May 23rd 2000 marked the beginning of the end of Israel’s twenty-two-year occupation of Southern Lebanon. Israeli forces declared their unilateral withdrawal and evacuated quickly, leaving behind tanks and guns, and their Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) proxy forces to fend for themselves. Many of their tools of war stayed where they’d left them, reconstituted later by residents of that land as small memorials, promises to remember.
As what had once seemed unthinkable approached inevitable, Lebanese—within and without their small country—lived ears pressed to radio and eyes glued to TV screens, waiting. Liberation was rolling; the border finally closed on the 25th, which now marks Resistance and Liberation Day.
When news of the Israeli withdrawal spread, Beirutis piled into trucks and taxis and poured south. Southerners flooded the parts previously blocked off by occupation checkpoints, towards the freshly sovereign border. Some headed to Khiam, a French colonial garrison-turned-occupation prison inside the town after which it was named. In a video that goes viral on social media every 25th of May, people kick and hammer at narrow metal doors. Sound waves bounce off into echoes, and the voices on the doors’ other sides move from fear to hesitation to rapture as they realize the distance between themselves and their families has narrowed to the width of a block of metal. They scream to each other: the South is free. Lebanon is free.
By the late 1970s, Khiam was principally staffed by SLA members, with periodic visits by Israeli officials to ensure operations were running without hiccup. Initially called the Army of Free Lebanon, the SLA was a right-wing militia aimed at creating a separatist Lebanese state allied with Israel. Antoine Lahad took over the SLA after its first leader, Saad Haddad, died of cancer in 1984; soon thereafter the SLA was commonly referred to as Jaish Lahad, ‘Lahad’s army.’ Some of the SLA leadership came from Beirut; others, and many of the prison guards at Khiam, were local collaborators from the South, driven by anti-Palestinian sentiment and a sadistic hunger for power.
Many roads led to Khiam: explicit resistance activity, vague suspicions leveled by an armed teenager conducting an SLA checkpoint inspection, familial or social relations to suspected resistance fighters, even simple blackmail. By the 1990s, the occupation prison had become internationally notorious for flagrant human rights abuses. These included medical neglect: prisoner Nawal Baidoun recounts being taken to the hospital—after weeks of unattended-to pain—with a foot so badly infected doctors said she required emergent incision and drainage; instead, she was escorted back to prison, the procedure unable to proceed without the prison warden’s consent. These included failure to meet prisoners’ basic sanitary needs: a single small bucket, into which several prisoners were expected to relieve themselves, was left in the cell for days; prisoners were often denied drinking water, etc. These included too extreme torture leveled against prisoners who, by international standards, had had every legal (not to mention moral) right to resist their occupiers by whatever means they deemed appropriate. An account of Khiam by the late journalist Robert Fisk reads, “the sadists of Khiam used to electrocute the penises of their prisoners and throw water over their bodies before plunging electrodes into their chests and kept them in pitch-black, solitary confinement for months. For many years, the Israelis even banned the Red Cross from visiting their foul prison.”1Robert Fisk, The Age of the Warrior, 259 While most prisoners at Khiam were men, the prison also had a woman’s side, the segregation punctured by screams trajected from one quarter into the other.
Soha Bechara became something of a household name in Lebanon after her attempted assassination of Antoine Lahad in 1988. Her memoir Resistante was published in French in 2000; the English edition, Resistance: My Life for Lebanon, appeared in 2003. Writing after Israel’s withdrawal, she frames her life’s orientation in direct juxtaposition with that of the newly disgraced Antoine Lahad: “Still a teenager, I had gone to fight against everything he stood for, against the foreign presence on my land.” It cost her ten years of her life—the whole of her twenties—over half of which she spent in solitary confinement. Resistance is half-testimony of Bechara’s political education during what she called Lebanon’s ‘fratricidal war,’ half-account of her imprisonment at Khiam. Hers is a political memoir, a recounting of the development of Bechara’s consciousness, textured by her daily experiences and the influences of the people around her as she struggled to localize causality in what was often framed by foreign media as meaningless chaos.
