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Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Tea with Hamas and Hezbollah

In Danica's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

I’m sitting on the rooftop of the Hotel Albergo, listening to a favorite old tune, Moon River, and looking out over the Achrafiyeh neighborhood of Beirut.  As at every meal, I’m immediately presented with little glass jars of pistachios and carrot sticks before I’ve even ordered a drink.  I’ve left the group behind at a French restaurant called Paul in the fashionable Gemmayze neighborhood in the hopes that I’ll finally sleep off my hangover from two nights ago and can process what I’ve seen this morning. Today was the first and only day I’ve felt anything that resembled fear and that was fleeting at best.

This morning, we got up early for our back-to-back Hamas and Hezbollah meetings. Both meetings are to take place in a neighborhood I’ve come to know well from the interior of our van, Dayiheh.  It’s all of fifteen minutes away from our hotel, but the scenery quickly changes from chic to shabby with the Armani posters replaced by ones featuring martyrs. In our neighborhood, we have sushi bars, Jacadi and it’s a short walk to the local mall with its Apple store and Tiffany’s.  In Dayiheh, it’s tiny little shops with Arabic lettering featuring everything from Fredericks of Hollywood style lingerie to full burkas.  I wonder if the hidden security have gotten used to us.  This is our fourth or fifth visit to the “hood.” This is the same place we came to meet with Sheik Fadlallah.  In fact, Fadlallah, Hamas and the Hezbollah Media Office are within a few block radius.  I guess that’s why the Israel targeted these blocks during the fighting in 2006.

Our ever-reliable translator and guide, Rawan, meets us at a street corner wearing another adorable outfit and a big smile.  What to wear turns out to be a major preoccupation of my fellow female travelers on the trip, “Scarf?  No scarf?  Long pants or skirt?”  Rawan never seems to mind and typically shows up bare armed and brightly clad, dressed like she’s headed to an American mall.  Our first tea of the day is with Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative to Lebanon.  We wait on the street corner for what seems like forever and I notice a white van with a fairly large antenna and point, “Hey there’s some major security and he’s staring right at us.”  David grabs my hand and pulls it down, “Don’t point.  Be normal.”  Oh yeah, normal: I always wake up, have my coffee and head out to meet with Hamas…  Family vacations always involve morning meetings with two groups on the US Terrorism list. NOT!  I’m reminded of one of “N’s” quotable quotes, “We soooo fit in here.”  Finally, a young man with a moped shows up and tells us to follow him. We are about to turn down one of the innocuous looking driveways filled with construction equipment that I’ve come to recognize when the moped clips the bumper of a dusty green Mercedes.  For a moment, we think we’re going to witness our first major traffic accident in Beirut but the drivers smile, wave and keep going.  David constantly reminds us to leave as much as possible behind in the van as getting our bags searched will only slow us down and, after all, we want to spend as much time with Hamas as possible.   We grab our notebooks, David’s tape-recorder (listen at www.1690wmlb.com) and a few cameras and enter what looks like a dilapidated apartment building and head up the stairs. Along the way, we pass by a grandmotherly looking woman carrying shopping bags.

Wissam Al-Hassan, the press officer for Hamas in Lebanon is there to greet us with a big smile on his face and escorts us into the meeting room.  These rooms are beginning to merge together in my mind. This one features nearly the same faded upholstered couches of the last one.  The floors are flecked tiles and we shuffle about trying to figure out our seating arrangements before Osama arrives.  David and the author typically sit up front.  David, so he can make the formal introductions and the author so he can get in key questions for the research into his book.  The rest of us are happy to be relegated to the sidelines of the shabby couches.  There’s always an overstuffed armchair reserved for Osama in front of a window draped with heavy green curtains and two flags, one the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag and the other the Hamas flag with its crossed swords.  This room is slightly smaller and definitely shabbier than the sheik’s. I cannot help but wonder why they put the local leader of Hamas in front of a window… Still, sitting there in this room, I keep imagining a huge flash of light, followed by a loud explosion.  I manage to suppress my fears, since after all, there’s no turning back at this point and after another long wait, Osama finally enters the room.

Unlike our meeting with the Sheik, we’re not required to suit up in scarves but when Osama enters, he first encounters Miranda who puts forth her hand and offers to shake it.  He looks down and says, very apologetically, “I am sorry, I cannot,” and moves around the room, shaking the hands of the men and then looks back again at Miranda and says, “Sorry.”  David goes through the steps of making the formal introductions, this time rushing a bit as we are already worried about being late for Hezbollah. Unlike the Sheik, Osama offers up no formal presentation.  Instead, he seems to prefer a conversation, peppered with questions from us.  He speaks excellent English.

