An American in Beirut: War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend

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

July 28, 2006

"Reality TV"

TGIF. Thank God it's Friday!

When I was 10 years old, Friday meant getting off the school bus one stop early so I could race it to the next one. I usually came out on top. We could call it a tie, but to be fair, I was wearing a heavy backpack. Friday also meant the semi-worship of teachers who said nice things like, "I don't give homework on weekends." It meant games of five-on-five tackle football in front of my house as my dad watched from a nearby window to make sure no one got hurt.

Now much older, I'm quickly finding out that Friday doesn't mean much of anything in a war. It's like Thursday or Saturday. Heck, it's like Tuesday.

As I write this, it's 4:30 in the morning. My Friday is four-and-a-half hours old. But despite the nearing of the weekend, I still hear Israeli fighter jets announcing themselves, growing louder and drowning out a fan that's too weak to make my tiny bedroom anything but oppressively hot.

It's in this state of half-sleep that I can start thinking irrationally.

The sound of approaching planes bring thoughts of approaching death. I look up at the ceiling and wait for it to collapse. I wait for our windows to blow out. In my better moments, I know otherwise, as the chances of this happening are remote. At least for tonight, death is moving elsewhere, to places like Dahiyeh, Beirut's besieged southern suburb.

When war doesn't stop for weekends and a cease-fire doesn't look likely any time soon, you start to look for other escapes. Since all this began, Iman has taken on long hours and only given herself a single day free from her work. She was catching up on sleep earlier this evening, napping on the couch. I came into the room, grabbed a book and went for the door. "Saturday, we'll go to the beach," she said, one eye open. I gave her a funny look and she came to her senses. She was half-asleep and had momentarily forgotten Lebanon's newest reality. Going to the beach would mean going to the South — something I promised my family I wouldn't do under any circumstances, let alone to get some sun. Rest easy, Mom, we're not going to the beach.

Instead, TV has served as a more likely escape valve. It's funny … From inside a conflict, you somehow expect the world to stop on the outside. But it doesn't. It keeps going. This hits you every time you turn on the TV. Oprah is still talking to celebrities. The Animaux Channel is still playing nature shows about sharks and pandas, dubbed over in French. The Discovery Channel is still talking about U-Boats. And Chandler is still marrying Monica while Ross and Rachel work things out.

I didn't think that I'd have expected it to be any other way.

But time moves differently here. It moves slowly. It has been 16 days since all this trouble began, and I can tell from talking to my family and friends that that amount of time doesn't seem like much to people living outside of this. But to people here, it's a long time. It's countless rumors of what will happen next. It's the coming to pass of some of these rumors. It's losing a home. It's losing a family. It's an absolute sense that the international community is behaving insensitively and dragging its feet.

As an American who has spent significant time in the Middle East, I've not once hid my nationality. I'm always proud to tell people here that I'm an American. I know that I'll have a chance to represent the U.S. and counteract some of the bad things they may have heard about my country. On the other end of things, I've only once been treated badly in this part of the world for being an American. I was in a cab and the driver refused to talk to me for the rest of our trip together. Thankfully, it was a short one, but in any event, that experience has been outweighed by the numerous other times since I've been here that cab drivers have pulled their car over, bought me tea or coffee or simply given me a free ride for being a guest in their country.

While I still felt welcome here as an individual American, the American position on this issue confuses a lot of people I've spoken to. I've heard this dozens of times over the last week. People wonder how America can grant Israel more time and speed them additional weapons while simultaneously offering Lebanon $30 million in aid. One Lebanese man I spoke with yesterday compared it to a schoolyard rumble. America, he said, is on the sidelines yelling, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" but then wants to pat the loser on the back and buy him a lemonade later that evening.

As I listen to the fighter jets pass overhead, I can't say I completely agree with that image. But it's something that a lot of Lebanese are thinking about and talking about very seriously.


Since posting my e-mail address at the end of yesterday's blog, I've received hundreds of messages. I've spent much of today reading them and have done my best to respond. First and foremost, thank you for your interest and concern for myself, Iman and, most of all, the people in Lebanon caught in the middle of a war between Israel and Hezbollah. Even if you don't agree with some or all of what I've written and told me as such, I'm humbled to be a part of what seems to be a very strong, compassionate and characteristically American dialogue around this crisis. Please keep the e-mails and curiosity coming.


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'"