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Who speaks for the innocent Lebanese?

COMMENTARY | July 22, 2006

A young American living in Beirut is shocked at how indifferent international reaction has been to the situation there, and wonders if the West values Arab humanity differently than it values itself.

By Iman Azzi

My balcony overlooks the Port of Beirut. Over the last few days, I've watched cruise boats and military ships evacuating foreigners from Lebanon, sailing past the ever-present Israeli warships blockading Lebanon’s ports, trapping Lebanese citizens in. I sleep fitfully. I wake at 1am, 4am, 9am to the sound of shelling and air strikes. Sometimes the floor shakes. The sky is so obscured by smoke and dust I can't see the sun, and there is no visible horizon between the Mediterranean and the sky.

As a 14-year-old girl told me in line at the supermarket — I was stocking up on water, tuna fish and lentil soup — "at first it feels like you're living in a movie, but then it gets scary."

I moved to Beirut on June 20, a month after graduating from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, a Lebanese-American with a major in Culture and Politics of the Middle East. I am 22 and what one calls "new to the real world." I boxed up my textbooks, filed my notebooks, packed my Arabic dictionary and moved to Beirut to work in journalism and continue my studies. I knew Lebanon was the place to be!

In June the World Cup preoccupied everyone; people decorated their cars, apartments and bodies with the flag of their favorite team; Italy, Brazil, Germany and France were the country's favorites. I rooted for Portugal.

I moved in with a friend in Achrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in East Beirut, only a ten-minute walk from work. My bed was a fold-out couch. I only planned to stay with her a month until I found my own place. My roommate, a friend since high school, talked about buying patio furniture and I dreamed of buying a kiddie pool for our large balcony.

I began my internship for the Daily Star, Lebanon's only English-language newspaper. Within a week I had my first assignment and byline. I covered a conference on the issue of child labor in Lebanon and I traveled to Tripoli, in the north, and spoke to nine-year old children who had been forced into work.

I wrote an article introducing Craigslist to Lebanon, with hopes that people would utilize the site and it would help me find my own apartment. I had tickets for an art show opening featuring local artists, which I was meant to review on July 17.

Life settled into a routine. I went to work, I wrote stories, I watched the World Cup and I waited for the inevitable post-match fireworks, regardless of who came out victorious. I took photos of the flashes of gold, blue, red and green and ran between our two balconies to see which had the best view. Beirut was alive, so alive it was emanating colorful sparks.

A week after the World Cup the Beirut sky lit up again. This time by the Israelis. Where fireworks once signified celebration, the night sky now appeared to burn under siege.

When the first Israeli strike occurred, we raced to the balconies to watch. They had shelled the South all day and people knew it was only a matter of time before they hit Beirut’s southern suburbs. The question was not if, the question was whether it would be the power station or the airport. The answer was they hit everything.

Three days into the conflict, I heard the deafening noise of more shelling; this time I didn’t look up and I continued eating my chicken sandwich. How quickly I had desensitized myself to the noise of war. I still jump for loud explosions, but I no longer have any desire to watch the pain these explosions are inflicting on others from my balcony.

Justice. When we used this word at Georgetown, we were talking about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, questioning where was the justice in occupation, in holding a people hostage and refusing them dignity and basic human rights?

Today, when I look out from my balcony, I think again about the issues of justice, of fairness, of compassion and dignity.

The newspapers report that over three hundred Lebanese civilians have been killed, over 800 wounded and half a million Lebanese civilians have been displaced. A collective punishment has been meted out on these people of the Levant and they have become impoverished and angry in only a matter of days. Their country is in ruins.

War, terrorism, shelling. Last fall, I studied these words for my Media Arabic class in Washington.

War, terrorism, shelling. Today, I live these words as I walk the deserted streets of Beirut.

As an American living in Beirut I am shocked at how indifferent international reaction has been. It is as though the West values Arab humanity differently than it values itself. The press records what happens, but no one intervenes.

Who speaks for the innocent Lebanese?

In French class our textbook taught us how to order wine and what you should say to a shoe salesman. My friend’s Spanish class learned about drug trafficking and immigration. In Arabic we learned about explosions and failed democracies.

All my Arabic classes finally paid off. I’m now an expert at reading the Arabic crawl-bar on al-Jazeera but I still can't read a children's book. Yesterday, I asked a Lebanese soldier for directions and somewhere between "go under a bridge" and "turn left at the petrol station" I missed a word. But when he said, "you'll see an army checkpoint" I knew exactly where to go. I interviewed a woman in French and at some point she switched into Arabic and I didn't notice until I replied in Arabic, having no idea where French ended and Arabic began.

On Saturday, I told my parents I was not going to evacuate. I don’t know if it is stubbornness or defiance and resistance. I had moved to Beirut; it was my home as it had been home to my grandparents and father decades earlier. I was told it was my decision but if I stayed, I had to be sure to have enough water.

My father told me he applauded my decision (he had covered part of the Lebanese Civil War in the 70’s) . I was confused. Was this the same man who gave me an 11pm curfew when I lived at home in New Hampshire?

The first time I saw Beirut I was 13. On the way into town from the airport I saw a tank between the lanes of the highway. I thought it was a monument from the civil war. Then I saw the gun turret swivel and a soldier appeared. I knew I was in a serious place. When I was 16 I went to South Lebanon the summer of the Israeli withdrawal. Our guides cautioned us to stick to the path for fear of landmines. I watched Palestinians and Lebanese throw rocks into Israel and wondered how cathartic such gestures were.

Nothing at the School of Foreign Service prepared me for life under siege. I studied with Jesuits and intellectuals. Nothing I read taught me that my biggest threat might not be Israeli bombs but lack of water. In books there are issues, conflict, antagonists and protagonists, even victims, but there is always water.

Posted by Jerome Dobbins - citizen
08/21/2006, 04:33 PM

The innocent Lebanese need to be aware they have a terrorist organization in their government and if they don't want to suffer they need to take control of their country. No aid of any kind should be given to Lebanon. Hizbollah has said it will pay so let them pay for it all. When you make terrorists use their own money to rebuild then that is one less dollar for a rocket. I would have made Southern Lebanon a wasteland, Gaza too. Make it cost Them way more than it costs you. That is the best you will ever do with terrorists. Ask the Jews.

Posted by
10/23/2010, 08:08 PM

I see the apple didn't fall to far from your father.

Look at your sentence..

"Justice. When we used this word at Georgetown, we were talking about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, questioning where was the justice in occupation, in holding a people hostage and refusing them dignity and basic human rights?"

This is a line of Anti-Israel dribble with no mention of Islamic terror funded by Iran and carried out by Hezbollah which brought the attack by Israel.

The UN definition is not "occupied territory," it is disputed territory.

BTW, how can your dad's favorite people, the Hamas, live in "occupied" territory when Sharon pulled all the Jews out for their own safety?

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