We cover familiar territory, the refugee camps, the status of Palestinians in Lebanon, Israel, resistance and occupation.  For the record, these guys take umbrage with being called terrorists.  Osama’s opinion on the US and what he perceives as their erroneous definition of his group as a terrorist, “When you don’t want to deal with someone, you call them a terrorist.”  I don’t know if he personally is hoping to get an invite to the Lincoln bedroom, but he added as further explanation, “They said a long time ago that Yasser Arafat was a terrorist… but then he was the most important visitor to the White House.”  The issue of being labeled a terrorist clearly rankles everyone from the Sheiks to Hezbollah and everyone we meet draws comparisons from history.

We talked about the tit for tat of Israel and Hamas and Osama feels pretty strongly “when your civilians are being attacked, we have to send a message that we can do the same.  If they are ready to stop killing our civilians, we are willing to do the same.”  I must confess that these conversations don’t leave me filled with hope so I take the opportunity to pose a question about an area that interests me which is the internet, social media and its applications in Iran and here.  After all, in this day and age, you need a good website and a good Internet communications plan.  This clearly piques his interest and he tells us about his frustration of getting his sties shut down by the FBI.

I’m going to get our keen observer Finn to do a post on more of the conversation but will share one last comment from Osama that to me gets to the root of the problem for many people of this region.  He said, “Is it fair to ask the Palestinians to leave this land, this village where their grandfather lived, their great-grandfather lived, their great-great-grandfather lived, their great-great-great-grandfather lived?  You ask them to leave this land for these people, these Israelis who have grandfathers who came from Poland?” I glance across the room at one of the Polish grandkids and he winks, “Time to go.”

Rawan practically pushes us down the stairs to climb into the van.  Hezbollah is waiting and she’s had to leave the room many times to call ahead and let them know we are late.  We’re visiting the offices of Ibrahim Mussawi, Hezbollah’s press officer right around the corner from Osama’s pad.  Our Druze driver is getting the hang of navigating these streets choked with women shopping, construction equipment, stern security guys with all manner of machine guns and the crazy Lebanese drivers.  We arrive at a fairly typical looking office building with a sign out front that clearly states Hezbollah Media Relations.  The stairwell is busy with folks coming down and guys with cameras and film equipment walking up behind us.  This time, we aren’t asked to hand over our cameras and nobody checks our passport or counts our numbers.  (Of course we’d had to fax our passport info weeks before to get the meeting, which makes me wonder how much they know about us…)  We’re ushered into another room, similar to ones we’ve seen in the past.  This one with burnt orange curtains and flea market find gold couches.  There’s a television set in the corner playing Animal Planet.  We start the waiting game for Ibrahim.  Kathy gets excited when she realizes there is an episode on gorillas on TV, “I’m going to Rwanda for my jubilee year next year!!”  David and the author huddle in the corner, sharing the deep political observations that aside from Finn, leave most of us befuddled.  Suddenly, one of the escorts comes in and urges us to get up and we’re shepherded into the next room down.  “Kathy” quips, “I guess this was just the holding room?”  Yeah,” I say, “kind of like the green room for Hezbollah.’  We find ourselves in a tiny conference room with fluorescent lights, a huge fake cherry wood table that takes up nearly the entire room, black padded office chairs and those same burnt orange curtains against a window as the last room.

Ibrahim enters the room with a big smile on his face – he’s clearly a public relations guy. Actually, he’s more professorial than PR. Indeed he used to teach at the American University of Beirut.  Not only is Ibrahim professorial in nature, but he may have learned to talk from a New Yorker. He speaks so fast I can barely keep notes so my blog comments from this tête-à-tête will be more observational than accurate.

Nearly everyone we meet with mentions their “image problem” in the US, in this case the fact that Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist group.  Ibrahim tells us right off the bat, “When it comes to Hezbollah, we are being degraded as terrorists by the American administration.  However in the majority of the Arab world, we’re viewed as freedom fighters.”  They are also all quick to distinguish themselves from Al-Qaeda, The American media keeps telling you the same story. They manipulate the story to present us as fanatics. We have no problem with the Western style of life.”  He doesn’t want to let his one go, “After all, we were the first people to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers.”  Then he draws a comparison that’s not one we hear everyday in your typical conference room in the states, “The people in Afghanistan the Americans are killing. Are they that different in value than those who were killed in 9/11? Are they that different than the housewives and business men on the planes who flew into the twin towers because they don’t have cell phones?”

