DATE November 29, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Nicholas Blanford, Beirut correspondent for The
Christian Science Monitor, discusses the situation in Lebanon
from the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to
the recent assassination of government minister Pierre Gemayel
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Nicholas Blanford, has been reporting from Lebanon for over 10
years. He's the Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, the
Times of London and the Lebanon Daily Star. Last week Pierre Gemayel, a
minister in the government, was assassinated. He was a member of the
Christian Phalangist Party and an opponent of Syrian involvement in his
country's politics. Syria is widely believed to be behind his murder.
Several Lebanese politicians and journalists who spoke out against Syria have
been assassinated in the past couple of years. The former prime minister,
Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February 2005.
Nicholas Blanford has written a new book about the larger implications of
Hariri's assassination called "Killing Mr. Lebanon." After Hariri's
assassination, tens of thousands of Lebanese people took to the streets in a
series of anti-Syrian demonstrations. These protests, which became known as
the Cedar Revolution, led to the withdrawal of Syria's troops from Lebanon. I
spoke with Blanford who was in the BBC studio in Beirut and asked if there's
any optimism left from the Cedar Revolution.
Mr. NICHOLAS BLANFORD: I think, yes. I think the optimism faded a long time
ago, to be honest. The Cedar Revolution, I mean, was an amazing event and a
real credit to the Lebanese. It was quite unparalleled in the Arab world, but
it wasn't the sort of revolution of national unity that some of its leaders
were describing it as at the time because, of course, the Shia weren't there.
This was essentially a grouping of Christians and Sunnis and Druze, minus the
Shia who remain, more or less, pro-Syrian. After the Syrians left in April of
last year under pressure from the Cedar Revolution and international pressure,
it was back to the same old politicking amongst Lebanon's politicians, though
there had been a sense, rather naively, I guess, that the Cedar Revolution was
so unprecedented that it was going to give a real jolt to the political system
here. It would allow for a new generation of politicians to come through,
and, of course, that didn't happen. It was very much the same old faces that
were re-elected to Lebanese parliament, and since then Lebanon has been mired
in a political crisis of varying intensity, and, of course, we're going
through a very major political crisis now, perhaps the most serious crisis
since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, and that, of course, doesn't leave
for a great deal of optimism.
GROSS: Well, Hezbollah was calling for huge street demonstrations in support
of Hezbollah. Hezbollah wants more power within the Lebanese government.
Those demonstrations were postponed out of respect for Pierre Gemayel's death.
What exactly does Hezbollah want from these demonstrations?
Mr. BLANFORD: I see these demonstrations or these planned demonstrations and
indeed Hezbollah's entire political gambit over the past month or so as a
defensive gesture, if you like, offense being the best form of defense. And
the reason for that is that although Hezbollah fought a very good war in the
summer against Israel and their military wing gave the Israelis frankly a
bloody nose, but they have emerged from the war weaker in some respects than
before they entered it. They've lost their military autonomy in south Lebanon
along the border with Israel, although the bunkers and so on that they've set
up over the past six years have gone. There's a reinforced UN peacekeeping
force down there, 15,000 Lebanese troops. So Hezbollah has turned its
attention more to a political offensive, and this is really designed to
prevent the Western Bank Lebanese government from putting more pressure on
Hezbollah, possibly leading to the disarming of Hezbollah's military wing, the
dismantling of its military wing, which Hezbollah's adamant that it's not
going to do. It wants to block legislation that could see an expansion of the
powers of the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon and to block any
legislation passed by the Lebanese government that could be perceived as a
threat or detrimental not only to Hezbollah's interests but the interests of
its allies, Syria and Iran.
GROSS: Do you feel like you're seeing the beginning of a new civil war in
Mr. BLANFORD: Not necessarily. A lot of people are trying to compare the
current situation with the period in the early '70s before war broke out in
1975, and there are some parallels that can be drawn, but there are some
differences, and one is that I think the Lebanese collectively still have a
very strong memory of the civil war. It ended 16 years ago now but it remains
ingrained very deeply in the psyche of the Lebanese. It was, of course, a
terrible event that lasted 16 years, and you don't just erase that overnight.
So I think that there is a check, a brake, if you like that although one gets
a sense that the situation could be slipping out of control, even the most
strident of politicians are putting on the brakes just a little bit, thinking,
`Well, we don't want to go too far. The last thing we want to do is resume
the civil war.'
Also, just from the practicality side of perspective, back in the early '70s,
all of the main political parties or most of the main political parties and
factions split along sectarian lines were armed to the teeth. They'd all
formed private militias, be they the Christians, the Sunnis had their own
private militias and were allied with the Palestinians, who were an army back
then in Lebanon, and the Shia started arming themselves. Now you've basically
got Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is not just a militia. It's a very formidable
military force essentially like a conventional infantry brigade, and there's
no way that even the Lebanese army could take on Hezbollah, let alone any
fledgling militia that might be under formation now, which doesn't really seem
to be the case anyway. So just from that perspective alone, it would be
difficult to actually fight a civil war where you'd be pitching militia
against militia in the way that you had back in the early stages of the civil
war in '75 and '76.
GROSS: Has Hezbollah been fulfilling its promise to help Lebanese people
rebuild their homes and help them find temporary housing in the interim?
