Michael Totten

Christopher Hitchens and the Battle of Beirut

Last week Christopher Hitchens and I were attacked in Beirut. Less than 24 hours after we landed at the international airport, a half dozen members of the “Syrian Social Nationalist Party”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Social_Nationalist_Party jumped us on Hamra Street when he defaced one of their signs.

He and I were traveling together because Lebanon’s “New Opinion Group”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/Sub.aspx?ID=175 invited us to meet Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, Future Movement party leader Saad Hariri, Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, and other leaders of the pro-independence “March 14” coalition.

“Feb

February 14 rally, downtown Beirut

We had just attended a massive rally downtown commemorating the fourth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Our colleague Jonathan Foreman from “Standpoint Magazine”:http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/ needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. So I led the way as the three of us strolled over to Hamra Street where we could buy just about anything. And I told my two companions a story about the neighborhood’s past on the way.

“When Hezbollah violently seized West Beirut last May,” I said, “the Syrian Social Nationalist Party followed them in. They put up their spinning swastika flags all over the neighborhood, and no one dared touch them until the prime minister ordered them taken down several months later.”

“SSNP

SSNP flags on Hamra Street

It was a warning of sorts — or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I don’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan is as mild-mannered a writer as any I know, but Christopher is brave and combative, and he would have none of it.

“My attitude to posters with swastikas on them,” “he later told Alice Fordham at NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=80981, “has always been the same. They should be ripped down.”

When we rounded the corner onto Hamra Street, a Syrian Social Nationalist Party sign was the first thing we saw.

“Hamra

Hamra Street, West Beirut. The SSNP sign is in the lower-left corner.

“Well there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

“SSNP

The now-infamous SSNP sign defaced by Christopher Hitchens

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party flags had been taken down, but a commemorative marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semi-permanence of an official “No Parking” sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy café on that corner, and the sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claim the emblem on their flag isn’t a swastika, but a cyclone. Many say they cannot be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identify instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that means.

Outside observers don’t find this credible. The SSNP, “according to the Atlantic in a civil war era analysis”:http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/87jun/yaari.htm, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, ‘Greetings to You, Syria,’ to the strains of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wish to resurrect the ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Jews would have no place in the resurrected Syrian empire.

“SSNP

The SSNP’s map of what they claim is their “Greater Syria”

SSNP militiamen, along with fighters from Amal and Hezbollah, used heavy weapons to seize West Beirut last May after the government shut down Hezbollah’s surveillance system at the airport, and they set aflame Hariri’s Future TV office and studio with molotov cocktails.

“SSNP

An SSNP fighter throws a molotov cocktail at Saad Hariri’s Future TV station during the fighting in May 2008. (Copyright Getty Images)

“SSNP

An SSNP militia man rifles through files at a Future Movement office during the fighting in May 2008. (Copyright Getty Images)

In 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese Army for storing “a large quantity of explosives, electrical detonators and timers in addition to a large cache of weapons.”

“Confiscated

Confiscated SSNP bomb materials

“Confiscated

Confiscated SSNP weapons

“Many Lebanese believe”:http://yalibnan.com/site/archives/2007/01/lebanon_group_a.php they’re the hired guns of the Assad regime in Damascus and have carried out many, if not most, of the car bomb assassinations in Lebanon since 2005.

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him he scribbled “No, no, F*** the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christopher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Christopher’s face. They were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

The young man said something sinister-sounding in Arabic.

“Do you speak English?” I said.

He didn’t, and I’m not sure why I even bothered to ask. I hoped to calm him down, but Christopher, Jonathan, and I needed to leave. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, but not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said, and shoved him without result. He clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

“Christopher

Christopher Hitchens at Beiteddine, Lebanon

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran round to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands, but I didn’t have the leverage to eject him with the back of the front seat between us. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

“Jonathan

Jonathan Foreman from Standpoint Magazine

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman, and the officer took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law fear the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher wouldn’t strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn’t stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn’t stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn’t seen a weapon yet, and I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to me by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members can do whatever they want in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But you know where this story is going.

We knew it, too, because six or seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks, which was a good sign. And I didn’t see any weapons. But they were well-built and their body language signaled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world where guests are accorded protection. But getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party can get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months ago the SSNP attacked a Sunni journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of impotent witnesses. A Lebanese colleague told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

“Omar

Journalist Omar Harqous was beaten by the SSNP for filming their flags

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

I stoically accepted that I was about to get beaten myself. The fear drained out of me as I was reasonably sure they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us. There were too many for us to fend off. We lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it — a mistake I will not make again. I have my own muscle crew on speed dial now for protection.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Christopher’s face through the window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. All of us were relieved. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we’re being followed.”

Some of our colleagues were back at the hotel. If the SSNP found out where we were staying, every single one of us would have to move to the other side of Beirut.

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don’t remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“Fishing

Beirut’s Corniche

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” I said.

The Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel is one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This is the place where diplomats and senators stay when they are in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars, but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christopher’s elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

*

Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus still wields some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is one of those instruments, and it counts the regime as its friend and ally. The volksy geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differs from the racialist Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshes with Assad’s imperial foreign policy in the Middle East. It follows, then, that the SSNP is also allied with Hezbollah.

I shudder to think what might have happened to Christopher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a long-time Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

“If you were Lebanese,” said another, “none of this would even have happened.”

Two days after the punch up, various factually inaccurate versions of the story made their way into the blogosphere. Everyone seemed to think we had been drinking or were in a bar fight. I was annoyed. Christopher was amused.

“Hitchens

Graphic courtesy of the “Blacksmiths of Lebanon”:http://blacksmithsoflebanon.blogspot.com/ blog

“You have no idea what it’s like being me,” he said. “Everything I do is news.”

I later sat down with him over coffee and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said…”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra.”

“Vero

Hamra Street, West Beirut

Christopher has seen Beirut at its worst. He visited Lebanon during the war and immediately after. In 1991, he told me, the city looked like Rotterdam after World War II had gone to work on it.

“Anyway,” he said, “call me old fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I’d like to think I’d have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The police are not utterly supine. Some SSNP members have been arrested. Weapons and explosives have been confiscated. Clearly, however, the state is more supine than it should be. A police officer who wandered upon the scene of our assault didn’t do anything. Not even the army stopped the SSNP when its black masked fighters conquered the western half of the capital with Hezbollah and Amal in 2008.

“Hezbollah

A Hezbollah militiaman smokes a nargileh in Hamra

The men of the SSNP must use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Most of its members are Orthodox Christians while most West Beirutis are Sunnis. The Hamra district is a liberal and cosmopolitan “March 14” stronghold, and the SSNP is aligned with the Syrians and the Shia Hezbollah militia. They could be hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign might not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like merde fasciste, which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence on Hamra began, it was over and done with in just a few seconds. The whole thing was a blur. Most of what I remember is what happened to me. Christopher, Jonathan, and I naturally recall different details. Jonathan later told me that one of the SSNP guys called off the assault after Christopher had been kicked a few times. I hadn’t seen that, and I have to wonder what other details I missed.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let’s not do that. We don’t want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I’d had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected for setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren’t ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren’t,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren’t just a street gang, they’re a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denies the attack ever took place. He is lying.

Post-script: Adventures like this one aren’t exactly part of my job, but I’d rather not get roughed up in Beirut for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make independent writing economically viable. And stay tuned for much more from Beirut and Baghdad.

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