The writer…must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is.
—Orhan Pamuk, from his Nobel Prize Lecture
“They’re Norwegians,” our guide assures the larger of the three men who approach us in the alley (but most of the streets here look like alleys), below dangling wires looping out of windows and walls, pipes dripping who knows what, because we’re in Chatila, a Palestinian refugee “camp” in Beirut, about a week into the siege of Nahr al Bared, another refugee camp in the port city of Tripoli (Lebanon, not Libya), and one of the rumors—floated by, among others, Seymour Hersh—is that Fatah al Islam, the radical Islamic group behind the siege, was Saudi-U.S. trained and the Lebanese fear this is the sound of civil war, so naturally the men wonder, glancing our way, Who are these tourists? Entering the camp down the broad main street minutes earlier I thought we’d melted safely into the chaos of people darting among the stalls of the farmer’s market and general bazaar, goats ruminating over the garbage heaped beside carts offering cigarette lighters and cheap dolls, along with knives and, were those real guns? I look at the men—two are tall and broad, one’s scrawny, goatish, and if I’m not scared it’s only because I’m too confused and overwhelmed to grasp what’s going on. I glance at my friend Kevin, a poet and Vietnam vet, and he is, as always, serene. Eyes flash on us as their lips race over words in a language I can’t understand. I remind myself that soon all this will seem like a bad dream, as well as a moral nightmare, because I’m only passing through. I remember calling our guide, himself goat-like, proud and full of kick, the day we arrived. He was driving to Tripoli to report on the siege. “It’s a terrible day in Lebanese history,” he shouted into the phone.
Another reason we’ve been baptized Norwegians is that we’re in the Middle East, where, I’ve been told repeatedly, the word America = Israel. Our evenhanded foreign policy hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not that anyone has been less than scrupulously polite, and often so much more: the warmth of the Syrians the previous week was unexpected, disarming, enveloping. The owner of a stall in the main souk in Damascus, behind the 1,300-year-old Umayyad Mosque, said on discovering I was American, “That you would come to Syria at such a time! Welcome, welcome.” Indeed I felt welcomed and startled by what I found, a city with claims to being the oldest continuously inhabited urban space on the planet. The original Garden of Eden, which Mohammed refused to visit, proclaiming that a man dare not enter Paradise alive. In Maloula, a village only thirty miles northeast of the city, the villagers still speak Aramaic, as they did in Christ’s day. The caves above the homes were dwellings for Cro-Magnon man 30,000 years ago.
But in Beirut the atmosphere is different. In the shadows of the alley our host has good reasons for not exposing us—after all, his friend Terry Anderson was kidnapped here and held for seven years before being released. One reason the air in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps is different from that of the three we visited in Syria is that Lebanon has, for more than half a century, refused to give the 400,000 Palestinians living in its borders any civil rights: they’re not citizens, they can’t vote, and they can’t own property. Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister, recently admitted that they were treated worse than third-class citizens. I try to imagine growing up in such a place, knowing that whatever talents or gifts you were born with could only shrivel inside you.
The camp is a slum—a desperate neighborhood really, a shantytown whose cinderblock houses have been improvised over five decades by amateur builders displaced by the Israelis in 1948. The residents have added a desultory cinderblock here, one there, laying each grudgingly, because it was all temporary, soon they’d return home, restart the fires on their stoves, pluck figs from the trees in yellowing yards, the sepia fantasy flickering, flames licking the frame of stalled film, which will never be digitized . . .There’s something fearfully poignant about this organic architecture, a subtle counterintuitive dignity, a reflection of resilience and the will to go on, even if often it is merely that: survival, rude and pure. How these buildings grew, electric wires run along the outside, plumbing to elbow passersby in the alley, dripping down on them who knows what, eventually another floor and a satellite dish (count on the poor to spring for the premium cable package), and soon these toppled ziggurats harmonized with the mausoleum architecture dominating the globe in the fifties…but when exactly did they realize they were raising the walls of their own prison?
