Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Beirut Mon Amour, redux

Ahhh. I took down the last post because I inadvertently wrote about my new friends in ways they didn't appreciate.. Sorry y'all! So, here's a re-creation of that post.

Our 'last supper' in Beirut was strangely anti-climatic. We were all so tired and worn down. It hadn't been so obvious durint our birthday parties but it just felt harder at this dinner. Maybe because there were more of us. Maybe because it was three weeks later. It just felt like we were all drained and exhausted. I think many of us had just seen too much or were at the edge of burnout. the usually lively political discussions were not as carefree. We ate too much and barely drank any wine. Everyone wanted to go home early. No Malcolm Lowry's were consumed.

SO I got home, had indigestion from trying to out eat Nir with the hummous. Fell asleep and woke up at 2:30 am where I then sat and watched the sun slowly come up over Lebanon before i left. I felt very sad. I felt like I made intense attachments in that short period of time. Maybe it was due to the fact that I was fully engaged in this misison , unlike others where I was teetering on burnout myself. I'm feeling obsessed with the injustices in this part of the world. I"m reading Robert Fisk's "Pity the Nation" and I'm so angry - at Israel, at the Palestinians, at the many different factions of Lebanon. Its' probably good that I didn't read it before I came. I had almost a naive, innocent appreciation of everyone.

Now, I feel rather helpless and hopeless. How does one act as a humanitarian in such a context? I push forward my pathetic points about what the international community should be doing, knowing now, that its just the latest installment of a long, bloody, pathetic history.

Okay. That's it. Happy One year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Listen to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Listen to Tom Waits. Listen to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Sidney Bechet. Remember the people and the beauty of the music, and mourn the passing of this beautiful, dirty, awful, American city.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bridget Jones in Paris

Well here I am in Paris. It's cold (although not raining like Geneva) and I'm staying in some sort of backpacker neighborhood with lots of "mexican" restaurants and "Irish bars". Yeah - I really want to drink Guiness and eat Tex-Mex in Paris. I suppose though, if you lived here, you'd want the variety. Anyway, There are lots of bars and clubs here. And I kind of want to go out but I'm tired... and not motivated to bust my way in and sit alone in some bar in Paris. So - I'm drinking wine in my hotel room and listening to jazz until I get a buzz and then I'll head out.

I deleted a post about my last day in Beirut because I wrote about the people I met in Lebanon and used their names and got an email saying that thye were worried that someone might read it. Hmm. Since none of y'all ever leave comments (except for you Colin, Heidi, and Kevin - REPRESENT!), I didn't think anyone read this thing. So drop me a line, yo. I'll try to recreate the last day in Lebanon post but since it was written at 5am as the sun rose and I was so tired and sad, I don't know if I can.

But I've been reading Robert Fisk's book "Pity the Nation" and that may put me back in the right frame of mind. I'm listening to the awesome Cd that Serge made adn Natto gave me. "Different for Girls" - an old Joe Jackson cover. And some Steely Dan "Dirty Work". Gotta put myself in that early 80s, black leather jacket, frame of mind and get out there. I find myself craving to talk to someoen about this experience in Lebanon but I'm all alone here. When I get back to the US, I feel shy about talking about what I saw and felt. I don't know why. Maybe the experience of being surrounded by my normality makes it seem further and further away.

Anyhoo.... 1/3 of a glass of wine to go. And a bar with photos of Marlon Brando in it to explore. To bring a book or not to bring a book?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Jesus H. Christ! Switzerland is expensive!

No wonder the UN is based here. We are paying OUTRAGEOUS amounts of money here. Our hotel (which is reeking of smoke and the size of my bathroom in Lebanon) is $300/night. Internet is about$20 an hour. No - you cannot purchase an hours worth of time and dole it out... it runs out from teh moment you log in. SO that's why I'm writing this useless blog entry. I gotta get my moneys worth! I only bought a half an hour but I'm going to wring the last Swiss Franc out of it!!!!

