There were bread and gasoline shortages in Beirut, 1975. Electricity was a luxury people had stopped expecting. Running water was a pleasant surprise. Hot, it was cause for celebration. There were two commodities in abundant supply: violence, and radio stations.
Photo by Patrick Baz
The War in Lebanon began on the 13th of April that year, a date set only to provide history with some official marking. The ignorance, fear, mistrust, and hate of the other had been mounting for years. Whoever that ‘other’ was; an enemy can always be conjured at need.
Power cuts meant no televised news reports, not consistently anyway. Fighting meant newspapers could only be delivered sometimes, and often late. The news they told was by then outdated and of little value if read. The bakeries used the front pages to keep their manakish zaatar hot.
People need news, stories, if not truth. And hope, if not accurate projections. For those, the Lebanese turned their radios on every night at eight pm. On its wavelengths, there were as many versions of the facts as stations. Every militia held the power to write history as long as it had a transmitter.
And the histories they wrote were hateful, slanted, divisive, violent. As in any conflict, then and now and anywhere, content varies, tone does not. Neither does the ultimate message: bipolar, black and white. Good vs. Evil, each affirmed, shouting louder than the next. Wrong vs. Right.
The war, in Lebanon, ended in 1990. Hate speech remains and has spread. Today it is everywhere, not just on our radios. And not just at eight p.m. We now have coloured television and online news, social media platforms and smart phones. At no other time in history has fear ever travelled this fast.
But ‘there is no fear in love; perfect love drives out fear.’ And there are other voices out there, like that of Sharif al Akhawi.
When the fighting broke out in Beirut, al Akhawi was forty-seven. A family man, respected citizen, recognized voice on the radio. He had his own show, called Selke w Emne, which translates to ‘clear and safe.’ He helped drivers navigate the country’s notoriously terrible traffic.
In 1975, however, concerns had grown beyond traffic. The roads were riddled with snipers, kidnappers, looters, and roving checkpoints. Gunfights erupted; bombs were dropped at random; people were pulled out of their cars and executed on the sole basis of the religion on their identity cards.
The voices of militia leaders condoned this on the radio. Sharif al Akhawi refused to take sides. Instead, he altered his show.
Every day, he left his house and family for the Internal Security Forces headquarters. He would broadcast Selke w Emne from there, where he could access the country’s road maps. There, he also had access to the most accurate security updates – bombings, kidnappings, sniper shootings, street fighting, which roads were and were not safe to take.
The maps in front of him, he would then spend hours steering travellers home, whatever side of the demarcation line that home happened to be on. No road was ‘clear and safe’ for very long, but people trusted his words. With their lives. He saved hundreds of thousands just by acting as their guide.
The sound of his voice became the best known and loved in the country. It came to represent the protest against violence and the call for unity. In November of 1975, he did call for an anti-war protest along Beirut’s dividing Green Line. Tens of thousands showed up. And for a few surreal hours that day, all the militias held their fire.
Sharif al Akhawi spent hours and years on the air and away from home, fighting for the right to life of multitudes of people he did not know. He gave directions, hope, and resilience when others were spreading fear.
The world needs more voices like that today online, on TV and the radio.