- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Resilient spirit

Shortly after the end of his country’s 1975-90 civil war, a Lebanese reporter took me to visit his home in West Beirut. As elsewhere in the city, every building was pockmarked from automatic weapons fire, and many had gaping holes from errant artillery shells.

Entering the street where this colleague lived, I was immediately struck by an elaborate network of electrical wires crisscrossing from window to window above the street.

“What’s all this about?” I asked.

“Well, the man down at the corner there has a large generator and he sells electricity to other people,” the reporter explained. “And the man in that apartment there has a telephone that still works, so we all tap into his phone line.”

Inside his own small apartment, the reporter showed me how he had rigged a small generator to a car battery, which held enough power for him to run his television in the evening.

I was strongly seized with the impression that it could not be long before a people as resilient and resourceful as this rebuilt their country into the thriving showplace it had been before the war.

As it happens, Lebanon’s progress back has been buffeted by the crosscurrents of Middle East politics, and is taking a little longer than expected. But I still have no doubt it will regain its prominent place in the region.

I was reminded of those observations last week while talking with our reporter Sharon Behn, who is just back from her latest visit to Iraq.

The streets of Baghdad are in worse shape than on her last visit several months ago, she says. Concrete barricades are everywhere, ranging from 3-foot Jersey barriers to 10-foot walls. Residents have blocked off their streets with boulders and concertina wire. Bomb rubble is more common. Trash is everywhere.

Yet amidst the chaos, she says, Iraqis are managing to keep up the routines of daily life. Water and electricity may be lacking, but they go to work, make jokes and talk about their plans to start a small business.

Shared risks

At least on the good days.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Mrs. Behn says. “One day they talk about their business plans, the next day they ask how they can move their families out of the country. You hear children playing soccer in a distant schoolyard, but you don’t see them in the street any more. Husbands worry about their wives and children.”

One casualty of the war has been the tradition of hospitality, a virtual imperative in Middle Eastern society requiring that visitors be invited into people’s homes and feted with food and endless cups of tea.

“When I first went to Iraq, I visited a lot of Iraqis in their homes,” Mrs. Behn says. “Sometimes I would be invited by two families in a single day, for dinner, tea and extensive conversations.

“On this latest trip, all I got was apologies. ‘l’m so sorry I can’t invite you to my home,’ they would say. They are so worried about being fingered as cooperating with the foreigners. They feel their homes are watched, that people know who’s going in and coming out. That’s very sad.”

The reporters, too, assume they are being watched at all times, Mrs. Behn says. “Everybody knows when you come in and go out of your hotel. There is a massive informant network.”

But the shared risks make for strong bonds between the reporters and the Iraqis they hire as drivers and security guards.

Many travel in two- and three-car convoys with a couple of Iraqis in each — a lead car that might be first to be hit with a roadside bomb and a “chase car” with security men ready to rush in in the event of an attack.

“The journalists depend heavily on having a team of Iraqis that they can trust,” Mrs. Behn says. “They risk their lives for you.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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