Robert Fisk in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
Phone interview conducted by Nick researching Solidere for Quintessentially Magazine
Robert Fisk (12 July 1946-30 October 2020) was a writer and journalist who held British and Irish citizenship. During his career he developed strong views, and was especially critical of United States foreign policy in the Middle East and the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. His stance earned him praise from many commentators, but was condemned by others.
As an international correspondent, he covered the civil wars in Lebanon, Algeria, and Syria, the Iran–Iraq conflict, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamic revolution in Iran, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. An Arabic speaker, he was among the few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden, which he did three times between 1993 and 1997.
NH: How long have you lived in Beirut for?
RF: 28 years.
NH: You fell in love with it, obviously?
RF: Uh,—I don’t like journalists who say they’re in love with a place. I obviously enjoy living in Beirut a lot. It is a lovely place to be here in Beirut. People are very educated.
NH: And utterly political, as well?
RF: Yeah, I mean you can have a serious conversation with almost everyone, which is not something you can say about many European countries. It’s a very attractive city. It’s obviously very different from the rest of Lebanon. It’s a place that’s very much divided between the very poor and the very rich, as I’m sure you also realise. I think the thing about Beirut is that, because it’s on a promontory, on the sea,—there are very few cities that actually are all self-contained in promontory. You know why it’s there. Basically, the crusaders built their castles and their cities one daylight journey from each other on the sea. If you go round the southern coast of Turkey, each crusader castle is one day’s sailing from the other. So, all the cities around are equidistant,—around the coast of what is now Turkey, and what is now Lebanon and Israel. They tended to build on promontories,—Jaffa’s on a promontory, for example,—Acre is on a promontory, Tyre is on a promontory,—Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli. I’m trying to think of any other city that’s actually on a promontory, which is almost surrounded by the sea,—a capital city I mean. I don’t think there is. I suppose you could think of New York, maybe,—Manhattan,—[Laughs] that doesn’t really quite work because it’s the Hudson River, really, isn’t it?
NH: And not quite for—, or maybe it was for the same defensive purposes?
RF: But still, I can’t think of another city quite like that. I mean, the rebuilding of Beirut, after the war, has taken an awfully long time. That made me initially quite suspicious of it. In the 1940s the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam, and when the Allies reached Holland in 1945, Rotterdam had pretty much been rebuilt, under occupation, in five years,—not very nicely, but who expected great architecture in the 1940s? When you consider that large areas of Beirut are still in ruins or not built on, and the war ended in 1990,— fourteen years is a long time to rebuild, isn’t it? And that was in the long-term a big mistake, I think, but obviously people like Chamaa were working on the principle of doing their best to restore what was restorable with a reasonable profit, not them actually going into loss for a hundred years to keep certain of the houses. But I think far too much was pulled down which could have survived.
NH: We went down the Rue Gouraud—I think it is—and talked to some of the people,—like someone called Georges Kazan, who distils arak, and his family have been there since 1919,—like an old Lebanese gentleman who didn’t want to give me his name because he thought that the authorities would come and get him. [Laughs] Yeah, I doubt it too. They said that Solidere’s destroyed the soul of the city in terms of the architectural heritage and what it looks like. The spectrum of opinions I got—, our driver who took us around was a very intelligent well-informed guy, doing a PhD at the Lebanese University, and seemed to be a kind of Arab nationalist, and not a Marxist necessarily, but a far-left socialist at least, who said Solidere are effectively thieves,—he wasn’t quite as black-and-white,—and Hariri is effectively a thief too,—they’re in league with the Syrians, and projects like Solidere, which is absolutely massive, give nothing back to the people.
RF: Oh, it’s much more complicated than that. Hariri would be much happier if the Syrians weren’t there, probably, but he’s a pragmatic man. He knows where things stand. My view is the Syrians are there to stop the civil war breaking out again, but if they were forced out they would make sure the civil war restarted! [Laughs]
NH: Do you mean that’s their function, rather than their purpose?