War is madness. In Lebanon, like anywhere else, it had its own skewed and perverted logic. I gradually discovered the names it bore: Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese Right and Left. Abstract names that would progressively become flesh and blood, massacred human beings… The kidnappings on all sides, the checkpoints springing up everywhere, the city split in two as we looked on, stupefied.
Her analysis is refreshing particularly because stories about violence in the Middle East often portray it as inherent. They end at the ‘stupefaction’ Bechara describes. The logic of cause and effect is replaced by sectarianism, tribal backwardness, and poverty, these presented as built-in features of the conglomerate ‘Arab mind’ rather than functions of national and colonial histories, neocolonialist de-development, the foreign hands obscured. Quickly Bechara’s position evolves past war as madness:
As the 1980s began, after five years of fighting, something had become clear to me. Lebanon has only one real enemy, one occupying power: the state of Israel. To my mind, the civil war was just a consequence of that situation. As I saw it, the Israeli authorities had kept up the same strategy for decades, and their decision to occupy the South of Lebanon grew naturally from it. This was to continue expanding Israel’s borders. I thought their aim was clear: to cause Lebanon to disintegrate, then to seize additional land, strengthening Israel’s core by enlarging its reach.
Lebanon was on fire, its sectarianism the tinder and kindling, gathered and set aflame by foreign arsonists. The fixation on the Palestinian presence, too, felt to her like a distraction. When the PLO was driven out of Beirut in 1982, some in Beirut celebrated, thinking the worst of their country’s troubles were over. As for Bechara,
I knew in my heart of hearts that the Palestinians’ departure had solved nothing. It was clear to me that the Israelis had used them as a pretext, exploiting our divisions to move even more securely into Lebanon.
That Bechara’s Greek Orthodox Christian family is from the South impacted her political awareness in important ways. In a country like Lebanon, which lacks a coherent post-colonial national history, people’s lived experiences were often the only data points they had from which to construct their sociopolitical imaginaries. Life differed vastly between Beirut and the South, the rift ever widening as the Israeli occupation solidified its hold on Southern Lebanon. Displaced by bombing campaigns and sniper fire, Bechara and her family spent weeks at a time moving between various apartments in Beirut and her southern village of Deir Mimas, crossing checkpoints and connecting the dots between what might have otherwise remained disparate aggressions in her mind’s eye. She “discovered war” at six years old; it was Saint’s Day in 1973, two years before historians commonly mark the start of the Lebanese civil war. That night she remembers “hearing two words: ‘raids’ and ‘Israelis;’” the Israeli Airforce had launched a new campaign against the PLO, and Bechara and her family spent it sleepless, as the bombs rained down on the South.
Then came the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982: “The Israeli invasion gave me a bitter strength in my beliefs. I was fifteen, and I was now ready to move into action.” It was merely a question of when and how. Bechara mentions the absence of examples of women involved in armed struggle as a sticking point. She found her prototype when in 1985, “Sanaa Mehaydle, eighteen years old, became the first girl to commit a suicide attack in the occupied zone, voluntarily detonating a bomb she carried in the middle of the Israeli patrol. I was a pacifist at heart—but, struck by her example, I was ready to join the struggle.”
Soha Bechara manipulated the currency of her socioreligious background to do what no Muslim woman, sectarian identity listed on one’s ID card, could have at the time: disguising herself as an aerobics instructor, she hosted lessons for Antoine Lahad’s wife—who called herself, Bechara notes mockingly, First Lady of South Lebanon—at Lahad’s house. There, on the day of her operation, as reportage of the First Intifada blared from the T.V., Bechara fired two bullets: one for the Lebanese, as a message to use their ammunition on their occupiers rather than each other, and one for the children of the Intifada.2https://www.aljazeera.com/videos/2010/4/24/lebanons-women-warriors
Reading Resistance, I was struck by how relatively little room is given to her personal experiences at Khiam, especially as Bechara had lost a third of her life there at the time of her writing. Bechara spent over half of her imprisonment at Khiam in solitary, and it is from one of these cells that she opens her memoir, standing before it after the South’s liberation in 2000. “Cell number 7, solitary confinement. In my memory, it was not so small.” Bechara first decides to mobilize memory precisely to exist beyond her isolated body. In prison, she writes,
I began to write a book. With toilet paper as my parchment, I set down words that had long been brewing in my mind. I tried to organize my thoughts around the idea of my country. Much of what I wrote was about resistance, what it meant to us, and the duties it imposed. When a group of girls went free… another idea came to me: to keep a prison journal. Every day, I tried to record what was going on in Khiam, scrutinizing every unusual event. Again, it was a question of survival.
