From Lebanon via Tom Sleigh
Earlier in the year, we asked Tom Sleigh to write one of those Journals (yeah, the ones that C. Dale Young is missing so badly) from Lebanon where he was slated to travel as part of a cross-cultural scholarly exchange, this one sponsored by the Trans-Arab Institute and the Syrian Ministry of Culture. The trip was canceled because, as Sleigh wrote, "after one of the Gemayels got assassinated, and Hizullah called some strikes, our hosts didn't think they could take the security risk in having a bunch of Americans roaming around."
So instead he and six others took off last Saturday—the day the situation in the Palestinian refugee camps turned dire! When we wrote yesterday to check up on him, we received this reply:
"I'll try to keep the 'creative writing' to a minimum. No 'plumes of smoke rising in tattered, twisted tails,' though there's been some of that, mostly seen on TV. I'll try to give some of the texture: odd things that strike me, nothing comprehensive, nothing authoritative, everything seen a little slant.
"When I arrived at the Beirut airport after a series of missed, canceled, or weirdly re-routed connections that could best be described by the term 'creative chaos,' a phrase our government has used in describing what it means to wage war in Iraq, I was picked out of the crowd as an American by a young man studying at the American University of Beirut, a humorous fellow who immediately told me the joke about Jesus and Mohammed. Jesus goes into a restaurant, orders mezes, eats them, orders more mezes, eats them, and keeps on ordering until the restaurant runs out of food. The waiter gives him the bill and Jesus says, 'Don't you know who I am? I am the Christ!' And the waiter shrugs and says, 'Ok, you're the Christ, but who's going to pay for all this food?' And Jesus says in a louder voice, 'But I am the Christ!' And the waiter says, 'OK OK it's on the house.' And so Christ goes to another restaurant and another, and never pays the bill, until he goes into Mohammed's restaurant. And when it comes time to settle up, Christ says, 'I am the Christ.' And the waiter says, 'Wait a minute,' and he goes to tell the Prophet, and the Prophet says, 'The Christ, huh? Here, here's the cross—if he's the Christ, he should have learned the first time.' And while waiting for the rest of our 'delegation' to arrive, far too formal of a word for a loose federation of 6 writers, he tells me that it's said about the Lebanese that they do two thing superlatively well: Fight. And shop.
"Everyone is haggard when they finally get off their respective planes, and so we immediately go to dinner at the home of a woman who teaches at the America University of Beirut. We meet various writers, intellectuals, and Lebanese intelligentsia, if that's not too pretentious a word, and eat. And as we're sipping tea afterward, we hear on the news that a bomb has gone off near the ABC shopping center, killing one woman and wounding at least 18 other people. We watch the smoke and flame on TV while a Jordanian who now lives in Beirut tells me that he was shopping at ABC about two hours before the dinner: and he smiles an ironic smile, and shrugs. He loves Beirut because of the paradoxes, the extremes: fighting and shopping, as it were.
"The next day we take a tour of the area in south Beirut, a mostly Shia neighborhood, what they call a Hezbollah stronghold, that was bombed by the Israelis in last year's war. It's a busy neighborhood, narrow streets, freeform traffic, and apartment flats of 10 or so stories high. And then we're in the streets where there used to be buildings and now there's—rubble, a sort of construction site busyness: facades have been blown off half toppled buildings, rooms exposed through huge holes blown in the walls, all of it decidedly workaday. In one pit of rubble, you can see a scorched and melted car chassis bent nearly double. There's a twisted umbrella skeleton, an old fan floor fan blade, trash, plastic of all kinds, brick rounds, and lots of rebar twisted and snaking out of chunks of concrete. In one building, the lower three floors are intact, while the top floor has a gaping hole blown in the wall. On the floor below that, the awnings are rolled down to keep out the sun, while on one balcony, a woman looks to be watering plants. There are trucks piled with cement bags, and a steam shovel gouging up rubble and dumping it into a truck. There are posters of Hariri and son (Hariri rebuilt Beirut after the Civil War and was assassinated), his son having taken over his father's position, and even a poster of Hugo Chavez. The Hezbollah TV station (and this is probably not as nuanced as it should be—one thing about writing about this kind of event, you want to get your facts straight), called 'Manar,' which is probably a mangled transliteratioen, was one of the first targets that the Israeli air force 'took out.' After that, we drove past a Coney Island-like amusement park called Fantasy World: in the haunted house, DRACULA was written in red, and a rather delicate looking monster hand, with fingers about ten feet long, reached out into the air. We then drove by the coliseum where in the 82 war against Israel, the Israelis rounded people up. And then we went, yes, we went shopping at a boutiquey store that sold various crafts: fighting. Shopping.
