Paradise Lost: Robert Fisk's elegy for Beirut

By Robert Fisk
Published: 19 July 2006
The Independent
Elegant buildings lie in ruins. The heady scent of gardenias gives way to the acrid stench of bombed-out oil installations. And everywhere terrified people are scrambling to get out of a city that seems tragically doomed to chaos and destruction. As Beirut - 'the Paris of the East' - is defiled yet again, Robert Fisk, a resident for 30 years, asks: how much more punishment can it take?

In the year 551, the magnificent, wealthy city of Berytus - headquarters of the imperial East Mediterranean Roman fleet - was struck by a massive earthquake. In its aftermath, the sea withdrew several miles and the survivors - ancestors of the present-day Lebanese - walked out on the sands to loot the long-sunken merchant ships revealed in front of them.

That was when a tidal wall higher than a tsunami returned to swamp the city and kill them all. So savagely was the old Beirut damaged that the Emperor Justinian sent gold from Constantinople as compensation to every family left alive.

Some cities seem forever doomed. When the Crusaders arrived at Beirut on their way to Jerusalem in the 11th century, they slaughtered every man, woman and child in the city. In the First World War, Ottoman Beirut suffered a terrible famine; the Turkish army had commandeered all the grain and the Allied powers blockaded the coast. I still have some ancient postcards I bought here 30 years ago of stick-like children standing in an orphanage, naked and abandoned.

An American woman living in Beirut in 1916 described how she "passed women and children lying by the roadside with closed eyes and ghastly, pale faces. It was a common thing to find people searching the garbage heaps for orange peel, old bones or other refuse, and eating them greedily when found. Everywhere women could be seen seeking eatable weeds among the grass along the roads..."

How does this happen to Beirut? For 30 years, I've watched this place die and then rise from the grave and then die again, its apartment blocks pitted with so many bullets they looked like Irish lace, its people massacring each other.

I lived here through 15 years of civil war that took 150,000 lives, and two Israeli invasions and years of Israeli bombardments that cost the lives of a further 20,000 of its people. I have seen them armless, legless, headless, knifed, bombed and splashed across the walls of houses. Yet they are a fine, educated, moral people whose generosity amazes every foreigner, whose gentleness puts any Westerner to shame, and whose suffering we almost always ignore.

They look like us, the people of Beirut. They have light-coloured skin and speak beautiful English and French. They travel the world. Their women are gorgeous and their food exquisite. But what are we saying of their fate today as the Israelis - in some of their cruellest attacks on this city and the surrounding countryside - tear them from their homes, bomb them on river bridges, cut them off from food and water and electricity? We say that they started this latest war, and we compare their appalling casualties - 240 in all of Lebanon by last night - with Israel's 24 dead, as if the figures are the same.

And then, most disgraceful of all, we leave the Lebanese to their fate like a diseased people and spend our time evacuating our precious foreigners while tut-tutting about Israel's "disproportionate" response to the capture of its soldiers by Hizbollah.

I walked through the deserted city centre of Beirut yesterday and it reminded more than ever of a film lot, a place of dreams too beautiful to last, a phoenix from the ashes of civil war whose plumage was so brightly coloured that it blinded its own people. This part of the city
- once a Dresden of ruins - was rebuilt by Rafiq Hariri, the prime minister who was murdered scarcely a mile away on 14 February last year.

The wreckage of that bomb blast, an awful precursor to the present war in which his inheritance is being vandalised by the Israelis, still stands beside the Mediterranean, waiting for the last UN investigator to look for clues to the assassination - an investigator who has long ago
abandoned this besieged city for the safety of Cyprus.

At the empty Etoile restaurant - best snails and cappuccino in Beirut, where Hariri once dined Jacques Chirac - I sat on the pavement and watched the parliamentary guard still patrolling the façade of the French-built emporium that houses what is left of Lebanon's democracy. So many of these streets were built by Parisians under the French mandate and they have been exquisitely restored, their mock Arabian doorways bejewelled with marble Roman columns dug from the ancient Via Maxima a few metres away.

Hariri loved this place and, taking Chirac for a beer one day, he caught sight of me sitting at a table. "Ah Robert, come over here," he roared and then turned to Chirac like a cat that was about to eat a canary. "I want to introduce you, Jacques, to the reporter who said I couldn't
rebuild Beirut!"