RF: The basic reason the Syrians are there makes perfect sense. They’re there for two reasons. Firstly, to guard the Bekaa Valley, which is a strategic area militarily. If the Israeli’s went into the Bekaa they could cut Syria in half by turning east and going between Homs and Damascus. Secondly, the Syrians had a very serious shock in 1982, when the Israeli’s came all the way to Beirut and installed a pro-Israeli Phalangist government, and the Syrians don’t intend to let the Lebanese do that again,—ever. You can understand why,—because it would be an immediate military and political threat to Syria. So their presence is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. They’re also there of course—, I mean, they went in there during the civil war with America’s blessing,—and indeed Israel’s blessing up to a point,—to prevent the start of another civil war. One of the interesting things—, I think the Lebanese have learned nothing from the war. They won’t talk about it. They won’t discuss it. At the same time, I noticed when for example Al-Jazeera ran a ten-part series on the civil war, the streets of Beirut were cleared at night as everyone went home to watch it,—they were interested, they wanted to know what happened,—they wanted to understand their own tragedy, if you see what I mean. But if you go down what was the Green Line, you’ll find the army has strategic positions all the way up. Obviously, the purpose of those positions is to prevent the Green Line suddenly coming alive again.
NH: A Lebanese friend arranged a meeting with two people,—who are just normal guys with successful businesses now, but used to fight for the Lebanese forces,—and they were saying nothing has changed in terms of the reasons they went to war,—none of the issues have been resolved.
RF: That’s basically correct, but that’s one generation. One of the things that’s happened, you see, is that a whole generation of younger Lebanese were taken by their parents out of the country during the war, and educated abroad, and they came back because they wanted to see if they could start a life in their country. [They] are not interested in sectarian disputes,—they were brought up in Geneva or New York or Boston or London! But an awful lot of them came back and saw the same bunch of old corrupt men were still there and decided to leave and never come back, so they regard themselves now as being Americans or French or what-have-you. So it’s a really quite distressing situation in that sense, but at the same time I think the Lebanese have learned a lot. A few years ago, there were still a lot of Christians with a lot of grudges to settle, but I think as the generation grows older—, I mean, the people who were 30 during 1980 are 50-60 now,—they’re getting on,—and I think the advent of a new sort of global culture has made the war a bit redundant, socially,—if you see what I mean. You may still find the old or middle-aged militia-man who still wants to settle scores with someone because his parents were murdered, but his son is probably more interested in going to an internet café and chasing women! Take General Aoun, who was pretender to the presidency and an off-his-rocker messianic general. Well, he now lives in Paris in exile. Every so often he issues long, rhetorical claims that the Syrians are an occupation force,—worse than the Gestapo, etc etc,—which is clearly not true! Occupying they may be, but Gestapo they’re not! [Laughs] What is the result? Well, the right-wing Christians obviously still have their little worship of Aoun. That’s been one of the great Christian problems,—they always want to worship messiahs. But, by and large, if you look at people, they think ‘Oh, he’s mad!’ They’re beginning for the first time to enjoy the fruits of peace and wealth, and Aoun offers them more war! [Laughs] They don’t really want that, they’ve had it already,—thank you very much! So, the real question mark is what younger people think, rather than what the old grudges do. I mix with a lot of young people in Beirut, and journalists as well. I’m very struck by the fact that what gets them is the corruption of society,—the fact that they can’t prise their country from the grip of old, corrupt men,—the old aristocracy. Take, for example, Bechara El Khoury, the first president of Lebanon,—and he was a very foolish and corrupt old man, and he has a son called Michel El Khoury, who is an equally horrible ex-banker,—and these people still have people grovelling on their knees, and young people say ‘Why do we have to?’ It’s a bit like people honouring the descendants of Harold Wilson! [Laughs] It’s unnecessary! But those families will die out, or drift off at some point I guess.
NH: That seems to tie in with something that Mroueh kept banging on about,—rule of law,—that's the major problem with Lebanese society.
RF: He’s basically correct, but that’s not the only problem. I mean, Mroueh has other—, Mroueh is not—, let us speak off the record,—he is not un-corrupted himself, you know! [Laughs] The Daily Star is a very odd newspaper that breaks all the rules of journalism on a daily basis anyway.
NH: Off the record, in terms of political neutrality—?
RF: Well, who’s paying for the Daily Star? It doesn’t make a profit, does it?
NH: Lots of people have told me Hariri was giving him lots of money, and letting him make mild accusations to draw the sting from more important ones.
