Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Memories of Dark Days...

I am not really an avid fan of television.. I never was.. Nowadays, I only tend to watch the odd documentary, some interesting factual programme, or the (very) occasional movie..

Nonetheless, there was a particular drama that I have recently followed closely.. I did not get the opportunity to see the programme when it was first aired during Ramadan. Instead, I managed to catch the repeat, which has just ended..

Very few programmes have ever affected me like this one has.. very few have touched the innermost corners of my soul like this one has.. very few have ever forced me to travel back into those dark, haunted alleys of my memory, in the same manner that this particular one has..

'Messages of Love and War' is a powerful piece of drama, with excellent performances from most, if not all, of its characters.. from Abu Dhirar, the psychopathic, all-powerful, deviously-plotting army officer, so ably depicted by Salloum Haddad, to the pathetic, feeble drunken Fares, impressively portrayed by Rami Hanna.. Even the most minor and insignificant characters were so carefully cast and exquisitely performed..


But, as you might have guessed from the first paragraph, I am not here to write a critique of the show..

Apart from being a very power piece of work, 'Messages of Love and War' had, on me personally, a much more profound effect than that.. It jolted me back towards times I thought I had managed to bury in the deepest, most inaccessible recesses of my mind.. It evoked past experiences, so painful that I never wanted to recount them ever again.. It breathed life back into demons I thought were dead.. Long dead... But, boy, did they come flooding back!..

It took me back to Beirut during those dark, horrific days of the Israeli invasion of 1982.. Arguably the darkest period in Beirut's living memory, it was a period that, as much as I wished I had forgotten, as much as I realize now that I never will... The darkest few weeks in the City's turbulent history were depicted in a few episodes of this drama series, but the effect on me long outlasted those episodes.. In fact, that effect will, undoubtedly, stay with me for much longer than I would wish it to.. I very much suspect that these demons will continue to haunt me for a long, long time..

It brought back, so vividly, the incredibly tense atmosphere during the weeks leading to the invasion.. the sense that something truly horrid was about to befall the City and its people.. the sense of resignation that the invasion was inevitable.. the deep-seated belief that it was just a matter of 'when', rather than 'if'..

Then, when the invading Israeli army started moving into South Lebanon, that sense of uneasy anticipation was replaced by a subtle sense of wishful thinking, that, perhaps, it was going to be a limited campaign, with limited aims and targets.. It did not take long for most of us to realize that the Israelis had a different agenda...

And when the Israeli army laid siege over the City, fear and desperation replaced all senses and emotions.. Power and water supplies were cut off.. The stifling Beirut summer compounded the sense of doom.. For 71 long, hot, suffocating days, West Beirut was under fire from land, air and sea.. Repeated calls for a cease-fire were met by the American veto, because a cease-fire at that point in time, claimed the infamous Jeane Kirkpatrick (the US Ambassador to the UN), 'would not serve the purpose of long-lasting peace'... Yeah, right!... and watching the City and its inhabitants burn in Hell would!..

Then, the terms for a cease-fire were agreed, and the PLO fighters were evacuated from the City.. With the City deprived of any measure of defense, that old sense of unease returned.. Sabra and Chatila massacres on September 16th 1982, followed, very quickly, the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the militia-leader-cum-President-Elect, on September 14th 1982..

The programme also portrayed the oppressive atmosphere that prevailed in Syria at that time.. the abuses of power.. the perversion of truth.. the suppression of descent.. all that was simply too close for comfort, as far as I was concerned... It was all too real for me.. too raw.. too painful...

I would be in front of the television, watching intently.. then suddenly I would break in cold sweat, when a particular event on the screen brings me in close contact with those beastly memories.. There were moments when I could smell the scent of blood and wounds.. when the smell of burning flesh was so overpowering... moments when I re-lived, so convincingly, some of the most traumatic experiences of my life...

When I first started watching 'Messages of Love and War', I was, naively, hoping that it would help me, once and for all, exorcise the demons of my experiences in '1982 Lebanon'... Instead, it brought those demons back to haunt me...

Come to think of it, the programme was simply a catalyst.. Those ancient scars had never healed in the first place... those demons were never dead.. they were simply sleeping...

11 comments:

Abu Kareem said...

You and me brother... I still vividly remember the night of Sabra and Shatilla. The city, without power, was dark and quiet. I was sleeping on the balcony of a friend's apartment. In the distance there were popping sounds and you could see flares going up over the southern part of the city; Israeli flares to light up the camps and facilitate the ghastly acts that followed. How can I forget such a night.

Yazan said...

I can only try to imagine the psychological impact these years had on those who lived through them. The only memories I have of the war, is the lasting image of the huge junkyard behind my dad's little studio in hamra, where a bomb fell once and shook the whole building. That sight and the confusion of a 4 years old kid trying to understand why all these buildings in his favorite city [back then, beirut being the summer place was my own fairy land] have bullet holes in them.

I cant even begin to comprehend what the war generations of the lebanese have been turned into, by this ugly ugly war.

Rime said...

Syrian Brit, thanks for sharing. Frankly, I didn't watch the series but hated every scene I happened to see by chance (Mom was watching) and found it so heavy, so overdone. I guess I was mistaken.

I wonder why the freedom-seeking Lebanese March 14 "politicians" are never asked about Sabra and Chatila. I am sure the Gemayels and the Geageas have some information, to put it mildly. Not that the others on the scene are much better, mind you, but Sabra and Chatila, and Tal Al Zaatar before it, were horrific.

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Kareem,
With every word I wrote in that post, I was thinking of you, my friend.. I expected you to have the first comment, and you did not disappoint me!..

Yazan,
I have little doubt that a lot of what we see today in Lebanon is a direct result of the deep-seated trauma from those horrid days of the (un)civil war..

Rime,
I guess it was a bit overdone, but as I said, I was just shocked by the power of the memories it evoked..I, after all, am in no position to give an artistic critique, in any shape, form or fashion.. So, I definitely bow to your superior knowledge..
And you are absolutely right, Rime.. Sabra and Shatila, and Tal Al Zaatar before it, were horrific... But Tal Al Zaatar predates my stay in Lebanon

Anonymous said...

I was in Lebanon when tel Al-Zaetar fell. My uncles and cousins were there! For you information, the Syrian regime assisted in overrunning Tel Al-Zaetar. That was the price that Syria paid to get into Lebanon.
Regarding the 1982 Israeli invasion, my faily was living in Khalde (south of Beirut). When the Isrealis bombed the fleeing Syrian tanks, my family went to get the injured from the tanks and trucks. They were filled with stolen rugs, refrigerators, washers, stoves, and everything you think about!!! I forgot, the officers were driving the stolen cars!!! The Syrian army did not shoot at the Israelis until later (almost after Beirut was already surrounded). And only in the Bekaa' Valley area.

The Syrian Brit said...

Anonymous,
Welcome to my blog..
The complicity of the Syrian regime in the massacre at Tal Al Zaatar is well documented.. Although I was not in Lebanon at the time, I remember it very well.. To me, it is a source of national disgrace.. The blatant excesses of the Syrian army, soldiers and officers alike, is all too well known, and only a self-delusional idiot would deny them.. the shameful lack of any military action on the part of the Syrian Army until very late in that battle, and the complete futility of that military action, are both well documented.. Equally, they are, to my mind, another source of national shame and disgrace...
But don't get me started on that one!..

Rime said...

I agree with your last comment Syrian Brit, and confirm to Anonymous that of course we all know Syria's role there. It's a given. But I disagree with your explanation that it was the price Syria paid to get into Lebanon: the deal was already done before Tal Al Zaatar.

By the time the Syrians started fighting in 1982, they lost something like 100 warplanes in one day! But as our host said, let's not even get started on that!

abufares said...

I've been away for 10 days. Well, I never left my place sort of but work has taken the best of me.
With my return, (of course I have to read first before I consider writing anything), I find myself face to face with this excellent article.

At that time, the early 80's, I was already in the US. I have some disturbing memories though of "some" Lebanese (the Phoenicians) celebrating the occasion on campus and the clashes that followed between them and the other Lebanese (the Arabs). The word "Phoenicians" carried a negative connotation in my head since. This is how the unruly can rape not only language but history as well.

I could smell the blood all the way from there.

Although we are not at all innocent from what ensued, Rime pointed her finger in the right direction.
They are still there and many "Arabs", Lebanese and those with oil in their veins seem to have forgotten about their past.

The Syrian Brit said...

Abu Fares,
Welcome back, my friend..
You are absolutely right.. none of us is innocent.. we are all culpable to some degree, and we are all guilty in one form or another..
The frustrating thing is that those who are most culpable have been rewarded with power and glory, while the victims seem to be getting deeper and deeper in their suffering...

poshlemon said...

wow, a lot of you were in Lebanon, including Yazan...

Syrian Brit,

very touching post. I have to say that in the past few years Syrian drama has been taking itself very seriously and is producing works of great value. I watched the rerun of the series as well and it had just finished less than a month ago. It was quite heavy but necessary. And I can see what you mean... It is capable of evoking so many emotions and demons.

For me, there is a movie, 'Zozo', that actually summons into me so many dark feelings and thoughts. So far, I have seen it 3 times and every time it leaves me in a state. Maybe because I can relate to this young boy as I have experienced the civil war as a young girl... Watch it if you could get hold of it. It is worth it.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what happened to the land at Tel al Zaatar? Are there apartment blocks built there now? And what about Sabra (I know the camp is still there at Shatila)... Who owned the land at Tel al Zaartar and Sabra? Presumably they then developed it?
Claire