And now it is being un-built. The Martyr Rafiq Hariri International Airport has been attacked three times by the Israelis, its glistening halls and shopping malls vibrating to the missiles that thunder into the runways and fuel depots. Hariri's wonderful transnational highway viaduct has been broken by Israeli bombers. Most of his motorway bridges have been destroyed. The Roman-style lighthouse has been smashed by a missile from an Apache helicopter. Only this small jewel of a restaurant in the centre of Beirut has been spared. So far.

It is the slums of Haret Hreik and Ghobeiri and Shiyah that have been levelled and "rubble-ised" and pounded to dust, sending a quarter of a million Shia Muslims to seek sanctuary in schools and abandoned parks across the city. Here, indeed, was the headquarters of Hizbollah,
another of those "centres of world terror" which the West keeps discovering in Muslim lands. Here lived Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Party of God's leader, a ruthless, caustic, calculating man; and Sayad Mohamed Fadlallah, among the wisest and most eloquent of clerics; and
many of Hizbollah's top military planners - including, no doubt, the men who planned over many months the capture of the two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

But did the tens of thousands of poor who live here deserve this act of mass punishment? For a country that boasts of its pin-point accuracy - a doubtful notion in any case, but that's not the issue - what does this act of destruction tell us about Israel? Or about ourselves?

In a modern building in an undamaged part of Beirut, I come, quite by chance, across a well known and prominent Hizbollah figure, open-neck white shirt, dark suit, clean shoes. "We will go on if we have to for days or weeks or months or..." And he counts these awful statistics off
on the fingers of his left hand. "Believe me, we have bigger surprises still to come for the Israelis - much bigger, you will see. Then we will get our prisoners and it will take just a few small concessions."

I walk outside, feeling as if I have been beaten over the head. Over the wall opposite there is purple bougainvillaea and white jasmine and a swamp of gardenias. The Lebanese love flowers, their colour and scent, and Beirut is draped in trees and bushes that smell like paradise.

As for the huddled masses from the powder of the bombed-out southern slums of Haret Hreik, I found hundreds of them yesterday, sitting under trees and lying on the parched grass beside an ancient fountain donated to the city of Beirut by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid. How empires fall.

Far away, across the Mediterranean, two American helicopters from the USS Iwo Jima could be seen, heading through the mist and smoke towards the US embassy bunker complex at Awkar to evacuate more citizens of the American Empire. There was not a word from that same empire to help the people lying in the park, to offer them food or medical aid.

And across them all has spread a dark grey smoke that works its way through the entire city, the fires of oil terminals and burning buildings turning into a cocktail of sulphurous air that moves below our doors and through our windows. I smell it when I wake in the morning. Half the people of Beirut are coughing in this filth, breathing their own destruction as they contemplate their dead.

The anger that any human soul should feel at such suffering and loss was expressed so well by Lebanon's greatest poet, the mystic Khalil Gibran, when he wrote of the half million Lebanese who died in the 1916 famine, most of them residents of Beirut:

My people died of hunger, and he who
Did not perish from starvation was
Butchered with the sword;
They perished from hunger
In a land rich with milk and honey.
They died because the vipers and
Sons of vipers spat out poison into
The space where the Holy Cedars and
The roses and the jasmine breathe
Their fragrance.

And the sword continues to cut its way through Beirut. When part of an aircraft - perhaps the wing-tip of an F-16 hit by a missile, although the Israelis deny this - came streaking out of the sky over the eastern suburbs at the weekend, I raced to the scene to find a partly decapitated driver in his car and three Lebanese soldiers from the army's logistics unit. These are the tough, brave non-combat soldiers of Kfar Chim, who have been mending power and water lines these past six days to keep Beirut alive.

I knew one of them. "Hello Robert, be quick because I think the Israelis will bomb again but we'll show you everything we can." And they took me through the fires to show me what they could of the wreckage, standing around me to protect me.

And a few hours later, the Israelis did come back, as the men of the small logistics unit were going to bed, and they bombed the barracks and killed 10 soldiers, including those three kind men who looked after me amid the fires of Kfar Chim.

And why? Be sure - the Israelis know what they are hitting. That's why they killed nine soldiers near Tripoli when they bombed the military radio antennas. But a logistics unit? Men whose sole job was to mend electricity lines? And then it dawns on me. Beirut is to die. It is to be starved of electricity now that the power station in Jiyeh is on fire. No one is to be allowed to keep Beirut alive. So those poor men had to be liquidated.