He talked to us about the roots of Hezbollah and if I understood him correctly, he was trying to explain how Hezbollah really was a grass roots organization that came into being around the time of the US Marine and US Embassy bombings in the early 80’s.  He seemed to want us to believe that there simply was not an established enough group in Hezbollah to have anything to do with these bombings.  Meanwhile there are huge Hezbollah posters all over the neighborhood of Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah terror chieftain who masterminded those bombings, the hijacking of the TWA flight, the taking of hostages and so on…

Rawan, who is not shy, despite her youth and relative inexperience in this crowd, pipes up and asks a heated question, “Why did you refuse to meet with Jimmy Carter when he was here?”  Ibrahim’s sleek PR demeanor leaves him for a second as he confesses that he personally would have agreed to meet with him but it’s not up to him.  He explains that Hezbollah is an organization that has a process and here he begins to punt and we’re not sure what the real reason is until he says, “ You cannot talk to me while you have a sword in my neck.”  He lets us know, loud and clear (and at this point, he’s talking faster and louder) that he feels very strongly that actions speak louder than words and he’s not fond of the US actions and their support of Israel.

Kathy leans forward and is clearly emotional and lets him know she is looking at the situation as a mother when she asks him about the camps, how the people live there. She wants to understand how he can refuse dialogue with Americans, surely it can make a difference.  The hallway is teaming and people keep coming in and ask questions in Arabic. At one point, Ibrahim asks if we’d mind being part of a documentary they are shooting. I immediately glance at Finn, the high level executive, who has her head draped in a turquoise scarf to avoid being photographed in this room. David handles it with all aplomb and explains that he could care less, but there are some Americans in the room might feel uncomfortable.  We can’t get out of any of these rooms without the obligatory cups of sugared tea in matching clear little cups and saucers.  We drink our tea, continue our conversation about Israel, terrorism, the elections and the two-state solution until someone comes in and says in Arabic “times up” and we’re ushered out.

Finn’s through the Ages from Byblos to General Aoun

In Finn's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:49 am

Finn is slightly less hungover than I am (a little less sheik your bootie and champagne on her end) so she has offered to share our adventures visiting the world’s oldest city and major political leader, General Aoun.  Photos to come.  Internet incredibly slow here so uploads are laborious.

Today we recovered from our 2-4am nightclub festivities and travelled to Byblos to get a sense of history prior to indulging in the real-time politics in our hour with the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party.

When I say history, I am speaking of perhaps the oldest inhabited city in the world.   The archaelogical sites alone were worth a week of exploration.  The relics on display included Neolithic 5th MILLENIUM  BC items, a temple from the 4th millenium  BC, Roman, Greek and Egyptian  sites as well as a Crusader era castle.  Byblos made its money not from the export of murex, but rather from the ancient cedar forests.  They were not cognizant of the time it takes to replenish their forests, and sowed the seeds of their own destruction.    Our visit to the archaelogical site had an interesting sound track… Friday is the holy day for muslims  and the humble Sunni mosque next door with the large loud speakers regaled us with the call to prayer, then 45 minutes of chanting music, then an hour or so of the sermon, which was sprinkled with only a few words that we recognized… America and Israel.  I wish we could have understood it all.

We re-entered the modern era as we went through five military checkpoints of increasing strength while climbing the hill to the home of General Michel Aoun, the 70+  year old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which represents the majority of the Christians.  The General gave us an hour of his time and answered our questions well and we got yet another angle on the complex political world of the Middle East. The General went to Washington in 2005 and outlined what he thought it would take to get Hezbollah  (Shia fighters trying to help the Palestinians get their land back in Israel among other things) to lay down their arms.  Washington didn’t believe it was possible, but when he achieved a negotiated agreement in February 2006, and formed a political partnership between Hezbollah and the FPM, they turned away from him and would not engage. We have a copy of the agreement , which upon first read makes great sense as a peaceful means of getting them to lay down their arms.   Biden and Hillary did not reverse the policy on their last trip here and continue to paint the General and his associates as the devil…

The General did very well in elections, growing his strength in Parliament significantly.  Hezbollah also won every seat in which they had a candidate, however the General’s allies lost enough of the Christian seats that he will not control the government even though he has the largest single block of seats.  We have heard from many sources about how those seats were lost… Vast amounts of money USD $700+ million was offered by the Saudis and spent by Harriri and others to protect the Sunni seats.  They flew in overseas Lebanese from all over the world (gratis) to vote and paid up to $2000 per vote locally in the contested districts. (Two thousand dollars does not always go far in the country–spent that much in a 10 minute jewelry stop….)   It will be interesting to see how the election observers report all of this.  There was no violence at the polling station, but there was much that happened in violation of the law.

From Sheik Fadlallah to “sheik your bootie”

In Danica's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:35 am

Sheik Fadlallah gives us a copy of his favorite book.The Veuve Cliquot flows non-stop at The Music HallSaudi DiscoMe and Joanna AbboudMiranda calls this "adults gone wild"Indeed we met with Sheik Fadlallah and the story will be told.  After our meeting with the Sheik, we quickly disrobed, changed into our Mahnolos and cocktail attire and headed to the local music hall. An evening our daughter Miranda refers to as “Parents gone wild.”  Still in recovery.

More later today after our meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Martha and Toby rock on.

Our chat with Walid, leader of the Druse, and visit to the Chouf

In Danica's Posts, Uncategorized on June 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

Kathy and David at Jumblatt's compound
Our group with Walid.
I seem to be late every morning which drives our  tour organizer ( my husband) mad.  It’s extremely important that I’m not late on this day as we are meeting with Walid Jumblatt (p://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walid_Jumblatt) tribal chief of the Druse at his home.  The streets of all these leaders are closed off with a guard post, but we are waved immediately in. We don’t even have to show our passports. Walid is awaiting us along with a bounding Sharpei and invites us to sit in his courtyard.  He’s a fashionable looking man, thin with wild longish hair, jeans and a preppy shirt.  Turns out he’s a Harley fan, so Finn, our “Harley Davidson rep,” presents him with a significant Harley chotchke, a blanket emblazoned with the motorcycle logo.  Once formal introductions are made, Walid offers insights over the most recent election.  He describes the election as the “Sunnis, Christians and Druse against the Christians and Shiites.” Outside Walid’s compound, we hear over and over again just how much was spent on the effort to get Hariri elected — with bought votes and foreigners flown in for voting day. Evidently, airports were jammed with foreigners flying back in to cast their votes.  Jumblatt explained, “Our country is not a nation, our country is a group of tribes.”  We are able to sit and have an open ended conversation with Jumblatt about everything from Hezbollah, which he described as a “bi-product of the Iranian revolution.”  Throughout our chat, his prized pooch Oscar, wraps himself around Kathy’s legs and tries to jump into her lap until finally Walid gets up, lifts the pup by his front legs and hauls him off to his waiting servant.  Walid speaks openly of his father Kamal’s assasination in 1977.  He was driving near his country home in the Chouf and taken out by gunpoint at a hairpin turn by the Syrians.  Two weeks later, Walid flew to Syria to continue discussions and negotiations, explaining, “Sometimes you have to put aside your emotions and address your political priorities.”  Indeed, those opposed to Jumblatt call him a waffler – one who baits and switches for his own political gain. The gain is all ours today for when Walid hears we are headed to the Chouf he offers up a private tour of his weekend residence.

But first lunch. We drive outside Beirut into the hills of the Chouf. Beautiful country. For those who think Lebanon is a war-torn place, think again. Imagine the South of France or a mountainous Greek island.   We see nothing but charming villages devoid of bullet holes. We stop in the best restaurant in the Chouf, the Mir Amin Palace (www.miraminpalace.com) where Kathy gets her favorite ALMAZA BEER and I order a half-bottle of Lebanese white wine.  It’s a perfect place to dine because Kathy and I are busy planning Rahwan, our translator’s, wedding. She’s getting married next year and we think the Mir Amin Palace is a perfect spot.  For once, we’ve mastered the art of ordering and forego the 17 appetizers and get delicious skewered chicken dishes and grilled meat platters with our favorite salad fattouch. Fattouch is a mixed salad featuring lettuce, fried pita, cucumbers and lots of fresh ground spices mixed in a light vinaigrette.

We exchange one palace for another as we head to Walid’s weekend compound.  Walid’s summer compound is no shack. Built 345 years ago, it’s a sizeable chateau. Again, here we’re greeted by many guards and once inside, more sharpeis, this one’s name is Caesar.  We’re’ given a private tour of room after room featuring amazing art, elaborate chandeliers, stunning carpets, intricately carved furniture pieces and roman vases.  “N,” the queen of the one-line glances over at a display of Roman vases and quips, “Oh I can pick those up at pottery barn.”  We’re trying to behave, because our appointed tour guide and now two sharpeis are watching us, but Kathy and I dissolve into reams of laughter.  For the second time this day, we’re served Lebanese coffee in neat little porceline cups with intricate designs.
Danica holding one of Walid's prize Sharpeis

Finn’s Post from the Israeli-Lebanon Border

In Finn's Posts on June 18, 2009 at 6:26 am

Lebanese and UN Soldiers at Sheik Abbad Hill

Here’s a special post from our envoy and keen observer, Finn. Danica will be back with further escapades including tales of her purchase of a Palestinian refugee camp “berkini” and what the inside of a UN tank really looks like.

