In 1981, Lebanese-American photojournalist George Azar travelled to Lebanon to document the civil war then underway. As he explains in “Beirut Photographer” – a new Witness documentary for Al Jazeera co-directed by Azar’s wife Mariam Shahin – he was driven by a desire to counter the pro-Israel media bias in the US, which relegates Arabs to the role of perennial enemy.
Azar remained in Lebanon for several years, during which time he was abducted on six occasions and nearly executed.
While on assignment for Newsweek in 1982, he was captured by the invading Israeli army and had most of his film confiscated. Following a sympathetic intervention by an Israeli photographer for the same publication, Azar was flown by military helicopter to northern Israel, where – he told me during a recent telephone conversation – he successfully tested the hypothesis that “it’s easier to walk off of a military base than onto one”.
From the base, Azar set out hitchhiking for the Newsweek desk in Jerusalem with the few rolls of film he had hidden in his underwear. The rolls contained images of Israel’s bombardment of the towns of Jiyeh and Damour south of Beirut, highlights of the invasion that killed nearly 20,000 people in Lebanon, primarily civilians.
After depositing the film and making his way back to Lebanon via ferry from Cyprus, Azar was surprised to find that his photographs were not featured in “A Terrible Swift Sword”, Newsweek‘s report from June 21, 1982 – the title of which established a harmonious relationship between Israeli military manoeuvers and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (another line from the tune would later be appropriated by Operation Grapes of Wrath, the 1996 Israeli assault that saw 106 refugees massacred at a UN compound in south Lebanon).
According to Azar, he inquired at Newsweek about the fate of his photos and was informed that, not only had the film been lost, his assignment had been transferred to someone else.
Thomas Friedman, Sabra and Shatila victim
A contemporary of Azar’s, the tragically influential Thomas Friedman – Orientalist extraordinaire and spawner of the theory that McDonald’s is key to world peace – incidentally also had a run-in with censorship in 1982. During his service as New York Times Beirut bureau chief that year, he happened to reference Israel’s “indiscriminate” shelling of West Beirut.
Witness – Beirut Photographer
As Friedman recounted in a 2006 article following the death of former NYT executive editor AM (Abe) Rosenthal, the incriminating word was excised from his report, prompting Friedman to circulate a memo alleging editorial cowardice. The ultimate result, we are told, was a $5,000 raise for Friedman and an “emotional lunch” with Rosenthal, who – after having “exploded at my insubordination” – “threw his arms around me in a big Abe bear hug, told me all was forgiven and then whispered in my ear: ‘Now listen, you clever little !%#@: don’t you ever do that again’.”
Though this is not what Friedman intends to be the moral of the story, Rosenthal’s financially-backed warning would seem to confirm that it is not in fact possible to write the unmutilated truth about Israel in the US newspaper of record.
That Friedman’s objective is not to speak truth to power by holding the Israelis accountable for misdeeds is meanwhile blatantly clear from the rest of his journalistic contributions, which have included unabashed advocacy on behalf of collective punishment and other Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza and his 2006 assessment that Israel’s targeting of Lebanese civilian populations and infrastructure “was not pretty, but it was logical”.
Given Friedman’s warmongering disposition – endearingly showcased in his message to the citizens of Iraq in 2003: “Suck. On. This” – it is curious that he purports to be horrified by the Israeli-orchestrated massacre of several thousand Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982. He writes in his much-ballyhooed book From Beirut to Jerusalem:
Sabra and Shatila was something of a personal crisis for me. The Israel I met on the outskirts of Beirut was not the heroic Israel I had been taught to identify with.
Recounting his interview with Israeli Major General Amir Drori, Friedman offers a surprisingly astute characterisation of his own self-propelled elevation to the role of primary massacre victim:
I banged the table with my fist and shouted at Drori, ‘How could you do this? How could you not see [what was happening in the camps]? How could you not know?’ But what I was really saying, in a very selfish way, was ‘How could you do this to me, you bastards? I always thought you were different. I always thought we were different’.
