One evening, after a hard day’s toil in the vineyards of Southern Illinois, I got an email from old friend about a conference being assembled in Lebanon. The idea was to bring together six American and six Middle Eastern journalists for a week and set ’em loose on one another. Or something like that. All expenses paid.
They were short a couple of Yanks, it said, and the conference would be the following week.
With a little Dutch Courage, I fired off an application and didn’t expect to hear back. The Tuesday after Labor Day I received an email telling me to pack my bags.
Since I got to make my own arrangements, I booked myself an extra two weeks so I could get another “Axis of Evil” country under my belt.
This is my story.
ALEPPO, Syria. After a rickety journey on Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” train from Carbondale to Chicago, (the Steve Goodman song is bollocks; no old men passing around “paper bags that hold the bottle” – just moody 20-somethings commuting from Southern Illinois University to Chicago’s northern suburbs), I arrived in the great city of Chicago. Spent the day getting lost, but the Art Institute was a treat.
I lucked out, scoring a direct flight from O’Hare to Amman, Jordan. The Amman airport is certainly “Middle East Lite.” Even though I had 5 hours to kill, the customs guard wouldn’t let me out of the terminal since I only had a transit visa.
“You visit Amman next time,” he chided.
These were the activities available: Duty Free (strangely I had no taste for booze, pricey electronics, or Chanel perfumes), Cinnabon, Starbuck’s, and watching English-language Euronews in the little cafe.
I fished a warm can of Heieman’s Old Style lager that I’d brought 6,000 miles with me and settled down for the layover.
Middle East Lite, I grumbled. The only notable event was a cleaning guy’s pathetic attempt to scam me by selling me a 2 dinar telephone card for $5 when the nearby kiosk sold 3 dinar cards for the same price. He had tried to hatch the deal in the bathroom, like it was contraband or something, but I wasn’t biting.
Finally, our connecting flight to Beirut arrived. We shuffled in, packed together tightly, and I was looking forward to getting fed. My hopes were dashed when the “meal” was served, however. Stale cheese sandwiches made from Oregonian Tillamook cheese (individually wrapped). Everything on the plane came from America.
After negotiating my way through the terminal and getting through customs after a sulky customs agent made a very cursory search of my bags (he was horrified by my bag of beef jerky that I’d had since Minnesota), I was free to go. Three emails to the Reuters Foundation asking for confirmation that someone would be meeting me at 10 p.m. at the airport had gone unanswered. So I was relieved to see a wiry young taxi driver holding a sign that said “Mr. Resneck”.
The following morning we were introduced to our fellow journalists. Represented were: St. Louis, Madison, Indianapolis, Savannah, San Francisco, and me. Our opposite numbers were: Palestine, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon.
The course is held at the American Univeristy, a 19th century campus built by American missionaries. The campus is very green and opulent. Scandalously dressed young women in skin-tight clothes draw more than a few remarks from the men folks from both civilizations.
To most of us, the name Beirut conjures up images of destruction, but the center has been fastidiously rebuilt and wealth is all around us. Coming from Southern Illinois, I felt like I had traveled from the Third World to a glistening Metropolis. No offense, Murphysboro.
After two days of getting to know each other, the delegation of 12 journalists took our first field trip. We climb aboard a chartered bus for Hezbollah-controlled territory along the Lebanese/Israeli frontier. We pass multiple military checkpoints, but Hezbollah’s called ahead and everything’s prune juice smooth for the throng of hacks that we are.
We visit the Beaufort Castle, a 12th century fortress built during the Crusades. The craggy ruins stand atop a natural plateau that gives us a stunning view of the surrounding greenery of Southern Lebanon and parts of Northern Israel. Almost everything in the area appears new. That’s probably since the Israeli army only withdrew in 2000. So newly paved roads and glistening new pylons string the powerlines into the repopulated villages. Literally hundreds of thousands of refugees had emptied out of Southern Lebanon and into the slums of southern Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982. Now construction is evident everywhere as families are returning.
Our Hezbollah hosts describe how Beaufort was built by Saladin, a brilliant Kurdish strategtist that drove the Crusaders out of the Middle East. But 30 seconds of amateur internet research suggests it was built by the Crusaders themselves.
No matter; in recent times it was used both by Palestinian fighters as a staging point to attack Israeli targets, and then as an Israeli base of operations following its invasion and occupation of Lebanon (1982-2000). Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a Shi’ite Lebanese resistance to the Israeli army and continues to this day to harrass parts of Israel–specifically the “Shebaa Farms” which they claim is rightfully Lebanese. (The UN says it belongs to Syria, Israel says it needs it for security — it’s a mess).
