Early one morning in September 1986 three gunmen patrolling Beirut’s scarred Green Line came across what they believed would be easy pickings.
Early one morning in September 1986 three gunmen patrolling Beirut’s scarred Green Line came across what they believed would be easy pickings. David Hirst the diminutive, silver-haired and donnish veteran correspondent was stranded by the side of the road in one of the most notorious areas of the city. Scores of Westerners had already been seized by militant groups allied to Iran and Hirst was pushed at gunpoint into the back of a BMW for what should have been the start of several miserable years handcuffed to a radiator in Beirut’s southern suburbs. To everyone’s surprise, the Guardian correspondent lived to tell the tale that very night back at his home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He explained that he had shouted, struggled, and kicked his way out of captivity. The bemused gunmen eventually had enough and let him go.
The story goes a long way to explain Hirst’s tenacity and quiet courage, and why he was admired by so many of us who lived in Beirut at the time. The city may have been torn apart by a decade of civil war but the dwindling expatriate community of journalists, academics and aid workers held on stubbornly. We believed that Beirut, despite its crumbling appearance, was the heart of the Middle East, the best listening post for the region, the most sophisticated city in the Arab world and in spite of the violence the most attractive.
Hirst, a fluent Arabic speaker, is now more Lebanese than British, having lived in Beirut for 50 years. He is better qualified than anyone to write a sweeping modern history of the region from the perspective of this tiny, sliver of coastline that has seduced, infuriated and consumed one foreign invader after another.
Even those who follow the twists and turns of local politics will understandably be left dazed by the history of modern Lebanon. Christians fight Muslims, Shia Muslims fight Israelis, the Druze fight the Maronites, Shias fight Sunnis, Christians fight Christians. The permutations are endless and the reasons for the fighting become less and less clear. Palestinians are expelled by Israelis, who are replaced by Americans, who are forced out by the Syrians, who give way to the Iranians. There are walk-on parts for the French, the Saudis and the United Nations. The characters who dominate the stage are a motley collection of Lebanese feudal warlords, religious leaders, Israeli generals, American diplomats and an assortment of spies. Most emerge with blood on their hands and many come to a violent end. Hirst rattles through this complex story with clarity and authority and puts the whole tragic story in the context of the wider Middle East conflict.
Beware of Small States is an analytical, rather dry and academic book. I was disappointed that the more colourful characters were not fleshed out thoroughly and that the dramatic episodes of the war were not brought to life. Unlike some of his journalist colleagues, Hirst was also too modest to relate his own experiences in the book. Even the anecdote about his kidnapping is missing.
The most serious criticism, is that his account suffers from being overly focused on Israel, a country of which he has little first hand experience of. True, much of the worst destruction visited on Lebanon was caused by the Israelis or their allies in 1978, 1982, 1996 and 2006. The arrival of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and later the PLO was certainly a catalyst for the civil war. But Lebanon is a regional football that has been kicked around by Syrians and Iranians as well as the Israelis. The Druze and the Maronites fought a bitter sectarian war in the 19th century long before Palestine was an issue. Christians and Muslims came to blows in 1958, before the PLO even existed. It is worth remembering that Israel withdrew its last forces from the country a decade ago. The “resistance” was kept alive by Syria and Iran on a flimsy pretext in order to keep Hezbollah, the last powerful militia force, in place to threaten Israel. It was Hezbollah’s ambush of an Israeli patrol in 2006 that triggered the last war and provoked such terrible destruction against Lebanon.
Lebanon’s own sectarian-based constitution also has a lot to answer for and the story is not over yet. Lebanon may be enjoying a lull in the fighting and a period of relative peace and economic prosperity. But Hirst has been in the country long enough to know that the final chapter of his story is not finished. As he remarks in his epilogue, the Seventh Middle East war may well erupt along the Lebanese-Israeli border, but he warns that this time the conflict may spread beyond this benighted land.
Richard Beeston is Foreign Editor of the Times