RF: That might be true. I don’t know. Hariri has got his own newspaper and TV-station anyway, hasn’t he? An-Nahar and As-Safir are the two decent newspapers, and even they’re not un-corrupted, of course. [Laughs] Nahar is basically run by a complete mad guy who used to support Aoun. The real question is how does Lebanon work, how does it survive, how does it exist? It was carved by the French out of Syria,—it was a false, artificial country, like Kuwait or the Emirates. It’s a strange sort of amalgam in that there are quite a lot of Muslims that will tell me that if it wasn’t for the British there wouldn’t be any kind of democracy in Lebanon, and that might be right. They need the Maronites and the Orthodox and the Armenians to give some European-style democracy to the place. Actually, insofar as elections are held, they’re not bad. If you compare it to Belgium and Holland or Sweden it’s a bit different, but given it’s where it is and given what it’s gone through, I think—, you know. The Lebanese Parliament is quite remarkable in that you actually do have people speaking out about the Syrians. They may be told to shut up afterwards, but you do hear authentic voices there, which you don’t hear in Cairo, or certainly not in Iraq! [Laughs] The thing about Lebanon is it’s such a mixture of groups and different sects. They actually do contribute to each other, but probably through mutual fear. It is a country where you do have an extraordinary interest in history. Everyone can tell you the story of the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, [Laughs] World War Two,—and I don’t think you’d find that in most European countries. It’s a country that’s always attached a very high importance to education, and you can tell that yourself. And of course they travel,—the Lebanese have always been travellers,—they’re a great mercantile, travelling people, and they’re used to doing deals.
NH: Do you think that there’s a serious chance that all those ethnic rivalries—as you suggested earlier—will diminish in importance with the rise of ‘Western’ consumer culture?
RF: If Lebanon was not an ethnically divided country it wouldn’t be Lebanon. The French set it up with a system whereby the president was always a Maronite, the prime minister is Sunni, the speaker of parliament is Shiite, and so on. These societies,—obviously we’re doing something wrong with them. The same happened in Cyprus. We set it up with a Greek Cypriot Christian president and a Muslim Turkish prime minister. We did the same in Northern Ireland,—we still do,—and this has always been—, and they’re doing the same in Iraq,—even the governing council is set up on the basis of what percentage the Shiites of the seats, and so on. That’s not a modern state. In a modern state it would be your abilities, not your ethnic origin. So,—it’s crippled by the fact that it has a system which is based on mutual suspicion, mutual fear, and mutual love,—if that exists between the various sects. How do you get out of it, when you create an artificial country in a tribal society? I don’t know. Do you say the Shiites always get this, or that, as is happening in Iraq?
NH: Sometimes those kinds of old-fashioned ties dissolve in the happy bath of capitalism. Isn’t that a possibility?
RF: Where have they dissolved? I don’t know if there are many examples.
NH: Well, you could say that America, as a melting-pot, as a society,—and they weren’t riven by ethnic tensions.
RF: It took a while, and America is an immigrant society and Lebanon is not. The people in Lebanon were there a thousand years ago. That’s not the case with Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Bush. Iso,—I’m not really convinced on that one. I don’t think it does dissolve. A very interesting thing happened when Hrawi was president,—a couple of years ago now. He suddenly announced just before he departed that he would like to have civil marriage. As you appreciate, if you get married in Lebanon, it’s got to be through the church or the mosque,—if you want a civil marriage you fly to Cyprus. Immediately, all the rival Christian and Muslim Shiite and Sunni clans and every Marmon bishop all got together in conclave to condemn this outrageous attempt by the president. The reason was that both the church and the mosque in Lebanon not only benefited enormously from marriages, they made a huge amount of money,—Of course, they stand to become poverty-stricken. The interesting thing was a huge number of Lebanese,—just about every person I know, including quite devout Shiite Muslims, all thought this was wonderful,—this gets rid of sectarianism. Hrawi made this point of course. It was the only sane thing he ever did, [Laughs] and of course it got absolutely nowhere. There is—as you’ve probably read—inter-marriage in the upper-classes, and there’s a little bit elsewhere. I lived in a totally Shiite village under occupation for three months, and there was one Shiite man who was the son of the Imam, who had married a Maronite girl who refused to wear a veil,—very interesting. But basically you don’t inter-marry unless you’re in the upper classes.
NH: Can I ask you directly about Solidere as a basic project? It’s a crude question, but—basically, is it a good thing in general?
