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Phoenix rises again...

Over a quarter of a century has passed between my previous and latest visits to Beirut. I started visiting Beirut in early 1970s while studying in Cairo and later while working in Tripoli West. A Beirut publisher, Dar al-Nafaes, had started publishing my Arabic books in 1970. 

During one of these visits I spent a number of weeks in Beirut in 1971 using the priceless collection of the PLO Research Centre. I was writing my MA dissertation at the time at Cairo University on the Palestinian Arab resistance to the judaisation of their homeland. This centre was later looted by the Israeli army during the grand invasion in the summer of 1982 (war criminal Sharon was the architect of that invasion which was planned to balkanise the Middle East and place Israel as its arbitrator). All the centre's books, archives, films, manuscripts were looted by the Israeli invaders and taken in trucks to Israel, lock, stock and barrel.

During my early visits I was so fascinated by the place, its people and their no-nonsense business style, that for some time I thought of settling down in Beirut. In collaboration with my friend Husain Ashoor, then running a publishing house in Beirut under the name of Dar al-I'tesam, I prepared a 2-page blueprint for a monthly magazine, modelled on Reader's Digest. I called it Al-Mukhtar al-Islami (Islamic Digest). Due to the events that engulfed that country very soon, the idea did not take off and Husain Ashoor, an Egyptian, had to leave Beirut altogether. Subsequently he started publishing this monthly magazine from Cairo under the same name but somewhat different in its content than what I had planned. The magazine still continues and due to its rhetoric frequently runs into trouble with the authorities in Egypt.

My last previous visit was in the summer of 1976 when the Civil War was still in its first phase. Bullets could be heard and taxi drivers sought "safe" routes through the maze of Beirut and its many suburbs and fleeced passengers in the process. 

The civil war was initiated by the Phalangists, one of only two surviving organisations modelled on the German Nazi party (the other is our very own RSS which is trying to do a Phalange in India). 

Although the French-imposed Constitution of 1944 had ensured Christian (Maronite) paramountcy over Lebanon which has a majority Muslim population but Muslims here have been ingeniously divided into two "communities," Sunnis and Shi'is. The former is based mainly in the north and Beirut while the later is based in the south. This allowed the Christian minority to overlord Lebanon for close to four decades but that was not enough for the Maronite hotheads who wanted more powers. So they initiated the civil war in 1975 by attacking a bus carrying Palestinian workers. Their propaganda mouthpieces tried hard to sell the idea that they were only targetting Palestinians who, they claimed, were causing a demographic disbalance in the Lebanese society. But their actual targets were Muslims of any origin and colour and they abundantly killed Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi Muslims who happened to fall in their hands in any part of Lebanon in those days. Their bodies were conveniently dumped into the sea.

Like our own Modi has found a great protector in Advani at the Centre to condone his crimes, Phalangists found a strong ally in the then President, Sulaiman Franjieh, a Maronite who had won presidency with strong Syrian support. The slaughter of Palestinians and Muslims of Lebanon and other nationalities continued unabated. The civil war allowed Israel to invade Lebanon in the summer of 1982 which ended in the expulsion of Arafat and his PLO infrastructure from Lebanon. Phalangists tried to use the Israeli occupation to grab power but failed miserably due to the resistance of other sections of the Lebanese society. Israelis too were soon forced to retreat to the south.

Taef agreement of October 1989 alone brought some semblance of normalcy to Lebanon but, taking into account the new facts of life on the ground, it took away some Maronite undeserved privileges. Parliament was enlarged to accommodate more Muslims and the head of the government, who is a Sunni Muslim by virtue of the 1944 Constitution, gained more powers and so did the speaker of Parliament who has to be a Shi'i Muslim but the Maronites still retain presidency of the republic which enjoys executive powers like the presidential system in France and the US.

Shi'i Muslims in the meanwhile had awakened and mobilised themselves, first under Amal organised by Nabih Berri who is speaker of Parliament. From underdogs of the Lebanese society, Shi'is are now power-sharers with strong organisations like Hizbullah which was able to defeat the Israeli army and force it to withdraw from south Lebanon without conditions, a first in the long history of the Arab-Israeli struggle. We celebrated that great event by publishing a special issue of MG (1-30 June 2000).