The flight over was uneventful. Royal Jordanian is a so-so airline. The food was nondescript. For some reason, the 45 minute flight from Beirut to Amman was a more modern and larger airplane than the 4 1/2 hour flight to Geneva. Oh well. American chains are thriving in Jordan, I'm proud to report. Cinnabon! Starbucks! Dunkin' Donuts! Our American servicemen are eatin' 'em up! Yummy!

Okay... now I"m going ot upload photos and download music to screw these crooks further. I shudder to think how much our dinner will be!!!

Friday, August 25, 2006

last nights in Lebanon

It's my last few nights in Lebanon. After a knock down drag out fight with the DC office, I was pissed - Kristele was super upset, and we just couldn't take it anymore. She went out with an ex and I went to Gemayzeh - famous nightclub land. There I met a guy named Khalid. He was flirting with me (even winked at me!) and we ended up going to a bar called Bubbles - an "Open air" bar that overlooks the Mediteranean... we could watch the Israeli gunships twinkling in the darkness. We've been out twice now and of course, I'm headed to Europe on Sunday... why oh why oh why do I never meet anyone in DC? I'm ditching that town when I return.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Conversations with My father about the war

While the Israelis and Hezbollah cannot come to an agreement on how to end this war, my retired military father and I found mutual ground today...

DAD: Dear Sarah, Passing this on, I received it from Marty this morning. Love, Dad

ME: For some reason, it didn't come through. Was it a picture?

DAD: It was a couple of paragraphs about the good work some are doing in Lebanon. I am sorry you could not get it, but whatever? Lazy day, did not have breakfast (?) until noon and only had microwave panckes and sausage that you only cook for 5 or 6 minutes. Not gourmet, but edible, and easy to fix on those mornings that you do not want to get dressed and go out to eat, nor do you want to go to much bother and clean up. Lovely weather today, but may only go out to buy a small plant. Love, Dad

ME: How did you like my UN diatribe? (I responded to some email that he forwarded me from his Republican, retired military friends about how all the Arab countries vote against the US at the UN and that proves that the UN is arab supporters (??!!))

DAD: Dear Sarah, I think that diatribe is exactly the right work to describe for that email. While I think that when the UN was set up it was a noble effort. It has now gone completely astray, and is useless. Besides their diplomatic privelege, high pay, to say nothing of their corruption, it has turned into a paradise for third world countries. You must remember that most people here and I suppose elsewhere, know practically nothing about the organization of the UN. In fact, I doubt if young Americans even know where it is located. Love, Dad

ME: I agree with you about the UN. In fact, I think I'm about to be put on their personna non grata list after this trip. It's ridiculous that they are even in Lebanon. They are staying at a $300 a night hotel, they don't ever leave it. They have meetings with each other and in the meantime, Hezbollah is rebuilidng the country with huge chunks of cash from Iran. The people see the international community and the government of Lebanon doing nothing and Hezbollah supplying everything for them - they are all so brainwashed - no wonder they support Hezbollah. They are the only ones who DO anything in this country. Where is all the money from the UN going??? Hotel bills and restaurant bills. While I dislike them immensely, I refuse to allow the crazy Republican rhetoric be the reason why I dislike them. I dislike them for the reasons that you just wrote - which is something I see with my own eyes almost every day, not because its a forum where other countries can express their disgust at the US. That's the only good thing that happens at the UN. Did you get any feedback from that email? I only cc'd everyone because I want to give you guys something to talk about besides the local gossip. I went to the beach today and it was really nice until the Israeli drone flew overhead. I'm still scared after Baalbek that the stupid Hezbollahs will respond. And I'm outraged that Israel broke the ceasefire so blatantly.

DAD: Good Heavens!!! You agree with me!

Thanks UN for uniting generations across the oceans!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Tense Times in Baalbek

I’m still in Lebanon. Beirutis a cool city. I'm learning how to curse in Arabic... Our driver is insane (Nadim) and he curses rather fluently according to Kristele so I've asked him to teach me.

