Lebanon, Syria

People of the Book

saehI’ve written something for The New Yorker’s literary blog about the fire at the Sa’eh Bookshop in Tripoli. The first paragraph is below, followed by a jump to the site.

If you’d like to donate books to the library, check out the book drive’s Facebook page. Would prefer to make a cash donation? Here’s the relevant page.

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Letter from Lebanon: A Bookshop Burns

On a Friday night shortly after New Year’s, a group of men broke into an antiquarian bookshop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and set it on fire. The shop belonged to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. A longtime resident of Tripoli’s old Serail neighborhood, he had amassed a large collection of books—rare first editions of scholarly texts, novels in different languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, out-of-print magazines—in the forty-plus years since he opened for business. The fire burned for under an hour before it was discovered, but an untold number of books were destroyed.

Tripoli is a mess. Just a few miles from the Syrian border and comprising a religiously mixed population, it’s become one of the most dangerous places in Lebanon. Sunnis and Alawites—variously at odds since the Lebanese civil war and now feeling the stakes of their feud deepened by the existential conflict next door—lob mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at each other’s neighborhoods while car bombs explode outside congregational mosques. A preponderance of religious and political powerbrokers in the city has made it difficult for the Lebanese Army to establish order. Radical Islamists—previously a kooky fringe in Lebanese politics—attract more support each day from Tripolitans incensed by Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, which has brought over a million refugees into Lebanon. Meanwhile, the princes of the alleyways (as neighborhood strongmen are sometimes called) vie for influence with the city’s other grandees, including two Sunni billionaire politicians and a former security czar. (keep reading)

Discussion

425 thoughts on “People of the Book

  1. QN,

    Israel is open for business, what you say is just not true. We had a deal with Bashir Gemayel. How did that turn out? Making the deal is not the problem. Making it stick is the problem. Just imagine if we had made a peace deal with Assad. Where would we be now? Nobody in Israel thought the peace agreement with Egypt would last as long as it did, but the reasoning was that even if it lasted only 10 years, the strategic advantages were compelling. If you can convince me that the Lebanese government can uphold its agreements, or protect Israelis or Israeli interests in Lebanon after a peace agreement I’ll change my mind. But since we both know that this is not realistic, what exactly is there to talk about? Let’s try so spread the wars as far apart as possible, that is the best we can hope for at this point.

    Posted by AIG | February 1, 2014, 7:52 pm
  2. The comment section is starting to act up a little… perhaps too many comments.

    I’ll put up a new post tomorrow morning and the conversation can continue there.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 1, 2014, 9:41 pm
  3. Mustap,

    While we can debate the different dynamics of foreign support to Lebanon from Iran and Saudi Arabia, one thing they do have in common along with the Syrian regime is that a democratic thriving Lebanon sets an example to other Arabs/middle-easterners and needs to be exterminated in case the citizens/subservients of those countries raise their heads and start demanding things. A modern thriving democratic Arab country is the antithesis to a theocracy/dictatorship. There were Lebanese figures who were assassinated for furthering that model. Just my two cents worth.

    Posted by Maverick | February 2, 2014, 5:55 am
  4. Maverick,

    Lebanon is too insignificant to influence any other country in the Middle East the way you describe, whether it succeeds as a modern democracy or fails. If you mean by those assassinated what most of us today are convinced was due to Hezbollah’s or Syria’s actions then I doubt the assassinations were carried out to stiffle a threatening democratic movement. A leader in Lebanon would be assassinated when he or she threatens the short or long term objectives of Syria, Iran or Hezbollah. There isn’t and there never was a true democratic movement in Lebanon and that is because of reasons we all know.

    Usually the so-called leftists in Lebanon (like Wakim for example) are just extensions of main Arab leftist movements. Is it not pathetic that a Nasserite is still cited as a model for the left? What did Nasser accomplish for him to become the icon, even after death, for the pathetic followers?

    Your logic may apply in cases of such countries like Egypt or Syria, if by some magic they turn into true democracies.

    Currently, and paradoxically, the monarchies have proven to be the most successful and most resilient models in the Arab world. Even Jordan and Morocco are more successful than any previously cited progressive regime, and I picked these two specifically because they have no oil.

    That also testifies to the failures of Arab intellectuals.

    Also my two cents.

    Posted by Mustap | February 2, 2014, 10:28 am
  5. QN…to the first point, as I suspect we basically agree.

    I think what you say in your comment about Lebanon being an Arena of war is very important. Lebanon allowed itself or was forced, or both, to be, legally, the launch pad for a Palestinian war of liberation. So the Palestinians were disarmed all around the region except in Lebanon where they were explicitly allowed to operate outside the state’s remit. That was a very bad thing for Lebanon.

