Charles Glass
Charles Glass; drawing by David Levine

Three years ago Charles Glass decided to take time off from his work as an ABC television reporter in Beirut to make and record a trip through the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. His itinerary began in Alexandretta in southern Turkey, and was to have taken him through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, to end on the edge of the Sinai peninsula in Aqaba. He borrowed an old-fashioned term and called the whole region “the Levant,” and he seems to see his book as carrying forward the nineteenth-century tradition of “Levantine travels.” He intended—and to a limited extent the book he has actually written does this—to compare the texts of the old travel books about Lebanon with the conditions he found there in 1987.

However, the tone of his book is not detached and literary, as was perhaps originally planned, but urgent, sad, and personal. Glass’s kidnapping and imprisonment in Beirut for nine weeks in the summer of 1987 by Shi’ite militiamen put an end to his Levantine travels, and gave the book a completely different edge and emphasis. The original concept was that he should abandon for a few months his point of view as the ABC correspondent in the Middle East, to stand back from the awful, bloody melée which he had chronicled day by day from Beirut, and to look at the Middle Eastern scene in the light of its historical geography, of the “enduring realities of the region.”

It was an interesting project, if a difficult one to carry out. Almost certainly, Glass would still, in such a book, have found it impossible to avoid questions that he now discusses at length—How should a Western journalist deal with the Middle Eastern conflict and to what extent should he discuss the appalling difficulties he experiences in truthfully reporting it? Glass’s kidnapping brought this question to the front of his mind. The result is a mixed kind of book, with long, leisurely passages on the Middle East scene and the mentalities of its inhabitants, and taut, tense reporting of Glass’s experiences in the dangerous and brutalized world of present-day Lebanon, culminating in his own seizure and captivity. In some ways the book is more directly comparable with other recent books by Western journalists, notably Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, which dwell on the dilemmas and problems of Western journalists in the Middle East, than it would otherwise have been.

Before he reached Lebanon on this particular trip, there were questions in Glass’s mind that he would have found very hard to answer in the calm and reflective tone of a Victorian traveler. His own status as the Catholic American-born child of an Irish father and a Lebanese mother had given him a committed attitude to the Lebanese imbroglio that went far beyond a sentimental attachment to “roots.” At lunch in Zahle, the Lebanese mountain resort where his Lebanese grandfather had been born, with the political adviser of one of the blood-stained Lebanese bosses, Glass was prompted to ask himself:

Why did the war [in Lebanon] go on when no one wanted it to? How did Christians and Muslims live peacefully in Zahle, yet kill each other in Beirut? How did some Christians live in Muslim west Beirut and some Muslims in the Christian east? Who was killing whom and why? Whose hand was behind each faction? Why did Iran support the Shiah? Why did Israel support some of the Christians? What had happened in Lebanon to bring troops from America, France, Britain and Italy to try and fail to save it in the 1980s, as France had sent troops, and the Russians, British and Austro-Hungarians their warships, in 1860? What was it about this place that made it compelling, that dared outsiders to take part in its tribal battles, that sent them hurrying out in disgrace? How had the Arab world’s most advanced country—with the highest rate of literacy, four excellent universities, legal rights for women, a modern economy that supported both businessmen and poets, regular parliamentary and presidential elections, religious tolerance, a free press, lively theatre and music, modern hospitals, libraries, a bountiful sea and rich farms—become the most primitive?

These questions returned to bother Glass, he says, during the time of his captivity. What had happened to Lebanon that its people were destroying themselves, and that its young boys had turned into murderers and kidnappers? And why had he, Charles Glass, returned there while the conflicts still raged and, against much friendly advice, risked kidnapping as he tried to make his way among the warring factions of its torn society? The profoundly felt and considered way in which he tries to answer these political and personal questions makes this an interesting and, at times, a fascinating book.


A central question of which Glass is acutely aware is whether countries outside the Western tradition can successfully “modernize” in the sense in which we normally use the word. Could Lebanon have a democratic government in which its many differing groups, Muslim, Christian, and Druze, would cooperate in order to build a modern society? Glass calls the present condition of Lebanon “primitive”: a strong word to use of such a formerly sophisticated society. The question is indirectly referred to in the title of his book, which is taken from a quote from an Egyptian diplomat. “Egypt,” he evidently said to Glass, “is the only nation-state in the Middle East. The rest are tribes with flags.”