Today's adventure was being threatened by Hezbollah. We went to Baalbek (home of a gorgeous Roman temple to Jupiter) and when we were interviewing the Hezbollah relief movement, our driver ratted me out as an American. He was trying to be helpful but it made it all kind of scary and tense. I told him if he was annoyed with me, he could tell me - there was no need to have me kidnapped.

It's very insulting there - the men won't touch us because we're women so no hand shaking and they just radiated hostility throughout the entire interview. They made a big show of writing down our 'identificiation' cards. Well my identification card is some mocked up thing that they made me at RI. My "number" is my phone extension. Copy that down, jerks, see if I care.

Oh yeah, and I conducted an interview with the mayor of a town sitting over an un-detonated cluster bomb. They told us after the interview and then took us down to take a picture of it. Ha ha! What fun! The mayor just laughed and laughed and laughed. I was too nervous to go stand in the hole with it to photograph it. However, that's just stupid because I'd be as dead standing 30 feet away on the street as I would have been standing right over it.

Adventures in post-conflict

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Return to Dahiyeh

More than 15,000 homes were destroyed during the bombing campaign in Lebanon. The Dahiyeh suburb of Beirut , a stronghold for the Hezbollah party, suffered a lot of damage during the bombing campaign. Many of the people who lived in it sought shelter in other parts of Beirut or outside of the city completely. Three days after the ceasefire, many have returned home to see what is left of their apartments. The bulk of people in Beirut live in high-rise buildings, either renting or owning apartments. While many buildings are destroyed completely, some of the apartments that were adjacent to targets are partially habitable. RI interviewed several families on the third day of the ceasefire as they returned to see what was left of their homes.

This woman shows us the view from her kitchen door on the fifth floor that used to open onto a balcony; it now opens onto a pile of rubble from the building next door. Dust, broken glass, and noxious fumes fill their apartment. “I was here during the bombings – I hid in the bathroom and shook. I was terrified. Finally I fled and I am glad since they bombed the building next door the next day. There was a man who owned four shops in that building and now they are all gone” she told RI.

Many of the buildings had huge holes blown into the walls – either as a result of the bomb blast or from flammable tanks of gas stored on their balconies that ignited when the buildings next door were hit. While it is the dry season in Lebanon, they worry about the coming rains and about the fumes coming into their houses. As people return home to clean up their apartments, they are relying on generators for electricity and bringing in water by hand as many of the reservoirs were destroyed by the bombing

Mohammed, a businessman who owns a factory in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, showed us his apartment in a building adjacent to one destroyed by the bombing. “We were living in a hotel in the Hamra part of town,” he tells RI, “but we are running out of money. We may come back here to sleep tonight with my mother and my four children.” While they are cleaning up the piles of broken glass from the explosions, there is also a thick layer of dust and ash covering everything. “I think there may still be people who were in that building,” his wife tells us, “There are terrible smells that come in here.”

Many people are reluctant to leave their apartments since they have no other place to go. While the Hezbollah political party has offered them help in rebuilding, there are fears that the poor – who do not have the means to rebuild and wait to be reimbursed will take the chance to live in structurally unsound places while waiting to be assisted. There are also concerns about who will assist the people who are not living in Hezbollah areas. Hezbollah has said that they will assist them but to date there is little word from the government of Lebanon on plans to assist people and the population has little confidence in the government.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Headin' Home!

The ceasefire seems to have held through the night although I was flinching all night long waiting to hear the bombs. While a lot of people headed home yesterday right after the ceasefire was announced, today was the test to see if people would stay or head back.

And...all the IDPs are headed home! We drove around in the mountains today in an area called Chouf where there had been about 120,000 people living with
families and in schools and we couldn't find any of them! Every school we went to was empty.

