By Robert Fisk
13 March 2005
Hariris table in the Etoile coffee shop in Beirut is on the right
of the door, far back against the wall. Here it was that Mr Lebanon
dropped by for his last coffee on 14 February, only three minutes before
his convoy was bombed.
I sat in the Etoile
this week and looked at Hariris chair - the waiters routinely
point it out to the pilgrims who now follow his last journey, walking
from the parliament building across the square to the Etoile and then
the last mournful trip to the site of the bombing. And perhaps because
I knew Hariri - and had once asked him if he believed in life after
death - I find myself much moved by his passing.
I remember the lunches
and dinners he invited me to attend which I was too tired or bored to
go to, the conversations I ended abruptly because I had deadlines to
meet. In his death, he has become more real than in life, which is,
I suppose, the only way in which we can be certain that the dead live
I suppose we Brits - or at least, the British press - have always been
fascinated by life beyond the grave. Our fear of death, our hesitation
to confront it while we are alive, our constant, unspoken hope that
it remains many years away, seems - out here in the Middle East - a
peculiarly Western phenomenon. For in a part of the world where a persons
religion is part of their life - as opposed to the cultural bubble in
which we have confined it - the end of life does not appear so terrible
or so final.
This does not mean that life is cheap in the Middle East - though I
suspect that death is - but that this is a continent of believers. In
Europe, we close our churches or use them for concerts or turn up for
marriages - yes, and death - but mosques in the Middle East grow larger,
their congregations ever bigger. Men and women can face death in the
Middle East with the same sangfroid as those European divines we condemned
to burn at the stake.
I once asked a young
Hizbollah fighter how he knew there was a life after death. "I
can prove it to you," he replied. "Do you believe that justice
exists? Yes? Well, since there is no justice in this life, it must mean
there is justice in the next life - so there is life after death!"
I was still pondering
the logic of this when I visited the Iranian battlefront in the Iran-Iraq
war. Under shellfire, I found myself in trenches during the battle of
the Dusallok Heights, a system of earthworks that looked uncannily like
the battlefields in which my father once fought in France in 1918. The
dugout in which I sought shelter was small and a thick dust hung in
the air. The light from the sandbagged doorway forced its way into the
little bunker, defining the features of the boys inside in two dimensional
perspective, an Orpen sketch of impending death at the front.
the parallels ended. For the youngest soldier - who welcomed us, like
an excited schoolboy, at the entrance - was only 14, his voice unbroken
by either fear or manhood. The oldest among them was 21. I still have
my mud-stained notes of our conversation which I realise, now, carried
more meaning than I realised at the time.
Yes, said the 14-year-old,
two of his friends from Kerman had died in the battle for Dezful - one
his own age and one only a year older. He had cried, he said, when the
authorities delayed his own journey to the battlefront. Cried, I asked?
A child cries because he cannot die yet?
His comments were
incredible and genuine and terrifying at one and the same time. But
it was an older boy to whom the child soldiers deferred, a young man
sitting on a rug by the door, bearded and - how I hate this cliché
- intense. His name was Hassan Qasqari and I do not know if he survived
- I suspect not - but he wanted to tell me how I lacked faith.
"It is impossible
for you in the West to understand," he said. "Martyrdom brings
us closer to God. We do not seek death - but we regard death as a journey
from one form of life to another. There are two phases in martyrdom:
we approach God and we also remove the obstacles that exist between
God and the people. Those who create obstacles for God in this world
are the enemies of God."
I could not imagine
this speech on a Western warfront. Perhaps a British or American military
padre might talk of religion with this odd imagination. And then I realised
that these Iranian boy soldiers were all "padres"; they were
all priests, all preachers, all believers. "Our first duty,"
Qasqari said, "is to kill the enemy forces so that Gods order
will be everywhere. Becoming a martyr is not a passive thing..."
If I did not understand this, he said, it was because the European Renaissance
had done away with religion, no longer paying attention to morality
or ethics, concentrating only upon materialism. I tried - in vain -
to staunch this monologue, to transfuse this fixed belief with arguments
about humanity or love. But no.
the West have confined these issues to the cover of churches,"
he said. "Western people are like fish in the water: they can only
understand their immediate surroundings. They dont care about
spirituality." I looked at all these doomed youths. "Not in
the hands of boys but in their eyes," wrote Owen, "Shall shine
the holy glimmer of goodbyes."
Of course, I tried
my own arguments: that the Renaissance was not about the death of faith
but about the triumph of humanity; that it remained a tragedy that the
Islamic world - with its enemies at the gates - failed to pass through
a renaissance of similar proportions; that perhaps Muslims would be
less dogmatic in following every line of the Koran so literally if Da
Vinci and Michelangelo and Shakespeare - and, yes, Machiavelli - had
lived in Baghdad or Cairo. It was to no purpose. Faith ruled.
And then this week,
I looked up my notes of a radio programme on Islam that I produced for
the BBC in 1996 and, sure enough, every Muslim man and woman stated
with total conviction that their souls would live on - not in rivers
of honey or surrounded by virgins - but that there really did exist
a continuing life. The only Christian I interviewed for the programme
was Professor Kamal Salibi, who used to run Jordanian Prince Hassans
Centre for Interfaith Studies. What happened after death, I asked him?
"Nothing," he said. "We are dust. It is the end."
And I became a little
frightened by this and much preferred a Muslim Egyptian woman who told
me that not only would there be another life but also that she had some
hard questions to ask God when she got there.
I have no wish to
change my religion - if, indeed, I have one, for I notice that that
we always make a distinction these days between the "Muslim world"
and the "Western world" rather than the "Christian world"
- but sometimes, after all the deaths I have witnessed, all the piles
of corpses, all the innocents taken from this world, I have asked myself
why we cannot believe in an afterlife.
Alas, it may be
that the Renaissance which gave us our freedom also provided us with
our eternal fear of death. And yes, Hariri told me he did believe in
the afterlife. I am not so sure. But when I left the Etoile coffee shop,
I did glance across at his table, just in case I saw him sitting there.
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