I've just finished week three of this five month adventure at The Daily Star. I've just had my seventh article published, and just at the end of last week I got a permanent desk in the office. So things are looking good here on the east coast of the Mediterranean. On top of that, a week of very measured speeches given by the country's top politicians has made for a quiet week here on the civil-strife front. All in all, a pretty damn good week.
In light of the lack of drama around here, let me tell you about the three stories I wrote this week, and the three interesting lessons I learned from writing them. I'll go in reverse chronological order.
Lesson 1: Never Underestimate a Topic
Thursday night my boss told me to attend a press conference in the morning and write an article about it. The press conference was being held to formalize the donation by the European Union of seventeen "waste management trucks" to the Lebanese government. At first, I thought this article was going to be a total snooze-fest—the kind of thing I'd do to make the bosses happy, but one with no real substance that was only getting attention because it was a slow news day.
On Friday morning, I sleepily made my way over to the Starco building in downtown where the government has many of its offices. After asking around a bit, I found the room with the press conference. To my amazement, the room was far bigger, had far more people, and had far more cameras set up than any press conference I had yet been to. Within minutes, one of the cabinet ministers and the representative from the EU strolled in. They began talking in Arabic as I began reviewing the press material, and it was then that I learned my lesson.
While waste management may not be the most fascinating topic, the story turned out to have far deeper roots. You should read the article, but I'll summarize by saying that in 1999, a commission from Europe traveled Lebanon to see how it could help Lebanon recover from the civil war, and it found that one of the most important civil elements that town leader after town leader said was lacking was the ability to manage solid waste. So, the EU gave Lebanon a multi-million dollar grant, of which an important part was set to handle waste management. Essentially, this story was, on the surface, about seventeen garbage trucks. It was, in reality, about a deep and meaningful partnership between Lebanon and a strong ally that is committed to helping Lebanon overcome setbacks from the civil war and avoid future conflict.
Lesson 2: Don't Forget about the "Lebanese Twist"
In the middle of last week, I was told to attend a press conference held by the American University of Beirut Alumni Association where they would be discussing proposed amendments to their constitution. Lesson two is not so dissimilar from the first lesson because this one too began with an assignment that did not look interesting.
After an opening word and the singing of the AUB school hymn, the press conference began with everyone looking over their copies of the new constitution. Everything was going as I'd expected. And then I began to ask questions of the people sitting next to me. With that, what I call the "Lebanese Twist" came into sharp focus. What should have been no more than a typical annual Constitutional review was actually more of a battle to stay alive. What I learned at the press conference was that the Alumni Association had always prided itself on being independent of the university because it gave the group more freedom to do as it pleased. And then, reasonably, the university decided it wanted a group to represent alumni globally, not just in Lebanon as the Alumni Association was doing. So the Alumni Association, determined to stay the only alumni group began to go ahead with a plan to globalize its operations. The university was unsatisfied with the Alumni Association's new effort and it therefore created its own group called something like the Worldwide Alumni Association. Something like that.
By the time I entered the scene—at the press conference—the Alumni Association was pushing to ratify its globalizing propositions so that it could stay relevant, prove its dominance, and eventually return to its position as the only group representing the university's alumni.
The Lebanese Twist, to me, is that no matter what the story, no matter how seemingly mundane or ordinary, there is almost always a dark political twist to it. If you search a story, top to bottom, you'll likely find a little corner of darkness in there somewhere. That's part of what gives Lebanon its appeal, but it's also what makes the country such a sad case.
Lesson 3: You Have to Deal with the War Angle All the Time
By this, I mean that in every single story I've been assigned, war is always a major player. It makes writing an article tough. You can't have a newspaper that everyday that brings war into every story, into every pore of Lebanese life. Sure, war's important, but it isn't everything. Some examples….
My first story involved covering a press conference by the head of a small Christian party who was calling for the return of all Palestinian refugees to the Palestinian Territories. If you study Lebanese history, you would know that the Palestinians played a very tragic and very destructive role during the civil war. But for the past seventeen years, since the end of the war, they have been a faction relegated to one of Lebanon's twelve refugee camps. To say they are second class citizens would be generous. They are an impoverished people with no political rights, no political rights, and no homeland. But still that press conference seeped with implication that ousting Palestinians from their territories and forcing an exodus of almost a half million people was the natural reaction to what their militia did to Lebanon during the civil war. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that the Palestinians, as they've told me many times, would like to return to Palestine too, and the party leader at the press conference could have spun it that way, but instead he brings it back to a reaction of the civil war.
I have a few other examples, but I think I'll skip those and go right to the most potent one. Last week, I was writing a story on the VAT tax which was first implemented in 2002 in Lebanon and will now be raised to fifteen percent over the next three years. I went down to the southern suburbs, Shiite Hezbollah stronghold, to cover the impact of the tax on small business owners. I went south because it is one of the poorest places in the country, and my angle was to see just how much this tax was hurting those in greatest poverty.
I was not prepared in the least for what I was about to encounter. What I saw really knocked me back on my heels and put me into a pretty good funk for about a day. As I approached the neighborhood, I began to notice posters on each lamppost on the road's center divide. After I asked about them, my cabbie told me that on each poster was the face of one of the "martyrs" who'd died this summer in the war against Israel.
The taxi dropped me off right in the middle of the neighborhood called Haret il-Hreik, and I went to work. As I made my way down the street, stopping in stores right and left to chat with workers, I noticed that about two blocks down, the buildings just stopped on the left side of the street. While they began again a little ways later, there was more than a block with no buildings. Curious, I thought. It just seemed very out of place for the most bustling street in the southern suburbs. Since this was my first trip down there, I didn't make the mental leap I should have. Unfortunately, mental leaps were unnecessary. My eyes would take care of everything for me.
When I made my way down the street, I stopped in awe of what stood before me. Lot upon lot of mangled rubble: concrete mixed with wires mixed with lots of assorted debris. The occasional forgotten shoe gave the site its eerie humanity. Some buildings hadn't fallen, they were just gutted. This was ground zero for the summer war against Israel. I was stunned.
My interview subjects, too, seethed over the summer war. When I'd ask how the VAT tax had affected business, people would often reply sharply by saying something like, "Israel has killed my business." It took two full days of intense interviewing to get enough non-war related material to proceed with my story.
That is maybe the starkest example of the way in which war tried to push its way into my story, but it comes up again and again in almost every story I work on. This really is a country that knows war, that is prepared to fight, and that knows how to rebound from a war like no other society.