City Life: Beirut - How levity may not always translate in the Levant

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ISRAEL ENLARGES its occupation zone by gobbling up another Lebanese village. Hizbollah guerrillas kill three Israeli occupation soldiers and 200 Israeli shells explode in southern Lebanon. Three air strikes bring the number of Israeli raids into Lebanon to more than a thousand in 12 months.

Last week, the Lebanese press was filled with expletives: "harsh", "ugly", "provocative", "painful", "vituperative". The target for this outpouring of rage? The Independent, of course, and - in particular - your humble correspondent.

No, I hadn't stolen a Lebanese village or bombed the Lebanese. The Fisk air force had not fired a single missile. Much worse. I had written a humourous, sometimes affectionate story - last week's City Life - about Lebanon's obsession with government corruption and bribery. I even quoted Lebanon's great poet Kahlil Gibran, who called upon the world to "pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again".

Those who had welcomed the post-war prime minister Rafiq Hariri with trumpetings were - now that some of his ex-ministers are accused of bribery - doing a lot of "hooting", including, I said, (and this was a cardinal crime) a number of journalists not above pocketing the odd $100 bill in the past. "Hooting" became a theme of the story.

Woe is me. I had forgotten the romanticism of Arab journalism. Within 24 hours, the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper Sharq al-Awsat reprinted the article without permission from The Independent, but with slovenly translation and a number of passages censored.

An often light-hearted article about human folly had been transformed into a vicious attack on Lebanese journalists and Rafiq Hariri. Kahlil Gibran had been excised from the article - perhaps Sharq al-Awsat doesn't appreciate Lebanese poetry - and so had a quotation from Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell. There were no "hootings" in the Arab press. Just good, old- fashioned bullshit.

I should have known. I first came across the dangerous power of inventive translation back in the Lebanese civil war when I went to interview the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father, Kemal, had recently been assassinated (Lebanese readers can here fill in which neighbouring power they blame for the murder). "I am glad my father is not alive to see this tragedy," Walid had told me. So I duly reported. Two days later, a Christian-owned Lebanese newspaper appeared on the stands. Its headline? "Jumblatt tells British reporter he's glad his father is dead." I groaned.

Worse was to come. Another two days later, a Lebanese Maronite radio station - with no love for the Druze - broadcast a female singer chorusing the words "Walid is happy his daddy's dead".

Jumblatt Junior was understandably enraged - it took two weeks to get to the Chouf mountains with a copy of the original article to assuage him.

I mustn't be patronising. It wasn't that long ago when a Time magazine reporter with lousy French interviewed the actor Gerard Depardieu about his childhood. He had talked of witnessing a rape when he was a young boy. He used the French word assister - which very definitely means "to be present at", not "to assist". Gerard was falsely accused of taking part in a rape. Heaven knows how many Oscars he lost after that misquotation.

But last week's excursion into Lebanese journalism went one better. My mobile phone was hot with calls from former government officials. Teas and coffees were poured by the dozen as these eminent folk explained to me the virtues (and occasional sins) of the old Hariri government.

But in As Safir, one of the few genuinely literary and intelligent newspapers in the Arab world, came an article from the columnist Sati Nouredeen. How dare I accuse all journalists of taking bribes? I had not. I had hit the "newspaperman's jugular", Mr Nouredeen announced. "The corrupt are present in all media institutions," he added (damagingly) but Fisk had exaggerated.

If only it had ended there. By week's end, Al-Kifa al-Arabi, a harshly anti-Hariri paper, was using The Independent as a piece of live ammunition to shell Rafiq Hariri. The former prime minister had been accused by Fisk, the journalist Adnan Ghoul claimed, of participating in an "auction" of journalists - "henchmen" was the word the paper used - for his new newspaper. I had "hung out the washing of Lebanon's corruption". Mr Ghoul's name, by the way, can be translated as "grave-robber" or "demon". "Ghoul" gave us the English word ghoulish.

Oh deary, deary. And I thought were zones were dangerous.

Robert Fisk

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