The first time the name 'Lebanon' cropped up was in July, 2006. In Biarritz, France, the July War between Hizbullah and Israel began. It unfolded in-front of a young mind. Aged 12, all that was understood in my mind was the conflict was unfolding in the Middle East in parallel to the Iraq War. Watching an Israeli spokesperson briefing the press on television while tanks trundled through southern Lebanon and rubble strewn streets and foot soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces walked up the green, rocky and winding roads hunting for an invisible enemy. The woman speaking to press looked firm and decisive and it looked like the press were giving her a tongue lashing. Who were Hizbullah? Where was Israel? Where was Lebanon? The kidnapping of a clutch of IDF soldiers had staked the latest round of violence between the parties in conflict. Eventually the conflict came to an end, a ceasefire was established and the world moved on, I did not hear of modern Lebanon again until 2011 when studying about the Crusades at University.
UP IN THE AIR
The Alps were bright and blinding. The creeping winter sun rested on the snowy, white mountains, islets within the swirling clouds. The sloping and jagged crests of the Austrian hills, the pearls of the world, reached up into the blue skies as the crisp afternoon descended into hazy, purple dusk. As Europe became the Mediterranean, as West became East, an alien red orange mist was hanging over the navy blue clouds below, the last minutes of autumn were at hand. Sun turned sepia as the fading glimmers of the best of days turned into timeless natural wonder. Layers of cloud were stacked atop one another creating two horizons. An ocean of fire lay beneath the final horizon. A red sea of passion swirled above the depths of the Mediterranean. Endless expanses of stars and blue lay above the last vestiges of day. The blue was a joyful colour, as if a sunrise was emerging from the twilight of the day. The skies of the Middle East, the skies of our blue planet. You can gaze at them forever, lose yourself.
Walking into Harirri airport in the dead of night, the border of Lebanon awaited. My heart was thudding. I had been briefly detained and questioned at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv further south a year ago.
A ring of steel and lead surrounded the Magen Abraham Synagogue. Soldiers, police and an armoured vehicle lay further down Alliance Street just off Bab Idriss. Adrian and I attempted to access the synagogue by France Street nearby St. Louis's Capuchin Church but the soldier shook his head. At face-value it seemed perplexing that the Lebanese Army, at war with Israel since 1948, were invested in protecting the synagogue, but it was clearly a blockade put in place to protect one the last synagogues in the country and to act as a deterrent against reprisals from more radical Lebanese Sunni, Salafi and Shia extremists. Perhaps it was merely being reconstructed or repaired but that it lay in the shadow of Grand Serail and had survived in the heart of Downtown Beirut - despite all the previous violence, anti-semitism and turmoil sparked the Arab-Israeli conflict - surprised me. There was hope for a Jewish-Arab reconciliation across the Middle East, even if it was a faint glimmer. It wouldn't be a friendly peace, but it would be peace nonetheless.
Beirut conjured an array of smells which enveloped and entranced the senses. The smell of smog, pollution and petrol clung to you and lightly caked my walking boots in dust. The scent of food wafted from bustling, commercial restaurants. Garbage and plastic dotted some the streets and on occasion produced quite odious smells that any city in the world knows all to well. It was quite pungent. Traffic packed the streets, cars and trucks honked incessantly throughout the day and people were packed into buses and Charlie taxis hustling and bustling, squeezing past each other and jerking forwards. Drivers shouted at each other and everyone as they sought to find their place in the queue while policeman acted as traffic lights to guide traffic and halt it to prevent the city from descending into a metal nightmare. Motorcycles hurtled up streets and pavements. If one was unlucky enough to be caught in ones path, you had to leap into oncoming traffic. If I was to die in Lebanon, a car was the most likely object to kill me. An ignominious end indeed.