Remember the Warren Zevon song?  Look up the lyrics of this old song and it will scare you how long this has been going on…

Yesterday we traveled to the South.  At breakfast in a road side cafe in Sidon we gazed at the Chateau de la Mer and contemplated the meaning of being in a place that was first settled in 4000BC.  This Phoenecian city state has a proud and glorious past.  They made their big money in 500 BC or so processing murex a mollusk, now extinct, that produces the purple dye, which became all the rage for European royalty.  The Persians, Egyptians Greeks, Romans, and Crusaders all tromped through this beautiful place over a couple thousand years.    Time speeded up a little recently, and we added the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, Hezbollah, Shiite militias and others to the list in a few short years.

After breakfast we made our way to the Lebanese military intelligence headquarters to seek permission to travel father south toward the border with Israel (or Palestine, depending on the audience).  We struggled to find the right location and mistakenly pulled into the entrance to Ein el-Heilweh, the refuge camp that David had decided was too dangerous to enter the day before when some of us met a Fatah leader. (Turns out he was right since yesterday an Al Qaeda group was stopped at that same gate with a carload of bombs, and today a Fatah leader was killed there.)  We found the HQ and spent an uncomfortable hour loitering around the entrance where there were forts of sandbags and obstacles of concrete in the road.  The handful of armed guards were no consolation against what a few of us could imagine.  Our translator successfully argued our case and we headed out.

The roads and intersections were increasingly populated with small groups of Lebanese soldiers with occasional howitzers, tanks, piles of sandbags, and shelters that looked like kids had built them.  David found it interesting, since on previous visits the Lebanese Army did not dare to go to the South, and only Hezbollah fighters were active.  The land was pretty desolate–dry, rocky and dangerous.  Some estimates say that there are more than a million bomblets that remain unexploded in Southern Lebanon from the 2006 Israeli invasion.  It is simply too dangerous to till the land or even keep animals. We saw hundreds of large homes under construction on the hill sides–half built with no visible activity. as thought the owners had run out of money or decided it was a bad investment.   Everywhere there were green Hezbollah flags flying in the villages,   posters of their leaders, and photos of their “martyrs”, i.e. those who had died in the recent invastion. They are clearly working side by side with the Army, but in an invisible, non-uniformed way.  I couldn’t get anyone to clearly explain how they structure their organization and communication with the regular Army, but they had no qualms about flying their flags together.

We saw some Russian weapons and Kamaz trucks (made in  Russia) carrying groups of soldiers, and eventually as we reached Fatima gate, we saw the convoys of white tanks and trucks of the UN. The UN troops we met were all Indonesian and very friendly.  Later I met a UN leader who said that the Indonesians were much better here than the Europeans at gathering intelligence and simply working comfortably with the local people. The border was a ditch with a couple of chainlink and barbed wire fences–much less impressive than the Berlin Wall.  The Israelis had a well maintained road immediately next to the fence that could easily handle tanks and large trucks, then an observation post covered with camouflage netting just a few yards away.  I think the Lebanese soldiers and the Israelies were less than 50 feet apart and could easily hear each other speak.  On the other side of the fence Israel was lush and orderly.  There were settlements of several hundred small cookie cutter homes on the hillside and all of the land was irrigated and covered with orchards and tilled fields.  I can’t imagine the zeal that would drive a family to live so close to such a hostile border in those settlements.

We passed through the town of Ben Jaebel which was flattened during the invasion.  The center of town was totally under construction with the entire town square being rebuilt simultaneously several buidings deep on all sides.  The money came from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as Hezbollah(Iran).  None of the organizations dared to give it to the Lebanese government for fear that it would all be stolen so they set up programs to dish it out themselves. Apparently the population of this town is 60% American Lebanese, most of whom are in Dearborn, MI!  I kept getting told that the unfinished mansions belonged to overseas Lebanese who wanted houses in their home village-clearly their pace of development is one adjusted to building for the next generation,  Since everything is made of cement now, it shouldn’t much matter how long it takes to finish.  These people have patience and memories that extend generations. .. and a deep love of the land specific to the village of their birth with which I cannot empathize.

