanon. I will not get too defensive on this point and I assure you that my attacks on that deformed entity will continue. I met many people during this trip. I was invited to dinner and there was Samir Quntar: the former Lebanese prisoner in Israeli jail, and whose life and activities were totally distorted by Israeli vicious propaganda. I found Samir Quntar to be thoughtful, intelligent, interesting, and rather feministic in the way he spoke about marriage and as I observed his tough and interesting wife’s interaction with him (she even to my loud protest argued in favor of erasing his Palestinian accent). I mostly talked books with Quntar: he became really well read in jail. He read much of the Russian literature in translation, and learned Hebrew. He shared a cell for three years with Marwan Barghuti and told me that the latter is adamant about the two-state solution. Quntar told me that he read me in jail, and that he read Arabic political works. I expressed surprise, knowing the nature of tough Israeli censorship that shows alarm at Arabic political poetry. He said that they have their own ways and said that the Israeli guards are “very dumb.” He explained to me how they smuggled political works and we both had a good laugh at the stupidity of Israeli jailers. You want to know the method? In your dreams. I also want to mention a waitress named Yasar at Lina’s café in Hamra street. I will mention here only because I obtained permission from her to mention her. I was immediately fascinated that a woman is named Yasar (Left). Her father is a hard-core communist and he named her Yasar. You never see that part of the region covered: the secular/leftist part of the region. I mean, you don’t meet a woman named Left in the US. It would be more odd here than in Lebanon. In Lebanon, that part of society always existed. Yasar told me that when she was six she asked her father to change her name. He slapped her across the face hard for the suggestion. (Yasar also gave me permission to report this). Yasar now loves her name. She told me that she has a way to tell whether her customers are left or right. She said she can look at them. I was sitting with a friend who was a member of the upper bourgeoisie and asked Yasar to tell who is left and who is right. She said that I am “of course, far left”, and that my friend is “not.” That was Yasar. I stayed at a hotel owned by Al-Waleed bin Talal: it was extremely expensive and that quality does not match what you are paying (unlike hotel standards in the US, I compared in my head). And look at the conspiracy: when you channel surf in your hotel room, you see that Al-Hurra TV is one of the top 10 channels, along with Fox News. Those things are planned and are not accidental. (The only reason I stayed in the hotel is because it was the only hotel with an indoor swimming pool). I also learned one important thing: that I will never ever socialize with a political figure in Lebanon. It is important that I keep my distance. I spent a good amount of time with the folks at Al-Akhbar newspaper (and some of them I met for the first time, like the reporters, the publisher, the photographers, art designers, and the cafeteria person, Tawfiq who taught me patiently how to prepare a ginger drink. I tried it yesterday but it was not as strong and spicy as Tawfiq’s. Tawfiq would prepare the drink as soon as he heard my voice, in my last visit at least. The Al-Akhbar formula of success is based on the understanding and chemistry between the director (Ibrahim Amin) and the editor-in-chief (Khalid Saghiyyah) with an unusual degree of support and non-interference from the publisher (Hasan Khalil). There is at long last an interesting, original, fresh, and entertaining newspaper for the secular left. The traditional left is not as excited about it as they should be perhaps because they are accustomed to putting out the most tedious, Soviet-style publications that are only useful for wrapping falafel and Shawirma sandwiches. Communist leaders want a communist publication that only cater to the whims of party leaders, and which publishes every utterance and sneeze of party leaders. But then again: that’s their problem. The atmosphere of Al-Akhbar is different from the atmosphere of other newspapers that I have visited: in Lebanon or in the US. Al-Amin and Saghiyyah are often criticized for not socializing and for not interacting with the media. But I belief that their approach is successful: they don’t socialize with politicians and they established strict rules for their reporters regarding the need to keep a distance from politicians. It is probably the only newspaper in Lebanon that has strict rules against accepting cash from politicians. And to turn down cash from politicians is considered quite unprofessional in the corrupt country of Lebanon, as Ibrahim Amin had learned when he turned down a cash offer from Rafiq Hariri when the former was a reporter for As-Safir. I can tell you that Saudi Arabia is not pleased with my attacks on its ideology and policies in my articles for the newspaper but I will not elaborate here because I was told to not blog on the matter. Use your imagination. The food in Lebanon is quite amazing: the Lebanese have become quite skilled in the preparation and presentation of food, and in restauranting. The Syrian and Jordanians are now catching up. Yet, it was the first time that I lost weight during a visit to Lebanon. It could have been the swimming or it could have been that my constant moving around prevented me from ever indulging. I needed that ability to stay mobile, just as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan starts his day with running, and then does not eat until late in the day. Too bad I am not commanding troops. The leftist-Nasserist organization, held a dinner in my honor. The food was spectacular, but I could not eat much as I had to go to Aljazeera for a live show. I did answer questions from the audience. I met with many young people in Lebanon and was flattered that I