A young American woman hitchhiked around southern Lebanon this year. What? Why on earth would she do that? Belén Fernández’s answer is simple and it sums up the essence of her work: “I suspected that one could sometimes learn more as a wanderer than as a journalist” (p. 8). And, as a wanderer, she made herself vulnerable in order to be closer to the people she would be meeting in a “ragged war zone” (The New York Times) but, then again, a bullet-proof, many-pocketed reporter vest is not her thing. As a wanderer, she produced a master class in journalism because journalism should be about real human beings.
You wouldn’t think so reading the mainstream press. In 2007 Hillary Clinton approvingly quoted by Forbes as a “Forbes Power Woman”, boasted in one of her more truthful moments, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle”. People in places like Syria, Libya and Honduras should then be increasingly attentive to the Clinton coiffure. Not that Forbes cares a whit about them. It’s literally about the celebrity puissance of Clinton’s hair. As Noam Chomsky pointed out nearly three decades ago, “Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values […]”. He and Edward S. Herman called it “manufacturing consent” (a nod to Walter Lipmann who used the term “the manufacture of consent” as far back as 1922). Although Chomsky and Herman were talking about the propaganda functions of ideological institutions underpinned by market forces, and self-censorship rather than overt brutality, the neoliberal system does not balk at murder and violence.
So far this year, at least 76 journalists have been murdered with almost total impunity for the killers, who are often state employed. Local journalists, women and freelancers are among the most vulnerable targets. Whistleblowers are imprisoned. In the present circumstances of journalism, Belén Fernández, an exception to toe-the-line conformity, is therefore courageous, quite apart from the pithiness, depth and wit (too) of her writing, and scope of her interests.
In her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work Fernández dissects the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work with a fine scalpel and sure hand; yes, that Friedman who, claiming to have eaten McDonald’s burgers and fries in more countries in the world than anyone else, feels well qualified to expound on his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”. Belén Fernández goes much further than making mincemeat of the hamburger king. She reveals and decries the fact that false, facile and frivolous macho prattling has become mainstream press fodder garnished with prestige-conferring awards.
Unlike Friedman, Fernández writes well. Imperial Messenger is not only a fine example of the art of polemics but also an impassioned call for decency and justice inside and outside her profession. Her work is consistent in this, and whether she is writing about murder in Mexico, what Human Rights Watch calls an “apparent war crime” (the US-made bomb dropped on a funeral procession in Yemen by the US-sponsored Saudi-led coalition, killing more than 140 people and wounding more than 525), Hillary Clinton’s oxymoronic pro-war “feminism”, Sarajevo, refugees, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Honduras, Pokemon Go, tribes in South America, Ethiopia, Spain, Gaza, Israel, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, or Lebanon, inter alia, Belén Fernández is unflinching, and never fails to get to the nitty-gritty or to express decent (to use a word not often bandied about nowadays) human values.
A seasoned traveller, Fernández refers to her new book Martyrs Never Die as a “travelogue”, which draws attention to another general aspect of her journalism. Perhaps she has even created a category of her own. It is difficult to classify travel writing as a literary or journalistic genre. People have travelled since before the time when Abel wandered off to herd his flocks away from Cain’s land, or when Siddhartha Gautama, went forth from his home in about 530 BCE to find enlightenment under a pipal tree, and they have produced all kinds of chronicles for all kinds of reasons. Now, most of what we might call travel writing is by westerners, and it tends to be a reflection of wealth, as well as political and military power and the center’s expansionist concerns with certain resource-rich parts of the periphery. Fernández is a different kind of westerner, one that is closer to Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques:
“Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe. When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy […]”.
Martyrs Never Die is about people in a warscape. Fernández sees through “terrorist” or “Islamist” smokescreens and asks a more human question: why have martyrs come to be such an important feature of the places she visits? Her succinct answer is not about the “other”, but about “us”. “Settling in for what would become a twenty-two year occupation, Israel punctuated its extended sojourn with bouts of mass slaughter—as in its 1982 war on Lebanon that took an estimated 20,000 lives, the majority of them civilians. This affair was in turn instrumental in the creation of Hezbollah, which spearheaded resistance to the occupation and forced Israel’s eventual withdrawal in May 2000. […] On July 12, 2006, the Israeli military returned to decimate south Lebanon along with other areas, raising the country’s cumulative Israeli-induced fatality count by 1,200 over a period of thirty-four days. The United States assisted by expediting bomb deliveries.” In Thomas Friedman’s opinion, this 2006 attack was “not pretty, but it was logical” (p. 6).