Cats ambled around mewing and scuttled under cars, scouting the landscape for food and water. They were far more adept at avoiding traffic than us mere mortals. Old and young tried to usher us into restaurants saying "Welcome!" sometimes gormlessly and at other excitable and beaming. The conflict between modernity and tradition remains evident despite Beirut's rugged beauty and charm. The building projects are swallowing up the old ruins as if to cover the cruel and physical bruises and the commercialisation of Downtown Beirut is something which I have found disenchanting in the globalised super cities of the 21st century. Its artificiality wears thin after a while. Big spending and conspicuous consumption provide extravagant comforts and short-term pleasure, yet they often erode and eat away at the soul and the meaning of life. Long-term natural pleasures and better ways of living, traditionalism has been violently thrust aside by industrialisation, modernisation and data. The yearning for identity, roots and grounding in this chaotic world, in the world of consumer capitalism, it is difficult in Beirut and the interconnected world. God is returning to the Greater Middle East and in Beirut
For years, Lebanon was divided into squabbling enclaves as paramilitary and insurgent groups, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian and Druze slaughtered each other and innocent civilians for nearly fifteen years. Beirut, the White City on the shores of the sea, was witness to brutal violence as its districts were crudely sliced into fiefdoms from which rival military units lobbed artillery shells and bombs at each other and sprayed buildings with gunfire. Adrian, a photographer who accompanied me on my travels in Lebanon, and I entered Beit Beirut, the bourgeoise Barakat House on the cross-road of Damascus Road and Independence street, one of the symbols of the devastation wrought on Lebanon by its internal struggle. The house was built in 1924 in the twilight era of the Ottoman Empire, but showed signs of strong influence by French architecture and the house had been raised by two further floors by architect Fouad Kozah in 1932. The house was situated along the Green Line, a zone which cut through Downtown Beirut dividing the city into Christian East and Muslim West. The crossing point saw some of the fiercest fighting of the civil war.
During the conflict, the Barakat House had been occupied by the Christian Phalangist paramilitary for a prolonged period of the war. As we explored the building, it was unsurprising to see why the Phalangists (a term which means phalanx in Arabic) had turned the building into a bristling fortress. Holes had been broken through the walls so snipers could positions themselves to pick off enemy fighters and civilians crossing the war-zone. These positions deep within the building had been shored up with sandbags to protect them from retaliatory fire and so that they would remain hidden from the enemy's gaze and such sniper nests were dotted across the building facing all directions, the gaping, greying walls, serving the a Phalangist soldier's need for flexibility during heavy fighting. The maze reminded me of a building which would have been used during the height of the brutal house-to-house fighting in Stalingrad during the Second World War between the Red Army and the Nazis and of other war-zones across the Middle East so commonly seen on British TV screens including Syria's Aleppo, Iraq's Mosul and Palestine's Jenin. These sorts of battle-sites made for gruelling combat between militia, soldier or insurgent alike and suffering for civilians all the more terrible as they navigate these extended and extremely violent battles of attrition. There is nothing glorious about war. It is cruel, at times boring, tense, produces anxiety and paralysing fear, and produces agonising moral dilemmas and consequences which cannot be seen in the present moment, the heat of battle and the fog of war. War traumatises.
Bullets had torn the now peeling, destitute walls to shreds while time and the wear of war had dimmed the colours of this once marvellous piece of architecture. Arabic slogans and Phalangist iconography - a cedar and cross - daubed the inner walls. Further down, the Green Line, I had come across a ravaged church, holes punched through it and bullet-ridden, torn curtains fluttering in the warm breeze. An orange phoenix - one of many examples of Lebanon's street art - was sprayed on the closed building, perhaps the artist's symbolic message of Lebanon's need to rise from the ashes and overcome the al-hawadith which had so sullied the city of Beirut and the countryside.
An egg-shaped building in Downtown Beirut lay there, empty and sad. Initially designed by Joseph Philippe Karam, 'The Egg' was planned to be a movie theatre, a place where young and old could watch the best Hollywood had to offer, Jaws, Star Wars: A New Hope, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Rocky, Superman. This grand design by Mr. Karam was left unfinished as the civil war began in 1975 and fighting in the streets and Downtown wrecked the modernist's dream for central Beirut. The films never began, those shy dates to the cinema or the parents taking their excited children to see their favourite heroes in action never occurred, friends leaving the cinema elated at the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader were memories which were never created.
Instead so many young children became child soldiers in the war for Lebanon, sacrificed on the altar of draconian dreams which multiple leaders held for the country: Arafat, Gemayel, Sharon, Chamoun, Reagan, Begin, Al-Asad and beyond. So many children, the children of Beirut, in the city's most desperate times, were to grow up in an atmosphere of madness and death. The pain of the country echoes within the heart and cuts deep into my conscious, a harrowing, confrontational, haunting and devastating pain which scars Lebanon's people and consumes the region.
"Seventeen years ago, the devastation (of Beirut) was more clear," said Christian, an American aid worker who had worked in Libya, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Sierra Leone, "it is only a recent development that new buildings, predominantly restored French and Ottoman architecture have sprung up to replace buildings from the war era." The ghosts of Lebanon's past echoed off the buildings and the relentless attempt to re-build Beirut could not hide that the country has yet to address the legacy of the civil war, particularly its violence. That Beit Beirut was one of Lebanon's first official museums to talk about what happened in those terrible years speaks volumes about how far the country has to go in investigating its traumas.
