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An American in Beirut: There's a Lot of Distance Between Misadventure and Victory

This is the 17th installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

Aug. 16, 2006

"Misadventure and Victory"

In the days directly preceding Monday morning's cease-fire, there was a definite sense of war weariness here in Beirut. And admittedly, in a city of 1.5 million people, I was doing my small part to contribute to it.

If this fragile ceasefire holds, Israel and Hezbollah would have been at open conflict for a little more than a month. To be sure, it was a frenzied and costly 34 days. It was a tragic and deadly 34 days. And it will likely be marked as a turning point in the dynamic of the Middle East for years to come. But in the scheme of time, it's still only a month, a mere 12th of a year.

I've found that every interaction from inside of a conflict centers on the conflict. This is true whether talking with a complete stranger or talking with a best friend. It's true whether you like it or not. Day in and day out rumors, rhetoric and expectations are weighed against fact and precedent. And otherwise reliable escapes — television, lighthearted conversation, a decent meal — all fail to do the trick.

In anticipation of long days without electricity, I purchased two contemporary fiction books early into the conflict. In peacetime, I very much enjoy sitting down with a good book, but now some three weeks later, I've yet to get through more than a few pages. Instead of losing myself in a novel or a sitcom rerun, I find myself tuning in news and needing information. It's not always enjoyable, but watching, reading, experiencing and talking about news has become a compulsion.

I spent Monday's daylight hours — the day the cease-fire went into effect — on edge. At any given moment, I expected the familiar sound of a distant explosion. The explosion would come and without any words, without any news reports, everyone who had heard the sound and felt the floor shake would know that the cease-fire was over — violated and meaningless. Everyone would sigh and brace themselves for more explosions; a new round of rumors, rhetoric and expectations weighed against fact and precedent. Maybe it would last another month, maybe a year, but in any case, it would mean more days free of escape and full of uncertainty.

Yet, night arrived and the sound hadn't come. I finished posting Monday's installment of "An American and Beirut" and set out walking home. It was around 8 p.m. and relief and release seemed to surround me. I took my time. And as I continued down Gemayze — an East Beirut street full of cafes and bars — the air was light and the tension that had characterized the previous month had dispersed, if only for a night. If the cease-fire was due to collapse on Tuesday, there seemed to be droves of Lebanese willing to advantage Monday night as their escape.

Gemayze, untouched by the war save for major losses in business, provided an outlet. The restaurant tables were full and the bars were lined with customers. Valet parking attendants dashed up and down the streets, ducking in and out of fancy cars. The people who owned them, the people who have seen the vision of an urbane and stable Beirut again dashed by violence, are more inclined to think of this war as a major setback, as a totally disproportionate misadventure with no winners.

In the distance, fireworks streamed into the air and lit up the night sky. Most likely they were leftovers from the World Cup tournament that had been the focal point of Beirut only a week before the war. Only now, the fireworks weren't celebrating an Italian victory over France after a dramatic shootout. They had much more serious implications.

After a month in which the majority of Lebanon's infrastructure had been completely destroyed and more than a thousand Lebanese had died, the fireworks were shot from many of the neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the war.

For many Lebanese, there is an unequivocal sense of victory simply for withstanding the offensive of the much stronger, much better equipped Israeli army. Ironically, this sentiment is especially pervasive in the areas most decimated by Israeli air raids. Yes, the conflict lasted just 34 days. But it's also the longest conflict that Israel has been directly engaged in since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In every other instance, Israel's opponents have rolled over in less time.

If the ceasefire continues to hold, there will cease to be an exchange in rockets from Hezbollah and missiles from Israel but an exchange in dialogue will quickly take its place. It'll be between those who spent Monday night looking for release on Gamayzee and those who shot fireworks from atop of ruined neighborhoods. So far, unity has kept here in Lebanon but there's a lot of distance between misadventure and victory. There's a lot of distance between valet parking and rubble.

***

If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to witte.spencer@gmail.com

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"

Part IX: "No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here"

Part X: "Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel"

Part XI: "Normal Moments Possible in Wartime, Normalcy is Not"

Part XII: "Trying to Be a Good Neighbor in a Time of Need"

Part XIII: "'No War' and 'Summer Sale' Posters Are Signs of the Times"

Part XIV: "The Cost of a Trip Out of Beirut Gets a Little Pricey"

Part XV: "Tour Books for War-Torn Beirut May Need Some Updating"

Part XVI: "What Effect Will the War Have on Lebanese and Israeli Children?"