When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, artist Zena el Khalil was on the ground. She coped with her terror by writing an email about what was going on, and sending it to everyone in her contacts. This gave birth to her blog, Beirut Update, which she saw as a “war diary”. When the invasion ended, el Khalil stopped blogging. But last week, as events unfolded in the Middle East and the crisis approached Lebanon, el Khalil opened her computer and began again. Here is a passionate and personal reflection on life in and around war, past, present and future.
A few nights ago, England and Italy went to war over a ball. A few hours later, ISIS went to war for oil, bread and God. Right now, the Middle East — my part of the world — is dramatically changing by the second. The games are great opium for the major crisis around us. By the time the winning team holds up the precious golden cup, I wonder what our world will look like.
If serious research were done, it is more than highly probable that Lebanon would be named number 1 in terms of World Cup supporters. There isn’t a single balcony that is not waving a flag right now. And after wins by big teams like Germany or Brazil, it is not uncommon for a parade of cars to whizz through the city, with cheering passengers precariously hanging out of windows, waving giant flags. No one ever claimed that Lebanese don’t like a good party. A true, but funny story — though most Lebanese support the Italian team, we also get a little nervous when they win the cup. They won in 1982 and 2006, among other years. And in 1982 and 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon. Coincidence? Perhaps.
But in real news, Obama is sending troops and drones into Iraq. Iran has vowed to protect the Shiites there, and has also rejected US involvement. Streams of Sunni militants are flooding the border from Syria into western Iraq. The Mehdi army is on the rise. From Lebanon, Hezbollah is sending more men into Syria and Iraq, leaving the Lebanese/Israeli border very vulnerable. And in what may seem like the craziest move of all, Israel has been elected as vice-chair of the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee — which deals, among other things, with matters related to Palestinian refugees. Yes, you heard me. Occupiers will now have carte blanche over who gets to live in Palestine. All this after three weeks of raids in which so many Palestinian lives have been lost in what seems to be a morbid collective punishment. People who murdered, tortured and displaced locals are going to get to lay the law on what is Palestinian land.
In Lebanon, we have a saying for a big blow like this. “Kaff’ayn.” It means, basically, a double slap in the face. Bam, baaaaam!! With all the news, I keep asking myself when this is all going to end. When will we finally be able to lay down our guns?
I know from firsthand experience that once you experience war, you continue to expect war. It is a vicious and never-ending cycle. In the early 2000s, I had just graduated from an art school in New York City. I had come to do my MFA, and while I was there experienced — rather, saw with my own eyes — the first tower fall. Then in 2003, when the USA invaded Iraq, I was in my shared studio in Brooklyn. I borrowed a TV and watched them drop bombs on Baghdad, alone in the studio, far from my family and friends back in the Middle East. It was the first time such an attack was televised. I stayed up all night painting a portrait of Leila Khalid, the Palestinian freedom fighter. I kept thinking that Iraq was going to become another Palestine — occupied and hopelessly in a state of never-ending war. I thought about the women and children who were going to die for no reason. Since that night, I have only been creating art that is reactionary to war, gender, religion and their place in our bubblegum culture. I see my work as a by-product of political and economic turmoil.
It’s funny, before I moved to the States, I never thought of myself as “Arab” or “woman,” but 9-11 put me into that box very quickly. I embraced my peaceful political opinions and began to vocalize them. I preached a simple equation: no guns, no wars. I went down to DC to protest the US invasion of Iraq. I joined the world of activism and of course, subsequently, had my phone tapped and undercover police agents come knocking at my door. For several reasons, I decided then that it was a good time to move back to Beirut.
It is now a little over 10 years later, and we find that the battle still rages on. Actually, it has exploded in ways I never thought possible. It seems as if the entire world is at war — weapons are being sold in numbers so many it’s impossible to count. In all corners of the globe people are arming themselves. Borders are being redrawn with disregard to those who actually live on the land, and hundreds of thousands of lives are going to waste, waste, waste.
Apart from the countless deaths, the trauma induced by war is enough to cripple someone for a lifetime. Imagine what it feels like to lose your older brother. Imagine what it feels like to lose your father to a war that’s not even really yours. It was imposed on you by greedy governments. Imagine what it feels like to lose your best friend, the only person you ever truly felt comfortable confiding in — the person you thought would grow old with you, organize play dates for the kids you’d planned to have at the same time, and hold you through life’s unexpected ordeals.
