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Reporting from the State Department, Remembering Beirut: in Conversation with the BBC’s Kim Ghattas

n September 24, 2011, The Straddler met with Kim Ghattas in Manhattan, where she was reporting on the UN General Assembly. Ghattas is currently the BBC’s State Department Correspondent. She previously covered the Middle East for the BBC and the Financial Times from Beirut, the city in which she was born and raised.

Ghattas, September 24, 2011
I was born in Beirut. My mother, who is Dutch, came to Lebanon in the 60s, when Lebanon was the “Paris of the Orient.” She had a reasonably charmed life—it was a great country and a lot of fun. It was very different from the Netherlands, where you could still feel the post-World War II atmosphere. My father is Lebanese. In 1975, the war erupted. I was born two years later, in 77. Before I was born, my parents sent my two older sisters abroad for a while to the Netherlands, to live with my uncle, because they thought this was going to be a temporary thing. But at some point it became clear that it was going to take longer than they thought, and so they brought the kids back because they couldn’t bear the separation, and my sisters couldn’t bear it either.

At the beginning of the war, my parents lived in West Beirut. My family is Christian by denomination—we’re not practicing or religious, but it is our social identity in Lebanon. You can usually immediately tell if someone is Christian or Muslim or Druze from their last name.

So my parents lived in West Beirut, but it became too dangerous for Christians there. The beginning of the war was the height of what were called “ID killings.” You would show your ID at a checkpoint and people could immediately tell if you were Christian or Muslim, and if you were at the wrong checkpoint you could end up dead. So they fled to the east, and eventually settled in a neighborhood, which, strangely enough, was called “the neighborhood of the Americans.” It was a nice suburb of Beirut, reasonably well-to-do. There were orange orchards and mango trees. But somehow it became the front lines for the whole of the war. And that’s where we lived for the first thirteen years of my life.

French journalists did two reports on my sisters during the war. They were in the neighborhood doing a report about snipers—our neighborhood was renowned for snipers—and they came across these two young girls, who were outside playing hopscotch or something. These were my sisters. I don’t know whether they did a separate report about the snipers, but I have to give them credit for saying, even though we came to do a different story, we have to do a story about these kids.

One report showed them playing outside surrounded by gunmen. The second report was done after a cease-fire had been declared, and when I went back and watched it, it really brought home why it was so difficult to leave. The one question that they asked my sisters was, “how do you feel now that there is peace?” And that was late 76. The war was going to continue for years, and yet there they were discussing the end of the war. So I sort of understand my parents’ thinking that it was over and so we might as well stay here and rebuild. Every time there was a cease-fire, it was the same thing.

What people often forget when they watch reports from war-torn countries is that life goes on. I went to school, my mom made breakfast for me in the morning, we tried to have Sunday lunch. When there was no shelling, maybe I could cross the street and go play with my friends in the other building. Some days I couldn’t go to school because the shelling was too heavy.

The reason I wanted to become a journalist was precisely because I wanted people to understand that Lebanon was about more than a bombed-out city. Growing up, I didn’t understand all of the intricacies of the foreign policies. I didn’t always understand what was going on. I don’t remember when I became politically aware, but I have very vivid memories from a very young age of episodes of the war, and I think all of that shaped my vision of the world. I always felt that the world simply did not understand what was going on in Lebanon. And I guess naively, as a kid, I thought, “If only I could explain this to them, they would help us put an end to this.” And there was also a sense that if people, not governments, but people understood what was going on, they would pressure their governments to help us put this to an end.

In hindsight, there are interesting aspects to this. One is that I was in the classic mind frame that it was the outside world that needed to help us, which in many ways is a classic Lebanese attitude, but also a classic attitude of many people in developing or war-torn countries who feel helpless about what is going on in their country—who feel they don’t have the possibility to change the course of events themselves because they are ruled by oppressors. Fast forward thirty years or so and we are in a very different place in the Arab World, obviously, with the region coming of age and people taking charge of their countries, their future, but back then it was a classic attitude: we can’t do anything, we need the outside world to help us.

But in a complex country like Lebanon, like any other country, there isn’t just one national narrative, and there isn’t just one version of what is good for the country and what is bad for the country. Whether I liked it or not, I was born on one side of the political divide.

So I had my vision of what was good for Lebanon. When I wanted foreign intervention, or foreign help—I had my vision of what that meant. But somebody who lived in a different part of Lebanon had a very different perspective of what they wanted America to do for them or not do for them. And I think that where things go wrong, in terms of the expectations we have of what outside countries can do for us, is this difference in vision of what is good for the country.

I remember one incident in 1990. I was thirteen and the war was at its peak. It was a battle between a maverick Christian general in Lebanon who was fighting against the Syrian occupation. I lived in the Syrian-free Christian enclave, which was where he was. At that stage, we had gone through fifteen years of conflict. We were tired. And I remember listening to statements from French politicians and American politicians saying we stand with the Lebanese, we support the Lebanese. And I thought, that sounds promising. At the time, where I was, I wanted Syrian occupation of the country to end. So when I heard the French and the Americans say they stand with the Lebanese, I thought they were standing with me and my vision of what I thought was good for the country. But in the rest of the country, people had a completely different vision of what that meant. For many of them, it meant get rid of what they saw as a crazy Christian general. So I think that’s where the sense of betrayal towards the West often comes from.  It’s this mismatch of expectations—and it has to do with misunderstandings about those different narratives, and where the outside powers come in. And the fact that countries and powers are looking after their interests.

I don’t discount the desire of Western countries to do good when it comes to foreign policy. I am sure some people will disagree, but I do think it does come into play when Western countries intervene. I think that the problem, very often, for people on the receiving end of American foreign policy is a certain inability to accept that just as their own country has its interests and is trying to defend those, America, France, the UK, Russia all have their national interests too—every single country is trying to defend its national interests. Do I sometimes resent American policy towards Lebanon? Sure. Do I fault them for following their national interests? Isn’t this what every country is trying to do? We—people who are not Western—expect a certain standard from Western powers in how they determine where they intervene or how they intervene. We forget, therefore, that they are also looking after their national interests.

I am currently writing a book about American foreign policy—how it affects people around the world, and why I would hope to see people in the United States remain engaged when it comes to looking at the rest of the world. It will be published in 2013 by Times Books and I think it will complement my reporting—there is only so much you can say in any article or any TV report. There are two main reasons why I came up with the idea of writing a book. One was that I suddenly found myself as close as you can get to the inner workings of American foreign policy as a non-official. It gave me a certain understanding of how hard it is to make things happen, or make decisions. You know, we sit in Islamabad, or the Ivory Coast, or Damascus thinking the Americans know it all, they have all the tools, they know exactly what’s going to happen depending on what it is they want. It’s not that simple. So I felt it would be interesting for an international audience to understand the behind-the-scenes workings of American foreign policy making. How does it all come together, who are these people who are making foreign policy decisions?

The other purpose of the book is to provide a perspective to an American audience on what it is like to be on the receiving end of American foreign policy. Not from a resentful perspective, but just to explain what it is like when, for historical reasons, you are in a country that looks to the outside world to come to your rescue, and you have your own vision of what that rescue should look like, and then you feel betrayed when the action doesn’t meet your expectations. And both there and in developed countries or emerging powers or allies of the US, people are wondering about the future of American power and where that leaves them.

I also think people in the United States have a question about their country’s role in the 21st century. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I would like to at least describe where things are at. I am interested in explaining the nuances of a situation to people. I think that nothing is ever black or white. There is a lot of grey, everywhere, all the time. I think it’s important to explain that grey area to people.

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