Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Single Story (Lebanon)

If you asked me to articulate the driving principle behind this project, or indeed any of my work, I’d direct you to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story. If you have 15 spare minutes, check it out; if you don’t, then to rather clumsily sum up her point: the last thing I want to do as a storyteller is oversimplify reality and reinforce stereotypes.

Adichie says something smart about stereotypes: the problem is not that they’re false; the problem is that they’re incomplete. I find myself struggling with how to begin this next entry, because I’ve been grappling with a sensitive subject over the past few days, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to be able to communicate my experiences—or even my thoughts—in a way that’s not dangerously incomplete.

The difficulty lies in providing context. There is no such thing as a fact that exists in isolation, devoid of context, but context is much more difficult to convey than a provocative and dramatic one-off event. My last three days have been punctuated by a couple of jarring events, but utterly steeped in the context that allows me to understand them. After spending so much time dissecting the impossibility of documenting whole truths, it’s funny to now find myself in a situation where I desperately wish I could.

A dear friend, let’s call him “Karim,” invites me to come and visit his home in the South. At first I’m under the impression that the primary purpose is business; I realize as the visit unfolds that Karim hasn’t brought me here to meet with anyone. He’s brought me here because there are things that he needs to share with me; things he needs me to see.

The South is beautiful. Winding dirt roads and craggy rocks are hemmed in by 360˚ of green mountains. I spend the night at Karim’s sister-in-law’s, who takes me in without hesitation despite the fact that we show up unannounced. I discover how much I’ve taken English and French for granted in Beirut, when I realize that here I can’t communicate even the most basic things—like how long I’ve been in Lebanon and whether or not I’m hungry—in Arabic. We resort to gestural interactions: I play with the kittens while Karim’s niece and her friend impishly sneak me hits of ‘waterpipe’ (shisha is apparently an Egyptian term), Karim occasionally looking up from the laptop to tut disapprovingly.

In the morning we have a few turkish coffees with my hostess and then hit the road. Our first stop is Mleeta, Hizbullah’s ‘Tourist Landmark of the Resistance.’ There is something absurdly cartoon-like about the whole layout, like a war-themed Disney Land, and I spend the morning wondering which tourists the architects had in mind when they conceived this place. Tourists from Beirut? Tourists from other parts of the Arab world? Not American tourists, surely…although I do get a giggle imagining buying my family some souvenir mugs emblazoned with Hassan Nasrallah’s emblematic cheery face.

In the first ten minutes or so of arriving, we are herded into a large cinema to watch an introductory video about the museum. Jarring event number one: the video. A bit of which someone has kindly posted on YouTube to save me the pages it would take to describe it. The reel was played a second time with English subtitles, but my first time through it was only Arabic, so if you don’t read Arabic and you just clicked on the link, then I had the exact same experience you just had, only in 120-decibel Dolby digital surround sound.

Now I’ve been back and forth with myself on whether or not to put this up here. The Roman Salute in particular made me take about a zillion steps backwards, and this is me we’re talking about—someone who loves Mark Thomas and reads Ilan Pappé. That said, I was prepared for hatred; hatred I’ve seen in a lot of forms. What was new and therefore a bigger shock to my system was the unabashed link between sacred spirituality and violent battle. When the battleground was described as the “link between earth and heaven,” a fuse got blown in my little American brain.

After some thought, I realized why. “Holy war” is not something you believe exists in reality when you are a politically progressive citizen of a country that is a militarily aggressive power. We're pretty convinced that our wars are being fought over oil or money or neo-colonialism or something else vague that really isn’t worth killing and dying for. So “Holy war” is a concept that exists only in the fantasies of left-leaning citizens of Western nations...but it does exist. The human instinct for holy war remains heavily imbedded in us—some distant cultural memory from a simpler more idealistic time perhaps—and we grow up understanding what the dynamics of such a war would be. An inhumane invader arrives. He commits atrocities on innocents. He wants to take something that is yours. He poses an immediate threat to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of everyone you love. It is a 2-dimensional situation: the enemy is attacking, and you are defending. Braveheart fights a holy war. Rob Roy fights a holy war. The Spartans in 300 fight a holy war. And because these are clear-cut uncomplicated fictions, we allow ourselves to get sucked into the marriage of violence and all that is holy. Carmina Burana bellows in the background as steel comes crashing down upon steel, and we feel morally safe believing in it, because we know it’s a simple fantasy, and we know that Russel Crowe isn’t a pawn of some medieval military-industrial complex. He’s just right. And the other guy is just evil.

