Story Publication logo December 4, 2008

Keep Your Head Down


Media file: NAB4.jpg

All year, a string of car bombs, assassinations and the encampment of anti-government protesters in...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

One afternoon in May 2007, a few days after my graduation from journalism school, I was seated with some friends at a booth in Tom's Restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when my cell phone beeped. I had a text message from a classmate. It read, "Don't back out now."

Bad news? I hurried off in search of a newspaper. In certain professions, of course, bad news is good business. I was scheduled to fly to Beirut in a few weeks to spend the summer studying Arabic and freelancing for an English language newspaper. A recent spate of car-bombings and protests in Lebanon, as well as a potential repeat of the previous summer's war with Israel, weighed heavy in my thoughts as I contemplated the move.

This time, I saw as soon as I found a copy of The New York Times, the trouble had come from an entirely unexpected direction: a war between the Lebanese army and militant Islamists in a northern Palestinian refugee camp. The centerpiece photo on the front-page of the Times showed tense soldiers and a dead body in the street.

Back at the diner, I was brooding over the news when in walked another classmate—an Iraqi journalist whose latest op-ed talked about his friends who'd been killed by car bombs.

"Don't worry, you'll be fine," he told me. "This is something we all go through."

A favorite professor, whom I consulted on whether or not to go, concurred. "You'll be okay," he said. "Just keep your head down."

The next month, my flight touched down at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport just a week after another series of car bombs shook the city. One killed an anti-Syrian lawmaker just a few blocks from where I'd be staying.

The midnight drive from the airport took me through posh downtown Beirut, where I saw a discordant sea of tents: a protest camp for supporters of Hezbollah. The streets of West Beirut were empty, save for soldiers in red berets manning tanks and checkpoints at nearly every corner. Before my cab reached the hotel we were stopped and my luggage searched.

As I soon learned, Beirut was not only a city of car bombs and Kalashnikovs. Explosions kept the pub crowd at home, at first. But revelers soon returned to the theoretically safer rooftop bars like Bubbles or White. On my first night, I went to a packed club called Basement, a below-street level venue with the slogan "It's safer in the Basement."

A few nights later, thousands turned out to see a concert by Dutch DJ Tiesto in spite of the rumor that militants had threatened to attack the show. One man in line at the entrance wore a T-shirt with "Bomb Technician: If you see me running, try to keep up," emblazoned across the back. Another, 21-year-old Roudy Awwad, explained that the threat of violence wasn't something to let stand in the way of a good time. "It's a normal thing here," he said, leaning on a friend's shoulder while smoking a cigarette. "It's Lebanon."

Of course, that's also to say that it isn't Iraq or Afghanistan. Young people in Beirut — unlike the Shia youth in bomb-ravaged southern Lebanon — don't remember the kind of hardships endured in the 15 year civil war, which killed or wounded hundreds of thousands and turned their cosmopolitan city into what journalist Thomas Friedman described as "the darkest corner of human behavior, an urban jungle where not even the law of the jungle applied."

Even then, Friedman said, your scale of sensitivity to threat slowly shifted—a psychological necessity, but a dangerous one. In "From Beirut to Jerusalem," Friedman tells of the time that a newly arrived reporter was trying to get him to notice the machine gunner firing into the distance outside their bureau window. Friedman, the veteran, on deadline, hardly looked up from his typewriter, saying: "Was he shooting at you? No. Was he shooting at me? No. So leave me alone, would you?"

It was a strange summer.

I spent my mornings studying Arabic and my afternoons writing stories for the arts and culture desk of a local newspaper. Soon, I stopped trying to divine which parked cars might be packed with explosives. The inertia of normalcy took over. One night, in a taxi with other expats headed to a disco, we were pulled over and briefly detained at a military checkpoint.

"What are you doing here," the senior officer asked us. "Don't you know there's a war going on?"

War has punctuated much of Lebanon's history. Governed under a French mandate after World War I, it received its independence in 1943, saw influxes of Palestinian refugees due to wars in neighboring Israel, suffered a lengthy civil war pitting Muslims against Christians between 1975 and 1990, endured multiple Israeli invasions over the years, and often found itself a quasi-satellite of Syrian power. Given the country's 18 officially recognized sects and history of periodic strife, each new bout of violence triggers fear that the country will again factionalize and descend into widespread bloodshed.

That summer's trouble began after Islamic militants reportedly beheaded Lebanese army soldiers at an outpost near a Palestinian refugee camp. The conflict pitted hardened fighters (including Al Qaeda-affiliated veterans of the insurgency in Iraq) armed with M-16s, rockets, and modern sniper rifles against the weak national army of an American ally that, many feared, could itself splinter along the lines of the country's deepening sectarian divide.

Though their ranks included many who were not Palestinian, the militants had taken advantage of the Palestinians' anarchic state in Lebanon, entrenching themselves in a refugee camp called Nahr al-Bared for a battle that would eventually stretch 15 weeks and claim the lives of 400 soldiers, militants, and civilians. But the battle wasn't merely a product of Lebanon's internal troubles. It was also a clear consequence of the turmoil in Iraq, which had spread to the doorstep of an important western ally.

For most of my time in Lebanon, I stayed in the relative safety of Beirut, several hours from the fighting. But I finally resolved at summer's end to go see it. Another journalist put me in touch with a driver named Hatem -- a tall, lively man in his mid-thirties who lives in a rural village outside the besieged camp. Over the weekend, a militant's Katyusha rocket had landed just a few hundred meters from Hatem's home, blasting a crater in an empty field.

The fighting had been intense all morning, he told me. About 10 miles into the countryside, we stopped at a row of barren shops closed by the fighting. Gunfire crackled in the distance.

"You want to see Camp Bared," he asked.

"Yes. But I don't need to get too close. Nowhere too dangerous."

"Yes, I know what you want," he told me. Hatem had worked with journalists before.

We climbed the stairs to the roof above a shop and stared out across the brown and green fields to a sea of concrete a few hundred meters across the highway. A cool breeze was keeping the day's heat at bay. I walked toward the ledge of the roof—a familiar perch from which reporters had covered the battle all summer—but Hatem quickly drew me back. One month earlier, a civilian had been struck in the head by a bullet as he drove along the road beneath us.

After 10 weeks of fighting, the few standing buildings were cleaved like dioramas. Soldiers were fighting their way through the rubble, methodically removing land mines and booby traps as they proceeded. The national flag, red and white stripes behind a cedar tree, flew above the areas now under army control, flapping in the breeze against plumes of white smoke.

The exchange of gunfire picked up. A thick cloud rose from a building just after the thud of artillery or tank fire—a "mafta," Hatem called it. White bursts exploded in the billowing smoke.

Gun battles raged like dueling jackhammers, rising sporadically to a fever pitch for several frenzied minutes until they were decided. The rattle-smack echoing off the broken walls resembled the scrape of metal on concrete, like a bulldozer scooping the city's remains, which crashed, with each thud of the artillery, into a grave-like dumpster.

An hour later, returning to Beirut by bus, I got a call from the reporter who had recommended Hatem. She had just been riding with him, she said, when something—a dud rocket, she suspected, that had deflected off the road without exploding— struck the taxi, knocking the car off the road and shattering its windshield.

You heard stories like these often enough. But it took another 6 months before I realized how much my own perceptions had shifted. One afternoon in January, I sat hunched over my laptop at a borrowed desk in the sixth floor office of the Daily Star newspaper in downtown Beirut. I typed feverishly, driven by deadline pressure and the joy that only a reporter knows: I had a front-page scoop.

It was a small story by international news standards, but one with regional implications, and I was proud at having wrested it from the pressed lips of PLO officials and Lebanese bureaucrats. I was so absorbed in my typing that I hardly even noticed the muffled boom of a car bomb exploding in the distance.

I had returned to Lebanon, on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to cover the aftermath of the battle I had witnessed that summer. In an atmosphere of renewed animosity toward the Palestinians, the government had sealed off access to the camp and curbed investigations into reports that troops had beaten civilians and looted and torched the homes inside.

My first week back, I'd stumbled upon my scoop: a secret deal to legalize the presence of former PLO fighters in Lebanon, which would strengthen the embattled government's ties to the moderate Palestinian faction.

Through the window, I could see the first wisp of smoke in the orange sky. It rose slowly, flickering like a black tongue against the backdrop of apartment buildings and shopping centers in Beirut's hushed northern suburbs. The office was still. Televisions came on. Everyone stood in silence and waited for a newscaster to break into the cartoons, a flood of calls to jam the phone lines, for the wail of approaching sirens.

As I returned to my seat, my editor looked at me as if to apologize: my story would be bumped to page two.

"Welcome to the Middle East," he said.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues