Resistance: My Life for Lebanon - review by Laura Fokkena

In 1988, Soha Bechara bought some Jane Fonda workout tapes in preparation for her new job as personal aerobics instructor to the wife of Antoine Lahad, chief of militia in charge of Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, a job Bechara took with the clandestine intention of assassinating her boss's husband. The image of this twenty-year-old Lebanese revolutionary, revolver in her purse, using a mixture of French and Arabic to talk about building the abdominal muscles while Hanoi Jane does jumping jacks in the background has to be one of the most compelling -- if bizarre -- representations of war, occupation, and the surrealism of postcolonialism to emerge in the last decade. Eventually Bechara would put two bullets in Lahad's chest. He lived, but her act earned her ten years in a Lebanese prison.
 
Bechara's autobiography, Resistance: My Life For Lebanon (Soft Skull Press, 2003) works on many levels. It's an accessible introduction to the mess that was Lebanon during the civil war. It's an insider's guide to making revolution. It's an expose of Khiam, a prison in southern Lebanon created by the Israelis and then left to be managed by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), their proxy in the region. Mostly, though, it's an autobiography that explains how a girl born in 1967 goes from attending family weddings and watching television with her friends to becoming a would-be assassin.
 
The first half of the book concentrates on her upbringing in Lebanon, where her attentions were divided between everyday topics and the madness of war: between her sister with boyfriend troubles and her cousin who was killed when a nearby car bomb exploded, between her effort to excel in sports and her attempt to convince her school principal to let students go on strike in solidarity with a fallen comrade, between her engineering studies and "the vocabulary of war" -- snipers, displaced persons, refugees.
 
Her parents soon decided that Beirut in the midst of civil war was no place to raise a family and moved temporarily to the village of Deir Mimas, where they had relatives. Bechara was influenced by the varying political leanings of her friends and family members -- including her apolitical mother -- but was most swayed by the example of her father, a quiet communist. She eventually came to believe that divisiveness between Lebanon's many religions and ethnic groups was counterproductive: the real problem was Israel. She joined the resistance and was given the task of assassinating Lahad.
 
The second half of the book is an account of her decade in prison. She'd assumed she'd be murdered on the spot for her action, but both she and her target lived. She was sent to Khiam, where she endured torture and solitary confinement. The claustrophobic conditions of solitary allowed her to take only two steps from the door of her cell to the opposite wall. The men's conditions, she heard through rumors, were even worse: due to overcrowding they were kept in 3'-by-3' cells that didn't allow the prisoner to move, except to eat. Men survived that way for months.
 
Khiam did, however, afford Bechara the chance to make several fruitful connections with other prisoners protesting the Israeli occupation. They left messages for each other engraved in shower sponges and sang songs to each other through the pipes of the sinks in their cells. Bechara forced herself to exercise every day, even when she'd had only one meal, eaten in ten minutes, and her wrist was handcuffed to her ankle. She created games to keep her mind occupied, invented mathematical puzzles ("I worked my way up to squares of 49 numbers, not without some satisfaction") and created handiworks from confiscated materials, including a needle made from the foil of French cheese. The bulk of her attention, however, was focused on making life difficult for Abu Nabil, the head of Khiam; she continually resisted his attempts to break her will, even when she knew she'd be punished with torture and more time in solitary confinement. For ten years it went on like this, prisoners coming and going without trial, all of them interrogated, most of them tortured. She counted sixty people who were arrested because of her action alone, including her own mother.
 
"To not waste my time," Bechara pledged. "This was the goal I set for myself when I arrived in prison: to try to make the most of my circumstances, to learn from them. I didn't want to be bound by the endless waiting that saps the will."
 
In 1998 Bechara was freed through the pressure of several international human rights organizations, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross. Khiam was liberated on May 24, 2000, at the same time as the rest of south Lebanon, "by bare-handed villagers," she wrote. "The villagers butted up against the cell doors. They broke open the locks, bringing back to life haggard men and women who were dumbfounded by this sudden reversal of history." After her release Bechara spent four years in Paris, where she studied Hebrew. She now lives in Switzerland.
 
Her straightforward account comes at a different phase in the Middle Eastern conflict, a time when the motives of suicide bombers are at the forefront of so many discussions. My Life for Lebanon helps answer many of these questions, but above all it is a critique of the religious factionalism that divides potential allies and a chronicle of one woman's attempt to stay sane in the midst of insane circumstances.
 
"Fear is always there," she writes. "You know that in yourself you have found your ultimate adversary, and that you must once again go beyond yourself to find your freedom, once more, you must resist."
 
Laura Fokkena lives in Boston.