Amid the horrors of the Middle East, it is strange to hear about this European 'crisis'

Robert Fisk

The Independent

25 June 2005

"What on earth are you Europeans on about? What is this nonsense about Europe breaking apart?" We were at lunch only a hundred metres from the crater of the bomb which killed Lebanon's former prime minister last February. The restaurant was almost destroyed in the explosion and the staff bear the scars. The head waiter at La Paillote has a very painful, deep slit down his right cheek. My host was still amazed. "Do you people live on planet earth?" he asked.

Point taken. When I open the European papers here in Beirut, I read of European chaos, of constitution rejections in France and Holland, of the possible break-up of the EU, of the return of the lira (of all currencies, the most preposterous!), of shouting matches in Brussels (of all cities, the most preposterous!) about rebates. "Blair tells Europe it must 'renew'," the International Herald Tribune informs me. "Brown in stark warning to EU," my own paper headlines. Only the Eastern Europeans, it seems, like the European Union. And part of the answer to my Lebanese friend's question may lie among Eastern Europe's ghosts. But the Western papers, when they reach Beirut, have an awesome perversity about them.

Yesterday, for example, the Lebanese papers - like others in the Arab world - published a picture that no Western publication would dare to show. At least a quarter of one front page here was given to this horror. It showed an Iraqi man amid the wreckage of a bomb explosion, trying to help a 12-year-old boy to his feet. Well not quite; because the boy's left leg has been torn off just below the knee and, beneath his agonised face, there is indeed, in colour, the bloody stump, a thing from a butcher's shop, a great piece of red bone and gristle and hanging flesh.

Laith Falah, one of the lucky Iraqis to be "liberated" by us in 2003, was bicycling to a Baghdad bakery to buy bread for his parents and three sisters. For him, for his parents and three sisters, for all Iraqis, for Arabs, for the Middle East, for my luncheon host, the EU's problems seem as preposterous as Brussels and the lira.

So why is it that we Europeans can no longer understand our own peace and contentment and safety and our extraordinary luxury and our futuristic living standards and our God-like good fortune and our long, wonderful lives? When I arrive in Paris on Air France and step aboard the RER train to the city, when I take the Eurostar to London and sip my coffee while the train hisses between the great military cemeteries of northern France where many of my father's friends lie buried, I see the glowering, sad faces of my fellow Europeans, heavy with the burdens of living in the beautiful First World, broken down by minimum hours of work and human rights laws and protections the like of which are beyond the imagination of the people among whom I live.

And when the train eases towards Waterloo and I catch sight of the Thames and Big Ben and I know I shall be curling up that night in the softest bed of the smallest Sheraton in the world (it's in Belgravia), I call a friend on my mobile, an Iraqi who's trying to emigrate to Australia or Canada - he hasn't decided which yet but I've already told him that one can be quite hot, the other very cold - and he tells me that he can't cross the border to Jordan even to visit the Australian embassy. No Eurostars for him.

Oddly - and this is part of the perversity which our newspapers accurately reflect - we want to believe that the Middle East is getting better. Iraq is the world's newest democracy; our soldiers are winning the war against the insurgents - at least we are now calling it a war - and Lebanon is free and Egypt will soon be more democratic and even the Saudis endured an election a couple of months ago. Israel will withdraw from Gaza and the "road map" to peace will take off and there will be a Palestinian state and ...

It's rubbish, of course. Iraq is a furnace of pain and fear, the insurrection is becoming bloodier by the day, Lebanon's people are under attack, Mubarak's Egypt is a pit of oppression and poverty and Saudi Arabia is - and will remain - an iconoclastic and absolute monarchy. "Take the greatest care," I say this week to a Lebanese lawyer friend whose political profile exactly matches the journalist and the ex-communist party leader who were assassinated in Beirut this month. "You too," he says. And I sit and think about that for a bit.

Maybe we Europeans need to believe that the Middle East is a spring of hope in order to concentrate on our own golden grief. Perhaps it helps us to feel bad about ourselves, to curse our privileges and hate our glorious life if we persuade ourselves that the Middle East is a paradise of growing freedom and liberation from fear. But why? We lie to ourselves about the tragedy of the Middle East and then we lie to ourselves about the heaven of living in Europe.

Maybe - a perverse Fisk now slides into this paragraph - maybe the Second World War was too long ago. Almost outside living memory, the real hell of Europe persuaded us to create a new continent of security and unity and wealth. And now, I suspect, we've forgotten. The world in which my father's chums died in northern France in 1918 and the world in which my mother repaired Spitfire radios in the Battle of Britain is being "disappeared", permitted to pop up only when Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara wants to compare his horrible little war in Iraq to Britain's Finest Hour or when we want to enjoy an orgy of cinematic Nazi destruction in The Downfall.

Only in the east, where the mass graves litter the cold earth, does memory linger amid the mists. Which might explain their love of the EU. Yet Laith Falah's terrible wound was more grisly than Saving Private Ryan - which is why you will not have seen it in Europe this week.

And yesterday, before lunch, I went down to Martyrs Square in Beirut to watch the funeral of old Georges Hawi, the former communist party leader who was driving to the Gondole coffee shop on Tuesday when a bomb exploded beneath his car seat and tore into his abdomen. And there was his widow, who had swooned from grief and horror when she actually saw her husband's body lying on the road, weeping before the coffin. And 2,000 miles away, Europe was in crisis.