18 Jun 2013

POLITICS: Nicholas Blanford

The correspondence of Kent-born Nicholas Blanford appears on the BBC and in Time, Daily Star and Christian Science Monitor. He is author of Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel”...

Is there such a thing as a typical working day in your life?
Not really. Some days could consist of sitting at my desk writing up stories, other days investigating bomb explosions, interviewing Hezbollah fighters, roaming around the wilds of the Bekaa Valley etc. etc.

How long have you lived in the Middle East?
Since November 1994 

When did your feet first meet Lebanon’s soil?
May 24, 1993 for a six-week trip. 

Did you always want to be a foreign correspondent?

Is Lebanon in particular trouble now?
Lebanon is always skirting the edge of trouble. Being a tiny neighbour of Syria it was inevitable that the conflict there was going to spill across the border and affect us here. I expect further instability and bouts of violence in Lebanon, but I don't think we will see the country plunge into civil war along the lines of 1975-90. The dynamics for a civil war are not present.

Is your work-load significant at the present time – and are you thriving on it? 
Yes, busier than usual, and that’s a good thing as a freelancer. The more I write, the more food there is on the table for my family.

What, other than religious-inspired war, is the biggest threat to stability?
Another war with Israel. The last one in 2006 was bad enough, but the next one will make ‘06 look like a walk in the park.

What are the Hezbollah? 
A militant Shia organisation that’s ideologically and logistically linked to Iran’s clerical leadership, but whose members are drawn from Lebanon’s Shia community. Its raison d’être is the struggle against Israel, liberating Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation initially but with a broader goal of seeing an end to the Zionist state of Israel and the restoration of historic Palestine to the Palestinians. Its military component, the Islamic Resistance, is the most formidable non-state armed actor in the world. It has global reach and operates a massive revenue-generating enterprise to augment its funding from Iran. It has a parliamentary bloc and engages in mainstream Lebanese politics and runs a comprehensive social-welfare system of schools, hospitals, clinics among other activities.

It is the most powerful political and military player in Lebanon. It is adored by its followers and loathed and feared by its opponents. 

Have Hezbollah ever done anything of value in your opinion? 
Forcing Israel to withdraw from its occupation zone in south Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years was a remarkable accomplishment. It was the first time Israel has unilaterally yielded occupied territory due to Arab military pressure. Hezbollah's military performance in the 2006 war, in which they fought the Israeli army to a standstill in south Lebanon, also was impressive. Its social-welfare system has helped alleviate hardship for many poorer Lebanese.

What are the risks involved in investigating and covering Hezbollah and their activities? 
I’ve been writing on Hezbollah for a long time and my reporting in the 1990s when Hezbollah was resisting the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon earned me some goodwill from the organisation’s leadership which - I think - has more or less lasted to the present day. They definitely don’t like everything I write and I don’t think they like my roaming around their areas as much as I do. I’ve been detained by them a few times over the years, even spending a night in jail on one occasion. But I’m under no illusions. If Hezbollah feels threatened, it can be a very dangerous organisation. 

How does your family feel about this aspect of your work? 
They’ve grown used to it. 

When were you last frightened? 
When I was in a clapped-out Mercedes taxi driving along a narrow potholed road with a 600ft sheer drop on one side - and my driver said he’d left his glasses at home...  

What is the Lebanese mindset, and have you adopted it? 
The Lebanese mindset is unfathomable. I’m still a Brit at heart but with some Lebanese flourishes, I suppose.

What, other than career, keeps you in Lebanon?
The food, the wine, the “buzz” of Beirut and the mountains. Love the mountains in Lebanon. 

What misconceptions do Britons commonly hold regarding Lebanon? 
Hard to say as I’ve been here so long I don’t know what the average Briton thinks of Lebanon these days. When I moved out here in 1994, I departed England with jokes about being chained to radiators ringing in my ears...

Could there be peace in Lebanon in your lifetime? 
There’s peace in Lebanon on a daily basis, you just have to find the right peaceful place in Lebanon each day to enjoy it. 

Do you take holidays?
We, the family, try to get away for a couple of weeks each summer - the UK, Europe, the US. Otherwise, we spend time in the mountains or at our chalet on the beach. I do quite a bit of hiking in the “jurd” (wilderness in the mountains). You don’t see a soul for the entire day; no buildings, no cars, just the sound of the wind and the buzz of a passing insect. In the winter, it’s covered in snow, and in the summer it’s a sun-blasted landscape of karstic limestone. Beautiful.

What is boredom?
Putting on a suit everyday and working in an office. 

Are you as calm as you seem? 
Alcohol helps.

Also see interview with Michael Karam
...and images of Lebanon at Visuals