Lebanon: The horror of war through the eyes of artist Zena el-Khalil
London -- Wednesday July 19, 2006
My city, on fire again As Israeli bombs rain down on Beirut, the people of the city are once again living with the horror of war. In an intimate diary, 30-year-old Lebanese artist Zena el-Khalil describes helping foreigners escape, the nightly rocket attacks - and how she couldn't leave her sick friend behind
At 3.28am I woke up to the sound of Israeli jets flying low over our skies in Beirut. I was just beginning to finally fall asleep, had racing thoughts in my mind all night, cramps in my stomach, fear ... Then the sound of jets, followed by one explosion after another. It has calmed down now. I hear morning prayers in the distance.
I am at home with some friends who have taken refuge with us. A lot of them are foreigners. We are trying to explain ... who, what, why. But we are also trying to be normal, because being normal is what got the Lebanese people through some 20 years of war. We are joking about how the airport is on fire because of all the alcohol in the duty free.
Up until now, Israel has done the following: blown up our international airport, runways, gas reserves for planes (no one can leave or enter the country); blown up small military and domestic airports (both in the north and south); blown up all bridges and roads linking Beirut to the south; blown up villages in the south, everything from the deep south to Sidon; blown up - as I type this now, another jet is flying by, it is so loud - blown up the suburbs (Dahiya); blown up the Beirut to Damascus road at several points. We are surrounded by sea as well.
Everything that is happening now is because Israel is trying to wipe out any trace of Hizbullah in Lebanon. In the process of doing all this, they are wiping out our infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, civilian homes, innocent lives.
It's 4.32am and I have a knot in my stomach. I am praying they don't hit the electricity. I want my internet. I think it's the only thing that will help me stay normal.
Latest update: nine missile raids into Dahiya in the last hour. There are now several parts of Beirut without electricity. The sky is glowing red. I am praying for the people in Dahiya ... Another really really loud bomb. I guess that makes it 10 now.
I am angry now. The things that cross your mind ... I just set up a new art installation last week, and now no one will get to see it. I was just about ready to launch an international residency programme here - not going to happen now. We were just planning to start a family. Who wants to get pregnant now?
We are under attack by Israel. It is so unjust and unfair. Everything we've worked towards for the past 10 years is gone. We had so many events planned for the summer: exhibitions ... concerts ... plays. All gone.
Lebanon cannot be occupied again by Israel.
Believe it or not, the sun is beginning to rise and I actually hear birds chirping.
3.23am. I have started coughing, but I don't know why. I am not sick. I think it is a reaction I am having to stress. My mouth is always dry, no matter how much water I drink. And I'm afraid to drink too much water because I don't want it to run out!
Last night was probably the most frightening night I have ever experienced. We counted at least 15 bombs falling into Dahiyeh in the Beirut suburbs. I have not slept in days. I know I have to be strong, and I will be, but I cannot deny what I am going through. So many of us are working hard to fix things - we are running around Beirut trying to get food and water and medicine to people, we are doing things online, but it doesn't mean we are not scared, sick or tired.
So, last night, amid the worst shelling we have had so far, I realised that I was not afraid of the noise any more; how quickly you get used to it. I realised what was hurting the most was the unknown. What is going to happen tomorrow? When will this all end? How are we going to start rebuilding again? Are the refugees going to be OK? How are the people in the south? And why punish a whole country? How much worse is it going to get?
My husband and I have been housing foreign "refugees", helping them to find their way out of the country. Two managed to leave this morning, a German and a Swiss. The other two are British and American. The craziest thing is that out of all people, the American embassy has been the least helpful to its citizens here. The phone line to the embassy has been practically out of service. My American friend, Amanda, had to hire a cab to take her to the embassy, which is a ride out of Beirut, and all they could tell her was to keep checking the website. And the only thing she has got from the website is that if there is an evacuation, then she is going to have to pay for it.
The question is, what would I do if I had the opportunity to leave? Would I leave? What would I do with my friends? My family? My art studio? What would happen to my best friend Maya? She has a very rare and bad case of cancer. We thought it was untreatable, but ironically, the day the shelling started, her doctor told us her tumours had shrunk. A miracle. I can't leave Maya.
I would have to leave behind all my artwork in my studio. What about all my brushes and paints and glitter and books? (All my books!) What about our photo albums? Our family pictures? What about the doodles I drew on my balcony a few summers ago when I was suffering from a bad break-up? What about all the love letters I have saved? Letters that document my youth that I wanted to someday give to my daughter.
Biggest cynical statement of the day: Israel has told people to evacuate from the south because they are going to annihilate the south of Lebanon. However, the people cannot leave because all the roads have been destroyed or blocked. And yesterday, when people did try and leave, the Israelis opened fire on them.
Israel is trying to bring Lebanon to its knees. Israel is trying to destroy the Lebanese spirit. Israel is trying to turn the Lebanese against each other, to turn us into animals scrounging for food, water and shelter. Israel and the United States of America are trying to drag Syria and Iran into this too. They are using Lebanon as bait. We are stuck in the middle.
We are a peaceful country. People of all religions coexist peacefully here.
I am not leaving. And there are many of us who are not leaving. We love Lebanon. We love what we have spent our lives building.
There are thousands like me here, who build culture and tolerance, who work for peace and understanding, to educate. Who work to promote love and compassion. What about us?
