Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Adam’s blogbox: poor Arabs...they’re so screwed, they get all misty-eyed when plucky Hezbollah stands up to mighty Israel

(Note: last week we slammed Israel; now it's the turn of the Arabs.)

Those Arabs. They don’t have much to be proud about. Do they have beautiful women? We wouldn’t know – they’ve got them hidden behind veils.

Have they invented anything new lately? Not much. They didn’t even invent suicide bombing -- that was invented by the Tamil Tigers.

Who are their great writers? Well, they’ve got this poet Adonis, but I haven’t heard of a J.M. Coetzee or a Toni Morrison or an Orhan Pamuk (Turkish, not Arab) sprouting from their ranks.

Do they have a great moral leader -- a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Dr. King, some luminary who’s made a significant difference in Arabia in the last 50 years? No. They had a bunch of Saudi princes who used to gamble oil fortunes away in Monte Carlo a few decades ago. That’s about it.

Do they have a great artist -- an Andy Warhol or a Damien Hirst or an Anselm Kiefer? Nope.

Do they have wonderful governments, who make good laws, serve their people well, and establish ways to run their societies that we can learn something from? Er, no. They’ve got theocracies and dictators who lock their people up and buy everyone off with oil money. In fact, in some oil-rich Arab states, the Arabs don’t work: they import Indians to manage the country and Philipinos to do the work.

Do they make good cars, or design fine fashion, or produce famous wines, or create great cheeses, or stage excellent theater, or come up with beautiful furniture?

Persian carpets. That’s what they do. They haven’t been able to add one more product to this lineup of one for the last eight thousand years. Unless you want to count belly-dancing.

I’m trying to think of famous contemporary Arabs besides blowhard politicos like whoever the Americans have put in charge of Iraq these days, or ideologues like Bin-Laden -- and the only one I can think of is that Saudi prince who invests in the West and is stinking rich.

Have they got a Michael Jackson or a Bruce Springsteen? Maybe they do, but he’s not trying to sell his records all over the world, is he? An isolated lot, those Arabs.

To get really shallow, have they got a famous international film star? Have they got a Gong Li? Or a Jet Li? Little South Africa has Charlize Theron, faraway Australia has Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, but the whole of Arabia cannot produce a single person who is so beautiful, we love to watch them do dumb things in movies. Oh yes, there was Omar Sharif, but he must be quite grey by now. He was a double-hitter, being a great bridge champ, too.

Heck, I’m trying, I’m really trying to think of great Arabs. Or great things they’ve done. Or great achievements. I know the Arabs discovered zero, and kept civilization alive in the Middle Ages or something, but I’m thinking of the last 100 years. And damned if I can think of a single thing.

It seems the Arabs have contributed zip to the rest of the world – except for oil. And the oil is a coincidence. It just happens to sit right under their under-achieving asses. They can’t even get it out of the ground themselves. Western oil companies do it for them.

So here comes Hezbollah, who runs charities in Lebanon, and affords the Lebanese Shiites something to live for, and little Hezbollah slings a quiver of rockets into Israel every day, and gives the mighty IDF a run for their money, dug in as they are in Southern Lebanon, and what happens … the entire race of Arabs on planet earth go absolutely apeshit.

Sheik Nasrallah! Sheik Nasrallah! Sheik Nasrallah!

Suddenly the Arabs feel a stiffening in their spines. Suddenly they experience a shot of self-esteem. Suddenly they feel they can hold their heads high.

Poor Arabs. If that’s what it takes to make them feel proud, they’ve got precious little to be proud about.

Lebanon: cry, two beloved countries

In the first piece, an Israeli ponders what Israel has wrought. Read and weep.

1. Days of darkness -- by Gideon Levy (from Haaretz Daily in Israel)

In war as in war: Israel is sinking into a strident, nationalistic atmosphere and darkness is beginning to cover everything. The brakes we still had are eroding, the insensitivity and blindness that characterized Israeli society in recent years is intensifying. The home front is cut in half: the north suffers and the center is serene. But both have been taken over by tones of jingoism, ruthlessness and vengeance, and the voices of extremism that previously characterized the camp's margins are now expressing its heart. The left has once again lost its way, wrapped in silence or "admitting mistakes." Israel is exposing a unified, nationalistic face.

The devastation we are sowing in Lebanon doesn't touch anyone here and most of it is not even shown to Israelis. Those who want to know what Tyre looks like now have to turn to foreign channels - the BBC reporter brings chilling images from there, the likes of which won't be seen here. How can one not be shocked by the suffering of the other, at our hands, even when our north suffers? The death we are sowing at the same time, right now in Gaza, with close to 120 dead since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, 27 last Wednesday alone, touches us even less. The hospitals in Gaza are full of burned children, but who cares? The darkness of the war in the north covers them, too.

Since we've grown accustomed to thinking collective punishment a legitimate weapon, it is no wonder no debate has sparked here over the cruel punishment of Lebanon for Hezbollah's actions. If it was okay in Nablus, why not Beirut? The only criticism being heard about this war is over tactics. Everyone is a general now and they are mostly pushing the IDF to deepen its activities. Commentators, ex-generals and politicians compete at raising the stakes with extreme proposals.

Haim Ramon "doesn't understand" why there is still electricity in Baalbek; Eli Yishai proposes turning south Lebanon into a "sandbox"; Yoav Limor, a Channel 1 military correspondent, proposes an exhibition of Hezbollah corpses and the next day to conduct a parade of prisoners in their underwear, "to strengthen the home front's morale."

It's not difficult to guess what we would think about an Arab TV station whose commentators would say something like that, but another few casualties or failures by the IDF, and Limor's proposal will be implemented. Is there any better sign of how we have lost our senses and our humanity?

Chauvinism and an appetite for vengeance are raising their heads. If two weeks ago only lunatics such as Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu spoke about "wiping out every village where a Katyusha is fired," now a senior officer in the IDF speaks that way in Yedioth Aharonoth's main headlines. Lebanese villages may not have been wiped out yet, but we have long since wiped out our own red lines.

A bereaved father, Haim Avraham, whose son was kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah in October 2000, fires an artillery shell into Lebanon for the reporters. It's vengeance for his son. His image, embracing the decorated artillery shell is one of the most disgraceful images of this war. And it's only the first. A group of young girls also have their picture taken decorating IDF shells with slogans.

Maariv, which has turned into the Fox News of Israel, fills its pages with chauvinist slogans reminiscent of particularly inferior propaganda machines, such as "Israel is strong" - which is indicative of weakness, actually - while a TV commentator calls for the bombing of a TV station.

Lebanon, which has never fought Israel and has 40 daily newspapers, 42 colleges and universities and hundreds of different banks, is being destroyed by our planes and cannon and nobody is taking into account the amount of hatred we are sowing. In international public opinion, Israel has been turned into a monster, and that still hasn't been calculated into the debit column of this war. Israel is badly stained, a moral stain that can't be easily and quickly removed. And only we don't want to see it.

The people want victory, and nobody knows what that is and what its price will be.

The Zionist left has also been made irrelevant. As in every difficult test in the past - the two intifadas for example - this time too the left has failed just when its voice was so necessary as a counterweight to the stridency of the beating tom-toms of war. Why have a left if at every real test it joins the national chorus?

Peace Now stands silently, so does Meretz, except for brave Zehava Gal-On. A few days of a war of choice and already Yehoshua Sobol is admitting he was wrong all along. Peace Now is suddenly an "infantile slogan" for him. His colleagues are silent and their silence is no less resounding. Only the extreme left makes its voice heard, but it is a voice nobody listens to.

Long before this war is decided, it can already be stated that its spiraling cost will include the moral blackout that is surrounding and covering us all, threatening our existence and image no less than Hezbollah's Katyushas.

2. Israeli raid in Lebanon kills 54 – by Hussein Saad

QANA, Lebanon (Reuters) - An Israeli air strike killed 54 Lebanese civilians, including 37 children, on Sunday, prompting Lebanon to tell U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice she was unwelcome in Beirut before a cease-fire.

The raid on the southern village of Qana was the bloodiest single attack during Israel's 19-day-old war on Hizbollah.

As a wave of anger spread across Lebanon and the Arab world, several thousand protesters chanted "Death to Israel, Death to America" outside the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut and some smashed their way into the building.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said he would not hold negotiations before a cease-fire, scuppering Rice's visit.

Rice, who was in Israel and had planned to go to Beirut later in the day, said she was saddened by the Qana air raid, but stopped well short of calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Police, who gave the death toll, said the Israelis had bombed Qana at 1:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m. British time), destroying a three-storey building where about 63 displaced people were sheltering in the basement. Many were killed in their sleep.

"Why have they attacked one- and two-year-old children and defenceless women? What have they done wrong?" asked Mohamed Samai, whose relatives were among the dead.


Hizbollah vowed to retaliate. "This horrific massacre will not go without a response," it said. The governing Palestinian movement Hamas also pledged to hit back with attacks on Israel.

Rice said it was "time to get to a cease-fire", but she insisted this required changing the status quo before the war, which began after Hizbollah guerrillas seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

At least 542 people have been killed in Lebanon in the war, although the health minister estimated the toll at 750 including unrecovered bodies. Fifty-one Israelis have also been killed.

Many Arab and European leaders condemned the Qana bombing and called for an immediate cease-fire. Siniora called U.N. chief Kofi Annan to demand an emergency Security Council meeting.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet the assault in Lebanon would go on. "We will not blink in front of Hizbollah and we will not stop the offensive despite the difficult circumstances," the Ynet site quoted him as saying.

Olmert told the cabinet of his "deep sorrow" at the civilian deaths in Qana. Political sources said he had also ordered that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach the village.

Five civilians, including two children, were killed in another Israeli air strike on a house in the southern border village of Yaroun, security sources said.

Siniora demanded an immediate, unconditional cease-fire and an international investigation into "Israeli massacres".

The United States says the priority is to remove the threat posed to Israel by Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria.

Rice, on her second trip to the Middle East in a week, was trying to get Israel and Lebanon to agree on an international force to deploy on the border as part of a cease-fire deal.

Olmert said Israel had told Qana residents to leave before the raid and that Hizbollah had fired rockets from the village.


Distraught people in Qana screamed in grief and anger amid wrecked buildings as others scrabbled at slabs of concrete with their hands to try to reach people buried in the debris.

A woman in a red-patterned dress lay crumpled and lifeless in the broken masonry. A leg poked out from the shattered concrete nearby. A medic carried a dead child in his arms from rubble. Other children lay dead in the street.

Israeli warplanes struck Qana only hours after Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened to rocket more cities in central Israel if attacks on Lebanon continued.

Qana is already a potent symbol of Lebanese civilian deaths at the hands of the Israeli military.

In April 1996, Israeli shelling killed more than 100 civilians sheltering at the base of U.N. peacekeepers in the village during Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" bombing campaign.

Confirming a major new incursion into Lebanon, the Israeli military said tanks and troops had rolled across the border at Metula to try to find and destroy Hizbollah rocket launchers.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said at least one soldier had been wounded in fighting, in which she said Hizbollah had lost five dead. Hizbollah reported fierce clashes.

3. Saying no to being a 'disposable animal' -- by Rami G. Khouri

Does Arab public opinion matter? The reply for decades has been that angry Arabs don't have much political impact on the prevailing regional order, Israel's security, or American and other Western interests. Events this month suggest that this perception should be revised and updated.

In particular, we should heed important new sentiments expressed by two very opposite poles in Arab society - Saudi royalty and Lebanese civilians under fire - whose attitudes reflect significant changes in the foundations of the modern Arab political order.

Arab public opinion is more angry, energized and radical this month, in the face of four parallel things that ordinary Arabs see happening in Lebanon and Israel. First is Israel's savage attack against Lebanon, and not only Hizbullah and its Shiite-dominated heartland in the South, with the aim of virtually destroying a country that was the pride of all Arabs.

Second is Hizbullah's strong resistance and capacity to counterattack, two weeks into the fighting, including sending a third of the Israeli population into bomb shelters for days on end.

Third is the passive role of other Arab governments, some of which, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, initially criticized Hizbullah for kidnapping two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Fourth is the widespread sense among Arabs, and most others around the world, that the United States not only approves Israel's attack, but also prods and supplies it with armaments, fuel and diplomatic protection.

Many Western analysts - especially Americans - tend to discuss the Arab world in the vocabulary and dynamics of the 1960s, when angry street demonstrators and wily colonels routinely overthrew incumbent regimes. But the nature and impact of mass Arab political anger have changed radically in recent decades. Since the late 1980s, angry Arabs have not bothered much with street demonstrations or attempted coups against the prevailing Arab political order that is seen to be subservient to the US and acquiescent to Israeli dictates. Instead, ordinary Arabs have done something far more significant: They have simply de-legitimized their Arab regimes and political orders, and left them behind.

Arab public opinion in many places has built a parallel, more credible, order that is based on the twin pillars of resistance and affirmation, in the twin contexts of Arabism and Islamism. Hizbullah and Hamas are its two most dramatic expressions, and social and political Islamism its more widespread foundation in society.

The four simultaneous dynamics evident in this month's Lebanon-Israel fighting capture this process better than anything else we've seen in recent years, even better than the Islamists' many electoral victories around the region. Public opinion around the Arab world has reacted by strongly supporting Hizbullah and Lebanon, in the first significant clash between the forces of Islamo-Arabist resistance (also supported by Iran) and the American-Israeli combine (supported by a few Arab regimes and elites).

Two important markers of Arab public opinion emerged this week. The first is the Saudi Arabian royal court statement issued Wednesday warning against the "grave and unpredictable consequences" of the continued Israeli aggression against Lebanon. It simultaneously appealed to and warned the international community - with the US singled out by name - that if the Arab offer to live in peace with Israel fell victim to Israeli "arrogance," only the war option would remain. For the normally discreet, patient and peaceful Saudis to issue such a statement was about a strong a signal as we are ever likely to get of elite Arab concern with the consequences of the current mood among Arab publics.

The second important marker is a national public opinion poll of Lebanese, conducted this week by the respected Beirut Center for Research and Information with Lebanese-American University political science professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, measuring public attitudes to the current situation. The striking results showed 87 percent of all Lebanese supported Hizbullah's military response to the Israeli attacks (including, notably, 89 percent of Sunnis and 80 percent of Christians). Five months ago, just 58 percent supported the resistance movement's right to remain armed. And 89 percent of respondents said the US was not an honest broker and did not respond positively to Lebanon's concerns.

When I asked Saad-Ghorayeb what she made of these results, she mentioned three key points: Support for Hizbullah is strong nationally across all groups, as the threat from Israel has been revived for all Lebanese and will not diminish quickly; strong Sunni support for the resistance and criticism of the US suggests a revival of a sense of Arabism among many; and a large majority of Lebanese has lost faith in the US, and may feel that Washington's support for Lebanon during the past 18 months has been an insincere and expedient ruse designed to achieve America's regional goals, rather than promote Lebanon's well-being.

"This has gone beyond simply a sense of bias in America's policies," she said, "to the point where the Lebanese feel they have been used by Washington primarily to hurt Iran. Many feel that Washington's desire to bring freedom to Lebanon has been the kiss of death, following in the wake of similar American approaches to Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq."

Lebanon was the ripe apple that Washington's drive for Arab democracy should have harvested effortlessly. Instead, today the Lebanese mistrust the US, and the Saudi royal family publicly warns it about war in the region. Most Arabs ignore their regimes and applaud or support those who actively resist Anglo-American-Israeli aggression. The face of Arab public opinion will continue to change in these directions, until legitimate grievances are redressed and people throughout the Arab world feel they are treated like dignified human beings rather than disposable animals.

(Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.)

4. Let It Bleed
Leaders at the Rome summit on the Mideast are ignoring the real bottom line: Hizbullah is winning.
By Christopher Dickey

Worthy-sounding meetings of ministers, like the International Conference for Lebanon held in Rome today, rarely get very much done. The participants here were high-powered, to be sure: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the prime minister of the country in question, Fouad Siniora, plus a slew of Europeans and Arabs (but no Israelis or Hizbullahis). Instigated by Washington, it was all for show.

The assembled dignitaries expressed their “determination to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a ceasefire” in the war that started two weeks ago today when the Hizbullah militia crossed the border to capture two Israeli soldiers, and Israel responded with a massive counterattack the length and breadth of Lebanon. But, at American insistence, the ceasefire would have to be one that’s “lasting, permanent and sustainable.” Which means the flames searing Lebanon, threatening Israel and endangering the most volatile region in the world will go on for weeks, if not months, to come. The consolation prize: a promise of “immediate humanitarian aid.”

Imagine, if you will, that arsonists have set your apartment block on fire. You call 911 and plead for help. The dispatcher tells you of her “determination to work immediately with the utmost urgency” to douse the flames, but only if plans can be agreed on for the new building to be erected when the decrepit old one has gone up in smoke. She’s stalling, hoping the arsonists will be eliminated by the conflagration. And she’s got a great vision for the way that block should look some day. That’s what counts. Not your furniture, or for that matter, your family inside … No wonder Siniora looked distraught as the conference closed.

But as irrational as the politicians who make policy may be, the professionals in their entourages often understand reality quite well. And in the corridors of today’s conference I met several men and women who, on background or off the record (meaning they were afraid of losing their jobs if caught talking too frankly) laid out a picture of the situation in the Middle East right now that was convincing, frightening, and seems to have escaped the notice of Dispatcher Rice altogether.

The bottom line: Hizbullah is winning. That’s the hideous truth about the direction this war is taking, not in spite of the way the Israelis have waged their counterattack, but precisely because of it. As my source Mr. Frankly put it, “Hizbullah is eating their lunch.”

We’re talking about a militia—a small guerrilla army of a few thousand fighters, in fact—that plays all the dirty games that guerrillas always play. It blends in with the local population. It draws fire against innocents. But it’s also fighting like hell against an Israeli military machine that is supposed to be world class. And despite the onslaught of the much-vaunted Tsahal, Hizbullah continues to pepper Israel itself with hundreds of rockets a day.

The United States, following Israel’s lead, does not want an immediate ceasefire precisely because that would hand Hizbullah a classic guerrilla-style victory: it started this fight against a much greater military force—and it’s still standing. In the context of a region where vast Arab armies have been defeated in days, for a militia to hold out one week, two weeks and more, is seen as heroic. Hizbullah is the aggressor, the underdog and the noble survivor, all at once. “It’s that deadly combination of the expectation game, which Hizbullah have won, and the victim game, which they’ve also won,” as my straight-talking friend put it.

Neither U.S. nor Israeli policymakers have taken this dynamic into account. If they had, they’d understand that with each passing day, no matter how many casualties it takes, Hizbullah’s political power grows. Several of my worldly Lebanese and Arab friends here in Rome today—people who loathe Hizbullah—understand this problem well. Privately they say that’s one of the main reasons they are so horrified at the direction this war has taken: they fear not only that Lebanon will be destroyed, but that Hizbullah will wind up planting its banner atop the mountain of rubble.

When I heard Condi talking in pitiless academic pieties today about “strong and robust” mandates and “dedicated and urgent action,” I actually felt sorry for her, for our government, and for Israel.

5. Identity Politics
Understanding what the Sunni-Shia split really means for the new Middle East.
by Lee Smith

Damascus -- HERE AT THE GREAT UMAYYAD MOSQUE two 10-year-old neighborhood boys have split the Muslim world between themselves. "The Shia side of the mosque is Jafaar's," says Munzer. "And the Sunni side is Munzer's," Jafaar says.

Among other things, this masterpiece of early Islamic architecture is a kind of museum of Middle Eastern monotheism. The head of John the Baptist is said to reside in one shrine and the head of Hussein is in another, a small room thronged by Shiites where the language of mourning is typically Farsi. This is Jafaar's side.

Munzer's portion may be said to encompass all the rest, for this building is a monument to the Umayyad empire, the Sunni Arab empire, consolidated upon the death of Hussein, the son of Ali and grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Ali had lost his caliphate to Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, whose own son Yazid defeated Hussein at Kerbala. In the almost 1,400 years since this victory which cleaved the Muslim world in two--Sunni and Shiite--Jafaar and Munzar's mutual respect and affection has not always been the rule.

