Coffee with Hezbollah
eBook (PDF), 297 Pages
Coffee with Hezbollah is a satirical political travelogue about the author's hitchhiking trip in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. Photography by Amelia Opalinska. Praise from renowned author Norman Finkelstein: "It's hard to pull off a book that's simultaneously serious and silly but Fernández managed to do it. A delightful read."
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Jan 27, 2011COFFEE WITH HEZBOLLAH: A REVIEW (http://pulsemedia.org/2011/01/18/coffee-with-hezbollah-a-review/) Lately, in the last few years… like since Richard Milhous Nixon assumed the coveted title of POTUS… I have had trouble falling asleep at night. Sound familiar? You betcha! The stresses and anxiety of the days have a tendency to beat us to death, and relaxation is tough to find. How to switch off the horrors of tomorrow’s deadlines, tomorrow’s exams, and tomorrow’s humiliations at the TSA pat-down and peep show? Tough questions indeed. To make matters worse, I also have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Not only do I live in complete terror of… well, terror… I also live in terror of saying the wrong thing. Look at all the trouble that dude Assange has caused with his little website, wikileaks.com! My God! State secrets, plots, skullduggery and shenanigans are being exposed! Is there no decency left in America? God… or State… forbid the First Amendment and Free Speech should... More > actually be upheld. We have our national paranoia to protect! But… I have veered from the path of the straight and narrow and my purpose. Let me return to the subject of stress relief. My parents would wind down after a day’s exposure to the reality of American Delusion by vanishing into the pages of a “good” mystery novel. Despite the fact that the homestead has a solid wall of mystery novels, I have never read one. So I don’t know if they are good or not. Nor do I know if they provide the proper escapist and somnambulatory effects. (Yes, that’s a real word. My dictionary is just bigger than yours.) However, this is how they would fall asleep. Bully for them! Whatever does the trick of distraction and tranquilization is all hunky dory with me. Some folks like to turn on the lobotomy box lurking at the foot of their beds and allow the late-night nitwits to knit the wits of their viewers into a stupor of alpha waves. Groovy and it’s all legal. Others lubricate their brain cells into dysfunctionality. Alas, they often tend to stay that way. Fact is, we are all trying to cope with unrealistic, uncontrollable fear and anxiety. As Orwell and Huxley warned us, this fear is little more than a manifestation of the State to keep us under the omnipresent thumb. No wonder we’re afraid. So what is the Plebe like you and me do? Hm… we could take out a fifth mortgage… assuming we have any property… and purchase a ten-day Caribbean Cruise. That might not actually solve the problem, though, once the hangover receded, the sunburn healed and the bills started to come in. Not advised. Oh, I’ve got it! Malaria medicines like mefloquine… for better non-living. I hear mefloquine can induce hallucinations Timothy Leary and Grace Slick would be envious of. It worked wonders driving the guests at Gitmo mad as Hatters… or should that be Fez Makers? Turban Wrappers? Whatever, insanity has to be an improvement over reality. So what is the big issue? Easy, Big Bro (one must adapt to the vernacular of the times). Big Bro has done an amazing job, since the “glory days” of LBJ, angering a vast portion of the humans inhabiting this little insignificant planet, fomenting racist hatred and ignorance — aw pishaw, that part was easy — totally destroying any sort of open debate, stripping the Bill Of Rights of well… rights… and really mucking up our ability to think clearly. Unlike Big Bro, I urge you to “feel free” to disagree. But please, don’t spazz out on me! That ain’t gonna help anyone. And I’m not sure my anti-stress, anti-depression dose of Soma is strong enough. What we have here today is not “failure to communicate.” It is State-sanctioned failure to communicate. Debate, free speech and dissent all lie on a new State-sponsored chopping block of American Jacobins. So, to get to the point I have danced around, it is Freedom of the Press. I have found, by pure good fortune, a free voice! I kid you not, and please do not shoot me… even though I live in Arizona. In these times of “terror” we can find voices of ethnic and religious doom in the mainstream press, Talk Radio Fear Merchants and TV employees possessed by the ghost of Joseph Goebbels. But in this insane world, where is the voice of sanity that can put the absurd and triviality into proper perspective? Hold onto your hats; there is such a voice. Step into the world of Belén Fernández and her epic journal Coffee with Hezbollah, rivaling Homer’s Odyssey or Sam Clemens’ Huckleberry Finn… except Ms. Fernández’ book is non-fiction. I can see the look of terror on your face. Can one actually have coffee with Hezbollah? As Big Bro has led us to believe, the Lebanese organization that translates as the “Party of God” is a threat to our “freedoms.” God forbid! I sure hope