(My Middle East)

77 days with a journalist, Lebanon, and a list of non sequiturs

Archive for June 2009

Story on Aisha Bakkar

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As I mentioned yesterday in my post about reporting from Aisha Bakkar, where street clashes broke out Sunday, heres my story that ran in The Daily Star today. It was my first story of this kind (conflict reporting directly after the conflict) so it was a bit of a struggle to write, but I think it turned out alright and I’ve figured out what I can do in the future. Heres the main story on Aisha Bakkar by Nicholas Kimbrell that my story was the sider to.

<UPDATE> 9:02 PM Beirut, Went by Aisha Bakkar on my way home from work. The whole area is still on lock down, but a little more relaxed, people and LAF wise. Although I did see a few checkpoints where LAF were stopping and searching cars and talking to people.

I heard the Sunni side had a funeral today for the woman killed, and when I walked through the area there was a group of about 100 people who were having a group meal, I’d assume as part of the funeral. So maybe things can go forward with out retaliatory violence

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Written by stephenddockery

June 30, 2009 at 9:37 am

Déjà vu

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Check out this story from the LF of a similar occurrence of Amal fighting Jamaa Islamiya (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) in the  Aisha Bakkar,the same neighborhood as Sunday’s clashes but in 2008. It makes this claim “…they asked for help from al-Jamaa al-Islamia…,” in NOW Lebanon’s otherwise generally poor, heavily slanted article, based on hearsay an interesting one.

Written by stephenddockery

June 29, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Reporting from Aisha Bakkar

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I got assigned to write the sider for the Aisha Bakkar story in the paper tomorrow. So I spent all day traveling around the area and talking to people. Even if the fighting went into other neighborhoods like people reported, it was mostly concentrated in Aisha Bakka. The Lebanese Armed Forces presence there was incredible, small wheeled tanks, armored personnel carriers, jeeps and tons of soldiers with machine guns. They were stationed on every street corner for around a mile and long trains LAF would rotate through periodically.

The situation in the neighborhood was intense. On one side of the main road was the Sunni neighborhood that suports the Future Movement and the other the Shia neighborhood. In the Sunni side, people were standing around, in groups obviously agitated, listening to older figures or talking among themselves. There were about 75 people just sitting and standing in the street, apparently talking about what to do. They were unperturbed by the continuous Police motorcycle that went through the neighborhood. I spoke to several people on the street and and they all said about the same thing. They were pissed off about the fighting and thought there would be retaliations for the killing of the woman (who was shot in the Sunni area).

The line from the Sunni’s was that Shia angry about celebratory fire came into the neighborhood and started shooting. That shouldn’t be trusted because that was all from sources in the Sunni area. But unfortunately I can’t offer a counter perspective because almost everyone in the Shia area wouldn’t talk to me. The most I got out of the Shia side after trying to talk to about 15 people was “everybody here waits”

One store keeper I spoke to said he saw men with guns from both sides getting ready to fight at around noon. So I’m sure there is more to it than what appears.

Either way the situation was tense on both sides of the road, and I think it will come down to how effectively the LAF can control the area and that further fighting doesn’t break out in other neighborhoods. Check for the story tomorrow and I’ll post it here as well.

Written by stephenddockery

June 29, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Clashes in Beirut Sunday

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One woman was killed and several wounded (6 according to Now Lebanon) Sunday evening in clashes in Beirut between supporters of the Future Movement, which is led by PM Saad Hariri and supporters of Amal, led by Speaker Nabih Berri. Apparently one Lebanese solider was wounded as well.

The clashes started in the Aisha Bakkar neighborhood and involved gun and RPG fire. The clashes then spread, but its not entirely definitive where they spread to. Heres all the neighborhoods listed in the news reports I’ve read: “Salim Salam, Mosseitbeh and Mar Elias (Now Lebanon) Mar Elias, Verdun, Hay el-Lija, Musaitbeh and Khandaq al-Ghamiq” (Lebanese Forces) Mar Elias (Tayyar).

The Lebanese Armed Forces apparently had the neighborhoods where the fighting was cordoned off and under control by 9 p.m. They threatened to shoot anyone with a gun.

It’s a slightly surprising change given the calm thats been prevalent since the elections, there was a general sense of reconciliation. Ms Tee at B-Side Beirut blames it on the smaller number of votes than expected cast for Berri when he was re-elected speaker, and a possible disagreement between Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Things seem to be calm on Shia Chat, an English language forum. If thats any sign of anything, I don’t know.

Also, heres a brief report from Tayyar, Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud says the usual things, but an interesting line was this one

“Answering a question about weapons being seen a lot with ordinary people he said that the natural place for arms is in the hands of the LAF”

I don’t know who asked the question or if it was based on fact, but it’ something to follow.

