Thursday, January 31, 2008

Israel concedes defeat in Second Lebanon War

Olmert would prefer to close the chapter on the Lebanon file once and for all, but this week the Winograd Report slapped the PM with the conclusion he had tried to avoid ... that Israel didn't win the 2006 war.

Politically, the judge arrived at a sound and accurate conclusion. Israel failed in its objectives to deliver a serious blow to Hizballah, instead only increasing the power and resolve of the Shi'ite group.

There is an aspect to this war (a common aspect among wars in general), however, that has been notably neglected by both sides ... the humanitarian aspect. This war epitomised the sad nature of humanity, that we would place political and economic agendas above sacred human life.

Indeed, I can admit I am not innocent of this, and nor is this new to human kind (let's not be naive). Living outside of the region for most of my time, I get caught up in the geo-political, strategic games, ignoring the fact that there are millions of people who's livelihood is regrettably caught up in this mess.

But when I found myself trapped in Lebanon during the 2006 war, suddenly all of the geo-politics, ideologies and divisions meant nothing in the light of the loss of human life. Everything man created, from cars to religions, could not compare in priority to the life of a human being. Over 1200 civilians, overwhelmingly Lebanese, lost their lives. That is nothing to cheer about.

Whilst Israel and Hizballah weigh up the political consequences of the 2006 war, I lament the costly human consequences of another needless war.

AP article
below on Winograd Report:


JERUSALEM (AP) — The head of the panel investigating Israel's 2006 Lebanon conflict said Wednesday that the war ended without victory and the army did not provide an effective response to Hezbollah rocket fire.

Eliyahu Winograd, the retired judge who led the investigation, told a packed auditorium in Jerusalem investigators found "failures and shortcomings" in the country's political and military leadership during the conflict.

Nevertheless, both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, acted in "what they thought at the time was Israel's interest," he concluded.

"The overall image of the war was a result of a mixture of flawed conduct of the political and military leadership ... of flawed performance by the military, especially the ground forces, and of deficient Israeli preparedness," Winograd said. "We found serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning."

The highly anticipated report, issued after a 16-month investigation, stopped short of holding Olmert personally responsible for the war's failures. That was a small boost as the prime minister moves forward with peace talks with the Palestinians.

A harsh indictment could have threatened his government and his stated goal of reaching a peace agreement this year. Olmert aides acknowledged they were relieved.

Winograd said the committee had decided not to assign personal blame for the war's shortcomings, preferring instead to search for ways to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

"It should be stressed that the fact we refrained from imposing personal responsibility does not imply that no such responsibility exists," he said.

Winograd said a last-minute ground offensive in Lebanon failed because it did not improve Israel's position ahead of a cease-fire and added the army was not prepared for that battle.

More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in that offensive launched shortly before a U.N.-brokered truce went into effect. Olmert had come under severe criticism for ordering the battle, despite his contention that the offensive improved Israel's position before the cease-fire.

Officials in Olmert's office said they were optimistic after a preliminary glimpse of the 629-page report. Olmert's spokesman, Jacob Galanty, was quoted by Israel TV as saying the prime minister's office was "breathing a sigh of relief."

Olmert's office said he had begun reading the report and would carefully study its conclusions.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hussein Haj Hassan told The Associated Press that the report underlined the Islamic militant group's victory.

"The Winograd report is an acknowledgment of Israel's responsibility for the war and its defeat," he said.

The war erupted on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two who have not been seen or heard from since.

Olmert entered the war with broad support from the Israeli public. But his popularity plunged after the campaign failed to achieve his two declared goals — winning the soldiers' release and crushing Hezbollah.

Despite a heavy Israeli aerial campaign, the guerrilla group rained nearly 4,000 rockets on northern Israel. Israeli reservists returning from the battlefield complained of poor training and a lack of ammunition and key supplies.

Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed in the war, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians, according to official figures from the two sides.

Most of the army's wartime commanders, including the chief of staff and defense minister at the time, have already resigned so the big question about the report was how Olmert would fare.

A harsh interim report released in April by the panel accused the prime minister of "severe failures" and hasty decisions at the beginning of the war. Wednesday's report dealt with the war's final 28 days.

Olmert was able to beat back calls for his resignation after the interim report.

Opposition lawmakers, both from dovish supporters of peace talks to hardline critics, reiterated calls for Olmert to resign.

"The report paints a very dark picture of Israel and what happened in the army and the government and what happened between the army and the government," said Yossi Beilin, a prominent dovish lawmaker. "This should not have happened, and the man who is responsible cannot continue in his job."

Olmert has repeatedly said he would not step down.

Fairuz defies March 14, electrifies Damascus

Ignoring calls from Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians to boycott Damascus, Fairuz returned to Syria after two decades and brought the crowd to life.

The drama caused by March 14 has only backfired and further hurt their ailing image. We cannot prevent art, let alone the woman that sits atop arts in the Arab world, from singing to the millions that are moved to tears when they hear her voice.

Music is a sacred and precious art to the Arab people. In a world where the ordinary have little room for expression, music is often the avenue to vent sadness, hope and nostalgia of happier times. Music has become a commercial commodity in the Western world, but in the Arab world the sounds and lyrics of the likes of Fairuz and Umm Kalthum are as sacred to society as their religious convictions.

March 14's attempt to strip the Syrian people of their right to bask in that little space of expression was rightfully met with sharp criticism of its own. Fairuz is not simply a symbol of Lebanon, she is a symbol of love, freedom and hope. These are notions applicable to many suffering people in the world, including the Syrians, whom she also feels a close attachment to. She belongs to the Palestinians, to the Syrians, to all Arabs, as well as to the Lebanese, and that is a status she will not yield, not for any political agenda, and I greatly respect her for that.

A good article that featured in Reuters below:

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, Jan 28 (Reuters Life!) - Legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz performed to a sell-out crowd in the Syrian capital on Monday, defying politicians who criticised her for going to what they consider enemy territory.

The Arab diva, who burst onto the music scene on Damascus Radio in 1952, returned to the Syrian stage after an absence of two decades, and moved many of her fans in the Opera House audience to tears.

She played the lead role in "Sah al-Nom", a musical satire about a careless ruler who is challenged by a poor woman, and received a standing ovation. The show was performed as part of cultural celebrations in the ancient city of Damascus, chosen as the 2008 Arab Capital of Culture.

"Fairouz transcends politics. In Damascus she has been always treated as an empress," Syrian sculptor Mostapha Ali told Reuters.

Fairouz, who is in her 70s and is a cultural icon of the Arab world, aroused controversy by accepting the invitation from the Baathist government in Damascus at a time of increased tension between Syria and its neighbour Lebanon.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused Fairouz of playing into the hands of Syrian intelligence services he blamed for a series of political assassinations in Lebanon.

Another Lebanese member of parliament said Fairouz should not perform for "Lebanon's jailers", a reference to Syrian dominance and military presence in Lebanon for most of the period from 1976 until Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.

A group of Syrian political activists also called on Fairouz to boycott Damascus, pointing to a renewed crackdown on dissidents. Just one hour before the play began, intelligence officers arrested leading opposition figure Riad Seif.

Ten other dissidents were charged earlier in the day with undermining the state, and could face long prison sentences.

Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdelnour said Fairouz performed for the Syrian people, not its rulers.

"The Syrians consider Fairouz one of their own. Before they studied geography and went to school they learned about Syria's rivers and mountains from listening to her songs," Abdelnour said.

Fairouz has not responded to the criticism. She last performed in Syria in the 1980s, during the iron rule of President Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar al-Assad, when Syrian troops were still in Lebanon.

The gaunt, enigmatic Fairouz with her trademark long red hair is considered a national treasure in Lebanon. When she returned to Lebanon's Baalbak cultural festival in 1998 for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut's Daily Star newspaper described her return as "catharsis on a national scale".

"The high point of my life was when broke through a crowd in London and kissed Fairouz's hands," said leading Syrian painter Fadi al-Yazigi, who has sought to organise joint exhibitions with Lebanese artists to counter political tension between the two countries.

The late Egyptian composer Mohammad Abdelwahab called Fairouz "our ambassador to the stars". She is Lebanon's biggest artistic export and her recent collaboration with her son Ziad has appealed to a more international audience.

The musical she performed on Monday was composed by her late husband Assi al-Rahbani and re-arranged by Ziad, whose musical creations have ranged from political musicals to jazz.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Back to basics: riots, deaths in Lebanon

A news round-up of the latest activity in Lebanon. Electricity cuts, demonstrations, death, assassinations, Fairuz, it's been a very active weekend.

It's all becoming rather trivial, and I'm becoming a parrot who repeats the same message over and over. My message might seem utopian, but I'd like to believe in my head that the Lebanese people can at their basic humanity, learn to live.

