Impressions, views, and steam-blowing by a lonesome cowboy.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Short Stories of the 75-76 War

Yesterday, April 13, found many Lebanese bloggers trading stories about the civil war. And with Ecce Libano adding pressure, I had to blog. Two anecdotes that in my mind illustrate the horrible, the half-way decent, and the touching found in all wars.

During 75-76, when every lull was taken to be a return to normalcy, Nouhad and four other passengers were in a Mercedes-service that fatefully got stopped by militiamen near the Museum (Mat7af).

The militiamen asked for ID papers (which in Lebanon have an item revealing one's religion/sect).

Nouhad tells the story: Out the car window went the arm with the ID papers. In the same car window came a knife slitting the throat of the man sitting right next to him. All he remembers after that is blood and a voice calling his name; "Nouhad! Is that you? What are you doing here?" One of the militiamen had recognized him from pre-war days when they used to meet at a soccer stadium (to root for different local teams). The voice then said: "Get out of the car, turn around, and run."

Nouhad was in no mood or shape to argue. Shaking from his toes to his eyebrows, Nouhad got out of the car, turned around, and ran and ran and ran. He ran until the street stopped at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, in Raouche.

I don’t know how he did not dive in the water and swim his way to Cyprus. Had it been me, I would have broken all known triathlon records.

To me, the "random" killings in the streets by murderers and/or by shelling was the scariest and most appalling aspect of our people and of the war. Militia leaders all publicly denounced the practice, but I could not care less about their words. Not one of those leaders, NOT ONE, ever caught one of their own guilty men or tried to control them.

A story I remember more fondly, in the aftermath of the horrors described above:

The racetrack (horse racing) had been closed for over two years, when an attempt was made to re-open it. The racetrack is located near the Museum, the dividing line of Beirut at the time. The track had always been a very popular meeting spot. A little vice goes a long way in getting people together.

So after two years of East and West Beiruti unable to meet, neither in downtown (war zone) nor at the racetrack, the latter reopened one glorious Sunday afternoon. There were tearful and emotional reunions.

Later that afternoon, H.-the-barber (as he was known to us) had the word of the day: "It was wonderful, I saw friends I had not seen in a long time. And the best part: no one asked me what's your religion (chou dinak)? They asked me who's your horse (min 7sanak)?"


  • At 4/14/06, 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I oncle lost an earing that fell off the balcony in Sioufie and my father wouldn't let me get it because supposedly it was "too dangerous" to go down to the street and get it. That pissed me off....to this day!

  • At 4/14/06, 4:49 PM, Blogger Lazarus said…

    as usual JW, your historical posts are tragically great.

  • At 4/14/06, 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Does anyone know whether a major oral history project of the Lebanese civil war has been undertaken?

  • At 4/14/06, 11:51 PM, Blogger Ecce Libanus said…

    You could be describing a door knob, JW, and you'd do it in such a rivetting compelling way.

    Nohad's story is one that was unfortunately all too familiar during those days. I wonder if his "savior" was a masked gunman. Remember those camouflage army caps with built-in (cagoule) masks? I remember often being stopped at moving road-blocks (haajiz tiyyaar) in my area (bil manta2a), and often being questioned by smiling "familiar" voices hiding behind one of those masks: "chou Louis? choul 3melto bis-saff lyom? Yalla mshii, pshoufak boukra!" I had my suspicions, but I never really knew who it was.

    ghassan karam said...
    "Does anyone know whether a major oral history project of the Lebanese civil war has been undertaken?"

    Ghassan, you should probably start such a project. Kanan Makiya has begun the monumental "Iraq Memory Foundation" with much less stuff to work with than our collective Lebanese memory contains.

    This time last year I was at a conference in Poland. I was foolish enough to visit Auschwitz. Foolish because one of the principles I've been living by since I left Lebanon was Renan's "elective forgetfulness." Auschwitz made me realize that I should make roof for Santayana's homily (those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.) I re-read Renan since, and realized that his "elective forgetfulness" was balanced by a "selective memory", which in the end amounts to the same thing.
    In any case, Ghassan, we should probably talk at some point if this is something you would like to embark on.

  • At 4/15/06, 9:23 AM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    Unfair and Laz, Thanks.

    Ghassan and Ecce, can't think of two better people to tackle an oral history of the war.

    And Lou, yes I remember those masked yet familiar men.

    Remembrance and memory are in my mind an absolute necessity. Over the years, I've had several discussions with intellectuals, politicians, business people who all said: no we have to forget and move on.

    I totally disagree. Is it any wonder that Karame, Frangieh, Joumblatt, Geagea, and others are still around, to this day, claiming THEY have the answer and will save us?

    Don't you think the protected killers will do the very same thing at the next opportunity?

    I was and am, and will forever be against EVERY friggin amnesty passed by all our governments for which, until further notice, I have sub-zero respect (to be polite).

    Familiar but always worth quoting: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (G. Santayana)

  • At 4/15/06, 10:04 PM, Blogger Ecce Libanus said…

    I agree JW.
    I think both Ghassan and you should get started on that "memory museum", and I'll do all I can to assist.

    Here's why I think such a foundation is imperative:
    As I hesitantly walked past the cast iron entrance gate at Auschwitz, already overcome by the cruel irony of the 'Arbeit macht frei' that greeted me, I kept thinking of the unfortunate millions before me, who were herded through that same gate, and who were ultimately "set free" at Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau (just like the portal greeting them promised.) Once inside, I was dumbstruck by the sheer numbers of young Germans (entire high-school classes it seemed) who were making pilgrimage and paying penance, not for their own sins and memories, but for those of grandparents they hardly knew, and of whose actions they could have been legitimately acquited. But I suppose just as forgetfulness has its salubrious value, so does remembrance.
    Get the show on the road boys!!!