RF: The real question is who is Solidere for. The fact that the prime minister takes 10% of the—Hariri basically has 10% of the shares of Solidere. His explanation to me has always been ‘Well, if I wasn’t here to take 10% of the shares, Solidere wouldn’t take off.’ That’s probably true,—it needed Hariri in there in the beginning, and he’s always been a philanthropist. But, of course, to have a prime minister who has a 10% share, you can imagine if Tony Blair had 10% in the people building the Dome,—it’s always going to be a fairly big scandal. The other side of this is that, in the immediate postwar existence in Lebanon,—where the Lebanese pound had gone to 2,500-to-the-dollar, as opposed to 3-to-the-dollar, which is what it was in 1975-76,—it needed extraordinary steps taken, and Hariri put his money up. He got the city working.
NF: That’s the basic argument,—in those kinds of chaotic situations he was necessary.
RF: I’m not sure in the long-term that’s true, but in the short-term it certainly was. I remember going to a town hall,—everyone had a scheme to rebuild Beirut, and they all sank. They would build one street at a time. There were constant disputes. Because of the background, historically, you had several owners of buildings, then you had tenants, then you had tenants of tenants. Unless you have sufficient finance to pay them all off, blow the building up, start again, it was just going to stay a ruin for a long, long time. There are cities across the world which are still in ruins,—that haven’t been rebuilt. It was quite clear that without the centre of Beirut being rebuilt it would never happen elsewhere in the country, which couldn’t have a proper economy, a proper airline, and so on. The disastrous thing about Lebanon is the massive debt they’ve incurred,—they’re $34bn in debt.
NH: In ten years,—is that right,—since 92?
RF: 91 I think. They keep going. They keep going to France,—or wherever,—they’ll go along to the Paris conference,—they have these constant rejigging of the loan and the servicing of the loan. They put forward tremendous economic plans and they don’t actually carry them out. They did bring in VAT, which is quite good for them. There seems to be no brake on expenditure in Lebanon. [Laughs] One of the things you must have noticed as you go round is the number of restaurants packed with properly coiffured and aproned waiters, in hotels which don’t have many people in, and buses which are completely empty. I have a suspicion, though I cannot prove it,—I could in a little way,—that there’s a lot of dirty money going into Lebanon,—that’s what the Americans are very worried about. The Americans for a long time have believed dirty money to be coming into Lebanon. I think a lot of Russian-Yugo money went through. I know when I was chasing some of Milosevic’s money, it went from Serbia to Greek Orthodox bank managers in Cyprus, and then went to Orthodox Cristina bank managers in Lebanon,—the federal bank was involved at that point. I traced a lot of money. […] My suspicion is that quite a number of new projects are using up dirty money and cleaning it, and later on they’ll be closed down and sold. if you look around,—consider the country’s got $32bn in debt, it’s extremely expensive, and all these new restaurants open, and they’re not—, I mean, OK, in the summer they’re filling up with Kuwaitis and Saudis who no longer go to America,—good for them, why not take the money of the Saudis? There’s still an awful lot—, I mean, I go out at night very often with friends in Lebanon, and I constantly go into completely empty restaurants. How are they paying? How are they existing? Beautiful food. Where is the money coming from? One can only assume that some of it must be dirty, but again I cannot prove it on a big scale?
NH: What happened to all that public money? How did they run up this public debt, given that things like Solidere are private?
RF: Well, I don’t think Solidere’s involved in that. I think it’s just ministries paying—. After the war they had a huge number of hangers-on, and every militia had managed to get crews out on the board, or whatever,—so there was a series of mass-sackings and redundancies, which caused small strikes and trade union actions,—and that was it. I think a lot of it has just been squandered,—it’s just been taken away. I’ll give you a story of a man who—, this is off-the-record,—I know definitely of a man who ran a company that made roundabouts and overpasses, and an official wanted his wife for a week—or a day, or whatever,—and $3m was added to the cost of the roundabout, and the wife spent a night with the official. There you go!
NH: Better than Demi Moore’s pay-check!
RF: That story apparently is true. I pretty much got it confirmed by everybody involved, including the woman! [Laughs] But please don’t use it. That’s a tiny amount of money, comparatively speaking. I think a lot of money was taken. Elie Hobeika—who was murdered a couple of years ago—certainly stole from the public purse in millions. One time I remember the army sent three army trucks to Hobeika’s house and said you will fill this full of carpets, cash,—and everything else,—and when you’ve filled three army trucks we reckon you’ve paid back what you’ve stolen. [Laughs] And when the army trucks turned up they were filled. So there was a lot of personal theft. I’ll give you another example,—though you can’t use the name, for obvious legal reasons,—Hrawi’s son was involved in taking large amounts of Kuwaiti food subsistence and re-selling it on the open market in Beirut [Laughs]
NH: Back to Solidere,—what do you think of it just on a personal level, in terms of architecture and the atmosphere? Do you like it,—do you ever hang out there?