The memory chafes because of the way it contrasts with what I see looking up from my laptop in Harvard’s Widener Library, where I’m working under its cerulean ceiling, the well-worn oak tables, the muted lamps, the hushed whispers of the patrons, the students, more than half of them Asian, and the gray-headed scholars: the ideal reading room, a place designed for the composition of what Saul Bellow called “high-ceiling masterpieces”—a bitter thought under the circumstances, who can speak about such things in the same breath? And they play across my mind because the very term refugee camp reminds me of my parents’ five years in Berchtesgaden, Germany, which I visited in the early eighties, learning then that a “camp” wasn’t just a place where as boy scouts we pitched tents, preferably on a sloping meadow, digging shallow trenches around each for the run-off in case it rained, no, these camps began with tents, but as the days of displacement turned years to decades, slowly, gradually, unexpectedly, day by day, everyone packed and ready to return home tomorrow, and tomorrow, until even this limp pace outraced time itself and heralded the settlers into eternity…Then, for a few days in September of 1982, it suddenly resembled another kind of camp.
Chatila, along with the adjoining neighborhood of Sabra, gained notoriety almost a quarter of a century ago, so that the two names are linked in a way that’s confusing to people unfamiliar with the history (as I was), when, between September 15th and 18th, 1982, days after a cease fire ended the fifteen-year-long Lebanese civil war, they became a killing field.
After the fighters of the PLO evacuated Beirut, leaving their families behind in the camps, Christian Phalangist militias, armed and trained by Israeli soldiers who surrounded the camps, turning back anyone trying to escape, slaughtered between 1,500 and 1,700 Palestinian civilians. The Israeli army was under orders from its leader, the then-General Ariel Sharon. One thing “=” shared in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, so full of promise in the fin-de-siecle days of Y 2K, was the fact that both were run by bona fide mass murderers.
I knew this trip would be complicated the moment, a week earlier, when the Hezbollah representative walked into Le Bristol, our five-star hotel, where there were only five other guests despite the discounted $60-a-night rate. Tieless, he wore a white shirt with a black suit. He was a professor of political science at Lebanese University. Smiling and genial, he spoke party doctrine despite our efforts to connect on a more personal level, but then there were five of us “interviewing” him. It was not an atmosphere for false intimacies. You learned more talking to waiters and storeowners.(1)
We, the inquisitors, were five American writers—Tom Sleigh, Michael Collier, Christopher Merrill, Kevin Bowen, and myself. We were invited to Lebanon and Syria by my friend Munir Akash, a writer, editor, and translator who lives in the Boston area with his wife Amira El-Zein, director of the Arabic Program at Tufts University. Our “mission” was to visit Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria and then write about them for an anthology Munir is editing. Unfortunately, because we arrived on May 19th, immediately after the siege in Tripoli had begun (as I write this, in early August, the siege continues), we were advised to leave Lebanon for Syria at once. We returned a week later, which was when Kevin and I connected with the one man who could take us into Chatila.
What could the decades have felt like to the people living in these camps, to these three men, their angular faces, dark eyes, tight mouths? The millennium marked half a century of dispossession, but the camp is only about twenty-percent Palestinian now, our host remarked. What happened to the others, I wonder today, but didn’t think to ask, because there were so many questions, and so few—so much was clear, and all I didn’t know began to flood in only later and continues to pour through me here in Cambridge, where I struggle for a style to suit. Epigrams? Something pithy, eighteenth century-ish? Maybe the plain style: easy to read and quickly digestible so I can spread the word about ancient history to a world that doesn’t know to care? But that’s been done, you can look it up on Wikipedia, all there, names, dates, doubts and controversies, and you’ll see why our guide called us Norwegians, though the truth is I’ve noticed more menacing types in Widener’s stacks, and most of the talk anyway was done not by our guide but by his companion, an attractive young Beiruti woman with a graduate degree in city planning from Cornell.
Now she’s talking more loudly, gesturing, they’re looking us over, and she’s pointing to our guide, who speaks Arabic. I imagine her saying: Don’t you know who he is? You should, you know.
So should many more readers in the United States.
Our guide, not just by the way, but to the point, was among the first Western journalists to report on the massacre. He has kept faith with the horror for a quarter of a century by visiting it every few weeks. Robert Fisk, one of the most important English-language writers of my generation, has an international bestseller on his hands with The Great War for Civilization, though few literary types seem to know it. His book offers a perspective on the current war in Iraq by putting it in the context of our century-long siege of the Middle East. Fisk is the West’s Solzhenitsyn: his books are miracles of reporting, acts of conscience that will last and deserve to stand on the same shelf as The Gulag Archipelago.