Fernández hitchhiked around southern Lebanon with a friend shortly after the mayhem of this “logical” event and, in 2016, decides to repeat the experience alone in order to see what has happened in places still haunted by brutal memories. On the 2016 trip she sees the worst mishmash of a neoliberal, globalized world, and experiences great kindness and many moments of simple courtesy. In the village of Shehabieh, she finds a plethora of Hezbollah (“Party of God”) flags, an abundance of martyr posters and (if not golden arches) a place called “The U.S.A.’s shop,” advertising “Victoria’s Secret’s products.” On one ride, a man named Mustafa can’t understand why she doesn’t have a car and, in another vehicle, the conversation fizzles out when she asks, “So, were you here in 2006?” and gets just one terse answer: “Israel killed eleven members of my family including my mother” (p. 17). A high-ranking Israeli army officer has a different take on the same slaughter: “This is a war of symbols… about destroying the organization’s symbols of pride” (p. 18). Symbols. It’s all about symbols. They look for symbols and find them, and The New York Times accommodatingly reports what they see, for example when, in the village of Muhaybib, Israeli surveillance divined nine arms depots, five rocket-launching sites, infantry positions, signs of three underground tunnels, three anti-tank positions and a Hezbollah command post. Fernández saw “some houses, some yards, a few people walking, and a few children playing football” (p. 20). It’s not as if she has problems with her eyesight. She saw what The New York Times had failed to check. “Near the mosque were a handful of graves from 2006 and 2015, accompanied by martyr posters from various eras of conflict. Maybe that was the command post” (pp. 19-20).
A young man called Hassan, from a warm, generous family, talks about Hezbollah and his brother who went off to fight in 2006, making a distinction that most journalists don’t care about or, still less, ponder what it means in human terms. “He fought with Hezbollah but not for Hezbollah […] His only ideology is that it is his right and duty to defend his land.” At thirteen, Hassan was then too young to fight but says, “I saw things that no one should ever see” (pp. 28-29). The “things” included body parts of former neighbors and dogs devouring corpses.
Danger lurks everywhere. At one point, Fernández is travelling with a friend she calls “Rami”. They are on their way to Shebaa, just across from the Golan Heights, a place of “cross-border exchanges in the form of rockets, shells, and kidnappings of Lebanese shepherds and goats by Israel” (p. 32), plus burgeoning numbers of Salafizing fundamentalists. She flags down a shiny blue car only to find it’s driven by two gun-packing national intelligence agents. One agent says, “We are like the FBI”, upon which Rami tells Fernández, “I hate you” (p.31). The agents are unconvinced by the story that they were going to check out the scenery in Shebaa. It nearly got ugly. They were going to be interrogated. A man the agents found in a gas station was ordered to take the suspects to Kfar Kila for interrogation. The shiny blue car, in which they were not allowed to ride, followed behind. In the end they weren’t interrogated but told they were being deported from the region. Immediately. Undeterred, Fernández got to Shebaa a couple of days later but the “ragged” place was quiet and she spotted only two political posters.
On one ride in her second attempt to get to Shebaa, the journalist was the one who was quizzed and the one asking the questions was a suspicious school bus driver in Tibnine, which is in a zone that has traditionally been a center of resistance through several eras and various brands of tyranny:
BUS DRIVER: Who are you?
ME: I’m an American. I’m visiting Lebanon.
BUS DRIVER: Did you hitchhike here from America?
BUS DRIVER: Are you sure you’re American?
BUS DRIVER: Are you sure you’re only American and not some other nationality that happens to also have an American passport [i.e. Israeli]?
ME: Isn’t being American bad enough? (p. 35).
At a time when the reputation of UN peacekeeping (Haiti, Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Sierra Leone…) is, to put it bluntly, starting to stink badly, Fernández gives a thumbnail sketch of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) with massive headquarters at the small Christian village of Alma al-Shaab. “It’s not without reason that some Lebanese view the shimmering colony as occupation by other means, especially since its arsenal of high-tech gadgets isn’t authorized for use in response to Israeli attacks—including when those attacks are against UNIFIL itself. In some cases, UNIFIL has even managed to visit violence upon the community it’s supposed to be protecting. On one occasion, its soldiers killed a Lebanese family of four by crashing into their vehicle with a water tanker” (p. 33).
There are descriptions of prisons, torture and disappeared people whose relatives, lacking any information whatsoever, cannot grieve. A culture of impunity has allowed warlords, militiamen and other criminals to take their place in the country’s postwar politics, which means that families of the lost people—the vanished human “mysteries”—are faced day after day, in the media, with the perpetrators, the only people who can clear up the “mystery”. And no one can avoid seeing all the martyrs. Hassan, pointing at a yet another display of posters, remarks that people in south Lebanon are trying to live but, “all we see are dead people” (p. 38).
After her travels in south Lebanon, Belén Fernández goes to Turkey. She is sitting on a terrace overlooking the sea and contemplating, on the opposite hill, the words “Sehitler ölmez, vatan bölünmez” (martyrs never die and the homeland will never be divided). These martyrs are not the Kurds massacred over generations by the Turkish state but another kind of martyr, members of the armed forces dying for the “security” of that state. Where are the journalists protesting at this massive production of martyrs, and martyrs making more martyrs? Wondering who and what kind of society are responsible for this?
There are too many martyrs, too many victims and, with either Clinton or Trump at the helm, there will be many, many more. The biddable mainstream press will line up behind the new leaders and wheel out their weasel words. There are so few public voices in which we can follow the “tenuous arch” of the rainbow community we are all part of, willy-nilly, by dint of our humanity. One of them, clear, angry, and very brave, is Belén Fernández’s.