Posts Tagged Lebanon

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.

, , , , , , , , ,


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:

, , , , , , , , , , , ,


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…”

, , , , , , , , ,


A Lebanon Chronicle (Part II): A District of Lullabies

By Arwa Mahmoud

My first visit to the southern district of Beirut was an organized field trip by the conference I was there to attend.
The conference was an assembly of activists and professionals who came from different parts of the world to show their solidarity with the Lebanese resistance and to discuss future civil resistance strategies to carry out back at home. The mosaic of cultures and backgrounds was wonderful. Many of them had never been to Lebanon or the Middle East, yet they had done so much in support of the rights of civilians who suffered directly from the ramifications of war. Many came with so much emotion and conviction, and many were stirring examples of kindness and commitment to people they share nothing with except the fact that they were human, not subjects.

(Click here for a photo gallery of Beirut’s southern district after 2006)

The Dahyeh

Stuffed toys lie among the ruins of a destroyed home. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

As we boarded the buses to southern Beirut, I sat next to a Lebanese woman, Karima, who welcomed me with a warm smile. I told her that this was my first visit to Lebanon after the war and that I couldn’t imagine what seeing the destruction with my own eyes would feel like. She responded with the same smile: “When we reach the district, I will show you where the building I lived in used to be.”

This was my first lesson in speechlessness. It’s very hard to think of anything to say to someone who’s experienced grave loss. That’s what you normally go through whenever you visit a war-torn place and talk to its people. Nothing on a personal level can even remotely relate to their experience. You can either console them with words of comfort and feel stupid, or go on asking questions and be rude.

She reached for her bag and took out her mobile phone. She showed me the picture she’d chosen for a background; a picture of a part of her then brand new living room that was taken after the first few air strikes on the district. All I saw was a crumbled room with shattered glass all over. But she saw something else: “See the colors of the sofa and the wall? I chose those myself.”
On the time the picture was taken her apartment had been only partially destroyed. One day after that picture was taken, the entire building was leveled to the ground.
As the bus continued through Beirut I began to spot the first signs of the Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern district as preferably referred to by its people. This area was one of Israel’s primary targets. For those who continue to view Hizbullah as a physical entity that can be destroyed, the Dahyeh is believed to be its “headquarters,” just as Bint Jbeil in the south is considered the headquarters of Hizbullah’s military wing, or the “capital” of the resistance. Yet the Dahyeh wasn’t really a military barrack. It was the area in which much of the Shiite exodus from the conflict-torn south and Bekaa began to settle roughly during the 1960s. There are no gates that separate it and you don’t need permission to enter, but once you’re inside, it’s another Beirut you seldom get to see.
Not much of it was left when I saw it in 2006.

An Exhibition of Savagery

Standing up close to this was not an easy experience. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

I gasped as I saw my first spot of rubble. Karima stood next to me and spoke with unconcealed pride, “That’s nothing! This used to be mountains of rubble! We’ve cleared so much of it already!”

The magnitude of the destruction was beyond description. And yes, the creepy feeling of standing under a half-destroyed 15-story building surpasses any experience a person could have by just looking at its picture. Walking in those streets was like walking in an exhibition of hi-tech savagery. From corner to corner, I could see massive holes stretching so many meters underground—traces of missiles that failed their targets, scattered clothes, books, toys, etc.

I slowly began to make my way through the alleys. I stopped by an American colleague frantically taking pictures of what seemed to be hundreds of books buried in the rubble. When I walked up to where he stood I could see there were tears in his eyes. “They told me this was a library,” he spoke with a quivering voice, “My tax money builds libraries at home and destroys them here!”

Because I had followed the war minute by minute, suddenly being there brought the trauma back to life to me. It had already been three months since the cease-fire started, and even then many of the district residents were back already, going about their lives in the midst of the destruction. They had build small shelters on top of what used to be their homes. They would make it a point to go there daily and dig under the rubble to reclaim what they could of their belongings, or simply sit right there and drink tea, just to make a statement of ownership and survival.

I could not imagine what the place must have looked like when it was still a ghost town, haunted by terrifying sounds of jets roaming around it all night, each time choosing a different prey.

During the war I used to go to bed in Cairo after midnight and think, “Air strikes must have started again. I wonder how many children are crying right now, I wonder how many mothers are singing them lullabies to soothe them, silently praying that the strikes would end without taking more lives.”

And each morning I would wake up to a new statistic.

I walked from street to street, looking at scattered children’s books and stuffed toys in the midst of the rubble. It was as if the lullabies they inspired were still in the air of the Daheyh, memories of childhood left behind to a refugee tent, a hospital, or death.

