Lebanon is incredible – an intoxicating blend of natural beauty, rebellious spirit, pious clarity, tolerance, wild night life and unbelievable hummus. I landed in Beirut four days ago. The purpose of my visit wasn’t all that clear. I knew that a talk and a musical performance were scheduled by Almayadeen TV, but I never expected such a spiritually transforming experience.
It was my second visit to the country. 30 years ago I crossed the Lebanese border along with an IDF convoy escorted by tanks and armed vehicles. Then I was an occupier, this time I came with only my saxophone and a desire to share my thoughts and deliver some beauty.
But it didn’t take me a couple of hours to realise that Lebanon is much more than just humus, shisha, the sea and some captivating rural scenery. Early on Friday we left Beirut for the south. Our first stop was Mleeta – a Hezbollah frontline outpost and a symbol of Lebanese defiance. Mleeta is located on top of a mountain, surrounded by the South Lebanese Massif which, until 2000, was controlled by the Israelis. From Mleeta, the Lebanese Mujahedeen launched daily attacks against the Israeli invader and gave the Israelis a true taste of their own medicine. Now Mleeta is a Jihadi tourist resort, there to tell the story of the heroic Hezbollah, those brave paramilitaries that confounded the ‘best army in the world’. The truth is, though armed only with light weapons, they were well supplied with Shia, spiritual ammunition.
Mleeta provides an overview of three decades of Islamic resistance in Lebanon and, in exhibiting all that the fleeing IDF soldiers have left behind, it proudly demonstrates the reality of Israeli cowardice. Mleeta is a symbol of confidence – confidence that the IDF is gone, never to return. Because when, in the summer of 2006 Hezbollah routed the IDF, it also demolished their confidence forever. The Jewish state was taught a lesson it would never forget – their phantasmic expansionist dream had come to an end.
But Mleeta was just a beginning. South Lebanon is dripping with defiance – every village, house and person is an emblem of Shia’s heroic resistance with the villages bedecked with Hezbollah posters featuring Leader Hasan Nasrallah and the many martyrs who taught the IDF those very necessary lessons.
Like Mleeta, Khiam the notorious Detention Centre is also a monument to Israeli brutality. Khiam is where Israel detained and tortured its political opponents, in some cases, for as long as 14 years. My visit there reminded me of a devastating memory, which on occasion, I share with my audience. It concerns Ansar, an Israeli concentration camp located in South Lebanon. It was back in 1984, on a piece of flat land in the middle of the camp, I noticed a dozen concrete boxes with small metal doors, they looked like dog kennels being only about 80 cm high, 100 cm long and probably about 80cm wide. When I pointed out to the commanding officer that these concrete construction weren’t suitable for dogs, he told me not to worry: no one would even think of putting dogs in them. “Put a Palestinian in one of those for 24 hours,” he laughed, “And he’ll come out singing the Hatikvah.” They were solitary confinement units for Palestinian prisoners. That was it. Then and there, I realised that Israel was not my country.
In Khiam this week I saw the exact same Israeli torture facility where the Israelis would shove their political opponents into tiny metal boxes, lock them in for days and then occasionally hit the top with a heavy stone. This time I took a picture.
But someone in Israel must have felt some shame at what Israel was leaving behind in Lebanon. In 2006 the IDF attempted to erase all trace of the detention centre at Khiam. In a desperate attempt to hide Israeli brutality, Israel sent in its engineering squads to blow up the cells and all remaining evidence of torture. But that clumsy effort to conceal the true reality of Israeli inhumanity achieved only the complete opposite. It now only affirms that Israel has, indeed, a lot to conceal.
The journey to occupied Palestine’s Border is over the most beautiful, wild and rural terrain. But then, suddenly, we were there, faced with the Jewish ghetto walls, guarded by cameras, army posts and barbed wire. Israel clearly doesn’t even try to convince its neighbours that it belongs in the region. It looks different, it smells different, it sounds different – it is in fact, just one extended Jewish European shtetl that has matured into a neurotic, psychotic and murderous collective fuelled by PRE traumatic stress. In that regard, the Israelis indeed have great deal to keep under wraps.