    In the end, the Israelis decided to eliminate the PLO fighters from Lebanon, reasonable if you were them. Their mistake was to occupy the south and turn the residents there from flower strewing, rice throwing happy bodies (to be rid of the constant Palestinian attacks and constant Israeli counter attacks) into, well, let me use Ehud Baraks words from 2006:

    “When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah”

    So Hezballah was created as a result of Lebanon being an arena of war. In the end the guys int he crossfire decided to do their best to end it. And they did, much to everyone’s surprise.

    I would argue that no militia in the Lebanese civil war actually had a vision of ejecting outside influence or, at least, using that influence to become powerful enough to calm the situation down. Perhaps I would accept Aoun’s quixotic attempt to destroy the Syrian army in 89, but the execution was not too good…

    I would further argue that Hezballah is not using its power to further Iran’s aims, I can’t see anything they have done that has benefitted Iran at Lebanon’s expense…Syria is still an open question, but previously it’s pretty black and white.

    Furthermore, when their supposed Syrian Benefactor didn’t like Nasrallah’s independent streak and accumulating power, Hafez sent Amal to bring them down a notch. Didn’t turn out how he’d hoped. (as an aside on Mar 8 2005, the signs Hezballah had up did not say “please stay syria” they said “thank you syria” as in “thank you, now goodbye”. I don’t think there is any evidence that HA and Syria had deep mutual trust, I think it was an alliance brokered in Tehran that suited both sides, esp after 2006.

    Lastly, no one seems to have noticed that the arena for regional war has moved next door. How is it that Syria is hosting Iran v Saudi and not Lebanon? Simple. Hezballah has the power to choose whether war occurs in Lebanon (much as Israel has that power in the HA, Israel confrontation).

    As a Lebanese commando put it in 2007 “Those who want war are too weak to start it, and those who are strong, don’t want war.”

    Hezballahs resistance extended to resisting a new civil war in Lebanon, unfortunately for the Syrians, the pressure relief valve just popped next door.

    And finally, Iran is seen as the enemy by many Lebanese? Only if they have been somehow manipulated. When was the last Lebanese killed by an Iranian munition? Certainly difficult to put Iran on a level with Israel.

    Anyway, happy to see Kerry stating the obvious, that if Israel does’t make peace the exclusion wall is coming down. And well done to the 850bn USD norweigan sovereign wealth fund for blacklisting more Israeli companies for working in the settlements. The days of this crap being tolerated are numbered.

    Posted by Epok | February 2, 2014, 11:28 am
  6. Trinkets, I reread your post, and I want to revise my comment about “caring vs not caring about who lives in the south” as well as the part about the price.

    I think there is an assumption that is not made explicit when people discuss the Palestinian struggle. What is the implicit view of the final outcome of Israel/Palestine? [at least I am realising that this position is implicit in my thinking and I don;t usually spell it out]

    My view is that the mass of people that comprises Jewish Israel is not going anywhere. Voluntary emigration only removes those that don’t think it’s worth fighting about. So they are there to stay.

    Same goes for the Palestinians. It’s been 70 years almost, I guess it can go on another 70.

    My operating assumption is that it continues the drift into an apartheid situation, and at some point Israel becomes completely excluded from the civilised world. IT does seem that diplomatically and culturally the disinvestment and boycott movement is being allowed to grow. If the PA resigns (which I guess they will at some point) Israel becomes the legal governing force in the WB making apartheid a legal as well as practical reality.

    And eventually the whole thing collapses into a single mixed state.

    To my mind, that is an acceptable outcome. Notwithstanding that the birth of Israel involved the theft of a country, a combined population does not have any negative implications to me…of course they;d have to have some truth and reconciliation etc, but those are details.

    If that is the outcome, then why bother spilling blood today.

    But I also accept that HA has thought about this more deeply and more broadly, and that they lived different experiences than I have, and that they have an enviable record of success, so I am happy to trust their judgment.

    Posted by Epok | February 2, 2014, 11:52 am
  7. Epok,

    I trust Hezbollah too. I trust they’ll remain apart from the LAF so they can keep Lebanon firmly divided and beholden to Iran. I also trust they’ll do their utmost to fight for the Palestinians Assad family.

