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Notes on re-writing a history.

Byline: Jim Quilty

Summary: <p>It sometimes happens that books are re-written for the screen. Sometimes this entails a re-writing of history.AaIn 2007, American urbanist Mike Davis published "Buda's Wagon," a brief history of the car bomb. This entertaining and informative study traces the weapon's evolution from its first recorded use - by an Italian anarchist in an attack on Wall Street in 1920.

BEIRUT: It sometimes happens that books are re-written for the screen. Sometimes this entails a re-writing of history.AaIn 2007, American urbanist Mike Davis published "Buda's Wagon," a brief history of the car bomb. This entertaining and informative study traces the weapon's evolution from its first recorded use -- by an Italian anarchist in an attack on Wall Street in 1920 -- to post-2003 Iraq, looking into its utility to militants and criminals in Spain and Italy, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

This story is less about "terrorists" than the common pool of tactical necessity and technological opportunity that sustains them.Aa

Davis derides the term "terrorist," in fact, as "a playground epithet" that's done no-thing to advance the understanding of the post-Cold War world.

Because the car bomb has played such a prominent role in the gangster politics of Civil War and post-Civil War Leba-non, and because technical innovations were introduced to Mario Buda's 1920 prototype here, Davis gives special attention to Beirut. His interest is in mobile bombs designed to terrorize and kill at random, so he glosses car-bomb assassinations -- whether the murder of Italian mafia investigators or, more recently, of prominent public figures in Lebanon.

Ultimately, Davis is ambivalent about the car bomb. Since it developed as a means to resist overweening state power, he calls it "the poor man's air force." Insofar as many of the groups who've used it seem indifferent to its decimation of noncombatants, he sees the car bomb to be "an inherently fascist weapon," like the state-sponsored terrorism to which it so often responds.

The rights to "Buda's Wagon" were purchased to provide the skeleton of Kevin Toolis' 2008 doc "Car Bomb," which screened at Docudays film festival Thursday evening.

It's common, and pointless, for critics to complain about inferior adaptations of literature to film. Rather than simply dismissing "Car Bomb" as a pale filmic imitation of "Buda's Wagon," it may be more useful to point out its departures from the source text and how these make the final work problematic.

Toolis excises Davis' chapters on Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the Basques, to focus upon the American, Irish, Lebanese and Palestinian experiences. Redacting source texts isn't necessarily a bad thing but it's informative to speculate why these parts of the narrative were kept and others discarded.

A Scot of Irish parentage, Toolis made his name with the study "Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA's Soul." He parlayed the success of this work into the status of "terrorism expert." So it makes sense that his film retain the story of the Irish car bomb. It may also explain why, unlike Davis, he feels less compunction about using the word "terrorist."

Putting aside Ireland -- and a pit stop in Palermo, a necessary case study in the criminal use of the weapon -- "Car Bomb" is an Arab-American film. In light of Bush the Younger's inheritance, there are obvious market reasons for proscribing Davis' study this way.

The other reason for Toolis' cherry-picking selectivity is Robert Baer. The self-promoting former CIA case officer is literally the "star" of "Car Bomb." As narrator, Baer seasons Davis' expurgated text with his own on-the-ground experience of "The Lebanon," his anachronistic name for this country.

It's not difficult to see why Toolis decided to work with Baer. He's already a star. The George Clooney vehicle "Syriana" (2005), about a CIA operative suffering a crisis of conscience, is inspired by Baer's 2002 book "See No Evil."Aa

The former intelligence agent with a conscience is put forward as an ultimate insider, an un-questionably honest authority, whether in pulling back the pro-verbial veil that obscures political violence in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq or in discussing America's experience with terrorism. In this latter regard, Baer portrays Timothy McVeigh (convicted of bombing the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995) as a lone bomber -- a problematic assertion, if only because the man who squealed on McVeigh is assumed to have been an accomplice.