All of our problems are intertwined, and come from the same historical sources that we have yet to confront and deal with. The inequalities between sects, regions and families, the fact that Lebanon exists is causing a headache for a people. Lebanon has not advanced since the French drew the line separating Lebanon from Syria in 1920. Our people have struggled and are still struggling to understand this new concept called Lebanon. The country was and is a colonialist project.

Behind the banners and colours of Lebanon's various political camps, we have - at the core - sections of the community trying to create a distinctive identity that will tie us to this new Lebanese entity, other sections ignoring this attempt and diving in old, pre-1920 roots as the base of their identity. One thing our various political sections do have in common is that they're all lost in this search for an identity. And in this age of uncertainty and ambiguity, the plague of fear and paranoia rises and barriers are fomented, and everyone sits in their corner watching every move of the other.

So when one hears stories of riots due to electricity cuts, it isn't about electricity cuts. It's about equality in this new state, it's about the question of identity, and where this community sits in the Lebanon pie chart. The protests of the Shi'ite southern suburbs is more to do with being at the bottom of the pie chart (which causes them to get the worst of services), than it is about electricity cuts.

The broader problem of March 14 vs Opposition also centres on this same, delicate issue of equal distribution and who sits where on the Lebanon pie chart. What these camps have yet to realise is that it's still possible to remove the pie chart and have an even rectangular establishment where each sect, each region benefits equally from the state's institutions. But as the old Socrates saying goes, "absolute power corrupts absolutely", and it is the ambitions of power which prevent the Lebanese from compromising and instilling harmony.

Seven killed in Beirut riots

BEIRUT (AFP) — At least seven people, including five political activists, were killed on Sunday when street protests over power cuts descended into violence in the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital.

The bloodshed came amid fears of civil unrest in Lebanon which has been gripped by a protracted presidential crisis, and two days after a massive car bombing killed a top intelligence officer.

Violence swept the southern suburbs of Beirut, a stronghold of the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah which is spearheading a campaign against the ruling coalition.

Youths wielding sticks and iron bars went on the rampage, pelting cars with stones and setting some on fire while the army was out in force in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to nearby Sunni and Christian districts.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora condemned the violence and called for a national day of mourning on Monday.

"This is an hour of sadness. Our country is passing through the most dangerous times," he said.

"I call on all the people to put their trust in the army at these most difficult times and await the results of the investigations that the army and the security services are undertaking."

The riots were the worst since January 2007 when seven people were killed in clashes between students loyal to rival camps, prompting the army to impose a brief curfew for the first time since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

An official from the Shiite Amal movement, a pillar of the opposition, said one of its members, Ahmad Hamza Hamza, 21, was killed along with four Hezbollah activists, a rescue worker and a civilian.

Officials said more than 19 people were wounded.

The violence escalated after Hamza, who was cooperating with the army, was killed. It was unclear who fired at the victims, amid reports of snipers shooting into the crowd from rooftops.

Amal and Hezbollah appealed for calm.

"The situation must be contained. We appeal to all the people who are on the streets to go home so that security forces can restore calm to the region," Amal MP Ali Hassan Khalil said, insisting his group was not behind the protests.

The ruling coalition blamed the opposition for the unrest saying it was being manipulated by Syria and Iran.

"The forces of the Syrian-Iranian axis are fomenting unrest and these events are very dangerous," a statement said. "The opposition, which answers to Syria and Iran, is solely responsible for the blood spilled today."

The army shut down many roads to stop the protests from spreading, and soldiers also took positions on rooftops.

As night fell, demonstrators temporarily cut the main airport road with burning tyres while gunfire rang out sporadically across the southern suburbs.

A car that had been set ablaze exploded, triggering panic in Beirut where only two days ago a massive car bombing killed a top anti-terror officer and four other people.

A top security official warned the riots could spread unless politicians reined in their supporters.

"The politicians alone can decide whether to contain their followers or to give them the green light to spread mayhem," the official told AFP. "But all indications are that the situation will escalate and that these protests will become our daily fare."

The unrest flared after demonstrators protesting at power cuts set ablaze tyres, blocking a main road linking the Chiyah and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods.

The army fired warning shots to disperse the demonstrators, a security official said.

Des manifestations dégénèrent au Liban: au moins 7 morts


Des manifestations à Beyrouth et dans le sud du Liban pour protester contre les coupures d'électricité ont dégénéré dimanche en violences, faisant au moins sept morts et plusieurs blessés dans un pays plongé dans une grave crise politique.

Ces violences sont intervenues au moment où les craintes de dérapage augmentent dans un pays divisé sur le partage du pouvoir entre la majorité, soutenue par l'Occident notamment, et l'opposition, appuyée par Damas et Téhéran.

"Sept personnes ont été tuées dans les manifestations, quatre membres du Hezbollah, un d'Amal (deux partis d'opposition), un secouriste et un civil", a déclaré à l'AFP un responsable d'Amal qui a requis l'anonymat.

Il était cependant impossible de déterminer l'origine des tirs. Certaines télévisions ont parlé de francs-tireurs cachés dans les immeubles environnants.

Les violences ont éclaté lorsque des manifestants ont coupé en plusieurs endroits des routes dans la banlieue sud de Beyrouth, fief du Hezbollah et d'Amal, et la principale route menant à l'aéroport international. Elles ont pris une plus grande ampleur après la mort du partisan d'Amal.

Des hommes armés ont ouvert le feu sur les soldats qui avaient effectué des tirs de sommation pour disperser les manifestants, ont affirmé des témoins et des sources au sein des services de sécurité.

Selon les images de télévision, des petits groupes de manifestants ont occupé les voies de circulation, bloquant les voitures. Des bennes à ordures ont aussi été incendiées.

Certains manifestants étaient munis de bâtons et de barres métalliques et d'autres étaient armés. Plusieurs dizaines manifestaient entre les quartiers de Chiyah et Mar-Michael, dans le sud-ouest de la capitale. D'autres s'étaient rassemblés plus au sud avant de bouger dans différents secteurs.

Une voiture qui avait été incendiée par les manifestants dans le sud de la capitale a explosé sans faire de blessés, selon les services de sécurité.

L'armée a indiqué dans un communiqué avoir ouvert une enquête pour connaître les circonstances des incidents et identifier les responsables des tirs.

Dans le sud du pays, des dizaines de manifestants ont coupé brièvement les routes principale et secondaire entre les villes de Saïda et Tyr, distantes de quelque 35 km, avec des pneus enflammés.
Ces violences sont les plus sanglantes depuis les affrontements de janvier 2007 entre partisans des deux camps rivaux qui avaient fait sept morts.

La majorité accuse l'opposition d'utiliser les manifestations à des fins politiques. Mais celle-ci dément.
"Les partis de l'axe syro-iranien ont sciemment voulu faire exploser la situation et répandre le chaos", a affirmé la majorité dans un communiqué. "L'opposition qui répond aux ordres syro-iraniens, porte entièrement la responsabilité du sang versé", ajoute le texte.
Le député Ali Hassan Khalil, du mouvement Amal, a démenti tout lien de son parti avec les rassemblements. "La situation doit être maîtrisée, nous appelons tous les gens à rentrer chez eux", a-t-il dit à la télévision.

Un responsable des services de sécurité a estimé que les manifestations pourraient s'étendre dans les jours à venir. "Seuls les hommes politiques peuvent décider de retenir leurs partisans ou de leur donner le feu vert pour semer le chaos", a-t-il dit sous le couvert d'anonymat. "Tout porte à croire qu'il y aura une escalade et que ces manifestations seront notre pain quotidien".

Le Liban est sans président depuis le 24 novembre 2007 et a été le théâtre d'une série d'attentats ayant visé pour la plupart des personnalités antisyriennes, le dernier ayant tué le 25 janvier un officier des renseignements libanais.

Au Caire, les ministres arabes des Affaires étrangères étaient réunis dimanche pour tenter de trouver une issue à la crise libanaise.

March 14 continues assault on Fairuz concert in Syria

By Nicholas Blanford | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Revered throughout the Arab world for five decades, the much beloved and iconic Lebanese diva Fairouz has found herself embroiled in Lebanon's bitter crisis with Syria.

Fairouz, long the doyenne of Arab singers, traveled to Syria last week to appear in a six-day run beginning Monday at the Damascus Opera House of her classic 1970 musical "Sah al-Nom," an Arabic expression for "Did you sleep well?" Her appearance is a highlight of a series of cultural events in Syria this year to mark UNESCO designating Damascus as the 2008 Arab capital of culture.

