Letter from Mount Lebanon

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

A poster of the nineteenth-century Maronite Christian monk Saint Charbel Makhlouf flying in the northern mountain town of Ehden, Lebanon, January 4, 2016

Ehden is an ancient village on the northern heights of Mount Lebanon. Perched above the Qadisha (Sacred) Valley, it has long been a redoubt of the Maronite sect, an Eastern rite of Roman Catholicism whose adherents built their first church, Saint Mamas, here in 749 AD. Some Maronites like to claim descent from the Phoenicians, although their fourth-century founder, Saint Maroun, was born in northern Syria and never set foot in Lebanon. The people of Ehden and Zgharta, its sister village in the foothills nearer the sea, spoke Aramaic into the nineteenth century. Even today their Arabic is pronounced with a distinctive Aramaic accent. Most Lebanese, including urban Maronites, regard them as hillbillies whose feuds would embarrass the Hatfields and McCoys. Five families—Frangieh, Moawad, Doueihy, Karam, and Makary—have vied for dominance over the centuries. The Frangiehs have been primus inter pares since one of them, Suleiman Frangieh, became president of Lebanon in 1970.

My Makary grandmother raised me on mountain folktales. In one, her father is killed defending the village from an Ottoman raid about 1890, a few months before she was born. Other relatives told me he died in a feud among the families. Although her mother married again and took her to the New World, she never lost touch with her native land. Her Arabic—like her cooking—marked her as a born-and-bred Zghartawi.

The first time I visited the ancestral seat, fifty years ago, I had to crouch to get through the doorway of Our Lady of Zgharta Maronite Church. The truncated entrance had been built to stop Ottoman cavalry from riding into and desecrating the sanctuary. Almost every woman in the village dressed in black as an emblem of mourning for the husband, son, brother, or father lost in one or another of the vendettas that plagued their lives. The closest equivalent I ever found was the mountain village of Corleone in Sicily—immortalized by Mario Puzo in The Godfather—where women in black scurried silently in and out of the churches while men in flat caps stood outside bars with their hands in their pockets.

Zgharta-Ehden too was a village of churches, clan rivalries, and overflowing cemeteries. In the early 1970s police arrested a local and jailed him in the regional capital, Tripoli. As I recall, the charge was murder. Zgharta’s men descended on Tripoli with their light arms, surrounded the jail, and forced the cops to release him. No one saw anything odd in this. There is even a kind of respect for Zgharta’s mountain stubbornness.

Ehden comes alive in the summer, when the inhabitants of Zgharta move to their houses here. At the center of Ehden lies a modest piazza called the Midan, whose cafés, restaurants, and hotels surround a flagstone quadrangle not much bigger than two basketball courts. You cannot get a table at that time of year. The season ends on the Day of the Raising of the Cross in mid-September. Winter has come, and I have the place mostly to myself.

I feel at home in Ehden, drinking homemade arak and eating kibbeh nayeh—ground lamb tartar with bulgur made better here than anywhere else. I’m reading my friend Khaled Khalifa’s last novel, No One Prayed Over Their Graves, which features an engaging cast of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and atheists during the waning decades of Ottoman rule in Syria. Like Khaled, who died this past September, I weep over the tragedies imposed on the region since the start of the last century, from Turkey to Gaza.


If Hezbollah’s skirmishes along the border with Israel flare into a full-scale conflagration, the winter calm in Ehden will end. Fear that the Gaza onslaught could extend to Lebanon is widespread. On November 11 Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, reportedly warned that in the event of war with Hezbollah, “the ones who will pay the price will be first and foremost Lebanese citizens…. What we’re doing in Gaza, we can also do in Beirut.” One night before I left Beirut for Ehden I was awakened by a devastating bang. Was it Israeli bombardment or mere thunder? It was thunder, but many friends asked themselves the same question before going back to sleep.

Most of the embassies in Beirut have advised their nationals to leave the country—less in the conviction that a Lebanon–Israel war is inevitable, it seems, than to reduce the number of citizens who would need to evacuate if the worst happens. The Lebanese invariably assume that the embassies know more than they do, which explains why some families have booked houses and apartments up here, forty miles north of Beirut and more than seventy from the border. Ehden’s gracious stone villas seem far from Israelis and Hezbollah alike. Christian areas are believed to be safer than places with large Shiite populations, although Israel bombed them, too, in its war against Hezbollah in 2006.


Most Lebanese empathize with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but not enough to bring the battle here. They remember Israel’s invasions of this country in 1978, 1982, and 2006. When their television and telephone screens show Palestinians being wounded and killed, they see themselves in years past. Those who lived through the Israeli siege of West Beirut in the summer of 1982 know something of how Gazans feel—isolated, tormented, and helpless. In 1982 the Israeli Defense Forces surrounded them, bombed hospitals and schools, and cut off water and electricity. The IDF’s objective was to expel the Palestinian commandos who occasionally crossed the border to attack Israelis, though far less lethally than Hamas did on October 7. The invasion did accomplish that goal, but it also gave birth to a more effective enemy in the form of the Shiite Muslim Party of God, Hezbollah.

