By MARK HAND
Although half a world away and 100 years apart, Soha Bechara’s life in Lebanon, at least the first 36 years, has presented some striking similarities to Alexander Berkman’s struggle for economic justice during the age of industrialization in the United States. Her just-published memoirs, Resistance: My Life for Lebanon, convey a single-minded determination to rid the world of a perceived wrong, a style that characterized the autobiographical writings of political revolutionaries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1988, at the age of 21, Bechara shot Antoine Lahad, a general in charge of the South Lebanese Army, the pro-Israeli, predominantly Christian militia that controlled southern Lebanon as a proxy for Israel. Lahad survived the assassination attempt. For the next 10 years, following weeks of torture, Bechara, a member of the Lebanese Communist Party, was held without trial at Khiam, a brutal detention center in the mountains of southern Lebanon created by the Israelis and managed by the SLA.
Berkman was also 21 when he tried to assassinate millionaire industrialist Henry Clay Frick. In 1892, Frick oversaw the shooting of striking workers at the Carnegie steel mills in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh. Born in Russia in 1870, Berkman developed a taste for political agitation early in his life and had been deeply moved by the plight of five revolutionaries who were executed in connection with the 1881 assassination of the Russian tsar.
Already an orphan, Berkman in 1888 decided to move to the United States where he developed a close and lasting friendship with Emma Goldman, also a Russian Jew who had immigrated a few years earlier. Upon his arrival, controversy was still raging over the execution of the Haymarket anarchists in Chicago in November 1887. Looking back, Berkman viewed the Haymarket affair as a galvanizing moment in his lifelong embrace of anarchism.
During the Homestead steel strike, Frick had become a “symbol of capitalist oppression, whose removal, he thought, would rouse the people against the injustice of the existing order,” Paul Avrich writes in his book, Anarchist Portraits. Berkman spent 14 years in the Western Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, an experience he described in his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, published six years after his release: “I feel like one recovering from a long illness; very weak, but with a touch of joy in life.”
Five years after gaining her freedom from the Khiam detention center, Soft Skull Press has published the English translation of Bechara’s memoirs, Resistance: My Life for Lebanon, a large portion of which describes the ordeal of her captivity. Upon her release from Khiam, Bechara said she felt the weight of all those stolen years. “I had been roughly shaken back to life, and I found it hard to find the rhythm of a peaceful existence,” she remembers.
Although a member of the Lebanese Communist Party, Bechara’s guiding philosophy was nationalism and a Lebanon free of Israeli control. “My apprenticeship in politics sped up dramatically during 1982, that terrible year. The Israeli invasion gave me bitter strength in my beliefs. I was fifteen, and I was now ready to move into action,” she writes.
Bechara and her colleagues in the resistance movement aimed to strike Israeli interests in the occupied zone of southern Lebanon. After assessing various options, they decided that Bechara’s mission would be to target Lahad, Israel’s military chief in the region. But as the moment neared for her to perform the deed, Bechara’s thoughts turned to anguish over committing such a violent act. “I was as determined as ever, but for the first time I realized the difficulty of the task, the self-will that murder, however justified it was in my eyes, implied,” Bechara writes.
In the end, though, Bechara felt an obligation to the resistance against the South Lebanese Army and Israel. “I felt it was my duty to take part. If we did nothing, I said, we Lebanese would suffer the same fate as the Palestinians.”
A similar spirit for liberation raged in the hearts of activists in late 19th century America, a time when workers were forced to toil terribly long hours in dangerous conditions, only to receive crumbs from the awesome wealth they were creating. To Berkman, Frick was the symbol of wealth and power, of the injustice and wrong of the capitalistic class, just like Lahad represented the chaos and turmoil created when one nation used its might to occupy and oppress the people of another.
In her autobiography, Living My Life, Goldman explains how Berkman, knowing that he may be executed for his act, asked her to use her speaking skills to explain to the workers the significance of his planned assassination of Frick. “I could articulate its meaning to the workers. I could explain that he had no personal grievance against Frick, that as a human being Frick was no less to him than to anyone else,” Goldman writes. “Sasha’s act would be directed against Frick, not as a man, but as an enemy of labour.”
In her final days before the assassination attempt, Bechara received advice from her comrade, Rabih, who recommended she write a letter explaining her act in case she became a “martyr” of the Lebanese resistance. “I wrote about the civil war, the Israeli invasion, and the death of our heroes,” Bechara says. “I expressed my admiration for the Palestinian initifada, which had just broken out in the occupied territories, and which seemed to me to be a beautiful example of resistance and an ideal of revolution.”
