Archive for September 2010
Yesterday marked the 28th anniversary of Bashir Gemayel’s assassination. A figure still loved and loathed by different segments of the Lebanese population, his death was one of the major points of Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war.
The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon set the stage for Bashir Gemayel to assume the presidency. His Phalange and Lebanese Forces militias had been consistent recipients of Israeli aid throughout the war and Gemayel was to provide Israel with an allied government to its north. These plans, however, for the charismatic Gemayel to take the reins were foiled on September 14, 1982 when a bomb ripped through Phalange’s Ashrafieh headquarters in east Beirut.
Following the bombing, there were some Messianic-themed stories that he rose from the rubble and helped himself into an ambulance. In Lebanon at the time (and even now) such stories are more widespread than one would think (remember Musa Sadr’s “occultation” in Libya?).
As retribution for the assassination, Phalange forces moved into Sabra and Shatila camps in south Beirut days later, under Israeli observation and assistance. Over several days, an estimated 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children were massacred in one of the bloodiest and saddest single events in the recent history of the Middle East.
Every year since the assasination, the Lebanese Forces and Phalange hold a mass to commemorate Gemayel’s assassination at a church near Sassine Square at the heart of Ashrafieh. I headed up there yesterday afternoon to catch some of the action. I’ll try to be brief and just hit on the most interesting points.
The crowd was a lot thinner than last year – perhaps because Samir Geagea failed to make an appearance this time around despite a bunch of adoring fans waiting with Geagea shirts, flags and posters. Posters commemorating Gemayel’s death started appearing around east Beirut over the past few days that I’ve been in country – showing him dressed in a suit and tie, waving with the words “the dream of the republic” written in Arabic.
Also, these masses are the only time I’ve seen people smoking during a church service, not that I frequent many.
My good friend and the photographer whose work is generally featured alongside my articles (and on this blog!) Sam Tarling reported a bit of a scuffle at the entrance of the church between Phalange/Lebanese Forces security personnel and Lebanese soldiers after the latter tried to gain entrance. Apparently, one LF/Phalange guy even reached for his pistol – I imagine that would have put a damper on the whole afternoon. It wasn’t clear what the fuss was about.
An interesting Phalange flag that I’ve only seen at the annual masses has a skull wearing a beret bearing the trademark Phalange triangle. Above the skull is a grenade on one side and apparently a parachute on the other with the words “where others dare not” written along the bottom. Check out the photo below. I’m quite a big militia flag geek so if anybody could shed some light on this particular item it would be most appreciated.
If you haven’t yet, watch Waltz With Bashir (trailer below), a 2008 Israeli animated film about the invasion of Lebanon and the days between Bashir’s assassination and the Sabra and Chatila massacres. It’s banned across the Arab world but widely available wherever pirated DVDs are sold. For an Arab account, try the fictional Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller, released earlier this year. My review of the book in Esquire Middle East is available here and the first chapter of the novel is online free of charge here.
After two weeks in Cairo, I’m back in Beirut, welcomed by scamming cab drivers, power cuts, water shortages and a bit of Eid violence. Despite the obvious difficulties of getting reporting done in Egypt during the tail end of Ramadan, the trip was pretty productive.
I’ll have a few articles coming out about Cairo sometime soon and will post them up here. One, for Executive, will be a long piece taking a look at Cairo real estate. I won’t give anything away here now, but trust me, it’s a lot more exciting than it sounds: lots of corruption, history, politics (and even murder!) involved along with single residential developments larger than most cities.
I’m also working on a piece about the Zabaleen community of Cairo’s suburbs. The “garbage people” who live in “Garbage City” under Cairo’s Muqattam cliffs are a community of over 60,000 Coptic Christians who have collected the city’s waste for generations. But, in recent years, they have become marginalized by the Egyptian government and have been forced to scavenge for trash. Despite their primitive technology and methods, it has been claimed that the Zabaleen recycle up to 80% of the trash that they collect. Along with photographer Sam Tarling, I spent a bit of time in Cairo with the Zabaleen, taking a look at the hardships they face and how they go about dealing with the business of trash.
In the meantime, check out this trailer for Mai Iskander’s 2009 documentary film Garbage Dreams about the Zabaleen.