But to the Lebanese children who survived, the nightmare was over. They were running around the streets of the district playing, laughing, waving their hands at the visitors and welcoming them.

“On to Change! On to Reform!”

A small shelter a resident had created near the remains of his home. (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

From the minute I arrived in Beirut, I’d been fascinated by how quickly this nation was recovering and picking up the pieces. Their grief turned almost immediately into positive energy.

Hizbullah’s broadcasting station Al Manar created a live studio in a tent it built in the midst of the rubble, hosting guests that spoke about the ramifications of the war all day and most of the night, celebrating the mere fact that they still stood there, documenting the war by filming everything around them.

On more than one spot of the rubble in the Dahyeh there were mocking signs that read “Made in USA” or signs that showed alternative addresses to offices where they used to stand. No time wasted; they were simply moving on with their business.

Almost everywhere I walked there were teams of workers who were clearing the rubble, or builders who were reconstructing sites. As I got closer to one of the workers I heard him sing, “On to change! On to reform! Together, we build our country.”

Lebanon is a nation that takes so much pride in its ability to endure. Many of the poems and speeches speak of life being born with each fighter who falls and with each mother or child who dies. It is as if the physical losses are the key signs of triumph, because they were endured for the protection of one’s land, heritage, and most importantly, one’s dignity. For that reason, the Lebanese believe that they won this war.

, , , , , , , ,


A Lebanon Chronicle (Part I): The Reunion

By Arwa Mahmoud

I wrote this piece in 2006 upon my return from my first post-war visit to Lebanon. Starting with the 2006 war I developed what you can safely call a Lebanon obsession. It was apparent in everything I thought or spoke about. Until then I still hadn’t known much about the country beyond the books I read or the things I heard. I was specifically interested in what many of us in the Arab world call Lebanon’s “culture of resistance,” which took many forms throughout its turbulent modern history. The closer I got to the people the more specific the obsession became. I became more obsessed with Hizbullah and its people, that revolutionary Shiism that is the eternal fuel that prepares its people to sacrifice, any sacrifice. As intimidating as that may be to some, my humble experience has taught me what I will try to reveal in my chronicle: they are very common people whose experience is not at all different to that of any people subjected to war and invasion. They just want to live free, even if they have to die for it. And so are most of the Lebanese.

Beirut greets its visitors with a beautiful view of its mountainous coast through the plane window. (Photo by ©Arwa Mahmoud)

My feelings were mixed. I could not decide why I was so happy as I looked out the plane window and began to see the beautiful mountains as they hugged the Mediterranean coast. All those buildings and homes clustered next to each other on mountains and hills, forming Beirut, one of the Arab world’s most beloved cities.

I was headed to Lebanon on November 16, 2006, to participate in a conference that gathered hundreds of activists and media professionals from all over the world who came together in support of the resistance of Lebanon in all its forms.

When I made the decision to revisit Lebanon after the war, I wanted to make sure I remained as detached and professional as I could, not just driven by emotion. I struggled with this equilibrium for a long time. I doubted myself all along.

But I couldn’t contain myself as Beirut became more and more visible through the window. This was a reunion with a city I had seen and experienced before only once but had read so much about. It was also a first encounter with a wounded city that only recently came out of a vicious war that took more than 1400 civilian lives. I didn’t know what the buildings would look like, and most importantly, I didn’t know how the people would receive an Egyptian, a citizen of a country whose government didn’t do much beyond standing by and watching as destruction was eating its way throughout the country. Would they have changed? Would they have overcome the pain already, ready to recall it to a stranger like me, trying to see in reality what the war I was following minute by minute has brought Lebanon to?

After more than 30 years of covering the Middle East, not even British journalist Robert Fisk could hide his emotions when writing about Lebanon. In his famous book Pity the Nation, he lamented a country he saw tearing apart for long years, losing much of its beauty to conflicts often meant to serve interests of outside powers.

But Lebanon’s tragedies have given it a special enduring character. Suffering has given it a spirit of perseverance that finds breath even through smallest holes of hope. After the recent July 2006 war, I discovered that death and destruction have bred life in an ironic twist of fate, showing only the proud side of a nation quickly picking up the pieces, never looking back except to find its way forward.

“Welcome to Beirut!”

As I waited for my visa at the airport my phone began to ring. I found a Lebanese mobile number. I kept wondering to myself — I hadn’t told any of the people I knew in Lebanon that I was going. Was my heart beating that loudly in the plane? When I answered, a strong, confident voice came from the other side: “Arwa? Welcome to Beirut!”