Written by stephenddockery

June 29, 2009 at 10:27 am

Summer reading Vol. 3 | From Beirut to Jerusalem

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The third book on my summer reading list was From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Some of you may know that I particularly dislike Friedman’s current Op-Ed pieces where he parachutes into a city and makes outlandish claims. But this book, does not fall into that category. Apparently there are definitive good Friedman and bad Friedman eras.

To start off this book is not the place to go for a primer on Lebanon or even Beirut. Friedman has relatively little to offer that isn’t covered better elsewhere when it comes to understanding the state of Lebanon. I would recommend Fisk or Mackey for that.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is a bit like extended Op-Ed pieces on several different topics, which is what he’s best at. In the Beirut section Friedman tackles the PLO, particularity Arafat, Beirut psychology, and the nature of Middle East governments in general. His ability to explain things in a way a Western audience understands is the selling point of his writing, it particularly shines through when he explains the reasoning behind government decisions in the Middle East, what he calls “Hama rules.” That being said the Beirut section is defeintly the weakest part of the book, it is often repetitive with writing on Lebanon and the Palestinians thats covered in more depth elsewhere.

It’s in the section on Jerusalem that Friedman’s best comes through. Friedman is Jewish himself and its something that he doesn’t hide when reporting or writing and thats what make this section so valuable. He analyzes the composition of the Israeli state, its search for identity and tumultuous relationship with American Jews. Friedman conveys this so well because they are all things that he has an intensely personal relationship with. You can feel the ups and downs of his personal relationship with Israel in his writing, and he doesn’t shy away from injecting his own thoughts into the writing. I rarely felt these personal additions took away anything from the book, his writing is by no means a historical account of anything, but like a good Op-Ed piece a different way of looking at a subject. Its very readable and would be a good starting point for approaching the reading

Heres some of the key points I pulled from the book, according to Friedman. This was published in 1989 but much of it holds true today:

  • Arafat was hopelessly locked between unhelpful Arab governments and a base of support with unrealistic goals. It was the West Bank Intifada that represented a realistic and natural Palestinian resistance
  • PLO failed to make any settlement when they had the chance. Their leadership was hopelessly disorganized.
  • Tribalism and self preservation guide most decision making by Middle East governments. Their history is one where the most powerful man must be ready to ruthlessly defend his honor, property and territory and are ready now to do the same. Friedman compares this way of self preservation to the rationale behind brutal suppression of dissidents in a rulers country, like the Hama massacre.
  • Labor and Likud really aren’t that much different.
  • Israel lacks its own definitive identity and can’t be a serious player in making peace and determining another states identity until it figures out who it is. The differences between secular Israelis, Orthodox Jews, messianic Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox is what keeps the country do divided, particularly on the peace plan.
  • Unusual and often resentful relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews, both blame each other for not living up to expectations. Reform Judaism that is everywhere in America is barely present and not accepted in Israel
  • Israel has no real reason to give up its land. It has almost all the power in the peace process and It feels more secure with the current limited threats than creating a state for its adversaries. No countries willingly give up land.
  • Israel is featured so prominently in the media because of its connection to the Bible, the way the Western world views the world. Israel is held to a higher standard by most and people love reading about its misdeeds or successes because of that Bible connection, so other countries where worse things could be happening get less attention.

Final Rating (out of 5): 4.0

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

June 28, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Story on EC trip to North Lebanon

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Patrick Laurent speaks with a teacher and town leader in Denbo

Patrick Laurent speaks with a teacher and town leader in Denbo | Stephen Dockery

On Thursday I went on a press trip to North Lebanon with the delegation from the European Commission for a story for The Daily Star. We road around in black SUV’s with the Head of the EC Commission Patrick Laurent and stopped at community projects that the EC was funding through ESFD, an aid organization. We made stops at al-Mina a coastal town in Tripoli And then Mhammara, Majdala, Mar Touma, Deir Dallloum ,and Denbo in Akkar.

Akkar district

Akkar district

Akkar is one of the poorest areas in Lebanon and theres not much there besides trees shrubs and large hills/ small mountains. The most impressive part of the trip was seeing what looked like the whole town of Denbo (which was the poorest and most isolated town we visited) come out to cheer Patrick Laurent as he arrived to tour the area. I guess its not that surprising as the EU has funded millions of dollars of programs in the area.

One thing I wondered about when I was walking around the area is what would happen to this area if the aid stopped coming from international and individual donors. As we were riding back from Denbo I scribbled in my notebook “Is this a young area for instability?”. I didn’t think about it much afterward but when I spoke to the head of ESFD Haitham Omar later he said the same thing, heres the copy from my transcription:

“The acute disparities in living conditions in Lebanon is causing social instability and insecurity.

If we do not want to have the North of Lebanon specifically the Akkar area drop into fundamentalist extremities then we should deal with the situation from an economic basis.

Of course. Because in my opinion what is more important than frequency of poverty in Lebanon, what more important than that is the intensity of poverty, it means the distance from the national average, the standard of living. And the farther you go from the national average the more you will likely get instabilities and fundamentalists.”

