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The Swastika and the Cedar By: Christopher Hitchens
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 03, 2009


As Arab thoroughfares go, Hamra Street in the center of Beirut is probably the most chic of them all. International in flavor, cosmopolitan in character, it boasts the sort of smart little café where a Lebanese sophisticate can pause between water-skiing in the Mediterranean in the morning and snow-skiing in the mountains just above the city in the afternoon. “The Paris of the Middle East” used to be the cliché about Beirut: by that exacting standard, I suppose, Hamra Street would be the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Not at all the sort of place you would expect to find a spinning red swastika on prominent display. Yet, as I strolled in company along Hamra on a sunny Valentine’s Day last February, in search of a trinket for the beloved and perhaps some stout shoes for myself, a swastika was just what I ran into. I recognized it as the logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Fascist organization (it would be more honest if it called itself “National Socialist”) that yells for a “Greater Syria” comprising all of Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, and swaths of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. It’s one of the suicide-bomber front organizations—the other one being Hezbollah, or “the party of god”—through which Syria’s Ba’thist dictatorship exerts overt and covert influence on Lebanese affairs.

Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced. Telling my two companions to hold on for a second, I flourish my trusty felt-tip and begin to write some offensive words on the offending poster. I say “begin” because I have barely gotten to the letter k in a well-known transitive verb when I am grabbed by my shirt collar by a venomous little thug, his face glittering with hysterical malice. With his other hand, he is speed-dialing for backup on his cell phone. As always with episodes of violence, things seem to slow down and quicken up at the same time: the eruption of mayhem in broad daylight happening with the speed of lightning yet somehow held in freeze-frame. It becomes evident, as the backup arrives, that this gang wants to take me away.

I am as determined as I can be that I am not going to be stuffed into the trunk of some car and borne off to a private dungeon (as has happened to friends of mine in Beirut in the past). With my two staunch comrades I approach a policeman whose indifference seems well-nigh perfect. We hail a cab and start to get in, but one of our assailants gets in also, and the driver seems to know intimidation only too well when he sees it. We retreat to a stretch of sidewalk outside a Costa café, and suddenly I am sprawled on the ground, having been hit from behind, and someone is putting the leather into my legs and flanks. At this point the crowd in the café begins to shout at the hoodlums, which unnerves them long enough for us to stop another cab and pull away. My shirt is spattered with blood, but I’m in no pain yet: the nastiest moment is just ahead of me. As the taxi accelerates, a face looms at the open window and a fist crashes through and connects with my cheekbone. The blow isn’t so hard, but the contorted, glaring, fanatical face is a horror show, a vision from hell. It’s like looking down a wobbling gun barrel, or into the eyes of a torturer. I can see it still.

And—though I suppose in a way that I did “ask for it”—this can happen on a sunny Saturday afternoon on the main avenue, on a block which I later learned has been living in fear of the S.S.N.P. for some time. In the morning, though, I had been given a look at a much more heartening version of “the Arab street.” Valentine’s Day was the fourth anniversary of the assassination, by a car bomb of military-industrial grade and strength, of the immensely popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri. A hero to millions of Lebanese for his astonishing rebuilding of the country (admittedly by his own construction consortium) after 15 years of civil war, he became a hero twice over when he resisted Syrian manipulation of Lebanese politics. (The statistical connection between that political position and the probability of death by car bomb is something I’ll come to.)

Martyrs’ Square, the huge open space in downtown Beirut, dominated by the finest imaginable Virgin Megastore and by a brand-new sandstone mosque in the Turkish style commissioned by Rafik Hariri, was absolutely thronged by a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Although it was a commemorative event, there were no signs of the phenomena that the media have taught us to expect when death is the subject in the Middle East. That is to say, there were no hoarse calls for martyrdom and revenge, no ululating women or children wearing suicide-bomber shrouds, no firing into the air or coffins tossing on a sea of hysterical zealotry. As I made my way through the packed crowd I wondered why it seemed somehow familiar. It came to me that the atmosphere of my hometown of Washington on the day of Obama’s inauguration had been a bit like this: a huge and unwieldy but good-natured celebration of democracy and civil society.

Lebanon is the most plural society in the region, and the “March 14” coalition, the group of parties that leads the current government, essentially represents the Sunnis, the Christians, the Druze (a tribe and creed unique to the region), and the Left. Hezbollah has a partial stranglehold on the Shiite community but by no means a monopoly, and one of the speakers at the rally was a Shiite member of parliament, Bassem Sabaa, who argued very strongly that Arab grievances against Israel should not excuse Arab-on-Arab oppression. Almost nobody displayed any religious emblem, and even the few who did were usually careful to put it next to the ubiquitous cedar-symbol flag of Lebanon itself. Women with head covering were few; women with face covering were nowhere to be seen. Designer jeans were the predominant fashion theme. Eclectic musical choices came over the loudspeakers. The average age was low. Nobody had been bused in, at least not by the state. Nobody had been told to leave work and demonstrate his or her loyalty. You get my drift.

