Every village has its idiot, but in Sidon, they’re all idiots, Ali informed me as we drove, again, through this gorgeous and mellow city. And they’re cowards too, Ali added, chuckling. “They do not like to fight.”
“Maybe they’re like that because this city is so beautiful.” I wanted to say soft, but when speaking to someone with only basic English, you must constantly pare down your vocabulary, and stay away from colloquialism and slang.
“I love Lebanon more than myself,” Ali declared. “If no war, Lebanon is so beautiful. Lebanon is the only country with mountain next to sea. We have everything here, snow, beach, everything.” Ali nodded towards the hazy mountains on this overly bright day. It is remarkable. In half an hour, you can drive from banana groves to evergreen forests. Many have skied in the morning, then swam in the ocean in the afternoon. “We have everything but a government!” We laughed.
As we passed a woman in blue jeans and long-sleeved black top, Ali smiled and honked. Her face stayed passive. “Do you know her?” I asked.
“No, no, she’s a bad girl.”
“Yes.” The young lady did arch her back to accentuate her big butts.
“No, Syrian. Maybe Palestinian.”
When I remarked that American streetwalkers tend to not be so beautiful, Ali said, “The most beautiful prostitutes are in bars. You go there, see her. If you pay $100, you can have her for seven hours.”
“So you know!” I slapped Ali on the shoulder.
“I know, but I don’t go.”
There’s a large Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon. A semi-autonomous community, it has its own schools, clinics and even police. Although its inhabitants are free to come and go, outsiders aren’t allowed in.
Fleeing Jewish mayhem and carnage, Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians have all fled to Lebanon, and before that, there was a flood of Armenians escaping genocide by the Turks.
Even with its constant turmoil and a shaky economy, Lebanon has also attracted eager immigrants from all over. There are 175 Vietnamese here, working mostly as maids, and many thousands more from the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Senegal, etc.
Traveling up to two hours, Filipinas flock to English-language masses at Beirut’s Saint Francis, and nearby are Pinoy restaurants and groceries. I plan on checking out Le Hanoi, Beirut’s only Vietnamese restaurant, if it’s still cooking after Covid and Beirutshima. It was only 1/3 mile away from that monstrous blast.
Meet Christine, a 42-year-old Filipina who’s been in Lebanon for six years. “I love Lebanon, sir. This country give me everything. That’s why I always say, ‘Alhamdulillah! Alhamdulillah!’” Praise to God! Used to calling people sir or madame, Christine extends to me that courtesy. Barely literate even at home, she has managed to learn enough English and Arabic to get by. On some Sundays, she goes to a church in Maghdoucheh.
“Do you understand the sermon?”
“Some, sir, and I can sing.”
“Yes, sir. People look at me. Whoaa!” Christine widens her eyes. “I don’t care, sir,” she laughs. “I sing.”
Going to church, Christine snared a local boyfriend, so she’s also grateful about that. Alhamdulillah! Her husband was a drunk, brute and serial skirt chaser, but after two near-death experiences, he’s become more sober and responsible. Each month, Christine sends money to support their three kids.
Every two years, Christine goes home, a trip that takes two full days. Landing in Manila, she still has to take a 20-hour bus trip to her village on a mountain.
“Look at my daughter, sir.” She shows me her phone.
“How old is she?”
“Twenty-two, sir. She in school.”
“Nursing. She almost finish. She tell me, ‘Mama, I want to study more,’ so I say, ‘Don’t worry, I send you money.’ If she want to be a doctor, I send her money.”
Arriving in Lebanon, Christine had but a tiny and ridiculous-looking blue suitcase. She had never opened a fridge. She ate so much her first month, she always felt ill. Homesick, she also cried constantly.
“I have three sister in Lebanon, sir. I had four, but she married a nigger.” Struggling to find the right word, Christine’s dark face looks very confused. “A negro, sir, a nigger…”
“She married a black man?”
“Yes, sir. He half black. They in Hawaii now.”
“Wow! But you still have three sisters here?”
“Yes, sir. One sister in Lebanon 27 year!”
“That’s incredible. Do you see them often?”
“Sometime, sir. They live far.”
Darker than all her siblings, Christine was least loved, so haunted by this handicap, perhaps, she tells me she has Spanish blood, and not just a drop or two, but loads of it. “Look at my eye, sir.”
In Al-Quala’a, I’m being housed and fed by the blogger, Taxi. Through her, I was also introduced to the legendary journalist, Ali Ballout, now retired. Though not in great health, Ballout can’t wean himself from world events, so he spends nearly every waking hour fixated on televised news or discussion shows from various countries, with only an occasional break to watch goofy, escapist movies, in Arabic, English or French.
On his living room wall, there are framed photos of Ballout with George Habash, Shafiq al-Hout, King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat, Zhou Enlai, Kim Il-sung, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, etc. In his TV room, there’s one of Ballout leaving prison, looking dapper in a casual suit and holding a cigar, though still in handcuffs.
Ballout was jailed three times, the first in 1973 for reporting a secret meeting between Golda Meir and King Hussein. A year later, Ballout got locked up again for publishing a letter from Saudi King Faysal to Lyndon B. Johnson.
In this region, Ballout had unmatched access to powerful figures and sources of information. He served as a backchannel between Damascus and Baghdad, as well as Baghdad and Washington. Ballout knew Saddam Hussein for over 30 years.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Ballout went to Baghdad with a message from the Americans. If Saddam would declare his intention to withdraw within five days, the US would force Kuwait to reimburse Iraq for the stolen oil, plus lease Bubiyan Island to Iraq for 20 years.