    Our trust in Hezbollah makes Israel stronger and the arab world weaker. We thank you.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 2, 2014, 1:15 pm
  8. Some guy named “salami” (no joke), is threatening military action again the USA. I’m so happy we have John Kerry around to deflect all the attention to the worst thing facing the ME: no peace agreement with the Palestinians….

    http://dailycaller.com/2014/02/01/iranian-commander-we-have-targets-within-america/

    Where’s GWB when you need him?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 2, 2014, 2:44 pm
  9. I have really enjoyed reading the comments posted here by EPOCH and Trinkets …it is these kind of discussions that keep me interested in coming back and reading … Thanks for making it worthwhile guys…

    Posted by Marion | February 2, 2014, 3:38 pm
  10. Good to be back and able to read, I was in Beirut for few days and for some weird reason I was not able to view this site, I kept getting an error message.

    Posted by Vulcan | February 2, 2014, 4:09 pm
  11. Epok

    This is my last comment on this thread before putting up a new post… this comment section is getting a little creaky.

    I’m in agreement with almost everything you say, except for a few points. (1) I don’t think that Palestinian weapons are as big a deal as other people do, mainly because I don’t really think it makes sense to think of the Palestinians as a part of the population that is separate from the rest. Weapons proliferation is a problem throughout Lebanon; why are we still singling out the Palestinians as if they are still engaged in a war with Israel on the southern border? To me, the proliferation of weapons among other organized groups is more worrying.

    (2) I also disagree with you about Iran, which has invested billions of dollars over the past three decades to train and equip a formidable fighting force in Lebanon. Why do states do such things? One doesn’t have to believe that Hizbullah is a mere puppet of Iran in order to accept the idea that Hizbullah must take Iran’s interests into serious account when contemplating its own agenda. This is not a controversial idea. Nasrallah has stated on multiple occasions that his party is committed to the principle of Iranian political leadership.

    Does that mean that Hizbullah asks for Iranian directives on every issue? No. Does it mean that Hizbullah occasionally must contravene Iranian wishes when it feels that its own interests are at stake? Probably. But if we want the laws of political gravity to apply to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Army, the Mustaqbal party, etc., then we need to be balanced and accept that Hizbullah is not immune to political pressure from its primary political, financial, and theological sponsor.

    How has this pressure manifested itself (to Lebanon’s detriment) in recent years? The answer to this question depends on how one reads Lebanon’s political history. I tend to want to spread the cynicism and malice around. The major power struggle we’ve witnessed in Lebanon since 2005 is a reflection and extension of a broader regional cold war. Iran is a participant in that war along with Saudi Arabia. If this struggle between Lebanese parties has been bad for the country (which I believe it has), then the regional principals are partly to blame as well.

    Hezballahs resistance extended to resisting a new civil war in Lebanon, unfortunately for the Syrians, the pressure relief valve just popped next door.

    I don’t follow your point here.

    “And finally, Iran is seen as the enemy by many Lebanese? Only if they have been somehow manipulated. When was the last Lebanese killed by an Iranian munition? Certainly difficult to put Iran on a level with Israel.”

    Epok, alongside the many Lebanese who view Iran as a mortal enemy are many Lebanese who view Saudi Arabia as a mortal enemy. When was the last time a Lebanese was killed by Saudi munitions? If you say that the bombs going off in Dahiyeh and Hermel are Saudi bombs, what stops someone else from saying that the bombs going off in Tripoli and downtown Beirut are Iranian bombs? Neither of us has proof. Safer, in my view, is to assume that there is no such thing as a virtuous state, in general, and certainly not among the theocratic authoritarian regimes of our region.

    Plus, the Lebanese who see Iran/Saudi as enemies come to that conclusion not because of numbers of actual deaths but because of the actions of their clients. Die-hard HA supporters consider Future to be a traitorous party that is nothing but a pawn of KSA/USA, and thus bad for Lebanon. Die-hard Future supporters see HA as a traitorous party that is nothing but a pawn of Iran, and thus bad for Lebanon. This is the source of the mutual hatred, not casualties.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 4:25 pm
  12. Thank you, Marion.

    Epok, I believe we are concurring with people of the order of Edward Said who also believed that the two-state solution is not as feasible as one melange of jews, moslems, christians and, of course, non believers. In the long term, the dissolution of Israel may not entail the the necessary dismantlement of the jewish residents but of the alien jewish state. What is wanted is not an eternal confessional feud and hatred but for justice to be served., for the palestinians to have their right of return, be compensated fairly and so on. The whites were not kicked out of south africa, were they (although, on that subject, it would be interesting to read Zizek’s mandela) eulogy ? A fair and egalitarian solution, what else? Personally, I don’t believe a two-state solution will be a solution – its a phantasm of a solution. What is wanted, via the two state thingie, is to perpetuate the role of israel as a singular recognizable colonial outpost in a game of strategies for the US and its allies.