"That evening we met with a former prime minister who told us, with a droll look, that he was the only prime minister in the history of Lebanon who actually lost an election. He told us this as an example of Lebanon's corrupt election laws: the ruling party fixes the rules to make sure they get re-elected. He said that in Lebanon that there is plenty of freedom, but very little democracy. By this, he meant that the institutions of democracy were weak, ad hoc, always subject to change. And then he said that there was absolutely no difference between America and Israel: that Israel and America are identical in his mind: and that the Lebanese could agree, if only they could be gotten together in a room in order to negotiate. Of course, the other event of the day, other than the bombing the night before, was the confrontation going on in a Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon. There was fighting going on between Fatah Al-Islam and the Lebanese army. There are something like 12 refugee camps in Lebanon, and they hold 400,000 people, all in miserable living conditions. The camps seem to be a permanent feature: a whole generation has grown up in them. But others can do this background better than I. The prime minister was an elderly, humorous, slyly ironic man—and one of our guides, a former dentist who had lost his practice in the recent war, and who learned dentistry back in the USSR, said that he liked the fellow. When I asked him if he was a good prime minister, he shrugged and smiled. I forgot my bag, and had to go back. The security detail that was assigned to the former prime minister was a young soldier holding what one of our group told me was an AR 15 (I may have the number wrong—forgive me, gun aficionados), with a banana clip, so-called because it curves like a banana, instead of being at a right angle like the clips on M-15s. He told me that this was the weapon of choice of the IRA: chalked up in Belfast was the slogan: 'God made the Catholics, and Armorlites made them equal.'
"Two hours later, we met with a representative of Hezbollah. He was a middle-aged man, dressed in a dark suit and a blue shirt. He had grown up in a refugee camp. He answered our questions, sort of. The conversation was sustained, the way fog is sustained, and though he was an earnest, committed person, what he said about Hezbollah being a movement that cut across sectarian lines wasn't exactly convincing. I can boil it down to this: at one point when someone talked about Israel's right to exist, he repeated a proverb: 'He hit me and then he cried.' Thus the Israelis.
"And while we were talking, another bomb went off about a 10-minute walk from our hotel. I took a cab with one of our group to the blast site next morning: it was a toney street, and there were windows blown out, depending on where the shock waves hit: funny thing about shockwaves, you can plot then by where the shattered glass is. There was lots of plate glass being swept up into a dumpster, neat little piles of it gathered by sanitation workers all dressed in the red and green of the Lebanese flag. The whole first floor of a beauty spa had its windows blown out—everything in the store was untouched, only there wasn't any glass between the street and shop. The 10 story apartments had their windows blown out all up and down the block, and there was a charred chassis of another car next to some other cars that had been destroyed in the blast. On a billboard, there was the ad slogan: 'Remember what happens when you don't advertise—NOTHING.' The Emporio Armani on the ground floor suffered more than the beauty spa: it was scorched. And up the street, there were stores with their merchandise completely intact—except for the piles of plate glass that were being swept up into neat piles on the sidewalk. The emulsion in the glass had melted so some of the glass looked hazy. And the insulation panels behind the glass that wasn't transparent was scorched. The scene in the street was 'No big deal.' Some soldiers, the street blocked off by caution tape, but nothing major. It was more hazardous to cross the street than to worry about being killed by a bomb. One portly, older man came up to us, shrugged, smiled, and said, 'Do you know Attila? Do you know Genghis Khan?' And then, 'The new barbarians. They don't want we Lebanese to have peace.' On the way back to the hotel, I picked up a perfectly rectangular piece of plate glass blown out of a camera store. It was perhaps a stupid thing to do, stagey in a private way, but it fit in my hand, and took some of the strangeness out of the air. It was a cool morning, the overcast starting to burn off. The jacaranda was in bloom, and we stopped by a newstand to get a paper. On the front page was a picture of rolling clouds of smoke from the camp in Tripoli. On the back page, my horoscope read: 'The day focuses you attention on financial matters. This is a good time to plan an investment strategy or to begin a savings program. Decisions involving your social and romantic interests are right on target.'"
Beirut, Tuesday, May 22 2007
Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...