THE IRAQ WAR, especially Zarqawi's bloody campaign against Shiites, has revealed the extraordinary depths of sectarian resentment in the Middle East, and yet it's probably a mistake to see this as the only issue that divides the region. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand, for instance, why Shiite Iran supports a Sunni Islamist outfit such as Palestinian Hamas. Or, similarly, why Syria is siding with Tehran against its Arab brethren in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Gulf.

"The Arabs are traitors," says Mustafa, a 23-year-old Sunni Arab cabdriver. We are stuck in a traffic jam and I am his captive American audience. He is referring to all the Sunni Arab leaders and their peoples, except the Syrians and the Palestinians. "All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel," he says. "The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren't worth the shoes of these three brothers."

For Mustafa, like many Syrians and Arabs around the region right now, sectarian identity means little next to ideological consanguinity. Arab rulers, such as King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, are frank about their fear of Shiite power, but ordinary Arabs are tuning out this status quo Sunni leadership. The combination of Hamas and Hezbollah taking on Israel and Ahmadinejad's rhetorical attacks on the Jewish state, suggests that there's revolution in the air and activist politics will define the regional climate.

OVER THE COURSE OF ARAB HISTORY, Sunni and Shia Islam have come to acquire somewhat essential, fixed identities, at least in comparison to each other. Sunnis believe Shiites act in a certain way and believe certain things; Shiites do likewise. And yet it was not always so.

For a great while after the death of Hussein, the Sunni-Shiite split was political, not doctrinal. "Sunni" and "Shiite" were more like two different banners under which leaders rallied political support.

Perhaps it is useful to think of "Sunni" and "Shiite" in the same way, as designations for two different tribes, sometimes competing for power and at other times joining up to take on a third tribe, such as Israel, or the United States. So for this particular moment, perhaps the "Shiites" are those (be they Sunni, Alawite, or whatever--as well as Shiite) who line up behind Nasrallah, Iran, and Bashar's Alawite regime. And the "Sunnis" are those (Sunni leadership and others) who do not think it wise to set the region in flames at present.

Middle Eastern identity is not just multiple, it is also often flexible, even those aspects of it that seem most grounded in Islamic history. For instance, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad constitute a large portion of the foundations of Sunni Islam, and yet some of these hadith didn't come from the prophet at all. Rather, many were invented hundreds of years after Muhammad's death to support one faction or another vying for power. And now in Damascus the Iranians are busy building a narrative to support their own political ambitions.

"Obviously Iran and Syria have strengthened their relations over the last nine months," says Andrew Tabler, Damascus-based researcher and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. "And their ideological correspondence has come along with suitable iconography. So, before the Syria-Iran defense pact was about to be signed in mid-June, we started seeing these posters with Bashar, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. You used to have to go to the Bekaa Valley or the south suburbs of Beirut to see posters of Iranian leaders. Now we get them in the middle of an Arab capital."

Thus the Iranians have started to invest heavily in what some are calling the Shiitization of Syria, a country with a roughly 70 percent Sunni majority. "There are reports of entire villages becoming Shia," says Tabler. "And we know for sure that they're fixing up Shia shrines and building Shia mosques, even in majority Sunni towns."

If, as Michael Rubin wrote, there is a growing Sunni-Israel alliance in the region, perhaps that's because the Iranians seek to erase them both from the history books.

(Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.)

6. Trapped In A Vengeful Machismo -- by James Ron

At one level, the fight between Hezbollah and Israel is guided by rational considerations of tactics, strategy, and politics. Israel hopes to restructure the Lebanese balance of power, while Hezbollah seeks to preserve influence and military prowess.

At a deeper level, however, the struggle is about wounded national and masculine pride. As the casualties mount, vengeful publics on both sides support redoubled efforts to physically pummel the other.

Fear of humiliation drives the conflict in multiple ways. Many Israelis feared the Hezbollah attacks, along with earlier attacks by Hamas, challenged their identity as proud, capable Jewish fighters, exposing them as wimps incapable of defending their borders.

Thus, the massively disproportionate Israeli barrage can be seen as a strange form of therapy. With each explosion north of the border, Jewish humiliation is mollified, if only until the next Hezbollah rocket strikes.

Many Palestinians and Lebanese are also enraged by these and previous attacks, motivating their support for attacks on Israeli civilians and cities. Given that Arabs have long suffered from Jewish bullets and shells, the ability of some Muslim fighters to blow up Jewish bodies must be gratifying to some.

Fascination with heroic images of warrior derring-do also played a role in the Hezbollah kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that sparked this latest round of war. The group's otherwise puzzling commitment to militancy six years after Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon could also be usefully understood in this light.

Toxic macho urges lurk deep in the collective psyche of entire societies, nurtured by periodic displays of state-led pageantry, sober commentary on past heroism, and crudely sensationalist movies.

Although machismo and wounded pride may not trigger conflict on their own, they do help make it more likely when other conditions apply. For example, countries affected by particularly potent strains of machismo are more likely to overreact when challenged, as did the U.S. after 9/11.

Machismo is a sickness that strikes many young males — and some females — in their teens and early 20s. In peacetime, it expresses itself through hazing rituals, excessive interest in violent entertainment and an obsession with loud engines and competitive sports.

In politically tense regions, machismo can be expressed in more overtly violent ways, including the cult of the gun that has spread throughout much of the Middle East. Israeli settlers and soldiers march through occupied lands with their rifles at the ready; some young Palestinian males mimic their opponents, parading about with guns and explosive belts in deeply disturbing ways.

As we age, most of us leave the worst forms of machismo behind. Traces of the illness, however, linger in our psyches for years, emerging full-blown at times of perceived national crisis.

I know first-hand how deadly this sickness can be, since I was once ensnared in its grasp. As a young boy growing up in Israel during the late 1970s and early '80s, I learned that physical prowess was crucial to gaining peer respect. When drafted at the age of 18, my disgust with army life was tempered by secret delight at the unlimited access provided to the essential props of masculinity, including guns, explosives, and large vehicles. Few of my peers enjoyed their three years of military life, but most took at least some pleasure in the opportunity to drive aggressively and make things go boom.

By some uncanny stroke of luck, I saw only limited combat in the mid-1980s, sandwiched as my time was between Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the 1988 Palestinian uprising. Yet we constantly trained for violence, and every day was a new celebration of hyper-masculinity.

Small group dynamics in the military were toxic, including relentless hazing and stigmatization of some for wimpish behavior. Dominant figures had more physical endurance and technical prowess, but compassion, tolerance, and maturity were in short supply.

I'm now approaching 40, and most of my North American-age cohorts have long lost interest in posturing and aggression. In war-torn regions such as the Middle East, however, a young male culture predominates, trapping even older and wiser folk in a deadly narrative of humiliation, rage, and revenge.

In the coming weeks, diplomats will probably engineer a ceasefire across the Lebanese-Israeli border. There will be no lasting peace, however, until these powerful sentiments are not calmed. More violence, no matter how proportionate or justified, will not help, but beyond that, the way forward remains obscure.

Personally, I have little hope that the country I left 13 years ago will change in my lifetime. The patterns of vengeful machismo, I fear, are too deeply engrained on all sides.

(James Ron is associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He previously held the Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Human Rights at McGill University and is author of " Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel .")

7. Side Note
"The whole world is an open field for us." - Al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In propaganda terms, the whole world is now an open field for Hezbollah and its leader Sheik Nasrallah.
But for Israel, the world is closing down. As it has for the US.

8. Between Hezbollah and hell
The organisation Israel has sworn to destroy has political and popular support but could lose it all unless it makes a hard choice fast, writes Paul McGeough.

MOUNTAINS and rivers follow her voice, they say. Mosques and churches lean in and oil jars and even the loaves of bread respond when Fairuz strokes the emotional fabric of Arab life. This revered Lebanese singer became a symbol of national unity by refusing to sing in her homeland during 15 bloody years of civil war. This week, her haunting laments crowd the airwaves again as radio programmers offer solace in terrible times.

But there's another quite insistent beat. This is a mesmeric mix of Arabic anthems - nationalist and martial. It is all slickly packaged with images of precision militia parades, heavy weapons being fired in battle, bruising encounters with the enemy and dying or dead Israelis. This is Al-Manar, a satellite TV channel - the voice of Hezbollah.

The thinking of people like Ali Saleem, 30, is shaped by Al-Manar. In Houla, a border village being bombed by the Israelis, his home was hit during an Israeli air strike last weekend and he is being treated at Beirut's Rafiq Hariri Hospital for broken limbs and burns.

But despite the injuries, he calls for help. Saleem demands to be propped up in bed so that he can make the V-for-victory sign. Invoking the names of Shiite saints and Gandhi, he declares: "If Israel agrees to a ceasefire, it is a victory for us; but if [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah lays down his weapons, we're defeated."

Fervour like Saleem's is hardly surprising in the war zones. But the man on the banquette in Beirut's Commodore Hotel is from a different mould.

The breast pocket of his fine cotton shirt is monogrammed and he chomps a fat cigar. As he juggles two mobile telephones and two cigarette lighters, Dr Ali Fayyad explains he has recently presented Hezbollah's submission on urgently needed electoral reform to the Lebanese Government.

Hezbollah is a key part of that Government - it has three ministries; it has 14 seats in the national parliament; and it controls more than a third of the country's municipal councils. Fayyad is a senior member of Hezbollah's executive committee.

At the modern Al-Rassoul Hospital, Ahmad Talal, 33, enters a small office wearing theatre scrubs. Al-Rassoul was built and is run by Hezbollah. Talal is on stand-by to receive the latest victims of Israeli attacks but, digressing, he reveals his pride in the hospital's No. 2 rating on Lebanon's accreditation of health institutions. And, God willing, he vows, next year it will be No. 1.

Across town Ibrahim al-Mussawi guides the Herald to a dark corner in the lobby of another hotel. Urbane and intense, his languid frame folds into an armchair and he proceeds to analyse Hezbollah's split personality in the global media - in the West, they are terrorists; in the Arab and Islamic worlds, freedom fighters. Mussawi is circumspect, but others observe he has to be close to the centre of Hezbollah power to be trusted as the face of the militia for foreign TV audiences.

All three attend to their tasks in the capital with all the aplomb of lobbyists, technocrats and spin doctors the world over. At the same time their leader, the bearded and turbaned Nasrallah, choreographs the Lebanon end of a brutal war with Israel.

