Fear and Shopping in Beirut

The first warplanes sheared through the sky at about 3:30 am Friday, just as the call to prayer wavered out from the mosque, the faint, pre-recorded voice of the muezzin drowned in the rising growl of their engines. The bombings began soon after, and the anti-aircraft guns kicked in at about 4 am; we didn't get to sleep until dawn.

I woke up at 9, when a text message bleeped into my cellphone. It was from a friend in Baghdad, who wrote, "I hope U R OK and fine. We all here in Iraq feel worried about U." I was glad to hear from him, but his message didn't make me feel any better: When Iraqis are texting from Baghdad to see if you're OK, you know it's not good.

We were ready for this, sort of. The day after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, all of Beirut prepared for war in time-honored Lebanese fashion: shopping. We bought siege food, anything that doesn't need refrigeration--powdered milk, canned hummus, beans, cracked wheat.

Less rationally, however, we bought comfort food, compiling a collective shopping list of fear and craving: I bought a chocolate cake mix for no reason. Yogurt, which will spoil once the electricity dies, disappeared from the shelves. And everyone lined up to buy bread. It's going to mold in a day or two, but who doesn't feel better after smelling freshly baked bread, and who knew when we'd smell that again?

I bought five loaves of it. So many Beirutis bought bread, in fact, that the baker's syndicate issued a statement to the local radio stations that people shouldn't stockpile bread, because they have enough flour to continue making it. "If you do continue to stockpile bread," warned the bakers, "it will contribute to the crisis." Does that mean that if I stop buying bread, Israel and Hezbollah will stop bombing each other?

Our politics were as schizophrenic as our shopping baskets. The first day, everyone I talked to was furious at Hezbollah. "How can I express my anger?" wrote a Lebanese friend in a mass e-mail blazing with sarcasm.

"Maybe by saying bravo to Hizbollah, thank you to Hizbollah. Thank you for ruining the entire season for the poor Lebanese who have been struggling so hard to cover the losses of last year's events... for destroying the tourism industry and infrastructure? for weakening yet again an already weak government and flushing all the hopes of millions of Lebanese down the drain? should I say more?"

But then Israel bombed the airport, and suddenly, surprisingly, I was hearing cautiously approving statements from people who'd always railed against the Shiite militia before. These were Christians and secular Muslims, not Hezbollah partisans, but they saved their wrath for Israel and the United States. "I am angry, definitely, at the Israelis," said my friend George, who until now had always been adamant that the Party of God should give up its arms, like all the other militias that sprang up during the Lebanese civil war.

"They have replied in a very aggressive manner. It shouldn't take this much to get back the two hostages. But what I'm also angry at is the US. They haven't done anything yet. They say that they are the country which helps the underprivileged countries, but they have done nothing to help us."

As if this wasn't confusing enough, another friend confessed to feeling nostalgia for Ariel Sharon--wishing the man his critics once called the "Butcher of Beirut" were still in command, instead of a relatively inexperienced Israeli government with everything to prove and Hamas on its hands. My American friends were all calling me up, asking if this whole thing was hurting Hezbollah's credibility or helping it. I had no idea, and I don't think anyone else did either.

Late Friday night, at about 8:30, Hezbollah's bearded, apple-cheeked leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced that his fighters had just bombed an Israeli warship. Look out of your windows, he said, and you'll see the ship that attacked your homes in flames. "Now in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people's homes and civilians--look at it burning," he said in a tape-recorded message.

He promised the Israelis more "surprises." It was a hot night, and we had all the windows open. As soon as Nasrallah made his dramatic announcement, I heard cheers and clapping from nearby apartments. Soon after that, cars took to the empty streets honking in celebration, as though the death and destruction that had been and would surely follow were a wedding or a World Cup victory. Don't they realize this means more bombings, more missiles, another war, I thought? Is he trying to take us all out with him, make Lebanon into a nation of shaheeds?

As usual, my mother-in-law summed it up best. "Why is Hezbollah doing this now? What are they thinking?" she complained. "Look at Egypt and Jordan, and all the other Arab countries--they're not attacking Israel. It's only in Lebanon that we we carry the board sideways," she said, using a Lebanese expression for someone who tries to force a board horizontally through a doorway, stubbornly ramming it against the doorframe, instead of simply turning it vertical to carry it through.

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