Charting a Hellish Journey Out of Lebanon

Americans continue to try to flee Lebanon as the conflict between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants enters its third week. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College who was visiting relatives when hostilities broke out, recently completed what he calls a "hellish" journey back to the U.S. with his family.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We're going to check back with Fawaz Gerges. He's Lebanese by birth, now chair of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and a scholar of militant Islam. We spoke with him from Lebanon last week and now he's back home in New York. Fawaz Gerges, you'd taken your kids to see their grandparents outside Beirut. You were hunkered down there when we last spoke, what happened?

Mr. FAWAZ GERGES (Middle Eastern Studies, Sarah Lawrence College): It became too dangerous for all of us. But I felt extremely anxious about the safety of the children. We decided to leave. The journey was really grueling. It took us about eighty hours to make it from Beirut to the United States.

CHADWICK: How did you get out of Beirut? There were these evacuation ships, did you go out by ship?

Mr. GERGES: Absolutely. We waited about twelve hours in the sun outside, waiting to embark on an American military ship. It took us about twelve hours from Beirut to Cypress. It's usually a 20-minute ride by an airplane. We waited in Cypress. I mean thousands of us, you're talking about thousands of Americans. We waited about ten hours in Cypress. The State Department chartered a civilian airliner. It took us to Germany and from Germany to Philly International Airport.

Let me say this: even though it was hellish, I really believe that the U.S. Marines, the U.S. Navy and the State Department went out of their way to make the trip as least painful as possible. I cannot tell you how professional, how warm the American Marines and the U.S. Navy were. They really made a big difference in our trip.

CHADWICK: You had three children, your three children with you?

Mr. GERGES: Yes.

CHADWICK: And how old are they?

Mr. GERGES: Hasam(ph) is 16 years old, Hannah is 8 years old, and Lace is 5 years old.

CHADWICK: How do you feel about your kids having gone through this experience now? I mean you've come through it safely. They've certainly seen something of the world that American children know almost nothing about.

Mr. GERGES: In particular for my eldest child, Hasam who's 16. He has already written a few articles about what, what's happening in Lebanon. He has a diary of his journey, the evacuation journey. So I can imagine for Hasam it's going to be a defining experience. I hope positively, because I think he has seen and, and heard and read all points of view. Of course, for the younger children, for Hannah and my youngest who's Lace, 5 years old, he can hear the bombings, the planes, the anxiety in the house. He was really— at the end of it he said listen I don't want to go back to your country any more. I hope he will change his mind in the next few months when peace comes back to Lebanon.

CHADWICK: Fawaz as a political scholar I'm reading about a polarization within Lebanon right now, northern Beirut basically untouched, southern suburbs being physically pretty much destroyed. Did you have some sense of what is going to happen to Lebanon as you were witnessing this in your departure?

Mr. GERGES: You know, to start with, the Lebanese political scene is very fragile. And I think what Israel has done in the last week, is to really punish the entire Lebanese people with the intention of turning the Lebanese people against Hezbollah. What I fear the most, is that when the dust settles on the battle field in Lebanon - if the Lebanese government caves to the international demands to try to disarm Hezbollah and to send the Lebanese army to southern Lebanon - I fear that the Shiites would feel outraged and angry and thus a fault line between the Shiites and the rest of the Lebanese population could really wrack the country. I hope this sectarian line would not really evolve, but the longer the confrontation continues I think there's a real danger that the current conflict between Hezbollah and Israel be replaced by a sectarian internal struggle in Lebanon.

CHADWICK: Fawaz Gerges is chair of Middle East studies at Sarah Lawrence College. His new book is Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.

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CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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