Having served their purpose, she left these prison notes behind at freedom. Then, one morning years later, in Paris,
I received a package from Lebanon. Inside was a little cushion. I took it out of its box and put it on my desk, thinking no more about it. It looked like a simple present. Later in the day, I understood. I undid the seam of the cushion and took from inside the tiny scraps of paper scrawled with a handwriting that I immediately recognized. It was my own. Tears of emotion welled up in my eyes… Once again I was there, with the smells, sights and sounds of Khiam. A part of me still locked up in there had been released, rescued by a fellow prisoner when she was freed. They were my prison poems, written in secret… That memory could still be in chains.
By ‘memory in chains,’ does she mean the monotony of prison, which flattens the individual’s perceptions, such that absent a written record they have nothing from those days on which to hinge recollection? Or was Bechara’s chained memory a willed forgetting, the necessary corollary of a selective remembering, for self-preservation’s sake? Despite the tortured horrors no doubt inflicted against her via her body and psyche, Bechara resists individuating her suffering.
Since I had passed through the prison gates, I had discovered violence and pain. When they struck me, or when they turned on the generator that was linked to my body with electrodes, my mind went blank. I thought of nothing, and screamed out my suffering. I dreaded the pauses, when the arm that pulled the lever halted in its course, when their questions threw you into a panic, when you waited in fear for the pain to return.
But even worse was the pain of hearing, from the depths of your cell, the cries of others, twisting inside your head, leaving you without respite, because you knew what they were suffering there, subject to the same inhumanity, tortured by the same men, humiliated and disfigured by the same savagery.
She does not dwell; it is as though at the time of her writing she is recounting these experiences at arm’s length. This is in contrast to other prison memoirs I have read, perhaps the most seminal of which is Henri Alleg’s La Question. I wondered whether Bechara’s elision and her detached tone were a matter of authorial focus or regard for some social taboo. She mentioned her own suffering so sparsely, I considered the possibility she was feigning stoicism for the sake of tonal cohesion or political posturing; that is, until I read fellow prisoner Nawal Baidoun’s impression of Bechara during their overlap at Khiam. We catch a glimpse of Bechara’s comportment through Baidoun’s eyes, in the hours immediately following Bechara’s attempted assassination of Lahad, the prison atmosphere still high on the news the SLA commander might be dead:
[Bechara] was thin, medium height. She seemed brave and bold, from how she held her handcuffed hands out to how she raised her head high, unafraid of anything. But what kind of torture was in store for her?… She was the one who had undertaken this heroic operation. The number of female prisoners increased greatly within days of this event. From an original count of twenty-nine prisoners, we now had forty-five within four or five days… The reason for their arrests was all the same—all they had done was hang up posters praising Soha Bechara’s heroic deed.
Published in English in 2020, Memoirs of a Militant recounts Nawal Baidoun’s time in Khiam; it is closer to pure prison memoir than Bechara’s Resistance. Baidoun had been imprisoned for some years when Bechara arrived, for a foiled assassination attempt of another SLA leader, Husayn Abdel Nabi.