The signs of Lebanon's wounds, historical and contemporary, are everywhere despite efforts to move on from the al-hawadith. 85,000 people died in Beirut alone during the events which transpired. To put this into context, it is estimated 31,000 people have died in the battle for Aleppo and its surrounding provinces between President al-Asad's Syrian Arab Army and the jihādist-rebel coalition in the Syrian War. Similar numbers perished in the battle for Baghdad as Shia and Sunni paramilitary forces conducted sectarian cleansing, utilised car bombs and death-squads to liquidate each other, coalition soldiers and innocent civilians. While both Syria and Iraq's suffering have produced numbers which have outweighed by the number of dead in Lebanon's civil war, the geographical size of Lebanon - a small state - and the size of Beirut made the death toll almost unparalleled in the history of battles for cities across the modern Middle East. Nonetheless, from Aleppo to Beirut to Baghdad, the numbers all have faces, they all have names, they all had lives snatched away by the fallacy of war. The Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 acted as a catalyst to worsen the suffering of its people imposing occupation, siege and massacre upon them. The buildings of Lebanon were the city's ghosts, a country which has not fully addressed the legacy of civil war and the potent divisions it created.
The pillars of the National Museum had been ripped to pieces by gunfire, a Syrian soldier stood outside in the picture, guarding the ruins. Much as the current situation in Syria has created an environment where the country is a battlefield for different rivalries, Lebanon became the focal point of regional confrontations which were unfolding. In the 1970s and 1980s, this manifested itself in the bitter confrontation between the Israelis and the Syrians and later the Iranians and Saudi Arabians. As with most civil wars, this drew in superpowers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. As the Spanish Civil War drew in multiple Great Powers, the power dynamics of civil war have distinct parallels even if contextual & cultural driven by very different factors. Civilians were always the first to suffer and die.
It is little wonder that after such a trauma, Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli military are hesitant to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. This has not stopped them reliving their futile Lebanese adventure in 2006 where once again superior airpower and some stunning successes by the Israeli airforce could not be converted into decisiveness on the ground.
Much as the current situation in Syria has created an environment where the country is a battlefield for different rivalries, Lebanon became the focal point of regional confrontations which were unfolding. In the 1970s and 1980s, this manifested itself in the bitter confrontation between the Israelis and the Syrians and later the Iranians and Saudi Arabians. As with most civil wars, this drew in superpowers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. As the Spanish Civil War drew in multiple Great Powers, the power dynamics of civil war have distinct parallels even if contextual & cultural driven by very different factors. Civilians were always the first to suffer and die.
Recalling its resolution ES-7/9 of 24th September, 1982, the UN declared the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camps to be an act of genocide in December, 1982. The victims claiming to be on the verge of genocide, the Phalangists, who had been armed and trained by the Israelis and who had lured and actively encouraged Mr. Begin and Ariel Sharon to intervene in Lebanon on their behalf, had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Israeli politicians and military officials were complicit in mass-murder. That Mr. Begin's Lebanese allies committed mass-murder and the IDF looked on and aided the act is a horrific irony, an appalling, appalling Greek tragedy.
Equally, Mr. Begin's abuse and utilisation of the term 'genocide' - and in particular evoking memories of the Holocaust for geo-political opportunism, for waging war stained the memories of those who perished in the Nazis chilling genocide of the 1930s and 1940s. However, the true blame should lie with Ariel Sharon. For political credit, Mr. Sharon poured fuel on the fire by visiting the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound. That Ariel Sharon was at the heart of some of the young nation's darkest moments is no coincidence. For political credit, Mr. Sharon poured fuel on the fire by visiting the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound in 2000. He slaughtered villagers in Qitanya, levelled Jenin and accelerated "targeted killings" (extra-judicial killings) with drone attacks against the stricken Gaza Strip. He left a enduring wound on Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians alike. All three societies have suffered much because of his arrogance. The results have been horrendous and has left Israeli soldiers maimed and psychologically scarred.
Israel's past remains potent to this day. Fighting between Joseph Stalin's Red Army and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was defined by concentration camps across Europe, the death camps in the East such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, death marches, mass starvation and deportations, ghettos and the barbaric fighting across Eastern Europe and the heart of the Soviet Union. An estimated 30-35 million died on the Eastern Front during the global war. 27 million of them were Soviet soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians. Millions more across Eastern Europe perished in the brutal occupations established from Poland to the Baltic States to Ukraine to conquered Soviet territory and millions more died in the Holocaust and Nazi's man-made famines to starve the population to death and pave the way for Lebensraum (living space).