While its a bit of a stretch to point to Fatah al-Islam and Nahar al-Bared as the result of a lack of funding (because there are so many factors invovled because its a refugee camp), it should at least be considered.

I didn’t fell like I could include a reference to the potential for instability in my story because it would be tackling too many topics.

Anyways I tried to make my story something besides a PR piece for the EC so I attempted to turn it into something more like news anaylsis… kind of. Hopefully the jump to talking about the role of aid organizations is not too contrived. Here it is:

Laurent tours community building programs in north Lebanon

” BEIRUT: Head of the Delegation of the European Commission Patrick Laurent visited northern Lebanon Thursday on a tour of community building programs the European Union funds in the area. He announced an additional 18 million euros of funding from the European Commission for the northern region at the end of the tour.

Local mayors and dignitaries along with dozens of people gathered in cities like al-Mina near Tripoli and Majdala and Denbo in Akkar for a brief glimpse and short speech by the French diplomat. Laurent and his delegation from the European Commission visited a cultural center, water filtration plants and vocational schools in the terraced foothills of the Akkar.

Besides being a publicity stunt to build support, Laurent’s visit to Akkar, one of the poorest areas in the nation, brought up issues of class disparity and the question of what role international aid plays in place of the Lebanese government. These issues have recently been the center of debate after a report of high levels of poverty in Akkar.

The programs Laurent visited are all funded by the Economic and Social Fund for Development (ESFD), a mostly EU backed project aimed at poverty reduction. Laurent said the additional funding of 18 million euros provided by the EU would be used for the development of agriculture programs with local authorities in the north, but provided no further details.

Over a hundred people came out to see the delegation in Denbo the last stop on the delegations trip and location of Laurent’s longest speech. Denbo was by far the largest gathering of all of the delegation’s stops and one of the poorest towns in Akkar. Town members played traditional music and showered the delegation with sweets and cheers when Laurent approached the town’s community center.

“The European Commission will continue to support this movement and will make sure the voice of local communities is well heard,” said Laurent to the audience packed in a small gymnasium. “Reinforcing the state while strengthening local actors is the best way not only to build up a democratic state in Lebanon but to ensure a development process involving and benefiting to all citizens,” he said.

These contributions from international organizations like the European Commission are crucial for the well being of cities and towns in the northern region. The contributions have also largely filled the void of the government in the poorer areas of Lebanon where the state building has not done much to provide for the people of northern Lebanon.

Places in the interior of Akkar like Denbo don’t have the mountaintop or seaside resorts that draw industry to many other parts of the country. In 2008 a report by the International Poverty Center Akkar was listed as having the highest level of poverty and unsatisfied basic needs in the country. Towns largely live off what agriculture can provide and remittances from Lebanese working abroad. The rest comes from aid programs…

Read the rest

Yes. I think the government after all, they put to law. the acute disparities in living conditions in Lebanon is causing social instability and insecurity.

If we do not want to have the North of Lebanon specifically the Akkar area drop into fundamentalist extremities then we should deal with the situation from an economic basis.

GOV DO MORE?

Of course. Because in my opinion what is more important than frequency of poverty in Lebanon, what more important than that is the intensity of poverty, it means the distance from the national average, the standard of living. And the farther you go from the national average the more you will likely get instabilities and fundamentalists.

Half way in Beirut | an Update

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It’s hard to believe but I’ve now been in Beirut 33 days (today is the 34th). I’ve got 33 more left and I’ve got to say things have gone very well. I’ve found a great place to live, met some cool people and I absolutely love Beirut. Although the newspaper is understaffed, and a bit disorganized, I’m starting to enjoy it.

Also contrary to some peoples belief, I’m not just writing bagel and book stories, I’m starting to be trusted with bigger stuff, and I’m working on an enterprise story of my own. Oh I’m also heading up to Akkar and Tripoli tomorrow with Patrick Laurent the head of the European Commission delegation on a press trip.

I start Arabic classes in the beginning of July, which I’m looking forward to. But to be honest my Arabic hasn’t gotten that much better. I think you really need to set aside time to learn the language like a whole year (Damascus Arabic school? Who knows)

Progress on my summer reading list is right on schedule. I’ve finished my first three books, and I’m starting my fourth, Engaging the Muslim World today. I’ve also started the process of applying for scholarships, fellowships and graduate schools for post SU. It’s a rather daunting/not fun process, but hopefully it will pay off in the end.

Oh I also discovered a fantastic drink yesterday its called Freez, and its made in Lebanon. It’s a mix of sparking water and fruit juice, and comes in lots of flavors including Lemon and Blackberry which are the two Ive tried so far. It reminds me a lot like Izzle (spelled correctly), but more soda like.

Anyways thats all I’ve got for now. Thanks everyone for reading

Written by stephenddockery

June 24, 2009 at 5:09 pm