It's a conflict which Washington has seized upon as an opportunity to step over the carcass of so many failed diplomatic efforts to stabilise the Middle East, hoping that allowing Israel to bomb Hezbollah out of the equation might shift the region towards reform and democracy.

This chapter of the Lebanon story starts in February last year, when the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in a massive car-bomb explosion amid the art-deco and French-mandate grandeur of downtown Beirut. Hariri was the father of the $US50-billion resurrection of the city from the rubble of the civil war and the outpourings of anger at his murder gave rise to what became known as the Cedar Revolution.

Urged on by the US and France, demonstrators demanded that neighbouring Syria dismantle its vice-like military and intelligence apparatus in Lebanon. Damascus caved in and withdrew abruptly, a spectacular outcome that kindled Washington's hope that here was a new Middle East candidate for democracy which, along with liberated Iraq, could be a force for change in the region.

But those who marched for genuine democracy and for a voice in their nation's affairs were cheated. At the time, much of the diplomatic and media analysis split the big Lebanese players into democrats and non-democrats, pro-Syrians versus anti-Syrians. But other forces were - and still are - at work.

Just as they did in the old days, tight circles of powerbrokers from the different religious sects and Mafia-like clans keep a tight rein on the numbers and the money in Lebanon - political and corporate. Despite a Muslim majority, seats in the parliament are shared evenly between the Muslim and Christian communities. Key positions are reserved accordingly - the President is a Christian; the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim; and the Parliamentary Speaker a Shiite Muslim.

But fuelled by the tortured Shiite ascendancy in Iraq and manipulation by Shiite Iran and its allies in Syria, sectarian divisions are deepening.

Amid rising tension between Shiites and Sunnis, there are complaints of an influx into the country of Salafist clergy and militants, adherents to the Islamic creed that underpinned the Taliban in Afghanistan and which still fires much of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. There is an air of Sunni triumphalism and Lebanon's Maronite Christians are being warned of Muslim encirclement.

The US might have grave difficulties with the Sunnis of Iraq. But its warm relationship with the Sunni-dominated Hariri power bloc in Beirut prompted an early warning from General Michel Aoun, a powerful Christian leader who aspires to be president: "The Americans don't understand the complexity of relations between Sunnis and Shiites. The lesson of centuries of experience in Lebanon and Arab history [is] Sunnis and Shiites cannot live together. Christians are needed."

IF LEBANON finds itself at a geopolitical crossroads, the same can be said of Hezbollah, which, faced with intense US-led pressure to disarm, is confronted by hard choice - become a conventional political party and stay in the open; or go underground for a purely guerilla-war campaign.

Inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution in Iran, Hezbollah has become one of the most powerful and complex militia and political operations in the Middle East. It takes spiritual guidance, money and weapons from Tehran; it remains close to Damascus.

In Lebanon's political gridlock it has built itself into such a formidable machine that the efficiency of its service delivery is as much of an embarrassment to the Government as its ruthless military prowess is to Israel.

Hezbollah built and runs six hospitals and dozens of health centres; it subsidises the education of thousands. It operates agricultural advice centres and runs a quasi-bank that provides micro-credit for small businesses.

Like all the other services it provides, its housing projects are for the most deprived section of the Lebanese population - the Shiite underclasses who congregate in the south of the country and in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Apart from Al-Manar, which is beamed around the world, the Hezbollah business empire also includes four radio stations and a stable of print publications. A senior Hezbollah figure declines to identify any of the organisation's businesses because he feared they would become Israeli targets in the war.

Hezbollah builds grand mosques and it has insinuated itself into legal, medical and other professional groups; into trade unions and student groups; and into the public service. Its finances are tightly guarded. But in his book In the Path of Hezbollah , the American University of Beirut politics professor Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh estimates Iran's contribution to be as much as $US1 billion ($1.3 billion) a year.

Hezbollah has also been sanctioned by Iran's spiritual leadership to collect what are called khums or "the fifths" - a 20 per cent tithe of a Shiite believer's earnings after he has covered his family and living expenses.

The organisation also receives generous donations from the Shiite diaspora. But Fayyad says the anti-terrorism monitoring of financial transactions after the September 11 attacks has stemmed a healthy tide of money that flowed from Shiite expatriates in the US, Canada and Australia.

Last week Hezbollah took over the parking station beneath a new city shopping centre and moved hundreds made homeless by the war into its colour co-ordinated parking bays.

Among them was Nehnat Ali Bahreddine, 65, a widow who was the last to be evacuated from her southern suburbs apartment block between two Israeli bombing runs - the first of which, she said, split the nine-storey building vertically; before the second strike collapsed what remained.

Urging all around her to pray for Hassan Nasrallah, the seamstress says: "I've signed all my property over to Nasrallah and Hezbollah. I have, or I had, an apartment and a good sum of money in the bank."

Ibrahim Bayram, an analyst with Beirut's An-Nahar newspaper, was to the point in his response to questions on Lebanon's national security. Can the existing Lebanese security forces defend the country - no. Can Hezbollah do the job - yes.

"All the Arab armies could not fight Israel - even together," he says. "Hezbollah can't prevent an invasion, but it has proved itself as a resistance force and it broke the Israelis' reputation as the undefeated army. That makes the Lebanese people feel better about themselves.

"But this may be Hezbollah's last battle - the time for them to disarm and drop the resistance-fighter role is closer than it has ever been. Israel and the US have been laying the ground for this outcome - that is why Hezbollah was so surprised by the ferocity of the Israeli attack."

That transition is Nasrallah's choice. The 46-year-old cleric has already proved to be a deft player in the brinkmanship of Lebanese politics. Playing the unwritten rules like a violin, he has manipulated myriad alliances, even with elements of the Christian establishment, to build a strong bloc in the parliament.

But Talal Salman, the founder of As Safir newspaper, can't believe we're mentioning "Hezbollah" and "disarmament" in the same sentence. "It's impossible. Hezbollah has 1 million supporters - Nasrallah cannot let them down. The people have never complained about his weapons because he has never turned his guns on them."

HISTORY professor Fawaz Trabulsi sketches the breadth of Hezbollah's volatile power base. "It is the strongest Shiite party. It has the backing of Iran and Syria. It has good representation in the Bekaa Valley, in the south and in Beirut's southern suburbs. It represents the lower classes, marginalised village families and the new, Iran-trained clergy. But is also has strong support from private business.

"That's a big shift in the status quo. The Maronite Christians who used to monopolise political power are uneasy because the Shiites are the biggest numerical group. Also, rising Shiite-Sunni tension in the region has the Sunnis here on edge - especially because Shiite Hezbollah is armed."

HEZBOLLAH'S legitimacy in the West is under challenge. Despite - or because of - its refusal to accede to a UN Security Council resolution demanding its disarmament, it remains a respected and powerful player in Lebanon. But its political opponents reveal edginess.

Hezbollah's huge support is built on the militia's relentless drive to oust Israel from southern Lebanon after an 18-year occupation. Nawwar al-Saheli, the Bekaa Valley MP, says: "But we are still occupied - Israel did not give back the Shebaa Farms [a disputed area of about 25 square kilometres] and they still have our prisoners."

The Hezbollah associates adopt an "and-your-problem-is" attitude when questions turn to the abduction of Israeli soldiers and/or the firing of Iranian-supplied missiles into northern Israel. One of them demands: "If Israel can use American-supplied F-16s to bomb Lebanon why shouldn't we use Iranian rockets? And if they are holding our fighters as prisoners, why shouldn't we capture their fighters to swap them for our men?"

As a state within the state, Hezbollah operated in a sphere of its own while Syria controlled Lebanon. It had been contesting - and winning - elections but it was not until after the Syrian retreat to Damascus last year that it decided to accept government ministries.

Bayram, the An-Nahar analyst, says without the protection of Syria, Hezbollah was obliged to enter the political mainstream if it was to have a forum in which to defend its military campaign against Israel. But, he says, without arms it stands to become even stronger politically. By his reckoning, Hezbollah has about 60 per cent popular support. "They have virtually all the Shiites and a good portion of the Christian support," he says. "And they live here - they can't be shipped off to Tunis the way the PLO was in 1982."

The anxiety of others was evident when the Herald was invited to the palatial home of the minority Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, in the chalky Shouf Mountains, south of the capital. Surrounded by trellised grapes and terraced olive groves, he lashes out at Hezbollah's unilateral decision to go to war against Israel.

It was Jumblatt's enthusiastic endorsement of Washington after last year's Syrian retreat from Lebanon that encouraged analysts to speculate that Bush might have launched a so-called Arab spring. But Bush's allies in the region - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - only pay lip-service to calls for reform and it seems Jumblatt, too, is wary of genuine change.

Asked about the Hezbollah push for electoral reform, he defers to the status quo: "Hezbollah can't impose its will on the people of Lebanon - we have a very delicate equilibrium here and to change it would lead to the unknown."

One of the seemingly inexplicable alliances in the new Lebanon is that between Nasrallah's Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of the Christian leader, General Michel Aoun. The general went into exile in 1990 after turning his weapons on the Syrians - but how he has returned and is in coalition with Hezbollah, Damascus's best Lebanese friend.

One of his advisers, Ziad Abs, explains it all quite matter-of-factly: "The Syrians have left - so that is not a problem any more. And both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement are territorial extremists."

Abs claims that the two parties have been in months of discussion on the future of Hezbollah and disarmament, and he sees a way forward in dealing with the disarmament question after the territorial and prisoner-exchanges issues with Israel have been dealt with.

In Rome this week, Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, implied that the right time to deal with the disarmament question was after a resolution of Hezbollah's demands on Israel, which were also Beirut's demands - that Israel withdraw from the disputed Shebaa Farms; that it release Lebanese prisoners; and that it turn over a map showing the locations of landmines it placed in southern Lebanon.

Siniora is from the Washington-friendly Future Bloc in the Lebanese parliament. Walid Aido is one of the founders of the group, which was set up to continue the work of the murdered former prime minister.

As Aido surveys the Beirut carnage, there is bitterness in his observation that Washington seems to have opted to sacrifice its Lebanese democracy on the fires of a bigger geopolitical strategy.

As a few brave, bikini-clad souls take the sun near the beachside cafe in which he speaks, Aido warns of grim times if the US has effectively contracted out the forced disarmament of Hezbollah to the Israeli Defence Forces: "Disarming Hezbollah by force will create an internal struggle and maybe a new civil war."