Her decision to sing in Damascus, however, has caused a split in her huge fan base in Lebanon between those arguing that Fairouz should not perform before the rulers of a country blamed for a string of assassinations in Lebanon over the past three years, and others who maintain that the Lebanese diva is above politics and should sing wherever she wishes.

The spat hardened on Friday when a top Lebanese police officer became the latest victim of the bomb assassinations that have blighted Lebanon for over three years. Capt. Wissam Eid, head of the technical department in the paramilitary Internal Security Forces, died along with five other people when a powerful car bomb exploded beside his vehicle in a Beirut suburb.

Lebanon's gridlocked pro- and anti-Syrian factions have been unable to elect a new president since November, and the crisis continues to defy regional and international mediation.

"Those who love Lebanon do not sing for its jailers," says anti-Syrian legislator Akram Shehayeb. "Our ambassador to the stars, you painted for us the dream nation, so don't scatter that dream like the dictators of Damascus scattered our dreams of a democratic free country."

A poll conducted last week by the "Now Lebanon" Web portal, which is sympathetic to the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition in Lebanon, found that 67 percent of respondents were against Fairouz appearing in Damascus.

"Simply, this is not the moment for a musical love-in," a Now Lebanon editorial said. "Fairouz must decide. She is a Lebanese icon, and, as such she must repay the people who have backed her and who love her with a modicum of solidarity."

Born Nohad Haddad, she was given the stage name Fairouz, Arabic for Turquoise, by an early mentor. Her first major concert was in 1957. She became an instant sensation and, in collaboration with her musician husband, Assi Rahbani, and his brother Mansour, her acclaim rose during the 1960s and 1970s.

Fairouz has consistently remained aloof from politics, saying her music was for the people only. Apart from a single concert in 1978, she famously refused to sing in Lebanon during the 1975-90 civil war in disgust at the warring militias, who continued to adore her nonetheless.

Her songs are regularly played during times of difficulty in Lebanon, and, for older generations, they evoke a nostalgia for Lebanon's golden years in the 1950s and 1960s.

A recluse who has given only three interviews in her five-decade career, Fairouz has not responded to her critics. However, her former musical partner Mansour Rahbani said her decision to sing in Damascus was "a message of love and peace from Lebanon to Syria. A message of friendship, not subservience."

Certainly, Syrians are delighted that Fairouz is back in Damascus, her first appearance in the Syrian capital since 1982.

"The Syrians are thrilled, especially the Damascenes," says Sami Moubayed, a historian of Syria's postindependence period in the 1950s. "She reminds them of the 'good old days'," adding that apart from "nostalgia, talent, her gigantic standing [and] heavenly voice ... everybody is pleased that she is defying the anti-Syrian team in Lebanon and coming."

Still, for most ardent fans, Fairouz is a symbol of unity rather than division and her standing will doubtless outlast the current quarrel. As the famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani once wrote: "When Fairouz sings, mountains and rivers follow her voice, the mosque and the church, the oil jar and loaves of bread. Through her, every one of us is made to blossom, and once we were no more than sand; men drop their weapons and apologize. Upon hearing her voice, our childhood is molded anew."

Torture still an every-day occurrence in Lebanon

TV3 New Zealand

Last year's battle in Lebanon between Islamist militants and Lebanese soldiers was the country's biggest internal conflict since its civil war ended in 1990.

The fighting took place at a Palestinian refugee camp, and reports have since emerged that refugees, as well as suspected militants, have been tortured by the military.

The army calls the foreign fighters "terrorists," and says they infiltrated the Nahr Al-Bared camp, with help from its Palestinian residents, to destabilise Lebanon.

But human rights groups here say that's irrelevant: nobody, including terrorists, should be tortured.

Lebanese soldiers are bitter that 168 of their comrades were killed at Nahr Al-Bared, and some say the suspects deserve everything they get. Many Lebanese agree.

There's an acceptance that torture is justified. Not by everyone, but there's a lot of people that think that torture might be justified in interrogating people like Fatah Al Islam.

Journalist Omar Nashabe says Lebanese authorities have a well-established record of using torture, with techniques ranging from the use of electricity on suspects to the removal of teeth and fingernails. The most common technique is called "farooj," or rotiseried chicken.

They tie a human being on the bar and they flip him and beat him and flip him and beat him so he takes the beating all over his body.

Among those taking a beating are Palestinian refugees like Abu Saleh, suspected of aiding the Fatah Al-Islam fighters. But he says he fled when the conflict broke out, and was arrested when he went home after the battle.

Like most Palestinian detainees, Abu Saleh was released without charge and told to keep his mouth shut. However, Nashabe says Lebanese need to speak out about torture.

Nashabe says ending torture in Lebanon will mean reforming not only the military and police force but changing people's attitudes.

But with torture in Lebanon widely condoned, that sort of change may take some time.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The passing of a great Australian actor, Heath Ledger

This is totally unrelated to Lebanon or the Middle East, but I'm sure I'll be excused for writing about something that is monumental news in Australia at present.

The world is well informed now of the sad and sudden death of Australian actor, Heath Ledger. The world may have passed it on as another 'another Hollywood star bites the drug', but the reception of his death in Australia has been met with resounding grief.

For a country that only amounts to 2% of the film and music global market, Australia has produced some incredibly fine artists, and Heath Ledger was emerging as one of the greatest.

Originating from the isolated city of Perth, the 28-year-old won acclaim and appraisal from film critics and skeptics alike with his performances. He was known to be incredibly picky about which movies he wanted to star in.

Every movie needed to have significance. He chased the story, not the status. He was inspired by art, not by fame. He never accepted the celebrity aspect of being an actor, Ledger remained a private individual that wasn't a booze hound or a party animal like most of Hollywood's A list. He avoided the scene, and simply worked on developing his artistry. For that's what makes an artist. The ability to create, to imagine, and to pursue those imaginations in the face of overwhelming temptation to do otherwise.

After breaking through with his hit teen movie, 10 things I hate about you, in 1999, Ledger rejected every teen movie offer after that, and there were plenty. He didn't want to become a teen star, I don't think he wanted to be a star at all. He wanted to perform in movies that conveyed a real, serious message. His choice to act in Brokeback Mountain wasn't a coincidence,

Ledger is reported to have referred to his uncle Neil as the inspiration behind his Oscar-nominating performance in Ang Lee's gay cowboy film. His uncle was as masculine and butch as they come, a bare-knuckle fist fighter in fact. He's also as gay as they come. Neil's father disowned him when he was 20 and kicked him out of the house. Ledger recalls other more personal stories of his uncle Neil, all of which made Ledger determined to make a movie portraying the hardships of gay men in highly masculine streams of life.

Ledger chose the genres, chose the stories, chose the issues that he wanted to be the base of his art. Rejecting those teen flicks early in his career did come at a price. He ran short of cash, right to the extent where he was surviving on mere rice. Perseverance and persistence gave in, he became a success. He stood by his principles (and to find a Hollywood star with principles is already extremely rare, let alone stand by them) at all costs to become the person he envisioned to be.

He was a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and dared to speak out against it when most Americans and Australians were in favour. Society and principles mattered dearly to Heath Ledger. He avoided the lucrative temptation of caving into any role for the dollar. He didn't pursue the dollar, and he didn't pursue the fame. In fact, it was probably the fame and dollar that drove Ledger to his depression, and his subsequent death.

He wanted to be an artist, but he couldn't handle the fame that came with it. We've seen and are still seeing many performers in Hollywood struggle with the celebrity status, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson are but examples.

So why did Ledger keep it all hidden, and why did it end this way?

The police and his family are referring to his death as "accidental". You don't "accidentally" take a large quantity of sleeping pills and expect to wake up. The police found no trace of illegal substance, and the autopsy proved inconclusive (that was after the first round screening of illegal substances), so he wasn't enjoying a high from a drug substance. Yet stories are now emerging of an unsettled, troubled Ledger, someone suffering from severe depression.

He was known to be a private individual, but could he have been suffering so much? Had he become a person that didn't satisfy him? Did the role of the Joker make him anxious and panic? His art, or rather the roles that he chose to play, were important to Ledger. He wanted them, as I have mentioned, to reflect upon messages that were of significance to society.

Did playing a psycho-path, mass murdering criminal shake the persona of Ledger?

Could it be that he may have had trouble adapting to a character that wasn't him, and to the extreme point of even terrifying Ledger?

Did playing the Joker force Ledger to see something within himself, that he couldn't bare to live with?

It's an extraordinary story. A young man that showed little sign of depression and private problems to a mass media waiting to tear at a celebrity's life as soon as the pen is dropped (Britney Spears for example), was in fact probably the most depressed individual in Hollywood. It is tragic, it is sad. We lost an artist, not merely an actor.