Her assassination of Lahad failed, but the act itself sent a message to Israel that its surrogates in Lebanon were vulnerable. Bechara was not executed in retaliation for her attempted assassination of Lahad, although the torture inflicted on her could have easily killed someone of lesser health.
While in captivity, Bechara rejected how the Israelis and the SLA characterized Khiam. She would tell her captors that she was in a camp, not a prison. “A prison is a place where people are sent after being tried,” Bechara says she told her captors. “With us, this is not the case.”
In June 1998, Bechara was released from captivity. Two years later, Khiam was shut down for good after the Israeli Defense Forces had retreated from southern Lebanon. Khiam was “liberated,” Bechara recounts, “at the same time as the rest of South Lebanon, by bare-handed villagers. For years, they had been haunted by the tortured cries emanating from the camp. Now, columns of civilians made their way up towards the prison. … They broke open the locks, bringing back to life haggard men and women who were dumbfounded by this sudden reversal of history.”
In the weeks after the fall of Khiam, Lahad took refuge in Tel Aviv. “Like him, most of the former guards of Khiam had also gone to Israel, where after the debacle they found themselves stranded in temporary camps,” Bechara writes. “They were eager to get away, the sooner the better, to find a home somewhere that was more accommodating about their past.”
After her release, Bechara was hailed as a hero by the Lebanese Communist Party. She was received by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and mobbed by members of the media who wanted to get her reaction to freedom after 10 years of captivity. “My liberation had turned into a kind of national holiday,” she writes. “During the three months that followed September 3rd, thousands of visitors streamed into my house and party offices.”
Upon Berkman’s release from prison in 1906, there was no celebration by government officials in Pennsylvania or Washington. The anarchist movement was in its prime at the time and agents of the state were on the trail of suspected anarchists plotting the next violent deed against the ruling class. Where Berkman did find a warm welcome was in the labor movement, especially among fellow anarchists. With the death of influential anarchist Johann Most shortly before Berkman’s release from prison, Berkman and Goldman became leading figures in the American anarchist movement.
In Lebanon of the late 20th century, activists were forced to address the problems posed by civil war and foreign occupation by Israel and Syria before they could seek to refashion Lebanon along more egalitarian lines. The United States, on the other hand, was a growing imperial power where the roadblocks to progress, in the minds of the anarchists, were the capitalist class and the government itself, not a foreign colonial power.
In this setting, Berkman helped to organize the Ferrer School in New York, which encouraged a libertarian spirit among its students. He continued to agitate for better working conditions and for the unemployed. During the First World War, Berkman organized antimilitarist rallies and held lectures in an attempt to spur public opinion against the growing war hysteria. That same hysteria, similar to the U.S. government’s modern day anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant movement, led the state to deport both Berkman and Goldman to Russia in 1919.
After floating from country to country, Berkman eventually landed in France in 1925 where he was to live the rest of his life. There, he organized a fund for aging European anarchists. He also spent a great deal of time writing and authored such well-known books as The Bolshevik Myth and Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. In 1936, suffering from illness, Berkman shot himself to death in his apartment in Nice.
After her release from prison, Bechara also landed in France, where she spent four years in Paris studying Hebrew. She now lives in Switzerland. Prominent in her native country as someone willing to fight for the cause of nationalism, Bechara now must determine the next step in her life. Successful anti-colonial liberation movements often produce an initial euphoria. In many cases, however, the leftover scars from the colonial era are so deep that some countries are unable to create a civil society that’s any less oppressive than what was experienced under colonialism. During independence struggles, the cause is getting rid of the imperial power. Little attention is paid at the time to the shape of the new society in case the struggle proves successful.
For Soha Bechara, resisting Israeli’s occupation of Lebanon dominated the first half of her life. In another 35 years, perhaps we will read a sequel in which we will learn about some new callings in her life. For Alexander Berkman, his entire life was spent fighting for the cause of a political philosophy that transcends national borders.
For both Bechara and Berkman, the inability early in their lives to successfully complete a grisly deed probably saved them from facing execution at the hands of the state. For both, the time spent in captivity also served to strengthen their convictions. Berkman emerged from prison with the spirit to spend a lifetime fighting for the anarchist cause and ultimately to become one of the movement’s great historical figures.
Freed from captivity, Bechara and the other liberation fighters in Lebanon soon found that their dream of ridding Lebanon of the Israeli invaders had come true. Was there to be a second phase in their strategy for building a more perfect Lebanon? Or was removing Israel and its proxies the end-all, be-all of their movement? In her memoirs, Bechara recognized this void in her life as soon as she had won her freedom from Khiam after 10 long years. “But somehow, I had to invent the next step, find another form of commitment,” she concludes.