9. Mountain Man
The leader of Lebanon's Druze talks about the Syrian threat.

MUKHTARA, Lebanon--I knew Walid Jumblatt had a passion for the history of the Second World War, but I didn't especially relish waiting for our interview under the severe gaze of Marshal Zhukov, atop a steed trampling Nazi standards. I recalled what the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa had written of Mr. Jumblatt's collection of bulky socialist realist canvases, after visiting his mountain palace at Mukhtara, where Lebanon's paramount Druze leader spends much time these days: "It was impossible for me to know if these paintings were there as an exquisite postmodern irony, or as an involuntary homage to kitsch, or because he really liked them."

Doubtless all three, since Mr. Jumblatt maneuvers dialectically, particularly in his politics. Once a prop of Syria's order in Lebanon (though the regime of Hafez Assad had murdered his father, Kamal, in 1977), he became the man most responsible for its overthrow in 2005. This betrayal earned him a sentence of death in Damascus, which is why he rarely leaves Mukhtara, from where he leads the mostly poor, mostly rural 200,000-strong Druze--like a "tribal chieftain," he once told me. It is a tribute to his political skills, but also to his hard-nosedness, that his influence far transcends the microscopic size of his community. At 57, he has been at the center of Lebanese public life for 29 long years.

It takes a good hour and a quarter to reach his home from Beirut, since Israeli aircraft have bombed the shorter route via the southern coastal road. I kill time by asking an aide about the main topic of conversation wafting though the waiting room--how to manage the thousands of Shiite refugees who have escaped south Lebanon to regions controlled by Mr. Jumblatt. The aide tells me that the relief effort is stretched to the limit, and that providing help will become a considerable problem in the coming weeks.

Mr. Jumblatt personifies patronage politics at their most essential. His is a hands-on management style, and there is sophisticated method to what can be mistakenly interpreted as Mukhtara's ambient disorder. The Druze leader runs his life with Germanic precision. His papers are well-organized, as are his publications, his collection of magazine covers, his weapons (I notice a Glock and several clips across the room), his Soviet-era regalia--even the more sinister memorabilia, such as the identity card his father had on him the day he was killed, pierced by a bullet.

As we kick into the interview, Mr. Jumblatt doesn't wait for a question. He describes the visit to Beirut the previous day of Condoleezza Rice, and particularly the international effort to set up an expanded peacekeeping force in South Lebanon to end what, by now, are two weeks of fighting. "At first they said they wanted to create a buffer zone of 20 kilometers to put in an international force. But what does that mean when Hezbollah can fire rockets over your back? Now there is a new formula: the demilitarization of the South."

Mr. Jumblatt is dubious. "Rice didn't clarify how the international force would deploy. As I've told the Americans: As long as Syria can send weapons to Hezbollah, there will be no change in the situation. Not with this regime in Damascus. We need a force that can cover all of Lebanon, like in Kosovo. Monitor the Syrian border, then talk."

The United States is not thinking about such a scheme, Mr. Jumblatt tells me. And that's why he plainly feels that American ambitions are likely to crash against the reality on the ground. If Hezbollah refuses to disarm (and it does), "then we enter a phase of all-out war, endless war, with the possibility that this will weaken the Lebanese state. Let us also remember that the Syrians a few days ago promised the Americans they would help them fight al Qaeda. This was, in fact, a backhanded warning that Syria could use al Qaeda to kill innocents in Lebanon."

(Mr. Jumblatt sounds even less confident a day later. I call him up for a reaction to the early-morning address by Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, in which he promised to bomb deeper inside Israel. Our conversation takes place amid reports that the Israelis have suffered heavy losses in fighting for the town of Bint Jbail. "Even if Nasrallah loses positions, Hezbollah's fierce rearguard is making it increasingly difficult to set up something afterwards. I doubt we will see a multilateral force if this continues. If Nasrallah comes out victorious, he will dictate his conditions to the Lebanese state--if he still accepts the state.")

There is a strong desire for retribution in the Shiite community. Quite a few politicians, including Mr. Jumblatt, have implied that Hezbollah's abduction of two Israelis soldiers was irresponsible, which many of the group's faithful deem to be a stab in the back. This prompted Mr. Nasrallah to declare, ominously, in an Al Jazeera interview last week: "If we succeed in achieving the victory . . . we will never forget all those who supported us. . . . As for those who sinned against us . . . those who let us down, and those who conspired against us . . . this will be left for a day to settle accounts. We might be tolerant with them and we might not."

What does Mr. Jumblatt think of that threat, obviously directed against him and his political comrades? "Nasrallah was talking in the name of the Syrian regime. He thinks he's a demigod. Like [Iran's President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad he's waiting for the 12th Imam, the Mehdi. This aspect of Shiite religious mobilization can be frightening." He pauses. The phone is ringing--one of the countless times this has happened as his men ask for guidance on organizing the aid effort. Before closing, he issues instructions that trash be removed from a certain location. A lady had earlier called complaining about it.

Mr. Jumblatt's relations with Hezbollah are complex. He has been the group's most vociferous critic in recent months, and yet it was he who broke its isolation last year during the "Cedar Revolution," by helping engineer an election law preserving Hezbollah's quota in Parliament. Why? Partly to protect his own electoral stakes, partly because he thought he could profit politically from being the middleman between Hezbollah and the coalition opposed to Syria. But the arrangement later collapsed when the party refused to break with Damascus, and Mr. Jumblatt realized that his own chances of reconciling with the Syrians were negligible. An inveterate calculator, the Druze leader has surely factored easing Hezbollah's anger into his hospitality for the Shiite displaced. He even adds, for good measure: "I don't care if the refugees put up Hezbollah flags and photos. I can understand this emotional reaction." (What he doesn't say is that he's allowed this in order to lessen Shiite frustration to avert tension between Shiites and Druze.)

Given the estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people made refugees, most of them Shiites, will Hezbollah be more flexible on an overall settlement? "It makes no difference to Nasrallah," Mr. Jumblatt says. Nor should one expect much from those critical of Hezbollah's unilateralism. "We need a prominent Shiite to work with us, particularly [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri. Nasrallah thinks he's at the peak of his power, but you have to talk to the Shiites; you cannot allow them to be frustrated and humiliated. You have to reason with Nasrallah. The destruction we've suffered is not worth two Israeli captives, having a private army, declaring war and peace. But we need a Shiite to say this to Nasrallah."

It is the Syrians, however, who feed Mr. Jumblatt's anxieties. As he surfs the Internet at night--a pastime for which he is known to depart early from dinner parties--he can read the mounting calls in the U.S. and at the U.N. to bring Syria into a deal to control Hezbollah. For the Druze leader, this has existential implications. It could mean a Lebanese homecoming for an Assad regime that wants his head. "Syria and Iran have strengthened their cards in Lebanon today," he insists. As for the Bush administration, its Syria policy is "confused."

Starting earlier this year, Mr. Jumblatt tried to help refine the administration's strategy. On a trip to the U.S., he actively peddled the idea of regime change in Damascus, telling Ms. Rice: "The U.S. says Syrian behavior must change, but nothing will change for as long as this regime is in power. The U.S. must open a dialogue with the Syrian opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has accepted pluralism in its political program." However, all the signs from Washington are that Mr. Jumblatt will be disappointed.

Iran's role in starting the latest round of Lebanese violence is a theme Mr. Jumblatt has repeatedly raised in interviews. I play devil's advocate and suggest there is no evidence yet of direct Iranian implication--or does he know something I don't? He doesn't answer directly: "It's enough for Hezbollah to have the famous Fajr-1 and Fajr-3 rockets to show such involvement. The last I heard, these devices were not manufactured in Lebanon!" In that case had he heard that Iranians were fighting alongside Hezbollah? "Yes, we've heard rumors that Iranian Basij militiamen are participating in the fighting. I believe these stories."

In 1976, at the height of the civil war and less than a year before his assassination, Kamal Jumblatt traveled around the region to rally support against Arab endorsement of the Syrian army's presence in Lebanon. Jumblatt and his Palestinian allies were then fighting Syria. His trip started well, and he was received by top officials. But by the end of the tour, the Arab states had reached a consensus on backing a Syrian deployment, and Jumblatt suddenly found doors closing in his face. That isolation led to his eventual elimination. This explains why his son has always been sensitive to the dangers of quixotism, even as he now risks finding himself in a trap similar to his father's.

"I'm afraid that because of the chaos in Lebanon today, Syria might try to assassinate people here." Does that include him? "Yes, me, but also Fuad Siniora," the prime minister. But even if Mr. Siniora does survive, can his government do so, given that it is collaborating with the U.S. to tackle Hezbollah's arms? "Either he survives or we must accept the coup d'état fomented by Syria and Iran. That will determine whether Lebanon remains democratic."

No Jumblatt interview is complete without malicious wittiness. Asked about how the Lebanese conflict will develop in coming weeks, he says Israel's ground war will determine the outcome. "But if Hezbollah's missiles are pushed back, they will soon be here; no, they may soon be on Hamra Street," a shopping drag in the center of Beirut. "It took us a full 24 hours to negotiate the removal of a single missile from near the Pepsi-Cola factory," an enterprise just south of Beirut owned by a wealthy Druze family.

Mr. Jumblatt laughs at the absurdity of the episode, but he is making a serious point. Hezbollah can wage war from wherever it wants, regardless of its countrymen's preferences. Then he stands up and heads for an anteroom. "Let's see what the former minister wants," he sighs.

(Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.)

10. Egypt's Mubarak: "No Light at the End of the Tunnel"
America's major Arab ally tells TIME that the U.S. response to the Lebanese crisis was "too little, too late" and reveals details of Egypt's attempt to mediate

TIME: What is Egypt doing about the crisis?

Mubarak: Our efforts started from day one. An Egyptian intelligence delegation was dispatched to Gaza. We were about to strike a deal to hand over the abducted soldier to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or to Egypt. However, the interference by certain third parties aborted our efforts. We did not lose hope. We have reason to believe that a deal can still be worked out.

TIME: And regarding Hizballah?