Seeing this kind of over-simplistic Hollywood cinematography applied to the real world is something that makes us chuckle and cringe for fairly obvious reasons. And I think that if this Mleeta video were as baseless as, say, our invasion of Iraq in search of WMDs, then my reaction would be to not post it, not process it, not even really give it much space in my thoughts—I’d label it, store it, and move on. The problem is, having studied up on the history of this region, and having spent time with the people who have lived it, I have to admit to myself that the situation here—while still obviously complex—comes much closer to resembling those Hollywood war movies than any of our meddling American wars do. Especially from the perspective of these communities living in the South.

Let me put it another way: Karim is intelligent, educated, and well-traveled. His business partner, “Zeina,” equally so. Both Karim and Zeina brought me to this place, to this video, because they have nothing to hide—they wanted me to see it. And they wanted me to see the context that created it. It is hugely tragic, Karim tells me, that children in Lebanon are brought here to learn about rockets and mortar instead of Mickey Mouse and Alice in Wonderland. But “when you have a bear on your back,” Karim explains, “you puff up your chest. You make yourself big.” Again and again Karim tells me that this place is “pure propaganda.” This leads to a misunderstanding that we later have to meet about to discuss and clarify. See, to me, “propaganda” is a dirty word. But Karim and Zeina have experienced things in their lifetimes that I have not; they have an urgent desire to protect future generations from going through what they went through, and to them, another invasion and occupation is a very real threat. A threat that very well might call for posturing and bravado and Hollywood montages to dramatic swells of choral music which celebrate the last generation of soldiers, while instilling hope and strength in the next one.

The two points that Karim keeps circling back to are the tragedy of this place, but also, its necessity. I am not in any position to guess about whether or not Lebanon is under a real threat of foreign invasion currently, but being the buffer between Iran and Israel in today’s political climate would certainly make me uneasy. And I suppose that regardless of what can be said of Hizbullah’s existence today, its origin as a resistance movement rooted in self-defense is indisputable; in the period of battle that this museum was built to commemorate (1982 - 2000) all fighting was on Lebanese soil. From the year I was born to the year that I graduated high school, Israeli troops occupied South Lebanon. “Occupation” means different things to different people. To Zeina it meant that as a child, her 10-year-old friend was murdered at a ‘routine’ checkpoint. To Karim it meant exile. I find myself wondering if I would believe in violent resistance enough to psychologically prepare my children for it if I had spent the first 18 years of my life living under a violent and unstable occupation. We pass an installation—a foxhole kitted out with weapons, the Koran, and speakers piping the sing-song prayers of former Hizbullah leader Abbas Al-Moussawi. I ask Karim what he thinks of the “holy” aspect of all of this and he shrugs. “Religion is something you use to charge people up when you have nothing else on your side. These guys are fighting huge tanks and the latest US-made artillery with Kalishnokovs. They need religion to give them that extra boost, because logic will tell them that they are on the losing side, that they will lose. They need something bigger than logic. They need faith.”

On our drive away from Mleeta we stop at Karim’s favorite fig tree and fill a massive paper bag with armfuls of the succulent fruit. I’ve been going back-and-forth with both Karim and Zeina about the problematic presentation of Hizbullah’s message, trying to explain to them that “holy war” to us is strange and scary, and intentionally propagandizing our own youth even more so, and that I don’t think any of my friends back home would be inclined to open their hearts to their cause if everything they knew of Hizbullah was gleaned from this museum. I find myself about to say something about an appeal to justice being the key to winning Western hearts and minds, and my words catch in my throat. I realize the cultural chauvinism underlying my assumption that trying to win the support of Western citizens would be in any way strategic or even useful. What are we going to do to protect their families? Start a facebook group?

Stop number two is the Khiam detention center museum, a shell of a building, mostly rubble since Israeli bombers razed it in 2006. A dusty missile casing from that operation lies scattered in pieces, on one of them is scrawled: “Made in the USA.” Khiam is a tiny village, and coming to this “museum” feels more like stopping in on an unknown landmark than visiting an official tourist site. We are the only visitors today. Here there is none of the slick Hollywood packaging of the first museum, nor is there any need for it. A large, droopy-eyed middle-aged man sees us approach and comes ambling over to us. Karim mutters under his breath, “Wow, he’s still here.”

The man, Abu Ali, has been giving tours at Khiam since his release from the prison in 2000. His descriptions have the air of a therapeutic exorcism; there is an intense matter-of-factness with which he carries out his demonstrations, slamming the cell doors and knocking on steel containment boxes with the same focus with which he bends his stiff old body into the various stress positions to illustrate the ways that he was tortured in his 4 years there. He shuts us into the 3’x3’ solitary confinement cell that he spent 5 months in, and bangs on the heavy steel the door from the outside, explaining that a guard would do this every hour or so to prevent him from sleeping. The sound is deafening. He shows us the airhole and explains that in the winter months water would drip down it so that you were standing or sitting in a 6” pool. Karim is translating all of this for me as Abu Ali continues in his quiet, straightforward tone, without a hint of self-pity or anger. Emotions don’t enter the tone, this is beyond all that. By hearing Abu Ali’s story, I am participating in some sort of daily ritualistic healing practice. We pass a rose bush, and our guide takes the time to carefully clip four of them, handing one to each of us with a smile before taking us to see the cells in Block A.