Ledger leaves behind a 2-year old daughter and a legacy that has left a severe impact on many lives. He became a gay icon after the gay iconic Brokeback Mountain. His portrayal of a closet gay cowboy gave inspiration to many homosexuals around the world who are living in fear, in secret, or who have been ostracised by their community.

Ledger wanted to convey an important message to the world through his artistry, and he did. He succeeded.

He'll be sorely missed. One feedback commentator in Australia's The Age noted that although she didn't know Ledger personally, it feels like a personal loss. I can vouch for the same.

Rest in peace.

Hamas beats Israel's Gaza Siege

Article from Time:

It took explosives to do what diplomacy couldn't: allow Palestinians to go on a shopping spree. The siege of Gaza, imposed by Israel and the international community after Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory last July, ended abruptly before dawn on Wednesday when militants blew as many as 15 holes in the border wall separating the territory from Egypt. In the hours that followed, over 350,000 Palestinians swarmed across the frontier, nearly one fifth of Gaza's entire population.

Some Palestinians craved medicine and food — goats appeared to be a hot item — because Israel had cut off most supplies from entering Gaza as punishment for militants' firing rockets into southern Israel. Students and businessmen joined the throng heading for Egypt. There were scores of brides-to-be, stuck on the Egyptian side, who scurried across to be united with their future bridegrooms in Gaza. And some, like teacher Abu Bakr, stepped through a blast hole into Egypt simply "to enjoy the air of freedom."

The previous day, President Housni Mubarak faced the wrath of the Arab world when his riot police used clubs and water hoses to attack Palestinian women pleading for Egypt to open the Rafah crossing in Gaza. And despite pressure from Israel and the United States, Mubarak wasn't about to order his men to use force to restrain Palestinians rendered desperate by Israel's siege. The Egyptian President said he ordered his troops to "let them come to eat and buy food and go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons."

At 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Palestinian militants detonated explosive charges knocking out slabs in the 26-foot concrete border wall, and by dawn, Gazans were racing to the open border on donkey carts and tractors and in cars. Once through the holes, they trampled across barbed wire, vaulted over fences and picked their way gingerly through cactus. Many carried heavy suitcases and said that they were never coming back to captivity in Gaza.

But most Gazans were in a mad scramble to go shopping, and they returned with everything from goats to tires to jerricans full of gasoline. One stout woman in a veil threaded nimbly through barbed wire with a tray of canned fruit balanced on her head. The Palestinians cleaned out every shop on the Egyptian side: By afternoon, there was nothing to buy within a six-mile distance of the border; and even the Sinai town of El-Arish, three hours drive away, had been sucked dry of gasoline. One taxi driver who brought back cartons of cigarettes and gallons of gas to resell for a profit in Gaza said, "This should help feed my family for several months."

Israel expressed fears that Hamas militants would use the breach in the border to bring in weapons. One Palestinian said he witnessed dozens of Hamas men who had been stuck in Egypt for months crossing into Gaza. Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aryeh Mekel told newsmen, "We have real concerns that they can now freely smuggle explosives, missiles and people into Gaza, which makes an already bad situation even worse."

Hamas moved quickly to capitalize on the mass celebration of the border's breach. The movement's parliamentary leader, Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt to join in urgent talks to find a formula for keeping the Gaza-Egypt border permanently open. Haniyeh said Hamas was prepared to set up joint control of the border with the President's forces, bringing an end to a hostilities between the two factions that erupted last July when Hamas militants chased the President's Fatah militia out of Gaza.

Now that Gazans have exploded out of their besieged enclave, it may be up to Israel to seal up the border again, since the Egyptians are showing no signs of doing so. Israel had put the economic squeeze on Gaza's 1.5 million people — a policy described as "collective punishment" by many aid organizations — hoping it would turn the Palestinians against Hamas. But with the siege broken, even if temporarily, Hamas has earned the gratitude of hungry Palestinians and reinvigorated its popularity in Gaza.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Weekend ponderings

I must say that I passed a rather tranquil and pleasant weekend. I deliberately switched off my laptop, TV, radio, got as far away from any form of media communication that would bring to me news from the Middle East.

This weekend was to be a No Middle East weekend to enable me to maintain a smile for at least 48 hours straight.

However, all said and done, that didn't absolve me from engaging in private discussions with friends (my Lebanese friends anyway) on the issues that consistently plague our minds. Well there is only one issue that has such an effect, a doctor might render it a form of a disease, it's called the Lebanon syndrome.

I did happen to share an interesting conversation with two Lebanese female friends of mine on the topic of Lebanese hospitality and post-war trauma.

My friends and I do have one thing in common ... our ages. We stem from the post-war generation, the generation that inherited all the stories, hurt and anger our parents faced when they were trapped in the 15 year long civil war. The three of us come from different sects in Lebanon, different regions in Lebanon, and different political backgrounds. Yet, we happily converse and proceed with a cohesive friendship, perhaps because our Australian upbringing has hosed down the tension most Lebanese in Lebanon feel.

It's quite incredible that for "different" Lebanese to meet requires a voyage to the other side of the world, where the social, sectarian and political barriers that prevent the Lebanese within Lebanon to do exactly the same have been removed. Nonetheless, we do it, not without our tense moments, I can assure you, but we do always manage to discuss in a fruitful manner.

Nevertheless, back to the subject of post-war trauma. We were all quite intrigued of the war experiences of our parents and their generation. I've indeed heard all the gruesome and sad stories from my mother, likewise for my friends. So we asked ourselves, how are our parents not traumatised? How have they seen what they've seen, and been able to move on?

Grotesque murders and slaughters were witnessed daily by our parents. They lost loved ones, friends, family, they spent days hiding under tables to avoid the bombs. Day and night, bombs and fire, death and destruction. Yet, today, on the other side of the world, my mother goes about her daily routine as if the war never existed. She never had any therapy. We're Lebanese, seeing a shrink and seeking "professional" psychological assistance is more of a Western remedy. Our question the other night was, how? How have they done it? What goes on through their head?

It isn't easy to survive a war, yet die at the same time. I always viewed my mother as living her second life in Australia. The woman from Lebanon who was to become my mother, probably doesn't exist anymore. Friends, family, her life was taken a way within an instant. My friends concurred in regards to their own parents and family.

What about the Lebanese that remained in Lebanon and didn't have the chance to leave? They weren't given a chance to begin a "second" life, like my parents and the parents of my peers. The anger still festers, the hurt still lingers, the memory still vivid. They can't walk away from it. Lebanon is still suffering from a war we tried so fervently to turn our backs on, but deep down the pain remains.

Amongst ourselves the other night, we tried to explain why the Lebanese have become so materialistic and superficial so as to forget their own great customs that have made them renowned in the world. Our parents, stories from the 60s and 70s, always spoke to us of a Lebanese hospitality and generosity that met no comparison. The villages with people full of trust and warmth that they would welcome foreigners from the ends of the earth, shelter them, and celebrate their coming.

Today, Lebanon is seething in mistrust, in doubt, and in fear. An attempted smile is generally made, but their eyes question your presence. And then there's the brands. Lebanese who would prefer to live in a room a size of a bathroom, just so they can indulge in their material possessions of Gucci sunglasses and BMW cars. Lebanese don't care any more, they spent 15 years living in the dark, now they live every day as if it is their last, as if a war will come and destroy all their possession and condemn them back to the darkness. Take it while you can, that's the Lebanese motto du jour.

Then we spoke of Syria. My friends are supporters of the anti-Syrian March 14, but they relayed to me their astonishment of the Syrian hospitality. One of my friends recounted a story of how she got lost in Damascus and a lady invited her into her home and threw a feast for her, just like that. No questions, no doubt, no lies, it was indeed genuine hospitality, genuine warmth. We said to ourselves this was the Lebanon our parents told us about, their Lebanon before the war, a Lebanon that is now lost. Where has our warmth, our generosity, our hospitality gone?

Syria's 40-year dictatorship has prevented the country from developing economically, but has maintained stability as well as a deeply rooted culture that Lebanon is rapidly losing. Although each country has the right to advance, Syria's "regression" has ironically rendered its society warm and open.

I lament when I watch what art our country is producing nowadays. How we have gone from leading artists and musicians such as Fairuz and Assi Rahbani only 30 - 40 years ago, to the regurgitated plastic pop of Haifa and Nancy. I tend to use art as an expression of one's culture.

Our music was once rich in the manner it was composed, in the poetic lyrics it chanted. The songs relayed a culture of warmth, generosity, and of core, sacred values. Today, our Saudi-funded songs generally feature half naked plastic women (and the men are following), with lyrics to rival the likes of Britney Spears. Coincidentally, plastic surgery is so widespread in Lebanon that publicities now decorate the country's freeway billboards.

So we asked ourselves the other night ... what has happened to Lebanon?

The war destroyed more than just buildings and architecture. Buildings can be rebuilt, and much of it has, but the core of our nation, the days where we would embrace strangers as well as brothers, has yet to return. It perhaps explains our current state of ambiguity. Fear, mistrust and anger still fester in Lebanon, in place of the kind hospitality that we've heard so much about, but see so little of.

Far from the Borders

If there's one bookstore that's worth criticising, it's the global giant retailer, Borders.

The US company, which is one of Australia's major book retailers, received a visitor on the weekend ... me.

As I was buying time before my movie started, I decided to wonder into the quite spacious Borders with an extensive range crossing two floors.

Although I had banned myself from everything Middle East that weekend, I couldn't resist taking a peak at the "Middle East" history section. Indeed, such a section does exist.

On the right hand side, a section had been devoted to "Israeli history", and contrastingly on the left hand side the section was labelled "Middle East history". So far it seemed fair, one side for the Arabs, one for Israel, trying to keep the balance in the world's greatest polemic.

Then I began to read the titles of the books, which started to sway my positive opinion of Borders. The focus of the topics of the vast majority of books displayed in the "Israeli" section was on the drags of war, with such titles as "The Munich Massacre" and "Never-ending War".

These were the kind of stories that attempted to draw pity and sympathy for the Israelis who have to endure so much, and yet all they're seeking is a tiny peace of desert, why can't the big bad Arabs leave them in peace etc. I suspected as much from the "Israeli" section, very rarely do you see criticism of Israel in the "Israeli" section in any bookstore in Australia.

So I turned to the Middle East (or Arab) section to see if the same genre of "feel sorry for me" books were to be found. Not entirely. Instead one large slice of the section was devoted to books with fully veiled women
from Iran on their covers, with blurs that convey to you the harsh treatment of females in the Persian (non-Arab) country. Another large section was devoted to pretty much the same topic, but of females in Saudi Arabia.

Essentially, the first impression any ignorant Westerner receives - who'd like to educate him/herself on the Middle East dilemma - upon passing by the Middle East/Israel history section is as follows: Israel is the victim of countless wars and aggression, while the Arabs beat their women and keep them mummified in black burqas.

I'm not going to deny that Iran and Saudi Arabia have abhorrent policies when it comes to women, but I'm definitely not going to deny that Israel doesn't have abhorrent policies when it comes to Palestinians. Either show both sides of the coin, or don't show any.

Another great victory to the Jewish lobby.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Saudi - Syria public spat over Lebanon

Tension between Saudi Arabia and Syria doesn't seem to be abating, with the fallout over Lebanon again reaching public light.

Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with Bush's tour, criticised Syria for not pushing its allies in Lebanon to accept the Arab plan.

Syria hit back saying that its allies were not "tools" and that Saudi Arabia and Egypt should convince their own allies, who "boast of their allegiance to Saudi Arabia", to accept a solution.

Egypt resumed its threat that obstacles in Lebanon might jeapordise the Damascus Arab summit scheduled for March. Syria asserted that the summit will go ahead, regardless of the threats.

The pro-American Arab states threatened Syria in negotiations in Cairo last week that they will not attend the Arab summit in Damascus if the Syrians didn't accept their plan. The Syrians obliged, signed onto the plan, or at least publicly, but has refused to use its influence to pressure its Lebanese allies to co-operate. Syria's inaction has infuriated Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who were counting on Syria's support of the Arab plan to get the situation in Lebanon resolved.

Syria has given her Arab rivals the cheek once again.

Franjieh: Patriarch Sfeir is an "American employee"

Divisions also surfaced again within the Maronite community, with Sleiman Franjiyeh labelling the spiritual head of the Maronites, Patriarch Sfeir, as an "American and French employee".

The Opposition leader brushed off French threats that the matter will be taken to the UN Security Council, and rightly so. Lebanon has visited the UNSC's table on a number of occasions in the past 24 months, with the resolutions amounting to very little.

But all in all, Lebanese stubborness is beginning to take hold. Neither side is caving in, and foreign players continue to accuse each other of not finding a solution. This is the Middle East's version of Hollywood gossip.

At the end of the day, the only people we can blame for Lebanon's failure are the Lebanese leaders.

Quit the bitching, quit the threats, and quit messing with the lives of millions of Lebanese.

Gaza death toll up to 22

Israel's assault on Gaza continued, with an air strike claiming the lives of three innocent Palestinian civilians from the same family, one a 13 year old boy.

The killing of the three comes in addition to the 19 Palestinians killed on Tuesday, including the son of Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar.

The Israeli military claimed the slaying of the three civilians was made in "error". The amount of times the Israeli military has claimed "error" as an excuse in the past 60 years of bloodshed is beyond a joke.

Yet, the world and the media (particularly Western) remains ready to accept this excuse over and over again, only to express confusion at the hatred and antagonism between the West and the Arab/Islamic world.

Hizballah: Hassan Nasrallah scathed Israel for wreaking "havoc" in Gaza, and accused Bush of providing the green light.

South Africa condemned the "massive military operation" in Gaza.

Russia expresses "serious concern", saying: "Rocket attacks and other terrorist actions against Israeli civilians and response measures that affect innocent Palestinians must be stopped."

In other words, the Russians are saying that it is of course the Palestinians fault that Israel is so ruthless and occupies their territory.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas "enraged" by the Israeli massacre, calls Hamas official to express condolences for lost son, signalling the first contact between Abbas and Hamas since the Gaza takeover.

A PA official claimed the Israeli attack was a direct result of Bush-Abbas talks in Ramallah less than a week earlier.

Hamas wants the PLO to cut peace negotiations with Israel, but that seems like an unlikely course. Cutting talks with Israel will mean resuming talks with Hamas, a move Abbas isn't ready to make. This comes ahead of a gathering of Palestinians opposing Abbas in Damascus at the end of the month. The PA has ravaged Syria for meddling in Palestinian affairs and promoting a Palestinian coalition to counter Abbas. The Syrians have responded by saying that the conference is to promote Palestinian unity, and that Abbas was invited.

Will the latest Israeli strike force the PA to change its mind?

Abbas is taking a foolish path in giving his hopes to the US and Israel. Arafat ditched the Syrians in favour of Saddam, and found himself cornered after the first Gulf War. He was left with two options, turn to the US or become a Syrian stooge. He went to the US, co-operated with the Israelis for a decade, only to be slapped in the face, and as some assume, get assassinated by the Israelis.

Does Abbas believe he will receive different treatment from the Israelis and Americans? The Gaza takeover by Hamas revealed a lot of secrets of the Fatah-US co-operation. The acquisition of a Fatah military barracks revealed that Abbas' men worked as operatives on behalf of the CIA and Mossad throughout the Arab world, gathering intelligence from key US Arab allies as well as enemies. Why would Abbas give so much, yet receive so little?

Or is he really receiving so little? Some Lebanese comrades of mine like to highlight their difference from its neighbours, but I see little difference. Abbas, like the corrupt clan cronies of Lebanon, the Assad family, the Saudi royal family, the Hashemites in Jordan, and Mubarak in Egypt, all share a striking similarity ... they all seek personal power. Their wealth and prestige is of higher value than the interest of their nations. No doubt, Abbas' co-operation with the US and Israel has rendered him a very rich man.

France's emerging role in the Middle East

Sarkozy's tour of the Gulf reaped significant rewards for France. Not only did he continue to pour out nuclear deals with Arab states (in a move to counter Iran's nuclear development), he has won a contract with the UAE to build France's first naval base in the Middle East.

From the Boston Globe:

Military analysts and officials said that it would take several months to build the French base and that 400 troops were not enough to deter Iran or significantly shift the balance of power in the region.
But they also said the new base was an important symbolic step that signaled that Paris wanted to play a greater role in the future.
Sarkozy has made his intentions quite clear since gaining the presidency that he wants to reinstate France's status in the world. He has patched up ties with the US, annoyed his EU counterparts with the renewal of French vigour, and has homed in on the Middle East through a series of lucrative deals from Qaddafi to, now, the Emirates.
Whereas Chirac was cautious on his position in regards to Iran, Sarkozy has taken the driver's seat, and has reiterated his firm stance. Now it appears the harsh words are turning into action with the establishment of a navy base opposite Iran.
France is back, or at least trying to make a come back, and it seems the French are serving as a complimentary accessory to the US policy in the region. The US is restricted in developing nuclear energy with its Arab allies, mainly by Israel's anxiety, and to a lesser extent Russia's anxiety. So who to call in for the favour? France. The French are reaping the benefits from the Iran-US stand off, and are tip-toeing behind American developments in the region and picking up the treasure.
The French, like the rest of the world, are aware that American domination in the region is declining as a result of the Iraq blunder. The exit of US power has attracted many other players to the region, as well as boosting the confidence in current regional powers to expand their presence, like Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia signalled its renewed interest in the region last year with its opening of a naval base in Syria, in addition to its own nuclear and military deals with Iran and Syria. Putin also conducted a tour of the rich Gulf last year in a bid to snatch lucrative military and nuclear development deals off the Gulf's Western allies.
France, has decided, it is going to join the list. Sarkozy is adamant in his pursuit of a Mediterranean Union, despite great cynicism of his intentions from Berlin and Brussels. A Mediterranean Union will have a damaging impact on the EU, which is seeking to unify Europe rather than create miniature regional alliances within its boundaries. France sees the Mediterranean Union as its way of regaining global dominance. It wants to create its own sphere of influence.
It's no surprise then that France is on the drive to pick up the pieces of America's collapsing power in the Arab world. For the moment, the French will toe the US' policy in the region, but it is attempting to merge as a dominant, independent player in the region who's policies will be driven by its own interests, without requiring to consult Washington for every move.
However, there is a caution Sarkozy must take in his endeavour to reclaim France's glory. The US is losing against Iran in the region. A tense wedge has been created between the Sunni Arabs and the Iranian-Syrian axis. The Sunni Arab team is struggling to compete. Does France really want to be responsible for a losing team after the US calls it quits?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blast a warning to Bush

Yesterday's "ineffective" attack on a US embassy vehicle should be interpreted as a clear message to Bush during his visit of the Middle East ... his plans aren't working.

There's no point trying to dissect who was responsible, for as a result of Bush's neocon policies of the last 7 years, the amount of groups willing to strike any American target any where in the Middle East has multiplied.

The point that must be taken from this attack is that America's enemies in the Middle East are plentiful, are willing to carry out attacks directly against American targets, and are capable of doing so.

The attack on the US marine base in Beirut roughly 25 years ago was quickly brought back to the conscience of the Americans. Today's attack may have been ineffective in the sense that it didn't claim American casualties, but I assume its purpose has been greatly served ... to instill fear within the US that American lives are not safe in Lebanon.

Will this amount to a change of policy from Bush? Hardly. Thousands of American soldiers have already fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the good President hasn't lost any sleep over it yet.

However, what it will show is that there is a great resolve and determination from America's enemies not only to thwart its plans in the region, but to ensure that the US is not immune from direct attacks in this conflict.

As American news cameras follow Bush around the Middle East, this was another snapshot incident attempting to make a fool of the US President and his mediocre efforts to push his allies against Iran.

Judging by the media's reaction to the blast, I guess it worked.

My sincere condolences to the families of the three innocent civilians struck dead in the blast. Once again, it's the innocent that pays the price for the devil's game.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Weakening Hizballah

It's been a slow day in the news, nothing of great excitement.

The Arab plan failed in Lebanon, Bush has sold more arms to Saudi Arabia, and more dead in Iraq.

Nothing really out of the ordinary. This is the time the bloggers start throwing their theories, and digging up gossip from unknown sources to fill in the gap.

I did come across something of interest - that I feel is worth commenting on - on a blog I regularly frequent, Friday Lunch Club:

"The steps taken by Israel and the international community have thus far not succeeded in weakening the organization. This study argues that in addition to considering Hizbollah's military power, the organization's other assets must be taken into account, including its Iranian connection; developments along the Israel-Syria axis; and its domestic Lebanese standing. Weakening Hizbollah rests on reducing it to an unimportant actor on the regional scene, and the study offers some proactive strategies toward this end." First & foremost: "rub out Hasan Nasrallah"


It strikes me as baffling that Israel, US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan persist with this obsession to weaken or destroy Hizballah. Every effort, from war to UN resolutions, has not only failed to weaken the party, but to the contrary has assisted in boosting its power and prowess to celebrity status in the entire Arab and Islamic world. Their efforts and decisions are blinded by paranoia, arrogance of their own strength, and simple misunderstanding.

David v Goliath, Hizballah has captured the hearts and minds of many Arabs and Muslims disenchanted by half a century of continued loss and failure in the face of Israeli and Western conquests.

To fully weaken Hizballah requires a greater understanding and an objective analysis of where they truly derive their strength. The Iranian petrodollars do play an important key, but every Lebanese chieftain is sitting on millions, so money doesn't make everything.

Its appeal among ordinary Arabs stems from the self-perception of the Arab world being the helpless victim at the constant focus of Western imperialism and Israeli bullying. For an Arab entity to rise up and bring the Israelis to their knees ... on more than one occasion ... rings as a long overdue triumph for the often disappointed Arab public.

But the heart of Hizballah's power lies within the boundaries of Lebanon. The hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Lebanese that depend on the services provided by the Shi'ite party are the source of Hizballah's power. Unlike the vast majority of Lebanese, and Arab political powers that are driven by corruption and are generally symbols of inherited power of elitist families, Hizballah was an organisation born to serve the Shi'ites of Lebanon.

Its entire existence is centred on serving and protecting its community. There's no tribalism, or father-son hegemony, this is an efficient organisation that operates - literally - as a state. It provides the basic services such as health and education, it provides a moral code of conduct, and it provides internal as well as external security with its military wing.

A service-providing party was an inevitable consequence of the fractious state of Lebanon and its institutions. Lebanon is a state with no state-like functionality. The government wields little influence on the daily life, rather it acts simply as an assembly of the various clans from the various villages.
There's no social welfare, no security, no sign of any indication of law and order. Most Lebanese are probably unaware that government laws exist. A lack of order on everything from zoning a quarter, to litter, to road rules, demonstrate that laws in Lebanon are simply non-existent.

Consequently, I'm incredibly puzzled that Lebanese politicians are willing to descend to the streets with weaponry to gain power of a seemingly ineffective and "inutile" institution.

Hence the rise of Hizballah. The frustration and growing impatience - of a section of Lebanon's community - for recognition and access to just the basic services reached its peak. Hizballah has risen to power, not only as a result of its spectacular defeats against a regional superpower, but its ability to skate along the rim of Lebanon's unruly political system and provide long-neglected regions with the basic of services. The Shi'ites have demonstrated their gratitude with unwavering loyalty.

Hizballah's efforts haven't gone unnoticed in the other communities either. I remember driving with an aunt in Beirut, when she turned to me and said:

"the Sunnis had Hariri to rebuild their areas and provide them with services, the Shi'ites are looked after by Hizballah, who's looking after us (the Christians)?"

Another uncle (formerly a vicious right-wing pro-Gemayel, now switched to the Aoun camp) said to me, "this was our country, the Maronites' country, but after 15 years of war we realised we have to live and share with them (Muslims)". I constantly wonder whether this distant uncle was forced to reverse his situation as a consequence of sudden love for thy neighbour (that was coincidentally lacking when he was a fascist supporter of the Phalangist Party), or because his former opponents have risen to such prominence that they are demanding his respect and acknowledgment.

Envy of the Shi'ites increased organisation, power and functionality in the state is running high amongst the current disenchanted, Lebanon's Christians. Now they are asking for their own Hizballah, an organisation to rise up and give them the same services, order and recognition that has disappeared since the Syrians won control of the country after 1990.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to pure human instinct. The simple desire to live a simple life. To work a decent job, to raise a family in comfort and security, and be in good health ... to live.

The key to reversing Hizballah's success is by taking the focus and energy away from trying to destroy the party, and instead focus on rendering it unnecessary. Empower and reform the state institutions in order to produce a government that truly serves all of its people, equally.

But of course, that would render Lebanon stable, united, prosperous and strong, a much worse prospect than a strong single sect.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Retracing roots, young Syrian returns home - Part 1

A friend of mine has embarked on a journey to rediscover his roots. A young Australian of Syrian heritage, Sami, a Christian, offers an excellent insight into his personal experience trying to understand a world foreign to him, yet a world that has a lot of personal meaning and importance.

I tried to do a similar task in Lebanon 2006, but had it brusquely interrupted by war. Well perhaps war is a part of my heritage, so my "discovering the roots" voyage wasn't all in vain.

Sami was born in Syria, but left at the age of 4 as his family chose Australia as the point of migration. His journal is indeed of incredible interest to those of us in our Western corners who have been closed to Syria due to tension between our political capitals, but are yet amazed by its history and prestige. Syria still boasts a sizable Christian community that speaks Aramaic, is ruled by an Islamic minority over a Sunni Muslim majority, and remains untouched by neither McDonalds nor Starbucks.

This is a country we hear so often in the news, but what is it like to live inside the gates of the Baath regime? How does an Arab country, with little traces of American-style capitalism, no political freedom, and a diverse mixture of minorities, function? More importantly, how does its society function?

This is Sami's first return back to the country, and his first encounter with a culture and country that he has dreamed of ... but is the real Syria, the Syria of Sami's dreams?

Rediscovering roots in Syria

Sami Sara

Well, I have been in Syria for about two weeks and I am finally beginning to feel like a local, ie: sleep till midday, leave the house at 4 p.m. and stay up till the early hours. Well, that’s not quite my lifestyle, but it certainly is the way the majority of this city lives.

There is an overwhelming sense of lethargy; the people around me give the impression that they are always waiting for something to happen, always expecting something to be given them. As if the residents of this oldest of cities deserve something as of right, that ‘it’ will be arriving any minute, but they cannot be bothered to go out and get ‘it’ for themselves (whatever ‘it’ may be for them).

Ok, so maybe this is a strange way to begin a holiday email, but the way I see it a blow by blow of account of what I did, who I saw and where, will bore even my closest friends, hopefully you prefer my incoherent blabber about the inner workings of Syrian life as I understand it.

Of course, that immediately presents a problem: How accurately am I understanding this place? My being here is an internal conundrum for I am neither a complete tourist, because I have family, friendship, language and political ties to this country. However, I’m not a local either, as I don’t quite get the local way of seeing things. I think different, act different. My differences leave me on the edge of conversations which don’t interest me in the slightest, but in the eyes of the locals I am either being shy, mute or rude. It’s hard to explain that I don’t have an interest in discussing the miracles of Saint whatshisname, no matter what you think about the vision of the Virgin Mary appearing in a loaf of bread, and not sound patronising. Better to stay silent and fake shyness.

So what do I think of Damascus ? First and foremost, I love this city, but ours is a rocky love affair. I arrived expecting to be blown away by the history, the culture, the people, and the sights; expecting to instantly fall for Damascus’ reputation and charm. Instead, I noticed the poverty, the dirty streets, the chaos on the roads, the smell of petrol hanging in the air. It created a fear that the city I admired so much when in Australia was only a fiction (the grass is always greener....etc).

So I started thinking about living three months in a city that I loved as a dream, but might hate in reality, which in turn made me anxious that I might actually not like it here! So after three days on a plane, and three hours in Damascus, my mind was racing trying to reconcile all I had heard and read with what I had seen. It called for more exploration!

My cousin Malek happily obliged, and took me out to the ‘old city’, the original Damascus which was historically surrounded by a high wall with seven gates and consists of a maze of tiny streets resembling a labyrinth. That first night, after drifting through several kilometres worth of old streets, smoking an ‘Arghil’ (water pipe with flavoured tobacco), and getting drunk on Arak, I realised despite my doubts, I would surely fall for the place. Malek was (and continues to be) hell bent on passing on as much information on Damascus as I can handle.

Since being here we have continually drifted through the old city where he explains the ins-and-outs of Damascus past and present. He has revealed that he belongs to a group dedicated to ensuring the preservation of ‘old Damascus’, to protect it from profiteers and commercialisation. A successful campaign they ran was to ban neon signs in the old streets. Unfortunately, the group disbanded when its leader ended up on the wrong side of the inconsistent, counter intuitive Syrian justice system.

Malek explained that the reason the streets are so narrow dates back to the time of the Ottoman Turkish occupation of Syria (approx 1500 -1917), and the citizens' desire to limit Turkish troop interference in their lives. The narrow streets prevented the army from mobilising large numbers to suppress the people, as the narrow alleys are easily defended by outnumbered locals. Another interesting titbit of information explains why the older houses have a step at the doorway, that is the inside of the house is always a step lower than the outside. This was a way to prevent eye-contact between males and females in the event that a woman had to open the door should someone knock.

I have already seen many of the tourist hot-spots that captivate the outside world, but strangely they have failed to wow me. Maybe because I have read and heard so much about the places that seeing them seems like a formality? I have been to the city of Ma’lula, the site of an ancient church with an altar dating back to before 300 AD, and relics and religious iconography from countless artists over the last 1700 years. An interesting piece was a depiction of the last supper which has Jesus sitting at the end of the table (not the middle as in Da Vinci’s work), which fits into Eastern tradition that the host sits at the end of the table, so as to easily move around and serve his/her guests. It’s a powerful symbol of the origin of the Christian faith, long before its spread in Europe and subsequent adoption of Euro-centric practices and beliefs.

Also in Ma’alula was a display of one of the oldest locks in the world, with a working model. Pretty impressive system of sliding wood and nails. I also saw some of the famous markets in Damascus, but not being big on shopping, I failed to appreciate the charm of the hustle and bustle of the crowded souks. I did enjoy drinking a glass of pomegranate juice handed to me by a man in dress up, complete with ‘fez’ hat, and baggy trousers and a vest. I am thinking of adopting his business strategy: hand the customer the glass of juice whether they ask for it or not, then demand payment. Simple.

I also saw the historical museum, which I plan to visit again. Here I was impressed by the hundreds of ancient stone statues that date back to pre-roman times. It sure is humbling to stand face to face with a statue that is 3000 years old. The museum contained items from the stone age (pre-civilisation-10,000 years BC), such as early hunting tools and pre-human skulls. But the vast majority of the items were from the late bronze age, from the ancient civilisations in Syria.

I have to say that the most impressive site so far has been the Ummayed Mosque in the heart of Damascus. It is a relic of the Ummayed Dynasty in the rise of Islam, in the first years after the Prophet’s death and the spread of Islam out of the deserts of Saudi Arabia and into civilisation. The Ummayeds seized control of the new religion and set up their capital in Damascus, building this mosque which at the time would have been the biggest in the world. The mosque was built over the Church of John the Baptist, where it was said that saints’ head were buried. That church was itself built on top of the Temple of Jupiter, from the time of the Roman occupation of Syria. It being winter here, walking barefoot on the outdoor marble floor was painful, until we got inside onto the carpeted prayer hall.

Amazingly, until about 70 odd years ago Christians and Muslims still prayed together in this Mosque on a daily basis. It is only in recent times that prejudices have arisen to prevent such simple co-operation. Needless to say, the artwork was spectacular, possibly outdone only by the skilful calligraphy decorating the walls. Interestingly, Islam does not permit people or animals to be depicted in art, so the artwork consists of landscapes or complex tessellations. In all old Syrian buildings the opulence of a place is represented in the beauty of its ceilings, and the complexity of its artwork. The Mosque is spectacular.

What I have enjoyed most of all is travelling around on my own, meeting strangers and working out how this country ticks. The public transport system consists of a huge mobilisation of mini vans that fit about 12 people. You hail one of these when it passes you, and it travels along its route as per normal buses, except it doesn’t have tickets or bus stops.

When you want to get of, just yell out, and the van pulls over. To pay, you simply pass on 5 Syrian Pounds (about 10 cents) over to the driver. Considering one can’t stand up in the mini-van, if you sit down back, you simply pass along your money to the person in front of you, who in turn will pass it on and so on, until the driver gets it.

If you need change, it comes back via all other passengers! I felt most comfortable in this city when I managed on day three to travel via mini-bus to my uncles house on my own, navigate the old city labyrinth and find my way back later that night.

These trips give me the chance to chat to random people about their lives and the country. Interestingly, the lethargy comes from the city’s historical foundation as an agricultural centre: the people are still in the farming frame of mind. They’re history consisted of several months worth of hard work, followed by months of waiting for harvest.

This mindset has not translated very well into the modern world, where people still wish to sleep away the winter days. The hard work ethic ingrained in Western culture by the industrial revolution skipped Syria and the Middle East. The most interesting stranger I met was a taxi driver who ripped me off (as everyone tries to do, because in Syria you must bargain for everything, and I admit I suck at bargaining!).

The taxi driver informed me he is a German citizen, who came to Syria to visit family, but was not allowed to leave for 5 years (reason unknown). His 5 years were almost up, and he was gearing to return to Germany. He also informed me of his trip to Tokyo where he met up with a girl who he first met in Syria. He didn’t let me leave his taxi cab without kissing me on each cheek for chatting to him, and he beamed at having managed to rip me off by about 50 Syrian Pounds.

I don’t know whether people are happy to have me chatting to them, or whether they rub their hands in glee that they have another foreign sucker to rip off, but I am enjoying my random chats with strangers more than anything, and they are certainly being surprised by my (naive?) openness.