Tuborg’s Fresh Air Post

In Tuborg's Posts on June 17, 2009 at 9:30 pm

High in the hills north of Beirut, we are treated to a most spectacular day.  Here in Gabby’s ancestral village, we fall in love with a new side of Lebanon.  The landscape is open and expansive, with views all the way to the Mediterranean, twenty miles or so to the west.  These limestone hills were once covered with forests of magnificent cedar trees, nearly eradicated a millennium ago to supply the wood to build the ancient empires of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and the Phoenecians.  There are small, scattered groves of the ancient trees still left on the hillsides.  They grow directly out of the limestone, firmly rooted in the porous rock, carpeting the thin soil with a fine layer of needles, providing shade from the intense Mediterranean sun, and cleansing the air with a faint perfume.  From the trees, we can see the line of clouds in the distance that marks the edge of the sea, the blue sky otherwise empty of any sign of moisture.  From here, the ground falls in an unbroken descent to the sea, miles away.  There is a constant shore breeze even this far from the water that cools the dry air.

In the cedar grove, there is a small, Maronite chapel, which dates back to the turn of the century.  For the first time in the week that we have been here, we are in a Christian-dominated corner of the country.  The Maronites have populated this region from the 5th century – one of the earliest branches of the Christian church, they were present at the council of Nicaea when Constantine established the basis for the Catholic faith.  Interestingly enough, the Maronites still perform their services in Aramaic, and have retained the right of their priests to marry (much to the pleasure of the western Catholics in our group).

There is a remarkable difference in the general atmosphere in this region.  While the politics that separate the factions are still present, for me there is a sense of greater safety and familiarity.  The military checkpoints and Lebanese and UN armed presence that had been everywhere the day before are nowhere in sight.  To look at the countryside, we could be in Monaco or southwestern France.  This area of the country was completely untouched in the 2006 war, and was relatively safe throughout the civil war.  Beirut families retreated to their family homestead in these hills, and, ironically, even enjoyed the fact that the war had spawned a resurgence of the area as the urban population abandoned the cities and returned to the countryside for refuge.

And so, we enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation in the mountains.  True to form, the hospitality of our hosts Gabby and Joanna was extraordinary – a guided tour of the countryside, drinks and conversation on the terrace, a multi-course meal that couldn’t be beat, interesting company and engaging conversation.  We feel like family, and are treated as such by people who were strangers and were a world away a week ago.  This truly is an extraordinary country.

What happens in the Bekaa valley….

In Danica's Posts on June 17, 2009 at 5:01 am

Interior of the mosque.  Tea in Hikmet's garden.Hikmet and one of his cutie-patooties.
Mona and the twins.  David has a friend named Hikmat who lives in the Bekaa Valley.  I have never met Hikmat but know him well from the scene in my husband’s Frontline Documentary, Lebanon Party of God.  In this scene, David is driving in downtown Baalbek with Hikmat when suddenly, Hikmat pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car and chats with a fellow on curb.  Hikmat gets back in the car, lurches it into gear, careens away and leans over excitedly to my husband, “You are lucky David. Very lucky. Today is your lucky day. That man?  He hijacked Jordanian airplane.  He fly it around to many city and he bring it back to Lebanon to blow it up.” I am looking forward to meeting Hikmat but do not feel the urge to meet any hijackers.

Hikmat’s son, Rami, meets us at the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek.  The Palmyra is a storied old hotel in the middle of the town square.  The Palmyra is the place where all the CIA agents stayed, along with the likes of Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Kaiser Wilhelm, Ella Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau and others. Their ghosts may be roaming in the faded glory of the hallways of this place.  A wizened old man runs the hotel and allows us to visit Room 19, a place perhaps last refurbished in the 1940’s. “The author” gets us all to snap lots of photos which makes us wonder if there isn’t some intrigue going to happen in this mysterious venue.  We leave the Hotel Palmyra, the ghosts, the dusty courtyard, overrun with sagging cedar trees and head up the hill to Hikmat’s compound.

There is an old saying that goes, “What happens in the Bekaa valley, stays in the Bekaa Valley.”  We’re in the heart of Hezbollah and hashish country.  Truth is, we’re on best behavior today.  Hikmat reminds us, “They know you are here.  You are being watched. But it’s okay, you are with me.”

Hikmat introduces us to “one of his wives, Mona” and his cute as buttons seven-year old twins.  Much later in the day, we begin to embrace Hikmat’s bizarre sense of humor and realize he only has one wife.  By the end of the day, we think he might ask the divine Miss K to be his second.  She sidles up to him and he plies her with her favorite Almaza beer and other treats.  Hikmat’s wife, Mona does not sit with us but serves us massive platters of cherries and plums from local trees and thick Lebanese coffee. The twins dance around, trying out their French and English, showing off their matching outfits, posing for every photo opportunity like pin-up models. This is just the start of a very long, fascinating day for Hikmat gets up suddenly and it’s “yallah” which is Arabic for “Let’s go!”

We have a driver and a large 32-seat touring bus but Hikmat advises that he should drive ahead and we will we follow.  We need Hikmat’s car as escort when we drive through the many villages leading to his hometown of Yamouni.  Indeed, along the way, Hikmat stops and waves or even shouts out greetings.  Our first stop is at one of the many memorial mosques that dot this land. This one is dedicated to the second leader of Hezbollah, Abbbas Mussawi, killed in his car by mortar in an attack by Israeli helicopter.  Mussawi was riding in his car with his wife and young son when the helicopter took them out.  The burned out shell of a car is on display in the parking lot of the mosque. David once attended a Hezbollah rally here where Hassan Nazrallah spoke along with the leader of the Islamic Jihad.  This is back in the day when I avoided hearing any stories of his time in Lebanon – back in the day when what happened in the Bekaa valley really truly stayed in the Bekaa Valley.

The women in our group all gather to one side to don our very colorful versions of scarves.  I keep trying to trade my thrift store fringed peachy number for Finn’s Hermes, but she’s not buying.   Every mosque has different rules and in this one, we are able to enter into the same doorway as the men and wander around freely. At other mosques, we have to leave the men, hand over our pocketbooks to an attendant and can only view from an upstairs galley.

This mosque is a stunning display of mirrors and bright blue tiles.  The whole place sparkles like a feverish blue holiday display.  In the center of the mosque is a glittering tomb, which holds the remains of Mussawi. Our driver lays out a small rug, a stone and leans down in prayer.  We don’t know if this means he’s fond of fallen Hezbollah leaders or just taking the opportunity to pray.  Hikmat introduces the author and our group to Mussawi’s brother who happens to be lingering around the mosque.  I don’t know quite what to say, “Gee, sorry about the car bombing thing?” and I figure silence under my headscarf is probably the best etiquette.  He encourages us to take photos, another big no-no in most mosques so we pull out our cameras, eager tourists we are, and snap pictures of the shrines to Mussawi, the display featuring his young son’s shoes and the glittering tiles.

Planning our next trip to Baalbek for the Springsteen tour.

In Danica's Posts on June 16, 2009 at 3:59 am

We’re in Baalbek to visit David’s friend, Hikmet, who lives on a hill above the ruins.  I don’t know if these are one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but in my mind, they should be.  I actually prefer semi-crumbled ruins to intact ones like the Coliseum because they leave so much more to the imagination.  They say the Temple of Bacchus is the most beautifully decorated temple in the Roman world.  I say any temple designed around a courtyard where vestal virgins dance and keep a sacred fire lit is fascinating.  The Temple of Jupiter is made up of 54 immense jaw-dropping columns, 54 in all, supposed to be the largest in the world.  I may have misunderstood our guide, but I think he said they floated these down a river from Egypt.  Tuborg is in seventh heaven here in Baalbek (for those devotees of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, go ahead, call the joint Heliopolis).  He confesses to far prefer ancient ruins to Hezbollah inspired gift shops and charges ahead with his paintbrush and artists notebooks, forgoing the official tour.  “The author” is busy jotting down notes, taking a particular if not slightly sordid interest in sacred prostitution.  Miranda follows him around with her Canon camera, trying out different settings and scenes for his book jacket cover.  Kathy terrifies us all by climbing to the top of every structure and shouting down “Here I am!” or “Hey, think they sell Almaza here in the ruins?”  Elton John played here in 2002. So did Sting.  Today they are preparing the stage for the Belgium Ballet soon to arrive for he annual summer festival. We’re already making plans to come back for the Springsteen tour.

No beer at the Sheik’s house

In Danica's Posts on June 16, 2009 at 3:01 am

We’re in no shape to show up at Sheik Fadlallah’s restaurant after our long morning at the camp.  We’re covered in dust,  more than a little dismayed and needing to emotionally download what we’ve witnessed.  Lebanon is a study in contrasts, a fact I think we’ll be constanly reminded as we tour this country.  If you check out Fadlallah on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Hussein_Fadlallah you’ll see mention of his ties to Hezbollah, notes on assassination attempts, information on his orphanages, schools and a lot on his relationship to Iran.  You won’t see mention of his restaurant which is a massive, well appointed dining room with an inner courtyard filled with flowers, a fountain and a number of upscale tourist shops. Here you can buy faux Chanel bags or a Sheik keychain.   If I lived in Beirut, I’d consider this place a perfect venue for a wedding reception or birthday party.  We have not yet learned the words for “no appetizer” in Arabic but need to sooner rather than later.  Our translator Rawan orders for us, which is hardly necessary because all of the Sheik’s waiters speak English or at least a smattering of French.  We’re afforded comic relief when Kathy perks up like a new little kitten with her favorite meow, “I’ll have an Almaza!”  Sorry, no beer at the sheik’s house Kathy.