Although Friedman claims to have then “buried Amir Drori on the front page of the New York Times, and along with him every illusion I ever held about the Jewish state”, an examination of the Pulitzer-winning front-page spread reveals that the alleged burial hardly qualifies as such.
For example, Friedman’s acknowledgements that Israel provided its Lebanese militia allies with arms and nighttime flares during the three-day operation – and that the southern end of Shatila camp “can be seen very clearly with the naked eye from the Kuwaiti Embassy traffic circle – the site of the telescope and binocular-equipped Israeli observation post” – are tempered with the disclaimer: “Whether the Israelis actually looked down and saw what was happening is unknown.”
As I note in my book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, it is safe to assume that, had the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians been somehow inverted in the camps, Friedman would have arrived at the obvious conclusion that persons inside observation posts observe.
In search of humanity
Let us now compare Friedman’s modus operandi with that of Azar, who assigns blame where it is due, refrains from casting himself as the star of the Lebanese civil war or the victim of massacres that don’t physically involve him, and possesses a sense of empathy that is clearly consistent rather than opportunistic in nature.
In anticipation of the 30th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila, Azar returned to Beirut last year with his archive of war photographs. “Beirut Photographer” traces his efforts to locate some of the persons depicted therein and to become acquainted with the human stories behind the pictures.
Azar is of course an integral part of the narrative given that it is his personal trajectory that ties the tales together, but, as he remarked to me over the phone: “I didn’t want the film to be so much about me as the people.”
A collection of human experiences of war, the film provides a venue for the individual histories of – among others – Um Hussein, whose husband and three sons were murdered at Sabra and Shatila; Samir Salomon, a young Palestinian fighter who died in 1983 and whose family Azar tracks down with Salomon’s photograph; and the Takkoushes, who preside over a flower shop in Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood and who discuss the explosion that killed their son and prompted Mrs Takkoush’s premature admission to the morgue, where it was discovered at the last minute that she was merely in a coma.
As Michelle Woodward writes in the introduction to an interview with Azar for Jadaliyya:
Although he is clearly attuned to the political complexities and concerns of the multiple parties and groups in the conflicts of the region, his main interest has always been in individuals – whether they were street-level fighters or non-combatants caught up in events they had no control over. The large number of photographs of children and young people in his Lebanon work also speaks to a real empathy for their particular situation. But he never slips into pathos… Rather he depicts them directly and simply as they struggle to come to terms with violence while also remaining children – happy, full of bravado, frightened, playful.
Azar’s humanity and humility are a welcome respite from the grating Friedman-centric episodes of From Beirut to Jerusalem – among them the explosion of Friedman’s apartment building, which takes place while he is residing at the Commodore Hotel and which kills the wife and two daughters of his driver Mohammed. Initial reactions include the following:
This cannot be happening to me. I’m just a reporter, just a spectator. Why my apartment building? Sure, people kill reporters in Beirut, but I’ve been here only a few weeks.
Apparently forgetting that he served as Beirut correspondent for UPI from 1979-81 and that this is June of 1982, Friedman goes on to observe his “business cards peppered all over the pile” of concrete, clothes and bodies – such as the one of “the beautiful blonde upstairs, whose name I never did know” – that has now taken the place of the apartment complex.
As it turns out, the explosion had nothing to do with Friedman; it was instead the fallout of an argument between different Palestinian factions over one of the apartments. He is saved from irrelevance, however, when Mohammed’s expired seven-year-old daughter Hanan is extricated from the rubble “with her tiny fingers still gripping my black Texas Instruments digital watch” – setting the stage for Matt Taibbi’s remark many years later:
Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.
Mercifully, the latest re-release of From Beirut to Jerusalem comes on the heels of “Beirut Photographer”, the latter offering a counter-narrative to the dehumanising bias of the corporate media that drove Azar to Lebanon in the first place.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.