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Noam Chomsky in Beirut

By Assaf Kfoury

ZNet, July 12, 2006

Noam and Carol Chomsky arrived in Beirut on May 8, 2006, for an eight-day visit, their first ever to Lebanon. Many of Noam's friends had wanted this visit to happen for a long time. The Palestinians, the south of Lebanon, and the wider Middle East and its peoples have all been central among Noam's many concerns. He has written about them and defended them, publicly and tirelessly, for nearly four decades, and will continue "as long as I'm ambulatory."[1] Beirut would give Noam Chomsky a hero's welcome, and it did with relish.

An invitation from the American University in Beirut provided the occasion. Noam would give two lectures at the AUB on two consecutive days, May 9 and 10, and then the rest of the eight-day stay would be devoted to meeting people and visiting places.[2] The non-AUB part of the visit would be organized by writer, political activist and long-time friend Fawwaz Trabulsi, with help from me.

Noam's visit came at a time of heightened tension in Lebanon and renewed violence in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq. What is mostly recalled in the Western media of Lebanese events in recent months is perhaps the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005, followed by several massive demonstrations in Beirut during the Spring of 2005, which were a major factor in forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops at the end of April 2005, twenty-nine years after they first entered Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war. Hariri's assassination is still under investigation by a UN-appointed commission. Hariri was a prominent opponent of a three-year extension of Emile Lahoud's presidential mandate, from November 2004 to November 2007, resulting from a constitutional amendment that had been engineered by the Syrian government both by intimidation and through its own allies in the Lebanese parliament. In protest, Hariri resigned from the cabinet premiership in October 2004 and joined an increasingly militant anti-Syrian opposition, whose most vocal leader was Walid Jumblat.

The huge demonstrations in the Spring of 2005 were fueled not only by long-simmering resentment of heavy-handed Syrian domination, but also by a stagnant economy reflected by a staggering national debt estimated at around 40 billion dollars, amounting to more than 180 % of the country's GDP, the highest ratio anywhere in the world. If anything, these demonstrations showed a deep popular demand for change, shared by wide strata of the population, mobilizing more than a half million people (on March 8, 2005) and three quarters of a million (on March 14, 2005) in a country with a population under 4 million . But the political elites were divided, chiefly according to what they perceive as the main external threat to Lebanon. The organizers of the March 8 demonstration, led by Hizbullah, consider the chief danger to come from Israeli incursions and regional designs, backed up by a totally unfettered US policy to reshape the Middle East political map under the Bush administration; on the other hand, the organizers of the March 14 demonstration, including Walid Jumblat and others among Rafiq Hariri's allies, argue that the Lebanese have to first free themselves from the danger in their midst -- namely, Syria's continued meddling through its local allies and the security agencies it created or molded during its 29-year military presence -- before they can tackle their other problems, including Israeli threats.

Since Spring 2005, political alliances have shifted somewhat, with a few defections from one side or the other, but the "March 8" and "March 14" coalitions remain the two main contending poles, at least within the political establishment. As for the extra-parliamentary left, represented by the Communist Party and several other allied groups, they seemed at first eclipsed by the overwhelming events of that Spring. More recently, however, the Communist Party and its allies have taken a more assertive role and tended to side with Hizbullah and the "March 8" coalition, without being part of it, while a few dissidents have split and are part of the "March 14" coalition.

Fawwaz Trabulsi prepared a packed and also, rather inadvertently, an emotionally charged program of activities beyond the AUB lectures. Noam and Carol spent an entire morning in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, travelled to the Lebanese-Israeli border region, visited the former Israeli prison and torture compound in the town of Khiam in southern Lebanon, and had lengthy meetings with Hizbullah leaders (from the "March 8" coalition), with parliamentarian Walid Jumblat and lawyer Chibli Mallat (from the "March 14" coalition), and with leaders of the Communist Party. In a seminar at the Lebanese American University on "Palestine 1948", hosted by Fawwaz Trabulsi, Noam engaged the students in a discussion of Zionism and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Noam also gave dozens of interviews, for newspapers and TV stations, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese.

