When I landed in Beirut in 2009, the immigration officer asked if it was my first time in Lebanon. Technically it wasn’t, I told him, because I was here as a baby with my parents in 1973. The officer smiled and said “taffadal” (in this instance, “welcome”), a phrase I would hear a lot during the fortnight I spent travelling throughout Lebanon with my friend.
Our family and friends had expressed concern about our trip, given Lebanon’s precarious security – one incident can throw a sense of stability off. It was a familiar feeling and we bonded over it with everyone we met in Beirut including the seers of politics in the Middle East: taxi drivers. While they all had wildly different takes on the then impasse in Lebanon, when it came to Hezbollah, there was an understanding: “who else will protect us against Israel?”
There was no doubt who the aggressor was.
It is probably why we thought twice before walking into a Hezbollah stall outside the magnificent Baalbek temple ruins. It was a large tented area with an exhibit filled with posters, literature, even music, a travelling museum if you will.
We were in Lebanon following Israel’s “longest war in the Middle East” in 2006 where Hezbollah fought back for 34 days. Wars shouldn’t have winners but Hasan Nasrallah topped popularity polls across the region then, irrespective of faith.
So, here we were face to face with members of an organisation once famed as suicide bombers but who were now a dominant political player as elected members of the government. These young men walked us through this exhibit, talking in broken/basic English, Arabic, French about Israel’s war crimes in Lebanon. There was no whataboutery, nothing was lost in translation. The men even gifted us memorabilia when we left – stickers, notebooks, literature and CDs, and a better perspective on armed resistance, sans hyperbole.
My friend wanted to visit Qana, a village in southern Lebanon, 12 kilometres north of the border with Israel, the site of devastating Israeli air strikes in 1996 and 2006 that killed hundreds, many of them children. We managed, without Google maps, to find a site which villagers had chosen to memorialise by placing schoolbags, shoes and other paraphernalia. I hope you won’t think I was participating in disaster tourism; the few villagers who helped us find this place said they were happy that Pakistanis hadn’t forgotten.
I understood why Hezbollah had memorialised the gruesome images outside one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations and why villagers came together to place objects around trees. It is easy to use “never forget” hashtags on social media but quite something else to stand still and witness the impact of war. Many friends slam this as “war porn” but having taken many guests to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon when I was living in Vietnam, I assure you there is no “viewing for emotional gratification”. Many American friends said they did not have the full picture about their country’s role in Vietnam until they visited this museum.
After switching to a market economy five years following the end of the American war in 1975, Vietnam’s growth has been remarkable; it has emerged as the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia and is expected to emerge as one of the top 10 consumer markets by 2030. The largest demographic in Vietnam has no connection to a war that ravaged its country, but every day, hundreds of schoolchildren visit that War Museum to remember the price it has paid to be where it is today. There is no doubt about the aggressor.
Are these museums commemorating hyper-nationalism? I leave that to people far smarter than I to answer as I can only speak about the impact visiting such places had on me. I am not Hezbollah, Hamas or Viet Cong or sitting far away waiting to hear if my entire family has been wiped out in Gaza or if one person was spared in an attack that will be blamed on a group that is defending its territories.
Palestine is an open-war museum. The demonstrations across the world are a testament to how people get it now. It is also a reminder about today’s demographics: younger people have no connect to testimonies about the Holocaust. They only know who the oppressor is right now: Israel.
In his interview to Democracy Now, the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke about his visit to Palestine, and how uncomplicated the issue is. “You don’t need a PhD in Middle Eastern studies to understand the basic morality of holding a people in a situation where they don’t have basic rights,” he said.
You understood on the first day, he told another gathering. That’s something we should never forget.