The colour of Lebanon

CAIRO, Egypt I drew a line I drew a line for you Oh what a thing to do And it was all yellow Your skin Oh yeah your skin and bones Turn into…

CAIRO, Egypt

I drew a line

I drew a line for you

Oh what a thing to do

And it was all yellow

Your skin

Oh yeah your skin

and bones

Turn into something


Do you know for you

I bleed

myself dry

For you I bleed

myself dry

Coldplay, Yellow

On my final day in Lebanon, I travelled throughout the south, to the places where four fifths of the homes are destroyed and the rest are damaged.

“I’ve never seen it so yellow before,” said Samer Karam, my Lebanese companion.

I assumed he meant the colour of the land.

The plants were yellow-brown, their twigs shriveled and brittle for lack of water, and the earth was dry and dusty.

This seems normal for a country in the Middle East — until you see Israel.

Maroun er Ras is a village on a mountain.

Warfare has almost leveled it, reducing it to rubble.

The border is less than a kilometre away, where brown and yellow meet green. Where plants grow, and water flows, is Israel.

The contrasting colours made the border appear as though nature — not people — intended the two lands to be separate.

Perhaps the lines on maps and razor-wire fences only ratified and enforced God’s will.

But the transition was too abrupt to be natural.

Irrigated, pruned, geometric orchards stood within 15 metres of fallow Lebanon, with only a dirt track between them.

It was a gash, like where old forest meets a clear-cut.

From across the border my eye caught the sun’s glint reflecting off the surface of a stream or an intact pane of glass.

It was too calm; too many flies landed everywhere on us.

Through the shimmering air Israel looked like a desert mirage of the sweet, luscious gardens of light described in the Qur’an.

Like those gardens — the promise of Allah to one who chooses martyrdom — there was only one way for the people whose homes lay ruined in Maroun er Ras to reach the verdant place: Through death.

I saw only two buildings in a usable state in Maroun er Ras: a UN observation point and the town mosque.

The UN post bore several pock-marks in the walls from shells or shrapnel and a large chunk was missing from one corner of the building, as though a giant had taken a bite out of it.

A threadbare white flag flew above the forlorn observation tower.

I could not tell if the UN blue had been bleached out by the sun — if so, it’s a sign the facilities were abandoned long before — or if the frightened peacekeepers had raised a flag of surrender in a bid to save themselves during the fighting.

The mosque was standing also.

Perhaps it was left undisturbed to prove the West’s sincerity in claiming that “terrorists,” not Islam, were the target.

While the villagers would surely appreciate the necessity of destroying their homes in order to flush out Hezbollah, they might be angered by the wanton, unnecessary leveling of their place of worship.

If only someone were left in Maroun er Ras to witness this gesture. But where were they now to live — in the mosque?

We met only one man in the village.

His name was Aisa and was accompanied by a male relative who spoke no English.

Aisa was inspecting a pile of rubble.

“Was your home damaged?” I asked.

“This is my home,” he said, pointing to the rubble. I asked if I could take a picture of him next to his home, and he agreed.

The photo shows him smiling slightly through drawn lips, looking sideways at the camera out of the corners of his eyes — a still polite, but weary, skeptical and sad man.

His complexion looked unhealthy, perhaps a little yellow.

I wondered which of these two symbols of the forces that will shape the future of the area — the UN and the mosque — would prevail.

The UN’s observation tower, bristling with communication antennae and satellite dishes, looked like the bridge of a battered battleship, a 21st century Noah’s Ark run aground on a mountaintop.

Perhaps inside, saved from the deluge and wearing blue hats, was a perfect microcosm of humanity: Two exemplars of every human variety. But they would not come out when we approached.

The mosque, on the other hand, was built low to the ground, of humble, solid stone, like the people of Maroun er Ras.

Samer was referring, however, not to the earth, but to the thousands of yellow Hezbollah flags and banners that have been strung from every archway and telephone pole still standing in South Lebanon.

They are the shrouds that have been draped on the country’s shattered and bloody body.

Yellow ribbons were used in America in the 1980s by those waiting for the return of a loved ones kidnapped in the Iran hostage crisis.

Since then, the yellow ribbon has taken on a more general significance and is displayed in the US by those who await the return of family who serve in the armed forces.

But Hezbollah did not choose its yellow wisely.

It is not a soft, warm, golden yellow, like you might find in a Van Gogh.

There is something shrill and aggressive about it.

The symbolism of this yellow comports too well with the western image of the “terrorist.”

The only advantage of its flag is that — like taxis and school buses — it is visible at great distance.

For yellow is the colour of phlegm and jaundice. In the Middle Ages it was hung above areas with the plague.

And again today, where the flag hangs there is — in the eyes of Israel and the West — a terrorist “plague.”

“Terrorists,” according to our imagination, are cowardly and dangerous. They are “yellow bellied.”

To western eyes, the indecipherable Arabic writing and outline of a Kalashnikov set to a yellow background looks strangely like the geometrics of biohazard or nuclear labels. Another warning of lethal danger set to a yellow background.

Yellow is also the colour of treachery.

The ecclesiastical colour ascribed to Judas was yellow, and his garment is often portrayed that colour, for example in paintings of the Last Supper by Giotto Bondone, Juan Juanes and Philippe de Champaigne.

Strangely, given the context, in Nazi Germany the Star of David insignia identifying Jews — the supposed betrayers of Christ — was yellow.

Many Lebanese will say that it is Israel who is cowardly, relying almost entirely on its unassailable air force to destroy Lebanon’s economy, while never engaging with Hezbollah’s fighters on the ground.

But we in the West know that it is the “terrorists” who are cowardly.

They could be defeated if they would face us in open, fair combat. In their weakness they employ deceit, which leads to their frightening, shadowy, suicidal dangerousness.

The irony that yellow is the colour of the ribbon campaign against suicide could not have been lost on Hezbollah.

But after visiting the south, these images I harboured evaporated.

Only two stuck in my mind.

I thought of the Coldplay song Yellow and the French expression “rire jaune,” which means mirthless laughter.

It is the laughter of one who has reason to be angry or offended, but out of fear, politeness or caution forces himself to laugh.

The yellow of the rire jaune comes from the concentration, in the face, of yellow bile.

Those who used to study humours called sufferers of the yellow bile choleric and described them as irascible and bad tempered, but also charismatic and inclined toward political or military leadership.

I visited the south of Lebanon, and it was all yellow.