The State puts the kibosh on such talk of freedoms toot sweet! Dear readers, if you are willing to go back to ancient history… 2006… there was a 34-day war, in which the Party of God and anybody of any faith living within air-strike reach was bombed back to the stone age by the Israel Defense Forces for… what was the issue? Oh, yeah… some sort of border-skirmish resulting in the capture of a few IDF soldiers. A lot of people died, mostly civilians on the Lebanese side. Thirty-four days after the 34-day war, Ms. Fernández and her friend Amelia Opalinska embarked on what would have been an ill-advised and “suicidal” journey in any Talk Radio Fear Merchant’s opinion, a journey around war-ravaged Lebanon. Hey, innit that place loaded with unexploded ordnance in the form of cluster bombs? Damn! That’s not safe! Where did those things come from in the first place? This odyssey in the heart of terror lasted two whole months. Transportation was entirely by the proverbial thumb… They hitchhiked! Madness! Madness I tell you! Even Woody Guthrie would never take such risks. And where did they stay? Are you sitting down? Lodging was found in the homes of the various Lebanese who picked them up as they engaged in “auto-stop” and thus, as good Americans, exploited another flaw in Arab culture: hospitality. Can you feel the hate rising? I can. Fernández’ book stands alone in this world of absurd threats. She neither frightens us with Islamophobia nor does she bombard us with the fear of our own government… as I am always so happy to do. For two months Ms. Fernández and Ms. Opalinska immersed themselves in the culture of the enormously diverse and constantly threatened nation of Lebanon. And amazingly, they were never abused, imprisoned, taken hostage or even… blown up. What Coffee with Hezbollah reveals instead is the reality of a subject vastly overblown in the American mainstream press. Hezbollah is the people of south Lebanon and they are, for the most part, no threat to anybody, least of all Americans. Border skirmishes with Israel will result in the same sort of thing any border skirmish would. Oh yes! The next time the IDF decides on an other “lesson” one can be assured Hezbollah with be filled with volunteers from the villages and resist. But these are people who would rather just pick their olives. At the day’s end, when the stress and anxiety of living the in world’s foremost Bankrupt Superpower, where Free Speech and a sacred Bill of Rights have become meaningless and where the terror of terror — foreign and domestic, economic and cultural — weighs heavily, I like to escape into a good book where I can cast all my cares away. Coffee with Hezbollah has proven to be the perfect bedtime therapy. The world is absurd; enjoy its contradictions, absurdity and irony. Nothing is really that serious or important. There is no massive Islamic or Arab conspiracy to destroy us. They are as ignorant as we are. None of us, no matter how lofty, is in control. When all is said and done, life is a farce. Let us enjoy it for what it is. Fernández tells her tale and makes her point with such sublime wit and insight she ranks along such political satirists as Walt Kelly or… Fred Reed or… Okay, I admit I wanted to put down my own name. I’m a cad. Anyway, in these paranoid times, Belén Fernández has reminded us of our humanity and our absurdity with her Lebanese Odyssey, Coffee with Hezbollah. Allahu Akbar! Now I can sleep!< Less
Dec 12, 2010Written by ROBIN YASSIN-KASSAB for PULSE Media (http://pulsemedia.org/2010/12/12/coffee-with-hezbollah/): Here’s a strange and sparkly, jumpy and tightly-packed little book by PULSE’s own Belen Fernandez, in which our heroines (Belen and the photographer Amelia Opalinska) hitch-hike through Lebanon and Syria a few weeks after the war of summer 2006, consuming far more caffeine than is good for them. Beyond Gonzo, it doesn’t pretend to journalism at all. Instead it recounts a fairly lunatic, fairly random sight-seeing tour towards ‘the dark force’ Hezbollah. The setting, of course, is an Israeli-devastated landscape, and the ‘dark force’ tag, like all the book’s other appropriations of mendacious political language, is ironic. “Coffee with Hebollah” is, as Norman Finkelstein writes in his recommendation, “simultaneously serious and silly.” It’s also quick witted and very well informed, sensitive to the discourses and stereotypes of Lebanon’s 18 sects, the country’s tortured history, as... More > well as the fantastic representations of Lebanon that have emerged from Israeli and Western power centres. This makes the book a new kind of journalism as well as a parody of the mainstream version. The satire is harsh, and nobody escapes the treatment, including the author. The absurdity of the material is pointed up further by the mock-formal language of negotiation and diplomatic report in which encounters are narrated, the supposedly transparent language of perfect sense. So, for instance, labelling somebody by sect is described as conducting an “exhaustive religio-spatial analysis.” Such phrasing mirrors the pompous pretensions of the thinking it describes. There is also a great deal of translation comedy, natural territory for