Twice in the last five weeks, most Lebanese tuned into speeches by Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. There was fear that he would declare war on Israel in defense of Hamas, provoking an aerial assault that could reduce much of Lebanon to rubble. It didn’t happen. Relief was universal when Nasrallah’s sermons did not call to jihad but warned of an attack with Hezbollah’s estimated array of 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets if Israel escalated its attacks on Lebanon.

AFP/Getty Images

Smoke rises from the site of an Israeli airstrike in Jibbayn, a village in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel, November 23, 2023

Nasrallah mixed his praise of Hamas with the proviso that his Palestinian allies had not consulted him about their attack. For that reason he has confined himself to clashes and daily artillery duels along the “blue line” that has defined the frontier between Israel and Lebanon since 2000. The war of attrition ties down IDF units so they cannot deploy in Gaza. Soldiers die in the process, but Israel does not want a second large-scale war in the north while it struggles in the south. And it has never done well against Hezbollah in ground combat.


In 2001 I took a taxi from Gaza City south to Khan Younis via the town of Deir al-Balah. There were just over a million inhabitants in Gaza then, less than half today’s number. Most were children. “The driver stopped his taxi again and again,” I wrote in my book The Tribes Triumphant (2007), “for children to pass on their morning procession.” Hundreds of them in blue-and-white smocks, backpacks bulging books, were walking to school, holding hands, older ones guiding the littlest through traffic. Israel maintained settlements then in Gaza. The forbidding perimeter fence of one of them, Netzarim, loomed from an outcrop. Waiting for the children to pass, I thought, “To you or me, they were beautiful youngsters, so innocent that they could laugh even in Gaza. To the settlers of Netzarim, who could watch the children of Deir al-Balah with binoculars from their watch towers, they were not children. They were bombs waiting to explode.”

The explosion came on October 7, when Israel lost both lives and one of its historic raisons d’être. Zionism’s founding father, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, envisioned transforming Palestine into Der Judenstaat, the Jewish State, not only as a homeland for Jews but also as “a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Israel would guard Western—first British, later American—interests east of Suez. Its function evolved to become, according to US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.” The indispensable ally, with American military funding, protected not only itself but its sponsor.

The attack of October 7 robbed Herzl’s heirs of the role he had envisioned for the Jewish State. Hamas youths on motorcycles, trucks, and foot rendered useless Israel’s arsenal of surveillance technology. The premise of Israel’s relationship to the West appears to have collapsed. If Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus could not protect its own citizens, how could it defend American interests? The Americans sent two aircraft carrier groups, plus a nuclear submarine, to protect the land-based Israeli carrier that was meant to protect them. It has not been Israel but an American guided-missile destroyer, the USS Carney, that has prevented rockets fired by Iran-supported Houthi rebels from reaching Israeli territory.

An Israeli friend who reports on the security sector told me that the defense industry “took a body punch” on October 7. Last year Israel exported $12.5 billion worth of security and surveillance equipment. When Israeli high-tech salesmen next hawk their products to Arab, Asian, African, or Latin American dictators, it will be hard to trumpet the effectiveness of Pegasus spyware, surveillance drones, security cameras, electrified border fences, and facial recognition technology. Prospective clients will be entitled to ask, “What good did all this stuff do on October 7?” They may look elsewhere for gizmos to keep their people down.


The reputational damage extends to intelligence cooperation with the United States and its Western and Arab allies. Can the US rely on Israeli intelligence agencies that showed themselves not only negligent but incompetent? When Mossad and Shin Bet send information to the CIA and the NSA, can it be trusted? What value will journalists place on the assurances of “Israeli intelligence sources”?

Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a way out of his and his country’s predicaments through the oft-tried medium of war. Those who defied him by killing Israelis must be taught a lesson. Missiles, heavy artillery, aerial bombardment, and bulldozers are intended to restore Israel’s military-intelligence credibility and redeem Netanyahu’s diminished reputation. He distanced himself from his colleague, Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu, when the latter advocated using nuclear weapons on Gaza to eliminate the troublesome enclave once and for all. An American general, William C. Westmoreland, urged the same solution for Vietnam in 1968, when the Vietnamese, like the Gazans, refused to submit to a technologically advanced power. In neither case was the atom bomb a realistic option, but suggesting its use exposed the contempt that Americans had for the “slopes,” as the GIs called the Vietnamese, and that Israeli ministers and settlers have for the Palestinians they call “insects” and “beasts.” Netanyahu said that “Amichai Eliyahu’s words are detached from reality.” But the minister remains in office.