After the tour of the ruins, we climb back into our air conditioned bus and drive down the hill to the main offices of Hezbollah. We are beckoned into the cool modern building to meet with soft-spoken Sheikh Nabil Kawouk, commander of Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon. He greets us warmly, beckoning us inside. He speaks through a translator. Pictures of the Iranian Ayatollah with the Hezbollah leader adorn the wall. The women in the group wear headscarves as instructed by our Reuters trainers.
The Sheikh begins by saying he would like to ask us some questions. I’m trying to pay attention, nursing a broken gut after drinking too much Beirut tap water.
The Sheikh picks me out of the crowd of 24 and says: “I’d like to ask you two questions before proceeding with questions. First, what do you know about Hezbollah?”
Uh… who me? Yeah you kid, the translator explains.
I tried to stammer out an answer. I always thought the word “terrorist” was loaded, but I didn’t wanna come off as an apologist for militant fighters neither.
I had been scribbling notes in my steno pad, but fortunately my new pal Sean from the Savannah Morning News had a tape recorder and he made the following transcript. The Sheikh totally got the best of me, but here’s the exchange verbatim:
Kawouk: What do you know about Hezbollah?
Resneck: I know it is the last armed group in Lebanon and it controls the southern areas, to protect southern Lebanon from Israel.
Kawouk: Do you share the U.S. Administration’s opinion that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization?
Resneck: I don’t use the word terrorist in any context actually because it’s a loaded word. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
Kawouk: What’s terrorism in your point of view?
Resneck: It’s people that use violence for political means, to accomplish political ends.
Kawouk: Even if it was a rightful political ends?
Resneck: That’s the problem with the word terrorist because you’re stepping into the situation. I don’t have any personal experience with that. There are militant armed groups but terrorism is a word from the perspective of the victim.
Kawouk: If this is the case, than all wars are terrorism, even it was self defense.
Resneck: I agree.
Kawouk: So according to this definition, even a people who were defending their country or defending their right would become terrorists.
Resneck: I agree.
Kawouk: So if I attacked your house and you defended your house, would both of us be terrorists?
Resneck: That’s the problem with the word terrorism.
Kawouk: So now we have to apologize to Jesus Christ because he was crucified … So both are terrorists, no you can’t say that. The oppressor and the oppressed, you can’t say that both are terrorists.
At this point, Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stepped in. (He later jokingly referred to me as a “terrorist’s apologist” and himself as the “American stooge”)
Jon Sawyer: On this subject, can we ask his definition of terrorism. How does he define terrorism?
Kawouk: I’ll give you one sentence to define terrorism: The killing of innocent civilians — innocent, innocent civilians. Then when you fight the occupying forces, military forces, this is not terrorism. When you fight military occupying forces, this is not terrorism. I hope you’re satisfied by the answer.
Jon Sawyer: In the course of fighting occupying powers, say you take action against a bus and the bus contains civilians, is that terrorism?
Kawouk: Terrorism is killing of innocent civilians. Killing an innocent civilian is terrorism.
So from the onset we saw the ideological difference between groups like Hezbollah and Hamas (which bomb buses). The former said they won’t and don’t attack civilians (except some Israeli settlers which he said are always heavily armed and hence fair game).
We had a good discussion with the guy. He criticized the insurgents in Iraq for killing innocent people and stressed how his group had no bone to pick with ordinary Americans but was dismayed how categorically the US lined up behind Israel. And he also was chaffed that he was known as a “terrorist” even though their beef was with the Israeli army. It was quite a charm offensive and illustrated some complexities of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict.
A video crew from al-Manar, the Hezbollah TV station, appeared and interviewed our trainer. One of the journalists was a young woman, hair uncovered, wearing a pink boobetube. The women in our group were puzzled — where was her shawl?
One of them went and asked, and the Lebanese journalist explained that while some of the sheikhs insisted on traditional head covering, this guy was a lot more liberal. Who knew?
Next stop was the Khia Prison, built by the French colonialists in the early 20th century, it was a brutal detention center for the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army. We got a tour of the place, met with a former prisoner of 13 years who was now a curator. We watched a propaganda video about the horrors that went on within its walls. The film suggested that many attrocities were committed by Israeli soldiers, though after further questioning we learned it was a Lebanese-run prison, but overseen by Israeli military officers. A small point perhaps, after all many Ukrainians did the dirty work for the Germans, but one that needed clarifying I thought.
Then we broke for lunch. My stomach was a volcano of pain, but I did manage to try one of the local delicacies: “raw sheeps.” Mmmm… finger lickin’ good it was.
After that we drove to the Israeli border. We could see a juice factory and an Israeli army patrol. We were told we had to be quick, lest the Apaches come. We also drove to a former checkpoint known as “Fatima’s Gate”. I threw a few rocks over the fence. One of the Palestinians looked at me quizically.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “It’s my birthright.”
“You know what? You’re an asshole!” he told me. I asked him if I could quote him. He grinned and said “sure.”
The other Palestinian in our group was more somber. Born and raised in Jordan, this was the closest he’d ever come to his parents’ village. I left the guy alone.
The next day we drove to the southern outskirts of Beirut to visit the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. Housed here since 1948, the Palestinians are denied the right to work, own property, and vote, by the Lebanese who fear it would upset the fragile balance between the Lebanese Christians and Muslims of the country.
Our hosts today were Hamas who led us around the camp. They tried to steer us in a particular direction to talk to their own hand-picked “men and women on the street” but me and a few others broke off and interviewed our own people. Not that we heard anything surprising, but it felt good to ditch the minders.
The camp was the site of a massacre in 1982 when the Israeli army let the Phalangists (a Lebanese Christian militia) into the camps to have a free run over the mostly unarmed Palestinians in the camps. What happened next follows the standards genocidal script: “The men and women were separated and …”
The leader of Israeli forces, Gen. Ariel Sharon, was censured by the Israeli Knesset for his role in the massacre. His political career was finished, Israeli commentators said at the time. Israelis put the death toll at 800. The International Red Cross reported seeing bodies in the thousands. The conservative estimate therefore is between 800 and 3,000 civilians killed. A Lebanese Christian woman whose Muslim husband and son were among those killed was wheeled out by Hamas for us to interview.
“If Sharon were here I would drink his blood,” she told us. This greatly disurbed our translator, one of the young Arab journalists from the conference.
After our little walk about in the camp, we met with Usamah Hamdan, whose business card (I had to get his card) says simply “Hamas Representative”. Over tea and juice, Usamah explained that Hamas’ defintion of terrorism was a lot narrower: “The killing of civilians in their homelands.” Since they don’t recognize Israel, this gives ’em a pretty free reign to blow up who they want, when they want.
But, he said, they’re trying to limit keep dialogue open and negotiate ceasefires with Israel … *sight* It’s hard to know who to believe when both sides are lying to you.
The party broke up on Friday night and on Saturday I headed for Syria. I was worried, ’cause I didn’t have a visa and you’re supposed to get them in your own country. I was in a shared taxi weaving on narrow roads at night. I think our driver was nervous about the border too, ’cause about 2 clicks before the border he practically shotgunned a can of Heineken.
The border was fine, “1,000 [Syrian pounds] and you are welcome,” a soldier joked to me. I ignored him, though kept the offer in the back of my head should we hit a rough spot. There were some “Bribery sends you to jail” signs on the Lebanese side, but no such warnings in Syria.
This weblog is supposed to be about freight travel, and so I apologize to my readers. The civil war in Lebanon pretty much destroyed the railway. Not so in Syria. In Tartus, I saw my first freight train in a week and boy was I excited. I found the freightyard the other day and was about to slip in to check out a freight being built. I saw a toe protruding from the guard’s kiosk and realized I was three steps from being seen.
I backed off and watched from a distance. I felt someone watching me and turned to my left. There was a soldier, Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, looking curiously in my direction. I waved. He smiled.
The bulls here are pretty well-armed. This would have to be a nighttime operation. I went and found the bus station.
Today I took a [passenger] train from Lattakia on the coast to Aleppo. It cost a little less than a dollar. What a ride, too. Now I’m in Syria’s second city about to explore the place now that the heat’s subsided.
The absolute best activity in Syria, and I think the reason most people should visit, is to cross the Syrian street. We can make it a sport in X-Games, “Ex-treme Pedestrianism!” or something like that. I think all taxis drivers should be trained over here (most NYC cabbies are). There are few controlled intersections, fewer crosswalks, and seemingly no rules. It’s a very Zen exercise. You just visualize your path through the traffic and then walk through. Just you and the swerving taxis.
The drivers, for their part, do their best to avoid hitting you without actually checking their speed. So there’s a little bit of compassion on their end.
Jaco out (of the country)