Wednesday, July 19, 2006

From Iraq to Lebanon

What with Lebanon in the news, Christian Isely went to his records and pulled out his 21st Baghdad dispatch (which described the situation before the Syrian withdrawal), the one concerning a country he remembers for its beauty, its great cuisine, and "the most attractive women in the Middle East."

Baghdad Despatch # 21
Baghdad — December 14, 2004

It is officially the holiday season in the International Zone. The office has all the trappings of Christmas lights and wreathes just like back home. It is as if I have come back from vacation to a different world. Even the weather has changed and one must now bundle up for fear of catching cold. The good news is that although car bombs have exploded at the gates to the International Zone almost daily now, at least the mortars and rockets are not as common. I am still very amazed that so many Iraqis come to work here considering the dangers of just waiting at the gate.

I left for vacation in mid-November and returned only a few days ago. I apologize for my lengthy respite between writings. My travels took me to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank. As a result of the people I met and the things I saw, I feel I can better place both Iraq and our current venture here in a better context. I may not capture all of my experience in the last month in this one e-mail but will carry on in the next dispatch.

I did not take this trip alone. I was accompanied by my friend, Ryan, whose greater learning in theological matters helped to complement my historical knowledge of the region. (I’ve been captivated by Middle Eastern history for the past several years.)

The trip started off darkly enough. We took a Personal Security Detail to the military airbase in Baghdad complete with armored SUVs and South African gunners. We arrived safe and sound but within 20 minutes of us having reached the airport, a convoy was hit behind us resulting in the death of a Christian Lebanese security contractor. I had actually met the man previously as many Christian Lebanese guarded my earlier living quarters and my office. The man’s funeral was later held in Lebanon while we were there.

A C-130 then took us to Amman, Jordan where we cheered along with all the other weary expatriates just happy to be out of a combat zone. Unfortunately, we arrived at the passenger terminal just after Jordanian customs had shut down for the evening. With no one to stop us, we walked right through the terminal and out into the front parking lot. Just as one of us was about to step into a taxi and speed off, the Jordanian customs officials came running out and pleaded for us to step back into the terminal so that we could enter the country properly. I only hope their Iraqi border is more secure!

After this misadventure, we spent an evening in Amman just rejoicing to be free of falling mortars. As far as I could tell, there is not a terribly exciting nightlife in Amman (although I may be wrong) but there are some good restaurants and besides, just walking down the street without a flak jacket and helmet is a step up after Baghdad.

Eager to get started on the next leg of our adventure, we flew to Beirut the next evening where we checked into a nice hotel in the Christian part of town. I know it may come off as strange to some as I refer to Christians, Muslims, and Jews or Christian, Muslim, and Jewish areas. As I slowly realized in Baghdad and what became more apparent as we traveled in Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank is that religion and politics are incredibly intertwined. Politicians may not necessarily be religious leaders but almost all religious leaders are politicians. Additionally, being a Christian, Muslim, or Jew does not so much refer to one’s personal belief in Christ, the teachings of Mohammed, or Jewish law but rather refers to one’s community and may be the nominal foundation of the political entities of which one is a part.

Although we spent our time in Lebanon almost entirely with Christian Lebanese, I shall attempt to relate what I came to learn of the country and fit it into the context of our current struggle in Iraq. With regard to Beirut, the political faults reflect religion. The primary groups in Lebanon consist of the following:

Christians – They make up about a third of the population and are mostly Maronite Catholic. The Catholics seem to make up the majority of the ruling class and dominate most of the business environment in Beirut. This ruling class speaks French as its first language and is strongly connected with the Christian Lebanese Diaspora. Armenians and Syrian Orthodox Christians also form a contingent and of course, there are many Christians who served in the Christian militias during the civil war. The Christians generally have a heavy distrust of the Lebanese government which they see as being a puppet of Syria. They are also heavily supportive of US policy in the Middle East including the war in Iraq and are glad to see President Bush re-elected.

Shiites – They also make up about a third of the population. Hezbollah still has a strong following among this group partly because of a social welfare system that has been instituted by this party in attempt to make up for the weakness of the Lebanese state. They are generally pro-Syrian and are supportive of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Naturally, they are heavily anti-Israeli and derive both moral and financial support from Iran. The Ayatollah Komeini’s portrait can still be seen hanging from street signs. I even think I caught a glimpse of a portrait of Moqtada Sadr! The latest buzz was that Hezbollah actually managed to recently pull off an unmanned reconnaissance drone sortie into Israeli airspace. Some say they did it with Iranian help. Others say that they did it on their own.

Sunnis – They too make up about a third of the population. Unfortunately I did not learn too much about them. I was under the perception that they have a very limited presence in Beirut.

Druze – They make up a small percentage of the population but are highly visible. Although technically Muslim by most standards, their beliefs are very unique and as a community, they are very inward looking. I get the feeling that very few outsiders really understand their religion or culture. I have heard that they believe in five main prophets of which Socrates is one. I have also heard that the Druze themselves are not revealed the fundamentals of their faith until they reach the age of 40. However, these are all stories I have heard secondhand.

Palestinian Refugees – They are estimated to number about 300,000 and are mostly Sunni but with some Christian minorities. I believe most of them came to Lebanon during the Israeli War for Independence in 1948. They are on the very bottom of the political pyramid and their living conditions, at least in Beirut, are wretched. We drove through the camp at Sabra in Beirut where there is a cemetery and makeshift monument to the infamous events in 1982 where Ariel Sharon oversaw the massacre of Palestinian refugees with the help of the Christian militias. The future of these people is always in doubt. Certainly, the Christians want them expelled since they see them as a strong destabilizing influence and responsible for much of the civil war.

Syrian Presence – Syria currently has about 20,000 soldiers in Lebanon but they are stationed in less visible but strategic locations. Syrian agents still roam the country and apparently can be found in Beirut. There is one hotel that is rumored to be the headquarters for Syrian intelligence in the country. In fact, I ran into a Syrian government official in one of Beirut’s many happening nightclubs. It was unfortunate that he was determined to discuss politics. He contended that the US would never change the Middle East. I contended we would and that the Syrians should leave Lebanon. The funny thing is that the Christians are pretty much openly defiant of the Syrian presence. They do hold demonstrations and Syrians are the butt of many jokes. In fact, there does not seem to be any real fear of them, at least in the Christian areas, where people discuss politics openly.

Given the history and political needs and inspirations of these various groups, it is not too difficult to see how war makes up so much of the recent history of this country. When you throw in the intervention of the Syrians and Israelis, it becomes even easier. What is amazing about the place, and especially about Beirut, is the willingness of the people to carry on and rebuild their country. Beirut has seen a great deal of investment in recent years including, real estate, hotels, restaurants, gyms, and clubs. I found myself wondering if a pop in the bubble might not be too far off. As one cruises around Downtown and East Beirut (East Beirut is Christian and West Beirut is Muslim), one will find chic restaurants, clubs, and hotels in sparkling new buildings beside bombed out and shot up remnants from before the war. It is almost as if the place is either at war or just on the edge of war. The present therefore becomes more important. At least as far as the upper and middle class Christians are concerned, the predominant philosophy seems to embrace the material world as much as possible. This in turn, is reflected in expensive cars, opulent nightclubs, a myriad of expensive gadgets including phones, and many numbers on your license plate for which you pay a great deal of money.

With regard to war, my friends who are former members of the Christian militias seem to think it may very well happen again. In fact, it seems that some would like the chance to get back at the Muslims and reestablish Christian dominance of the country. There is still hatred in some of their hearts for during the war, they both suffered and inflicted great pain. Then there are those who have suffered something else altogether. As of one of my Lebanese friends put it, “My heart is dead.” The death of the heart is generally an unspoken cost of conflict. Besides all the economic, environmental, and social costs let alone the loss of life, it is, as one would say in economic terms, an externatility. One I am afraid can never be captured.

On that note, despite this dispatch being dominated by Lebanon, I hope that it helps to render a new light on our current struggle in Iraq. I don’t want this newsletter to be too lengthy so I will continue on soon enough in my next dispatch.

I do, however, want to end this letter on a positive note. With great pride, I want to spread the news of my friend Ryan’s initiative to aid the struggling Christian community in Iraq. Christians currently number about 700,000 out of a population of about 22 million. They used to be a much larger community but they are shrinking fast for understandable reasons. Most are Chaldean Catholics who claim to have lived in the area since long before the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Many of them speak Syriac which is a Semitic language not too distant from Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Recently, churches, like mosques, have been attacked. I believe this to be largely motivated by the hope of instilling fear before the upcoming Iraqi elections. More importantly, these people are afraid to attend church. Even if they do manage to worship, the churches have been badly looted and are without power and amenities we take for granted.

Ryan has taken the initiative in a fundraising effort to help out the one Anglican church in Baghdad. Founded by the British in the 1930’s, this church still has a loyal congregation. Many of the worshippers are non-denominational and seek only a place for worship. I have heard that even some Muslims attend. In any case, this church and many like it serve as foundations for the community, a community outside of the state that dominated life under Saddam Hussein. It is also my belief that supporting this kind of community will help to foster a degree of religious and therefore political tolerance in this nation which we are trying so hard to help rebuild.

And with that, I think I will wish you all a good day. I will write soon with my further adventures in this incredibly fascinating, vital, at times hopeless, at times hopeful, but always beautiful region of the world.

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