Sunday, August 13, 2006

Flamboozlement

Robert Fisk: Tea and rockets: café society, Beirut-style

This week: A close shave in downtown Beirut and why you'll never find our man in a flak jacket

Published: 13 August 2006

Sunday, 6 August

In the early hours, motor-cycle riders have been racing down the Corniche outside my home. Petrol is cheap for motor-cycles, and at first I curse the roar of their machines. Then I realise that their insouciance is a form of resistance. In their special way, they are denying the war, refusing to be cowed.

A friend calls from Tyre where Palestinians are welcoming Shia refugees from the hill villages of southern Lebanon into their homes. One old Palestinian lady turned on her guest with memories of her own endless exile since 1948. "Better to die in your home than run away," she shouts.

Too many journos are wearing flak jackets and helmets, little spacemen who want to show they are "in combat" on television. I notice how their drivers and interpreters are usually not given flak jackets. These are reserved for us, the Westerners, the Protected Ones, Those Who Must Live.

I used to wear a flak jacket in Bosnia, but no more. Ever since a bullet penetrated the neck of a colleague and was kept within his body by the iron jacket - going round and round until it had destroyed his kidneys, liver and heart - I have refused to touch these things. Better to die in shirtsleeves.

[snip]

Thursday, 10 August

To the City Café to meet Leena Saidi, Lebanese journalist and formerly one of the national television station's top newsreaders. City Café is definitely upmarket, opposite a traffic circle but filled with boring old men smoking cigars and discussing the future of Lebanon and elegant ladies in silk skirts, and one or two women whom my Mum used to describe as "mutton dressed as lamb".

We order green tea and then there's the roar of an explosion in the sky. An Israeli missile screeches right past us and crashes into the old French Mandate lighthouse, a brown-stone tower built in 1938 from which the Vichy French once sent out their propaganda.

Never have I seen the great and the good of Beirut society hurl themselves from their seats at such speed, overturning tables amid splintered glass, racing from the café for their chauffeur-driven cars, crashing into each other's vehicles - and failing to pay their bills. I see a panic-stricken motor-cyclist thrown on to the road. He rolls down the side of the traffic island, then runs for his life.

A second missile streaks past us into the tower. Do the Israelis think that Hizbollah's television station is broadcasting from here?

"Fisk!" Leena roars, almost as loudly as the rocket. "Why do you always bring trouble with you?" We finish a second cup of green tea and The Independent pays the bill. I am left wondering: what has Israel got against the French Mandate?

Friday, 11 August

I visit the barber. "Thanks to the God!" cries George when he sees me. It is lunchtime, and I am his first customer. Every Lebanese believes that we journos know the future, and we have to pretend that we do so that they will tell us what they know.

Ceasefire? Will Hizbollah fire more rockets into Israel? Photographs on the Lebanese front pages show burning Israeli tanks near Khiam. Shortage of newsprint. One of my morning papers is now only four pages - it was blown off my balcony by the wind this morning and I had to run down the street to retrieve it. But a bad thought. I like small newspapers. Less to read. More time to report.

Saturday, 12 August

A long radio interview with an Israeli professor who says "the number of people killed [in this war] doesn't reflect morality". Well, at more than a thousand Lebanese civilians dead against a few dozen Israelis, it can't reflect morality because, if it did, that would suggest Israel was committing war crimes.

But Hizbollah will also have their day of reckoning. Who gave them the right to bring this cruelty down upon the head of every Lebanese? Who gave the Shias permission to go to war for Lebanon? There will be questions in Israel too. How come the Israel Defence Forces, famous in legend and song, could not defend the people of Israel, despite slaughtering so many Lebanese civilians?

Cody has invented a great new word: to "flamboozle". It's what politicians do to their people when they go to war. Ehud Olmert has been flamboozling the Israelis and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah has been flamboozling Lebanon's Shias. We may have a ceasfire at the weekend. So the end of the flamboozling may be nigh.


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markfromireland

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