It was a clever quotation to take (even if it exaggerates the historic and communal differences between Egypt and other Arab oriental states), because it goes to the heart of the problems of the modern Middle Eastern states, including Israel. Once the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrated in 1918, the religious communities and ethnic groups that had until then been none too gently ruled by the Ottomans were reorganized in hastily conceived “nation-states”; and once a nation-state was declared to have been established, the ethnic or religious groups that did not belong to the ruling group could find themselves excluded from the political community, and viewed (however long their ancestors might have lived in the region) as strangers. When they are mistreated the tribes of the region may be in the position of persecuted minorities; but in some cases (for example, in pre-civil war Lebanon, ruled largely by Christians, and present-day Syria, ruled largely by Alawis) the ruling group may itself be a minority. The problem is not that the present supposed nation-states in the Middle East are “artificial,” as is so often said: many of them are no more artificial by origin than some of the current European states. The problem is whether any conceivable government will be able to get the political consent and loyalty of the “tribes” without relying on the secret police and the army. Hardly any Middle Eastern states have solved this problem, and Israel is no exception. Nor did the British or the French solve it, for that matter, during the period when they ruled Syria and Palestine between the wars under League of Nations mandates.

This question about consent is posed throughout much of the less-developed world, and has been solved by only a few modern cultures. In the terminology of the British scholar Albert Hourani (to whom Glass expresses his obligation in the introduction) failure to deal with this problem results, in the Arab world, in the growth of what Hourani once called a Levantine mentality, or trying to belong to two cultures, the traditional and the modern, without actually belonging to either. It is possible to see “Levantinism” in either a negative or a positive way. In his recent book Thomas Friedman claims that the Levantinism of some of the Lebanese he came to know was a manifestation of the modern secularized and constructive elements in the oriental world, and he sees it as a force for cooperation and political balance, opposed to “tribalism.” Glass tends to take the more pessimistic view that Arab culture is fatally fractured, and that Levantinism has not proved to be a way out, in the Lebanon or elsewhere.

When one thinks of the terrible deterioration of Lebanese life over the past fifteen years, it is hard to disagree with him so far as Lebanon is concerned. Glass also questions whether oriental societies can modernize without a fatal loss of cultural identity and autonomy. A Syrian intellectual whom he met in Damascus told him that Arabs have been subject to a lethal cultural invasion, because they have been told that their traditional values have been the cause of their failure, their backwardness. And Arab “backwardness” has, of course, been one of the main preoccupations of people who sought to renovate the Muslim and Arab world during the past century and more. Not by accident did one of the most powerful recent political movements of the Muslim world borrow the European term of Renaissance or rebirth (Ba’ath) to describe itself—while giving birth to the highly repressive and mutually opposed regimes in Iraq and Syria.

The cultural failings of the Arab world are thus an important subject for Glass. He has much to say about the new barbarism of Arab cities, where whether for political reasons (as in Hama in Syria, after the antigovernment rising, or in Jounieh, Lebanon, in the new Christian headquarters), or for administrative convenience (as in Damascus and Aleppo), or out of greed (as in Beirut itself and all over the Levantine world), the architectural patrimony has been mindlessly destroyed, and replaced, if at all, by a wilderness of concrete boxes. There is, as Glass says (quoting an Egyptian writer on Arab architecture), a cultural vacuum. It is a vacuum, Glass writes, which has yet to be filled,


except by that aching sense of loss which suffused the culture at every level—the loss of unity, of independence, of freedom, of dignity, of hope, of Palestine—all of which began, so far as this century was concerned, in 1918, when the Ottoman army marched north on the road out of Damascus.

The passage illustrates both Glass’s tendency to identify with the troubles of present-day Arab culture, and his nostalgia for a supposedly superior Arab past. These sentiments are too much like the emotionalism of many Arab intellectuals to be very helpful, however; moreover, they may exaggerate what used to be called a “cultural crisis” in the Arab world, by concentrating too much on the harassed Levantine region. In Arabia and the Gulf, for instance, there are still vulgarity and coarseness in the way the cities and the environment are treated, but there are also new architectural and cultural developments, and enlightened patronage that may point toward a more promising mixture of cultures.

There is, perhaps, a split which the author does not fully recognize in himself, between Glass the enthusiastic antiquarian who scrambles over fences in neglected oriental cemeteries to find the tombs of long-dead European lady travelers, and Glass the political analyst. And there is also an ambivalence, which he recognizes in himself to some extent, but which he does not entirely face, in his attitude as an American to his Lebanese origin and roots.