Fisk has a way of sizing you up, as I discovered the day before, when Kevin and I met him and Katia Jarjoura, a dedicated Canadian journalist and filmmaker who’d been shot in the thigh by the Israeli Defense Forces a few years earlier while trying to avoid a confrontation during a protest. Avoiding confrontations isn’t always easy here. We met in an elegant, expensive, and empty restaurant near the Mediterranean in a neighborhood heavily damaged during the civil war. The bombed-out shell of the Holiday Inn a block up from the five-star Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel remains as an unofficial and haunting landmark. Throughout our meal, Fisk would suddenly turn and stare at Kevin or me to gauge our response to what he’d said. Our talk centered on the current crisis, about which he had not yet formed an opinion. But his opinions once formed were well worth attending to—as his readers know, he cares about Lebanon and Beirut, where he has lived for over a quarter of a century. Unlike most journalists, he doesn’t leave when the story is over. This is home, and he has earned his street credits.
His neighborhood isn’t confined to Lebanon, however. Here’s what he wrote about the “liberation” of Baghdad:
[C]atastrophe usually waits for the optimist in the Middle East, especially for those who are false optimists and invade oil-rich nations with ideological excuses and high-flown moral claims and accusations like weapons of mass destruction which have still been unproved. So I’ll make an awful prediction. That America’s war of ‘liberation’ is over. Iraq’s war of liberation from America is about to begin. In other words, the real and frightening story starts now.
When a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, the poor owls have to do all the thinking, wrote Charles Simic, America’s new poet laureate. We treat the world beyond our borders more or less that way—like an abstract philosophical puzzle containing no moral or ethical implications for our lives. I remember a celebrated American legal scholar shouting, “I object,” when I dared to say at a group lunch that our bombs were dropping over Baghdad indiscriminately, killing innocent civilians. But in a recent story in the British newspaper The Independent, the writer pointed out that, at the start of the twentieth century, ninety percent of the casualties in a war were military; by the twenty-first century, ninety percent of them are civilian. Millennia of warfare have clearly taught the military a valuable lesson: the best way to avoid getting hurt is to shoot at people without guns. Over 600,000 Iraqis have been slaughtered by us or as a result of the circumstances we created in their country—for no sane reason at all. Thanks to the work of journalists like Fisk, there’s no pretending something very real has not happened, is not happening.
Fisk knows to vary the rhythm of his narrative, moving from statistics to extended personal narratives, making sure we get a picture of the individuals behind the numbers. His cameos are handled with a short story writer’s skill. Among the dead are Leila Attar, a victim of the period entre deux guerres, one of Iraq’s most respected artists and the co-director of Baghdad’s Museum of Fine Arts, who was preparing to flee her house when the bomb struck. “‘No one could find her,’” said a friend. “‘But then I saw her long hair between the bricks of the house and I knew she was there. We found her handbag still gripped in her hand. She was trying to get away when the missile struck.’” The day after ordering the bombing, President Bill Clinton was quoted on his way to church, “I feel quite good about what has transpired, and I think the American people should feel good about it.” Part of what’s remarkable about Fisk is his tenacity—five years elapsed between Attar’s death and the day Fisk finally learned how she died.
Fisk knows the names of so many of the people we’ve killed that his book sometimes feels like a necrology. His refusal to flinch and look away allows him to show what our completely controlled and censored television networks dare not:
It was an outrage, an obscenity. The severed hand on the metal door, the swamp of blood and mud across the road, the human brains inside a garage, the incinerated, skeletal remains of an Iraqi mother and her three children in their still-smouldering car. Two missiles from an American jet killed them all—twenty-one Iraqi civilians—torn to pieces on 27 March before they could be “liberated” by the nation that destroyed their lives. . . . Abu Taleb Street was packed with pedestrians and motorists when the American pilot approached through the sandstorm that covered northern Baghdad in a cloak of red-and-yellow dust and rain that morning.
