Peter Jennings, I suspect, would be deeply saddened by what has happened to Beirut, in Lebanon. Peter, who passed away fifteen years ago this August month of 2020, was an expert in Middle East affairs. He was based in Beirut beginning in the late 1960’s at what was the first television news bureau in the Arab world. As such, he became thoroughly familiar with the complexities of the tangled politics in the region.
I first met Peter when I was assigned to bureau duty in Beirut in 1982. My charge, actually, was to spell Peter who was about to go on personal leave. The ABC News Bureau was enclosed in a tiny office off the lobby of the famed Commodore Hotel in the center of the city. When I arrived, one of the first things Peter said to me was, “What do you know about this story? This region?” My reply was “I know what have read, what I have researched.” Peter said, “You don’t know nearly enough.”
He led me to a back corner of the hotel restaurant where, for the next hour or so, Peter gave me the benefit of his knowledge. He instructed me in the underlying currents of Lebanon’s civil war. He told me who was important to know, and who wasn’t. He detailed the the political, cultural and religious divisions among the dizzying array of political factions, from Palestinians, to multiple Arab groups, to Syrians to the Isrealis. He taught me how to stay safe. Where to go. Where not to go. How to stay alive.
In short, Peter put me ahead, knowledge-wise, six or eight months in that quick hour of conversation. I will be forever indebted to him for his kindness, wisdom and professionalism. One thing I learned very well, Peter loved Beirut.
So did I. Despite the years of civil war and the terrible destruction it wrought, Beirut always seemed to remain a vibrant city. In the decades before the war, Beirut was known as The Paris of the Middle East with its fashion and intellectual culture. It had become a popular city for tourists. During the war, despite the bombs, death and destruction, Beirut appeared desperate to hang on to that sense of joie de vivre.
Of course, there was danger. It was in Beirut that I learned, first hand, the sound a bullet makes when its zips by, close to your ear. There was betrayal. There was deceit. There were atrocities. The massacre of Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra-Shatilla refugees camps comes to mind. Hundreds, some say thousands, of civilians were gunned down by what was known then as the right-wing Christian Phalange militia in September of 1982.
The images of that slaughter remain in my mind today; the corpses of fathers lying motionless on top of their dead children as they tried fruitlessly to protect them from the onslaught; the mutilated bodies of several young men spread out on the ground, obviously executed, a concrete wall next to them splattered with their blood; the smell of death everywhere; the thick, black flies.
Yet with all the carnage that defined Beirut for years, there always seemed to be a sense of optimism, that the violence was finite, that it will eventually end and that the city would someday return to its glory days. Today, sadly, that optimism has become despair.
The awful, monstrous, August 4th explosion at the Port of Beirut could be a giant, ugly exclamation point for the conditions many Lebanese say they have been forced to endure in recent years. They suffer corruption in government, shortages in food and power, the worst economic crisis in recent memory, a failed currency. Rima Rantisi teaches english at the American University in Beirut. She writes, “We are all buckling under the pressure of hyperinflation, corruption, the loss of hope.”
That is something I never thought Lebanese would ever lose; hope. But in an eloquent soliloquy for her dying city for the online website Literary Hub, Ms. Rantisi says, “We are so embedded in the aftermath of our government’s crimes that we cannot handle any other concerns, any social media posts about webinars or readings in safe cute places across the world. We had those safe places. They are gone now. Memory and shock have replaced them.”
Lebanon had erupted into rebellion nearly a year before twenty-seven hundred tons of ammonium nitrate exploded into an obscene blood orange mushroom cloud; a blast so powerful it registered as a 3.3 earthquake. In October 2019, Lebanese took to the streets to protest rising taxes, a failing economy, shortages in such necessities as water and sanitation. Locals call it the October Revolution. That, as it turns out, may be hyberbole. As Rima Rantisi writes, “We were sure there would be a revolution; there was no way they could continue while gas and wheat became scarce, and the banks confiscated our money, and more and more people slept on the street or went hungry.”
But a split second altered the course of history. The explosion destroyed much of a once great city. It killed many and injured thousands. It killed dreams. “It was the moment that changed us all,” Ms. Rantisi says. “We would never live in the city we knew in the same way again.”
Hopefully Beirut can, like a pheonix, rise from the ashes. Still, Peter would be very sad.