Mubarak: A few hours after the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah, I dispatched Egypt's Foreign Minister [Ahmed Aboul Gheit] to Damascus. He conveyed a message to the Syrian President [Bashar Assad] cautioning against the gravity of the situation and requesting his interference with Hizballah to release the Israeli soldiers. Our efforts continue with regional and international partners to stop the current escalation. We keep our channels open with the Lebanese and the Israelis together with the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations.

TIME: What should be done?

Mubarak: Lebanon is heading to a humanitarian crisis. Military operations will not solve Israel's problems with Hizballah. An immediate cease-fire is the utmost priority. The bloodshed and the heavy toll of Israel's operations must be brought to an end. The Rome meeting of the International Core Group on Lebanon has failed to achieve this goal.

TIME: What is behind the crisis?

Mubarak: The core issue is the stagnation of the peace process. No progress was achieved with regard to the Road Map. The two-state vision declared by President Bush did not move an inch. The Israeli-Syrian peace track is stagnated and the one with Lebanon is blocked by the sticky Shebaa Farms issue. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

TIME: What about the role of Syria and Iran are playing?

Mubarak: Attempts to isolate Syria are counterproductive. Syrian aspirations to free the occupied Golan Heights must be accommodated and fulfilled.

TIME: Do you agree that Iran is playing a more assertive role in the Middle East, at the expense of moderate states like Egypt?

Mubarak: It is not "how assertive" a certain role might be. It is rather "how positive." The problem with Iran relates to its long-standing declared opposition to the peace process.

TIME: How do you see Hamas and Hizballah?

Mubarak: Both need to review their policies and tactics. Both need to reassess their gains and losses. Both are accountable to their constituencies. There are many lessons to learn from the current crises. I hope this gets through to their leaders for the sake of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. Hamas, all other Palestinian factions and Abu Mazen have to set aside their differences and speak in one voice. They have to prove that there exists a Palestinian partner able to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel. As to Hizballah, they are part and parcel of the Lebanese people's fabric. However, nobody should be allowed to establish a state within the state, neither in Lebanon nor elsewhere.

TIME: How do you see Israel's response to Hizballah's attack on Israel?

Mubarak: Disproportionate, to say the least. Israel's response demonstrated a collective punishment against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The bloodshed and the destruction caused by the Israelis went way too far.

TIME: What is your opinion of how the U.S. and international community responded to the crisis?

Mubarak: A bit too little, too late. The situation could have been contained at its early stage. Instead, it has been allowed to aggravate, with little effort being exerted within and outside the Security Council. Now is the time for the Council to shoulder its responsibility. Egypt stands ready, willing, able and looking forward to contributing to such efforts.


This time Israel bit off more than it can chew -- read about a Hezbollah cleric waiting for the IDF, Kalashnikovs stacked in his doorway

As the shells fall around them, Hizbullah men await the Israelis
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, south of Tyre

Inside a well-furnished apartment in a village on the outskirts of Tyre, with shelves of books piled from floor to ceiling, a black turbaned cleric and three men sit sipping bitter coffee. By the door is a pile of Kalashnikovs and ammunition boxes; handguns are tucked into the men's trousers. The four are Hizbullah fighters, waiting for the Israelis.

"Patience is our main virtue, we can wait for days, weeks, months before we attack. The Israelis are always impatient in battle and in strategy," says the cleric, Sayed Ali, who claims to be a descendant of the prophet. "I know them very well."

As if to make his point, the sound of Israeli shells blasting the surrounding hills shakes the door and shutters every few minutes. Ali does know the Israelis. He started fighting them at the age of 17 when they invaded Lebanon in 1982. Three years later he was arrested with two of his comrades and spent a few months in an Israeli prison. Within weeks of his release he was fighting them again.That's what he did for the next six years.

For the last five years he has been finishing his theology studies in Tehran. A month ago, he was asked by Hizbullah to return to southern Lebanon. He arrived a week before the fighting began.

Standing at the window, he points to the banana plantations between us and the blue Mediterranean. "I have fought for years in these groves. We used to sit and wait for them [the Israelis] to make a move and then we would hit. They always moved too quickly, too soon."

All over the hills of south Lebanon hundreds of men like Sayed Ali and his comrades are waiting - some in bunkers, some in farm houses - for the Israeli troops to arrive. Sayed Ali and his men spend most of their time in the building where his apartment is, moving only at night.

"We stay put and we don't move till we get our orders, and this is why we are not like any other militia. A militiaman will fire whenever he likes at whatever he likes," explains one of the men, who says he has been involved in firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. "We have specific orders. Even when we fire rockets we know when and where [to fire] and each of the men manning the launchers runs to a specific hiding place after firing the rockets."

He says Hizbullah fighters expect the site of a rocket launch to be hit by an Israeli airstrike or shell within 10 to 15 minutes.

Another of the men, who says he is Sayed Ali's brother, explains how Hizbullah teaches its fighters patience: "During our training we spend days in empty buildings without talking to anyone or doing anything. They tell me go and sit in that building, and I go and sit there and wait."

According to Ali, Hizbullah operates as "a state within the state", with its own hospitals, social organisations and social security system. "But we are also an Islamic resistance movement, an indoctrinated army," he adds. "I would go and knock the door at someone and say we need $50,000, he would give me [that] because they trust us."

The fighting force of the organisation is divided into two: the "active" group, whose task is to serve in Hizbullah, and the reserve, or Ta'abi'a, as it is known in Arabic. The active fighters get monthly pay. The reserves are called on only in time of war, and receive bonuses but no regular pay. A third section, the Ansar, comprises people who support or are supported by the organisation.

Ali, the commander of Hizbullah in his village, and his men are part of the active force, and their orders are to wait for further orders. "Hizbullah hasn't even mobilised all its active fighters, and the Israelis are calling their reserve units," he said.

Hizbullah prides itself on its secretiveness and discipline. "We don't take anyone who knocks at our door and says 'I want to join'. We raise our fighters. We take them when they are young kids and raise them to become Hizbullah fighters. Every fighter we have believes that the ultimate form of being is martyrdom." The three men nod their assent.

Shia symbols and mythology play a big role in the ideology of Hizbullah, especially the tragedy of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet who in the 7th century led a few hundred men against the well-organised army of the caliph in Damascus. He was slain in Karbala, and Shia around the world commemorate these events in Ashura.

"Every one of those fighters is a true believer, he has been not only trained to use guns and weapons but [indoctrinated] in the Shia faith and the Husseini beliefs," Ali says.

He and his fellow fighters have been preparing for the latest conflict with the Israelis for years and he acknowledges the support received from Iran.

"When we defeated them in 2000 we did that with [Katyusha] rockets. We had six years to prepare for this day - the Americans are sending laser-guided missiles to the Israelis, what's wrong if the Iranians help us? When the Syrians were here we would get stuff through their supply lines, now it's more difficult."

The TV is blaring patriotic songs and pictures of destroyed bridges, houses and buildings. The men are feeling confident - only a day earlier the Israelis suffered heavy casualties in the village of Bint Jbeil.

"Our strategy is to hit the commandos and the Golani units like we did in Bint Jbeil," Ali says. "Those are their best units. If they can't do anything, the morale of the reserve units will sink."

For Ali and his comrades, the latest conflict is a war of survival not only for Hizbullah but for the whole Shia community. It is not only as a war with Israel, their enemy for decades, but also with the Sunni community. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all expressed fears of Iranian domination over the Middle East.

"If Israel comes out victorious from this conflict, this will be a victory for the Sunnis and they will take the Shia community back in history dozens of years to the time when we were only allowed to work as garbage collectors in this country. The Shia will all die before letting this happen again."

He says that even if the international community calls on Hizbullah to disarm as part of a peace deal, he and his men will not lay down their arms. "This war is episode two in disarming Hizbullah. First they tried to do it through the Lebanese government and the UN. When they failed, the Americans asked the Israelis to do the job."

Despite Israel's claims to have inflicted heavy losses on Hizbullah, Ali insists his side is in a strong position. "Things are going very well now, whatever happens we are winning. If they keep bombing us we will stay in the shelters, and with each bomb more people support the resistance. If they invade they will repeat the miserable fate they had in 1982, and if they hold one square foot they will give the Islamic resistance all the legitimacy. If they want to kill Hizbullah they have to kill every Shia in the south of Lebanon."

And even when the battle with the Israelis is over, he adds menacingly, Hizbullah will have other battles to fight. "The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let's finish with the Israelis and then we will settle scores later."

2. Sheik Up -- by Annia Ciezadlo

In the early hours of September 13, 1997, the Israeli army killed one 45-year-old woman, two Hezbollah fighters, and six Lebanese soldiers in the mountains of southern Lebanon. Later that day, Hezbollah officials viewed video footage of the bodies and confirmed that one of the slain was a precious kill indeed: 18-year-old Hadi Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah's leader, Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

That evening, Nasrallah was scheduled to give a speech in Haret Hreik, the southern Beirut suburb where Hezbollah's offices are located. His second-in-command, Sheik Naim Qassem, offered to speak in his place. But, when the Lebanese turned on their televisions that evening, they saw the bearded, boyish face--at 37, looking hardly more than a youth himself--of Hassan Nasrallah.

Though the entire nation knew by then that he had lost his son, Nasrallah didn't mention it. He commemorated the anniversary of the September 13 massacre, a 1993 incident in which the Lebanese army opened fire on Hezbollah supporters. As he spoke, the audience began to clamor: Why wasn't he talking about his son?

To this day, people in Lebanon still talk about what happened next. Breaking off from his speech, Nasrallah noted that the country had given many martyrs the previous night. He recited the names of the soldiers and added, almost as an afterthought, that his son and another Hezbollah fighter were also killed. He thanked God for choosing a martyr from his family, saying that, while he used to feel ashamed in front of families whose sons had died for their country, now he could look them in the eye. Hadi's killing was a victory for Hezbollah, not for Israel, he pointed out: Instead of fighting each other, as in 1993, Lebanon's army and its guerrillas were united. "We are now fighting together and falling as martyrs together," said Nasrallah, as the audience cheered and chanted Hadi's name. "This is a great victory for us, of which we are proud." And then he went on with his speech.

Timur Goksel, then a senior adviser to the United Nations in Lebanon, watched the speech with a pro-Israel Christian family. "This Christian family, who hated everything Hezbollah stood for, they started crying," Goksel recalls.