It is not a question he takes up in the first, historical part of his book, in which his main point is that the nationalism of the Turks who formerly dominated the region was peculiarly monolithic, as is shown by the discrimination against Arab and Christian minorities in Turkey. He goes on to give a long, discursive account of his trip through Syria, with some interesting accounts of the ambiguous lives led by Damascus intellectuals under an oppressive but patchily tolerant government, although I could have done without the accounts of nineteenth-century English ladies in Palmyra and elsewhere, and I would have appreciated a more coherent account of Hafiz al-Asad’s regime in Syria. There are striking things in his Syrian travels (including a report of a bizzare Anglican church service in Aleppo) but they are too various, too scattered in the telling.

Once over the border into the Lebanon, Glass is in the place he knows best, and in which his great enterprise and skill as a reporter are evident. He moves with confidence and knowledge in the mosaic of Lebanese factions, and everything he says about them is enlightening. Why, for example, were the Druze followers of Walid Jumblatt blowing up the villages in the Shouf mountains that had once been occupied by Maronite Christians?

On Walid Jumblatt’s orders, the Druze had blown up or bulldozed Christian houses, schools and churches. There would be no question of the refugees returning, because, as with Palestinian villages in 1948, there were no homes to return to. Jumblatt’s justification was that this was the only way to keep out, not Christians, but Shiites. The Shouf was underpopulated, following the exodus of its Christian population, and the Shiites were a fast-growing community. The demolished villages, once so dear to their Maronite inhabitants, would not become the Shiite foot in the Druze door.

He is also a war correspondent whose feeling for the variety of human experience has not been deadened by horrors, as it sometimes seems to have been in some other excellent journalists who have spent much time in the Middle East. Glass appreciates the Beirut society ladies, who in the midst of the bombardment do fashionable needlework to sell in New York, just as he does the Lebanese gangsters who “protect” the night clubs.

There remains, however, a certain ambivalence, which is apparent in one of the most striking passages in the book. Glass describes a stay in the Lebanese village from which his mother’s family came, which happened to coincide with a shoot-out between the village warlords and their local opponents. The child who chooses to return to and perhaps to identify himself with some aspect of his old-world ancestral origins is a familiar American phenomenon. Some people may think Charles Glass’s family connection with the Lebanon somewhat remote. His mother was a second-generation Lebanese immigrant, his father Irish. So far as can be gathered from his book, his first continuous experience of Lebanon was as a graduate student at the American University in Beirut. But the warmth and hospitality of the Lebanese toward their new-world relations are well-known; perhaps less known is the extraordinary degree, in that world of cousinage, to which the Lebanese of the Lebanon can recall and identify the emigrant side of the family.

Glass candidly admits that he is never quite sure how he is related to most of the cousins, “but no matter how distant they all treated me like a son or a brother.” In this respect also, Glass’s experience is far from being unusual. In the mid-1950s I spent many hours of fascinating but puzzling talk with my wife’s Lebanese cousins, accepting their hospitality and their warm family feelings in the beautiful Lebanese mountain villages which before that trip had been half-understood names in family conversations. It is easy for an imaginative British or American young man to catch the Levantine bug in that way, and Glass’s attractive enthusiasm for the Lebanese side of his ancestry originally came from such encounters.

The ancestral village of the mother of Charles Glass is Zgharta, on the slopes of Mount Lebanon above the coastal town of Tripoli, which is also the home of the Frangieh, one of the main families of the political bosses of the Lebanon of the post-1967 period. A Frangieh was President of the Lebanon in the critical period between 1970 and 1976, when the Lebanese civil war broke into the open. In 1978, when the private armies of the Lebanese Christians fought one another in a fratricidal war, the member of the Frangieh family who led their militia was butchered by the assassins sent by another Catholic Maronite family, the Gemayel. The Gemayel were the exceptionally smart and ferocious leaders of the oldest Lebanese militia, before they took over the Lebanese presidency with Israeli support. They were subsequently to massacre a competing Christian militia, that of the Chamoun. After his election in 1982 Bechir Gemayel also had US support, for the short time left to him to live.

Charles Glass was not in Lebanon when the Frangieh were briefly dominant, but he was in Zgharta at the time of a minor local incident that casts, in the way he describes it, some light on Lebanese life and some also on Glass’s deeper feelings. There had been a quarrel at a football match between young men who were armed henchmen of the Frangieh and those of a family of the same village. The fighting continued at the town hospital and several of the young men were killed. Glass soon learned that thirty years earlier there had been a shootout between the same families and that more than twenty people had died. As he became involved in the incident his status was not quite a journalist’s, but that of an American Lebanese who was already, as a TV correspondent, something of a celebrity, and he was therefore being entertained by the family of ex-President Frangieh and not by his own family, although Glass’s cousins lived in the same village.

When the killings occurred, the leading men of the village felt an obligation to control the crisis and to stop the village from running wild in a major family vendetta. The family that suffered the most casualties complained, inaccurately, that the people responsible for the killings were “foreigners,” by which they meant people outside the village. It was soon agreed that all the villagers would retreat within one of the four wards controlled by the four major families; this sounds like a traditional device to deal with violence, particularly by hotheaded young men, and to put all the negotiations into the hands of the village notables, and it seems to have worked. As it turned out, Charles Glass had time to enquire of his own family whether he might perhaps be entitled to a share in some family lands.

In Los Angeles there may well be worse violence than what happened on this occasion in Zgharta, but Charles Glass’s family there would probably know nothing directly of it. His reactions to this mayhem on his oriental family’s home ground, differing in its small domestic scale from the much fiercer Lebanese mayhem that he observed as a journalist, were simply those of a concerned and appalled visiting American. Glass thought his great-grandfather had died in a similar village feud, but the observation comes as a throwaway remark, not as a claim of knowledge or of social complicity. Faced with the bloodshed that took place so near the houses of his own cousins, he shows no sign of reacting either like a cynical journalist or like a knowing Lebanese; he just sounds shocked and puzzled. It is a puzzlement that does him a lot of credit.

Glass’s puzzlement becomes explicit in an interview with one of the Chamoun family, which took place not long after the same tour. Dany Chamoun had led one of the Christian militias that took part in the massacre of the Palestinian camp of Tel el-Za’atar in 1982. At the time of the 1987 interview he was (according to Glass) contemplating getting help from the Iraqis, his alliance with Israel having by then long expired. What shocked Charles Glass during the interview was not the fact of the massacres, which were of course common knowledge, but the admission by Dany Chamoun that throughout the bloody fighting with the PLO he had been meeting regularly and on a friendly basis with the PLO leader, Abu Hassan. Chamoun said:

I went into Sabra camp in west Beirut to see him, in the middle of the fighting. But, you know, this is exactly what happens with the Arabs everywhere. They fight, and they meet during the fighting, and they go back to fighting. And one day they decide to live together. It’s the history of the people.

Charles Glass did not like these remarks. When he drove away from the interview, he decided that “It was the unending history of the tribes, and I could not make any sense of it.” Yet Chamoun’s attitude was not unusual: for example, another of the Lebanese Christian bosses, Amin Gemayel, is known to have made friendly visits to Salah Khalaf (“Abu Iyyad”), then the Fatah PLO security chief, at least twice during the 1982 siege of Beirut, at a time when Gemayel’s men were ruthlessly slaughtering the Palestinians. That warrior-nobles should talk while their men fight is not so odd or shocking as Glass thinks: as late as the eighteenth century it would have been normal for similar meetings to take place in Europe, and, hard as it may be to accept, the Lebanese warlords sometimes display a mentality close to that of feudal chieftains in premodern Europe.

Glass’s kidnapping is the most fascinating episode in the book, though his graphic and dramatic report of it is surrounded by the mist of violence and uncertainty that inevitably hangs about such an event. Kidnapping and hostage-taking go naturally with tribalism, and they were a prominent feature of the civil war in Lebanon from its beginnings in 1975. With the exception of the US and its allies and the UN forces, virtually everyone concerned in the struggle in Lebanon took hostages, though in the cases of Iran and Israel the hostage-taking was done through proxies. In tracing the history of the kidnapping of westerners, it is impossible to disentangle what happened in Lebanon from the hostage-taking at the US Embassy in Teheran in 1979. Like the war in Lebanon itself, taking hostages could in some cases be seen as the extension by nondiplomatic means of the policies of states located outside Lebanon. Obviously, the outside power most deeply involved in hostage-taking was Iran, which not only treated the great uprising of the Lebanese Shi’ite community as a valuable card in its own hand, but actually sent its own troops (though in very small numbers) to Lebanon. But other non-Lebanese states were also involved in the Lebanese hostage-takings. It seems possible that in some cases (perhaps, for example, that of the diplomat and CIA official, William Buckley, kidnapped in 1984 and later murdered), hostages who were supposed to have been held in the Lebanon may not at all times have been held in that country. It has frequently been suggested that Buckley was interrogated in Iran, and not only in Lebanon.

