History, Memory and Context
‘… when a major story erupts in Lebanon, Westerners don't already have the dots by which they can make connections.’
Briefly describing these recent events doesn't come close to explaining the situation. Understanding resides in the details and interwoven threads of these developing stories, even though news of Hariri's assassination was reported internationally, for most Westerners the story ended there. Yet nothing in the Middle East is isolated; it's all context and history. When an event happens, the instinct is to ask where coverage of it should begin—with the 2006 Summer War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the creation of Israel in 1948, independence from Mandate rule, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, or perhaps with the rise of Islam? The memory of these events is in the blood and genes, stones and pathways, monuments and fields of these people and their lands. After the fall of Jerusalem to General Allenby in 1917, many in Great Britain saw the capture of the city as a fulfillment of the Crusades. A cartoon in Punch showed Richard the Lion-Hearted saying, "at last my dream comes true." People here don't forget such words.
How much context is needed to understand an issue in the Middle East? It is impractical to demand full coverage of a nation smaller than Connecticut, but it should not be unreasonable to expect contextualized and accurate coverage of events whose significance ought to be more widely understood. Yet, too often when coverage occurs, the words Western reporters use—resistance fighter or terrorist, political party or militia, settlement or neighborhood—can rankle Arabs whose history and perspective tell them otherwise. Frustration rises, too, when people here see which stories Western reporters decide to cover, such as when numerous articles stress the detention of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, but the same news organizations overlook the hundreds of Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian prisoners held in Israel indefinitely, most without charges.
News that matters in Lebanon rarely makes it to America. When the former commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said in February that Israel was violating Lebanese airspace on a daily basis, it was front-page news in Beirut, but in the United States the story didn't even appear in online editions. When an international group of nearly 250 women, including Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians, Europeans and Americans, recently embarked on a bike tour of Middle Eastern countries, their ride barely received coverage outside the region, in spite of the fact that such political acts of emancipation counter Western perceptions of Middle Eastern women.
Because the West misses these day-to-day developments—like the rise of AK-47 sales, the formation of Sunni neighborhood watch groups (an emerging and worrying phenomenon) or the detention of Lebanese shepherds by the Israeli Army—when a major story erupts in Lebanon, Westerners don't already have the dots by which they can make connections. Nor are these dots often provided in the coverage of breaking news they do receive.
Compared to the rest of the Middle East, Lebanon allows a high level of press freedom, but the press here has slowly been transformed into tools of political mobilization. The same rally could be depicted by different news organizations as being a crowd of tens of thousands on Page One or several hundred on page two. Often with humor, the Lebanese understand the ways in which this kind of bias sways coverage; for Americans, deciphering such discrepancies can be more difficult.
Nothing happens in a vacuum in the Levant; crisis in Lebanon or Iraq has repercussions in the region—and sometimes outside the region—often with unanticipated results. The assassination of Hariri, not far from the doors of Beirut's Hotel St. George's, led to the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, isolated the regime in Damascus, strengthened its support of Hizbullah, and reinforced an alliance between Syria and Iran.
The first time I came to Beirut I was 13. My father, who hadn't visited since the Civil War ended in 1991, took me to the fabled Hotel St. George's, at its heyday a luxury hotel that served as home base for journalists, writers and spies. John le Carre, Kim Philby, Peter Jennings, and others frequented its famous bar, and Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post was the hotel's last paying guest before it closed, under siege, in 1975. When I got there in the mid-1990's, it was a beach resort and restaurant, but the hotel itself bore a thousand scars of bullets and shells from the Civil War.
After a lunch of grilled chicken and garlic sandwiches washed down with lemonade flavored with rose water, I happily dove into the lavish, sparkling pool, expecting a cool, somewhat chlorinated, but refreshing swim. I surfaced with salt water from the nearby Mediterranean stinging my eyes. I was young then, when, temporarily blinded by the salt, I learned that not everything about the Middle East is as it appears to be. That lesson now serves me well as a journalist in Beirut.
Iman Azzi began a summer internship at The Daily Star, Lebanon's English-language newspaper, in June 2006 and is now working as a reporter at that newspaper.
In the absence of the war in the summer of 2006, Lebanon is no longer front-page news in the Western press—politically motivated assassinations, car bombs, and deadly street clashes exempted. Yet in a nation with a history that dates back 7,000 years, fierce political battles with regional, and potentially global, consequences are being waged. Six pro-opposition ministers resigned in November, followed by the assassination of Minister Pierre Gemayel, and the opposition movement has engaged in an open-ended sit-in outside government buildings. The two sides have stalemated over the formation of a court to try the murderers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.