In the Middle East, political leaders are often old, corrupt, and repressive; just as often, they are the pampered, Western-educated sons of aging dictators. There are also guerrilla leaders, who, if they survive, often end up as petty old despots themselves.

And then there is Nasrallah. Revered by the Shia, respected by his enemies, he has already earned the distinction of being the only Arab leader to evict Israel from Arab land without having to sign a peace treaty. But he is also a religious warrior. Today, as he fights a lopsided military battle against the Jewish state, he is becoming an icon--not just in the Arab world, where he was already a hero, but in the umma , the world of Islam. Nasrallah's war is not just a war between Lebanon and Israel, or even between Iran and America's allies; it's a war of myths and images, a battle to transform the Arab and Islamic worlds. Whatever battlefield setbacks Hezbollah may suffer in Lebanon, on this larger stage, Nasrallah has already won.

By Friday, July 14, everyone in Lebanon knew it was war. It was clear that Hezbollah had miscalculated the Israeli response when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers two days earlier. Israel had bombed the airport and bridges, blockaded the ports, and killed dozens of people, most of them civilians. The Lebanese were succumbing to collective panic, cleaning out grocery store shelves, buying up gasoline, and frantically withdrawing U.S. dollars. After a defiant press conference on the day of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah had disappeared from sight. Rumors circulated that he had been struck by an Israeli missile; people were beginning to wonder if he might be dead.

Friday evening, at about 8:30, Nasrallah called in to Al Manar, Hezbollah's TV station. He sounded tired and sleep-deprived, like a man living underground. But his voice was firm, and the photograph that accompanied his speech showed, somewhat surreally, his trademark sunny, open smile. He began by offering condolences to the families of the martyrs, who had given their lives "in the noblest confrontation and battle that the modern age has known, or rather that all history has known." He taunted the Arab regimes that had abandoned him and reminded the Lebanese of the victory they had won on May 25, 2000, when Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon.

Then he did something no one from Hezbollah had ever done before. Reminding his audience that he had promised them "surprises," he announced that they would begin momentarily. "Now, in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people's homes, and civilians--look at it burning," he said calmly, almost matter-of-factly. As he spoke, out at sea, an Iranian-made C802 missile crashed into the warship. We could see an orange glow, like flares, shooting up from the sea to the sky.

Everyone tuned in to Nasrallah that night. I live in a mixed Beirut neighborhood, not heavily Shia or even exclusively Muslim. But, when he spoke these words, from the buildings around me, I heard a surround-sound rustle of cheers and applause. Outside, caravans of cars rolled through the abandoned streets, and the drivers honked their horns.

It was classic Nasrallah, charismatic and pointed, as if to underscore his difference from other Arab leaders. "In the Arab world, you have two kinds of rhetoricians: the very fiery, passionate kind, who make a lot of false promises, à la Yasir Arafat--the typical Arab rambling and passion that gets you nowhere," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University and author of Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion . "And you have others who are populist leaders, who are more plainspoken and practical. And Nasrallah is in between both."

With his dramatic attack on the Israeli ship, Nasrallah upped the stakes, and not just for Lebanon. This was the first time any Arab leader had staged an attack on an Israeli target and announced it simultaneously, live on television. It was as though he had heeded the words of Osama bin Laden's closest adviser, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who wrote in a letter to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media."

"Nasrallah, he's becoming like bin Laden--a star," says Lebanese journalist Paula Khoury. "Because now he has this ability to address the world. This is a new thing, and it's dangerous."

Hezbollah's pioneering tactic of massive suicide bombings once inspired bin Laden, becoming a classic in the Al Qaeda playbook. With his current war, Nasrallah is innovating once more, this time in the world of images, creating a new template for speaking to the Muslim world. Unlike the Sunni jihadists, he attacks the enemy's armies, not just its civilians. Unlike Zarqawi, Nasrallah has style. He can match rhetoric to action, as he proved on July 14. And, unlike the lugubrious bin Laden, he can appear practical and pragmatic, down-to-earth--even fun. As Saad-Ghorayeb points out, "What other Arab leader threatens Israel and grins?"

Unlike bin Laden, and in a country where most political leaders inherit their positions, Nasrallah was born into a poor family. It was 1960, a time when Shia were moving to Beirut in droves, up from the south of Lebanon--much as American blacks had made the great migration, and for similar reasons. The son of a greengrocer, Nasrallah grew up in both southern Lebanon and Karantina, a hardscrabble Beirut suburb.

After the civil war broke out, the teenage Nasrallah joined Amal, a Shia empowerment movement created by the charismatic cleric Musa Al Sadr. When Nasrallah decided to study Islam, an Amal cleric wrote him a letter of introduction to Muhammad Baqir Al Sadr, the revolutionary Iraqi cleric who was one of the leading lights of Najaf (and a relative of current Iraqi militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr). In Najaf, he studied with Sayyid Abbas Musawi, who would later become the leader of Hezbollah.

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Iraq became inhospitable to young Shia clerics, and Nasrallah returned to Lebanon, where he eventually joined the new, Iranian-backed militia. He rose to become a commander, serving as ambassador to Iran and leading battles against Israel in the south. When Israel killed Musawi in 1992, Hezbollah's central command replaced him with his protegé, Nasrallah, then only 31.

Nasrallah surprised the nation--and angered Hezbollah hardliners--when he decided to bring the party into electoral politics, a move that some saw as tantamount to laying down Hezbollah's arms and giving up its guerrilla status. But, in 2000, when Israel pulled out its last troops from the south of Lebanon, Nasrallah became unassailable. And having members in parliament actually protected Hezbollah's arms by giving it legitimacy and power in Lebanon's political sphere. Today, with charity organizations that span the country, 14 of 128 parliamentary seats, and two cabinet ministers, the party is so strong that people describe it as a "state within a state."

But, even more than this savvy political maneuvering, it was his son's death, and his stoic reaction to it, that elevated Nasrallah from a sectarian guerrilla leader to something altogether more potent. In the days after Hadi was killed, Lebanese leaders from across the political spectrum--even Christian warlord and bitter enemy Elie Hobeika--paid their respects to Nasrallah and his wife. Nasrallah capitalized on this moment of popularity, opening the ranks of Hezbollah to Lebanese from all sects and forming the Lebanese Brigades, a unit with several thousand non-Shia recruits. A quintessentially Shia leader--a cleric, even--had transcended his sect to become a national hero.

So why did Nasrallah, who is nothing if not a master strategist, launch this war now? Most observers think Hezbollah miscalculated, that it didn't expect the ferocity of Israel's response. But, in a way, it doesn't matter: The more Israel pounds Hezbollah and Lebanon's Shia, the more it burnishes Nasrallah's image as defender of the umma .

There are others who have been vying for that title. In 2004, a London-based Salafi named Abu Basir Al Tartusi wrote a document called "The Lebanese Hezbollah and the Exportation of the Shi'ite Rafidite Ideology." In the document, as translated by the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute, Tartusi claimed that Hezbollah is a front group concocted by an unholy trinity of Iran, the United States, and "its foster daughter, the state of the sons of Zion." Its sole purpose is to spread Shia Islam throughout the world and prevent authentic--i.e., Sunni Salafi--jihad.

The notion of a U.S./Iranian/Zionist axis might sound silly, but it carries a lot of weight in the jihadosphere. In June, just a week before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike, Zarqawi echoed Tartusi's claims. In an audio message posted on the Internet, he accused Hezbollah of serving as Israel's security wall against Sunni militants, and, even more bizarrely, he parroted U.S. demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.

On July 21, nine days after his forces kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers, Nasrallah answered Zarqawi and Tartusi. Looking relaxed and reasonable, in a carefully staged interview with Al Jazeera, he mentioned Zarqawi's statement. "Today, we are Shia fighting Israel," he pointed out, in a peroration not unlike the one he made the day his son died. "Our fighting and steadfastness is a victory to our brothers in Palestine, who are Sunnis, not Shia. So, we, Shia and Sunnis, are fighting together against Israel, which is supported, backed, and made powerful by America." In a brilliant inversion of Tartusi's logic, Nasrallah even suggested that "some Arabs" were collaborating with Israel to smash the resistance in Lebanon.

Hardcore Sunni jihadists, especially those who congregate online, will probably continue to distrust Nasrallah and all Shia. But, closer to the Islamist mainstream, powerful and popular Islamist groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have come out strongly in support of Hezbollah. On Al Jazeera, the Brotherhood's leader, Mahdi Akef, hailed Nasrallah, saying that "the Lebanese who kidnapped the Zionist soldiers are true nationalists, led by a great man."

What do the Shia, his main constituency, really think of Nasrallah and his war? Among the religious majority, especially the moderates who follow Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah instead of sterner Iranian and Iraqi mullahs, Nasrallah is adored and respected, an emblem of Islam and Arab pride. According to the independent Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad, people have begun referring to him as the "shadow of God."

But not all Shia are happy. In fact, secular Shia are outraged. Lebanon's Shia merchant class, like all the country's bourgeoisie, has been devastated by the current conflict. And even some of the devout are privately expressing doubts about Nasrallah's promise to rebuild their decimated villages and neighborhoods with the help of a new "friend"--i.e., Iran. "People are sleeping on the ground, and Nasrallah doesn't care," mutters Umm Hussein, a devout Shia woman from Beirut who says she has never criticized the sayyid before. "He said he was going to make Lebanon like it was before. Is he going to bring back the people who died?"

But, in the end, Hezbollah may not care that much about local public opinion. "Of course they're not happy that people are dying," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "But I don't think that public opinion is all that important to them, especially not now."

What matters far more than Nasrallah's eventual victory or defeat is the iconography he has created: that of an Arab leader who, unlike all the others, isn't afraid to defend the umma . In just a few weeks, he has succeeded in exporting the Shia jihad--a goal that even mighty Iran has failed to achieve in three decades of trying. "This is not just a war about survival and borders--not so far even a strategic one," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "This is the decisive battle for the region. ... If he succeeds, then it will reverberate throughout the region." And, if he loses, it may reverberate just the same--and just as violently.

(Annia Ciezadlo is a Beirut-based writer.)