Sabra & Shatila

In Danica's Posts on June 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

I first learned about the massacres in the camps Sabra & Shatila when David worked on a documentary about it for ABC news in 1982. It was one of his first projects as a television journalist and the images from that hour film continue to haunt me.  On this day, we visit Sabra & Shatila a full 27 years after the massacre.

I arrive downstairs at the Hotel Albergo wearing white flared pants and red platform shoes – relatively low heeled by my standards and Miranda calls attention to my outfit. “Dad look what Mom’s wearing!”  I’m immediately sent back to my room to change and put on a pair of sneakers and khakis.  I’m not at all sure what to expect when I hear the words “Palestinian Refugee camp” and I’m not at all prepared for what I find.  We drive through the busy car-choked streets of Beirut and the signs on the road begin to change.  No more Ralph Lauren and Armani ads, and the streets get narrower and narrower. Soon I wonder how our drive will maneuver the narrow streets but I remind myself this is Beirut, where driving is a full contact sport.

Our driver keeps trying different congested alleyways until finally we come across an alley where two official members of the camp have been waiting for us. David arranged to have an official escort into the camps.  I’m guessing it wouldn’t be a good idea to come barging in as tourists with expensive pocketbooks and cameras around our necks. Thank heavens I took off the red platform shoes.

We are advised not to take photos until we get official permission.  This is not a camp with tents over acres of dusty ground but an amalgam of  tunnel-like streets and crumbling apartment buildings which seem to have grown up like a pile of messy weeds.  I am first struck by the noise – jackhammers are raging at every corner.  The few paved streets are being torn up, while others are a loose pile of dirt over crumbled concrete. The pathways among the buildings are so narrow, we have to walk single file. The residents pile past us barely glancing at us in our obvious Western gear.  My friend “N: jests, “We soooo blend in here.” Not.

Our guides give us permission to take photos and then quickly tell us to stop. We’re never sure why they suddenly say “no photos.”  We may be near an official PLO office or perhaps there is a menacing figure in the area.  Whatever the reason, when they say “no photos” we comply.  I take few shots of actual people because I’m fascinated by the construction or lack thereof.  The wires leading between crumbling buildings, the jerry rigged water pipes and spray painted graffiti and posters of Yasser Arafat on the wall fascinate me.

We are not in the camps five minutes before Kathy starts cooing at the bright-eyed children and soon a toothless grandmother pushes her grandbaby in front of us, encouraging us to take a photo. She speaks French and before long I have the little girl in my arms with the grandmother ordering the little girl to give me a “bisou” so I’m blessed with a tender little kiss on my cheek.  Throughout our time in the camps, Kathy becomes our cultural attaché, charming the grandmothers by remarking on the beauty of their children. If we take a photo of one child, we have to take a photo of all in the vicinity.

It’s beyond shocking to see how these people live –17,000 thousand in one square kilometer. Their whole lives take place in this tight, haphazardly constructed enclave.  The Palestinians don’t have passports and are limited to taking few available jobs. There are 73 forbidden job categories for Palestinians which include even the most basic jobs at the local KFC.  Most men work as day laborers and the financial results are evident in the camps.  Poverty is a given and the results are evident here.  In one of the frequent introductions instigated by our bubbly Kathy and one of the grandmothers we catch a glimpse at a typical apartment.  A room no larger than a master bedroom closet in any American suburban household is home to five family members, including one newborn baby. The clearly exhausted mother sits in the street while her newborn sleeps inside in the slightly cooler air of the concrete floor.  The wall is flanked with five short palettes next to a small cabinet. I’m told the kitchen does double duty as the bathroom.

Around every corner, we see groupings of boys, racing in the streets, some pushing deflated soccer balls but most playing elaborate games with toys guns.  They pull the guns out of their pants and shoot at one another from around corners. The loud bangs startle us and then a jackhammer starts its heavy consistent drill or a construction worker yells to get out of the way, a two by four is coming down. There are multiple times when we have to run to avoid getting hit by an errant bucket, stream of water or debris from construction.

We are drenched in sweat, dusty and thirsty when we arrive at our appointment at the local school.  There’s been a miscommunication as to the time of our arrival and the children have been waiting for us and stand at attention at the stairs gaping at us with huge smiles while we take photos.  The children are released and on the top floor we sit and drink thick apricot juice and water provided by the schoolmistress. She points proudly at the children’s art – crayoned pictures of Israeli bombs depicting the most recent war of Gaza war of 2009.  “The greatest hope of these children is to return to their homeland,” she tells us.  One cannot help but wonder what kind of hopes and dreams are being nurtured with these children in the camps.Today is graduation day in the camps