Lebanese Woman Reflects on Her Homeland

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 04, 2006

These days Nadine Ghammache thinks of little else than Lebanon, the tiny country by the sea where she was born. 

“The last two and a half weeks, there isn’t a minute between my wake time and my sleep time and dreams, where I don’t have the agony right here at my finger tips,” said Ghammache, sipping coffee Wednesday morning on the terrace of La Peña Cultural Center, where she works. 

Ghammache is a mother of two and an Albany School Board member. Two of her sisters are in Lebanon. “I stumble with my words because there is nothing in the dictionary to describe what the Lebanese people are going through,” she says. 

A little smaller than Connecticut and populated by some 4 million people, Lebanon has suffered more than 500 mostly civilian deaths according to Human Rights Watch. Ghammache describes the recent attacks as simply a stepped-up version of military incursions by Israel into southern Lebanon that have been going on since the founding of Israel in 1948. (The Israeli government might disagree. Some argue that the bombing is in retaliation for Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers.)  

Ghammache, who came to the United States when she was 19, recalls her youth in Beirut as carefree. “I’d wake up when the sun rose up, I was out the door, went to the beach, rode my bike, met up with friends, went to movies—movies from all over the world, Italian, French, Indian….” 

Ghammache had a special relationship with the sea, a few blocks from her home. “I’d sit there and I’d talk to the sea,” she said. 

Ghammache’s father had a gift shop for a while in a district teeming with life. “It is Telegraph Avenue multiplied by 100,” she said – sidewalk cafes, ice cream shops, grocery stories, movies, bowling alleys, and night clubs. Since there was no set drinking age, teens could go there, sip their drinks and wax philosophical for long hours with friends. The area “was like a treasure chest,” she said. 

It was generally safe: “We hitchhiked up and down the country. You would feel that everyone is your uncle or your aunt.” 

Ghammache was from the middle class and went to a private Catholic boarding school, where classmates were both wealthier and poorer than she. Her father was a Maronite Christian and her mother was a Greek Orthodox Palestinian, whose family sought refuge in Lebanon from the Israelis in 1948. 

While most of the students at school were Maronites, many were Muslim. (According to the July 26 New York Times, Christians make up about 35 percent of the Lebanese population, with Maronites 25 percent and other Christians 10 percent. Sunni Muslims make up about 25 percent, Shiite Muslims make up about 35 percent and Druse comprise about 5 percent.) 

There was a mixing of people of different religions. Some of Ghammache’s close friends growing up were Muslim—they went to each other’s homes. There were Muslim families in the seven-story apartment building where her family, with its six children, lived.  

It wasn’t until she was an adult that Ghammache began to understand the colonialist mind-set of her French teachers at the school who forbade the children to speak Arabic. “You had to speak French. Arabic was treated as a foreign language,” she said. If you got caught speaking Arabic, you had your weekend going-home privileges taken away. “The way to get out of it was that you snitch on someone else,” she said. 

Ghammache remembers when she became conscious of animosity with Israel: the children were sent home from school one day. It was 1967 and conflict had broken out with Israel and reached Beirut. The family stayed inside, with the shutters closed, and stocked up on sugar, flour and dry milk, she said. “My house overlooked the airport. I got to see the Israeli planes blowing up the airport. This was my first experience with Israel as an aggressor, but in reality, whether I understood it or not, it was always there.” 

She remembers being out at recess and getting jolted every day by the passing Israeli airplanes. “Every morning around 10 o’clock there were always two (sonic) booms, two planes. That will make you jump,” she said. 

“What do you call that constant presence of that military monster that is constantly hovering over you?” 

After high school and before coming to the U.S., Ghammache spent time working with refugee women in the south of Lebanon, where she began to understand the depth of the poverty there. These are the people out of which Hezbollah has grown. 

The U.S. media has distorted the nature of Hezbollah, Ghammache says. It is a political, social and military movement originally formed to combat the Israeli occupation following Israel’s 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon. “They’re not differently-looking people,” Ghammache said. “It’s like the Canadians going after the Democrats. They are part of the daily life, very deeply integrated into life.” 

The people of southern Lebanon “have been aggressed and aggressed and aggressed for decades,” she said.  

Ghammache believes Israeli aggression into south Lebanon is to claim the land. The soil is “rich, dark, red earth that you just want to roll into,” she says. 

But whatever the reason, the level of violence from Israel is evident. Ghammache said she struggles to understand. “Why that level of viciousness? Is it really the destruction of ‘terrorism?’” 

In a report released Aug. 3, Human Rights Watch says the aggression, in some instances, constitutes war crimes. “The pattern of attacks shows the Israeli military’s disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a prepared statement. 

Ghammache goes on to ask why Americans—and she includes herself—do not take responsibility for sending tax dollars to destroy children. “By displacing a third of the population, have we created a safer world?” 

The Israelis are not in touch with the horror they create, she says: “Why can’t the Israelis stop their rhetoric for a few seconds and be in touch with that, to realize that these are human beings, to see the children play around, to pick their flowers and their vegetables and breathe in the sunlight? Why are we talking about terror? People just want to live.”