Did I mention that Maya's tumours are getting smaller?
Did I mention there was a wedding across the street yesterday?
Today I drove through downtown on my way to visit my parents. I was driving alone and was a bit nervous. My first time in a car alone since this whole thing started - but I had to see them.
I came across a red light and stopped. The streets were empty, and I caught myself wondering why I stopped and didn't just go through. Then I remembered my latest policy to keep me sane: that even under attack, we should not lose our manners.
Then I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw other cars approaching. I closed my eyes and in a fit of prayer wished that they would stop too. That if they didn't cross the light, it would somehow indicate that we are all thinking the same. You must have heard about Lebanese drivers: they never stop at red lights! Well, today they stopped.
I opened my eyes and burst into tears. All the cars had stopped. Everyone was behaving. The little things that make you happy.
I don't want to write about all the miserable moments I had today. I don't want to write about the tears that fell when I heard about how the Israeli army bombed wheat silos and vegetable stores. Now they want to starve us to death? I don't want to write about how they are now targeting Lebanese army outposts and barracks, when the Lebanese army are not even fighting them. About the planes that are flying so low. About how my house starts to shake every time a bomb drops. About my worries now about food and water shortages. About the refugees who have lost so much, who are now living on the streets.
I don't want to write about the cramp in my heart every time I hear the death toll rising. So many children! I don't want to write about how everything I have spent my whole life working for has disappeared in a matter of days. A matter of days ... my whole life has changed.
My whole life has changed and I did not ask for it. My whole life has changed because someone, not me, decided they were going to change it. Who said they could? Why didn't they ask me? I was supposed to be camping in the mountains this week. I was supposed to be working on a proposal to bring a New York artist out here next summer. It was supposed to be a surprise; I was going to set the whole thing up, get the funding and surprise him with it. People bought artwork from me. I am supposed to cash my cheques.
Israel has changed my life because Israel is targeting me as a civilian. And who said Hizbullah could take a decision on my behalf and provoke the monster?
Two bombs just went off. My windows are shaking. Stupid me, I closed them to stop the mosquitoes from coming in. Thank God they didn't just shatter. My heart is another story.
I want to tell Israeli citizens what their government is doing to us. Remind them that Lebanon is their neighbour and that coexistence is possible. How are we ever going to reach an understanding through violence? We were so close ... We were so close.
A troubled city: Beirut through the ages
· The Phoenician city of Beirut is named on cuneiform tablets dating from the 15th century BC. Phoenician merchants operating from Lebanon's Mediterranean coast dominated maritime trade during the first millennium BC, exporting glass, textiles and cedarwood. The city later came under the influence of Rome and was home to a prestigious law school, which was evacuated to Sidon following a series of earthquakes, which devastated the city in AD551.
· Beirut was under Arab control from 635 until 1110, when the city fell to a Crusader invasion. The city remained part of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1291, despite the best efforts of Saladin, who led a siege of the city in 1182.
· Beirut was later absorbed into the Ottoman empire, which ruled over the city from 1516 until 1918. The rapid decline of Turkey's imperial reach in the wake of the first world war created a vacuum that was quickly filled by western European powers. France was granted a mandate over Lebanon and Syria in 1920. French troops left the country in 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence.
· The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 brought thousands of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon, who made homes in refugee camps around the country, many of which are still standing. Violence broke out in 1958 between Muslims supporting the pan-Arab ambitions of Nasser, Egypt's president, and Christians allied to the west; US marines landed in Beirut, marking the first US intervention into the country.
· During the 1960s, Beirut was at the centre of Arab intellectual and cultural life. Variously nicknamed "the Paris of the Middle East" and "the Arab world's answer to Monte Carlo", the city was famously dynamic and cosmopolitan and a popular holiday destination with Arabs and Europeans alike, including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot.
· Civil war broke out in 1975 when Christian Maronite forces clashed with PLO guerillas, who had moved their headquarters to Beirut in 1970 after being driven out of Jordan. Syrian troops arrived in the country in 1976 and Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978. Beirut descended into anarchy as militias formed, taking control of the city street by street. Lebanon's diverse population quickly broke down along confessional lines, turning Christian against Muslim, Sunni against Shia, and neighbours against old schoolfriends. The city's hotel district was laid to waste and the National Museum came under sniper fire. The singer, Fairuz, universally adored in Lebanon, refused to perform while her country was in such turmoil.
· Whatever was left of this once beautiful city was subjected to catastrophic destruction during the Israeli invasion of 1982, which left the city under siege for three months. The most shocking incident of a brutal war was the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangist militias, for which Israel's Ariel Sharon was found to bear "indirect responsibility". The west, meanwhile, was preoccupied with the abduction of hostages by Shia groups, including Terry Waite and John McCarthy, which began in 1984.
· The Lebanese civil war officially came to an end in 1991. The magical voice of Fairuz was heard in Beirut once again in 1994 and the artefacts of the National Museum were released from their protective concrete casing and put on public display in 1997. Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Syrian troops withdrew from the rest of the country in 2005. The hotels were refurbished, the downtown area restored and the airport modernised.
· On July 12 2006, Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers. The next day, Israel bombed Beirut's international airport and blockaded Lebanese ports. Israel's chief of staff, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, told Israel's Channel 10: "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."