We find “the smells, sights and sounds of Khiam” Bechara mentions in Memoirs of a Militant. If Bechara traces the process of consciousness-raising—what might lead a person to engage in resistance such that they wind up at Khiam—Baidoun offers the reader a visceral account of the prison experience itself, a world suspended away from the world. She develops a Pavlovian response to the preliminary rituals of interrogation and torture, her heart rate increasing suddenly at the sight of bags and handcuffs. Between interrogations, with nothing much else to do, “no doubt every prisoner knew exactly how many tiles were on their cell floor, in length and width.” At every first encounter, she and other prisoners detect the fever of the “questions swirling around in each other’s eyes, as well as in the quiet whispers being exchanged.” Nawal’s descriptions stay close to the body, switching often from first to second person to encourage the reader’s emotive proximity. Exploring the sensory adaptations made in prison, “I never would’ve thought that the sense of hearing could stand in for the sense of sight like that.” On days when prisoners’ spirits were raised, rumors of a successful resistance operation making rounds, they were sent to bed early. “But it didn’t matter. In such a place, light and dark are alien concepts. You don’t always have your sense of sight. Your hearing is center stage.”
Memoirs of a Militant tracks a meticulous iteration of Baidoun’s unraveling, both physically and psychologically. She raises her person as a mirror to her enemy’s cruelty: at a relatively early stage of her interrogations, throughout which Baidoun confesses nothing, a frustrated interrogator threatens that Baidoun’s sister has confessed to certain crimes on her behalf. The mention of her sister,
This made me forget my situation and the pain I was in. My sole preoccupation was now my sister. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone in my family experiencing the torture and torment I was facing… The interrogator started confronting me with new and different accusations. But I couldn’t focus on a word he was saying. My only concern was my sister.
Baidoun dissociates, the thought her sister would suffer because of her actions unbearable. She “no longer felt time or anything else.” Taken back to her cell she throws herself onto her bed and “dissolve[s] in tears, sobbing uncontrollably.” Echoing Bechara’s sentiment, albeit from a more corporal perspective, “psychological torture is far worse than physical torture.”
Baidoun describes the deadness of waiting, allowing her anger and frustration to seep through the page. One year, “the morning of Eid arrived,” and the prisoners anticipated possible releases. That day, “time passed miserably. The sun didn’t shine. Nothing happened. A sad silence enveloped the place, each and every cell. Tears and silence, which then turned into screams—heads and fists banging against the walls. These damned walls and these damned distances. The holiday passed and nothing happened.”
She describes her psychotic breaks, reproducing for the reader the feeling of unhinging:
Deep down, you know that you’re all going through the same thing. You’re all suffering. But still you explode over something banal: maybe one of your cellmates made a sudden movement, maybe you had a misunderstanding or disagreement about some facet of this lethal routine of life in the cell. You start screaming, you pound on the cell walls, doors, and window with your fists or even your head. You might slap yourself on the face to the point where you sometimes hurt yourself without even realizing it. Your cellmates hold you back and try to stop this behavior. They’re no stranger to these outbursts… Then, all at once, you feel ashamed. Even in prison, you resist… These eventual collapses are the only way to preserve some psychological stability, which is the thing you need the most when you’re in prison.
And, she explores the threadbare lifelines that hold her together until freedom. These are other people, always. At one point, Baidoun requires medication to treat an infection; she doesn’t want to ask her family to fill the prescription because they will know something is wrong with her health; she doesn’t want them to worry. So, other female prisoners pool their money and buy her the drug. As small moments like these add up, Baidoun shows us how prisoners become each other’s worlds. Early on in her prison stay, after enduring her first rounds of torture,
I felt an urge to lay my head on Z.A.’s chest. I needed a deep sleep. I was like a baby in need of a mother’s embrace. Though this woman was only about two years older than me, the way she spoke, her face, and her features made her seem motherly somehow. Or maybe it was just that I really needed a mother and a family to get me through this situation.
Memoirs of a Militant offers the antidote to the anonymity prison tries to impose on the body: collectivity. The sound of an explosion one day, the result of a resistance operation at the Marjayoun barracks, leads to reverberations of Allahu akbar throughout the prison.