We are all losing, on all sides.
When you think about what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, to name just a few, it seems larger than life and completely unfixable. How is it that we just let all that happen? Just — let it happen.
I used to visit Syria all the time, when I was in my early 20s. I used to drive up to buy art supplies and glittery fabrics at the Hamadiye market a few times a year. My boyfriend was Syrian, and on romantic nights infused by wine and poetry, we’d grab the midnight bus from Beirut to Aleppo and spend the weekends exploring the old souks and Roman ruins in Palmyra, in the middle of the desert. It’s hard to believe that that’s all gone now. The soft sand we once made love in is now stained with the blood of militants seeking revenge and total world domination. The beautiful Syrians who were so soft and gentle have, after having lost their homes and loved ones, transformed into one of the most threatening forces of nature.
Who are ISIS anyways? In Arabic, we call them DAESH — it is the the Arabic translation of Islamic State of Iraq and Shem (the Levant); Dawlet Al Islamiyah fil Iraq wa Shem. I believe them to be of all types of colors, shapes and sizes, amongst which are the leftover of the leftover of the men who have warred and been paid to war and lost and lost and now are ronins in search of their next fix. Just think about those who fought in South Russia, in East Africa… You think these people just go away? Once you have tasted war, you become war. And war is what you will continue to search for. It becomes the only thing you know how to do.
To the world, it would seem that ISIS is a fight to create an Islamic state, but in reality, I don’t think anything is that black and white anymore. We lost our innocence on that sunny and crisp morning back in 2001. The plain truth of it all is that we are in a battle for oil — the most dead of energy resources, but the black gold that controls the world. Call it an Islamic State or the Free Empire of McDonald’s. They seem to be one and the same. It is hard to believe that entire countries — Syria and Iraq, with centuries of progressive civilizations and grand architecture — have burnt to the ground. Damascus, never conquered in history, is now a festering and putrid mass grave.
Those who have fled are now permanent refugees. Permanent because most of these people could never afford to return and rebuild their homes anyway. For many, life in a refugee camp could provide more comfort. But that level of comfort is still nothing close to being acceptable by human standards. Just look at the Palestinians in Chatilla or Burj al Barajni in Beirut — they’ve been there for over 60 years, living in the worst and most tragic of conditions. Cinder blocks rise, leaving little room for sky, and towering garbage, uncollected, gives birth to new diseases. And yet the cycle of violence continues. More lives are lost, trodden on, disregarded, disrespected, abused, humiliated, broken and permanently twisted. The potential of beautifully creative and productive lives lost for nothing — the worst kind of travesty.
We just let it happen. While we were sipping our Frappuccinos ignoring Maliki and his rise to dictatorship, ISIS was arming itself. I read in a recent article in the Guardian that by the time ISIS started their full-scale attack a few days ago, they were already more than $875 million dollars rich. Where does this kind of money come from? I’m asking you, America, Russia, Saudi and Iran.
But other than the practical and financial aspects of war, I’ve been thinking about the human factor — the men who get up in the morning, put on their battle fatigues, lock and load their guns and step into the furnace. Last night, I asked my friend, let’s call him Joe, who has served in the US Army and has been to Iraq, why men go to war. I met Joe on social media — we’ve never met face to face. I asked him whether he thought violence is something encoded within our DNA? Can we ignore it, or is it something fundamental to humans? Man is a beautiful and complex being, but from the perspective of one who creates, I wonder how is it that one can carry a gun and take lives away so easily. I was very nervous asking him. We’d only been chatting for a few weeks and I wondered if it was right to ask a total stranger to pour his heart out to you.
Joe sent me an Esquire article titled “I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War.” A year after coming home from a tour in Iraq, a soldier, Brian Mockenhaupt, returns home to find out he’d left something behind. This soldier, who seems like a pretty nice guy in general, missed being in a war zone. The more I read, the more I understood that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of war addiction. Joe told me that with men who go to war, there is a bond that can’t be explained. “It’s not that we like each other, we just know each other in ways that no one else knows us, we know our most raw most beaten most lost selves. That’s something you can only get in war or warlike situations, where incredible stress brings out the best and worst in a human being.” One can only imagine the alienation and depression soldiers feel when they come home and off the adrenalin of the battleground, only to find themselves making monthly car payments and dealing with peculiar hippies like myself.
