Christopher Hitchens is a polemicist. He is many other things too: Vanity Fair columnist, political journalist, atheist, or anti-theist, defender of the war in Iraq and public intellectual, but above all he is an argumentative cuss who will employ wit, guile and bullying to win a debate. On his trip to Lebanon last week, the students of the American University of Beirut had cause to discover this, as did a young lady in a hotel bar who advanced the view that astrology was a worthwhile field of study.
To his credit, however, Hitchens does not usually resort to violence. Not so the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. This Beirut trip was nastily marked by a run-in with that party's heavies on Hamra Street, which left Hitchens limping and even more viscerally opposed to the Syrian regime and pro-Syrian Lebanese parties. Over roasted songbirds and 1985 Chateau St-Emilion, he related to NOW Lebanon his experience, which began last Saturday afternoon when he sighted the SSNP's swastika-like symbol on a poster in Hamra. "My attitude to posters with swastikas on them," he said, "has always been the same. They should be ripped down." Upon realizing that this one was too, "enshrined, plasticated," for tearing down, he wrote on it some, "essentially negative words about National Socialism," widely reported to be "F*** the SSNP."
And no sooner had he pocketed the pen, one of the party's supporters "appeared as if he'd jumped out of the nearest drain, which perhaps he had," and assaulted Hitchens, "pulling my shirt, smacking me about." The assailant called for support, which arrived in the form of several more men who flung him to the floor and stamped on him, before Hitchens and his two colleagues managed to get away. The shocking thing, he said, was "the absolutely supine conduct of this cop who was standing not far away…what is a cop for? To patrol and reinforce swastika artists hurting people on Hamra Street?"
In the wake of this unpleasantness and his often-proclaimed support for American intervention in Iraq, aversion to the Syrian regime and disgust at the theocracy of Iranian government and Hezbollah, the content of his talk at AUB on Wednesday was no surprise.
He spoke out against, "lugubrious, theocratic groups," like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and against, "political parties daring to call themselves the Party of God, as if they knew what the will of God was." Asking who the real revolutionaries of the Middle East now were, he railed against the description of militants as "radicals" or the "resistance", to a cynical audience with whom he did verbal battle at some length. When called upon to pick one "revolutionary," he chose Walid Jumblatt as someone who "stands for democracy," to snorts from the crowd. Nudged later on his choice of a man associated so closely with the slaughter of the civil war, he conceded that Jumblatt, "had been through a lot, he's put people through a lot."
Whatever one's view on his politics, Hitchens' talk was an astonishing performance by a combative master of the English language. He barks, and he bites. Did he regret his sharpness with one young girl, to whom he directed a purring, "don't go pissing me off, now?" No, indeed. "She was a brat. Possibly a nasty brat - who wouldn't take yes for an answer."
Left wing questioners and - peaceful - SSNP protestors at the talk who presented him with a poster inscribed "You are a fascist," were two of the many facets of Lebanese politics displayed during Hitchens' visit. On February 14, he saw a crowd of tens of thousands massing in Martyrs' Square in the sunshine. They commemorated the fourth anniversary of the death of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, led by the March 14 leaders who also celebrated the uprising that saw the end of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. And on Monday he went to Dahiyeh in the dark and rain for the Hezbollah commemoration of the first anniversary of military commander Imad Mughniyah's death. What did he take away from this? "I'm very impressed," he said, "by what you might call the spirit, the courage and humor of [March 14's members].
"The contrast between the rally on February 14 and the Hezbollah commemoration was as good a contrast as you could want," he went on, "between two different styles of politics and civil society. And indeed, sense of humor and attitudes to sex, all the things that matter to one." Speaking of sex, said NOW Lebanon, just incidentally, what did you think of Lebanese women? "Ah," he said, "the fragrant and lustrous womanhood of Lebanon requires no endorsement, it's already established itself." And it was, he added, "very much on show, if that isn't too cheap and gaudy a way of putting it, [at the Hariri memorial]. And strangely," he continued meditatively, "hardly less on show when we went to the big tent of the Party of God." It seems appropriate to draw a veil over his remarks on the salacious glances of female Hezbollah supporters.
So, as someone who has followed the affairs of the Middle East for more than three decades, what surprised Hitchens about Lebanon now? "When I was last here in 1991," he said, "I remember very vividly going along the airport road. There wasn't a single undamaged building within a bull's roar. There was only one functioning hotel. It looked like a moonscape." And then, he says, he saw one old man with a shovel, just beginning to dig away at the rubble of one building. "I couldn't get him out of my mind. I was so touched by it," but didn't think much of his chances. "I was thinking, well, lots of luck. See you in fifty years."
Echoing many who last saw Beirut during and after the war, he declares the reconstruction unbelievable. "What impressed me about Mr Hariri, really a lot, was that he got the place somewhat back in place in…fifteen? Ten years? I would never have believed it could have been done." While recognizing that the people of the South, and the girls who glanced at him in the Dahiyeh probably feel the same way about Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after the devastation and reconstruction following the 2006 war, he expressed admiration for what he saw as the non-sectarianism and generosity of Rafik Hariri.
He's imperious, is Hitchens, a drinker, a charmer in a dictatorial sort of way, and a player of political and intellectual games. But March 14 might have cause to be grateful for this influential, if controversial, supporter's sincerity in condemning Hariri's death. "The whole of new Beirut owes a debt to Hariri," he said, "so that to kill, to murder such a person is more than an attack on democracy, it's… an attack on civilization."