I was imbued with a strange feeling that restored meaning to my life in prison… Singing broke out in all our cells and rose out through the windows. We sang ‘Ghabet Shams El Haqq’ how many times had we sung those lyrics before? But this time it was different, this time they embodied our reality: ‘We refuse to die!’ From another cell, words to different songs challenged our reality of pain and suffering: ‘Khiam prison, the beating heart of the South…’ Then our voices sang out, ‘I call upon you and hold your hands tight.3From the song Ounaadeekum, I Call (Out) to You, written by the Lebanese singer Ahmad Kaabour, and based on a Palestinian poem written in the 1960s by Tawfiq Ziad. The song, released at the start of the Lebanese civil war, celebrates Palestinian resistance and especially sumood, steadfastness, the theme Ziad most often returned to in his poetry. The song remains hyper-resonant for entire generations across Lebanon and Palestine and beyond. It is understood to highlight the oneness of our liberation struggles, especially between Lebanon and Palestine.’
These memoirs differ where their authors do. Resistance explores the political commitments of Bechara’s family at length, especially her paternal side’s involvement in the Lebanese Communist Party and her mother’s aversion to all things Party-related; Memoirs of a Militant focuses on Baidoun’s personal trauma. Bechara writes with an eye for the geopolitical. She was militant in her discipline, and a gymnast. At Khiam, alone in solitary, Bechara would climb to the top of her cell to catch glimpses of light; from there she’d pass information between the women’s and men’s prisons. Baidoun watched her do this, from a multi-person cell in the company of women whose experiences she explores alongside her own. In Baidoun’s text there is no discussion of political allegiances beyond what is plain; Baidoun doesn’t need a broader political vision to explain her motivations—that her life was textured by the oppression of occupation is obvious in a way Bechara’s, because she also lived in Beirut, because she was Christian rather than Shia Muslim, because of identitarian stereotypes, is not. Baidoun spent her entire life in occupied territory; at the time of her operation, she was left alone in the South to care for some of her siblings, her parents unable to stay with them for safety reasons; one of Baidoun’s brothers, still a child, was kidnapped by the SLA and returned with signs of torture visible on his body. This act of aggression directly precipitated her decision to take up arms against his captor; by the time of her release from prison, another of her brothers had been martyred.
If Bechara’s decision to resist came from steady calculation, despite her parents’ wishes that she’d leave the country to study abroad and stay far away from politics, Baidoun resisted because life under occupation presented her with only two options: hers was the choice between a slow death and one in dignity. The texts’ epigraphs illustrate these differences. Bechara’s is a dedication, “To my parents, to the imprisoned and defiant. To the martyrs. To remember.” Baidoun’s Memoirs opens with a quote plucked from the text itself—perhaps chosen by the publisher—that is in many ways opposite of Bechara’s thesis: “in order to carry on with life in prison, you must believe you will be there forever.”
Despite the differences between these people, they chose the same path. It landed them in the same place. These texts are complementary; read together they offer both how one decides to act, and the sensory and psychic experiences of Khiam, the consequences of revolutionary action.
With these two memoirs in mind, it is interesting to consider Incendies, a play by Wajdi Mouawad, if only because the play’s protagonist appears to be an Orientalist fantasy fusion of Soha Bechara and Nawal Baidoun. The play draws on the history of Lebanon’s civil war to tell the story of Nawal,4It is unclear whether Mouawad had heard of Nawal Baidoun at the time he wrote Incendies. The coincidence of the naming is uncanny. a poor village woman from an unnamed country (obviously Lebanon), impregnated out of wedlock by her lover, her baby then snatched away and disappeared by her illiterate family to preserve their ‘honor.’ A generation later, still desperate to find her baby and newly educated (to her family’s chagrin), Nawal disguises herself as a teacher to assassinate an unnamed occupation’s chief proxy force commander. She successfully completes her mission and is taken into enemy custody; in prison she is tortured and raped by, as perverted fate will have it, her snatched-away son. Nawal moves to Canada, where years later at a war tribunal she learns the truth. She falls silent until her death, the horror and shame too heavy for her voice-box to bear. Incendies opens in this aftermath: from two envelopes Nawal leaves behind, her children discover they are the products of rape and incest—their rapist father is their brother. Incendies is largely a barefaced riff off Soha Bechara’s life, with artistic liberties taken precisely where the details are most salient. While Mouawad aims to create, he says, a story “anchored in the politic of human suffering, the poetry which unites us all,”5https://mt-champion.livejournal.com/4981.html the effect is both diffusion and misplacement of harm.
Bechara’s story, in its original form, was exceedingly marketable. What then drove Mouawad to bend Bechara’s identifiers into those more like Nawal’s? Simply, if his protagonist were more proximal to white, he would have to locate both her impetus for violent resistance and the source of her suffering outside the inheritances of her person and her people. That he makes the protagonist a poor Arab villager whose family condemns her literacy, allows the forces acting against her to be understood without explanation. Mouawad centers tribal backwardness as the foundational violence from which subsequent harm outstretches and dominos. In his world, poverty and ideology are ultimately responsible for Nawal’s rape and torture. Among the most significant details Mouawad twists is this: neither Bechara nor Baidoun, per their accounts, was raped, even while torturers hurled threats of assault at female prisoners constantly. Further, rather than explore the ways the gendered body is wielded against its inhabitants during wartime to compound possible harms, Mouawad simply replaces the violence of occupation with that of gender—the occupier’s identity not so much as mentioned—to reach for his version of universality. He alchemizes the plot to fit a Western chronology of harm along circular rather than linear time: cycles of violence, against the female body, against the causality Bechara herself lays out.
Incendies illustrates how lazy changes, and even emphases, along identity manipulate one narrative arc into another. A story, to be marketable, has to be compelling. The question is, compelling to whom? At the time of Resistance’s publication there were women like Nawal Baidoun, engaged in resistance activities before and after Bechara, who didn’t get such attention from Western media, and around whose prison conditions there was not the same ‘global’ outcry. This is partly a matter of the story—Bechara’s was truly epic, her charisma electric, her decision to resist a choice. It is also a matter of timing. Bechara spent a full decade at Khiam. By the mid-90s, prison conditions at Khiam had finally gained the attention of the International Red Cross and other high-profile humanitarian organizations. And Bechara was writing in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, when there was a market for humanizing resistance. Today’s publishing market, the one to which Memoirs of a Militant appeals, seems to be more interested in narratives of trauma, individuated and bodied.
The Penguin book description of Resistance reads,
In a time when special attention is paid to the violent conflicts in the Middle East, and Americans despair of understanding what motivates Palestinian suicide bombers, the story of a secular Orthodox Christian left rebel risking her life to rid her county of occupying forces will resonate with Americans looking to understand why young Palestinian girls blow themselves up in crowded Jerusalem markets.
Finally a book appears which clarifies, in the most personal terms, why the conflict in Israel and Palestine continues unabated. Coming directly from the voice of a practitioner of armed struggle who was labeled a ‘terrorist,’ Resistance (1) humanizes the most misunderstood side of the situation, (2) offers an insight into the roots of a complex social problem, and (3) provides a personal memoir of resistance and oppression.
Compare this to the back cover of Memoirs of a Militant,
In her haunting and inspiring memoir, Nawal Baidoun offers us a first-person account of the life of a young woman activist imprisoned for four years, as well as the events leading up to her arrest and detention. Born into a nationalist family in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, not far from the location of the prison itself, Baidoun, like so many others, found herself compelled to take up arms to resist the Israeli occupation. Her memoir skillfully weaves together two stories: that of the oppressive conditions facing ordinary people and families in South Lebanon, and that of the horrors of daily life and the struggle for survival inside the prison itself.
Arrested for her involvement in planning the assassination of the well-known Israeli agent and collaborator, Husayn Abdel Nabi, she shatters the prevailing view that Muslim women were not active members of the armed resistance. Much like her sisters in Algeria and Palestine, Nawal Baidoun belongs to a generation of Muslim women in the Arab world who played a vital role in their national liberation struggles.
Memoirs of a Militant offers us rare and unique insight into the strength and courage of Baidoun in extreme circumstances and conditions. Her strongly abolitionist message about prisons and the need to liberate all prisoners and detainees resonates strongly today, as does her call for solidarity in the face of injustice.
