{ An Elegy for Beirut }

Paradise Lost: Robert Fisk’s elegy for Beirut :: The Independent

Beautiful piece by Robert Fisk on Beirut courtesy of my friend Rana. Excerpts below:

“In the year 551, the magnificent, wealthy city of Berytus – headquarters
of the imperial East Mediterranean Roman fleet – was struck by a massive
earthquake. In its aftermath, the sea withdrew several miles and the
survivors – ancestors of the present-day Lebanese – walked out on the
sands to loot the long-sunken merchant ships revealed in front of them.
That was when a tidal wall higher than a tsunami returned to swamp the
city and kill them all. So savagely was the old Beirut damaged that the
Emperor Justinian sent gold from Constantinople as compensation to every
family left alive. Some cities seem forever doomed. When the Crusaders
arrived at Beirut on their way to Jerusalem in the 11th century, they
slaughtered every man, woman and child in the city. In the First World
War, Ottoman Beirut suffered a terrible famine; the Turkish army had
commandeered all the grain and the Allied powers blockaded the coast. I
still have some ancient postcards I bought here 30 years ago of
stick-like children standing in an orphanage, naked and abandoned.”

“This part of the city – once a Dresden of ruins – was rebuilt by Rafiq
Hariri, the prime minister who was murdered scarcely a mile away on 14
February last year. The wreckage of that bomb blast, an awful precursor
to the present war in which his inheritance is being vandalised by the
Israelis, still stands beside the Mediterranean, waiting for the last UN
investigator to look for clues to the assassination – an investigator
who has long ago abandoned this besieged city for the safety of Cyprus.
At the empty Etoile restaurant – best snails and cappuccino in Beirut,
where Hariri once dined Jacques Chirac – I sat on the pavement and
watched the parliamentary guard still patrolling the façade of the
French-built emporium that houses what is left of Lebanon’s democracy.
So many of these streets were built by Parisians under the French
mandate and they have been exquisitely restored, their mock Arabian
doorways bejewelled with marble Roman columns dug from the ancient Via
Maxima a few metres away. Hariri loved this place and, taking Chirac for
a beer one day, he caught sight of me sitting at a table. “Ah Robert,
come over here,” he roared and then turned to Chirac like a cat that was
about to eat a canary. “I want to introduce you, Jacques, to the
reporter who said I couldn’t rebuild Beirut!”

And now it is being un-built. The Martyr Rafiq Hariri International
Airport has been attacked three times by the Israelis, its glistening
halls and shopping malls vibrating to the missiles that thunder into the
runways and fuel depots. Hariri’s wonderful transnational highway
viaduct has been broken by Israeli bombers. Most of his motorway bridges
have been destroyed. The Roman-style lighthouse has been smashed by a
missile from an Apache helicopter. Only this small jewel of a restaurant
in the centre of Beirut has been spared. So far. It is the slums of
Haret Hreik and Ghobeiri and Shiyah that have been levelled and
“rubble-ised” and pounded to dust, sending a quarter of a million Shia
Muslims to seek sanctuary in schools and abandoned parks across the
city. Here, indeed, was the headquarters of Hizbollah, another of those
“centres of world terror” which the West keeps discovering in Muslim
lands. Here lived Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Party of God’s leader, a
ruthless, caustic, calculating man; and Sayad Mohamed Fadlallah, among
the wisest and most eloquent of clerics; and many of Hizbollah’s top
military planners – including, no doubt, the men who planned over many
months the capture of the two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

But did the tens of thousands of poor who live here deserve this act of
mass punishment? For a country that boasts of its pin-point accuracy – a
doubtful notion in any case, but that’s not the issue – what does this
act of destruction tell us about Israel? Or about ourselves? In a modern
building in an undamaged part of Beirut, I come, quite by chance, across
a well known and prominent Hizbollah figure, open-neck white shirt, dark
suit, clean shoes. “We will go on if we have to for days or weeks or
months or…” And he counts these awful statistics off on the fingers of
his left hand. “Believe me, we have bigger surprises still to come for
the Israelis – much bigger, you will see. Then we will get our prisoners
and it will take just a few small concessions.” I walk outside, feeling
as if I have been beaten over the head.”

{ An Elegy for Beirut }

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