Beirutis are tough people and are not easily moved. But at the end of last week, many of them were overcome by a photograph in their daily papers of a small girl, discarded like a broken flower in a field near Ter Harfa, her feet curled up, her hand resting on her torn blue
pyjamas, her eyes - beneath long, soft hair - closed, turned away from the camera. She had been another "terrorist" target of Israel and several people, myself among them, saw a frightening similarity between this picture and the photograph of a Polish girl lying dead in a field
beside her weeping sister in 1939.

I go home and flick through my files, old pictures of the Israeli invasion of 1982. There are more photographs of dead children, of broken bridges. "Israelis Threaten to Storm Beirut", says one headline. "Israelis Retaliate". "Lebanon At War". "Beirut Under Siege". "Massacre at Sabra and Chatila".

Yes, how easily we forget these earlier slaughters. Up to 1,700 Palestinians were butchered at Sabra and Chatila by Israel's proxy Christian militia allies in September of 1982 while Israeli troops - as they later testified to Israel's own court of inquiry - watched the killings. I was there. I stopped counting the corpses when I reached 100. Many of the women had been raped before being knifed or shot.

Yet when I was fleeing the bombing of Ghobeiri with my driver Abed last week, we swept right past the entrance of the camp, the very spot where I saw the first murdered Palestinians. And we did not think of them. We did not remember them. They were dead in Beirut and we were trying to stay alive in Beirut, as I have been trying to stay alive here for 30 years.

I am back on the sea coast when my mobile phone rings. It is an Israeli woman calling me from the United States, the author of a fine novel about the Palestinians. "Robert, please take care," she says. "I am so, so sorry about what is being done to the Lebanese. It is unforgivable. I pray for the Lebanese people, and the Palestinians, and the Israelis." I thank her for her thoughtfulness and the graceful, generous way she condemned this slaughter.

Then, on my balcony - a glance to check the location of the Israeli gunboat far out in the sea-smog - I find older clippings. This is from an English paper in 1840, when Beirut was a great Ottoman city. "Beyrouth" was the dateline. "Anarchy is now the order of the day, our properties and personal safety are endangered, no satisfaction can be obtained, and crimes are committed with impunity. Several Europeans have quitted their houses and suspended their affairs, in order to find protection in more peaceable countries."

On my dining-room wall, I remember, there is a hand-painted lithograph of French troops arriving in Beirut in 1842 to protect the Christian Maronites from the Druze. They are camping in the Jardin des Pins, which will later become the site of the French embassy where, only a few hours ago, I saw French men and women registering for their evacuation. And outside the window, I hear again the whisper of Israeli jets, hidden behind the smoke that now drifts 20 miles out to sea.

Fairouz, the most popular of Lebanese singers, was to have performed at this year's Baalbek festival, cancelled now like all Lebanon's festivals of music, dance, theatre and painting. One of her most popular songs is dedicated to her native city:

To Beirut - peace to Beirut with all my heart
And kisses - to the sea and clouds,
To the rock of a city that looks like an old sailor's face.
From the soul of her people she makes wine,
From their sweat, she makes bread and jasmine.
So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?


(listen to the song)

ps. You nead real one player to listen to the song


At Friday, July 21, 2006 3:05:00 PM, Blogger BeefStu said...

Halil, in the west Robert Fisk is often ridiculed as an anti-American loony and one of the more irrelevant journalistic voices of the 21st century. Even though his anti-Israel and currently pro-Lebanon opinions seems to mesh with your own views, I would not recommend associating yourself with him if you want to be taken seriously. Ditto for the Hamas-sympathetic Western "academic" Noam Chomsky.

At Friday, July 21, 2006 5:29:00 PM, Blogger Bill Jones said...

Yes, Chomsky has absolutely no legitimacy or influence, which is why Prospect magazine named him the top global intellectual of 2005. beefstu, do you really think your specious propaganda helps your genocidal cause?

At Friday, July 21, 2006 6:37:00 PM, Blogger BeefStu said...

You can't be serious, antonin! Prospect is a tiny, leftist UK rag catering to libs like yourself, so is it any surprise that they love Chomsky, one of the most popular America-bashing, Hamas-loving Jew-hating "academics" around? Heck, the Ayatollah Khomeini Fan Club Newsletter probably prints more copies each month (according to Wikipedia, Prospect's circulation is around 25,000)

I suppose next you'll be telling me how wonderful Fidel Castro is because according to your Hammer and Sickle magazine subscription he was voted Top Dictator of 2006 (beating out a disappointed Bashar Assad by a nose)

At Friday, July 21, 2006 6:54:00 PM, Blogger Bill Jones said...