Inspired by Lyotard’s “Heidegger and the Jews” and my visit to the south, I decided, in my talk in Beirut, to speak about ‘History as a form of concealment.’ Instead of telling us ‘what really happened’, I argued that history is there to hide our shame, to repress that which we cannot even utter. It is, in effect, there to make us forget. Jewish history, for instance, is there to suppress Jewish shame, to disguise that which Jews prefer to hide from themselves. Jewish history is an attempt to talk about the past while avoiding the horrendous and embarrassing fact that Jews, throughout their history, have been bringing on themselves one Shoa after the other.
But concealment wasn’t invented by the Jews. The Brits also find it hard to cope with their past chain of murderous imperial genocides. This may explain why they entrusted the writing of Churchill’s biography to Jewish Zionist Sir Martin Gilbert, and why their historians have dedicated a whole floor of the Imperial War Museum to the Nazi Holocaust. As if Brits do not have enough shoas and suffering inflicted on others to remember. One of those British-inflicted shoas is obviously the Palestinian Nakba. Britain should own up to this disaster and perhaps find a little room for it also in its Imperial Museums. And like Britain, the Israelis have yet to acknowledge their own role in the original sin of 1948.
Looking at the state of the refugee camps in Lebanon, it became very clear to me that the Lebanese also might engage in some soul searching. For 65 years Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon and in other Arab countries in unbearable conditions and have suffered terrible discrimination. Palestinian refuge camps in Lebanon are nothing short of hell on earth. Palestinians cannot be naturalized. They are banned from certain professions and jobs such as medicine and law. In some ways, their situation is worse even than their brothers’ in Gaza or The West Bank, because for them there is not even any prospect of hope or change.
Those endless solidarity discussions about ‘One State’, ‘Two States’ or ‘BDS’ have zero significance or impact on their lives or their livelihoods. These displaced and dispossessed people need immediate change in their political status, but, being excluded from the political process, they lack the wherewithal to bring such change about. Not able to travel, their voice is hardly heard within the Western solidarity discourse and the International Palestinian solidarity movement is hardly engaged, or even concerned with their tragedy. Even that most absolute of rights, the right to return to their land has been compromised by the BDS in Ramallah and other prominent Palestinian leaders.
On my last day in Beirut I visited Sabra and Satilla. I saw the mass graveyards, I saw the poverty, I saw the piles of rubbish in the streets, the outcome of the complete absence of even the most elementary municipal services. I have been traveling around the world for many years but this is, without doubt, one of the saddest sights I have seen. But, in those camps, I also saw some of the kindest people on this planet. People who against all odds, in spite of being crushed, humiliated and tortured from more than six decades, still look forward, still live their lives. They raise their kids and care about their education. They greet you in the warmest possible manner and, no sooner have you approached their shop, they have invited you for coffee. Surely, their suffering must be our primary concern.
Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli-born British jazz saxophonist, novelist, political activist and writer.
Atzmon’s album Exile was BBC jazz album of the year in 2003. Playing over 100 dates a year, he has been called “surely the hardest-gigging man in British jazz.” His albums, of which he has recorded nine to date, often explore the music of the Middle East and political themes. He has described himself as a “devoted political artist.” He supports the Palestinian right of return and the one-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His criticisms of Zionism, Jewish identity, and Judaism, as well as his controversial views on The Holocaust and Jewish history have led to allegations of antisemitism from both Zionists and anti-Zionists. A profile in The Guardian in 2009 which described Atzmon as “one of London’s finest saxophonists” stated: “It is Atzmon’s blunt anti-Zionism rather than his music that has given him an international profile, particularly in the Arab world, where his essays are widely read.”