But you know, maybe I’m no different. I was a very active blogger during the 2006 Israeli invasion on Lebanon. In many ways, I felt like everything I did then had so much more meaning compared to what I’m living now, because in my eyes, I was saving lives. I now know that that state of being was just an illusion — I was in survival mode. It works for a short time, but it is definitely not a way to live.
Let me tell you a story. One night in the early stages of the Israeli bombing, my sister’s best friend, Youssef, called her and told her his uncle was refusing to leave his home in Dahiyeh. Dahiyeh is the southern suburb of Beirut the Israelis were targeting the most because Hezbollah supporters live there. Youssef is what people in the West would call a flaming queen. This queen refused to let his uncle perish to merciless Israeli bombs and insisted we save his life. I didn’t think it was a good idea to go and, being the eldest child, felt like I needed to protect my sister, who is really the braver of us. After all, she did hitch a ride on a rickety Coca-Cola truck in the middle of Mexico, through the jungles of Chiapas just to meet Subcomandante Marcos when she was a teen.
While I was typing my nightly blog entry, she snuck out, picked up lovely Youssef and drove through the bombs to pick up his uncle in Dahiyeh. I don’t know how they made it out alive, but they did. They, unlike so many others, were spared. Uncle survived too. The car my sister drove back then was an orange Mini Cooper. Ring any bells? That orange Mini not only saved Youssef’s uncle, but in fact — being that it was a convertible and could pack quite a lot — it was used over and over again during the bombing to transport everything from medical supplies to mattresses for displaced citizens to shuffling people back and forth to check on their homes in Dahiyeh during a day of ceasefire. That was the day Spencer Platt took a photo of it and went on to win The World Press Photo Prize in 2006.
I went off on this tangent only to show how thrilling war can be. The world has plunged itself into a new darkness with a new set of aesthetics and values. War has become the new and normal way of life. You turn on the TV — war! You surf the web — war! You listen to the radio — war, war, war! But let’s hold on for a second. Let’s ask ourselves why we have allowed this to become acceptable? Why are we not listening to more stories about robots in space? Cures for cancer? Prolonging human life? Connections with extraterrestrial species? Long lost Da Vinci paintings? We are capable of all this. Why is it not happening?
I live in Beirut, and in Beirut, we live like there’s no tomorrow — because we’re constantly courting death. It sounds romantic, but it’s not. We have become so immune even to the possibility of stability that we have a very hard time planning for the future. And because we don’t plan, nothing really changes. Living in a country that is festering with terrorists has become normal. Living in a country without a president is the norm. A bomb goes off, we scramble for a few minutes to text our loved ones to make sure they’re still alive, then go back to our beautiful bubbles. The bubble is what has saved us all these years. A few days ago, a suicide bomber detonated himself in Beirut. The wonderful citizens of that neighborhood declared that they will not be fazed, that they love Lebanon and will prevent terrorists from taking over. Maybe that’s how we survived all these years. A most elegant and staunch resistance, guided by love. A most elegant and staunch lust and appreciation for life.
At present, things in Beirut are escalating. Escalating, one of those weird newsy words. Well, the point is that we’ve had suicide bombings and that’s something we’ve never experienced before. ISIS are here and targeting the Lebanese army in hopes of pulling us into this mess. They say they won’t leave until Hezbollah retracts from Syria. Like that’s ever going to happen. In the latest news, the army are conducting raids in all the hotels in Raouche, the most touristic spot in Beirut. Apparently, these hotels have been housing DAESH families for a few months now. A few days ago, one of the militants blew himself up in a final act of resistance, not wanting to be taken in by the Lebanese army — down the street from where my sister and her orange car live.
One of my best friends, Hind, was visiting Beirut last week for a massive artsy mountain wedding. She had quite an adventure looking for a hotel. “The first hotel I called which had no vacancies was actually the Duroy Hotel, in which the suicide bomber exploded himself a few days later. Then I called the Mayflower and was told that the streets were blocked because security forces were raiding the Napoleon Hotel across the street, so I booked another one up the street. It felt very strange to know that a bomb went off in the hotel I almost stayed in two nights earlier.” Yeah. That’s my Beirut right now. All hot and bothered. What amazes me the most is that the hotel staff were kind enough to defer Hind from their terrorist-filled hotel. So yes, even though we don’t have a president, we are good and resilient people opposed to war and terrorism. And we’ll always let you know if there’s a militant or two staying at your hotel. We be good people like that.
