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From Beirut to Jerusalem
Updated with a New Chapter
By Thomas L. Friedman
Picador Copyright © 1989 Thomas L. Friedman
All rights reserved.
Prelude: From Minneapolis to Beirut
In June 1979, my wife, Ann, and I boarded a red-and-white Middle East Airlines 707 in Geneva for the four-hour flight to Beirut. It was the start of the nearly ten-year journey through the Middle East that is the subject of this book. It began, as it ended, with a bang.
When we got in line to walk through the metal detector at our boarding gate, we found ourselves standing behind three broad-shouldered, mustachioed Lebanese men. As each stepped through the metal detector, it would erupt with a buzz and a flashing red light, like a pinball machine about to tilt. The Swiss police immediately swooped in to inspect our fellow passengers, who turned out not to be hijackers bearing guns and knives, although they were carrying plenty of metal; they were an Armenian family of jewelers bringing bricks of gold back to Beirut. Each of the boys in the family had a specially fitted money belt containing six gold bars strapped around his stomach, and one of them also had a shoe box filled with the precious metal. They sat next to Ann and me in the back of the plane and spent part of the flight tossing the gold bricks back and forth for fun.
When our MEA plane finally touched down at Beirut International Airport, and I beheld the arrival terminal's broken windows, bullet scars, and roaming armed guards, my knees began to buckle from fear. I realized immediately that although I had spent years preparing for this moment—becoming a foreign correspondent in the Middle East—nothing had really prepared me for the road which lay ahead.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was born and raised, I had never sat next to people who tossed gold bricks to each other in the economy section on Northwest Airlines. My family was, I suppose, a rather typical middle-class American Jewish family. My father sold ball bearings and my mother was a homemaker and part-time bookkeeper. I was sent to Hebrew school five days a week as a young boy, but after I had my bar mitzvah at age thirteen, the synagogue interested me little; I was a three-day-a-year Jew—twice on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and once on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). In 1968, my oldest sister, Shelley, spent her junior year abroad at Tel Aviv University; it was the year after Israel's dramatic victory in the Six-Day War—a time when Israel was very much the "in" place for young American Jews. Over the Christmas break of 1968 my parents took me to Israel to visit my sister.
That trip would change my life. I was only fifteen years old at the time and just waking up to the world. The flight to Jerusalem marked the first time I had traveled beyond the border of Wisconsin and the first time I had ridden on an airplane. I don't know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler. It may have been my first trip abroad, but in 1968 I knew then and there that I was really more Middle East than Minnesota.
When I returned home, I began to read everything I could get my hands on about Israel. That same year, Israel's Jewish Agency sent a shaliach, a sort of roving ambassador and recruiter, to Minneapolis for the first time. I became one of his most active devotees—organizing everything from Israeli fairs to demonstrations. He arranged for me to spend all three summers of high school living on Kibbutz Hahotrim, an Israeli collective farm on the coast just south of Haifa. For my independent study project in my senior year of high school, in 1971, I did a slide show on how Israel won the Six-Day War. For my high-school psychology class, my friend Ken Greer and I did a slide show on kibbutz life, which ended with a stirring rendition of "Jerusalem of Gold" and a rapid-fire montage of strong-eyed, idealistic-looking Israelis of all ages. In fact, high school for me, I am now embarrassed to say, was one big celebration of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. In the period of a year, I went from being a nebbish whose dream was to one day become a professional golfer to being an Israel expert-in-training.
I was insufferable. When the Syrians arrested thirteen Jews in Damascus, I wore a button for weeks that said Free the Damascus 13, which most of my high-school classmates thought referred to an underground offshoot of the Chicago 7. I recall my mother saying to me gently, "Is that really necessary?" when I put the button on one Sunday morning to wear to our country-club brunch. I became so knowledgeable about the military geography of the Middle East that when my high-school geography class had a teaching intern from the University of Minnesota for a month, he got so tired of my correcting him that he asked me to give the talk about the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula while he sat at my desk. In 1968, the first story I wrote as a journalist for my high-school newspaper was about a lecture given at the University of Minnesota by a then-obscure Israeli general who had played an important role in the 1967 war. His name was Ariel Sharon.