It is likely that Baer's role in the film also explains why Toolis scrambles the book's narrative. Where Davis starts at the beginning, as histories do, "Car Bomb" leapfrogs to Lebanon (the Civil War and Hariri assassination), which it posits is the "cradle" of the weapon. Only then does the film fade back to disclose the car bomb's Italian-American origins. This effort to establish Baer's credentials also has the unfortunate effect of making "Lebanon" and "terrorism" interchangeable in the audience's collective mind.

As he waxes eloquent upon Lebanon's being the cradle of the car bomb, Baer focuses, not unnaturally, upon the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and the Marine and French Paratrooper bases. He does not mention another car bomb, from 1985, a bungled assassination attempt upon prominent Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah that left 80 bystanders dead. Based on the findings of American journalist Bob Woodward, the hit was sponsored by the CIA, whose Lebanon operations at that time would have been run by Baer.

Neither does the film discuss how, as a former operative, Baer has certain obligations of non-disclosure to his former employers. In effect, the Agency has the right to vet whatever Baer discloses about his work, ensuring that anything he does disclose is of no particular worth to anyone but the most gormless audience, and anthropologists of American celebrity.

It appears another reason Lebanon has been pushed to the top of the film is Baer's rather casual assertion that there is a human link between the car bombs generated during Lebanon's Civil War (where bombers first used tanks of compressed gas to increase the bomb's explosive power) and those targetting US troops in Baghdad after 2003.

Rather than simply noting that the use of compressed gas in cooking and heating in the Middle East made gas tanks an obvious source of explosive power to bomb-makers -- just as a plentiful supply of industrialized fertiliser in Ireland and the US provided a ready means for bomb-makers there -- Baer suggests in a throw-away remark that Lebanese bomb-makers traveled to Iraq to teach insurgents how it's done.

Baer's worth as an expert guide through any putative Arab terror culture will be more or less obvious depending on who watches the film. Those Anglo-American audiences who aren't sick to death of media representations of Middle East violence will likely accept what Baer has to say at face value. Anyone with a casual knowledge of Baer's careerist trajectory may ignore the film, or else enjoy its inadvertent comedy.

Foreign audiences who may never have heard of Baer, including those in the Arab world, will likely forgive him the Arabic he unfurls for the camera while interviewing Lebanese and Palestinians. They may nod with sympathy and approval as he chats with a former Lebanese security officer who dismantled Beirut car bombs until he lost both hands in an explosion.

They may recognize Asaad Shaftari, the former Phalangist engineer who not long ago published an open letter apologizing to all the innocent victims of the violence he committed or abetted -- a matter taken up with proper consideration by Lokman Slim and Monnika Borg-mann's 2009 doc "Awalouha Najwa C* wa akhirouha!"

Local audiences have varying attitudes toward the habitual depiction of Palestinians (particularly those living in Lebanon's refugee camps) as criminals. So they may be more or less mystified that, while seeking out an authoritative voice on the Muslim/Palestinian side of Leb-a-non's Civil War, a nervous-looking Baer turns up in Sidon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.

After reiterating a few clichE[umlaut]s about all Palestinian camps being "security islands where Lebanese law enforcement has no sway," Baer remarks, with due gravitas, that "Ain al-Hilweh is a car-bomb factory." As if to confirm this, he interviews Colonel Munir Maqdah.

A creature not unlike Baer himself, albeit within the limited ambit of Ain al-Hilweh, the bearded Maqdah is an opportunistic Fatah officer who -- motivated by the need to maintain his relevance in camp politics -- has at various times declared that he would, given the chance, kill Arafat, or else that he was a loyal son of the party.

Maqdah, who like most politicians appreciates interviews by Western journalists, shares what he knows about explosives but says nothing about Baer's imagined car-bomb factory. To his credit, the colonel does point out that car-bomb instructions can be found on the Internet.Aa

The narrator's sage voiceover then remarks, "Maqdah isn't giving away any secrets."Aa

AaAa AaNeither is Baer.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Sep 26, 2009
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