Friday, March 30, 2007


Lebanese gloom at continuing crisis
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Peace protest in central Beirut
Campaigners print white hands on black to symbolise hopes for peace

Four months of protests, on-going sit-ins and general tension are taking their toll on the Lebanese, but there is no breakthrough in sight.

There was some hope that a solution to the political crisis would be found before the Arab League summit in Riyadh which started on 28 March.

Instead, separate delegations of rival politicians have headed to the Saudi capital to represent Lebanon.

They are likely to come back to Beirut after the meeting - much to the disappointment of those Lebanese who cheerfully sing along with a humorous hit song that plays on local television every evening.

"Lebanon's leaders have left, our joy is great. We can live in peace, our country is a paradise once more," the song goes.

"We're tired of listening to their speeches, we've put them all on a boat and sent them on a cruise far away from here."

Lack of confidence

The words are an indictment of Lebanon's political class and it reflects the lack of confidence in politicians on both sides of the divide.

"If some politicians felt the song was too tough on them, never mind. The politicians have made people suffer too," said Ghadi Rahbani, the composer.

"Maybe this song will push the politicians to wake up and realise there are real problems in this country that need to be dealt with."

Up to now, politically speaking, nothing has been achieved. But you need two to tango - we are responsible for the crisis but the one who is holding power has more responsibility
Ali Hamdan
Opposition politician
But are the leaders listening? Ali Hamdan is a member of the opposition, which has been demanding a greater say in the government and has been holding an ongoing protest in the centre of Beirut to keep up the pressure.

The opposition sit-in has paralysed economic life and sapped confidence in the country's future.

So what does Mr Hamdan think of the song, and about the current political crisis?

"It's democracy, so they have the right to say this. I don't think the Lebanese want their leaders to leave. If they do, well the elections are coming," he said.

But so what has opposition achieved so far? Mr Hamdan's response was candid.

"Up to now, politically speaking, nothing has been achieved. But you need two to tango - we are responsible for the crisis but the one who is holding power has more responsibility," he said.

Fear of chaos

But the government and the parliamentary majority are also coming under criticism, even from some of their supporters.

They have been accused of being stubborn and holding on to power at the expense of the country.

New people, new faces that we can really look at and hope. I think it's the best solution right now

"I think this song is a little bit unfair but I understand why the people would sing that song, because people are lost," said cabinet minister Nayla Moawad.

"But in spite of a certain discontent, they are still with us and I hope we will be able to fulfil a good part of their expectations," she said. "We certainly have a part of responsibility. It's difficult to build a nation in those conditions."

I asked Ms Moawad why the government didn't resign if they were unable to do their job.

"It sometimes feels like that would be the easiest solution. But if there are no generations behind us who can take immediately the control of the situation. We would be heavily responsible for chaos, a total chaos in Lebanon," she said.

Two camps, both saying they represent the people, both saying the other side bears more responsibility for the crisis. The deadlock is splitting the country.

In January, supporters of the opposition and of the government clashed on the streets of Beirut and seven people were killed.

New faces, new solution

On the streets of Beirut, there are small events, organised by civil society groups that are campaigning against division and violence.

Army deployed in central Beirut. February 2007
The army deployed to keep pro-and anti-government supporters apart
The Lebanese fear they may be dragged back into a war.

People like Reem Mobassali blame all politicians and the people who follow them blindly in a country where sectarian patrons wield considerable power.

"We've set up a black banner here and we're all dipping our hands in white paint and printing them on the banner," explained Reem.

"The idea is hand by hand, citizen by citizen, we can take back the situation and turn a brighter light onto it and put pressure on the politicians to act more responsibly, to behave like public servants."

It is all a far cry from the mood two years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, full of hope, calling for change after years of Syrian military occupation.

The Syrians are gone now but a lot of Lebanese feel not much else is different.

This year, apart from a small concert to commemorate those demonstrations and protest against the current state of affairs, there seems to be little left of what was dubbed the Cedar Revolution.

In the centre of Beirut, near the site of the massive protests of 2005, Lebanese rap band Ashekman sang about their love for Lebanon, their anger at the bickering politicians and world players interfering in their country's affairs.

As they listened, young people said it was time to find a solution.

One young man, Omar, said: "New people, new faces that we can really look at and hope. I think it's the best solution right now."

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

So who were they?

Lebanon war image causes controversy
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Thousands of pictures were taken in Lebanon during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, but it was a surprising picture by Spencer Platt, an American photo journalist for Getty Images, that was chosen as best news picture of the year.

Winner of the World Press Photo. By Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

It was awarded the first prize in the prestigious World Press Photo awards.

The award sparked a debate in Lebanon. The picture appears to neatly summarise Lebanon's contradictions - glamour amidst the destruction, seemingly careless rich kids on a voyeuristic trip.

But there is much more to the picture than these cliches.


Spencer Platt took his picture on 15 August, a day after the ceasefire, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, as thousands of people flocked back to homes they had fled during the Israeli shelling.

The original caption accompanying the picture read: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon."

World Press Photo jury chairwoman Michele McNally said: "[It's a] picture you can keep looking at. It has the complexity and contradiction of real life, amidst chaos. This photograph makes you look beyond the obvious."

The picture was picked up by magazines and newspapers around the world and passed around by e-mail in Lebanon.

The picture challenges our notion of what a victim is meant to look like. These people are not victims, they look strong, they're full of youth
Spencer Platt

One Dutch newspaper published it under the heading: "The Cool People VS Hezbollah."

In Beirut, some people laughed or shrugged their shoulders at the picture - it seemed so Lebanese. Others were horrified it won such a prestigious prize because of what it said about their country.

Some photographers criticised it, describing it as just a snapshot, without much depth or great composition.

Talking to the BBC over the phone from New York, Spencer Platt said his picture was not meant to show any Lebanese in a bad light.

The person who was helping me with my work while in Lebanon, Wafa, looked like she could have stepped out of that car. But she was certainly not rich and her life had been turned upside down by the war.

The picture challenges our notion of what a victim is meant to look like. These people are not victims, they look strong, they're full of youth.

Only in Lebanon can you find a Mini Cooper against a backdrop of bombed out buildings. Lebanese people are very hard to classify. There were many other pictures of the war, but this one started a conversation.


Four of the young people in the group are actually residents of the area and had to flee during the shelling.

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

Picture by Kim Ghattas
The friends in the car got to know each during the summer's conflict
She isn't in this group picture. She couldn't make it to the interview because she was getting ready for her engagement party.

Bissan, Jad's other sister, pictured here second from the right, was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi, on the left, is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been to the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group, is wearing a pistachio green top here but was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

All the people in the picture, except Lana Khalil (second from left), were displaced by the war and were put up by their employers in the same hotel in the centre of Beirut, where they became friends.


The convertible orange Mini in the picture belongs to Lana Khalil. She lent the car to her boyfriend, Jad, so he could take his sisters and Nour to the suburbs and find their house.

On the dashboard, there's a sticker for Samidoun, a grassroots relief organisation to which Lana belongs.

This car has a story. This isn't just a bourgeois, trendy, tourist car, this car played a big role in the war.

It was used throughout the war to help deliver medication to refugees who had taken shelter in schools in central Beirut.

We also took medication to people in the southern suburbs who refused to leave their homes or simply couldn't, people needed hard medication, like for diabetes.

Lana Khalil, owner of the famous Mini (Photo: Jeroen Kramer)

The relatives of a friend of mine were stuck in the suburbs, two or three days into the war, I went with him at night to pick them up, under the bombs.

It was very scary, that trip from central Beirut, usually takes about 15 minutes, it took 7 minutes that night.

The picture that won the award is very digestible as a war photo, it's something the people in the West can relate to.

It's an interesting picture, but there were so many more that reflected what really happened here.

The war was not fun, it was full of blood and gore and this picture trivialises what happened here. It makes you wonder how truthful a picture can be.

But it's true that there were people who did come to the area just to have a look at the destruction. It's also true that some people didn't really live through the war.

I took one day off during the whole war, and went up to the mountains for a break. I was surprised to see people partying up there, as though nothing was the matter.

It's the caption that went with the picture that made it famous and that's what's upsetting, the caption reinforces the cliche. We're frustrated by the generalisations that people make about Lebanon and Lebanese society.


A 29-year-old bank clerk and former model, Bissan Maroun says she had no idea that the award winning picture was being taken and that she was too focused on the destruction around them.

Driving into our neighbourhood was shocking. We had seen it on television but it wasn't the same as in real life.

The smell was terrible, for weeks, there was no rain, the fumes just hovered over the area. I don't understand why Israel had to destroy so much for the sake of two soldiers.

You have to remember that in Lebanon, everyone tries to look glamorous, the poor and the rich
Bissan Maroun
Our building escaped destruction but everything around it was flattened.

After the war, we considered leaving the area because we weren't sure how quickly we would be able to live a normal life again amidst all the destruction but things improved very quickly, so we're staying.

My parents live in our hometown in the north, because my father has to be near the hospital for medical treatment.

During the war, we gave shelter to nine families, around 40 people, in our home. We are not rich kids, we are really middle class, so the impression the picture gives is wrong.

You have to remember that in Lebanon, everyone tries to look glamorous, the poor and the rich. Appearances are very important.


Jad Maroun, is a 22-year-old, studying management.

When we were in the area, driving around in the open car, I thought it maybe wasn't very appropriate.

But we didn't have much of a choice. There were too many of us in the car, so we needed to roll the top back to make more space. Also there are no windows in the back, so Bissan, Liliane and Nour couldn't see anything.

My problem with the winning picture is that emphasises some of the misconceptions people have
Jad Maroun
It was very hot and they were suffocating from the fumes.

In some way I think I like the fact this picture won, it says a lot about Lebanon.

My problem with the winning picture is that emphasises some of the misconceptions people have - that it would be unusual for people who look like us to be in the area, they expect the area to be full of veiled women, to be dirty and impoverished.

But we live there and everybody makes us feel welcome even though we're Christian.


In the winning picture, Nour Nasser, a 21-year-old journalism student, is sitting in the back seat and is hidden.

We didn't tell our parents we were going to the suburbs that day. They wouldn't have let us go. There were still fears that the Israelis might strike again, or that there would be unexploded bombs everywhere.

I'm not a Hezbollah supporter. I'm a liberal but I'm not bothered by them
Nour Nasser
But we wanted to go see our houses, get hold of some of our stuff.

Seeing the streets that we walked on every day, seeing it all destroyed like that, was very tough. I've lived in the area for eight years, on the outskirts of the southern suburbs, closer to central Beirut.

I'm not a Hezbollah supporter. I'm a liberal but I'm not bothered by them.

I don't like my neighbourhood though. I don't' have any friends there, people look at you, they gossip.

I understand why the picture won. It's about the contrast between destruction and glamour. But it's the wrong image of the war and it sanitises it.

Also, it reflects only part of Lebanon. We are part of the working middle class and we can afford some things, like nice clothes or sunglasses but not everybody here can.

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