YouTube MeWatch

The YouTube Devolution
Want to See Zidane Head Bump, Exploding Mentos, Cringeful Dennis Miller? Come to YouTube, Video Web Site Where Bad Culture Is Reborn Forever
By Tom Scocca

Once upon a time, it would have meant something to have watched the Zidane head-butt in the World Cup final live on TV. I did see it. I missed the first 85 minutes or so of the match, then tuned in for the critical juncture. Pow! Right there.

But who cared? The blow was right there—and there—and there: Almost instantly, it was all over YouTube. Anyone in the world could click and replay it. It didn’t matter when or where.

I already knew this when I’d watched the moment live. I realized what YouTube was doing to television when I found myself watching Dennis Miller as he conducted a post-performance interview with the now-canonized turn-of-the-90’s band the Pixies on his talk show. He strolled up to the mike and introduced himself to the lead singer, Black Francis.

“Black, I’m Embarrassingly White Dennis,” Mr. Miller said, and I cringed. Fourteen years after the fact.

The thing about television used to be that once you saw it, it was gone. It was disposable, and it was mostly dispensed with—the old signals, from what we used to watch, streaming out past the Oort Cloud, carrying Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp away into infinity.

Print could aim to be stolid and enduring, piling up in libraries or, at worst, on microfiche. TV made its getaway. If you weren’t right there and watching with everyone else when something happened, you didn’t see it. Reruns or syndication could give you another chance, but you still had to catch the moment.

The VCR only stalled it a little. Your friend’s mother could watch her stories on Saturday, after working the day shift all week. If somebody had had a tape running, you might get to rewatch a Tyson fight or when that dude broke Geraldo’s nose with the chair, until somebody forgot which tape it was or recorded over it.

After that, people would do what they did with everything on TV: talk about it for a while, then mostly forget about it. TV moved on, in its infinitely renewable present. The main points—Kojak: bald guy—went into the collective consciousness; the rest faded into the dimness of individual semiconsciousness.

Suddenly, via YouTube links, those lost moments click back into view, as if a telegram from your great-grandfather were showing up in your e-mail. When the Pixies popped up on my laptop, playing on Dennis Miller, I was transported: I was standing in front of my dorm-room television, 14 years in the past, in the peach-tinged glare of an early-generation halogen torchiere. The Pixies more or less invented what would be called alternative rock, but broke up before it finished becoming a viable commercial category; they were not a band you heard much on the radio, let alone saw on a talk show.

I felt a gleeful kick as Black Francis scurried up to the mike and announced they were covering a “Reid Brothers song”—a secret handshake to us viewers who not only knew the Jesus and Mary Chain, but knew the Jesus and Mary Chain’s names. The band tore through “Head On,” just like they’d torn through it in 1992.

But then Mr. Miller—the sly rebel comedian, the Saturday Night Live legend, who knew enough to book the Pixies on his own show—came over to greet them. And he was … a tool. He was smarmy; he was stilted; his floppy West Coast suit was ridiculous. He wasn’t funny.

He wasn’t funny? I was sure Dennis Miller was funny in 1992. I remembered it. He came on funny in the 80’s, with force. We all watched “Weekend Update” and recited back the best parts between bells on 10th-grade Mondays. Then when we were in college, the talk show was funny too, even if it did bomb. He only descended into unfunniness over the next decade, taking the wrong projects, hardening into a cranky, right-wing bore. But I knew he was funny before that, just like people knew Brando wasn’t a fat blob in A Streetcar Named Desire .

Nope. He was lousy. YouTube had him dead to rights. There was another clip of him, from earlier, sitting down with David Letterman at the height of his SNL fame. Mr. Letterman? Funny. Mr. Miller? Lousy, lousy, lousy. Everything that would make him a washout on Monday Night Football was already on display: the obviously canned pop-culture references; the clumsy timing; the attempt to mask his stiffness and incompetence with smugness. What had the 20-year-old me been thinking? How could I have been so wrong?

IN THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON , BOSWELL DESCRIBES the hero having fled the room while someone was reading one of his old works aloud—“and somebody having asked him the reason of this, he replied, ‘Sir, I thought it had been better.’”

Memory has always been a shaky witness. But writing was checkable, to one degree or another. There could be differences of taste or opinion, but there was the text lurking, waiting to settle the question. If you told someone else a piece of writing was good (or gorgeous, or moving, or persuasive), that claim would have to survive the other person’s reading of it.

Reputation or popularity is not enough. I take down a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie from the office shelf: “I seek my identity in toughness—-but it is Morrie’s softness that draws me, and because he does not look at me as a kid trying to be something more than I am, I relax.” See? Crap. Millions of people bought crap.

The Internet left writers more exposed than ever. If you were published from the mid-90’s onward, you ended up in a text-based panopticon: At any time, someone, somewhere, could conceivably be reading something you had written. No longer would people have to go to the library to find old arguments and past errors. Every few months, I get an e-mail from a reader responding to something or other I wrote eight years and three jobs ago. Thanks to a retroactive Web-archiving initiative, a college intern from last summer could crack wise about something I’d written as an undergraduate myself.

Video had always been more elusive. It defeated secondhand reports; a critic might describe a scene, but the moving image was unquotable. There was no way to share that passing experience. All you could do was write about it or talk about it. The original moment was transformed by the telling into something else—probably something funnier or more original or more shocking.

But now the moments—all the moments, even the ones thought lost—have begun looping back around for public inspection. (Welcome back, Welcome Back, Kotter !) People in and on television are learning what writers have been going through. College broadcasting students’ worst blunders are echoing across the Web in perpetuity. Arthur Chi’en says “fuck” on live TV over and over; you can judge for yourself how badly he was provoked (pretty badly). You can relive the bubble-gum commercial wars of the 80’s (they even call them the bubble-gum wars on the Web). You can test which sketch-comedy shows hold up ( SCTV , yes; The Kids in the Hall , not so much).

These opportunities represent, in part, a surprise victory for library science. As we plunged into the digital age, one of the great fears was of format obsolescence: People would throw out old-fashioned paper in favor of electronic archives, only to suddenly find that they had all the works of human knowledge stored on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies and nobody was making floppy drives anymore. But with Web video, people are raiding their personal, inaccessible stashes of VHS tapes, winding through them till they find the important bits, and transferring them from a near-obsolete medium to a current one.

So TV’s past is being clipped and replayed and distributed by anyone with a computer, to anyone with a computer—the professional TV product mixed in with home videos and Web-cam feeds and amateur animation. There are too many video sites to keep track of: Google Video, Veoh, iFilm, Evtv1, Gotuit,

YouTube, though, is the one that everyone talks about, even if they’re talking about the other sites. It has the grab-bag quality the good sites had back when the Internet was exciting. It keeps getting busted for copyright problems and throwing out the problem content, as people paste up more and more new stuff.

The other sites may have their advantages: better-synchronized sound and video, cleaner pictures, more violence and nudity than the scrupulously PG-13 YouTube offerings. YouTube, though, is the phenomenon; YouTube is the one the New York Post reported was being bandied about as a billion-dollar property, even though (or because?) it has no discernable revenue model.

It has even already begun acting out the Web-downfall script by being undermined and co-opted. This summer, marketing and publicity took off around video of Mentos dissolving in Diet Coke to make violent fountains—an established Web-vid genre, like parking-lot car-drifting videos. A YouTube competitor, Revver, staked its claim on public attention with the most elaborate Coke-spout clip, and Mentos bought ad space.

YouTube stands as the opposite of old television because, above all, it’s easy. It doesn’t demand that you install a player; it doesn’t crash your browser. It embeds in blogs and plays there, freely.

What it does, then, is break the synchrony of television. It makes television work like text. Last month, on the 20th anniversary of Len Bias’ death, newspaper let me down. The Baltimore Sun had no stories that described the Bias I remembered, the basketball player before he became a cocaine casualty. So I went to YouTube. And there he was, alive if a little blurry, on the court at No. 1 North Carolina, making the greatest sequence of plays I’d ever known: burying a shot, then flashing to steal the inbounds pass, rising up and—with the assurance of a man who did not know what limits were on a basketball court—dunking it, two-handed, in reverse.

ACTUALLY, I HADN'T SEEN THE LEN BIAS steal-and-dunk when it happened. I’d listened to the original moment on the radio. I only ever saw how it looked on occasional replays, if I happened to be watching at the right time.

YouTube dispels the mystical air around witnessing things. The TV audience doesn’t have to stick around.

One moment that the Web hasn’t caught up with yet is the closing of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. It was late at night, and the ceremony was boring, and I’ve only ever met one other person who saw it: The Calgary mascots, a pair of people dressed as bears dressed as cowboys, skated out, accompanying another mascot under a shroud. This was the secret mascot of Albertville for 1992. It was … L’Chamois! The bears flipped back the shroud, which hooked on the goat horns underneath and sent the whole head of the costume toppling off, backward.

Fewer and fewer events give you that kind of private payoff if you’re there to see them. Now, when a heckler shouts “Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney!” at the Vice President, or Stephen Colbert appalls the audience at the White House Correspondents Dinner, those tiny-audience cable-news incidents propagate online, picking up viewers as they go.

With Web video, you can go back and inhabit the moment of your choosing. You can see the Replacements live, in the early 80’s, with a skinny teenage Paul Westerberg. You can see the legendary Frank Zappa appearance on Crossfire , all 20-plus minutes of it, as he bears the indignation of the anti-smut crusade with the dignity of an only slightly more tetchy version of Jesus, jeered by the mob. America is heading for a “fascist theocracy,” Zappa says, to hoots.

And famously inaccessible or suppressed material is there for the taking. Curious about Heil Honey I’m Home! —the extremely short-lived British television show ironically casting Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in a deliberately schlocky old-fashioned American sitcom? There it is. (It’s not good.)

The Zapruder film is up, too, in a range of varieties: regular, close-up, steadied. So is the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald—oddly old-fashioned and rinky-dink, as historic events go, with a tiny cast of players, like a community-access show staged by a guy with no friends. Or like a window on a world without television.

But you can’t live without television anymore. The Pixies, at one point, tried to defy it—recording an unwatchably tedious music video for their single “Velouria.” It was a single take, in ultra-slow motion, of the band members running across a field of rocks and out of view. In the music-video industry, it was an act of self-immolation: It’s widely held that the video aired only once. As I write this, it has been viewed 2,917 times on YouTube, and someone else has posted a tribute video.