An American in Beirut: Personal Diplomacy is Often Easier Than State Diplomacy

This is the 19th installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

Aug. 21, 2006

Green Apple Diplomacy

The roads from Beirut to the south are a veritable mess. Scantily clad women representing the "Elisse Lingerie" company are now competing for ad space with Hezbollah. And Hezbollah is winning. There are many stretches where Hezbollah and their messages of victory and continuance seem to have found their way onto every other billboard.

The flow of traffic is smooth and steady for half a mile at a time, but then it comes to a halt. You can be sure that somewhere up ahead is the physical consequence of an Israeli airstrike, where a bridge or an overpass has ceased to be either and instead has become a block of sagging concrete and twisted metal that extends to nowhere. It's rubbernecking with a new spin. Hands holding camera phones extend from car windows and document Lebanon's new infrastructure.

Shells of cars — charred, destroyed completely — have simply been pushed aside. Cars of all shapes and sizes seem to have been the targets of direct hits from above. Again, the camera phones emerge from passing car windows. Click.

And, of course, some creative thinking has become necessary. Israeli missiles created occasional gaps in the road's iron median, enabling vehicles to cross from one side of the highway to the other. Some cars get stuck going over the uneven, improvised paths, and passengers of other cars scramble to push the cars through. When it becomes all but impossible to avoid the destruction in this way, back-road detours have been marked using spray paint. 'Saida this way.' 'Tyre this way.'

In a country smaller than the state of Connecticut, a month's worth of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel has resulted in the destruction of over 80 bridges. Lebanon's public works and transport minister has said that road construction alone will take between six months and two-and-a-half years.

Early yesterday morning, I was on the damaged highways and confusing back roads that lead from Beirut to a suburb of Tyre. Iman and I were passengers in "Car #17" of a 25-car aid convoy headed to the small village of Baladiya al-Abassiya. The day's events were organized by The Civil Campaign for Relief, a diverse, civilian-led group that formed shortly after the start of the war. Basically, anyone who wanted to help out could go, with the plan being that we'd meet at 5 a.m. and push off an hour later. Iman and I were there on time, but just about everybody else wasn't. I guess when gathering 130 otherwise unconnected people, 25 cars and two trucks early on a Sunday morning, you can expect everything to run a little late.

And things did. We left Beirut in a long procession at 8 a.m., and the trip took four hours; it normally takes a little more than two. Shortly after arrival, we assembled outside the village's municipal center and I was able to get a good look at the diversity of the group. There were Lebanese of all backgrounds and all ages. Some internationals were sprinkled in, including three other Americans. At the very least, everyone seemed to be excited by the idea of lending a hand. When confronted by a day's worth of actual labor, however, others proved content to talk with locals, exchange stories and receive their complimentary "volunteer" hats.

Tasks were separated into clean up and food distribution, and although there was little actual hierarchy or organization, work got done. The clean-up crew spent the day completely reordering a shoe store that had been hit with an air strike. The shop's owner was predictably grateful.

I took part in food distribution, carrying boxes with rice, lentils, canned goods, a package of bread and single bottle of jam. One family, one box. I'd enter a family's kitchen and drop it on the table or simply hand it over to a child or a parent waiting in the doorway. Some families clearly needed it more than others, but, for the most part, all were appreciative.

I've always found that personal diplomacy is relatively easy to make, even if state level diplomacy proves a lot trickier. I was treated as an individual the entire day, not as the representative of a government or its policies. One mother, after she learned that I was American, had her two young sons chase me down the street. They gave me a green apple from their kitchen, two broad smiles and a 'thanks.'

These people — the people of Baladiya al Abassiyya and any of the other Lebanese villages hit by Israeli airstrikes — aren't going to go away. And their ideas, many of them clearly radical at the moment, aren't fixed. Their ideas can change. Just as an American, a Democrat, a Republican and everything in between and otherwise can change their minds, so too can a Lebanese.

The Lebanese government, and specifically Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, has started to shift its attention from international diplomacy to reconstruction efforts. This past weekend, the government announced programs to rebuild houses and roads, rehabilitate hospitals and schools, and provide victims of the war with monetary compensation. Hezbollah had already taken many of these steps and will likely continue to do so. But had the government not stepped in, Hezbollah would have had even more room to grow influence and encourage popular support. After all, Hezbollah has always proven adept at filling vacuums.

Likewise, in the void of actually meeting Americans, stories, generalizations, and exaggerations about Americans will take their place. It would seem that's a vacuum that could use some filling up too.


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

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?"

Part XVII: "There's a Lot of Distance Between Misadventure and Victory"

Part XVIII: "What Kind of Home Will Many Lebanese Return To?"