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Published: Saturday, 7/29/2006

Beautiful Lebanon will rise again

BY NADEEM SALEM

AS I write this, I'm watching Lebanon, the country of my parents, burn. Sadly, this is not uncommon with Lebanon. It has burned before throughout its history. The past 30 years alone have seen a civil war starting in 1975 and an Israeli invasion in 1982. The recent attack by Israel has left a beautiful country and a wonderful people decimated.

The mantra from Israel, U.S. government, and Israel's apologists in Congress justifies Israel's obliteration of Lebanon and killing mostly civilians because Hezbollah "started it." Lebanon, the Switzerland of the Middle East, and Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, defiled again.

How much more punishment must Israel exact on a country and a people who are totally innocent? How much more humiliation must the Lebanese endure? How much more must Beirut burn as the world fiddles? All of this death and destruction, because Hezbollah "started it."

Let me tell you a little of my Lebanon. Although I am a native Toledoan and proudly call Toledo home, I have been fortunate to spend time in Lebanon. In 1963 my parents moved our family there for seven years. Those years instilled in me a love for a country and a people unlike any other on earth.

For 27 years, after returning to the United States, I dreamed of returning to that slice of heaven on the Mediterranean. The sight of Beirut as one approaches by plane is breathtaking. The sight today is heartbreaking, because Hezbollah "started it" and Israel had to teach someone a lesson.

Never mind that this has been going on for years with very different results. Never mind that the Lebanese, along with the international community, have been undergoing reconciliation talks with Hezbollah to specifically meet the obligations under UN resolution 1559. Israel had plans for something bigger and used this latest blunder by Hezbollah to unleash its plan.

Journalist Robert Fisk, who has lived in Lebanon for 30 years, said this about the Lebanese: "They are a fine, educated, moral people whose generosity amazes every foreigner, whose gentleness puts any westerner to shame, and whose suffering we almost always ignore. They look like us, the people of Beirut. They have light-colored skin and speak beautiful English and French. They travel the world. Their women are gorgeous and their food exquisite."

Those who travel to Lebanon love it. Yet, as it faces one of its cruelest attacks, and the Lebanese face death and destruction yet again, we leave them to their fate as just a necessary and regrettable by-product of a needed war on "terrorism."

Some cities seem forever doomed. When the crusaders arrived at Beirut on their way to Jerusalem in the 11th century, they slaughtered every man, woman, and child. As Mr. Fisk has reported, in World War I, Ottoman Beirut suffered a terrible famine because the Turkish army had commandeered all the grain and the Allied powers blockaded the coast, leaving the Lebanese to starve to death.

I agree with Mr. Fisk that the anger and loss the Lebanese suffered was best expressed by Lebanon's greatest poet, Gibran Khalil Gibran. He wrote of the 500,000 Lebanese who died during the 1916 famine: "My people died of hunger, and he who did not perish from starvation was butchered with the sword; they perished from hunger in a land rich with milk and honey. They died because the vipers and sons of vipers spat out poison into the space where the holy cedars and the roses and the jasmine breathe their fragrance."

Today, the Lebanese suffer from starvation again and the sword is in the form of precision bombs, cluster bombs, and missiles fired recklessly from U.S.-supplied helicopters and F-16s.

The Lebanese have seen this before. They've seen their bridges, roads, airports, power facilities all destroyed. They've lived in shelters and have dodged missiles, rockets, and bullets.

As children living in Beirut, we huddled waiting out another Israeli incursion. I recall light fixtures painted blue or wrapped with blue construction paper so we could still have some light in the dark, yet be less visible to the Israelis. I recall the anxiety that a perennially small, militarily weak country endured through these attacks. But I also recall the resiliency of the Lebanese in never cowering to any attack. They didn't cower then and they won't cower now.

Lebanon was a gleaming, stunning country that offered citizens and guests the best in hospitality, adventure, beauty, culture, and recreation. In summertime, Lebanon traditionally opens its doors to larger crowds of tourists. Many are Lebanese expatriates, returning to see family. Many are tourists who keep returning. All who visit are enchanted by Lebanon and the love affair begins for them.

This tourist season promised to be the biggest and the greatest entertainers were to appear in places like Beit Deen and the ancient city of Baalbek. All, however, is lost. Tourists are gone, although many remain stranded and some will never return, as in the case of a Canadian family of eight killed by an Israeli missile.

The Lebanese endured an ugly civil war and an 18-year Israeli occupation partly by listening to songs of Fairouz, the most popular of Lebanese singers and an icon to generations of Lebanese. One of her most popular songs is dedicated to her native city of Beirut; "Peace to Beirut with all my heart, and kisses to the sea and clouds, to the rock of a city that looks like an old sailor's face. From the soul of her people she makes wine, from their sweat, she makes bread and jasmine."

Lebanese all over the world are listening to Fairouz again and longing for that city on the Mediterranean to again rise, as it has done so many times before.

Nadeem Salem is president of the Northwest Ohio American Arab Chamber of Commerce.



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