    Suffice to say, QN, I will not entertain your lack of logic ; either you are ignorant and you’re not following the news (and I mean not just Lebanese news) or you’re ready to trade the quest after truth or for something else altogether, a relativity that scores you cheap points. The equation is not about probable equivalence between saudi terrorists and iranian terrorists.

    The minimum you get is: Universal certainty -by all the big intelligence agencies and by all Lebanese security authorities -about the involvement of Saudi, Qatari and other GCC involvement (go to do some reading and watching – I’m not going to spoon feed you) at both, the national and the individual level …. and your unqualified, uncertain, stubborn and illogical assumption that there are iranian agents/HA killing of M14 figures. Of course, you would not suspect Israel.

    Yes, I concur, there are pro-Israeli Lebanese. And there are seemingly anti-Israeli yet really pro-ISraeli Lebanese (there’s quite a lyrical exudation on them by Asa’ad Abuhalil, i think it was an al akhbar piece). And they’re traitors, simple as that – unlike you, I have no problem seeing them that way. You say they are a majority…I doubt it (lets get vulgar here: you’ll get virtually no shiites on board, very few sunnis and…lets say 20-30% christians? 40%? 50%? – add them up) , ; but neither one of us have conducted surveys so you would do yourself a service by dismounting your horse-on-stalks. Whatever the number of traitors, whatever their sect, they remain traitors. Ye3ni, maximum, they won’t top over the Vichy Regime, and that proves that you can set up a state and regime on that basis..and you’d still be a traitor, immoral and all.

    Posted by Trinkets | February 2, 2014, 5:40 pm
  13. Trinkets,

    Once again, I’ll ask you to try and maintain a modicum of basic decency when engaging with me. Your last comment had the following choice phrases that I don’t think are productive to express in an online forum, even if you believe them:

    your lack of logic ; either you are ignorant and you’re not following the news (and I mean not just Lebanese news) or you’re ready to trade the quest after truth or for something else altogether, a relativity that scores you cheap points.

    go to do some reading and watching – I’m not going to spoon feed you) … your unqualified, uncertain, stubborn and illogical assumption that there are iranian agents/HA killing of M14 figures. Of course, you would not suspect Israel.

    neither one of us have conducted surveys so you would do yourself a service by dismounting your horse-on-stalks. Whatever the number of traitors, whatever their sect, they remain traitors.

    If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. But please don’t accuse me of being ignorant or disingenuous. I would be happy to address your points one by one, but not if I’m going to be flamed every time I respond to a comment.

    Thank you.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 6:11 pm
  14. Aliens vs. Islamists

    Trinkets,

    I don’t find Israel to be “alien”. Israel is growing a prospering despite your hyperactive immagination. What is “alien” are countries that subjugate and stymie their own people. Just MH POV.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | February 2, 2014, 6:14 pm
  15. If you’re ignorant of what the lebanese authorities -with the assistance of USintelligence- have been unearthing, that makes you igonrant on that account. It was not a personal invective, the word is meant literally. You’re ignorant ie lacking in knowledge. And if you do know and yet you argue that we’re not catching saudis and qataris running terrorist circles in lebanon, that makes you, again, literally disingenuous , dishonest. If you can’t handle the consequences of your arguments’ ineptitude, don’t argue. But don’t misrepresent them ad constituting a personal attack.

    Posted by Trinkets | February 2, 2014, 6:25 pm
  16. Any one who insinuates that Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf state is an enemy of Lebanon or acts in opposition to Lebanese interests suffers from delusion.

    Anyone who doesn’ clearly state that the Iranian theocracy is an enemy of Lebanon and its inside tools are the enemies of Lebanon, then that person too suffers from delusion.

    We have no enemies to south of the borders all the way down to the south pole. Our only enemy lies east of the Tigris river.💀

    Posted by Mustap | February 2, 2014, 6:39 pm
  17. And QN, it is quite hypocritical to want people to desist from pointing out impersonal and discursively based accusations of ignorance and lack of logic (and this based on material you offered up for discussion and analysis when you yourself call others contributions, insultingly, “7aki bala ta3mé” and “tiresome”. The difference is that I give impersonal diagnosis (agree with them or not) and you afforded condescending flippancy. Where is your ‘constructivism’?

    Lastly about this point, Ibwould like to point that deconstructing someone else’s post or opinion is a fair thing to do…and a constructive one, if not based on flippancy and lack of knowledge. Pretending that we all have to be constructive here and hiding behingdambiguous pleasantries (when it pleases you…ie, when you dont need to call someone’s post bala ta3mé) is pointless and not constructive. And of course, none of this is personal. Its either at the level of content or discourse.