You’ve all read plenty about torture so I don’t need to do the shock-factor thing and detail everything Abu Ali lived and said. In any case, what was most moving was not the horrible tortures that he described, but rather the understated way in which he offered them up to us. The prison complex could have been entirely obliterated by the bombing and it wouldn’t have mattered—because Abu Ali is the Khiam detention centre museum. A tired, disconnected, bear of a man coming back each day to tell his story again. To place the bag over his own head, to point to the spots on his body where he was electrocuted, to crouch awkwardly down to show how and where his hands were tied to what. At one point he says this: “Far worse than the physical torture was the psychological torture. They tie you up and then bring your sister or your wife and they strip her naked and do things to her and make you watch.” He says one last thing in Arabic and then walks away, shaking his arm as if to be rid of the thought. I look to Karim who translates: “Mountains would not stand up to this.”

Jarring event number two: I realize that if someone did that to my mother, I would kill them. Then I realize what I just thought and amend it to “probably kill them.” Then I really mull it over and think, “actually probably not, but I can totally understand how someone would.” Then I consider the fact that my mom wouldn’t want me to kill for her, probably, but by then the whole thought process is too far removed from the initial emotional impulse to be anything other than cerebral white noise. The initial impulse lasted for maybe half a second. For half a second, I was a killer. Perhaps more importantly, for that half a second, the killing of this hypothetical torturer was tied to protecting what was sacred and holy and loved. If I had to choose a soundtrack to accompany the act, you can bet there’d be drums and a choir of sopranos.

But this thought seems small-minded, almost, in the face of what Abu Ali is doing here. This place feels so much more real than Mleeta because…because Khiam is lonely and hugely tragic. There is nothing cool about Khiam. There is definitely nothing cool about Abu Ali. He’s not hot shit. He’s not showing the bastards what-for. He’s just a very damaged man who is healing, slowly slowly, knowing full well that he’ll never heal completely. And I realize, after hours of debate and clarifying conversations, that the same tragedy is self-evident for Karim at Mleeta as well. Because he understands its cause, its effect, and its deep and unchangeable meaning about what South Lebanon is today as a direct result of its violent and imposed past. “For there to be mosquitoes, there has to be a swamp.”

There are a couple of prison guards’ uniforms in the room that houses the model of what Khiam Prison looked like before 2006. Abu Ali points to them and smiles for the second time today. “We use them as rags. To clean.” he says. The smile is shy, and this symbol feels more like a move towards peace and healing than this morning’s military display of bravado. On the other hand, if it weren’t for Hizbullah’s military strength, Abu Ali might still be in Khiam prison today.

Explaining Hizbullah’s place in Lebanese society is not something anyone can do in a paragraph. The one thing that’s fairly unanimous is a respect for their defense of the South and success in expelling the occupying forces in 2000.

I’m still sure I believe in peace above all else, but I also know that if I was living in South Lebanon, I’d probably sleep sounder at night knowing that Hizbullah existed. I’m realizing that a lot of my peaceful principles rely quite heavily on an assumption of the fundamental goodness of other human beings, and human institutions by extension. Being a pacifist is a privilege afforded to me by the safe conditions under which I have consistently lived. I don’t think that my rules are bad, I just don’t know that they’re universally applicable. I doubt they’d stand up under the weight of Abu Ali’s life.

Last stop is Fatima’s gate, along the Lebanese-Israeli border. For those of you who are faithful Return-Blog followers, an earlier question is answered: there is totally a long row of child-sized purple-and-yellow gym equipment dotting the Lebanese side of the fence. Karim can’t read the plaques on the machines because they’re in Farci, meaning that the design and construction of this stretch of recreational devices must have originated in Iran. Somehow, in the context of all of the rest of it, this provocative display is more sad than angering. I don’t think anyone would allow their own children to be used to wage psychological or physical war if they believed that an alternative was viable.

There are so many more things to say or debate or highlight or concede, but this entry is way (way) too long as it is. Having sent this text to a dozen friends, absorbed pages of insightful response, had hours of discussions, been challenged as possibly “biased” and “Western” and “pro-Hezbolla” and “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Israel” and received a slew of other contradicting critiques, all I can do is stop at some point and offer up this one imperfect but carefully considered story, and trust you all to keep seeking out more.

photo of Abu Ali ©2008 Alice Fordham, Now Lebanon