There’s something that thrills me each time I come to Lebanon. Maybe it’s due to all the troubles. Anyone who has been to Israel isn’t allowed to go to Lebanon. Since I live in Jerusalem, it feels a bit naughty when I preset my “clean” passport at the airport.
Maybe it’s because Lebanon is so culturally diverse. The most common greeting: “Hi, Keef-ak, Ca Va?” is in English, Arabic and French. (Translation: Hi, How are you, is everything good?)
It’s the only place in the world I’ve ever seen women on the street in full Islamic Hajab having a chat with women in sexy nightclub clothes. In fact, Hezbollah offers women financial incentive to wear the Hajab. So, you can see a woman walking down the street in a headscarf showing disregard for the subjugation by the cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
But, I think the real reason I became a fan of Lebanon is the same reason I became a fan of Fernando Vargas when he fought Felix Trinidad; no mater how many punches this country takes, it keeps getting back on its feet. After a big bombing the country is often shut down for three days of mourning and the people disappear. But after the mourning period the people come back like fish on a reef after a shark swims by. They’re warm and smile a lot. The Lebanese don’t just go to dinner, they celebrate the meal. The latest tragedy rolls off their shoulders because Lebanon has always been in and out of some conflict and the people have learned to live with it. They pack the nightclubs and they show up dressed to see and be seen.
I don’t announce where I live but I’m not paranoid about being discovered. The authorities here know international correspondents routinely cross all the borders. I’ve usually communicated with some of the power players before I arrive. If someone calls me out, I give him or her a straight answer. After all, I work on TV and my bio will turn up with a Google search. The last time I was in Lebanon, I was invited to a dinner at the home of Saed Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minster and the head of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement.
I saw people at the table whispering and glancing at me. One from the huddle asked, “Where did you come from?” I figured he wasn’t asking because I used to be based out of Dallas, Texas. I gave him the straight answer: “Jerusalem” ... producing an awkward silence. Once, I was sitting down to interview a Hezbollah politician and he hit me with the same question, “Where are you from?” I responded, “You guys do your background checks.” He laughed and said, “Yes we do.” That being said, I keep it quiet on the street where paranoia runs higher and sophistication lower. I never speak Arabic in Lebanon after one of the locals I work with told me “You have a Palestinian accent. Everyone can tell you learned your Arabic from Palestinians.”
This time I’ve come to Beirut in response to the bomb that targeted the U.S. embassy vehicle. This bomb is different. Most of the assassinations have targeted politicians from the anti-Syrian majority. They are generally big, sophisticated bombs that make certain they get their target and anyone nearby. (The exception is the assassination of Pierre Gemayel who was killed by point blank gunfire.) The State Department says the preliminary evidence indicates the U.S. was the target of this attack. It’s the first time Americans have been targeted in Lebanon in roughly a quarter century. Usually, when a bomb goes off in Lebanon people point their fingers at Syria. This time they are looking at Al Qaeda.
It was the Al Qaeda linked Fatah Al Islam, which was defeated in the drawn out battle at the Naher Al Bared refugee camp by the Lebanese Army. The leader of Fatah Al Islam: Shaker Al Absi recently said his organization would attack those who support the Lebanese Army. That includes the U.S. As of this writing, there is no claim of responsibility and to the best of my knowledge, no hard evidence, but the best suspect is Al Qaeda.
By any other standard this was a big bomb; about 45 pounds of TNT packed into a Honda. About three city blocks are littered with broken glass and car parts. But assassins in Lebanon often make bigger bombs certain to kill their target. Investigators had a giant, metal and tarp, tent structure going up over the crime scene to preserve it in case of rain. This as the U.S. state department announced a joint FBI and Diplomatic Security investigation team was on its way to Beirut. All the wrecked cars are still strewn about the road. It’s clear the authorities want to preserve this crime scene and spend a long time on the investigation.
There is one shop owner next to the scene of the bomb blast who had provided a bit of levity from the tragic scene. He sells security doors. One of the Lebanese television crews showed up and interviewed him live. The reporter asked him if his shop had been damaged. He replied, “No, because I have a security door,” then he proceeded to successfully hijack the live Lebanese news coverage and turn it into an infomercial about the effectiveness of his security doors. (I saw him, didn’t interview him.) As for my part, Cameraman Chris Jackson and I showed up with about 10 cases of gear: cameras, satellite links, lights and computers. None of it worked.
To spare you the technical TV talk, something kept kicking our video signal off the satellite. I did one report for the 9 a.m. with Megyn and Bill over the telephone. Chris kept working on our video link. By the time he got the kinks worked out with our gear, our batteries were dead or dying. We found a shop owner up the street who agreed to let us plug into his power. We did and were just about ready to go live when the power grid for the whole neighborhood went down. It looked like about 10 blocks went black. (I swear that’s not our fault.) We still had problems, not enough battery power and even if we had it, there was nothing to see but black. I did a report with Jane Skinner over the phone. We had just hauled 10 cases of gear through three countries and the only piece of equipment that actually produced a television report, was a telephone.
That’s the breaks and that’s the live TV biz.
Mike Tobin is a Jerusalem-based reporter for FOX News Channel. Click over to read more of his bio.
Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.