In an interview with Michael Young, Senior Editor, Diwan – Carnegie Middle East Center, Charles Glass speaks of Lebanon, his books, and what he really thinks about war. His latest book, They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, will be published in September. In 1986, Glass reported on the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut (photo above), in which Americans were taken hostage, and his reporting is said to have led to the aborting of a U.S. rescue plan, as the hostages had been moved away from the airport. In 1987, Glass made headlines himself when he was kidnapped for more than two months by Shi‘a militants, before his escape. He spoke to Diwan about Lebanon, his books, and those people who left a mark on him, mainly because they mitigated the effects of violence.
Michael Young: You’re spending much time in Beirut these days. Can you describe your relationship with Lebanon?
Charles Glass: Lebanon is the bitch who stole my soul, kicked me around, and had me coming back for more. What can I say? I’m demented. An old Jesuit teacher of mine, when I told him where my ancestors came from, said, “If you’re half-Irish and half-Lebanese, you have to be at least half-crazy.”
MY: On your Lebanese side, your family comes from the northern Lebanese village of Zghorta, and the associated village of Ehden, where the people of Zghorta spend the summer. You often visit these places, so what is it about them that you enjoy?
CG: In a word, family. My grandmother, who left Mount Lebanon in the declining years of Ottoman rule, romanticized her twin villages for me. It’s hard to shake her portrait of Zghorta and Ehden in the era before cement, garbage-strewn streets, and polluted rivers. The mountain of my childhood imagination was of apple orchards, olive groves, stone houses with terra cotta roofs, and a river so cold, she said, it could crack a watermelon in two. The reality is a little different, but the dream is hard to shake.
I wrote years ago in the Spectator that Zghorta and Ehden were to me what bullfighting aficionados call a querencia—the place where the bull feels safe in the ring, the unmarked patch of ground where he makes his stand. Of course, nowhere is safe. But it is a consoling aspect of existence to have such a place. I love the big table outdoors in summer, with all the family, the children playing on the grass, the world’s best kibbeh nayyeh [raw meat mixed in with cracked wheat, a local specialty], and homemade arak [Lebanon’s anis-based national drink], music, and laughter.
MY: You’ve just finished writing a new book. What is it about?
CG: The title is, They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, which Penguin Press is publishing in September. It tells the story of Anglo-American brothers George and John Starr. They served underground in Nazi-occupied France for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, organizing the French Resistance. George was one of the most successful operatives of the war, helping to defeat the Nazis in southwest France and liberate Toulouse. The Nazis captured John, tortured him, held him at their headquarters in Paris, and sent him to a series of concentration camps. Despite their valor, both brothers were put on trial after the war. The trials are the climax of their story, so I won’t say here how they came out.
MY: So, while you’re attached to the Middle East, your recent books suggest a desire to escape from the region. Is that correct?
CG: It’s not escape so much as variety. The great C. L. R. James wrote, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” I wrote Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation because I loved living in Paris and wanted an excuse to stay there and do research. That led to more books on, not Paris, but World War II. The war was not something that had interested me before, but now I’m addicted. It is my great regret that I did not ask my father, my uncles, and cousins of their generation more about World War II. Now I’m researching a proposal for a book on mental trauma in World War I. Much of my writing on the Middle East is informed by what I have learned about World War II and vice versa. There are so many things to write about, that I hope to live long enough to finish at least a few more books on them.
MY: Looking back on the war years in Lebanon, what did you learn, both personally and professionally?
CG: The great lesson for me of the Lebanon war, as well as the other wars I’ve witnessed and researched, is that war is a mistake and a crime. Choosing arbitration by violence is to unleash all that emanates from war: murder, rape, pillaging, maiming, destruction of families and homes, burning flesh, screaming infants, orphans, widows, propaganda lies and the denigration of truth. Shakespeare’s “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war” means letting mayhem and rapine loose in the world.
MY: You, famously, wrote a book titled Tribes With Flags, about the Middle East. Today, it seems, there are still the tribes, but without flags. How has the Middle East changed in the past 30–40 years since you began covering it?
CG: The title was from something the Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer used to say: “Egypt is the only nation state in the Middle East. The rest are tribes with flags.” He meant the mini-states that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement: Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. They remain tribes with their so-called “national” flags. The bickering continues, and no one is growing up. Outside powers and local grandees share the blame for holding these countries to ransom and sustaining violence. Those who represented hope—as much for an educated and honest Syrian as for an Israeli who rejected his country’s racism and militarization—used to be emigrate to the United States. Then Donald Trump came along.
MY: Among the many politicians or other people you’ve met, who lingers most in your mind, and why?
CG: If politicians lingered in my mind, I’d probably go mad. The individuals I remember best are those who stood against violence and mitigated some of its effects. Among them were Jean Hoefligher of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who tried to save the refugees in the Palestinian refugee camp of Tall al-Za‘tar from being massacred in 1976; Dr. Swee Ang and Dr. Pauline Cutting and Derek and Pam Cooper of Medical Aid for Palestine; many anti-occupation Israelis, including Israel Shahak, Nurit Peled, Rami Elhannan, Gideon Levy, and Amira Haas; the many Lebanese physicians and educators who stayed in Lebanon throughout the war in order to save lives and minds, when they could have left; Norman Finkelstein, who forfeited a safe career in American academe out of sheer integrity; and historians such as Albert Hourani and Kamal Salibi. The greatest intellects I’ve encountered as a result of working in Lebanon are Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, to whom I dedicated one of my books. What are politicians compared to people like these?
MY: Many American foreign correspondents tend to go home after the end of their careers and make up for lost time. Not you. Why?
CG: I left my childhood home, Los Angeles, in 1972 to take a Master’s degree in philosophy at the American University of Beirut. While there, thanks to Peter Jennings and Bill Blakemore of ABC News, I started a career in journalism. What would I go back to? My children are in the United Kingdom and France. My extended family live all over the world. And I don’t know what “lost time” means. I have to work to survive. Luckily, I like the work.