Beirut, Frontline Story - Daniel Machover (book review)

Critical book review by Daniel Machover of Selim Nassib and Caroline Tisdall's Beirut, Frontline Story.

Submitted by Ed on May 14, 2014

Selim Nassib with Caroline Tisdall, Beirut: Frontline Story, Pluto Press, London, 1983.

This book consists largely of selected despatches by Selim Nassib, a Lebanese journalist for the French leftist daily Libération, arranged in chronological order. Caroline Tisdall has contributed a rather rambling general introduction and a fairly impressive final section on the massacres. The photographs by Chris Steele-Perkins are superb.

On the whole, this is a rather disappointing and uneven book. To follow one reporter, however good, through the summer of 1982 is not the best way towards an appreciation of the atmosphere that prevailed in Beirut, or a fuller understanding of the political and social upheavals caused by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut. No single reporter could always be in the right place at the right time, or find the most interesting people to interview. No one person could gain a sufficiently comprehensive view of the events, at the time when they were unfolding. If the reader is disappointed, it is because of this central flaw. Some of Nassib’s reports have their merits, but others are singularly uninformative and a few indulge in romanticising Arafat or the events of the siege.

The early despatches capture the mood of initial fear and uncertainty, but even here Nassib’s tendency to romanticise the Palestinian fighters and their allies is evident. As the siege tightens, the despatches become steadily less informative, though the odd piece is impressive. The account of the destruction of Tyre (pp79-82) is particularly good, whereas the next despatch is largely aimless though perhaps entertaining.

An interesting fact which emerges very clearly is that by mid-July the principle of withdrawal of the PLO was widely accepted, and the problem of ensuring the safety of those living in Palestinian camps was the topic of a fierce debate within the organisation.

There is a ten-day gap in despatches during a vital period (20-28 July) – which underlines the difficulty of relying on one journalist to supply good material.

The August despatches often verge on the absurd; that of 13 August ends with the exclamation: ‘… this resistance of the weak has become a challenge for the future. From tomorrow, who will dare say that the Palestinian people is not a reality?’ Perhaps this sounds better in French. Finally, Nassib’s interview with Arafat and the introduction to it are the worst pieces of romantisation and uninformative interviewing.

The chronology that accompanies Nassib’s despatches is quite comprehensive, though the various goings on at the UN are not fully covered.

Caroline Tisdall’s introduction is both the best and worst part of the book. She exposes quite effectively the continuity in Zionism, represented by the massacres of Deir Yassin (1948) and of Sabra and Chatila. But her rambling account of the PLO’s development is too uncritical and, again, tends to romanticise. The events preceding Black September 1970 are inadequately assessed, and the civil war in Lebanon – not an easy topic to describe briefly – is given no greater depth. Tisdall ends her passage on ‘the lessons of the civil war’ with a piece of over-indulgence towards the PLO: ‘Unhindered by Lebanese government control but under the watchful eye of the Syrian contingent of the Arab Deterrent Force, they began to restructure and fortify their revolution.’ This is just not good enough. It is necessary to highlight some of the problems raised by the PLO’s policies and conduct in Lebanon, if only to put them in context and assess their effects. Bland remarks and insufficient criticism are not a healthy approach to any political movement, however worthy its cause.

Tisdall’s section on the massacres is generally very impressive but the final ‘why?’ passage is a somewhat unsatisfying end to a very uneven book.