Robert Fisk: Tea and rockets: café society, Beirut-style

This week: A close shave in downtown Beirut and why you'll never find our man in a flak jacket
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The Independent Online

Sunday, 6 August

In the early hours, motor-cycle riders have been racing down the Corniche outside my home. Petrol is cheap for motor-cycles, and at first I curse the roar of their machines. Then I realise that their insouciance is a form of resistance. In their special way, they are denying the war, refusing to be cowed.

A friend calls from Tyre where Palestinians are welcoming Shia refugees from the hill villages of southern Lebanon into their homes. One old Palestinian lady turned on her guest with memories of her own endless exile since 1948. "Better to die in your home than run away," she shouts.

Too many journos are wearing flak jackets and helmets, little spacemen who want to show they are "in combat" on television. I notice how their drivers and interpreters are usually not given flak jackets. These are reserved for us, the Westerners, the Protected Ones, Those Who Must Live.

I used to wear a flak jacket in Bosnia, but no more. Ever since a bullet penetrated the neck of a colleague and was kept within his body by the iron jacket - going round and round until it had destroyed his kidneys, liver and heart - I have refused to touch these things. Better to die in shirtsleeves.

Monday, 7 August

A pilotless drone buzzes over my home at 4am. To Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp to talk to Suheil Natour, the human rights man for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A book-crammed room that smells of paper and cups of tea - always a good sign - and he goes through the options of the Israelis and Hizbollah.

Do the Israelis want to draw the Palestinians into their battle, to help destroy Hamas? "Do you realise that the largest community in Lebanon - the Shias - are now spread as refugees in every other area of Lebanon for the first time ever?" he asks.

As I leave his office, I hear the drone again, surveying the camp. I do an interview with New Zealand television on the Beirut seafront and a group of young Shia men and women - the latter all in brown scarves - stand behind the camera to listen.

I talk about Lebanese history, the Ottoman empire, the disasters of the Shias, the Israeli invasions/bombardments of 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and now. Even the threats of the PLO, Hizbollah and the Israelis are the same.

When I've finished, one of the young men translates for his extended family. He is from Qana, he says. They fled after last week's massacre of 28 civilians who were hiding from Israel's bombing in a basement. The Israelis dropped a bomb that exploded in the basement.

Tuesday, 8 August

Ed Cody and I pick up Hassan and the "Death Car" to race to the southern suburb of Shiyah, where the Israelis have fired two missiles into an apartment block. Rubble, muck, body parts, shrieking men and women - the death toll of 20 soon to rise to 63, all civilians.

Some idiot had heard a drone over the street and opened fire on it. and within minutes an Israeli plane - or maybe the drone itself, so wonderful is American technology - had demolished the nearest building.

We drive across to the Mount Lebanon Hospital to talk to the wounded. How different it all is from Europe or America, where a journalist visiting a hospital is regarded as a vulture feasting on human misery. In Lebanon, we are always greeted by the head doctor, taken immediately to the wards, encouraged to talk to any of the patients.

And the patients brighten up when the foreigners arrive and talk happily. They want to shake hands and try to discuss their torment and pain and misery. It is always the same, at every hospital in the Middle East. We are welcome. Dr Nazih Gharios orders tea and asks his secretary to find out the name of the little boy in the mortuary who was brought dead to the hospital after the bombing.

The morning papers carry an odious speech by an American diplomat visiting Beirut. He is David Welch and he manages to express his love for a country his nation is helping Israel to destroy while avoiding any journalists' questions.

"I am late for another meeting," he pants. But get this for a quote: "Much has happened [sic] in the past three weeks, but the commitment of the United States to Lebanon remains firm; it remains enduring and it is not negotiable. The relationship of the United States with Lebanon is based on mutual respect..."

At no point does he mention the word "Israel". Of course not. The US embassy in Ulan Bator would beckon if he did.