The mood of the people ranges from the ultra positive to the ultra negative. The positive minded people point to all the changes that have happened in the last ten years, and the sheer amount of growth that the country is experiencing. They are adamant that work is available to all who want it, but Syrian pride stops many from accepting valid work because they would rather starve than have to work hard at something!

The pessimists believe that the government is doing all it can to rip its people off for the personal gain of the few officials in control. Whilst the corruption in the country runs deep, I happen to agree with the positive minded people, the country is moving forward, albeit at a snails pace.

March 14 attack Fairuz

Fairuz, angel of Lebanon, ambassador of peace, adored by all Arabs and beyond, has been criticised by March 14 for planning a show in Damascus.

"Those who love Lebanon don't sing before its jailers," March 14 member, Akram Chehayeb stated.

This is a disgraceful attempt to shame Lebanon's most beloved star and politicise her status.

During Lebanon's civil war, Fairuz flew to every corner of the world to sing for Lebanon and the Lebanese. She was the beacon to the millions of Lebanese who struggled outside of the country, and within the country, as a result of the war. She provided hope, she represented the light in dark times.

In a time when each political side was slaughtering each other, Fairuz stood tall, refused the politics and the war of the country, and sang for every corner, ensuring each Lebanese, Christian and Muslim, pro-Israeli and pro-Syrian, felt a sense of belonging.

March 14 has attempted to strip Fairuz of that status, attempted to destroy the beacon, which is an insult to all Lebanese.

Of course, it is not the first time Fairuz has received criticism. During her Australia tour 20 years ago, the Lebanese Forces sent a death threat to Fairuz if she sang songs for the Palestinians. Fairuz rejected the death threat and sang for the oppressed, Palestinian and Lebanese. However, she has never returned to Australia. Today, the Lebanese Forces are an active member of the March 14 alliance, the same movement now trying to damage her reputation.

Fairuz' reputation cannot be damaged. Her symbolic stature to millions of Lebanese cannot be eradicated.

Another bad move, March 14.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Turkey's increasing role

The following article on Syrian-Turkish reveals Turkey's new strategic alignment.

From Syria's perspective, any friend is relished, but it's Turkey's willingness to engage with a neighbour the US describes as "dangerous" that has circles in Washington frowning.

From SyriaComment:

'Turkey Steps Up Role in Middle East

And this is exactly what Turkey's new government wants, says Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He says Turkey's leaders intend to become players in Middle East politics. The opening to Syria is a major move to do just that.

"It is quite smart on their part … to say, 'Look we have good relations with everybody, everybody can come and talk to us, we will listen to anybody, we will help anybody,' so this is the way the Turks are pushing themselves up in the region," Barkey says.

It is a new role for Turkey, a welcome lifeline for Damascus, and a problem for the United States: Turkey, a key U.S. ally, is reaching out to Syria — which President Bush has called a dangerous regime.'


It became obvious with the election of Turkey's new leadership that Ankara will attempt to reassert itself in a region it once controlled.

Turkey's attempt to become a major player, or a major broker, may come as unwanted interference from the US and Europe.

The US, the original broker for peace negotiations, has lost immense credibility with its adoption of neocon policies. The Arabs, particularly Syria (the last major Arab country left that has yet to sign an agreement, or become an American puppet), have little trust left in Washington's ability to broker a fair deal with Israel.

The EU has toed a similar line behind the US in its policies towards Damascus and Beirut, and Russia is still far off from being a key player in the region.

So Syria-Turkey's relationship is a win-win solution. Taking aside economic and cultural benefits to this new alliance, Syria will be aiming to boost Turkey's role as a credible peace broker to replace Washington's long held title as the go-to venue for peace talks.

No doubt, Ankara's influence on the region, particularly on Israel, currently has little flair compared to the influence Washington exerts. As demonstrated, Bush has repeatedly vetoed Israel's ability to commence negotiations with Syria, despite Turkey's diplomatic efforts to kickstart talks.

The interests of the US and Turkey are sharply diverging as Ankara seeks to assert itself in the region. The Bush administration has particular strategic interests in the Middle East that want to keep Syria in the dark. Turkey, on the other hand, prefers to hold Syria's hand and walk it to Jerusalem in the eventual hopeful outcome of a settlement.

Regardless, no peace settlement will occur without Washington's blessing, but the fact Turkey has received Syria's endorsement as a trusted broker for peace will only complicate the US' Middle East strategy. Already struggling to compete with Iranian influence in the region, Turkey is one other Middle Eastern competitor the US doesn't need.

A new US administration will have a lot of work to do in regaining the trust the Bush administration has all but destroyed. Its hardline stance and attempt to become the only player in the region has only invited further players, such as Turkey and Russia, to the Middle Eastern scene. The US has only made matters for itself all the more complicated.

Israel prepared to sell Lebanon to Damascus?

From Haaretz:

"The problem is not just that Israel does not understand how President Bush views success. It also seems unaware that some in the Bush administration believe Israel would undo that success in exchange for a Golan peace deal. In other words, members of the Bush administration think that Israel would not hesitate to "sell" Lebanon to Damascus in order to make peace with Syria, and therefore an Israel-Syria peace negotiation is too risky a proposition. Some in Washington see that Israel has not publicly disavowed this idea that it will sell out Lebanon as evidence that Israel would make a deal with Syria at Lebanon's expense, while it is also possible that Israel - beset with a myriad of other challenges - never thought this was an issue. Silence from Jerusalem on this question is often interpreted negatively in the U.S., and not as negligence.

While Washington and Jerusalem have worked closely together on a range of issues, few issues have been more problematic. Lebanon is one such issue and it has affected the way the U.S. views talks with Syria. It is sometimes carefully couched, so the U.S. can deny it is vetoing peace talks. When an Israeli reporter asked Bush about such a veto several months ago, Bush was careful to say that no such veto existed. However, as one senior Israeli cabinet official put it, "given Bush's tone, it was like a parent telling a child that if you want you can play in traffic. We didn't see it as a green light."

The voices calling for peace with Syria are mounting in Israel. Do they really have such a great interest in Lebanon that it will forsake ties with Syria to keep Beirut at bay?

Israel was content with Syria's imposed order on Lebanon for 15 years, it ensured the country was stable and quiet (apart from Hizballah).

Making peace with Syria, returning the Golan, and allowing Damascus to occupy itself with the problematic Lebanon would ensure Israel never hears a further sound on its northern borders.

Why wouldn't the Israelis sell Lebanon to Syria for peace?

To the frustration of certain Israeli circles, Bush has virtually vetoed any rapprochement between Israel and Syria in the last 18 months.

Will the Israelis wait until the new US administration kicks in to seek a deal with Syria?

Is the Middle East going to see peace in 2009?

We can only hope that this sentiment of dialogue in both Tel Aviv and Damascus is genuine.

Joke/Quote of the day ... Nayla Moawad

Right-wing MP, member of March 14, and wife of an assassinated president, Nayla Moawad, sent me to tears today with a very classic, naive line continuously propagated by Lebanese leaders.

Speaking to AFP regarding Amr Moussa's visit to Beirut to push the Arab plan, Nayla gave some interesting thoughts:

"I am not very optimistic about his (Mussa's) visit, especially in light of the attempt on UNIFIL, the rocket attack on Israel and Shaker al-Abssi's threats."

Nayla's referring to a bomb that targeted a UNIFIL vehicle, an anonymous ineffective rocket attack on Israel, and threats by the supposed extinct Fatah al-Islam, all in 48 hours.

This was her follow up line, which has come this blog's Joke/Quote of the Day:

"These are all bad signals and everyone knows who is behind them: Syria,"

I couldn't help but return such a comment with sheer ridicule. At the same time it saddens me that such ignorant people are in charge of our country's destiny. Why do we enable the fools to control our future? Who will believe such naivete? Are we Lebanese so dull that our leaders take us for complete ignoramuses?

At times I feel March 14 leaders give Syria more power than what is due.

Syria has spent the last two days explaining to its Arab peers that Damascus cannot force Hizballah - its closest Lebanese ally - to toe its line, and has no contact with the main Christian bloc in the Opposition, Michel Aoun's FPM. While Syria is proving its demonstrated weakness in Lebanon, Nayla comes out with the great comment that epitomises the March 14's entire mentality - every problem on earth is a result of Syria.

What Lebanese leaders do so poorly, yet constantly get away with, is deflect the real issues plaguing the country by coming up with those same ridiculous lines as shown by Nayla. "Syria is behind all our problems", or from our comrades in the Opposition "Israel is behind all our problems".

The stark and horrible truth these very leaders will dare not reveal is that actually the Lebanese are behind all of Lebanon's problems. In other words, our inept, corrupt, greedy politicians are the problem of Lebanon. Nayla, you're the problem of Lebanon.

Of course, you'll never hear that from a politician.