Dinner in Beirut, and a lesson in courage
Robert Fisk – September 29, 2007
Secrecy, an intellectual said, is a powerful aphrodisiac. Secrecy is exciting. Danger is darker, more sinister. It blows like a fog through the streets of Beirut these days, creeping down the laneways where policemen – who may or may not work for the forces of law and order – shout their instructions through loud-hailers.
No parking. Is anyone fooled? When the Lebanese MP Antoine Ghanem was assassinated last week, the cops couldn't – or wouldn't – secure the crime scene. Why not? And so last Wednesday, the fog came creeping through the iron gateway of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's town house in Beirut where he and a few brave MPs had gathered for dinner before parliament's useless vote on the presidential elections – now delayed until 23 October. There was much talk of majorities and quorums; 50 plus one appears to be the constitutional rule here, although the supporters of Syria would dispute that. I have to admit I still meet Lebanese MPs who don't understand their own parliamentary system; I suspect it needs several PhDs to get it right.
The food, as always, was impeccable. And why should those who face death by explosives or gunfire every day not eat well? Not for nothing has Nora Jumblatt been called the world's best hostess. I sat close to the Jumblatts while their guests – Ghazi Aridi, the minister of information, Marwan Hamade, minister of communications, and Tripoli MP Mosbah Al-Ahdab and a Beirut judge – joked and talked and showed insouciance for the fog of danger that shrouds their lives.
In 2004, "they" almost got Hamade at his home near my apartment. Altogether, 46 of Lebanon's MPs are now hiding in the Phoenicia Hotel, three to a suite. Jumblatt had heard rumours of another murder the day before Ghanem was blown apart. Who is next? That is the question we all ask. "They" – the Syrians or their agents or gunmen working for mysterious governments – are out there, planning the next murder to cut Fouad Siniora's tiny majority down. "There will be another two dead in the next three weeks," Jumblatt said. And the dinner guests all looked at each other.
"We have all made our wills," Nora said quietly. Even you, Nora? She didn't think she was a target. "But I may be with Walid." And I looked at these educated, brave men – their policies not always wise, perhaps, but their courage unmistakable – and pondered how little we Westerners now care for the life of Lebanon.
There is no longer a sense of shock when MPs die in Beirut. I don't even feel the shock. A young Lebanese couple asked me at week's end how Lebanon has affected me after 31 years, and I said that when I saw Ghanem's corpse last week, I felt nothing. That is what Lebanon has done to me. That is what it has done to all the Lebanese.
Scarcely 1,000 Druze could be rounded up for Ghanem's funeral. And even now there is no security. My driver Abed was blithely permitted to park only 100 metres from Jumblatt's house without a single policeman checking the boot of his car. What if he worked for someone more dangerous than The Independent's correspondent? And who were all those cops outside working for?
Yet at this little dinner party in Beirut, I could not help thinking of all our smug statesmen, the Browns and the Straws and the Sarkozys and the imperious Kouchners and Merkels and their equally smug belief that they are fighting a "war on terror" – do we still believe that, by the way? – and reflect that here in Beirut there are intellectual men and women who could run away to London or Paris if they chose, but prefer to stick it out, waiting to die for their democracy in a country smaller than Yorkshire. I don't think our Western statesmen are of this calibre.
Well, we talked about death and not long before midnight a man in a pony tail and an elegant woman in black (a suitable colour for our conversation) arrived with an advertisement hoarding that could be used in the next day's parliament sitting. Rafiq Hariri was at the top. And there was journalist Jibran Tueni and MP Pierre Gemayel and Hariri's colleague Basil Fleihan, and Ghanem of course. All stone dead because they believed in Lebanon.
What do you have to be to be famous in Lebanon, I asked Jumblatt, and he burst into laughter. Ghoulish humour is in fashion.
And at one point Jumblatt fetched Curzio Malaparte's hideous, brilliant account of the Second World War on the eastern front – Kaputt – and presented it to me with his personal inscription. "To Robert Fisk," he wrote. "I hope I will not surrender, but this book is horribly cruel and somehow beautiful. W Joumblatt [sic]." And I wondered how cruelty and beauty can come together.
Maybe we should make a movie about these men and women. Alastair Sim would have to play the professorial Aridi, Clark Gable the MP Al-Ahdab. (We all agreed that Gable would get the part.) I thought that perhaps Herbert Lom might play Hamade. (I imagine he is already Googling for Lom's name.) Nora? She'd have to be played by Vivien Leigh or – nowadays – Demi Moore. And who would play Walid Jumblatt? Well, Walid Jumblatt, of course.
But remember these Lebanese names. And think of them when the next explosion tears across this dangerous city.
Last updated 03/10/2007