From the point of view of the Western governments whose subjects have been made hostages, it is much preferable to represent the hostage-takers as anonymous terrorist groups than to identify their backers as governments, which the West must either then persuade, or force, to yield up their prisoners, or else face a serious loss of prestige. For this reason there has been a tendency (which Charles Glass has himself recently denounced) to pretend that the identification of the groups holding the Western hostages is an impossibly difficult task. In fact, as he has said, the Iranians are undoubtedly responsible in some cases. Glass has himself mentioned (in a recent article* and not in his book) a prominent Iranian, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, who has certainly been central in organizing kidnappings in the past, though his present status is a more difficult question.

Glass’s account of his own kidnapping contains some clues to political forces that inspired it. At the time he was visiting some Shi’ite activists and he was in their car when he was seized on the road from Tyre to Beirut. One of the Shi’ites shared his captivity for a time, and it seems clear that the particular group he had befriended could not have been responsible. Nor, to judge from the letter he was compelled to write in captivity, were the PLO, for the letter he was instructed to copy said he had, as a CIA agent, met with “Palestinian top officials.” His captors were young Shi’ite militiamen who clearly knew exactly who he was when they seized him. They were not “fanatics”—he never saw them pray. He gives some hints in his account that the higher command that oversaw the hostage-taking was perhaps having second thoughts about him after his capture. He mentions a senior interrogator who listened with apparent sympathy to his explanations why he was not a CIA agent; most probably this was simply an interrogation technique, but the possibility remains that either Glass or his employers in fact managed to convince their hostage-takers that this was so, and that the captors saw no other reason to hold him.

There was, of course, no more evidence that Glass was a spy than there was that several others already in captivity were spies, and it seems odd if his innocence should have provoked his release, when the same innocence could have been established for others. On the other hand, he was the only hostage compelled to make a video confession of having been a CIA agent. He gives a powerful and suspenseful account of how he got past his sleeping guards and ran out into the Beirut night. To escape as he did took great courage and resourcefulness and it in no way disparages him to remark that in that murky world almost anything can happen, and it is just possible that the drop in vigilance on the part of his guards was not accidental.

In the end, in spite of the passions and the tribalism of the Lebanese, much that happens in Lebanon takes place as a result of decisions made outside that country. As Glass writes, the Lebanese, whether Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, were often mere actors in a play written elsewhere. “Offstage,” Glass writes, “the playwrights—who may have been the gods on Olympus or politicians in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Washington—were writing the next act.” The costs of the weapons used in the Lebanese civil wars have been enormous, and far beyond any possible capacity of the Lebanese leaders to pay—in fact the Lebanese bosses have protested with a vehemence that would be comic if so many lives were not at stake, when they have had to pay for their own weapons. Beirut has always been a great international clearing house for goods, money, and influence, and this is no less true now than at any other time since the 1950s. The international nature of Lebanese politics may, at this moment, represent a small opportunity for negotiations to free the Western hostages currently held there. It does not, unhappily, seem to offer any early hope for the stricken country.

One of the most striking and moving passages in Glass’s book concerns his visit in 1987 to the former central square of Beirut, the Place des Martyrs, accompanied by two young Lebanese militiamen who had been small children at the beginning of the civil war, and had no recollection at all of the untouched center of the city. (Just as there are young Lebanese now living in Beirut in their late twenties who know Paris and London but have never traveled further than four or five miles in their country, and cannot remember it free.) The main square the militiamen saw with Glass was, he says, a place “waste and void.” Trying not to give snipers a target, they

poked their heads up and surveyed the edge of the new frontier between east and west Beirut. Below the thriving commercial entrepot of Bab Indriss was a swamp. Weeds grew twenty feet into the air, and pools of dank water bred thousands of mosquitoes.

Glass showed the young men the ancient Omari Mosque and the French Cathedral. One of them pointed to the scaffolded Lebanese parliament building and said disdainfully, “the only democracy in the Arab world.” The passage is a terrifying epitaph for a city that still refuses to die.

This Issue

July 19, 1990