You see, the thing no one ever tells you about Beirut is about how loving we are. We love life, dammit! We love it when people visit. We love feeding them our incredible cuisine. We love taking them to visit our centuries old Roman and Phoenician ruins. We love hosting summer concerts in ancient temples — even Nina and Elton have performed here. We are the most hospitable of peoples. All are welcome in Lebanon. And I mean all. But, sadly that also come with a price to pay.
So, here’s another Lebanese saying… Beirut is a whore. She welcomes everyone in and for the right price, she’ll give you want you want. Be it a meeting with the most prominent arms dealer in the world or one of Berlusconi’s henchman or two, or a drink with an exciting young poet or a fashion designer who is in demand by all Hollywood stars. We have it all — art, war, money, real estate, books, prostitutes, water, gas, secret banking, jihadists, peaceniks and pop stars. Beirut, I love you.
At the end of the day, I would say that I’m not too worried about Lebanon right now because God knows we’ve been to hell and back. We are the faded tattoos on your upper arms- they hurt at first, but then gave you so much pleasure… We are Clint Dempsey’s World Cup crotch shot –we will always, always find a way to make you cheer… We are the phoenix that will continue to rise. And burn. And rise. And burn.
What I worry about most are my friends. My friend who have just gotten off that plane in Baghdad. Let me tell you about Ayman, a photojournalist who is wonderful and kind. I wondered at the beginning of his career how he’d be able to make it in such tough terrain with those sweet blue eyes of his. I saw a photo of his on the NY Times just a few days ago, so I know he’s already there. I also want to tell you about Bryan and Maria, two friends who met in Beirut. After years of covering the war in Afghanistan with profound depth, they decided to take an even bigger and more courageous step, to get married. Despite the bombings and killings all around them, they found and chose love. Maria recently posted a picture of her suitcase on Instagram: “Packing for Iraq. Abaya, body armor and helmet. I want a burrito.” These are my friends, and I want them to come home in one piece.
“Packing for Iraq. Abaya, body armor and helmet. I want a burrito.” Photo: Maria Abi-Habib
And what about Joe? He is a reservist. He is brilliant and intelligent and passionate. I want him to live the life he truly deserves. I don’t want him to go back into the monster. I want him to eat, drink, work, smile, love, make love, be love and be loved. He deserves it. We all deserve it. Even ISIS. Even Bush junior and senior. Love is what will save us.
What is happening in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today started 10 years ago on an ominous autumn morning. Millions of people all around the world opposed the invasion of Iraq. We marched in cities, towns and tribes. We tried. But the powers that be seem to be much stronger than we realize. It’s time for our side to step up the game and demand an end to arms trading and use of fossil fuels.
A Salafi Islamic state created through murder and terrorism is totally unacceptable. I believe the only way to stop it from happening is through diplomacy. The larger warring nations — US, Russia, Saudi and Iran — have to stop sending weapons. No guns, no wars. They made this mess, they have to clean it up. But I fear that it won’t end until they finish making all their dead energy deals. However, my family, my friends and I should not have to pay the price for the greed and power of bigger nations. And nor should soldiers.
As for the question of human nature, when I am asked for solution, I always propose love. It’s the one human trait we haven’t really learned to completely harness, but it’s the first step towards a more enlightened and peaceful planet. There is a big shift happening in that direction, but I know it will take a few generations to completely manifest. But to do this, we must use that other essential human trait, free will. Believe it or not, we actuallydo get to choose the world we want to live in.
I would like to have a decent quality of life. To not just survive or merely get by, but to live with dignity. How do we do that, how do we get there? The only way is to first forgive each other for everything we’ve ever done wrong. I’m talking about world amnesty. Courage and honor is what may make us human, but failure, loss and insecurity are equally as important. We have to acknowledge these traits within us. Then we take responsibility for building economic equality — one that invests in a peaceful future, unlike the one we have now. And lastly, we empower a revolution that will transform the human spirit, one which extends way beyond Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. A revolution based on love, respect and tolerance.
If violence begets violence, love can only bring love.
And as for the World Cup, though I’m not a big fan of competitive sports, it’s nice to see the world coming together and cheering each other on. Maybe deep down inside, I wish every day could be like this… And now that Italy is no longer qualified, here in Beirut, we can all sleep a little easier tonight.
To read more about el Khalil and her work, visit the TED Blog >>>