RF: I live quite near it, actually. I’m not in the Solidere area, but I live quite near it, so I see it quite a lot. Look,—I think they’ve done a very good job on restoring the French mandate buildings and streets, where the coffee-shops are, near the Roman ruins. I’m appalled to see the size of the new mosque going up next to the cathedral. If you go to the Eastern side of Martyr’s Square, some of the buildings look very much like Saudi Arabia. When you consider that the prime minister owns 10% of the shares in Solidere, and is actually also a Saudi citizen, it’s not surprising it looks a bit like Jedda. But they’re not without taste. I’ve been in some of the apartments which are selling for $1.5m,—just for my own interest,—and they’ve been beautifully constructed. There’s no doubt that a lot of work and effort and artistic thought has gone into many of them. So I don’t mind them. They should have saved many more of the original buildings, and they didn’t. but on the basis that that crime has been committed, what they are building there is not unpleasant. It’s quite easy on the eye, and it does incorporate many of the features of the previous turn-of-the-century Ottoman style, both in terms of windows, roofs, balconies, and so on. So I quite like it,—I don’t find it unpleasant. What it’s going to be like when it’s finished—, I mean, it’ll be another hundred years, but it will be interesting to see it. If it’s kept clean and smart, as it is at the moment, it will be quite a shining city. Whether it will be working politically is another matter. I sometimes meet friends downtown on a Sunday morning for coffee, and I quite like going there. The clock chimes, and the roman ruins bake in the sun,—it’s rather nice. But of course it’s not a living city, in the sense that only the rich can afford to be there, whereas in the past it was a maelstrom of the vendors, and everyone else. But I guess you could say the centre of London isn’t packed with the poor, is it? And if you move out from there you’ll find the basic style of living in Lebanon can be pretty low.
NH: My last question is about inequality. Lots of the criticisms levelled against Solidere just by people I’ve talked to is that it’s just for the rich, no-one else benefits.
RF: Hariri’s idea, as he explained it to me, was always that if you pour money into the centre of Beirut, the money and the economic well-being will flow out from the centre. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be quite like that.
NH: [Laugh] It goes into the centre and then it goes out into other places, yeah.
RF: To some extent it’s worked. It has worked laterally to the east to some extent, where you move into Achrafieh,—but then Achrafieh was always a wealthy area,—it wasn’t as if it’s increased its wealth because of Solidere. If you come to the western side—, I suppose it’s picked up a little bit around the American University,—that’s probably a spill-over of Solidere,—but it hasn’t gone much further. In places like Verdun it’s been a quite separate private economic growth. But you’ve got to realise, after the war, downtown did indeed look like Dresden. I have been to Dresden, and I’ve seen photographs of the firestorm, and I was in Lebanon during the war, and I went round through the streets,—during the war and after the war,—and I never believed they could rebuild Beirut,—and they are rebuilding Beirut! I think it’s astonishing, and a remarkable achievement, whether the people involved in it—. I mean, one of the things that is very favourable to Lebanon is that people don’t move around. Because of the political system, Hariri is still the prime minister, Chamaa is still [at] Solidere. Many of the ministers—, now, you can say they get sclerotic,—the fact of the matter is that when you have a person in the same job for a long period of time, often the job gets completed quite well,—as opposed to the having the constant turnover which you do in other countries, where nothing actually gets through to its completion because the people who’ve started it have left, and the people who want to complete it want to change the plans, and so on. What’s more, what Solidere set out to do originally is a little bit like what they’re doing now,—though not exactly Originally it was going to be train stations, and a new electric railway line from Tripoli down to Tyre,—I’ve seen all the plans, done by a French company. The airport is beautiful. The old one was an appalling place,—dirty, filthy, cockroaches. This is spanking-clean, and you can come out of the airport and be in the centre of the city in ten minutes. Where else can you do that in the world?
NH: So Beirut has a pretty good chance of recapturing the status it had?
RF: Yeah, the real question is can it get back—, you see, Beirut was a banking city, and I think that at the moment, especially with all the strict rules on banking that the Americans impose, I don’t think it can get back to it. I think it’s missing out a little bit on the internet banking system. Bankers tell me they’re not up to speed on it in Beirut. If you want to do high-speed banking in the Arab world you go down to the Gulf now,—Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai.