May 12, 2005

A Beirut Diary

The LA Weekly is still holding onto the story I wrote for them about my trip to Libya a few months ago. They say they will publish it soon. In the meantime, I wrote a piece about Lebanon for them and they rushed it into print. This one, unlike my Libya piece, is timely.

So here it is, my first (published) LA Weekly story. A Beirut Diary: Inside the Forest of the Cedar Revolution.

Here’s a preview.
Beirut, Lebanon — Just as the last Syrian troops were ending their 30-year occupation, I traveled with three young leaders of the Cedar Revolution on their campaign up the coast to the ancient Christian stronghold of Mount Lebanon.

As we got to the gates of the Lebanese American University, in the hills above Byblos, we were met with a scene that suggested democracy was, nevertheless, still not quite at hand.

We came upon not only photo murals and monuments to Christian war criminals Samir Geagea and Bashir Gemayel but a surly mob of students — all of them men — arranged before us in a phalanx. All wore the same brown shirts with a picture of Geagea on the front and a black Christian cross on the back. They loudly chanted Christian war songs, raised their right hands and aped the Nazi salute. Others, behind the phalanx, banged drums. Someone rang the church bells furiously and violently. Far from a celebration in the new Lebanon, it looked more like a political pep rally in General Franco’s Spain.

The three activists from the democracy movement I was traveling with — Ribal, Michel and Alaa — ran up to the mob of radical Christians and hugged them. I felt sick to my stomach. What on earth were so-called democracy activists doing buddying up with sectarian ethnic chauvinists? I snapped some digital pictures because I didn’t know what else to do.

Just then a bald university administrator wearing a suit and a tie got in my face. “Where are you from?” he screamed. It was the first and only time anyone yelled at me in Lebanon. “You erase those pictures,” he said. “And you erase them right now.”
Want to know what happened next? Read the rest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 12, 2005 12:15 AM


why do you refer to gemayel as a 'war criminal' and is this a widely held perception among your lebanese friends?

as far as "nazi salutes" go, it is used not just by the lebanese phalange but also by hizbollah -- i don't think it carries quite the same connotation among those groups.

Posted by: curious at May 12, 2005 04:39 AM

Wow. Good article Michael. It gives an insight into the complexities of Lebanon.

Around 1990 I bought some tires from a small garage. The owner was a middle-aged man - Lebanese as it turned out. I asked him, gently and awkwardly, about the horrible events that were dominating the news at that time. He shook his head and a look of sadness came over his face.

He said that he grew up in a small village in Lebanon where Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully. He said that as a boy he had Muslim friends. Christians and Muslims went to each other's weddings. If for some reason you didn't go to a wedding, it was an insult. It was just understood that everyone in town was one community. He said, "When I read the newspaper today, I don't even recognize the place."

Once hatred takes hold of people, it runs deep. The Lebanese have their work cut out for them. But I hope enough of them have memories of what the garage owner's Lebanon was once. It might help them recover it.

Posted by: VinoVeritas at May 12, 2005 04:58 AM

Some hatred will never go away. The Leftists so strongly against racist hate are now just as full, if not more so, of anti-Bush hate; often anti-Christian hate, and no surprise anti-Israel hate (or is it really just anti-Jew hate?).

"There are some people who do not love their fellow men, and I hate those kind of people" - Tom Lehrer

More personal contact will help, at work, at sports; especially between the men, but also with more mixed marriages. Modern religions need to accept the modern freedom of other relgions -- meaning allowing folk to believ as they choose.

I hope the best stays in the graveyard.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at May 12, 2005 05:43 AM

The beast, the best, the rest, the jest.
The festering sore of hatred. I'm just a guest.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at May 12, 2005 05:44 AM

Michael, such good reporting, such a sad situation between Muslim and Christian. Perhaps the Cedar Revolution will indeed bring forth a united and democratic Lebanon, I pray that it does. If, however, sectarian warfare does break out, it will be becuase comments like Claude's: "The Muslims are everywhere. I can smell them." I suspect that there are Muslims who feel the same way as Claude.

Perhaps their last best hope is the symbol of the Crescent and Cross joined in a SINGLE emblem.

God speed Lebanon, God speed!

Posted by: GMRoper at May 12, 2005 06:31 AM

I enjoyed reading your article, MJT. One suggestion: I would not have written "I had a blast" when writing about such an "explosive" part of the world. Ya know?

Posted by: chris in st. lou' at May 12, 2005 07:11 AM

Michael, you've fallen into the Bailin trap if you think democratic elections in the middle east means those people will let go of their tribal/ethnic/religious identities. Not in our lifetimes. It's how they've survived all these millenia against all the other ethnic gangs. Ideology-free secular Liberals like Bailin wouldn't have lasted 6 months in that boiling pot, let alone millenia.

Also, the "nazi" salute means nothing. Believe it or not, it originally came from the USA's military salute and from the original pledge of allegiance to the flag-- not from the Nazis nor ancient Rome. True fact.

Posted by: spaniard at May 12, 2005 07:21 AM

Great column, Michael, one of the best I've ever read by anyone ever. You delivered the essence of this pivotal moment in Lebanese history: whether these ethnic groups will move toward tolerance and democracy and a better future for all, or devolve back into violent confrontation

Posted by: TallDave at May 12, 2005 07:48 AM

You’re right about the dizzying confusion that this wide variety of ethnic/political/tribal groups can induce – and all of this in a nation that has fewer people than New York City.

Of course, during election time the mere mention of the name "Zell Miller" could get you in trouble, even in the most conservative areas of Brooklyn. And now, don’t even mention the proposed new downtown stadium (my grandmother went off on a rant about that on Mother’s Day).

Lebanon sounds like a home away from home, with more guns and fewer foreign languages.

Posted by: mary at May 12, 2005 07:57 AM

Michael -- Another great piece of writing with such informed and complex insights. Enjoyed it.

Posted by: CP at May 12, 2005 08:02 AM

Good reading. But I'm also curious about the point curious brings up. Gemayel a 'war criminal'? Because of his connections to Israel?

Posted by: mika. at May 12, 2005 09:47 AM

Michael, do you retain the copyright on your articles?

Posted by: Solomon2 at May 12, 2005 10:03 AM

I don't remember the three words "read the rest" making as much a difference as they did in this case. Ha!

Posted by: Paul Brinkley at May 12, 2005 11:25 AM

Solomon2: Michael, do you retain the copyright on your articles?


Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 12, 2005 11:31 AM

Wow Michael - I don't know whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Lebanon after reading that. But guessing how much you personally probably want to feel optimistic, I have to say I appreciate the 'objective observer' stance you took in that account - including 'objective observer confusion' about what is really going on. No doubt, many Lebanese are somewhat confused and uncertain themselves about the future and that is what you appear to have captured in your piece. Serious congratulations on getting a piece in LA Weekly! I look forward to more. (you probably knew that anyway :-)

Posted by: Caroline at May 12, 2005 02:43 PM

Good article.

Posted by: Joe Comer at May 12, 2005 03:47 PM

You do a fantastic job of characterizing the wackiness of this place.
This is a country where war crimes aren't really viewed as being all that bad because, "Hey, everybody did it."
It is mainly people from outside of Lebanon that like to blame the Christians for killing Palestinians. We remember that the Muslim Amal militia killed more Palestinians and wrecked more devastation on Palestinian houses than any Christian leader.
You sure did meet some odd-balls. Claude shows just what can happen to a person when he does not experience the other side of the world.
However, a lot of Christians have changed since the Hariri bombing. Many Christians worried that Muslims would not accept them (kind of weird given the stereotypes).
Now, people are actually coming together in true unity. The unity amongst the politicians might be fake, but the young are definitely united in ways that go beyond superficial political alliances.
We're becoming friends.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 12, 2005 04:16 PM

After a few experiences with "middle easterners," I have a difficult time being nice in that area. That said, as a Christian, I cannot accept islam as a true religion. Anyone who wants to live (and die) in it is welcome to do so, but I absolutely MUST hold to my Biblical faith. Of course that does not mean I can't "love my enemy" but he is still my enemy, and if he wants to kill all Americans, or kill Christians as the Koran tells him to, then we meet on the battlefield. As a military retiree, and a well-trained one, I have a strong faith as to who will win that contest.

Posted by: Joe Comer at May 12, 2005 07:19 PM

Michael, check out my latest post at my website, Maybe that will help.

Posted by: Joe Comer at May 12, 2005 07:45 PM

I read the whole story, and it is a good one. That's all I have to say about THAT.

Posted by: noname at May 12, 2005 08:00 PM

It was a good article, but I prefer the photoblogging.

Lebanon.profile, are you kidding me, "tubby". Shakira is smokin' hot. If Hayek started moving her hips like Shakira I think my brain would shut down.

Posted by: Mike the III at May 12, 2005 09:02 PM

A friend of mine in Israel just sent me this note "this is our life", which I bet would apply to Lebanon as well. Looking out the window of his office in Tel Aviv both sidewalks are being dug up and repaired. On each side of the road is a sign in English and Hebrew saying "Under construction. Pedestrians please use opposite side."

Posted by: Vanya at May 13, 2005 09:07 AM

There's been some questions about whether Bashir Gemayel was in fact a war criminal or not. The first reference I remember reading about Gemayel was in William Dalrymple's excellent 1997 book "From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East." Chapter IV is largely about Lebanon. Interestingly, Dalrymple goes around interviewing participants from various sides of the civil war, including Walid Jumblatt and Robert Franjieh; I don't think he got to interview Phalangist leaders, although he did talk to some Phalange sympathizers.

I'd be interested to hear what Michael's impressions were. However, if Dalrymple's interviews are any indication, the Phalangists are held responsible by all but their strongest supporters for setting off the Lebanese civil war. While Bashir Gemayel was dead (assassinated) prior to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, by most accounts his Phalangists were responsible for that atrocity, among others.

Posted by: tagryn at May 13, 2005 06:12 PM

Man! You are SOME writer. Terrific article. Thank you.

Posted by: Maggie at May 13, 2005 09:47 PM

Dalrymple's book is very flawed. He does interview many intelligent luminaries, but they all have the same Arabist approach to Lebanon: the Christians and Druze need to sede control to the Muslims.
Dalrymple does what most Westerners do: he paints the Middle East as a Muslim wilderness populated here and there by Christians. However, this is not the way we see ourselves here. The only place in the Middle East that is not constantly conscious of the non-Muslim presence is the Gulf.
Regarding the Phalange, one makes a grave mistake in blaming them for the war. Most Lebanese blame the Palestinians for beginning the war, which is also not entirely true (but closer to the truth than blaming the Phalange).
One can blame Chamoun and the Phalange for the 1958, but not 1975. The Phalange had nothing to do with the Lebanese Army being called away from protecting south Lebanon giving control of it to the Palestinians. The Phalange had nothing to do with allowing the Palestinians to wage a war from south Lebanon. The Phalange had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or pan-Arabism. The Phalange had nothing to do with the creation of Israel.

Posted by: lebanon.profile at May 14, 2005 12:20 PM

Most Lebanese blame the Palestinians for beginning the war, which is also not entirely true (but closer to the truth than blaming the Phalange).

The palestinians are entirely responsible for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. ENTIRELY.

Posted by: spaniard at May 14, 2005 01:37 PM

As a Lebanese living in America, I'm always fascinated by American prespectives of the old homeland (especially first hand ones).
I understand that your experience with Claude and the village idiots are sadly real, but I hope that you can also convey the real sense of hope among the young Lebanese.

I compare the Lebanese people today to a sick man, who knows he's sick, truly and honestly wants to get better, but can't get rid of those pesky symptoms of his disease that's ravaged him for so long. There's two focal points in looking at this man: his disease or his hope and struggle to get better. I've seen the disease, lived it, studied it and agonized over it for too long. I'd really like to see more on the hope and the cure process.

Posted by: ZM at May 15, 2005 10:59 AM

ZM, I have wanted to ask an Arab-American about this for a long time. Alot of the Arab-American population lives in and around Detroit, but Detroit and the area is really cold. When people decided to immigrate to the US why did they pick a cold town instead of a hot one.

Posted by: stupid guy at May 15, 2005 10:39 PM

born in lebanon, but not of lebanese descent. lived in hamra and in the bekaa valley after a palestinian family took residence in our apartment. now in the u.s. and been back three or four times.

if the syrians, palestinians and israelis were involved along with all the different factions within the country, how then is it still called a civil war?

your article was amazing. thank you.

Posted by: houri at May 17, 2005 06:15 AM

Hi s.g,

I've actually never been to Detroit, but as I understand it many early Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to the US (who were mostly Christians) immigrated to Detroit in the early 20th century because of the plentiful jobs at Ford, GM, etc... (same goes for other immigrant groups to Detroit).

The more recent Arab-American immigrants to Detroit are drawn to both jobs and the established Arabic communities in places like Dearborn.

Los Angeles and New York also have sizeable Arab-American populations - again, mainly because of the job availabilities.

Having said this, Arab-Americans, especially the early immigrants, tend to integrate quickly in mainstream America within a generation and have seldom stuck to the "Arab" part of their identies once they've become Americans. Also, inter-marriages to other ethnic groups is very common.

Posted by: ZM at May 17, 2005 08:18 AM


That's the beauty of the American melting pot, and why multiculturalism should be opposed.

Posted by: TallDave at May 17, 2005 08:26 AM
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