I met Mahassen Shukry on a warm day in early March. Her house smelled of spice, and potted plants, and that indescribable, earthy aroma that accompanies any true home. I was running a few minutes early, and so her daughter, Nidhal, and young grandson, Ziad, kept our staff photographer and me company while Mahassen finished getting ready. Ziad was extremely curious about my recorder, and while he eyed it, Nidhal eyed him and chatted with us about vacationing and the unusually dry weather.
When Mahassen emerged, wearing a blue gown and a laugh, we settled down on the sizably large white sofas in the living room to talk about war, Iraq and the American way. As the cofounder of the Arab-Jewish Peace Alliance in Albuquerque, a board member of the local chapter of the United Nations and a member of other peace groups such as the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, Mahassen’s views weren’t difficult to retrieve. As a 70-year-old peace activist born in Lebanon who later married an Iraqi man--and who lived in Iraq a number of years before moving to the U.S. in 1970 who continues to frequent the Middle East--those views were precious, offering a rare glimpse through the eyes of someone who thoroughly knew both worlds.
She spoke unhesitatingly, pouncing on her first words. “The scene is so ugly,” she said. “What is not just, is not just. What is not right, is not right.
“When we go to a war—we are destroying ourselves and somebody else. We are destroying our economy. We are destroying our society.”
Today, with regard to the re-emerged conflict between Israel and Lebanon, Mahassen might reiterate those same words. But it would be considerably more difficult to sit down with her for a leisurely visit. While I write, she is trapped in Lebanon, after returning for a family reunion a little more than three weeks ago. According to reports from her daughter, Nidhal, she is stuck in a room on the outskirts of Tyre along with three other family members, bombs falling all around.
According to Jeanne Pahls, a peace activist from Stop the War Machine in Albuquerque (who is speaking for Nidhal as she wishes not to comment on the situation at this time), the last time Nidhal spoke with any of her family members from that room outside Tyre was last Monday, July 24. Nidhal called the sole cell phone among the group, and her uncle answered but quickly had to go, saying planes were overhead. Nidhal has not heard from her mother or other relatives in the room since.
“We didn’t even know she was there,” says Pahls, who has known Mahassen for five years and is concerned about her safety. “She told her daughter she thinks it will be over in a couple weeks. But I think the whole situation is very upsetting to Mahassen—to look around and see families being bombed.”
In order for Mahassen to return to the U.S., she has to get to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, in the midsection of Lebanon. Tyre, where she’s located, is in southern Lebanon and is plagued by bombings.
“She can’t travel in this situation; she has a difficult time getting to her sister’s house to call her daughter,” says Pahls. “And I’m not sure she would even want to leave anymore if she could. If they get her out, how awful would it feel to leave her family behind? Just because she’s from the U.S., she can get out? The U.S. is paying for the bombs.”
To protest the U.S.’s involvement in the Israel-Lebanon conflict, Pahls and others from Stop the War Machine spent time every day last week walking with signs outside Sen. Pete Domenici’s office Downtown. With pickets asking the U.S. to stop funding Israel until the conflict is resolved, Pahls says she hopes to come out every day until Mahassen’s return.
“I’m disgusted by Israel’s actions and by the U.S.’s support,” she said when I met with her on a sweltering day outside Domenici’s office last week. “[Israel] has bombed roads, bridges, areas by hospitals, equipment for sewer pipes—they’re targeting civilian populations.
“The U.S. should stop funding Israel. It should listen to Hezbollah, to what they’re saying, instead of dismissing them as terrorists. In Lebanon, when people look up, they know where the planes and bombs are coming from.”
On July 28, Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Bernalillo) sent a letter to Gov. Bill Richardson and members of the press, urging the state to cancel our contract with Israel on the operation of a trade office in Jerusalem until the conflict is resolved. In reponse to Garcia’s request, on July 31 on Domenici’s weekly radio show, Domenici said he thinks such a move is the wrong path, adding, “It’s a terrible thing that happened out there. Let’s pray and hope it ends quickly and the unnecessary death stops fast.”
Ruth Imber was also present at the vigils last week. A member of the Jewish community in Albuquerque who has worked with Mahassen in peace activism, Imber says she is against Israel’s actions. “I’m concerned about Israel, about all humanity. Don’t think Israel will be safe by bombing the hell out of Lebanon,” she says. “They have to find a way to make peace, and it has to start with a cease-fire. This country—Bush—can do something about that. He can enforce a cease-fire by not giving [Israel] more money.
“I cry every day when I listen to the news, when I realize what my people are doing. But we don’t hear about the demonstrations in Israel right now. But this is no way to make a safe place for Jews. How will this make them safe? Right now, they’re recruiting for Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. But the present Israeli government is a terrorist organization too.”
Abdulrauf Campos-Marquetti, spokesperson for the Islamic Center of New Mexico, says the center is also in support of a cease-fire and fairer U.S. involvement. “Instead of negotiating a cease-fire, [the U.S.] is actually fueling the fire by sending military equipment [to Israel],” he says.
“Things are clearly not working. The amount of devastation, the number of rockets, is about the same every day. We’re not even hearing about southern Israel and Gaza, where similar bombing is occurring. We condemn the war on both sides, the bombing of innocent civilians.”
According to Campos-Marquetti, who is also the producer of Islamic Forum of New Mexico, a one-hour television show on public access, the fighting in the region has escalated too far, and the U.S. should use its sway to help all sides come to a resolution. “Now al Qaeda says it wants to join in; it’s turned into an incredible nightmare,” he says. “The damage you see on buildings, schools, hospitals, businesses. There are now 500,000 homeless people in southern Lebanon. There’s a huge humanitarian crisis in the middle of a war that no one seems to want to stop.
“I think we have to apply pressure on both sides. They want to disarm Hezbollah, well, let’s disarm Israel at the same time, too. I know the country needs to defend itself, but at the same time, what is going to push Israel to resolve the issue of Palestine?
“The U.S. is always talking about democracy, democracy, democracy. Here’s a country that’s reaching for it. The only way to resolve it is through negotiation, true diplomatic exchange.
“We pray for peace.”