The roads, however, were crowded with tons of people in cars (that ranged from swanky new Mercedes Benz to beat up old cars without windshields) all with matresses that they were given in the IDP shelters strapped to the top. We were swimming upstream trying to get back into Beirut. It took us 1 hour to go a
mile. Since the major highway was bombed, everyone has to go on the old 2 lane highway and it was packed. Humanitarian aide convoys, Government of Lebanon Army convoys, and the press battled it out with the IDPs to get to Sidon, Tyre, and the South. It reminded me of trying to drive from Conway to Myrtle Beach in the summer time.

Everyone was excited and happy and they all had Hezbollah flags on their cars and posters of Nasrallah (or Hassan as we have taken to calling him) taped to the hoods of their cars. We saw lots of V for victory signs (although the latest joke says that the V means "There are two buildings left in Dahiyeh!)

Anyway, tomorrow we will assess the security situation, give the mine clearers time to get all the unexploded cluster bombs that the Israelis dropped out of the road and head down South to see what the situation is like in a few days.

Monday, August 14, 2006

13 1/2 hours without kaboom!

So far we haven't heard any bombs for 13 hours. Yesterday was quite tense as they blasted the hell out of Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs. I went to a city park where 1700 IDPs were living today and the cars were packed up and everyone was heading home. They are much braver and optimistic than I am. Nasrallah just gave a speech on the telly where he declared victory for Hezbollah. According to our brave CNN correspondent who was standing about 5 miles away in his flak jacket, the nightsky was filled with the sound of automatic weapons fired in triumph. I am flinching everytime I hear a door slam or a loud sound. Waiting waiting waiting to see if the ceasefire holds.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Look out, Iran, you're next

According to Seymour Hersch, one of my heros, the US not only knew that Israel was planning this attack on Lebanon, but they are all geared up for Iran. His latest article in the New Yorker lies out this theory. I believe him. The signs of the US war machine gearing up for Iran have been there all along. This time, they are going to the UN on the nuclear issue a few months before they did with Iraq but as soon as they started focusing on this, I knew we were planning it. Whenever I pointed out this - people shake their heads and say "But there's no way the US can carry on a third war - they are already over their heads in Iraq and Afghanistan." That's a fine theory if you are talking about RATIONAL people. It's obvious that the senile old men over at the Department of Defense and the State Department are not rational. The entire government is populated by the old cold warriors from the 80s (John Negroponte, Elliot Abrams) - the same guys that brought you the Iran-Contra war. Sure they were all punished for their crimes but then immediately pardoned! And has our defenders of democracy, congress, said anything about this? No! I'm sick and tired of this. And I'm tired of watching my country, which is supposed to be a democracy, be run into the ground by this Administration. Out with all those assholes in our do nothing congress! I'm sick of defending the US to the rest of the world.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The hunkier face of the H Word

Here's what Hezbollah looks like when its helping refugees instead of lobbing rockets into Israel.

Peace at Last

This morning at 5am, we woke up to about 30 minutes of intense bombing of the southern Beirut suburbs. If you have the capacity to watch videos - I would suggest you log on to this blog which captures the sound of the bombs going off at 5am or 4am or even midnight when you are sound asleep...

Word just in that the Security Council has finally got a ceasefire resolution in front of it that all people can live with. Maybe tomorrow morning we will wake up and hear that the bombing will stop. I hope so.
We drove to a fairly safe place in the Beqaa valley today over the mountains. It was eerie. Noone was on the road and the few people that were (mostly truckers toting watermelons to the cities) were hauling ass. Now, Lebanese drive like maniacs anyway but the empty empty roads, the occasional bombed out truck, and the silence was a little unnerving.

We went to a school and interviewed a woman who had been displaced four times. From her village in the South where she was staying with her mother and three kids for the summer, to Tyre where the bombing scared them away, to Dahiyeh - the Southern suburbs where the bombs hit this morning (and everyday) and finally yesterday, she came to this school. They have absolutely nothing.

We also released our first bulletin on the issue today - should be up on RI's website. There's also a photo of a bombed out truck that I took on the highway today.

I hope that when I wake up tomorrow morning, I will hear that there is peace and we can head to the South to see if we can reach the people who have been trapped down there.