Yes, I am serious about your sophistry. You do not engage for one second with what Chomsky or Fisk says, you cannot deny that Israel ordered civilians to flee their homes and them bombed them when they complied. You do not have the rigor for intellectual honesty; instead, you say that people who contradict your ideologically blinkered worldview are scary monsters who must be ignored. I don't have all day to tap at a keyboard like you, so goodbye, post to the wind.

At Friday, July 21, 2006 11:12:00 PM, Blogger arch.memory said...

Hilal, I'd like to thank you for posting the Fisk pieces; they are sublime! You are doing a great job! Keep it up.

At Saturday, July 22, 2006 1:29:00 AM, Blogger BeefStu said...

antonin, who has the time to engage someone like Fisk? That guy spews so many untruths that a brand new word was coined to describe the process of debunking him (fisking). And life is too short to waste time reading Jew-hating America-bashers like Chomsky. I was already forced to read too much of his writing at University...

I understand that you'd rather avoid facing up to the sorry reputations of your literary heroes Fisk and Chomsky, so we'll drop that topic as soon as Lebanese moonbats stop relying on them to justify their anti-Israel, pro-Islamofascist views.

At Saturday, July 22, 2006 2:20:00 AM, Blogger Bill Jones said...

"Yes, I am serious about your sophistry. You do not engage for one second with what Chomsky or Fisk says, you cannot deny that Israel ordered civilians to flee their homes and them bombed them when they complied. You do not have the rigor for intellectual honesty; instead, you say that people who contradict your ideologically blinkered worldview are scary monsters who must be ignored."

"antonin, who has the time to engage someone like Fisk?"

Why bother posting at all if you are only going to agree with me? Don't let your heroes at little green footballs tell you what to think, beefstu, try reading things before you attack them. Why are you even here posting if you aren't reading the actual blog? And really, what is the point of going to a blog for people who are having their country destroyed, who are watching friends and relatives get shot to hell and killed, just to rub salt in their wounds? What kind of man are you? Just because current Israeli policy lacks the slightest shred of decency or humanity does not mean that you have to follow their example.

At Saturday, July 22, 2006 4:28:00 AM, Blogger mrs p said...

Rude Boys listen up...this ignorant mindless anal genocide changes nothing, never has, never will. We're suppose to be evolving to a higher state but these moronic juvenile acts are just another chapter in regression. The whole world is watching and most of the world does NOT agree with the nazi behavior of the Israeli & U. S. governments which are bacically creepy corporations run amuck. The American people are the most entertained, misinformed people in the world. The rarely see or hear independent journalism and they don't read. They are completely in the dark about their own country. Thank God some of us are paying attention and actually read books. What a concept!
Robert Fisk is brilliant! We pray for his and all peoples of Lebonon's safety. Israel will never win it's own peace at the end of a sword and most of their people know this. But like in the U. S. the Government is not for, or of the people. Corporations rule the world and care nothing for any of us on either side of the isle. The sheep who are dillusionally following this are so blindly strolling off to slaughter they will not hear common sense.

At Saturday, July 22, 2006 4:33:00 AM, Blogger mrs p said...

Beaststu...if you must get "personal" then we here in the "west" would like to ask you, why do you wear the face of a child hating flesh eating glutenous womanizer?; slobbering drunk actually.

We don't think "Noam" hates anyone. That's your gig.

At Sunday, July 23, 2006 1:17:00 AM, Blogger Hilal CHOUMAN said...

although i may oppose him in some political opinions, i liked the way he presented the scenes.. as if it is afilm..
i consider it a very nostalgic piece

At Monday, July 31, 2006 5:00:00 PM, Blogger TheTruthWillPrevail said...

I do not understand the logic behind the opening comment that you started with. No matter how Fisk is being perceived by the western world, he is writing about facts he saw and experienced while being on the ground in Beirut. There is not much complication in what he has written that you or anyone can debate. It’s a simple narration of facts . So no matter how ridiculed he is by the western world those facts are events of terror against Lebanon. It would have been much logical if you had said this article is not credible because it does not go with your political believes

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