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Beirut, Habibti: When Foreign Policy Gets Personal

On Friday something terrible happened in Lebanon—a car bomb exploded in Beirut’s Achrafieh neighborhood killing eight people, and injuring more than one hundred others. Soon, it became clear that the intended target, Head of the Informational Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Wissam al-Hassan had been killed in the attack.

Wissam al-Hassan is an extremely important figure in the politics of Lebanese Security—and a longtime target of both Hezbollah and more recently, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. In the aftermath of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005, al-Hassan was tasked with organizing the Informational Branch of the ISF and investigating al-Hariri’s murder—a car bomb plot with strong links to Hezbollah. More recently, this past August, al-Hassan lead the investigation and arrest of Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese Information Minister with close ties to Syria who was suspected—and later confessed under interrogation—to participating in a plan to transfer explosives from Syria to Lebanon, and plant them in the north of the country.

Wissim al Hassn’s death is no coincidence—and is undoubtedly part of something much larger. But what about the seemingly forgotten seven others dead and hundreds injured? Would the story have gotten as much coverage had the target been missed, and eight ordinary Lebanese citizens were killed?

I’m Lebanese-American. I was not born in Lebanon, and due largely to tenuous political instability, I’ve never been to Lebanon. Still, the culture I grew up in, the food that I cook and the little Arabic phrases that unconsciously pepper my language make the Lebanese blood run strong. In times of crisis, the emphasis becomes far more on “Lebanese” than “American.”

I’m 5,000 miles away from the place that is my homeland, but the news of the explosion jolts my stomach and sends my heart racing to my throat. I gazed at the pictures in horror—bright orange flames leaping from car windows, men who look like members of my family carrying girls who look like me with bloody, ashen faces. For the moment, I don’t care about Hassan al-Wissim, and can barely begin to process the geopolitical significance of the attack, or analyze the connections to Syria and Hezbollah. I can only think of eight dead and more than one hundred injured and praying that a loved one of mine isn’t bleeding or burning in the rubble.

I send a few desperate e-mails and messages, including to one of my best friends. Biting my nails, drumming my fingers on my desk at work, unable to concentrate on anything besides calculating the time difference between New York and Beirut, I remind myself that the phone lines are probably down and the roads are probably blocked. It would be a few hours before he would be able to respond to me.

“Habibti, are you Reuters or something?”

I was so relieved to hear from him.

He went on to tell me that though he was at work in another part of the city at the time of the attack, he is constantly in Achrafieh at Place de Sassine—the site of the bombing. His friends live there, he frequents the neighborhood—if it had been any other day, he could have been very close to the site of the attack. Luckily—and miraculously—no one he knows was close enough to the site enough to be injured by the explosion.

“I hope this doesn’t lead to a string of car bombs like it did a few years ago,” he told me.

I really hope so too—but I’m not optimistic. Lebanon has already erupted in protests, many involving burning tires into the streets and security forces firing gunshots. It is no secret Lebanon is already virulently divided between those who support Bashar al-Assad and those who long for his regime to crumble. What happens if a car bomb attack happens again? What happens if car bomb attacks become routine in Lebanon? What happens if eight dead and more than one hundred injured is multiplied by two, five, ten or twenty?

In Lebanon, the wounds—both physical and psychological—from the Civil War are still raw. The wounds from more recent bombings, attacks and clashes are even more recent and painful. Violence is nothing new for Lebanon—rather, in times of stability, it breathes quietly under the surface, a memory recalled when what was once a building is replaced by empty space. When the violence itself resurges, it seems to fall into place with the routines of daily life as Lebanon re-adapts to a sort of violence that never quite seems to completely leave.

If this particular case is investigated, and the suspicions that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are behind the attack are confirmed, the Syrian conflict just became internationalized, dragging Lebanon into the mire. In that case, it’s only a matter of time before similar attacks are carried out on the streets of Beirut. Will my loved ones be so lucky next time?

Front page photo of heavily damaged car in Beirut, Lebanon, during the 2008 unrest in Lebanon. Taken by Lannie Naas, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One thought on “Beirut, Habibti: When Foreign Policy Gets Personal

  1. A good piece from the heart Anna. What always amazes me is how the Lebanese people don’t get tired of their clannish, sectarian and self-interested leaders and parties. Surely, it is time for an overwhelming grass roots movement in Lebanon that focuses on the people as a whole and not the usual narrow interests supported by even narrower foreign agendas.

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