Not looking forward to my flight home

I can't believe my ears. Did they really say they are going to ban all drinks on flights, including those served by the airline? Are we really not allowed to bring anything on the flight except our passport, keys, and tickets? Is it too late to book a boat back to the US?

Down in the Beqaa valley

Today we went down into the Beqaa valley. Lebanon is truly lovely but its eerie to travel over the highway passing brave truck drivers toting watermelons with big white flags tied to their trucks to alert Israeli planes that they are benign.

We interviewed a woman who had been displaced four times. She was originally from the southern suburbs of Beirut but had gone down to live with her mother in the south for the summer to get out of the city with her three children. On the second day of the war, her house was hit and her mother and brother killed. "It was a miracle that we survived," she told us. She and her sons fled to Tyre (also known here as Sur). When that city was bombed, her husband came to get her and brought her to Dahiyeh - the suburbs that have been targeted repeatedly. There, they stayed with her sister until the night before last when they coldn't take the bombing and near misses anymore. THey came to Zahle, a town in the Beqaa valley where they are now living with 100 other people in a secondary school.

"There's only three toilets here and you have to wait three hours for the bathroom," she said "but we have everything we need. They have brought us food, water, and soap. They took our clothing sizes and will bring us some clothes tomorrow, they said." "I just want to go back to what life was like before the war," she said.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Resources on the war

Since we have wifi in the rooms, one of the things I've been doing to pass the time at night before I go to bed (so I won't just watch tv) is reading Lebanese blogs and websites obsessively. If anyone is interested here are a few of my favorites, plus and article that made me cry before I even got here...

The article, Watching Beirut Die, by Anthony Bourdain - the chef at Les Halles in NYC.


Beirut Live, created by the editor of Time Out Beirut

Kerblog, a fabulous cartoonist and friend of Kristele's cousin.

Siege of Lebanon, I like Jim Quilty's posts.

Electronic Lebanon Diaries or the electronic intifada

The Malcolm Lowry

After an emotional and frustrating day (worrying about my dad worrying about me while I sit in hotel rooms interviewing stupid and incompetent internationals here to 'help'), I decided to embrace the nightlife. Kristele and I went out with her friend Naphalie (Natto) for dinner to the chicest part of Beirut, Gemayzeh. We drank a fine bottle of Malbec at a lovely restaurant named Bread and then headed over to Dragonfly where her brother was holding forth with the Chicago Tribune. The music was excellent, the bar was chic and very Parisian. The bartenders, two very handsome Lebanese men who spoke excellent French and English, prepared ceasar salads by hand, shaving the parmesean cheese in front of me. The women were thin and dressed in the latest fashions. The five British aid workers who tromped in all sunburned and showered, looked as out of place as I did in this thin, elegant, arty-bohemian scene.

Natto, a painter who specializes in trompe l'oeil interior designs, ordered her favorite cocktail - the Malcolm Lowry. I was thrilled! How often do you go to a bar where they have cocktails named after authors, let alone authors of my current favorite book "Under the Volcano"? What a perfect metaphor for drinking in Beirut during the war. Under the Volcano is a hallucenigenic last 24 hours of an alcoholic expat British diplomat drinking himself to death during the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Natto and I had a lovely conversation about art in Mexico and the muse of alcohol. After a few more glasses of wine, I found myself offering to marry Kristele's cousin so he could get out of the country. Unsuprisingly, my US passport holds little appeal right now.

Last night, there were no loud bombs. The only noise I heard was my upstairs neighbor listening to some rowdy movie loudly. I ratted him out to the hotel management and collapsed asleep for the evening. Sunday - we are taking as half days... only 6 hours of work!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

That famous Lebanese humor

My colleague is from Beirut so every night we can go out with Lebanese and talk to them about the gossip on the streets. Tonight, we went out to a french restaurant that was fabulous. It's on the famous street where all the good all restaurants are - many are still open but have almost no customers. This is such a fabulous city - I hope that it survives this siege. The menu was limited but they still managed to have profiterole for dessert (decadent!)