In addition to the two AUB lectures to eager overflow crowds, Noam gave a third talk to a packed audience at Masrah al Madina, a large movie theatre in Beirut. This latter event was organized by al Liqaa (the "Encounter"), a progressive cultural association, introduced by its president Ghassan Issa, and chaired by Fawwaz Trabulsi. Entitled "Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities," it dealt with current dangers resulting from American interventionist zeal in the Middle East.

Just as significant as the planned activities were countless chance encounters with people -- in the street, in the hotel lobby, on the way to a lecture or after, at a meeting enlarged to include other eager participants -- who would invariably give Noam a warm welcome: a Palestinian pharmacist in his makeshift drugstore in Sabra-Shatila, a Palestinian labor leader, a former Lebanese cabinet minister, a man rushing to get an inscription on a freshly-bought copy of Noam's Failed States, and many others.

Several Memorable Moments

Fawwaz Trabulsi, Irene Gendzier[3] and I accompanied Noam and Carol Chomsky throughout their stay May 8-16, as did at various times journalists and filmmakers who documented the trip. A small selection from our collective travel notes:

May 11, Sabra-Shatila camp. At the vocational center run by Najda, a Palestinian aid and relief association, there are two young university graduates, a Briton and a Palestinian, who volunteer to teach teenagers how to use computers and connect to the Internet. The Briton will soon return to the UK, having completed one year working in the camp. The Palestinian volunteer has a degree in computer science from one of the Lebanese universities, but has not yet found any employment. A conversation ensues between Noam and the young Palestinian. Noam asks who paid for his university education (UNRWA, a UN agency, paid), whether he looked for a job outside the camp (he did, but in vain), why no one hired him (employers seemed to prefer Lebanese graduates). "And what, in the long run, if you don't find a job?" Noam asks. "I hope to leave Lebanon," he says, then with a faint smile, "Maybe I will become like Edward Said."

May 11, Sabra-Shatila camp. There is a plot of land of perhaps less than a half acre, surrounded by a wall with a large iron gate, where the victims of the 1982 massacre are buried.[4] The land is mostly flat and covered by grass, with a few mounds here and there, the locations of mass graves which we can see through the gate's vertical bars. On the outside wall there are large, slightly fading, poster photos of those found dead after the rampage of Phalangist militiamen that were sent in by the Israeli army that had surrounded the camp in 1982. The gate-keeper is an old Palestinian, with half of his teeth missing, sitting under the shade of the tree near the gate and selling flowers. We ask him to open the gate and let us enter the ground. The old man says that if the visitors are American he will not let them enter. "Yes, the visitors are American, but they are good Americans," I explain. Then pointing to Noam a few steps away, I say that he, in particular, is the most indefatigable defender of Palestinian rights in America. The old man stares at me with a skeptical look for a few seconds, as if to gauge the truth of what I just said, then gets up and opens the gate.

May 11, Hizbullah headquarters, Beirut. We meet Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbullah, in a heavily fortified compound. Hizbullah has widespread popular support, with representation in the Lebanese parliament and the council of ministers, largely the result of its role in the successful resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1990's. Nevertheless, American government officials -- from Condoleezza Rice, David Welch, Elliott Abrams, Jeffrey Feltman and on down -- routinely visit other Lebanese politicians and dignitaries, never Nasrallah, and they portray Hizbullah as a band of terrorists. The value of this meeting with Noam is as much in what Nasrallah has to say as in the public recognition by a public American, admittedly the most dissident of them, of Hizbullah's role in Lebanon and the Middle East at large. Nasrallah recognizes the value of trying to break the official American embargo: He has no objection to Noam quoting him on anything he has said, and his last question to Noam is a request for advice on what Hizbullah can do to counter the pernicious propaganda in the US.

In response, Noam points out the importance of separating policies emanating from Washington from public opinion in the US, with the latter often at odds with the former. Given the nature of electoral politics today in the US, he also points out that officials in Washington are usually elected by a minority of the population and represent two parties that are virtually indistinguishable on fundamental issues, and hence the importance of reaching out to the US public ahead of policy makers who are beholden to corporate interests.

