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"Top blog/Renato Obeid's World/Today's pick: This rambling weblog is worth reading not so much for its satirical posts but more for its insight into the minutiae of life in Lebanon, including the etiquette of road accidents and how to hire a taxi.”
-Jane Perrone, The Guardian
Thursday, January 06, 2005
One of the scarier moments in my life was during Israel's1996 Grapes of Wrath* incursion into Lebanon when I was freelancing as an interpreter (stranger things have happened) and consultant for an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio correspondent.
We were traveling to the afflicted South everyday and the Israelis were targeting in their blockade of the theatre of war the one unbuilt-up stretch of road, about a kilometer long, leading to the South.
Off the coast was an Israeli gunboat taking random potshots at southbound vehicles using that stretch of highway.
The driver sped-up as we approached, as almost everybody else did, but the correspondent told him not to, that how fast you were going didn’t make a difference for one of the world’s most advanced armies.
She was right – the side of the road was littered with the wreckage of cars, most of them not victims of Israeli fire but of car crashes caused by speeding.
In the South, we interviewed an old farmer who tearfully told us that one of his cows had been killed by an Israeli bomb – quite sad but at least it was kosher.
I don’t get it – aren’t cows supposed to be killed (unless they’re dairy cows or pet cows)?
We went to another badly hit village and spoke to the residents, the Hezbollah, etc and visited, in their home, the family of a Hezbollah fighter who had just been killed.
The father told us that he had twelve more children and “Inshallah (God willing) they would all be martyred too”.
“Inshallah” I replied (the customary response in Arab society to someone who wishes for something).
This village, the residents told us, was famous for its poetry and its panel beating.
We were accompanied by an American journalist pretending to be a Canadian** and another American journalist not pretending to be another nationality and agreed amongst ourselves that it was a good thing to have something practical to fallback on in case the poetry didn’t work out.
Although my first translation of “panel beating” did cause some confusion amongst the assembled press corps – we were interviewing some off-duty Hezbollah fighters and asked them what they did in ordinary life.
They told me that they were panel beaters and I translated it back.
Only the ABC lady understood this British/Australian term, the Americans didn’t and asked what I meant, so the ABC lady and I were explaining that panel beating is a term for beating out the panels of cars and having an animated discussion about this with the bemused Americans whilst the Hezbollah looked on.
On our last day in the South (Saturday, the day after the campaign had ended), we got stuck in a huge traffic jam going there – stuck amongst the reverse exodus back home of hundreds of thousands of Southerners in cars, buses and trucks laden with mattresses and boxes and luggage returning from their refuge in Beirut.
Coincidently, it was like the exodus scene in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Both lanes of the highway had been commandeered for the purpose.
On that last day we asked some man whether the Hezbollah would disband after an eventual Israeli withdrawal and he replied, “we’ll see”
We shall indeed.
And that “we’ll see” is exactly what I’m afraid of.
*The Israelis have such righteous sounding names for their campaigns and the Lebanese collected the set – fortunately we were spared other John Steinbeck titles (there was no Of Mice and Men campaign for example).
**Being Canadian came in handy when mobs of men were showing us the American manufacturers mark on spent Israeli weapon shells and screaming “made in USA, made in USA, made in USA!”
The first Israeli incursion I witnessed was Operation Accountability in 1993.
I was staying at my uncle’s house in the North perched atop a mountain some six hundred meters above sea level overlooking Tripoli and commanding views of most of the North and parts of Syria.
In the early hours of the morning, the Israelis attacked a coastal Palestinian refugee camp and a factory on the on the outskirts of Tripoli (just beneath us at the foot of the mountain)
We had a bird’s eye view and it was the first time I had ever seen warfare – one image that sticks in my mind is that of a building being hit by a missile, followed by blinding orange flash and a bang.
I won’t say that it was just like a movie because it wasn’t – it was just like the news, which it was.
I felt like I was watching CNN.
Most of us are so used to seeing “life” through the unreal prism of television, cinema and other media that when something real happens right before our very eyes we instantly equate it to that unreality (the only “reality” we know).
We’re always watching TV even when we’re not.
We’ve become “intelligent” machines that reflect back to the world the distorted reflection that we’ve absorbed from our monocular master.
Television is the most dangerous household appliance as far as I’m concerned.
I know of a newly married young man who, abondoning the marital bedroom, set up camp on a mattress in the living room and sleeps there, with his bride, because he claims that he can only fall asleep while watching television.
His bride must be asking herself, “To whom is he really married to?”
Scarier than being attacked by the Israeli’s was being “defended” by the Syrians – there was no electricity at the time so some soldiers from the Syrian radar base, about one hundred meters down the mountain, ran up to the house and asked us to switch on the generator (there was no mains electricity at the time so they took their power from us).
Recieving no satisfaction (the guard told them that it could only be turned on with my uncle's permision and he was asleep), they, and some other Syrian soldiers from another base that was also on the property (just outside the front door) joined my maiden cousins and I watching proceedings from one of the balconies.
My teenage cousin said that she was afraid and one of the Syrian soldiers told her “don’t worry, we’re here to protect you”.
She replied, unironically, “Well, protect us” (looking down at the pandemonium on the coast).
The next day my cousins and I piled into a Range Rover and went down to Tripoli to see the damage close-up.
Realizing the most of Tripoli looked like it had just been bombed anyway, thus it was impossible to find what we were looking for, we went back home and spent the rest of the day flying down the mountain on bikes and being ferried back up by the chauffer to do it all over again.
From another mountain, Harisa, I’d occasionally see other Israeli operations in action and the Lebanese army replying with hopelessly inadequate World War Two era anti-aircraft guns.
If you think that being an American in Hezbollah territory is a bit dicey, then spare a thought for my friend Nathalie Hobeika who went to the lawless autonomous Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el Helweh in the South to report on one of the violent intra-factional wars that flare-up there every now and then.
Dangerous enough as it is but not made any easier when you share the same family name of the alleged foreman of the 1982 Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camp massacres.
Although not related to Eli Hobeika*, just sharing the same family name is more than enough in this clannish society.
How else can you explain another friend of mine being regularly asked to accompany a young man from her village on his trips up to their village in the early post-war years?
It’s a lot easier for a young man who just happens to share the exact same name and village of origin of an imprisoned militia leader to negotiate checkpoints when accompanied by a female companion.
Nathalie felt a lot safer on another trip to the South when she was working as an interpreter for a visiting delegation of foreign parliamentarians.
Accompanied by the cavalcade of police and army that are a requisite part of any political expedition in Lebanon, they certainly didn’t encounter much resistance as they sped along with sirens blazing and the lead police jeep clearing the path for them with the ubiquitous refrain of “to the right, to the right!” shouted at any motorists in their way.
Until that is they came across a cow standing of the middle of the road and not, it seemed, intent on going neither right nor left.
Slightly different situation then the usual situation of ordering motorists to the right hand side of the road, but it didn’t engender any sort of different approach by the irate policemen – “to the right, to the right!” he screamed at poor Bessie.
*Eli Harvey Oswald (I once heard him likening his situation to be that of Lee Harvey Oswald during an television interview) always protested his innocence, maintaining that the Israeli’s framed him.
Prophetic comparison – he was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Beirut in 2002 just days before he was due to testify against Ariel Sharon at a court case in Belgium brought about by families of massacre victims.