This is the way that Lebanon could be: a microcosm of the Middle East where ethnic and confessional differences are resolved by Federalism and by elections. But there is a dark, supervising power that keeps the process under surveillance, and then alters the odds by selecting some actors for abrupt removal. As Omar Khayyám unforgettably puts it in his Rubáiyát:
’Tis all a Checker-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
If you want to replace the word “Destiny” with a more modern term, you might get a hint from a banner that was displayed after the murder of Rafik Hariri. syrial killers, it read, simply. The street reaction to the murder of Rafik Hariri was so intense that it led to the passage of a United Nations resolution mandating the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon after almost three decades of occupation. However, it remains the case that those who inconvenience Syria by their criticisms are bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view. Since somebody’s car bomb killed Hariri and 22 others, somebody has killed Samir Kassir and Gibran Tueni, two of the bravest journalists and editors at the independent newspaper An-Nahar (The Day). Somebody has killed Pierre Gemayel, a leader of the country’s Maronite Catholic community. Somebody has killed George Hawi, a former leader of the Lebanese Communist Party. Somebody has killed Captain Wissam Eid, a senior police intelligence officer in the investigation of the Hariri murder. The murders of these Lebanese patriots, and four others of nearly equal prominence, were all highly professional explosive-charge or hit-squad jobs, and their victims all had one, and only one, thing in common. In a highly unusual resolution, the United Nations has established a tribunal to inquire into the Hariri murder and its ramifications, four Lebanese former generals with ties to Syria have been arrested on suspicion, and an office in The Hague has already begun the preliminary proceedings. This investigation will condition the circumstances under which the next Middle East war—involving Israel, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah—will take place on Lebanese soil.

Officially removed from that soil, Syria continues to manipulate by proxies and by surrogates. One of its projections of power is the S.S.N.P., the Christian Orthodox Fascist group with which I tangled (and which is thought to have provided the muscle in some of the abovementioned assassinations). Another, which is also part of the shadow thrown on Lebanon by Iran, is Hezbollah. Two days after the anti-Syrian rally, I journeyed to the Dahiyeh area of southern Beirut, where the “party of god” was commemorating its own martyrs. This is the distinctly less chic Shiite quarter of the city, rebuilt in part with Iranian money after Israel pounded it to rubble in the war of 2006, and it’s the power base of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the brilliant politician who is Hezbollah’s leader.

The contrast between the two rallies could not have been greater. Try picturing a Shiite-Muslim mega-church in a huge downtown tent, with separate entrances for men and women and separate seating (with the women all covered in black). A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene, with the inscription oh zionists, if you want this type of war then so be it! During the warm-up, an onstage Muslim Milli Vanilli orchestra and choir lip-synchs badly to a repetitive, robotic music video that shows lurid scenes of martyrdom and warfare. There is keening and wailing, while the aisles are patrolled by gray-uniformed male stewards and black-chador’d crones. Key words keep repeating themselves with thumping effect: shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war), yehud (Jew). In the special section for guests there sits a group of uniformed and be-medaled officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran. I remember what Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and also the leader of the Druze community—some of my best friends are Druze—said to me a day or so previously: “Hezbollah is not just a party. It is a state within our state.” It is also the projection of another state.

This glum, dark, regimented, organized event is in the boldest possible contrast to the color and informality and spontaneity of the Valentine’s Day rally. On that occasion, all the speakers limited themselves to about 10 minutes each. No such luck for the attendees of the Hezbollah phalanx: when Sheikh Nasrallah eventually appears in his black turban (via video link) he allows himself an oration of Castro-esque length, and was still visible and going strong on Hezbollah’s TV station by the time I’d tired of him and gotten all the way back to my hotel.

“Lebanon is the template and the cockpit of the region,” said Saad Hariri, his father’s successor, at a dinner the night before I left. “Anyone who wants to deliver a message in the Middle East sends it first to Beirut.” He was right. The new and dearly bought independence of the country is being ground between the upper and nether millstones of the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah axis and the stubborn, intransigent southern frontier of the Israeli-Palestinian quarrel: the stark contours of the next Middle East combat. The whole place has an ominously pre-war feeling to it, as if the dress rehearsals are almost over. But we have a tendency to use the term “Arab street” as if it meant the same as anti-Western religious frenzy. (I think of the brutes who nearly abducted me, but I also remember those passersby who protested at the thuggery.) What I learned from my three street encounters in Beirut was that there is more than one version of that “street,” and that the street itself is not by any means one-way.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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