During the summer that I spent in Israel after high-school graduation, I got to know some Israeli Arabs from Nazareth, and our chance encounter inspired me to buy an Arabic phrase book and to begin reading about the Arab world in general. From my first day in college, I started taking courses in Arabic language and literature. In 1972, my sophomore year, I spent two weeks in Cairo on my way to Jerusalem for a semester abroad at the Hebrew University. Cairo was crowded, filthy, exotic, impossible—and I loved it. I loved the pita bread one could buy hot out of the oven, I loved the easy way Egyptians smiled, I loved the mosques and minarets that gave Cairo's skyline its distinctive profile, and I even loved my caddy at the Gezira Sporting Club, who offered to sell me both golf balls and hashish, and was ready to bet any amount of money that I could not break 40 my first time around the course. (Had two racehorses not strolled across the ninth fairway in the middle of my drive, I might have won the bet.)
In the summer of 1974, between my junior and senior years of college, I returned to Egypt for a semester of Arabic-language courses at the American University in Cairo. When I came back to Brandeis, where I was studying for my B.A., I gave a slide lecture about Egypt. An Israeli graduate student in the audience heckled me the entire time asking, "What is a Jew doing going to Egypt?" and "How dare you like these people?" Worse, he got me extremely flustered and turned my talk into a catastrophe I would never forget. But I learned two important lessons from the encounter. First, when it comes to discussing the Middle East, people go temporarily insane, so if you are planning to talk to an audience of more than two, you'd better have mastered the subject. Second, a Jew who wants to make a career working in or studying about the Middle East will always be a lonely man: he will never be fully accepted or trusted by the Arabs, and he will never be fully accepted or trusted by the Jews.
After graduating from Brandeis in 1975, I decided to study with the masters of Middle Eastern Studies—the British. I enrolled at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, where I took a master's degree in the history and politics of the modern Middle East. St. Antony's was everything I had hoped for by way of formal education, but I learned as much in the dining room as in the classroom. As the center of Middle Eastern studies in England, St. Antony's attracted the very best students from the Arab world and Israel. Since there were only about 125 students in the college and we ate three meals a day together, we got to know each other very well. At Brandeis, I was considered knowledgeable about the Middle East, but among the St. Antony's crowd I was a complete novice. I learned to be a good listener, though, and there was plenty to listen to.
My years at St. Antony's coincided with the start of the Lebanese civil war. I shared a bathroom with an extremely bright Lebanese Shiite, Mohammed Mattar, and a lunch table with Lebanese Christians and Palestinians; my closest friend at St. Antony's was an Iraqi Jew, Yosef Sassoon, whom I had met, along with his wife, Taffy, in the laundry room. Watching them all interact, argue, challenge each other at lectures, and snipe at one another at mealtimes taught me how much more there was to the Middle East than Arab versus Jew. A spectator of their feuds, an outsider, I managed to stay on friendly terms with all of them, as well as with the Israelis on campus.
While studying in England, I began my career in journalism. One day in August 1976, I was walking down a street in London and noticed a headline from the London Evening Standard which read: CARTER TO JEWS: IF ELECTED I'LL FIRE DR. K. The article was about how candidate Jimmy Carter was promising to dismiss Secretary of State Henry Kissinger if elected President. How odd, I thought to myself, that a presidential candidate could curry favor among American Jews by promising to fire the first-ever Jewish Secretary of State. I decided to write an Op Ed article explaining this anomaly. My girlfriend and future wife, Ann Bucksbaum, happened to be friendly with the editorial-page editor of the Des Moines Register, Gilbert Cranberg. Ann brought him the article. He liked it and printed it on August 23, 1976; thus did I find my calling as a Middle East correspondent. Over the next two years, I wrote more such articles, and upon graduation from St. Antony's I had a small portfolio of Op Ed pieces to show for myself.
Shortly before graduating from Oxford in June 1978, I applied for a job with the London bureau of United Press International. I had decided that the academic ivory tower was not for me and that if I was ever going to be able to hold my own on the Middle East, I had to live there and experience the place firsthand. Fortunately, Leon Daniel, the UPI bureau chief in London, was ready to take a chance on me—despite the fact that I had never so much as covered a one-alarm fire—and gave me a job as a starting reporter. I was so nervous my first week that I kept getting bloody noses and eventually ended up in the hospital, much to the amusement of the grizzled and not always sober UPI veterans, who had more than a few laughs about "the Oxford kid who thinks he can be a journalist." My first news story was about the death by drug overdose of Keith Moon, the drummer for the rock group The Who. It was not exactly the kind of news I had hoped to be covering, but my opportunity would come, much sooner than I expected.
The Iranian revolution broke out soon after I joined UPI, and the world oil situation became a major story. UPI had no oil expert, so I jumped into the void. My only previous contacts with oil were confined to salad dressing and whatever went under the hood of my car. Fortunately, upstairs from UPI was the London bureau of The Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, an oil newsletter, and by hanging around their staff I picked up just enough basic jargon to fake it. My big break, though, came in the spring of 1979, when UPI suddenly had an opening in its Beirut bureau. The number-two correspondent there had decided Lebanon was not for him, after being nicked in the ear by a bullet fired by a man who was robbing a jewelry store. The job offer was accompanied by words to this effect: "Well, Tom, the guy before you got hit with a little piece of bullet, but don't pay any attention to that. We think you're the perfect guy for the job."
