Tuesday, November 12, 2013

At Beirut's war cemetery, remember the "gifts"

[Originally posted at NOW]

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands

- Sarojini Naidu, ‘The Gift of India’

Beirut's war cemetery (NOW/Alex Rowell)
It would be idle to pretend the history of the two World Wars was not contentious in Lebanon, as indeed it is everywhere. On the one hand, the wars marked the defeats of the Ottoman and then Vichy French occupiers, and thus led more or less directly to the creation and independence of the Republic as we know it. On the other, this partition (as many saw it) of Syria was one of several enacted by the British and French victors, who themselves took up occupation of the region, and whose bright new ideas also included the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, later known as Israel. The arguments and conflicting allegiances sparked by these events contributed in no small part to Lebanon’s subsequent wars, and are by no means reconciled today.

Wherever one stands on the question, what is not disputed is that many people died in the “Great War” and its sequel, including thousands here on Lebanese soil. Few public spaces in Beirut are as striking as the British war cemetery, where a ceremony was held today by the British embassy in remembrance of these victims. Nestled between the Shatila refugee camp to the south, the pro-Future/Islamist Tariq Jadideh neighborhood to the north, and the pro-Hezbollah Shiyah to the east, it’s perhaps not the first place one would expect to find vast, immaculately-groomed gardens, hemmed in by rows of tall, verdant trees. Yet, while Allied war cemeteries have elsewhere been vandalized by both Palestinians and Israelis in recent years, Beirut’s bears no more at present than a spot of Islamist graffiti on the outer wall.

Islamist graffiti on the outer wall of Beirut's war cemetery (NOW/Alex Rowell)
More arresting than the scenery, however, are the engravings on the headstones themselves. For while it’s called the “British” cemetery, this conceals the immensely diverse nationalities of its inhabitants. Pace up and down the rows of the 1,000+ graves and you’ll find hundreds of Christians, Muslims and Jews of Arab, Indian, African, Australasian and east European origins, all of them induced and perhaps coerced (though not actually conscripted) to fight under the British command.

(NOW/Alex Rowell)

(NOW/Alex Rowell)

(NOW/Alex Rowell)
On Remembrance Day, therefore, by all means remember the Brits who died, if you’re so inclined. But do not forget the numberless others for whom the outcome, whether ultimately worthwhile or wasteful, was paid for in quantities of blood of which there can be no debate at all.

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