irony, which lies in gaps, in the distance between reality and representation. Behind Lebanon lies a memoried backdrop of travels in Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, and Belize, and incidents in these locations which prove idiocy to be international. The tone is one of easy cosmopolitanism, hence the lack of embarrassment over translation gags, and the gift for bringing out people’s prejudices. (Although in Lebanon you don’t need to work hard to elicit prejudice. Here’s a good local line: “We are all Lebanese but the Muslims are like rabbits.”) But the satire is as affectionate as it is devastating. It homes in not only on the comically boneheaded but also on the strange complexity of peoples’ lives and allegiances. The benefit of hitchhiking, and of fleeing from hotels, is the close proximity to others it imposes. Observation at such close quarters, and Fernandez’s sharp eye for detail, militate against the cheap labelling common to sectarian, Zionist and imperialist discourses. Fernandez notices, for instance, that a Druze shaikh “had decorated his living room walls with collages of the Dalai Lama.” From social fractures and petty chauvinisms she discerns a humanity united by its fallibility and its sudden enthusiasms. To exemplify the latter we have Erol the Turkish philosopher-architect who, horrified by Cuban diet, declares, “without bread and cheese there cannot be life!” The danger of unrelenting irony is that it can result in an affectless and flat simulation of reality in which at a certain point everything seems hollow, and nothing therefore matters. Fernandez avoids this, firstly by her humanity, secondly by knowing when to ease off. In the following, fairly typical passage, the situational irony (not invented by the writer) is noted. After that: silence. “Israel had lauched two missiles into an apartment building in Chiyah that summer after an invisible enemy nearby had fired at an Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle. The apartment building had not been unmanned, resulting in the loss of 63 civilians.”< Less
Nov 21, 2010Written by MARY RIZZO for Palestine Think Tank (http://palestinethinktank.com/2010/04/20/belen-fernandez-coffee-with-hezbollah/). Before reading the wonderful book by Belén Fernández “Coffee with Hezbollah”, I never would have imagined it possible to read about the post-destruction aftermath of Lebanon and smile at the same time. The pretext alone, a hitchhiking trip from Turkey to southern Lebanon simply “feels” dramatic, especially when the memory of Brides on Tour, was still fresh. Would two young, attractive, independent women meet a better fate than the raped and assassinated Pippa Bacca, travelling in the same way, with each new step being not only a test of their own wits and good fortune, but also a constant surrender to trust in a world wracked by its encounter with the ultimate violence? Belén and her friend and travelling partner Amelia Opalinska were on the road in much the same way as Che Guevara and Alberto Granado, and it’s not incidental that they... More > recount moments from their adventures in Latin America and Cuba in “Coffee with Hezbollah”. In a similar way to the historically relevant on the road experiences of the revolutionary, conversations described and rapid changes in plan (or even in mood) allowed the reader to feel a sincere interest in the persons they encountered as well as a way to describe the larger paradigm of Lebanon. The people who populate this book, with their idiosyncrasies, their habits, beliefs and expressions, are part of the story, an exchange that appears to these eyes only slightly hampered by needing to resort to “pidgin English” (however, the fact that many of these people spoke some English at all is testament to their desire to reach out to the world). Nevertheless, each conversation and encounter left up to fate brought a new insight, a new interpretation of a fragmented reality. Reading this book, I often reminded myself that this endeavour, simple on the surface of things, is actually quite complicated if one is a creature of habit or seeks a modicum of security. I kept thinking, “how brave they are,” and “I’d never let my daughter do that,” much in the way Belén describes her own family, Americans who admire the great revolutionary spirit of they find in many people’s struggles. Her parents would boast about this exciting feat to their friends, but exhibit particular paternal worry to her. There is indeed a dynamic of the contradictions, the paradox of wanting something and also wanting something entirely different that the author detects in many of those she describes. It is a description of compassion and love that never, even for five seconds, sinks into banal sentimentalism. There is one moment in the book, where actually, the tragedy of what evil has hit the innocent Lebanese people is all brought home in an admirable piece of narrative journalism. It is an encounter with a family in the south of Lebanon where only the strongest readers might be able to hold back the tears. It is an encounter with Maryam, a young girl whose family could have been “evacuated” with others escaping the bombing raids of Israel, but