As a fellow Arab, Ballout told the Iraqis they should snag this deal, “We’re faced with two choices. We can withdraw and fulfil some of the conditions on our own terms, or they will smash our bones.” Proud and deluded, Saddam ignored Ballout’s counsel.
Preparing to topple Saddam in 2003, the Americans asked Ballout about Saddam’s inner circle. Since Saddam’s totally isolated, a coup would be preferable to an invasion, Ballout said, thus sparing Iraq from destruction. Since this was a key Israeli objective, however, Washington went ahead and smashed that society. Mission accomplished.
On his couch, Ballout reflected, “I liked Saddam. Before he went mad, he accomplished a lot. He could rule his country, but not control his family. Also, the Americans put a lot of pressure on him for nine years.”
Just before he was lynched, Saddam shouted, “Long live free Arab Palestine!” Although Saddam massacred plenty of Shiites, even they admire his sane and rousing last words.
On one of my visits, the TV announced Robert Fisk had just died. “He was a very good friend,” Ballout sighed. “Now, I’ll have to erase his name from my phone.”
In 1982, Fisk witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Jewish-sanctioned and abetted Christian militia’s massacre of Palestinians in the Chatila Refugee Camp. Wading into this horror, Fisk leaves the most clear-eyed and damning account:
It was the flies that told us. There were millions of them, their hum almost as eloquent as the smell. Big as bluebottles, they covered us, unaware at first of the difference between the living and the dead. If we stood still, writing in our notebooks, they would settle like an army—legions of them—on the white surface of our notebooks, hands, arms, faces, always congregating around our eyes and mouths, moving from body to body, from the many dead to the few living, from corpse to reporter, their small green bodies panting with excitement as they found new flesh upon which to settle and feast.
There had been massacres before in Lebanon, but rarely on this scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army.
There were babies – blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24 hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition—tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army medical equipment and empty bottles of whisky.
The whole embankment of muck shifted and vibrated with my weight in a dreadful, springy way and, when I looked down again, I saw that the sand was only a light covering over more limbs and faces. A large stone turned out to be a stomach. I could see a man’s head, a woman’s naked breast, the feet of a child. I was walking on dozens of corpses which were moving beneath my feet.
How could I explain to them that the terrorists had left, that the terrorists had worn Israeli uniforms, that the terrorists had been sent into Chatila by Israeli officers, that the victims of the terrorists were not Israelis but Palestinians and Lebanese?
Jews chased Palestinians into Lebanon, then stoked the tension of this refugee crisis to have them exterminated. With variations, it’s in their playbook.
With groveling Uncle Sam behind them, Jews have illegally dropped cluster, nail and phosphorous bombs on Lebanon.
Already in 1948, Jews invaded Lebanon to slaughter up to 58 unarmed men from a village, Hula. This was not a battle, just innocent people being killed, unprovoked. For this crime, only one Jewish soldier, Shmuel Lahis, was court-martialed, but his seven-year sentence was quickly reduced to one, before Lahis was entirely pardoned. Absolved, Lahis would become the Director General of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the largest Jewish non-profit in the world. A butcher of goys became the face of Jewish charity.
Since then, many more Lebanese have been killed by Jews, so the country is filled with memorials that also serve as inspiration and challenge for continued resistance. At the entrance to Al Quala’a, for example, there are ten portraits of local Hezbollah fighters who died fighting Jews. Two were smooth-faced teenagers. Driving by, Ali mumbled, “My brother died in 1987.”
“He was with Hezbollah?”
“How old was he?”
Memorials are hung on utility poles, store fronts and private balconies. Though dead young men stare back at you everywhere, they’re less visible in congested, urban neighborhoods, with so many other signs to crowd them out.
Above Sweet Bites in Al Quala’a, there’s a banner of a silhouetted warrior being pierced by a dozen arrows and a lance. It’s Husayn ibn Ali, Mohammad’s grandson. With just 70 warriors, Husayn fought to the death in 680 against an army of thousands. Within sight of this image is one honoring Musa al-Sadr, an important Shiite leader who’s widely believed to have been killed by Gaddafi in 1978. In Bourj el-Barajneh, a Shiite suburb of Beirut, I saw a portrait of General Qasem Soleimani on a soft drink cooler. Whether martyred yesterday or centuries ago, righteous, brave and selfless men inspire people here.
Warring against Jewish invaders in the 1980’s, many Hezbollah fighters dug their own grave and slept in it, to show they weren’t afraid to die. Just as with Jesus, a transcending, redeeming death is celebrated and honored. (Seeing an image of Mary holding Jesus in a butcher’s shop, I simply assumed he was Christian. Taxi, “No, he’s Muslim.” Unlike Jews, Muslims revere Mary and Jesus.)
On Lebanese television, time is always coupled with “Jerusalem,” as in, “Join us tonight for our special program, at 6, Jerusalem time,” and Israel is nearly always referred to as “Occupied Palestine.” Not by choice, Lebanese have been at war, off and on, ever since the Jewish state was founded. They won’t regain normalcy until that genocidal abomination disappears. What a warped nightmare!
Going home, millions of Palestinians can rediscover their truer selves, and so will you.