Hizbullah is now a respectable political force not only in Lebanon but all over the Arab World. All Lebanese, except Maronite cronies of Israel, feel grateful that Hizbullah resistance fighters chased away the Israeli occupier from their homeland.

Beirut was devastated during the civil war. Landmarks like Sahat al-Shuhada, martyrs square in central Beirut, were reduced to rubble. Most buildings and shops were damaged or bore mortar and bullet wounds. Lebanon was brought to its knees. Once Middle East's most powerful currency, Lira nose-dived from around three liras per American dollar to many thousand liras per dollar. The current rate is 1500 liras per dollar. 
Multinationals and Arab businesses fled. Many countries had a stake in the destruction of Lebanon which was the hub of the commercial activity in the Middle East and home of most multinationals in the region. Anwar Sadat was one of those who supported a belligerent band in the civil war with a view to see the multinationals come to Egypt. They did eventually but only to fly away soon to Cyprus and Greece in view of the pathetic infrastructure, corruption and red tape in Egypt. This was the same story when we in India dreamt of welcoming in Bombay Hong Kong's big businesses which were fleeing as the date of the transfer of the colony to China neared in 1997. 

Lebanon's Maronites have lost their traditional French backers. The new Sunni Prime minister of Lebanon, Tawfiq Hariri, a multi-billionaire, has very close relations with the French and his businesses once employed the current French President. There is a simmering rage in a section of the Maronite community which may once again lead to a fresh civil war which if it erupts will be the fifth in the country's history since independence in 1944. Another section of the Maronites remains a strong believer in Arab nationalism and maintains close relations with Syria.

Beirut today has risen again from the ashes of the last civil war. It seems better than before in every respect. Muslim areas, especially in south Beirut which used to be slums, are now in a better shape. Hizbullah's Manar TV, which invited me to Beirut this time to take part in a 2-hour live interview on Ramadan, is located in south Beirut. Young editors and technicians are enthusiastically busy at their work using latest gadgets in a well-guarded building. Like Al-Jazeerah and many Middle Eastern TV and radio stations, Manar TV has been airing my "phonos," interviews recorded over the phone, for many years.

An important opportunity during this visit was to meet Ahmad Ansari who is a son of late Shaikh Munir Ansari, a gentleman from Saharanpur in UP, who was sent by Maulana Muhammad Ali to Jerusalem to take care of the Indian hospice there which was built with donations from Indian Muslims, like the rabats in Makkah and Madinah. The big hospice still exists and the Indian foreign ministry takes interest in its affairs and renovation. Ahmad Ansari migrated to Lebanon and worked in the Indian embassy for some time. His wife is from Hyderabad and his daughter is studying in the Lebanese University. Ansari is now running a forum of Indian and Lebanese businessmen to promote trade between the two countries. He is a treasure house of information on the Indian Muslim contact with the Palestinians before Independence and has some rare photographs and documents of that period including the ones related to visits of Indian delegations to Palestine and the funeral of Maulana Muhammad Ali who is buried in the holy precincts of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Another important person I met was Muhammad Taiseer Khatib, a Palestinian thinker from Gaza. We had met two decades ago in Cairo. He phoned me after watching the Manar programme and we had a very long chat in my hotel room off the beautiful Beirut coastline in Rauche. Khatib was one of the founders of Al-Jihad Al-Islami which is second only to Hamas in resisting the Israeli occupation in Palestine. I knew its leader Dr Fathi Al-Shaqaqi who was assassinated by Israeli agents in Malta in October 1995. At the time Fathi was studying medicine in Egypt. Like me, Khatib no longer believes in revolutionary ideas. He now heads a research centre in Beirut and spends his time thinking about Muslims who are unable to adjust to the modern world. He believes that the Muslim world will have to find an adjustment with modern ideas like secularism, democracy and human rights.

Zafarul-Islam Khan

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