A gigantic poster of Sayyid Nasrallah on the airport road quotes him speaking to his supporters: "With your resolve, the age of victory has begun." (Photo by ©Arwa Mahmoud)

It was Ali*, an acquaintance of a friend of mine I’d heard so much about and learned about his ground stories of the war. He was rushing the wounded fighters and literally sweeping pools of blood along the streets of Bint Jbeil — the southern Lebanese town that is considered by Hizbullah the “capital of the resistance,” and that witnessed the fiercest fighting during the war.

I used to listen to his stories through my friend and follow them so closely during the war that I had a vision in my head of how he must have looked like. And I wasn’t mistaken.

I was so overwhelmed by the man’s kindness that half of my talk was thanks and praises. Such is the way with the Lebanese no matter what their background: They smother you with hospitality and kindness and render you absolutely speechless. In this trip I realized that the war hasn’t changed them one bit.

With each street we passed through, my heart embraced this courageous city. I could not help stare at each corner, afraid I would miss an inch. The airport road was a celebration of Hizbullah’s victory in the war. The streets were filled with gigantic posters of the Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, each poster quoted a different statement he gave in one of his speeches.

More than any other Arab city, Beirut’s streets speak of its people and their character. They speak of the nation’s sorrows and triumphs. You don’t need to attend lectures or read essays on the nature and spirit of Lebanon. Just walk down one of its streets.


Ali and his wife invited me for dinner. I dove into some of the best Lebanese dishes as I heard unspeakable stories of how they were separated when the war erupted. Sometimes what you hear is too devastating that any words of consolation can appear trivial. So I focused on my food as I listened to how Ali’s wife and the children were caught in Bint Jbeil in the South, unable to reach him in Beirut. They remained hiding for 10 consecutive days with barely any food. She told me of how they would spend each night in a different hiding place, and how miraculously each place was bombed only after they had left it.

Shortly afterwards we were joined by a young man, a close relative of Ahmad Qassir** He was introduced to me in two small sentences: “Akram* is a graphic designer. He is with the resistance.” And I was left with that.

So much has happened in each Arab country that many of us now feel separated by ages of identity formation, hardship, and struggle. As an Egyptian born in the 70s, I grew up in the “Camp David era,” where Egypt supposedly brought its long years of confrontation and war with Israel to an end. I grew up hearing about Palestinian suffering and watching the Lebanese lying in pools of blood on the television screen as I sat comfortably in the safety of my home. I had no idea that with years of suffering generations are brought up with a cause, with a clear mission that shapes everything a person says and does. It is so entrenched in a person’s making that it becomes natural, expected.

So Ali introduced Akram in those two sentences so casually to me and went on to discuss the next topic, leaving me still trying to grasp the magnitude of those two sentences and what they implied about Akram’s life and upbringing. I was looking at a 23-year-old professional young man who almost literally designs graphics for publications during the day and gets trained by Hizbullah at night.

Remembering the information and accounts I heard about Hizbullah resistance in Lebanon, it is not uncommon to run into fighters everyday as you talk to a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, or any other Lebanese citizen. And Akram was no exception.

Akram listened more than he spoke and he occasionally gave me a warm welcoming smile. As I turned his smile back I couldn’t help thinking about many youth back at home and how they felt lost and frustrated, unable — and in many cases unwilling — to channel the energy they have in anything fruitful. Yes. We’ve been surpassed by so much. They’ve certainly come a long way over here. They lived danger and faced it, they knew the true size of it, they grasped the true meaning of life and held on to it dearly and survived, while we remained in our shells, looking at the outside world through our television screens, fearing what we chose to keep unknown.

Many Arabs hold a stereotype of Lebanon being the land of blond women wearing bikinis. I remember when I was going on my first visit to Lebanon how I received a few comments on how I was heading to the “Paris of the Middle East.” I had known some people from Lebanon who did not relate, even remotely, to this stereotype. The Lebanese in my mind have always been good-natured people who appreciated a joke even in the darkest of times. They always rose from the ruins of conflict and war to go about their daily lives, seeing beauty in everything, appreciating what they had, and always looking at the full side of the glass. The Sunnis and Shiites that I met were committed Muslims with a clear mission guiding them in almost everything they said and did. Life to them is a means to an end so alive in their minds, so real that nothing could distract them from it.

As the night was over and they drove me to the hotel, I stored the memory as I tried to focus on my duties the next day, the first day in the conference where I was supposed to give a presentation on’s coverage of the Lebanon war.

*I changed all the names of persons used in this article for their privacy.
**Ahmad Qassir is the first fighter who carried out a martyrdom operation against the Israeli occupation in 1982, killing 17 Israeli soldiers. Since then, that day has been celebrated by Hizbullah each year as Yom Al Shahid (The Day of the Martyr).

(An original version of this entry was published in

, , , , ,


%d bloggers like this: