|Tom McCarthy|| |
"Don't speak English to me," said Ali. "Because you know, all the Arab people, they are watching us."
One day earlier Ali, a twenty-year-old security guard who works in the East Beirut neighborhood where I live, had offered to take me and a reporter to see the destruction near his home in the southern suburbs. His family evacuated their home a month ago, when the Israeli strikes began.
The cease-fire went into effect yesterday at 8 a.m., and by this morning it seemed like the truce was sufficiently durable to permit a reasonably safe visit to the dahiyeh.
So the three of us went. A taxi dropped us off a little before 9 a.m. on the north end of the destroyed neighborhoods. "Do you live right here?" I asked Ali when we got out of the car. "No," he said. "But I want you to see everything." Then he told me not to talk.
As we drew closer to the destruction, walking down the middle of the street over coin-sized pieces of glass, I had a grisly realization.
"Smells like Ground Zero," I said to the reporter, who grew up in Manhattan.
It was a provocative comparison, but inevitable: the smell was the same, a mixture of concrete dust and atomized steel and I suppose dead bodies and unfamiliar smoke from fires hot enough to burn normally inflammable material.
I wouldn't extend the correlation beyond the smell, except to say that both what I saw this morning and what I saw in Lower Manhattan on September 14 were scenes of utter, fatal collapse: buildings with their faces smeared off; sections of walls come to rest at inexplicable angles; human figures moving over landscapes that invited the word "apocalypse."
In various places in Haret Hreik whole two- or three-block-square swaths that once were thick with high-rise residential buildings have been reduced to piles of concrete, re-bar and smoke. The many buildings still standing gave a sense of the former population density of the area.
Maybe seen from the sky the destruction has an irregular checkerboard pattern. Wandering around inside it was hard to get a sense of the dimensions and layout.
Not far from where the taxi dropped us we approached the first cordon, a length of yellow plastic disaster-scene tape running between two piles of rubble.
A Hizbullah member dressed all in black with a trim beard and thick-soled leather boots was lifting the tape for people and talking to them as they went in and out. I had debated whether to carry my passport - was it riskier to be immediately identifiable as an American or would it be more suspicious not to have any identification? - before deciding to bring it along. The guy let us through with a glance and a nod.
The cordon tape bore text in Arabic and English: "Restricted Area / No Trespassing / The Divine Victory," it read. "Nasr min Allah" -- "Victory from God" or "The Divine Victory" -- is the slogan Hizbullah has coined for this war (is it really over?). I saw one car with a bumper sticker bearing the slogan, and in the back window of a yellow van I saw a new Nasrallah poster with the words.
Later I saw a freshly painted banner, erected at one corner of an insecure-looking pile of building parts, that left a particularly strong impression. It said "Amreeka raas al-irhaab": America is the head of terrorism.
In all we walked for almost two hours over an area of maybe a square kilometer. In one direction we were stopped by a mountain we didn't want to walk on for fear of unexploded ordnance, although some locals were climbing on it. In another direction, down the street past some intact buildings, we could see what was left of a two-lane bridge triangling to the ground from its giant pylons. In another direction were other piles of other former buildings. Numerous downed electrical wires ran like cobwebs through the mayhem.
Despite Ali's initial warning, we soon realized that we could walk wherever we wanted and look however Western we wanted and speak in whatever language we wanted and shoot pictures of whatever we wanted. The people climbing over the ruins were trying to figure out if there were any surviving pieces of their lives to begin putting back together. They had enough to worry about without worrying about us.
Everyone was calm. The most emotionally demonstrative scene I witnessed was an old veiled woman standing looking at a destroyed whatever-it-had-been. "Allahu akbar," she said, loud enough for me to hear. She said it mournfully; she was shaking her head. I didn't see any tears though, on her or anyone else.
A man in his thirties did make sure I got a picture of a Lebanese flag that had been stuck, as if on the moon, into one of the peaks in the alien, gray mess.
One striking thing about the scene in the dahiyeh was all the signs of interrupted daily life. Among other toys I saw a purple plastic Barbie car and, three feet beyond, Barbie herself, sans head.
There were eerily intact rooms - furniture-store window displays - exposed to the air where an exterior wall had been sheared off. This kind of scene is somehow so familiar as to seem almost trite, but there it was: four stories up, suspended above the mess, a perfectly preserved kitchen with range and cooking pots, and through the wall behind the range - the view a perfect cross-section - hanging in the hallway, a poster of Nasrallah.
World Cup flags; I saw mostly Brazil and Germany, one Italy.
The blown-out frame of a three-sided bay window sitting incredibly intact halfway up a mound of otherwise unrecognizable objects. A clothesline running between two brackets mounted on the frame; towels still hanging on the line, still out to dry.
Eventually we came to a coffee stand powered by a loud little generator. The reporter I was with asked Ali if he thought it would be okay to interview the proprietor of the stand; hesitantly Ali agreed to translate.
Five brown plastic chairs sat next to the stand. The interview started with the men in the chairs asking the questions. One man who had not been sitting down asked the reporter for her ID; she showed him her local press pass.
As he studied the card I studied him. He was about 25, an inch or two over six feet tall, in good, lean shape, with a grey button-down shirt tucked snugly under the black belt of his liberally pocketed pants. His hair and beard were of matching length - short - and trim. A radio receiver was clipped to the front of his shirt. He was carrying an AK-47 in a gray foam case with a zipper that appeared not to be able to close over the clip that was inserted in the gun.
He studied the card briefly, nodded his head, handed it back to her, crossed in front of me and walked evenly away, without looking back.
"Min ayy balad?", "From which country?", one of the seated men asked us. I pretended not to understand him. Ali smiled at him and told him it didn't matter. The man shrugged and nodded his agreement. "Welcome, welcome," he said.
Of course we were offered coffee. The men got up from their chairs and we sat down and the reporter conducted her interview.
The coffee was on the house.
Additional photos by Roody: