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Hunkered Down By: Lee Smith
Weekly Standard | Wednesday, July 19, 2006


It's Sunday, day after what was so far the fiercest day of shelling, and everyone is exhausted for lack of sleep. I'd spent the night in the mountains, sure that it would be quieter than West Beirut, but since my refuge in the Metn overlooks the Beirut suburbs in the valley down on the water, every bomb rippled up the side of the mountain--through the floor of the apartment complex and through the mattress, finally ending about 10 seconds after rattling through my bones. It seems they believe they have found General Secretary Nasrallah and keep pounding away at his headquarters, a 9-story structure.

My host Fawaz and I met about a month before former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated. I was drawn by the country's political and intellectual ferment, obvious long before the Cedar revolution that brought the Lebanese people to the streets to demand, "freedom, sovereignty and independence" - a motto that some tired of not long after it resonated through the streets of Beirut.

"This national unity thing is Lebanese folklore," Fawaz said well over a year ago. "The crescent, the cross, the Druze symbol--it's all nice, but the Lebanese are not united, there are lots of different issues to settle here and if we don't we're going to be in trouble. We need to figure out what does unite us, and the first thing ought to be that we all reject violence as a means to settle political issues."

Only, Hezbollah never signed on to the program. Some Lebanese ignored that fact, while others were too scared to do anything about it. "The resistance would never turn its arms on the Lebanese," was one of the stranger mantras heard here during the last year. Moreover, by pointing their guns on a powerful neighbor, Hezbollah has done worse than using its weapons domestically--that would at least give other Lebanese a fair chance to fight back; in attacking Israel, Hezbollah has enlisted the country in a suicide pact.

Virtually all Lebanese were convinced that no one wanted to re-ignite the civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Political leaders across the sectarian divide told their constituencies that Hezbollah was part of Lebanon and ordinary Lebanese were eager to believe that this was true. But the sectarian leaders were working with Hezbollah largely to advance their own political position. Nasrallah must have thought them fools, for he projected regional and international power, while the Christians, the Druze, and the Sunnis were fighting over tiny pieces in a very small country that was, as he saw it, part of a much larger Islamic umma.

"He is just like bin Laden, just like Zarqawi and Saddam," Fawaz says after Nasrallah's live speech on Sunday. His promised entourage of 70 virgins would have to wait because Nasrallah still had plenty of Jews to kill. "If anyone needs proof that all these guys are the same," Fawaz says, "this speech is it. It's pathetic. It's the way all these guys talk, going back to Nasser." In fact, Fawaz is drafting a book right now about Arab political rhetoric from Nasser to Nasrallah. "Can you believe it, 50 years and it hasn't changed one bit."

Fawaz's three young nephews are visiting from Paris; for them it is an unconventional summer vacation, but for him it is a reminder of his childhood. Last year we were sitting out on the same deck from which we watched the shelling last night. But last year the noise came from a bunch of teenage girls hosting a pool party for some neighborhood boys. On that night, Fawaz told me that he was envious of them. "I wish that we had that experience, too," he said. "But we grew up different. And so my generation is kind of stunted emotionally, we grew up in a non-normal environment. Everyone is always so close together, you have no room for yourself, your thoughts."

After spending one evening on the living-room floor of his two-bedroom flat, I started to get the picture: As much of the family as possible squeezes into the apartment; if the violence is loud no one sleeps and tensions run high all the time. I found over the several nights I wasn't in the Metn that it's unbearable to be alone during the shelling, that you need to be with people, preferably those who love you and whom you love in return. Otherwise the dread is too impossibly bleak, too cold.

It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to be huddled together sporadically over the course of a decade and a half. It cannot be normal for anyone and must be particularly awful for children. "You can't really go out and play," Fawaz says, which is why he hates playing cards. "Any card game reminds me of the war because that's all we did. You can't go outside, you have no space to yourself. You don't have the time or room to figure out who you are and how to grow up."

Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.

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