One always hears about the 'world weary' cynicism of the Lebanese who have weathered these wars before. Boy they were telling some dark dark jokes tonight. Such as:
This famous Shia Muslim singer from Beirut (I can't remember her name, think Madonna) who went to the border and had sex with an Israeli soldier. She got pregnant and the head of Hezbollah said - HEY what do you think you are doing? She said "Making a hostage"!

Did you hear the real estate prices in (the part of town behind the suburbs bombed by the Israelis) has risen? They all have a sea view now.

Everyone was discussing the bombing that is supposed to start tonight. The Israeli Army sends text messages and voice mails to the areas they are planning to bomb warning everyone to leave. This freaks people out. It's almost like a form of psychological warfare. Leaflets were also dropped in the south of Beirut. I'm a little nervous about tonight but we have a plan in case things get bad. Her friends live very close so we can also go and hunker down there. They have all taken up playing poker - Texas Hold'em.

I heard the bombs for the first time

I had a long frustrating day stuck in my hotel room fighting my body which is fighting foreign food, My colleague went off to a party at her cousin's house that I was dying to go to but was too weak to make. I finally fell asleep after obsessively watching BBC News and CNN. At 2:05am, I was awakened to a loud clap of thunder. Or so it sounded like. SInce I was groggy from dehydration and sleep, it took me a few minutes to realize I was in Beirut and what I was hearing was the Israeli Army bombing the southern suburbs of Beirut. There were three explosions in 30 minutes and all the car alarms went off briefly after each one. I had been warned that we would hear the bombs from here. The adrenaline pumped through my body but by 3am, I was able to go back to sleep. I am itching to get out and talk to people. I feel so privileged and like such a fraud to lie in the Sofitel sipping tea while others are fearing for their lives.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Arriving in Beirut...

I drove to Beirut this morning from Syria to take advantage of the 'lull in bombing' that Israel is no longer recognizing. After a brief scare by a psychotic security officer (telling us the route we were taking was insecure and advising us to take a road through the Beqaa valley that was being bombed as we spoke), we decided to take the route from Tartus, Syria through Tripoli, Lebanon and down into Beirut. it was>uneventful, boring, even.

In order to allay any possible anti-UN or US sentiment, Kristele, my Lebanese colleague, made me wear a head scarf (I work my blue bandana) and sunglasses and take off my earrings and wear a long sleeve blouse to cross the border. She did not follow these precautions so I looked like a schlub and she>looked glamourous. Sigh.

There was also a candlelight vigil in Damascus last night near the restaurant we were in but noone looked at me twice. I almost feel that I should play the role of 'good American' and explain to people that not everyone in the US supports the bombing and some of us are trying to help. While all of the Syrians I have met have been incredibly hospitable and kind, the anti-Israel rhetoric is starting to get to me. I understand the rage and I feel it too as Israeli spokespersons come on CNN and mouth platitudes. Meanwhile the almost 600 dead in Lebanon vs the about 20 dead in Israel show the real story. It's a bloodbath and disproportionate.

There's also a lot of anti US talk but since I feel the same way as everyone else here does about Condi and Bush, it is not difficult to hear. They listen to my explanations about why Americans voted for Bush with respect. I hate what the Israelis are doing. I believe its a war crime and I cringe when I hear their explanations and apologies on the news but I still see them as a legitimate country with a legitimate right to exist. That's controversial over here. Like many Americans, I've mostly ignored the middle east crisis because it is too difficult to resolve or understand.

There are bad guys on both sides and the people who suffer are the innocents. Anyway, we've got wifi in the room, chilled beers in>the mini bar and a pool in the hotel. We are not suffering. We even got a "UN discount" at the hotel which is disgusting since the UN make SO much more than us. They should have to pay more than the rest of the world. I am hoping to head to THE HOTEL in Beirut to find Anderson Cooper tonight.