It was a dirt-poor neighborhood, of mostly Shia Muslims, the same people whom Messrs. Bush and Blair still fondly hoped would rise up against President Saddam Hussein, a place of oil-sodden car-repair shops, overcrowded apartments and cheap cafés. Everyone I spoke to heard the plane. One man, shocked by the headless corpses he had just seen, could say only two words. “Roar, flash,” he kept saying and then closed his eyes so tight that the muscles rippled between them. I am faced by the same old question: How to record so terrible an event? Iraqis are now witnessing these awful things each day; so there is no reason why the truth, all the truth, of what they see should not be told. For another question occurred to me as I walked through this place of massacre. If this is what we are seeing in Baghdad, what is happening in Basra and Nasiriyah and Kerbala? How many civilians are dying there too, anonymously, indeed, unrecorded, because there are no reporters to witness their suffering. . . .
The tree fell, bet on it: with this skull, Bishop Berkeley, I refute you.
Finally the men who’ve stopped us in our tracks break into smiles, shake Fisk’s hand, and nod to us: “Salaam Aleikum.”
And we continue.
At the edge of the camp we stop to talk to a man who runs a grocery store. Like several of the older Palestinians we’ve met, he was a child when Israeli soldiers forced him to leave home. He has grown old waiting to return. His grandchildren crowd around us as he tells his story, a variant of one we’ve already heard. At a camp in Syria, a tall, bearded gentleman who’d worked as a school teacher in Kuwait before returning to his refugee camp told us about watching his mother and brothers shot by the Israeli soldiers. He said he still had the deed to his house. When my friend Tom asked to see it, our host made a phone call to his nephew, who kept the family archives, and who produced it quickly enough. The deed, he said, was stained with his brother’s blood. Whether that’s the case or not—the point was made. Sixty years later, nothing has been forgotten, and the little children coming in and out of the room while we spoke would no doubt memorize the story and pass it on to the next generation— until the moment was right for the kaleidoscope of history to turn again.
As I contemplate the recent news that our government has just agreed to sell twenty billion dollars in weapons to the Saudis and thirty billion to the Israelis, I wonder when that moment will come.
The man Fisk has been talking to, in the corner store, points to the tree below which his father was shot during the massacre. “I wasn’t here to see it,” he says. Shaking our hands warmly as we leave, he offers us free bottles of water—as though we’ve done him a favor merely by listening.
“We all have many Jewish friends back home,” I said to the writers, artists, film-makers, and intellectuals assembled in the American-style internet café in Damascus. “I’m not sure how we’ll present this to them.”
We were meeting with “dissident” Syrians, some of whom had lived and taught in the United States. The company was urbane, open, and openly agitated. Our conversation was taking place under “the Chatham House rule”: those present are free to use whatever information they hear so long as they don’t attribute it.
“You’ve set us back fifty years,” said one artist who’d lived a decade or so in California. “We never used to see women in burqas. The Islamicization is all your doing.”
Two tones dominated the Syrian part of our journey. One was a clear desire on the part of most of the people we met, from the poorest refugees in the camps to the former Ambassador to the U.N., whose daughter was about to graduate Hunter College with a degree in English, to connect—to talk freely, to show themselves in full and not as typecast by politicians.
The other was the unmistakable feeling that this was a culture under siege—not by Islamicists but by “=”. Two nuclear powers threaten the region daily. Because of them—of us—I doubt there’s a person in these two countries who is not at some level terrified. How to convey the frenetic feel of Damascus, which has been flooded by over a million and a half refugees from Iraq?
Everyone we spoke to in Syria and Lebanon, on the streets and in cafés, off the record and in official meetings, shared an analysis: “the problem” was that Israel (“the only country in the world without fixed borders”) was using the U.S. to destabilize the Middle East, maybe to allow it to grab more land (visiting the Golan Heights from the Syrian side, we were given a lesson in how resource-rich is the part of it Israel has occupied); meanwhile the United States uses Israel as one of several bases in the Middle East from which to control the region’s resources.
How do I weigh the “heightened sensitivities” of people whose parents suffered German savagery against the harsh asperities of people who are—now, this minute—paying for crimes neither theirs nor their fathers’, but ours?
