Archive for February, 2010

The Sound of War

Each time I visit Lebanon I keep thinking to myself, “Will the war erupt and will they close down the airport while I’m there?” A friend of mine and I have had this secret wish for so long it’s become a common joke between us. Yes, wish. Not for a war, but for us to physically be there if a war does actually begin.

I’ve never been to a war zone. I have no idea what the sound of an F16 right above my head would be like, the closest I ever got to a fighter jet was when I was 9 with my class when we went to visit an army museum to see the jets that fought against Israel in 1973, but that was back when pride in “our soldiers” was something still being taught in Egyptian schools. Another time I was sitting in the living room when a very strong sound of a plane started approaching. At first I thought it was just a civilian plane, but the closer and louder the sound became the stronger the engine sounded. Interestingly, it would just not go away, it kept getting louder and louder until I officially panicked and froze. All I could think about was that Cairo was under an air strike. War broke out and I can’t move my feet to the TV to check the news since the building is about to crumble anyway. I later remembered that it was October 6, and the army was performing in commemoration of the 1973 crossing. When I finally did get the strength to look at the window I saw a part of the performance. The aircraft was in no way as near as it sounded. I had honestly thought I was taking my last breaths.

But listening to that sound and knowing for sure it’s an air strike is definitely worse, because there’s no room for doubt this time that it would surely take lives. I did listen to a detailed description from a Gazan friend a few years ago of what an F16 sounded like and it surely unsettled me. I saw the psychological effect of the sound and the accompanied fear on the reaction of another Palestinian friend to fireworks in Cairo right across the street. As I jumped in excitement and watched the “show” she closed her eyes and tried to block her ears. She simply could not take what was to her the sound of war.

I’ve never been a high intensity seeking kind of person. I’m usually very careful with myself and I weigh consequences. So much so that I once declined a horse riding trip after I had gotten on the horse simply because I discovered that I was wearing the wrong pants. I couldn’t stabilize myself properly, so I chickened out.

But when I’m actually in the situation, the “woman in charge” takes over. I recall traveling from one town to another during pilgrimage on foot, simply because I knew my feet would get me there faster than all the buses that seemed to be parked for hours along the highway. And I’m a person who doesn’t have a very good sense of direction.

If war erupts in Lebanon I don’t think I can sit by in the comfort of my living room in Cairo and watch it all like a spectacle on television, let alone listen to useless critical commentary from those who’ve never been smiled at by an orphaned child from the south, or who’ve never breathed the air at the southern tip of a mountain that overlooks historical Palestine. I’m known amongst my friends to be a freak when it comes to the whole Lebanon subject, but even the food in the south tastes like freedom. No one is subordinate there. Everyone controls their own will. Everyone is a master of their own land. That sense of ownership Robert Fisk once wrote was so missing from most Arab countries is so vivid in south Lebanon.

But as much as I claim to know how different the place is, I think I’m yet to acquire the ways of the people there in order to fully understand how they’ve learned to face death so fearlessly. I shudder at the very thought of losing the warm friends there who always make me laugh. Each time one of them talks to me I cherish every word and look them straight in the eye to take the moment all in. I always fear I may never be able to see them again. How blatantly “un-Shiite” of me to be such a coward about loss! And I’m a person who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to lecture about Karbala.

But I don’t think it’s that. I’m just a person who’s never been in a war, who’s never lost anyone for war, and that is my weakness, because as scary as the sound of war may be, it perfects a person’s ability to endure. It simply makes them stronger.

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When I Met Imad Mughniyeh…

… it was his funeral. In his funeral I learned who he was.

On this day two years ago I was struggling with my camera, my umbrella, the freezing weather, and trying to find my way in the middle of a grieving crowd. This was the day Beirut’s Dahyeh residents were bidding farewell to the mastermind behind Hizbullah’s performance in the July 2006 war. It was hard for me to take good video shots while living the moment and feeling the grief of the people around me.

As if in Ashoura, Beirut’s southern district, the Dahyeh, was cloaked in black. Everyone was in mourning. Posters of Mughniyeh filled the streets. And I’m not sure if the Israelis knew what they were doing, but they killed him on exactly the same month they had killed former Hizbullah secretary general Sayyid Abbass Al Moussawi and Sheikh Ragheb Harb, one of the early founders of the armed Islamic resistance in Lebanon. Hizbullah had already marked a week in February as the “Week of the Martyrs.” Israel added Mughniyeh to the list, and created a lasting triangle that inspired even more poems, songs, and posters. February is a big month in Beirut’s Dahyeh, thanks to Israel!

Two years have passed and Hizbullah still hasn’t shown a sign of revenge. Israel had been on its toes for two years now. The magnitude of sorrow and emotion that I saw when the assassination took place really shook me. A friend of mine was watching the funeral live on TV and she sent me an SMS saying, “The Israelis must be pissing in their pants!” The scene was big, the anger was everywhere, but it was organized anger. That is the kind of anger Israel should fear.

These are some of the pictures I managed to take, in addition to a couple of the videos that I shot while being right in the middle of the crowd. The first video shows the spontaneous emotion that came out of people from all directions as they saw the casket being carried to its burial place. It was a very moving scene; a mixture of hails, salutes, and celebrations. The second video shows the cheers and the smiles that I saw on people’s faces when Nasrallah promised Israel an open war. That quote was later repeated several times, I’d hear it on the local radio, I’d see it written on posters, and it would often be referred to in a series of discussion on the future of relations between Hizbullah and Israel. It’s good to have been there when it first came out and to capture the moment!

February 14, 2008 was a day I will never forget.

Click on this picture to see full gallery:


Casket being carried to its burial place:


Sayyid Nasrallah promises open war:

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The Book of Eli, the Book of God

I’d say Hollywood has suddenly hit a new note, and a rather bold one.

I ended up with my friend on a seat to watch the Book of Eli because the showing of the film we actually wanted to see was canceled. My friend suggested the film out of curiosity and I went along with her. When the film actually started a cat was killed. I thought to myself, “Ok, this film isn’t for me. Let’s see where it takes us still.”

The idea of a third world war often used to haunt me as a child. I used to ask my father so many questions that his answers at times had to end up getting into politics and history. I recall him telling me that if a third world war erupted it would mean the end of the world, because the world now has what are called “nuclear” weapons that bring about destruction of all life on earth. I used to think so much about it. I rested with the fact that that would be what brings about Judgment Day.

The Book of Eli brings that fear so alive, and delves into what life would be like after such a war. Eli, the main character, appears to be a devoutly religious man, strong and ruthless with his enemies, and merciful with the weak. The book he keeps with him is the Bible—the last copy that remained. He carries the book and embarks on a journey towards a promised place, walking on foot, and faces the wrath of a person who tries to take hold of the book.

Two interests collide. Eli wants to deliver the book to a place where he knows it will be safe, and where its message is going to be spread again to bring about peace and harmony. And the other person wants the book because it will guarantee him power and authority over his subjects.

Now that is two ways of looking at religion, an issue that so many reformist thinkers in the Muslim world have engaged in, and so many have actually acted upon it. Ali Shariati, for one, argues that history Islamic history has gone through a dialectic relationship between these two types of religion: the religion of authority and the religion of the people. The former stands for oppression and authoritarianism, the other for faith and revolution. Both types use the same book, each with its own interpretation.

What amazed me after having watched the film is the title. The Bible is actually referred to as Eli’s book, not God’s. Offensive this may be to some devout religious people, it is in fact an attempt to hit straight to the message: It is a book for man, it is what man does with the book that matters, otherwise it would only be paper.

But wait! That’s not all that Hollywood sent us through this film. Eli appears on a very early scene in the film wearing a Palestinian scarf around his neck, what is commonly known in Arabic as the Hattah. Eli, with his Palestinian scarf, carried the responsibility of the book with the entire message of justice to mankind, protecting and preserving it. Eli and his Hattah represented the religion of the people, those with the free will who refuse to submit to the tyrant.

Change is everywhere. This is not just a new Hollywood note; this is a giant leap.

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When the American Activist Met her Hizbullah Fighter

My first visit to the south of Lebanon after 2006 was a rather brief one.  I was joined in the bus with an energetic American activist from New York who explained to me the many initiatives she tried to take during the July war of 2006 to let it be known to the public in New York that Hizbullah was not a terrorist organization. She’d arrange sit-ins in Central Park, she’d join counter-demonstrations in front of those that supported Israel. She’d wear yellow T-Shirts and shout at Israel supporters on the other side: “Hizbullah are not terrorists! They’re FREEDOM FIGHTERS!” and get shoved from one place to the other by the police.

Needless to say, she didn’t really have a place she could call home, quite literally. She’d be moving from one place to another, hardly identifying her real self on the internet, and all the while she’d be moving around with her “Hizbullah tapes;” those nationalistic songs that sing glory to Lebanese soil and hail the resistance, which she had gotten from an earlier trip to Lebanon. When her sister would visit her with her 3 year-old daughter she’d play the tapes so loudly, hold her niece’s two hands, and dance from one song to the next.

When I first met her at the conference hall she grabbed my arm and spoke carefully to me, “I so wish I could meet a Hizbullah person. If only I could salute them and tell them that American policy does not represent us! That I understand the truth of what’s going on here and I’m with them all the way, and that I’m not the only one! There are so many people like me!”

I didn’t quite know how to break the news for her, but I just had to see her face when I said it. “You mean you’re not aware that we’re surrounded by them?? Look around you! All those handsome men in suits are from Hizbullah!”

“How do you know that?”

“They’re among the organizers, remember? Be careful though, not all of them would want to be officially identified that way.”

“God! They’re so cool! Could they be fighters?”

“I wouldn’t know about that. But I don’t think so. Hey! Maybe we will get to meet a fighter if we go to the south. I wish I could meet one myself!”

I knew I was dreaming. It was often said that Hizbullah fighters don’t really announce themselves to the public. They stay anonymous most of their lives. They could be the waiter that delivers your drink, the taxi driver that takes you to the airport, or even that teacher, doctor, engineer that impressed you in a meeting. There’s no telling who takes up that rifle and shoots at Israeli soldiers.

So on that day we boarded the bus to the south the excitement that filled us was almost embarrassing. We were after all heading towards a war-stricken place. The entire south was still grieving. But to me, that sense of triumph the very look of the rocky mountains gave away called more for celebration. The south had suddenly gotten even more beautiful than it had ever been.

We arrived in one of the border towns very late at night we hardly could see much beyond the immediate scenes of rubble that covered almost everywhere we went. The bus driver had stopped to ask for directions and a strong looking young man hopped in to show him directions. Seeing that most of the passengers were non-Arab, he called out with a beaming smile, “Welcome to my country!”

When we came down from the bus he volunteered to explain what had happened exactly on the spot where we were standing. He began to explain what the bombing was like and how he used to avoid it with his friends. Then suddenly it came out: “I was with them. My brother was with the resistance and he was killed right in front of me.”

I don’t really classify myself as a witty person who immediately reads between the lines, but only judging by the rough, cracked skin on his hands, the sharp look on his eyes, and with some simple deduction, I knew he was a fighter. I ran to find my American friend and took her immediately to meet him. “Here’s your fighter!”

Being the cheerful person that she was, she couldn’t hide her excitement. “Could you please translate what I have to say to him?” she asked, “I don’t know if he is aware that there are so many Americans back home who think that he and his friends are heroes!”

We walked back to him and there was an encounter I never thought I’d see, let alone have to translate. What brings an American young woman all the way to the south of Lebanon to speak heart to heart to a southern Lebanese that fights with Hizbullah? It’s amazing how much empowerment people can inspire just by crossing each other’s paths.

She began by apologizing. “I’m sorry for what our government did to you. Tell me what I can do that would make it up!” He smiled at her and quickly moved his eyes away. He pointed at the rubble around us. There wasn’t a single erect building where we were standing. “I want you to look at this destruction and go back to your country and tell the people what you saw here,” he said. “Tell them the truth about Condoleezza Rice’s ‘new Middle East.’ This is her New Middle East!”

He explained to us that his mother stayed in the village and did not flee with others when the war erupted. “She stayed home and cooked for us. My 8 year-old brother used to deliver the food. Today he wants to grow up to be a fighter too and to die just like his brother; a martyr.”

He took out his mobile phone and showed us a picture of a beautiful little girl. “This was my niece,” he said. “She was killed in her home in an air strike. This is Rice’s New Middle East.”

Her eyes filled with tears and she suddenly said to me, “I wish I could give him a hug!” That was a potential climax!

“He wouldn’t even shake hands with a woman and you want to hug him??”

“I know… I know…”

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