The first warplanes sheared through the sky at about 3:30 am Friday, just as the call to prayer wavered out from the mosque, the faint, pre-recorded voice of the muezzin drowned in the rising growl of their engines. The bombings began soon after, and the anti-aircraft guns kicked in at about 4 am; we didn’t get to sleep until dawn. I woke up at 9, when a text message bleeped into my cellphone. It was from a friend in Baghdad, who wrote, “I hope U R OK and fine. We all here in Iraq feel worried about U.” I was glad to hear from him, but his message didn’t make me feel any better: When Iraqis are texting from Baghdad to see if you’re OK, you know it’s not good.
We were ready for this, sort of. The day after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, all of Beirut prepared for war in time-honored Lebanese fashion: shopping. We bought siege food, anything that doesn’t need refrigeration–powdered milk, canned hummus, beans, cracked wheat. Less rationally, however, we bought comfort food, compiling a collective shopping list of fear and craving: I bought a chocolate cake mix for no reason. Yogurt, which will spoil once the electricity dies, disappeared from the shelves. And everyone lined up to buy bread. It’s going to mold in a day or two, but who doesn’t feel better after smelling freshly baked bread, and who knew when we’d smell that again? I bought five loaves of it. So many Beirutis bought bread, in fact, that the baker’s syndicate issued a statement to the local radio stations that people shouldn’t stockpile bread, because they have enough flour to continue making it. “If you do continue to stockpile bread,” warned the bakers, “it will contribute to the crisis.” Does that mean that if I stop buying bread, Israel and Hezbollah will stop bombing each other?
Our politics were as schizophrenic as our shopping baskets. The first day, everyone I talked to was furious at Hezbollah. “How can I express my anger?” wrote a Lebanese friend in a mass e-mail blazing with sarcasm. “Maybe by saying bravo to Hizbollah, thank you to Hizbollah. Thank you for ruining the entire season for the poor Lebanese who have been struggling so hard to cover the losses of last year’s events… for destroying the tourism industry and infrastructure? for weakening yet again an already weak government and flushing all the hopes of millions of Lebanese down the drain? should I say more?”