The plight of Soha Bechara as a prisoner of El Khiam, one of the most violent and cruel prisons and subsequent transformation to symbol of resistance and idol of the Lebanese speaks volumes about the making of a legend in the context of a civil war and occupation by the Israeli army. Her imprisonment occurred after a failed attempt to assassinate SLA general (South Lebanese Army- the mainly Christian Lebanese proxy army put in place by Israeli military forces) Antoine Lahad.
Bechara writes clearly, and it is easy for the layperson with some understanding of Lebanese history, to follow her story and the main players on the field and their allegiances. Even if the bulk of the book is more about the reasons that led to involvement with the Communist Lebanese National Resistance Party and as a would-be assassin of Lahad than about her imprisonment - it is impactful for it relays the suffering of Bechara who gave 10 years of her life, from the ages of 21 to 31, to a cruel existence all in the name of resisting occupation.
It is interesting to note the manner in which Bechara relates her role as a bit player – a woman involved in the cause for whom it was easy to move around South Lebanon simply because she was female. Her first involvement with the Communist Lebanese National Resistance Party was at the age of 14 and the seeds of resistance had been planted by the communist leanings of her father, the witnessing of Israeli raids, the confinement due to the battles, and her migrating between Beirut and her mother’s hometown Deir Mimas, a village in south Lebanon made primarily of Lebanese Christian families, for safety. The ease with which she transitions from intelligence gatherer for the party leaders in the south to infiltrator in Lahad’s household is believable given her belief in liberation, her intelligence and her educated air. She cultivates a bond with Lahad’s wife who is bored and takes her in as an aerobics instructor who has mostly free reign of the household and as such becomes familiar with the comings and goings of Lahad. It is through the guise of aerobic instructor that she transitions to would-be assassin who through hesitation shoots her target but not in a fatal spot therefore ensuring her capture and sealing her fate.
Though Bechara is not a writer by trade - the autobiography allows a look at what takes a carefree life before the Israeli occupation and decides to fight injustice and occupation by espousing communist ideology and carrying out what she believed was her mission as a resistance member. The roots of her ideology was planted by her father’s communist roots and this only made her more sure that she needed to act accordingly even if done in secret and away from her family and friends.
She chronicles life and all of the family members she lost over the years during the civil war much in the manner that Palestinian families lose countless loved ones through the Israeli occupation as has been documented on film particularly in Death in Gaza.
During her imprisonment, Bechara survives simply by physical exercise and mental exercise routines she devises even though she is confined to a minute cell and mostly in solitary confinement since she resisted any attempts to reveal information and therefore suffered much torture. She also found ways to communicate and used various things to write in order to keep her mind keen in the horrible silence broken only by the howls of fellow inmates who were enduring torture.
“I am in a camp. A prison is a place people are sent after being tried. With us, this is not the case” Bechara tells the head of Khiam - Abu Nabil. This waiting game and the torture continue until 1998 when under international pressure and the intense media attention on Bechara she is freed.
Bechara would have us believe that it was all worth it and that those 10 years of resistance made an impact and caused the opening of the prison and release of the prisoners two years after her departure. It would be very interesting to view the 40-minute film, Everything and Nothing by Jayce Salloum to understand Bechara after having read her account. In reading reviews Bechara appears as both subject and also as a symbol of resistance and appears worn down and seems to have changed some of her views after 10 years of imprisonment and torture.
Teresa Camacho is a writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America. Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.
This book review was originally published in the Journal of Twentieth Century History, vol. 1, no. 1 (Feb 2006), 57-58.