chose to remain because the elderly members would not be allowed to join them. It is an encounter of such exquisite beauty, innocence, sadness and love that it was well on its way to breaking my heart. Yet, the manner in which this story is told does not tip the hat to cheap emotion, but captures the essence of the kind of suffering, and the “love of life” that is never abandoned by the Lebanese people. And, as artfully as the drama of this story was told, the author throws us a life-saver and the bittersweet irony of a post-war survival period, with its fears, hopes, black humour and tedium have us back in the passenger seat, waiting to see the next thing, with a few expectations, but not many demands made. In Italy, they would say, “very easy”, and this way of going with the flow of things, looking at the surface but also below it and not imposing one’s own literal or figurative baggage on those who let you hop a ride, keep the unexpected always close at hand, making for absolutely entertaining reading. One may ask oneself at this point, with a title like this, is the book a political manifesto? Has there been a meeting with Hezbollah? Well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but Hezbollah is always present but then again, not quite. Its physical presence is represented in things that are symbolic or even domestic. It is an unreachable entity that however is part of so many personal experiences. Persons encountered that, like many in the book, are given nicknames that the travellers use as a sort of code between themselves, but which render the idea for the readers in a clever way. The dialogue between Wannabe Hezbollah (WBH) and Real Hezbollah (RH) is a case in point of the complex nature of a militia that is homegrown and revered by the populace: it is both mythical and familiar. What better way could I have to understand this reality than in the conversations with those whose lives are directly affected by Hezbollah? The complexity and fragility of Lebanon (even prior to the war) is reflected in many of the encounters with people of various religious and social backgrounds. Lebanon, in this description seems like an ageing, teetering ballerina, beautiful and determined to depend on the glorious past and endless tests of endurance and skill to get through the ballet, but the audience is waiting to see the fall, hoping they never do, but not that surprised if it should happen. The one leitmotif of the encounters, however, is the acclamation by the Lebanese themselves that they love life. The reasons given vary, but this affirmation is never doubted by anyone. One of the more painful points of the book is not only the description of the devastation that has hit Lebanon, which is stated in a way rich in irony and knowledge of the forces at play, but the moments when the Palestinian refugees and their living situation and tragedies are spoken of. It is like a bruise in a beautiful face, and the levels of suffering that has been inflicted on the Arab people of the region reaches its zenith here. Evidently, shared misfortune and misery don’t always breed brotherly love. As stated at the start, this book speaks about one of the blackest and most sinister aggressions in recent history. How one can write about it, with that recent presence of destruction ever present, and still make the reader smile and laugh is one of the best things about this book. Like Erma Bombeck wrote, “When humor goes, there goes civilization,” and I would not be surprised if this was part of the author’s philosophy. Not seeking “art” as the Brides did, (and art generally avoids humour), they found what the Brides lost, trust and genuineness. With trust comes revelation, and with that, comes humour, in my opinion, one of the best human qualities anywhere it manages to surface. To find humour is to love the human condition and to embrace our frailty. Yet, the humour here is not only in some of the situations, which of themselves at times were absurd, the search for the nine-year-old mother, but especially the adventures with beverages specifically and their world of paraphernalia such as straws, teabags, bottles and cups as well as trips to the wine-producing farms comes to mind, but it lies in the deep knowledge of journalistic expression. References to history, current events, especially to the language of war and deception we are accustomed to hearing (but derived of their actual content) by the mass media reveal a profound understanding of the mechanisms of communication and in their use, often in an original context, there are moments of sheer brilliance and humour. The author does not pull off this particularly difficult device once in a while, but consistently and successfully. That makes for one hell of a pleasurable reading experience. I grew up loving any ride in my parent’s car, and reading “Coffee with Hezbollah”, I felt that same good feeling whenever I got a window seat, rolled down, daring to stick my arm out when parental eyes were focussed on the road. Sometimes it’s the little car trips that mean the most.< Less
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- September 27, 2011
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