Lebanon: beauty, resistance and shame
By Gilad Atzmon
Lebanon is incredible – an intoxicating blend of natural beauty, rebellious spirit, pious clarity, tolerance, wild night life and unbelievable hummus.
I landed in Beirut several days ago. The purpose of my visit wasn’t all that clear. I knew that a talk and a musical performance were scheduled by Al-Mayadeen TV, but I never expected such a spiritually transforming experience.
It was my second visit to the country. Thirty years ago I crossed the Lebanese border along with an Israeli army convoy, escorted by tanks and other armoured vehicles. Then I was an occupier; this time I came with only my saxophone and a desire to share my thoughts and deliver some beauty.
But it didn’t take me a couple of hours to realize that Lebanon is much more than just hummus, shisha, the sea and some captivating rural scenery.
Symbol of resistance
Early on 4 January we left Beirut for the south. Our first stop was Mleeta – a Hezbollah frontline outpost and a symbol of Lebanese defiance. Mleeta is located on top of a mountain, surrounded by the South Lebanese Massif, which until 2000 was controlled by the Israelis. From Mleeta, the Lebanese fighters launched daily attacks against the Israeli invader and gave the Israelis a true taste of their own medicine. Now Mleeta is a tourist resort, there to tell the story of Hezbollah whose paramilitaries confounded the “best army in the world”. The truth is, though armed only with light weapons, they were well supplied with faith and spiritual ammunition.
The Jewish state was taught a lesson it would never forget: its phantasmic expansionist dream had come to an end.
Mleeta provides an overview of three decades of resistance in Lebanon and, by exhibiting all that the fleeing Israeli soldiers left behind, it proudly demonstrates the reality of Israeli cowardice. Mleeta is a symbol of confidence – confidence that the Israeli army has gone, never to return. This is because when in the summer of 2006 Hezbollah routed the Israeli army, it also demolished their confidence forever. The Jewish state was taught a lesson it would never forget: its phantasmic expansionist dream had come to an end…
Monument to Israeli brutality
As with Mleeta, Khiam the notorious detention centre, is also a monument to Israeli brutality. Khiam is where Israel detained and tortured its political opponents, in some cases for as long as 14 years.
My visit there reminded me of a devastating memory, which on occasion I share with my audience. It concerns Ansar, an Israeli concentration camp located in south Lebanon. It was back in 1984, on a piece of flat land in the middle of the camp, that I noticed a dozen concrete boxes with small metal doors. They looked like dog kennels, being only about 80 centimetres high, 100cm long and probably about 80cm wide. When I pointed out to the commanding officer that these concrete construction weren’t suitable for dogs, he told me not to worry: no one would even think of putting dogs in them. “Put a Palestinian in one of those for 24 hours,” he laughed, “And he’ll come out singing the Hatikvah [Israeli anthem].” They were solitary confinement units for Palestinian prisoners. That was it. Then and there, I realized that Israel was not my country.
In Khiam this week I saw the exact same Israeli torture facility where the Israelis would shove their political opponents into tiny metal boxes, lock them in for days and then occasionally hit the top with a heavy stone. This time I took a picture.
But someone in Israel must have felt some shame at what Israel was leaving behind in Lebanon. In 2006 the Israeli army attempted to erase all traces of the detention centre at Khiam. In a desperate attempt to hide Israeli brutality, Israel sent in its engineering squads to blow up the cells and all remaining evidence of torture. But that clumsy effort to conceal the true reality of Israeli inhumanity achieved only the complete opposite. It now only affirms that Israel has, indeed, a lot to conceal.
The Jewish shtetl
The journey to occupied Palestine’s border is over the most beautiful, wild and rural terrain. But then, suddenly, we were there, faced with the Jewish ghetto walls, guarded by cameras, army posts and barbed wire. Israel clearly doesn’t even try to convince its neighbours that it belongs in the region. It looks different, it smells different, it sounds different – it is in fact, just one extended European Jewish shtetl that has matured into a neurotic, psychotic and murderous collective fuelled by pre-traumatic stress. In that regard, the Israelis indeed have a great deal to keep under wraps.
…suddenly, we were there, faced with the Jewish ghetto walls, guarded by cameras, army posts and barbed wire. Israel clearly doesn’t even try to convince its neighbours that it belongs in the region.
Inspired by Jean-François Lyotard’s “Heidegger and the Jews” and my visit to the south, I decided, in my talk in Beirut, to speak about history as a form of concealment. Instead of telling us “what really happened”, I argued that history is there to hide our shame, to repress that which we cannot even utter. It is, in effect, there to make us forget. Jewish history, for instance, is there to suppress Jewish shame, to disguise that which Jews prefer to hide from themselves. Jewish history is an attempt to talk about the past while avoiding the horrendous and embarrassing fact that Jews, throughout their history, have been bringing on themselves one shoa [holocaust] after the other.
But concealment wasn’t invented by the Jews. The British also find it hard to cope with their past chain of murderous imperial genocides. This may explain why they entrusted the writing of Churchill’s biography to a Jewish Zionist, Sir Martin Gilbert, and why their historians have dedicated a whole floor of the Imperial War Museum to the Nazi Holocaust, as if Britons do not have enough shoas and suffering inflicted on others to remember. One of those British-inflicted shoas is obviously the Palestinian Nakba [catastrophe – reference to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948]. Britain should own up to this disaster and perhaps find a little room for it also in its imperial museums. And like Britain, the Israelis have yet to acknowledge their own role in the original sin of 1948.
Hell on earth
Looking at the state of the refugee camps in Lebanon, it became very clear to me that the Lebanese also might engage in some soul searching. For 65 years Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon and in other Arab countries in unbearable conditions and have suffered terrible discrimination. Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are nothing short of hell on earth. Palestinians cannot be naturalized. They are banned from certain professions and jobs such as medicine and law. In some ways, their situation is worse even than their brothers’ in Gaza or the West Bank, because for them there is not even any prospect of hope or change.
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are nothing short of hell on earth. Palestinians cannot be naturalized. They are banned from certain professions and jobs such as medicine and law.
Those endless solidarity discussions about one state, two states or the boycott have zero significance or impact on their lives or their livelihoods. These displaced and dispossessed people need immediate change in their political status but, being excluded from the political process, they lack the wherewithal to bring about such change. Not able to travel, their voice is hardly heard within the Western solidarity discourse, and the international Palestinian solidarity movement is hardly engaged or even concerned with their tragedy. Even that most absolute of rights, the right to return to their land has been compromised by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and other Palestinian leaders.
On my last day in Beirut I visited Sabra and Satilla. I saw the mass graveyards, I saw the poverty, I saw the piles of rubbish in the streets, the outcome of the complete absence of even the most elementary municipal services. I have been travelling around the world for many years but this is, without doubt, one of the saddest sights I have seen. But in those camps I also saw some of the kindest people on this planet, people who against all odds, in spite of being crushed, humiliated and tortured for more than six decades, still look forward, still live their lives. They raise their kids and care about their education. They greet you in the warmest possible manner and, no sooner have you approached their shop, they invite you for coffee.