Names, Technology, and a Degree

I am in London, but I have to keep on reminding myself of that. There are seconds when my body sits in room 137a in Goldsmiths College’s main building, but all I could really see is Zibqeen’s valley stretching towards the place I call Palestine and they call Israel. All I could see and hear is Im Ali’s face and her timid laugh. Why am I here? I need to continually search for a convincing answer for it doesn’t come easily to me.

For the coming six months, I will sit in classes and type up letters on lit screens. I will read books in a language I don’t own (and luckily, one that doesn’t own me) and will have long cognitively engaging discussions that will fail to scratch the surface of my whole being. What will I get in return?

I will gain the power of naming I guess, for she who has the power of “naming” has all the power; I rediscover that each and every day. I will be able to label the things I have learnt through people, experience and intuition with names that the world of academia understands and accepts. My personal conclusions after long conversations with people in the south will become “discourse analysis of naturally occurring talk”. Im Ali, Mervat, Zainab, and Haitham will become “research participants”, and in less progressive research institutions; “research subjects”. I will no longer be just Muzna, the name which nobody has ever needed to add a suffix or a prefix to it; it is never Ms Muzna, never with Al-Masri following it, never with a Dr. preceding it (and that will not change, don’t worry), but for the purpose of proper names, I might become “an anthropologist, interested in middle eastern issues and anthropology of violence”. Interested would be too mild a word.

I will also gain the power of excessively used technology. “EndNotes”, “Nvivo”, & “social bookmarking”, were just the appetizers I was introduced to last week. My six year old laptop with a windows 98 operating system is already useless. Browsing the net to buy a new laptop, I discover that modems are no longer built in; I have to pay extra to get that old unnecessary tool. I was still on dial up in Lebanon! But a few years after I return, what I get now will be already out of date.

.. and I will have a degree; one that will open the door for higher paid jobs and recognition, in the world of those who own the power, for my now “properly named” endeavours.

That is if I manage to hold on for the coming three years.

Im Ali, in front of her second makeshift "dukan" in Zibqeen

On Mariam, Mirvat, and Hussein's mother

Hussein’s mother was finally found, so were fifteen other women, children and elderly who have been missing from Ainata. He had to remove the rubble with his own hands to find her. When Hussein went to bury her today, he found that his father’s tomb was destroyed by the shelling. His father was also killed by the Israeli army, back in 1978. I leave it for you to think of what lessons he will chose to teach his children about their grandparents.

Mirvat is fine. She is upset I didn’t pass by to see her when she was in Sidon. Says she needed somebody, anybody, to ask about her, to show concern. I am really sorry Mervat. People who went up to Zibqeen tell her that the two month and two days she has lived since the start of the attack on 12/7 are nothing compared to what she will be through once she is in the village. Maybe she is already in the village, I don’t know.

Mariam did go to Siddiqinne. All the usual places are gone. Her house is half destroyed, doing much better than other houses in the village, The school she teaches at in Bint Jbeil is rubble. Her sister’s house in southern suburbs is the same. She couldn’t stay. After what she has seen, smelled, and felt in the south since yesterday, she chose to come back to Beirut. I try to push her to cry, few tears come out.

I met a guy called Hassan today, by the hospital bed of his 14 year old sister. He lost both his parents, a sister and almost all his aunts and uncles in Shiyah. He is in his early 20s, with no home or family except for Israa his sister and on aunt. I am almost ashamed I still have my family.

.. and I? I don’t know. I can’t bear the images nor the stories. I work for 15 or 16 hours a day; maybe to escape. My house is half empty now. Alas, soon all my visitors will be leaving, and trying to reconstruct a life out of all of this. I don't wnat to be at home without them anymore. I want to go down south, I am not sure I can handle it; I am not sure I want to be that close again to death. Yet I am too close anyway, and I want to be close to the people too.

All of this for what? I wonder.. I know the answer. I know people in the south endure because they want their dignity, and because they know too well the logic of out next door neighbor.

Yet the south is no longer the south we know. We are no longer the enthusiastic spirited women of July 11. In our space and spirit the destruction is so massive, What will restore it? What will help us stay sane, and if possible humane after this? What, at least, will help me go to sleep tonight, away from all images?

Photos & More on Hussein’s Mother

I was hoping the blog will help me write more regularly. I need to write, for my own sanity, I need to tell the stories to be able to let go of them. I will do soon.