On October 13 the Ministry of Intelligence—a relatively small body that makes nonbinding recommendations—published a policy paper proposing three options for dealing with the people of Gaza. Option A called for letting post-Hamas Gazans remain in the Strip under the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority; Option B also left residents in place but under a local Arab leadership approved by Israel; and Option C, which the authors said was the only guarantee of Israel’s security, called for “the evacuation of the civilian population from Gaza.” Removing the Gazan population appeals to those who seek to reduce Palestinian numbers while increasing acreage for Israeli settlement—the familiar policy of “more land, fewer Arabs.” The displaced Gazans would live in tents, the paper suggested, until Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Canada, Ireland, Spain, and Greece absorbed them. The government downplayed the project, but it did not reprimand its authors.

Meanwhile, as the Israeli onslaught that is depopulating Gaza provokes worldwide outrage, some in the West have attacked and abused Jews: a man set fire to a Jewish–Japanese restaurant in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood; a thug called a man walking to synagogue in London “a dirty Jew.” Antisemitism is a familiar and ancient evil that haunts Jews and harms Palestinians. The “Jewish Problem,” as European racists and even some Zionists called the presence of Jews among Christians in Europe, was never a problem. The problem was the Christian refusal to acknowledge Jewish humanity. Those who attack Jewish people in the diaspora today in the name of defending the Palestinians will succeed only in making their targets question their safety in a gentile country and contemplate emigration to Israel.


My paternal forebears experienced native uprisings of the kind Israel experienced on October 7. They emigrated to America from Ireland in the late eighteenth century and settled in Maryland, Lord Baltimore’s Catholic colony. After the War of Independence they migrated with a charismatic Catholic priest of Russian origin, Prince Demetrius Gallitzin, to western Pennsylvania. My schools did not teach us that one of the reasons the colonists demanded independence from the mother country was their rejection of King George III’s Proclamation of 1763, which forbade white settlement on Native land west of the Allegheny Mountains. The Declaration of Independence, however, was explicit on the point, condemning the monarch who “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

With independence, the Glasses and other families were free to move into the Alleghenies and displace the mountains’ indigenous peoples, who were forced west, where they came into conflict with other indigenous communities. The pretext for assaults on Native villages was invariably a Native attack on settlers. When Jacob Glass and his family helped found the town of Loretto in 1799, they brought with them a legacy of massacres dating from the start of colonization along the Atlantic seaboard.

Among them was the attack that members of the Powhatan Confederacy launched against settlements in Virginia on March 22, 1622. They massacred 347 and beheaded a settler leader, Captain Nathan Powell. They also took women hostage. News of the massacre travelled across the ocean to England, where pamphleteers and politicians demanded retribution. There was no mention of the Natives’ motive or their humanity. One Virginia Company investor, Christopher Brooke, wrote a long poem that included a description of the Natives as

Rooted in Evill, and oppos’d in Good;
Errors of Nature, of inhumane Birth,
The very dregs, garbage, and spawne of Earth…

Vengeance was not long in coming, as settler militias massacred Natives, burned villages and crops, starved them, and kidnapped women and children, going so far as to poison tribal elders who turned up to discuss a truce. By January 1623 the Virginia Council of State declared that “we have slayne more of them this yeare, then hath been slayne before since the beginning of the Colonie.” One settler wrote, “Now their cleared grounds in all their villages… shall be inhabited by us.” The Native problem in Virginia was solved, as it would be across the continent when the early settlers’ descendants pushed west. When I took my sons to see family graves in Loretto some years ago, there was no relic of the civilization our people replaced. Their presence had been erased.


The largest grove of the famed cedar tree, Lebanon’s national symbol, is about a two-and-a-half-hour walk east from Ehden. It is bounded by walls that protect the trees from ravenous goats and timber poachers alike. The trees thrive in the neighborhood of Bsharri, birthplace of the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran. The Maronites of Bsharri and the Maronites of Ehden have detested and fought each other for centuries. Yet one of my Ehden cousins is going out with a girl from Bsharri without causing the friction their romance might have a century ago, when blood would have flowed.

The demise of ancient antagonisms should be a reason for hope in this hopeless land, but it isn’t. Ehden’s tranquility does not hide the fact that peace is precarious here. Lebanon’s Christians lost their majority status two generations ago; fear of erasure looms large in the Maronite imagination in Ehden and the rest of the country. They remember the genocide of Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I, if only because so many of the survivors settled in Lebanon. In the past decade they have watched Islamic State jihadists drive ancient Christian communities out of Iraq and Syria. Israelis have the same fear, despite their country’s strength.

Palestinians, for their part, have already experienced a kind of erasure: leaving the family graves and the olive groves, watching strangers live where they once did. They fear, as they are driven from their homes in Gaza and the West Bank, that they are experiencing it again. And then, as in every war, there is the overwhelming fear of death. “In war, death is blind,” Khaled Khalifa wrote in his novel Death Is Hard Work. “It never stops to look at its victims.”

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in