Resistance’s narrative mission, per its book description, is to help Westerners understand what might draw a person to violence; Memoirs of a Militant twenty years later is pitched as a humanizing account of Muslim women. This begs the question, to whom is Soha Bechara’s “secular Orthodox Christian left rebel[liousness]” more marketable than her will to resist? Likely the same people for whom Shireen Abu Akleh’s hyphenated nationality earned her her grievability. To whom is Nawal Baidoun’s Muslim womanhood “rare and unique,” a subversion of expectations? To whom is the struggle to survive under the violence of occupation not weight enough?
Neither Baidoun nor Bechara believes they have to prove their humanity, which is to say their right to resist. Had they questioned it, they wouldn’t have deemed their lives worthy of struggle in the first place. That these books might humanize a people in their readership’s eyes isn’t what prompted either woman to write down her story. Understood in this light, while Baidoun’s Memoirs of a Militant does fill in details regarding the suffering written out of Resistance, Bechara’s decision to write about Khiam from a remove was almost certainly conscious. If the goal of torture is to reduce and isolate a person to their body, to individuate her story would be to succumb. And, Bechara has already been exceptionalized by her audience at the time of her writing—her project is to de-individuate, to show how natural her decision to resist was.
Bechara opens Resistance in the present tense, “I am back in Khiam, in southern Lebanon;” soon after liberation, her voice implies a sense of permanence. I wonder if she’d imagined another war so soon after, if she’d allowed herself to think into the future at all, away from a present so hard-earned standing in a space to which she and Baidoun and others were told they’d never return, except in memory. In 2006, Israel bombed the South for a month with characteristic depravity, sometimes indiscriminately and more often with the immediate intention of destroying as much civilian infrastructure as possible. They destroyed Khiam, physical evidence of what they’d done to individual bodies, creating new evidence in its place. Erasure upon erasure, violence not cyclical but straight line. Across time and across borders.
I’m writing these final paragraphs from the southern village to which my father’s family moved after their forced expulsion from Palestine in 1948, a land whose freedom is premised on the sacrifices of people like Bechara and Baidoun and others whose names I don’t know. It’s the way they wield the first person only to reveal something about the universal, that gives them their particular draw. Bechara writes towards the end of Resistance,
At some point, with all the massacres, with all the killings, my own blood began to beat in rhythm with the blood around me. I decided to join the struggle. No amount of indoctrination can drive someone to act if that person does not believe in the cause, has not understood it, has not decided to live or even die for it. I knew what was in store, but this knowledge had no power to stop me. When I joined the Resistance, after four years of searching, I did not go alone. My family, my friends, my people—everything that made me who I am—all of it went with me. In the same way, I did not act in my own name as an isolated individual. I felt like all the Lebanese were at my side. My act, the operation itself, was a letter to them. In the face of the madness of civil war, it was a message of resistance directed against the real enemy.
In Khiam, I tried to keep resisting. It was the same struggle fought with different weapons, still against the same occupying power. Now the struggle became constant, a matter of holding your own at every moment. Those who broke down, or became informers, were those who did not understand the reality of occupation and resistance, those who could not grasp the radicality of freedom. Once in prison, they reverted to their own basic patterns of behavior, falling back on illusions or a sense of guilt. For me, the fact that I was a girl, that I put my family in danger, that I was incarcerated—none of this mattered. To have stopped fighting would have been to turn my back on what it means, for all of us, to be human.
A commitment to life so vast it makes you unafraid of death—this is what Bechara and Baidoun and all our freedom fighters offer us; theirs is a masterclass in conviction. The narrative arcs of these memoirs show the reader with affecting clarity how a life builds up to a moment; how a person comes to be, as Ghassan Kanafani once wrote, a cause. Mere kilometers from Khiam, I can no longer visit it except as ruins. These memoirs, to the extent words create and reconstitute our worlds, temper this absence, frame the horror, show us the only path forward.
Mary Turfah is a writer and medical student.