Below are some photos from my visit to the south, taken in the Tyre District. My internet connection is not helping and I can't download more that these two for now.

And, for those who asked; Maher and Hussein spent a harsh day in Tyre. Hussein’ mother was not one of the 90 bodies buried that day and we still don't know where she is.

Bazourieh, Car of family from Aitaroun killed during their escape.

Qana, they left the laundry outside as if running an errand and soon coming back, but it has been over three weeks.

Stories from the South - Hussein's Mother

I just came from the South of Lebanon. I went to Tyre, to Hannaoui, Qana, Siddiqinne, Srifa, Bint Jbeil, Ainata, and Ein Ebel and many villages on the way. I so want to write but I still have no words. This was Tyre after all, the lovely city and its beach that I always wanted to call home. These were the villages at which I made friends, aided in Tobacco harvesting and drank the best tea ever. I still haven’t cried, I feel I am not entitled to. If I were to cry, what would I leave to the people that have lost loved ones and houses full of memories?

The spaces once full of friendly old men and women inviting any passer by, stranger or friend alike, to coffee, tea and grapes are now empty. The children no longer play football on the edge of the road, or roll wooden self made toys in the alleys. The late night gatherings under grape trees have gone. Their voices are now replaced by debris, dogs and dying cows. There is nobody in Siddiqinne. I tried to check on Mariam’s house but the road is too full of rubble for me to get there. I looked for one familiar face to say hello to, to ask how things have been, but there is no one there.

I went to Ainata to search for a friend’s mother. The cease fire is coming to an end and I am deep in the Bint Jbeil area. I have to return, I don’t know the house, there is very few people to help, but I insist on looking further. Zainab I say, Hussein’s mother, I describe his profession, his wife, again and again until I find he who knows the house. I climb the rubble. The house is half destroyed. I know this was the kitchen because of the plates squeezed under the rubble; She might have been there making a cup of tea I think, trying to squeeze normality into my presence in the house I have never visited before. There is no bathroom for me to identify, it is gone. I can’t know if she is there but I don’t have the heart to leave her son in the agony of ignorance. I approach seeking a different smell. I can’t believe that this is the way one look’s for a friend’s mother. Is it me doing this? But I am doing it; I have been smelling deaths for two days now. I still can’t know. I was hoping I would come and she would be in the house, waiting for somebody to help her through the difficult terrain, then I would call her son when in Tyre to say I have your mother with me and I am bringing her to Beirut. I was imagining the relieved smile on his face. This didn’t happen.

On the way I get a call, somebody from the Red Cross says they transferred a body of an unidentified woman from Ainata. I find myself wishing it would be her, I want them to at least know. If this cease fire ends without finding her, they will be spending many hard days. I go around one hospital after another, it is chaotic. We can’t see the bodies, we can’t find others who know her in the hospital. I have no consoling words for Hussein.

Today, hours before we head back to Beirut from Sidon, we know that the burial of all the bodies - too many to be kept in the ill-equipped hospital - is taking place at noon. There is no way any member of her family can get to Tyre in time. Maher decides to go. The cease fire has ended, the roads are no longer safe, but the risk is worth going through. I think there is only one loss greater than the death of a loved one; than that of not knowing. He is there now, the burial is delayed and Hussein has arrived. I can’t reach them by phone, they have no signal, and I write these words as I wait.

There is a lot to be told, the many stories I have encountered. I have pictures to share, and I will, I promise, but now I need to go, to talk to the families waiting to hear about their homes. The stories have to be told first to those who own them.

In need of a miracle

She was almost my age, my mother, back in the summer of 1982, that summer which holds my best conserved memories. I look at myself in the mirror and I almost see her face staring back at me. The fine wrinkles on the forehead, a few grey hairs, and the new habit I am acquiring of pulling my hair up. How does one describe the changes in one’s features? Like looking at old pictures and knowing you don’t look as young anymore, though you also know you haven’t changed. Maybe more than anything, it is the eyes that betray us; tired eyes through Kohol, our traditional black eyeliner, announcing to you and to the world that you are at war.

I can’t believe that I am living through this for the third time; one assault per decade. But I am a grown up now, neither the 9 year old girl of 1982, nor the enthusiast of 1996. I am 33 and I should know what to do. I should know the answers and all the magic tricks that would get us out of this, the same way I believed my mother did when she was my age. I blamed her though for allowing war to happen to me, I thought that is one thing she should have known better not to permit. She should be able to change the world, after all that is what mothers are capable of. At 33 I am relieved not to be a mother myself, because despite all my good intentions, I still haven’t learnt the magic tricks to get any child out of the agony of war.

The most frustrating side of all of this is that I am a believer in nonviolence, with an MA in peacebuilding. It is funny that the posters with the call of applications for the “3rd Annual Summer School for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding” still hang in the streets of the city and on the walls of NGOs we are spending our war times in. I was supposed to be assisting in that training. I would have told the participating youth about the difference between positions and interests, effective communication and some about empathy. I would have taught them nothing though on how to save the life of at least one child in the time of war, maybe because I don’t know how to do it myself.

I spent the past three days today listening to one story after another from people who lived a horrible week in the south. Hundreds trapped in a tiny shelter for 6 days, dead bodies still under the rubble, and 150 people walking for hours in hopes of reaching safety. I heard stories of the displaced; mothers with no water to bath their children and diabetes patients loosing limbs because they were without their medication for days.

The toll of the stories is too heavy, especially when I hear the usual question: “so you think what you are doing could be effective?” They are all giving me their stories, handing it on a plate of hope and trust, and I struggle with it all. I have no promises that I could keep to give in return.

Through the years, all promises of peace with dignity have betrayed them, those people whose stories I have heard. All the way from the Palestine related UN resolutions since 1947, through the “Peace of the Brave” and the Oslo accords; most (definitely not all) of those babbling the peace discourse have been nothing but agents for a project which people of this region didn’t accept. Neither have the intellectuals or activists, at least through the eyes of a southern Lebanese farmer, ever made a difference. They say, well thousands have demonstrated against the war in Iraq but it happened anyway. They say we had a UN resolution for the Israeli army (IDF) to get out of Lebanon for 22 years, but it was only implemented because of the armed resistance. Nasrallah, on behalf of Hizbullah promised them dignity, maybe through a lot of pain, but at least that is one group that people feel has delivered.

My friends, too, force me to be accountable to this same set of believes. Teasing me and placing bets that I would eventually hold arms if the IDF invades and reaches Beirut, the city they know I adore. I guess they know what would be my tipping point; I have seen this happen to the city back in 1982. After 2 months of living through the Israeli siege of Beirut, the IDF planes filling its skies and managing to injure my father and 8 year old brother and damaging the house in which I was born, the saddest part was seeing the tanks on the streets of the city. They were on the corniche - this is mine I thought, and they can’t be here. After all, the seaside pavement was almost my backyard. I had pictures taken there since maybe the day I was born, and from the same spot where I used to watch the sunset I had to stare at the people who have been bombing the places where I played, now strolling around them. I couldn’t understand it then, I wouldn’t bare it now. I say I will lay on the tanks’ way and let the tanks roll over my body if they may. I say the world will be with us and will be watching and this can’t continue. But I myself have too many arguments to counter that. The world has not really been watching in the past 14 days; have you seen the death of any Lebanese making the headlines in the past two weeks?

I struggle with it, I want to be true to the people with the stories; I want to be true to myself and my own need for dignity too. And yes, I am still a believer in nonviolence, through a belonging more humanistic than national, but I need results. I need at least one small miracle, at least one kept promise.

Dreams Deferred

en Frnacais:

It is Tuesday and Mariam has a smile on her face this afternoon; something that I haven’t seen since Saturday. She finally heard from her family. They are safe, she says, after a hard trip from Tyre to Sidon.

She has been staying at my house since Thursday morning, trapped in Beirut after the roads to her native village Siddiqine, just 12 kilometers west of Tyre were blocked. Her only alternative refuge was an apartment in Haret Hreik, too close to Hizbullah’s headquarters to be safe. I am relieved that she is here, out of harm’s way in my house that now hosts many other friends. I think of her family, this one is not their first escape. They fled Siddiqine last week and stayed with relatives in Tyre thinking it was safer. Indeed it could have been, because the name of the village was on TV too often today. The family had its share of the war and of IDF attacks over the years. Back in 1996, their village was hit hardest losing 42 people in attacks on Qana’s UNIFIL camp. In 1993, almost a third of the village’s houses were destroyed in another Israeli attack

Her father is still in the village, making sure their cattle and land is taken care of. The tobacco is in season and now it should have been picked and hung to dry, but the usual laborers are not there. This is the families main source of income, one crop that they labor for 11 months a year. Picking the leaves is a tedious job in which the whole family contributes, working for 12 hours a day starting at four in the morning. What the crop will wield will determine how the family lives next year. This is not what worries her most though, she wonders if he father is alright. “I have no way of contacting him, I don’t think he is eating well, he never eats on his own”, she says as we prepare our meal.

Yet Mariam is making good use of her days here. Since yesterday I have been waking up to find that she is already in her post at the displaced meeting point, helping guide thousands of families fleeing their homes to schools in which they can take refuge. When I passed by her and other volunteers this afternoon they were still without breakfast, and even now at 1:00 am she remains on duty, wrapping up and organizing for tomorrow.

She still has the spirit of the 16 year old girl that I met 10 years ago when I was working on a youth development project in south Lebanon. They did marvelous work that granted them their elders’ admiration; a garbage collection project in a village where a municipality did not exist and summer entertainment programs for the younger children. We have made other friends then; Abed who is now working in Beirut we know is safe, but it is Mervat who we lost contact with. She should be in Tyre, but we can’t reach her since Friday as the phone lines are mostly cut off. The images of bombardments we see on TV and what we have heard from Mariam’s family and other friends who have escaped are no relieve.

I have kept contact with all three of them through the years, and continued to hold so much admiration for the little changes they struggle for. I know that Mariam has worked her way through a university degree despite the family’s financial hardship and managed to gain the community’s appreciation as an independent young woman. She is still struggling now; with a veil she is trying to abandon despite her family’s pressure and that of the religious school where she works. I wonder what will become of them in another 10 years, and fear that while a war is waged on their country, all they have done would seem so marginal. It is 2:00 am and as she enters the house, I pray she finds the strength to continue her own struggle as she supports her family and village through the impact of all of this; when and if this ends that is. Above all though, I pray that we hear from Mervat soon.

Mohammed's Story

en español:

It is not me they should be worrying about, my friends from countries around the world who have been calling since Wednesday; after all I live in one of the safest areas of this country, next to embassies, and prime ministers. I have water and electricity, and above all internet. If they are to worry, they are to think of the tens of people I am calling everyday. People in the south of Lebanon who are under the shelling, and isolated from the rest of the country. If I am to share a diary I will not share mine, but that of my friend Mohammed and his family.

There are forty people in Mohammed’s two bedroom house since Thursday. Along with his wife and his twin boys, are his brothers and sisters, their children and their 70 year old mother. Their village has been attacked and is relatively unsafe. Unfortunately the place they are staying at now is not any safer. They are in Al-Hosh, a suburb of the city of Tyre. Yesterday night a gas station hundreds of meters away was bombed, and they have been hearing the shelling all day today. They have no electricity. The generators, already present in most regions, of the country are running out of fuel as the roads to the south are all destroyed now. Water which should reach the houses through electric pumps is now scarce due to the electricity pumps.

The family feels isolated, the road back to their village was already destroyed so are the roads to other regions of the country. “It is like we are living on the margins of life, things might happen here and nobody would know.” We talk about Naim, a kid we both knew from a Zibqine a lovely village south of Tyre. He died on Thursday along with 11 other members of his family when their family home was bombed. Some of the bodies might still be under the rubble. “Basseeta”, he says, literally meaning “it is simple” or “not a problem”, and I ask how can he say something like this, while his family is under siege and threat. He says it to continue, expecting that if anything happens to him and his family, the world, as with Naim, might also see it as too minimal of an incidence.

“We know the story too well, we lived it so many times” he says, “but this time I feel it differently”. “Yesterday, watching my children in their sleep, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness. How can I protect them? They are three and a half years old and I thought they were saved from the life we lived. I am scared of the possibility of running out of supplies, of gas, water and food for them. They are agitated, now trapped in the house with 38 other people for three days. What scares me too is that they are acquiring too early knowledge I wanted to shield them from. Yesterday, on the phone with their uncle in Germany, they asked for a tank, like the one the Israelis have, as a present on his next trip to Lebanon. It chokes me up. When I was kid I asked for plastic guns as a gift. We played “war” in the living room with cushions as our sandbags; this was a game they never played and I was hoping they would never learn. Yet, unfortunately, it seems I am not their only tutor.”