    Posted by Trinkets | February 2, 2014, 6:59 pm
  18. To add a missing parenthesis:

    And QN, it is quite hypocritical to want people to desist from pointing out impersonal and discursively based accusations of ignorance and lack of logic (and this based on material you offered up for discussion and analysis) when you yourself call others contributions, insultingly, “7aki bala ta3mé” and “tiresome”.

    Posted by Trinkets | February 2, 2014, 7:02 pm
  19. Dear Trinkets,

    Again, please learn how to engage constructively without resorting to accusations of ignorance, disingenuousness, and ineptitude.

    You said:“If you’re ignorant of what the lebanese authorities -with the assistance of USintelligence- have been unearthing, that makes you igonrant on that account.”

    Yes, the Lebanese authorities have uncovered many takfiri rings and bomb plots. Are these groups directly receiving money from the Saudi and Qatari governments to set off bombs in Lebanon, or does their funding come from private individuals in the Gulf? In other words, are “Saudi Arabia and Qatar blowing us up” or is the recent violence the product of diffuse funding channels from private sources? I would like to know the answer to this question; we’ve read mixed things in the press. Can you provide some links to serious commentary that definitively settles it?

    Let’s accept your assumption that KSA and Qatar are directly responsible for killing Lebanese citizens through these suicide bombings. I don’t think that’s beyond the realm of possibility; again, I don’t believe there is such thing as a virtuous state.

    But If we’re willing to accept the Lebanese authorities’ findings in the Dahiyeh bombing, why wouldn’t we also accept their findings in the case of various other threats? Let’s recall Michel Samaha, who confessed to being part of a Syrian intelligence plot to set off bombs in Lebanon in order to incite sectarian tension? And while we are trusting the Lebanese authorities’ joint investigations with US intelligence, what about the various assassinations from 2005-07? Here again, the Lebanese authorities — with the assistance of US intelligence, German intelligence, Swiss intelligence, and a 7-year UN investigation — uncovered evidence of Hizbullah’s involvement. And yet, somehow you are not willing to entertain the possibility that this might be true, in fact calling it an “unqualified, uncertain, stubborn and illogical assumption”…

    To return to the question that prompted this exchange: why do some Lebanese hate Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria? In my view, it’s not because some countries are virtuous and others are not, and it’s not because some Lebanese are traitors while others are not. The rhetoric of takhwin elides complexities, in my view, and misreads reality.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 7:44 pm
  20. QN,

    It is time to ban this guy. His nonesense is so tiring, and now he’s descended to a very low unacceptable level.

    We are not benefiting one iota from his participation.

    If what Vulcan said is true that he couldn’t access the site from Lebanon, then it is likely someone with access to some servers is listening and didn’t like the discussion. In other words, he or she deemed it to fall outside the guidlines of so-called ‘resistance’ narrative.

    So is Lebanon now descending to media censorship courtesy of the Iranian proxies?

    I don’t see in this case why their propagandists should be given free access to air their nonesense to a world they shouldn’t have access to.

    Posted by Mustap | February 2, 2014, 7:56 pm
  21. Mustap

    I’ve only banned a half dozen people or so in the five and a half years since this blog started. They were all quite vicious trolls. Trinkets doesn’t fit that description. We disagree and he has some sort of hang-up about my Anglo-Saxon politesse, but I have faith that he will learn to love me despite himself.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 8:12 pm
  22. Yeah, well… faith quite often could be misplaced as in this case. But I wasn’t aware it’s love you’re after. Good luck, February 14 isn’t far away. 😍

    Posted by Mustap | February 2, 2014, 8:24 pm
  23. New post up.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 8:52 pm
  24. QN;

    “with the assistance of US intelligence, German intelligence, Swiss intelligence, and a 7-year UN investigation — uncovered evidence of Hizbullah’s involvement.”

    Where is the documentation of this “assistance”? You forgot the Israeli contribution to the “evidence”. In any legitimate court, this “assistance” would be utilized by the defense to get the case handily thrown out.

    Didn’t the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes emerge somewhere from the Levant?

    (Anglo-Saxon politesse my ass) </;-)

    Posted by lally | February 2, 2014, 10:01 pm
  25. Lally

    If we’re going to throw out foreign intelligence in the case of the Hariri plot, why wouldn’t we throw out foreign intelligence when it helps thwart plots against Shiite targets, etc.? Just trying to compare apples with apples.

    But please, this dead horse needs some peace. New post up…

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 2, 2014, 10:12 pm

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