But this is not a moment to give primacy to “heightened sensitivities.” Retired Princeton professor Richard Falk describes the recent treatment of Palestinians as a “holocaust in the making.” In this assessment he joins a distinguished group that includes John Berger, Harold Pinter, Noam Chomsky, and Jose Saramago among many others. Why an awareness of this threat isn’t more widely spread is a mystery—a quite disturbing one. (2)
Once, after giving a talk at Harvard, I was approached by someone from an organization I’d identified in my lecture as “Facing History.” The person reminded me that the group’s full name is Facing History and Ourselves. The group develops curricula for teaching the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, etc. I was, however, disturbed to learn that they don’t teach the Nakbah, as the Palestinians call their expulsion from their ancestral lands. As I had just faced some quite ugly moments in Ukrainian history, it seemed strange that some people didn’t have to face either their history or themselves. When I asked people associated with FHAO about this omission, I was told, sheepishly—everyone granting me the point—that it’s about funding.
Israeli historian Tom Segev, in his brilliant book One Palestine, Complete, observes that many of the early British supporters of the Balfour declaration, which eventually led to the creation of Israel, were anti-Semites who operated out of fear, because they believed Jews ruled the world.
The truth, alas, is that the American Empire in its current incarnation is run by evangelical Christians, for whom Armageddon is the hottest date of all. Recently, Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery warned of the gathering momentum for an attack on Iran. I don’t believe it, but then I didn’t believe Anthony Arnove when he predicted with great certainty that we would attack Iraq some six or seven months before Bush forced his lies on the world, bringing us to where we are today. The people of Iraq dwell inside what feels to them like a holocaust; most of us have not missed an evening of CSI. Two thousand people flee their homes every day. Meanwhile Lebanon dances on the edge of civil war. So many worlds destroyed forever. But the apparent plan—to kill all those who may remember earlier killings—will not work now any more for “=” than it did for the Nazis.
While focusing on the human tragedies of the Middle East, Fisk also describes the looting and destruction of the artistic and archeological treasures of Mesopotamia. He was in Baghdad watching the looters, many of whom were, inexplicably, bussed in and out of the city. Several times he visited American headquarters, asking soldiers to intervene and prevent the destruction of 8,000-year-old treasures—statues, pottery, historical documents. His description of the breaking and burning of irreplaceable records from the world’s oldest civilization is staggering. Reading it you can’t help feeling that “we” are committing cultural suicide, deliberately destroying ourselves, trying to wipe out all trace of our own origins: postmodernity showing its ahistorical values by demolishing history itself. What, I wonder, will we put in its place? Even a virtual museum needs an original to reproduce.
When a similar cultural rape took place in Beirut during its civil war, eleven tons of looted artifacts were subsequently discovered aboard a ship in an English port. After figuring out the customs tax, British officials released the clearly stolen booty, which a dealer later sold off on the open market.
Fisk notes that in the days leading up to the current war, James Cameron’s Titanic became a favorite among Iraqi moviegoers. Remembering this, I look up. On display across the hall from where I’m sitting is the library’s pristine copy of The Gutenberg Bible. It, along with other treasures, was bequeathed by the Widener family, who also paid to have this, the largest university library in the world, built to honor the memory of their son, who went down with the Titanic. Unless we change course soon, the fantasy of an American empire will founder, and many will go down with the ship. Who will mourn them? And what treasures will be preserved? Where? You may be sure that the record of our misdeeds in the Middle East will never be lost. There are too many scribes around the world keeping copious and careful notes.
1. One waiter said the civil war had less to do with religious and political differences and more with mafias, each owning a construction business. When you blow something up, he argued, who profits? The people who show up the next day offering to rebuild. But he was disgusted, he had had enough, he was making plans to emigrate to Canada. The older business owners I spoke with, for whom emigration was not an option, merely despaired.
2. When I talk to friends about the subject, I find most of them know only what they hear on network news. One of my own key sources of information is the London Review of Books, which recently published an illuminating piece by Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress. In it Siegman writes: “Israel’s disingenuous commitment to a peace process and a two-state solution is precisely what has made possible its open-ended occupation and dismemberment of Palestinian territory. And the Quartet—with the EU, the UN secretary general, and Russia obediently following Washington’s lead—has collaborated with and provided cover for this deception by accepting Israel’s claim that it has been unable to find a deserving Palestinian peace partner.” His article helps those of us far from the centers of decision-making to better understand why the Palestinian–Israel situation has deteriorated so badly that, with the hawks’ open consideration of nuclear weapons, it now threatens the safety of the entire world (see, for instance, Norman Podhoretz’s piece in Commentary, “The Case for Bombing Iran”).
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.