I intend to write more about Christopher Hitchens now that he has left a Hitch-sized hole in the world, but in the meantime let’s revisit the famous and infamous Battle of Beirut.
I wrote about this on my blog after it happened, but I fleshed out the scene a bit and included it in my book, The Road to Fatima Gate. Here’s the first half of Chapter Nineteen.
A Hurricane in the Land of the Cedars
For them, the real danger has always been independent thought— against which they can only muster media that threaten, crowds that threaten, and security services that best them both by implementing the threats. — MICHAEL YOUNG
Hamra was cooked.
It looked like my same old neighborhood on the surface, but it had been violated. The ground no longer felt stable. Beirut’s most cosmopolitan and international district felt much like my house once did after a burglar had broken in. What happened to Hamra, though, was much worse than a mere breaking and entering. Hezbollah and its militant allies shot the place up and killed people.
Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Foreman, and I set out from our hotel, the Bristol. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Jonathan needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. So I led the way as the three of us strolled down to Hamra Street, where we could buy just about anything.
On the way I told them how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had a serious presence there now. During the invasion in May, its members had placed their spinning swastika flags up on Hamra Street itself, one of the city’s premier places to shop. Those flags stayed there for months. No one dared touch them until Prime Minister Fouad Siniora ordered city employees to take them down.
It was a warning of sorts—or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I didn’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan was as mild-mannered a writer as any I knew, but Christopher was brave and combative, and just hearing about what had happened riled him up.
When we rounded a corner onto Hamra Street, an SSNP sign was the first thing we saw.
“Well, there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.
The militia’s flags had been taken down, but a commemorative marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semipermanence 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 cafe on that corner, and that sign marked the spot.
Some SSNP members claimed the emblem on their flag wasn’t a swastika, but a hurricane or a cyclone. Many said they couldn’t be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identified instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that meant.
Most observers did not find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war-era analysis, “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 wished to resurrect ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Their vision clashed with Hezbollah’s, but the two militias had the exact same list of enemies and they were both Syrian proxies, so they worked together.
Many Lebanese believed members of the SSNP were the ones who carried out many, if not most, of the car-bomb assassinations in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrians since 2005. In December of 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese army for storing a huge amount of explosives, timers, and detonators amid a large cache of weapons. Then-party leader Ali Qanso responded, saying, “We are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.”
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, Fuck 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. These 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.
We needed to get out of there fast. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, 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, but he clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.
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 around to the other side of the car and got in the front seat. I shoved him with both hands. He wasn’t particularly heavy, but I didn’t have enough leverage from the back to throw him out. 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.
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. The officer gasped and 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 feared 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 would not or could not 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, so I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to us 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 could do whatever they wanted 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 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. That was an encouraging sign. 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 could get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months before, the SSNP attacked a Sunni journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of gaping witnesses. A Lebanese colleague told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as Siniora had ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”
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.
Christopher was on the ground, and Jonathan and I couldn’t fend off seven militiamen by ourselves. I was reasonably sure, at least, that they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us, and 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 in that country.
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 open 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. 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.”
“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.
“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” Jonathan said.
The Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel was one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This was the place where diplomats and senators stayed when they were 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 al-Assad’s government in Damascus still wielded some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was one of those instruments, and it counted the regime as its friend and ally. The geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differed from the racialist pan-Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshed with al-Assad’s imperial foreign policy in the Middle East. It logically followed, then, that the SSNP was also allied with Hezbollah.
The SSNP was first and foremost a Syrian proxy, and Hezbollah was first and foremost an Iranian proxy, but during the previous May when various March 8 militias invaded Beirut, the SSNP established itself simultaneously as a de facto Hezbollah proxy.
I still 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 longtime Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”
The next morning I awoke to find more than a dozen e-mails in my inbox from friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time, asking me if I was okay.
None of us had written about the incident yet, so I wondered what on earth must have happened while I was asleep. Did another war just break out? Did another car bomb go off? I hadn’t heard any explosions or gunshots.
As it turned out, the incident on Hamra Street with the SSNP made the news on at least four continents, and possibly six.
Great, I thought. Now I’m the story. Christopher was the nearest thing the journalism world had to a celebrity, so pretty much everything he did was news.
Every single reporter without exception got the details wrong. In one version, we got in a bar fight. In another, we were attacked by foppish shoe shoppers. In almost every version, Christopher was drunk or had been drinking. Not one of the reporters who wrote up the story bothered to ask any of us who were actually there what had happened. Some even claimed they had “confirmed” this or that detail, but all they were doing was publishing rumors. It made me think, not for the first time, that first-person narrative journalism, whatever its faults, was far more reliable than the alternative.
I later sat down with Christopher over coffee in the hotel lobby 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. Anyway, 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 men of the SSNP had to use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Many of its members were Orthodox Christians, as was its founder Antun Saadeh, while most West Beirutis were Sunnis. They would hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign would 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 began, it was over and done with in seconds.
“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 of 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 denied the attack ever took place. He lied.