  • At 4/15/06, 11:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    JW, EL and others,
    Often some of the best ideas have simple, humble and unpretentious beginings. Could this be such a moment?:-).
    It was only curiosity that made me inquire ,a couple of days ago, about whether an oral history project of the Lebanese civil war has been undertaken. I have always been a fan of oral histories, especially those that are all inclusive and especially those that give the people a chance to explain how they felt and motivated them.
    Since a few have exhibited positive support for the idea,the recent contributions on the various blogs are an excellent illustration of what can be expected, I think it would be a worthwhile project to study provided the collective support does not evaporate. Maybe we can each of us give the subject matter some serious thought over the next month or so by investigating potential funding sources and thinking of the structure under which such a project can be implemented. As far as I am concerned, I believe that the idea is worthwhile and I am willing to give it its due consideration over the next month or so. Actually I will be going to Lebanon for a couple of weeks at the end of May and I will see if the idea will resonate with the few people that I know there.
    Please let me know what you think?

  • At 4/16/06, 12:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Another great post. We should start an 'oral project' as Ghassan said.

  • At 4/16/06, 1:04 AM, Blogger Lazarus said…

    guys, this is an interesting idea and worth attempting. ghassan, please do ask around in lebanon, and it would be nice to hear what your contacts there think. as for funding, if needed i can try some sources here on the west coast (no promises, but you never know).

  • At 4/16/06, 8:26 AM, Blogger JoseyWales said…


    Unfortunately, I cannot commit to such a project. Things could change later, and of course I'd be happy to assist where I can.

    Let's see what Ghassan unearthes on his trip. I may be going to Beirut this summer and will try to find out stuff.

    I am hoping that someone is already on the case, with the all the history and picture books on the war etc...

    One idea is to start a site/blog dedicated to this (Ghassan and/or Ecce???). It would call for stories, collect them organize them, translate them etc and publish on a regular basis (and ultimately archive them). Could start very small.

  • At 4/17/06, 5:28 AM, Blogger Chief said…

    I'm joining in late on the conversation and i don't have many war time stories to tell, but I'd be definitely interested in your project.

  • At 4/17/06, 7:15 AM, Blogger Charles Malik said…

    Send me an email when you come to Lebanon.

    I think the blog is a great way to begin chronicling. Abu Kais' post was remarkably personl. If you begin this project, he might have some good advice to offer.

  • At 4/17/06, 12:33 PM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    Chief and LP,

    Ghassan had the idea, and I hope he takes the lead on this thing.

    I guess we can all compare notes when and if things get started by Ghassan or whomever gets the project going.

    I am not qualified nor can I handle a project like that. Like you guys and the rest of the gang, I'd be willing to pitch in (sorting, editing etc...).

    LP, I am not sure what you have in mind (of course I'd love to meet), but I'll e-mail you if I end up going to Beirut (probably July).

  • At 5/1/06, 3:30 AM, Blogger youri said…

    Of me about this story...
    I remember a conversation between ` father of an friend of me and a lebanese refugee. This chatting happend in 1990 in Berlin and the topic was ID-Killing. This was the first time i hear about this. The funny is that humans realy do not learn from history.I remember very good the question i asked his father (former employee in the yugoslavian embassy in berlin) Does this can happen in Germany? or in your country?. He told me No, never this is not possible anymore, look this is Lebanon, far..far away. In 2002 i saw his son again and he told me the sad story how his father died in Bosnian Civil war. It was a ID Killing in the early days of bosnian war. Simular to the story posted. For me it tells... We do not learn anything from History

  • At 5/1/06, 5:27 AM, Blogger youri said…

    I think for germany this memory tradition is working very well.
    Every nation should establish such a project. I wonder about your country that 16 years after the war you still have this problems and politicians in power. It is very late to start this project but never to late ;-), it could be one part to manage the history. Good luck in it

  • At 5/4/06, 8:15 AM, Blogger Chief said…

    I doubt anyone is still monitoring this thread, but i got an idea to collect all wartime souvenirs.

    Some of you might have heard the collective books being written online. Basically, it's an advanced type of wiki where everyone can contribute and write a chapter/page/idea or whatever. And book moderators approve, edit and publish stories.

    I can provide the technical platform software & server to the project and spend some time on organising posts.
    If someone is interested, contact me:
    chief [{at}] beiruter.com (replace the at by @ duh!)

  • At 5/5/06, 6:38 AM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    Thanks for visiting Chief.

    I track the recent threads once in a while.

    Your idea is great. Though again you (we) should track Ghassan Karam on this matter. He's all over the Leb blogs and said he would look into it this summer.

  • At 5/19/06, 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    I'm not Lebanese first of all. But for my PhD thesis I am collecting stories from former militia fighters of the Harb el-Sanatayn (75/6) that deal specifically with destruction of symbolic (or not) buildings, monuments, infrastructures...in a word ...objects in the city that got targeted deliberately, or that were particularly "hated" from a point of view or the other, and eventually destroyed.
    If you need stories for the oral memory of the war project, let me know. I have interesting stuff taped. And by the way....Should you know someone who has stories to tell about the destruction of the city (preferbly former militiamen/women)...please e-mail me at s.fregonese@gmail.com!! I'll be in Beirut soon to collect more material. Thx!


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