The Soviets - at times - were no better than their Nazi foes, deporting populations deemed 'disloyal' such as the Chechens to wastelands in Central Asia and starved German soldiers and dissidents for spite in gulags, vengefully cleansed German civilians living in Eastern Europe and perpetrated their own atrocities against men, women and children across the Front. The fighting was truly pitiless.
More men, women and children died in the Warsaw Uprising in Poland than the entire Lebanese Civil War. In the Battle of Stalingrad alone, one and three quarter million people are believed to have perished. The Syrian War, a tragedy which has lasted longer than the Second World War, would have made up for only twenty-seven per cent of Stalingrad's total casualties, one seven month battle of the entire conflict and the Eastern Front. Even during the Second World War, 'while the Normandy landings during the summer of 1944 did mark a major turning point in the war in Europe, we should remember that by the end of that year, 91 Allied division in north-west Europe face 65 German divisions across a 250-mile front, while at the same time in the East, 560 Soviet divisions fought 235 German divisions across 2000 miles.' (Lloyd Clark, Kursk, xvi) The War for the East was unprecedented in its inhumanity, its scale and its ferocity, a traumatising collective experience which haunts the world.
It is impossible to understand the Israeli psyche, indeed the Russian one, without going back to these terrible times. It does not excuse human rights violations committed, nor does it mean one can turn a blind-eye to the ills of the Israeli occupation and treatment of many Palestinians and Arabs, however the inhumanity of the Second World War cannot be erased, nor are its traumas forgotten easily. Trauma and post-traumatic stress can have devastating effects on individuals, families, societies and nations. It can be passed down generations, it can create fear, it can foment paranoia, it torments and creates unbelievable anxiety and pain, it feeds distrust and anger, it can create people plagued by demons and guilt and it can even lead to the repression of memories and even nurture false memories and incorrect narratives. As Nazi Germany was eventually born out of the humiliations of the First World War and the Great Depression, Israel was - in part - born from the most ferocious, inhumane war ever fought. For those targeted for extermination - including the six-ten million Jewish men, women and children - this inflicted the deepest wound. In-turn, another people had to suffer, and the momentum of history chose the Palestinians. Two peoples became bound by their victimhood, their agony, neighbours who are bound by utter loss and persecution.
The consequences of the 1982 invasion remain to this day with the invasion and subsequent occupation facilitating the rise of Hizbullah, the Party of God. 1982 and wider al-hawadith left an enduring mark on the Middle East. The conflict and its surreal savagery has left silent suffering which lingers and it is a distinct pain felt in Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories. It comes amidst so much life and grace, such passion and dignity. It is something I will never quite grasp, a message from the Middle East which eludes me to this day and so draws me to it, draws me back into the zest and madness.
The Middle East's current turmoil, its Thirty Years War, will never match the sheer depth that our man sunk to in the 20th century. However it carries its own unique scars, its own distinct pain, self-sabotage and beauty which makes it a special place in the world one which should not be defined by war but by the gifts it has given to our short, short existence on the planet. Surely that it something we can relate to in other parts of the world where so many millions do not have the privileges we have, as individuals, no matter how far away they are? Desensitising ourselves from the reality of war - as a generation blessed with near peace on a continent ravaged by the worst conflict in human history little over half a century ago cannot, must not, happen. The toil of conflict and violence must not be forgotten or dehumanised, no matter how much technology and screens we surround ourselves with. When you live and breath, grasp the realities of the Middle East, meet the people
The shock is never the brutality, it is the normality and reliability of the men, women and children you encounter, and perhaps more unnervingly how extremists, secular and religious, walk the streets of Europe, the streets of London in their views of the world and how it should be. The inauguration of President Trump demonstrates this, the surge of the far-right and far-left and the polarisation of many Western countries, the multiple moral, political and economic costs of the global war against terrorism, the resurgence of nationalism and populism have tarnished the face of Western values. Adrian spoke to me, drawing on cigarettes in Hostel Beirut. "People are people. We are contradictory." I drew my cigarette. Here on the shores of the seas of Lebanon, a doorway into the Middle East, the madness of the Middle East is not in the region, it is in ourselves. The narratives we make for the region make little sense now.
Matthew C.K Williams