am able to connect with them through my Al-Akhbar articles and through this blog—did you know that I have a blog? I bet you did not know that, did you? Did you? I met with members of a feminist collective with whom I discussed feminism and I was very impressive with what they are doing. They asked me very specific questions about things I had written on gender. I will link to them soon, and they interviewed me. My talk at AUB was the highlight of my visit, for me and perhaps for people who cared. Just before my talk, I was with friends at a café. I did tell people that I was going to attack AUB at the outset: and most people urged me against it. But I was determined on that one for sure. As I said briefly before, it was very emotional for me, as soon as I entered the hall and saw the crowd and listened to some of the whispers with people talking about me as if I was not there. I felt immense responsibility which really bothered me because I am much better at feeling irresponsible. It is easier for me to think that I write for myself and not for anyone else. Otherwise, I worry a lot about making an effort, or about making an effort to not make an effort. Either way, it becomes a process that is subject to interferences by people who may like what you have to say. That is what I was thinking. That I need a distance from that crowd because I don’t want to please that crowd, or not intentionally please them anyway. But once I started talking it was OK. It has become clear to me that Dahlanist forces are not amused at my constant attacks on the worst Palestinian ever, Muhammad Dahlan. They succeeded in sabotaging the Q & A, but I spoke for more than an hour, so I was able to say what I wanted to say. I perhaps did not want to believe that I was connecting in Arabic or English with young people in Lebanon. After my talk, I was very exhausted, I remember, emotionally speaking. It took an effort to maintain that level of intensity for a long time. I went with friends to Socrat and after a few minutes and a few bites, I excused myself (well, I don’t really ever excuse myself, I just abruptly leave) and left. They understood that I need to decompress, and decompression is what I needed. I needed to take it all in, as they say. I also met with Azmi Bisharah somewhere in the Middle East, and was most impressed with his brilliant analytical mind. I could see the influence of German education on his thinking—and I am a huge fan of German educational methods. Azmi is consumed, rightly, with theoretical and practical matters. I felt that Lebanon is corrupting, at so many levels. Almost every day, someone (a stranger on the street or someone I know) would tell me earnestly: do you know how much money you would make if you switch to the other side? When you hear that over and over again, you start to wonder. And they kept telling me: look at those examples. Those who switch lose whatever talents and skills that they may have. I have seen it over and over again. Lebanon remains the place of political bosses that Swiss journalist, Arnold Hottinger, wrote about many decades ago. The sects are ruled by sectarian forces, and the sectless are left to wander aimlessly hoping to find a shelter. The left is disorganized and fragmented, and personal rivalries and animosities obstruct unification efforts in their ranks. I met Western people there: American and European colleagues and friends, and Western reporters. I would comment that Lebanon is too easy: and for that, it is probably the worst place for you if you want to study Arabic. An American correspondent with excellent command of Arabic, attributed her skill to…Damascus: to living in Damascus. I remember that when Sami Zubaida first visited Lebanon for the first time a few years ago, he commented to me: that he has never been to a city without a downtown. Well, we had a downtown before the war: a marvelous downtown where each social class knew its place and knew where to shop and where to sit, with very few places in common (`Intabli fountain and sweet shops). But Rafiq Hariri made sure that no downtown be constructed in Lebanon. It clashed with his sectarian and brutally capitalistic version of Lebanon. The solidaire area is something else. There must be a name for something like that but I don’t know what it is. I only went there once, or twice this time. I used to sit at Casper and Gambini café but it no longer is there. I met with one senior politician from the Hariri camp but that was in an unintended social occasion. I swam in the sea on my first day there: I was so excited after swimming in the pool, that I knew that the Mediterranean sea will not be icy like the Pacific Ocean. I was right, but the water was so dirty. I was swimming and catching dirt and shopping bags and other unappetizing materials. I left the water refreshed and exhilarated but in disgust. Lebanese political development has not changed: sectarian forces rule the day, and will continue to rule the day. Saudi influence is supreme, and I commented to people that Prince Muqrin has handled Lebanon (and other files under his tutelage) with skill. He throws money but that is not new: his predecessor Prince Turkey also threw money, but Muqrin throws money on a scale not seen before, and certainly at a scale that no rival or enemy can match. That is how they won the election, plus other fraudulent means. I tried to understand Hizbullah’s bizarre behavior in the election, but I still can’t understand it and can’t rule out the possibility of deliberate failure. The pace of my trip was very fast, and many things I wanted to do, I did not do. I did not travel around and did not manage to visit Damascus, which I like. I always connected with the Syrian people. I also to my regret did not have time to visit Al-Baddawi refugee camp. I promised my hosts there to speak there next time I visit. I can go on and on but I should stop. I should be able to finish my book on Lebanon’s so-called Revolution before end of the summer. Now, I have a jet lag to attend to.