Nevertheless, with a lump in my throat and a knot in my gut, I jumped at the opportunity. My friends and family all thought I was insane. A Jew? In Beirut? I didn't really have a response for them; I didn't really know what awaited me. All I knew was that this was my moment of truth. I had been studying about the Arab world and Israel for six years; if I didn't go now, I would never go. So I went.
Lebanon was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a land of mountains, money, and many cultures, all of which somehow miraculously managed to live together in harmony. At least that was the picture-postcard view. It was not the Lebanon that greeted Ann and me in June 1979. We came to a country that had been in the grip of a civil war since 1975. Our first evening at the Beirut Commodore Hotel I remember lying awake listening to a shootout right down the street. It was the first time I had ever heard a gun fired in my life.
Like most other foreign reporters in Lebanon, we found an apartment in Muslim West Beirut, where the majority of government institutions and foreign embassies were located. Ann got a job working for a local merchant bank, and later for an Arab political research organization. These were the "Wild West Days of West Beirut." Although the civil war raged on, it was at a very low boil. Roads were open between East and West Beirut and much business and commerce was going on amid all the sniping and kidnapping.
After more than two years in Beirut with UPI, I was offered a job by The New York Times in 1981 and asked to come to Manhattan in order to learn the mysterious ways of that newspaper. After eleven months in New York, however, the Times editors decided to send me right back to Beirut, in April 1982, to be their correspondent in Lebanon.
When I returned to Beirut, I found the city abuzz with two different sets of rumors. One set involved an explosion of violence inside Syria, which had just happened, and the other an explosion of violence from Israel, which was expected to happen at any moment. The Syrian rumors, which most people found impossible to believe at first, alleged that the Syrian government had put down a rebellion launched from its fourth-largest city—Hama—and killed 20,000 of its own citizens there. The Israeli stories revolved around speculation that the Phalangist militia leader, Bashir Gemayel, had struck a deal with the Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin to mount a joint effort to drive the PLO and the Syrians out of Lebanon forever. Both rumors turned out to be true.
For the next twenty-six months, I reported on the Hama massacre, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut, the arrival of the U.S. Marine peacekeeping force, the suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut and the Marine headquarters, the departure of the Marines from Lebanon, and the ongoing fighting in the Lebanese civil war that accompanied all these momentous events.
Following these tumultuous years in Beirut, I was transferred by The New York Times to Jerusalem in June 1984, to be the newspaper's correspondent in Israel. My editor at the time, A. M. Rosenthal, thought it would be "interesting" to see how someone who had covered the Arab world for almost five years would look at Israeli society. Abe also wanted to dispense with an old unwritten rule at The New York Times of never allowing a Jew to report from Jerusalem. Abe thought he had broken that ban five years earlier when he sent my predecessor, David K. Shipler, until he boasted about it one day at a meeting with editors and was informed that Shipler was a Protestant; he just looked like a rabbi.
When the day came for me to transfer from Beirut to Jerusalem, I actually drove overland by way of several Arab and Jewish taxis. Altogether the trip took only six hours, but the driving time was no measure of the real distance or proximity between them. In some ways they were the same city with some of the same basic problems, and in other ways, they were worlds apart.
This book is about my journey between these two worlds, and how I understood the events and the people whom I met along the way. On one level, it is about a young man from Minnesota who goes to Beirut and confronts a world for which nothing in his life had ever prepared him. On a second level, it is about a student of Middle East politics who, upon graduation, actually goes out to the region and discovers that it bears little resemblance to the bloodless, logical, and antiseptic descriptions he found in most of his textbooks. On a third level, it is about a Jew who was raised on all the stories, all the folk songs, and all the myths about Israel, who goes to Jerusalem in the 1980s and discovers that it isn't the Jewish summer camp of his youth but, rather, an audacious and still unresolved experiment to get Jews to live together in one country in the midst of the Arab world. Lastly, it is a book about the people in Beirut and Jerusalem themselves, who, I discovered, were going through remarkably similar identity crises. Each was caught in a struggle between the new ideas, the new relationships, the new nations they were trying to build for the future, and the ancient memories, ancient passions, and ancient feuds that kept dragging them back into the past.
Excerpted from From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman. Copyright © 1989 Thomas L. Friedman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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