Nasrallah covers a wide range of issues in his presentation, including the arms of Hizbullah, which the US and its allies have demanded be relinquished. Nasrallah presents the issue of the arms in the context of a strategy to defend southern Lebanon which, he argues, concerns all Lebanese and not only Hizbullah. After the meeting, to the pack of journalists and TV crews waiting outside, Noam declares: "I think Nasrallah has a reasoned and persuasive argument that the arms should be in the hands of Hizbullah as a deterrent to potential aggression, and there are plenty of background reasons for that ..." Enough to feed the right-wing rumor mill for a long time to come.

May 12, Masrah al Madina, Beirut. After Noam's lecture, there is an unexpected and particularly poignant moment. A young woman, maybe in her late 20's, comes up to Noam and just says "I am Kinda." She has one of Noam's books, Pirates and Emperors, where he reproduced the letter she wrote at the age of seven after the American air raid that destroyed her home in Tripoli, Libya, in April 1986. This was a terrorist attack that killed between 60 and 100 civilians, aptly characterized by American journalist Donald Neff at the time as "a demonstration of the bully [the Reagan administration] on the block picking a fight with the little guy [the Qaddafi regime]." Kinda asks Noam to sign the book; her mother is there too. Noam calls Carol over and they all meet. Kinda's letter read:

Dear Mr Reagan

Why did you kill my only sister Rafa and my friend Racha, she is only nine, and my baby doll Strawberry. Is it true you want to kill us all because my father is Palestinian and you want to kill Kadafi because he wants to help us go back to my father's home and land.

My name is Kinda

ABC correspondent Charles Glass, who reported the Libya bombing and aftermath from the scene in April 1986, dug out Kinda's letter from the rubble of her home, whose American-educated family he visited and remained in touch with after they moved to Lebanon.[5]

Three days later on May 15, Noam and Carol watch the BBC evening news at their hotel, and see David Welch sanctimoniously droning on about how the State Department has carefully reviewed Libya's record and decided that they have adhered to international norms, so that the US will remove them from the list of states supporting terrorism. There is no limit to dissembling, conscious or not, for State Department officials, it seems.

May 13, Khiam, South Lebanon. To reach Khiam we have to drive along a narrow road right along the Israeli-Lebanese border, occasionally marked by a barbed-wire fence. On a bright Spring day, we pass the Israeli town of Metulla where we clearly see some of the inhabitants tending to their daily chores, with houses clustering the hill with the watch-tower and the Israeli flag on top. This is the uppermost part of the Galilee with deep mountain ravines, streams and (in May) lush green fields. The view from Khiam across the valley, towards the Shebaa Farms[6] and Mount Hermon at a distance, is breath-taking.

Sheikh Nabil Qauq, head of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, is waiting for us at the entrance to the former Israeli prison and torture camp in Khiam, surrounded by a bevy of TV crews and journalists. Qauq gives us an effusive reception as soon as we alight from our cars, with Noam getting a warm embrace with kisses on both cheeks. There are two disabled and rusting military trucks with Hebrew markings, parked in the middle of the prison yard, which were left behind by the Israeli army after its withdrawal in May 2000. The whole scene is captured by photographers and TV cameramen, but not only. There is a constant drone overhead -- it is an unmanned aircraft barely visible in the bright hazy sky which, we are told, the Israeli military regularly flies over the border region to film suspected movements of Lebanese and Palestinian militants.

The next day we are served front-page photographs of Noam and Qauq, inspecting an old Khiam prison cell, in all major Beirut newspapers. And, sure enough, another two or three days later hysterical bloggers proclaim "Noam Chomsky applauds jihad," "Chomsky should not be allowed back into the US," etc., the usual right-wing Chomsky-bashing diatribes.

May 13, Nabatiyeh, South Lebanon. At the Cultural Council for South Lebanon, Habib Sadek introduces Noam most eloquently: "Today is an historic occasion ..." We have to listen carefully to catch all the words of Habib Sadek and subsequent speakers, through a cacophony of constantly moving chairs and an unruly sound system. The meeting announced as "an open discussion with Noam Chomsky" turns into a rather rowdy and enthusiastic reception, cut all too short after an hour at the end of an exhausting day. Some one hundred of Nabatiyeh's townspeople, old in suits and young in jeans and colorful shirts, are crowding a small hall to ask questions and hear the honored guest. Outside in the garden there are at least as many people, some peering through the open windows and doors, others standing back and listening to the exchange inside the hall from the loudspeakers. At the end Habib Sadek, a gaunt and elegantly dressed man in his 70's, bemoans to me the brevity of the event and the missed opportunity for a longer discussion with Noam.

May 14, Beirut. It is not possible to accommodate all invitations and requests for meetings with Noam. Some are declined regretfully, such as the request from Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in recognition of Noam's denunciation of a murderous terrorist attack in March of 1985, now nearly forgotten in the West. At the time, a car-bomb operation in a populous section of West Beirut, organized by the CIA, was intended to assassinate Fadlallah. The bomb killed some 80 civilians and wounded over 200, though Fadlallah escaped serious injury.[7]

Other invitations are just ignored, such as one from a high government official in Syria asking Noam to visit Damascus. This is not the time to even acknowledge such an invitation, on the very day the Syrian government has arrested the writer and democracy activist Michel Kilo.[8]

The preceding notes are a partial account of an extraordinary visit at a particularly tense time in the Middle East. For those who welcomed Noam in Beirut, it was important to hear an American voice of hope and reason, however briefly, in contrast to the unending ominous pronouncements from Washington officials that are in effect promises for more violence and destruction -- in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories, in Iraq, and in the region in general. For Noam, his short visit was important too, a first-hand experience with people and places that have been at the center of his concerns for many decades.


1. Noam Chomsky's response to columnist Geov Parrish of the Seattle Weekly, January 18, 2006.

2. The lecture of May 9, entitled "The Great Soul of Power," was the First Edward Said Memorial Lecture at the AUB, focusing on the culture of empire and the responsibility of intellectuals. The lecture of May 10, entitled "Biolinguistic Explorations: Design, Development, Evolution," was a historical survey of central ideas of that field where linguistics, evolutionary biology, and the neuro-sciences all meet.

3. Irene Gendzier, professor of political science at Boston University, wrote a study of US intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East in the period 1945-1958, Notes from the Minefield, Columbia University Press, 1997 (a new edition with a new preface, forthcoming from the same press in Fall 2006).

4. A detailed and gripping account of the massacre and surrounding events is provided by Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, Sabra and Shatila, September 1982, Pluto Press, 2004. Two of the more trustworthy sources listed on pages 276-278 of Bayan al-Hout's book, a report by the Lebanese Red Cross and an independent investigation by the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk, mention that between 3000 and 3500 were murdered during the two-day rampage on September 16-18, 1982. The wider political context is covered in Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, Updated Edition, South End Press, 1999 – see, in particular, Chapters 5 and 6.

5. Kinda's letter was reprinted in Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Claremont Research and Publications, 1986, p. 155. The letter and details of the whole episode are in a new edition of the book, Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New, Internationalism Terrorism in the Real World, South End Press, 2002, Chapter 3, pp. 81-103. Charles Glass published Kinda's letter in the Spectator, London, May 3, 1986. A facsimile of the original was submitted to the press in the US as a letter to the editor, but not published. The text was then published by Alexander Cockburn in In These Times, July 23, 1986, with a suggestion that since President and Mrs. Reagan "are fond of reading out messages from small children, they might care to deliver this one on the next appropriate occasion."

6. The Shebaa Farms are a mountainside of little more than 25 square kilometers, occupied by Israel since 1967. From time to time, Lebanese shepherds or farmers have lost their way into the Shebaa Farms, who have then been abducted or killed by the Israeli army. It is one reason advanced by Hizbullah and its supporters for not giving up their weapons.

7. Bob Woodward and Charles R. Babcock, "CIA Tied to Beirut Bombing," International Herald Tribune (13 May 1985).

8. Kilo is one of the signatories of a declaration, entitled "Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut," which appeared in the Beirut press on May 11, 2006. The declaration was signed by nearly 300 Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals, and called for a normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria, based on respect of the independence and sovereignty of both countries. A few days after Kilo's arrest, several other of the Syrian signatories were also taken to prison.

This article is extracted from the introduction of a forthcoming booklet in Arabic that will include the texts, translated to Arabic, of Chomsky's three lectures in Beirut and one long interview with the TV talk-show host Marcel Ghanem of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.

Assaf Kfoury is an Arab American. He grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and is currently a professor of computer science at Boston University.

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