Wednesday, 9 August

Oil from the burning fuel storage depot at Jiyeh is washing up on the shore opposite my home, dead birds, black fish and the smell of a refinery. It's broken up into thick black balls that lie on the rocks and sand when the tide goes out.

In the Chouf, the Druze are now caring for 100,000 Shia refugees. "There is not a single man between 25 and 40 among them," the wife of a Druze official remarks. I have a shrewd idea where all those men have gone.

To a hubble-bubble café in the evening where the oil-sogged waves slosh around the feet of a Lebanese fisherman perched on an old concrete pillar in the water. He wears a straw hat and I think at first he's a statue for tourists until he turns to put an oily fish into the basket on his back. "We have no food and we have stopped selling alcohol," the waiter proudly tells me. Well, I say, that's really going to bring in the customers!

The BBC is back to its old craven self, referring in a report from Israel to the tiny sliver of Lebanese territory taken at great cost by Israeli troops as Israel's "security zone" - Israel's own preposterous title for what must be the most insecure piece of land on earth.

It is, of course, an "occupation zone" but not, it seems, if it's occupied by the Israelis. Had Hizbollah seized Israeli territory - they did after all provoke this savage conflict with their own reckless crossing of the border - would the BBC be calling it Hizbollah's "security zone" in northern Israel? Would they hell.

Thursday, 10 August

To the City Café to meet Leena Saidi, Lebanese journalist and formerly one of the national television station's top newsreaders. City Café is definitely upmarket, opposite a traffic circle but filled with boring old men smoking cigars and discussing the future of Lebanon and elegant ladies in silk skirts, and one or two women whom my Mum used to describe as "mutton dressed as lamb".

We order green tea and then there's the roar of an explosion in the sky. An Israeli missile screeches right past us and crashes into the old French Mandate lighthouse, a brown-stone tower built in 1938 from which the Vichy French once sent out their propaganda.

Never have I seen the great and the good of Beirut society hurl themselves from their seats at such speed, overturning tables amid splintered glass, racing from the café for their chauffeur-driven cars, crashing into each other's vehicles - and failing to pay their bills. I see a panic-stricken motor-cyclist thrown on to the road. He rolls down the side of the traffic island, then runs for his life.

A second missile streaks past us into the tower. Do the Israelis think that Hizbollah's television station is broadcasting from here?

"Fisk!" Leena roars, almost as loudly as the rocket. "Why do you always bring trouble with you?" We finish a second cup of green tea and The Independent pays the bill. I am left wondering: what has Israel got against the French Mandate?

Friday, 11 August

I visit the barber. "Thanks to the God!" cries George when he sees me. It is lunchtime, and I am his first customer. Every Lebanese believes that we journos know the future, and we have to pretend that we do so that they will tell us what they know.

Ceasefire? Will Hizbollah fire more rockets into Israel? Photographs on the Lebanese front pages show burning Israeli tanks near Khiam. Shortage of newsprint. One of my morning papers is now only four pages - it was blown off my balcony by the wind this morning and I had to run down the street to retrieve it. But a bad thought. I like small newspapers. Less to read. More time to report.

Saturday, 12 August

A long radio interview with an Israeli professor who says "the number of people killed [in this war] doesn't reflect morality". Well, at more than a thousand Lebanese civilians dead against a few dozen Israelis, it can't reflect morality because, if it did, that would suggest Israel was committing war crimes.

But Hizbollah will also have their day of reckoning. Who gave them the right to bring this cruelty down upon the head of every Lebanese? Who gave the Shias permission to go to war for Lebanon? There will be questions in Israel too. How come the Israel Defence Forces, famous in legend and song, could not defend the people of Israel, despite slaughtering so many Lebanese civilians?

Cody has invented a great new word: to "flamboozle". It's what politicians do to their people when they go to war. Ehud Olmert has been flamboozling the Israelis and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah has been flamboozling Lebanon's Shias. We may have a ceasfire at the weekend. So the end of the flamboozling may be nigh.

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