Mr. BLANFORD: Yeah, it was very quick off the mark after the war. When the
Lebanese government was still wondering what to do with all the aid money that
had begun to pour in, Hezbollah very quickly set up a system of payment to
everybody who'd lost homes. They were paying $12,000 cash to people in the
southern suburbs of Beirut, which was very heavily bombed during the war and
to people who had lost their apartments and homes, and $10,000 cash to people
who'd lost their homes living outside Beirut, and this was essentially to buy
some furniture and tide them over paying rent for a year while their homes
were rebuilt. So this was a good--I mean, obviously, it was a
hearts-and-minds effort, and it was a successful one, I think, as well. Since
then, we've seen that it was almost like a war of aid in the first couple of
months after the war. So you have the Hezbollah, and, of course, backed by
Iran, handing out handfuls of cash literally to all these people, and then you
have the Saudis and the Kuwaitis and the Qataris, all Sunni countries, piling
in to south Lebanon, offering to rebuild entire villages at a time. And the
Hezbollah officials tend to give a rueful chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders
and say, `Well, you know, this is politics and if they're willing to step in
and, you know, give us millions of dollars to rebuild our homes, then so be
it, regardless of who they are.'
GROSS: And how much progress is being made in rebuilding...(unintelligible)?
Mr. BLANFORD: Well, they've been quite quick in clearing all the rubble
away. I mean, it was really quite an astonishing sight. I spent the war down
in the south, and so I didn't see any of this until after the cease-fire, but
to walk down streets which I know quite well in the southern suburbs, where
I've interviewed many Hezbollah officials over the years, and it had all gone.
They were just reduced to piles of rubble, maybe, you know, like Berlin after
World War II, and they've been very quick in carting all this rubble away, and
the collapsed buildings are now essentially holes in the ground awaiting
development. It's going to take two, maybe three years before the area is
rebuilt and up and functioning.
GROSS: And do you see UN troops in the streets? Do they have a visible
Mr. BLANFORD: Not in Beirut. The UN peacekeeping troops, the units are
based in south Lebanon essentially south of the Litani River, which roughly
runs around 15 to 20 miles north of the border. So the UN presence down there
is very dense. I mean, they're all over the place now. The old UNIPOL--the
UNIPOL that have been there since 1978, there were 2,000 peacekeepers before
the war started. They've now gone up to about 9,000. They had got to know
the situation in south Lebanon, and they had a very sort of laid-back, relaxed
I mean, they were still doing their job as, you know, UN observers and
peacekeepers, of course, but they interacted with the local community
extremely well, and that is quite interesting to see the influx of new troops,
particularly troops from France and Spain and Italy that form the bulk of this
new force, and they've come in with a sense that `We are here as a robust
peacekeeping force. We're not here, of course, to physically disarm Hezbollah
but we want to show the UN flag, and we're not going to take any trouble from
So they've been charging around in these newly white painted tanks and on
their personnel carriers, and the local people don't like that. They don't
like foreign troops charging around their little villages, and I think it will
take a little while until some of these fresh troops realize that peacekeeping
in Lebanon is done a little differently and that, you know, you should take
off their helmets and put on their beret and remove the sunglasses and go and
chat to people and see how they're doing and the friendly face, and if they do
that, they'll win the locals to their side immediately.
GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Blanford, Beirut correspondent for The Christian
Science Monitor and author of the new book, "Killing Mr. Lebanon."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Blanford. He is the Beirut correspondent for The
Christian Science Monitor and author of the new book "Killing Mr. Lebanon,"
the assassination of Rafik Hariri and its impact on the Middle East.
Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated last
year. Last week, Pierre Gemayel, who was a government minister, was
assassinated. We recently had on FRESH AIR a Lebanese journalist named May
Chidiac, who, there was an assassination attempt on her life. Her car was
bombed while she was in it, and she lost an arm and a leg. Everybody seems to
believe there's like a hit list and that more people are targeted and that the
Syrians are behind it. What kind of effect is that having on the political
life and the journalistic life in Lebanon, because it seems to be journalists
and people in politics who are being primarily targeted?
Mr. BLANFORD: Yeah, that's right. I'd say almost crippling effect. I've
been talking to a number of politicians since Gemayel's assassination and
indeed, after previous assassinations, and the thing is that nobody really
knows who's going to be next. Some of the choices, the targets have been
peculiar choices. May Chidiac for one, a very respected journalist, very
courageous journalist, but no one would have necessarily thought that she
would have been targeted for assassination, and she was extremely lucky to
survive and a very brave woman having come through her ordeal. And there were
some other politicians. There was one called George Hawi, and he was a former
head of the communist party who used to be close to Syria but had sort of
shifted ranks. But he was seen as a veteran politician who was perhaps, you
know, past his prime, close to retirement, and he was blown up in June of last
And I think that to a certain extent, this has heightened the fear. There are
the obvious targets, of course, the leaders of the anti-Syrian movement, if
you like, although they take precautions. You have a sort of second tier and
a third tier of politicians and journalists who now feel as threatened as the
first tier, so, yes. I mean, I talked to one politician the other day, who's
an MP, a parliamentarian from northern Lebanon, and he was saying, `Look, I
don't really have the money for major protection. I can't drive around in
armored cars. I just have to be careful. I can't afford bodyguards. I look
over my shoulder the whole time.' He said, `If I wasn't living under this
threat, you'd hear a lot more of me in public, but I have to turn it down.
I'm getting--my friends are calling me all the time saying, `Be careful, Be
careful, don't speak out too much, don't draw attention to yourself.' And I
think that a lot of parliamentarians and cabinet ministers and journalists,
you know, are extremely worried and, of course, with the events of the nearly
past two years with good reason.
GROSS: Nicholas Blanford, your new book, "Killing Mr. Lebanon," is about the
assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The UN is
investigating the assassination. The assumption is that Syria was behind it.
Why would Syria possibly have wanted to assassinate Hariri?
Mr. BLANFORD: Well, I describe in the introduction that the story of Hariri
and the Syrians was a story of Shakespearean tragedy of misunderstanding. And
I described it thus because Hariri was never an enemy of Syria. Hariri was a
compromiser, he was an appeaser, he was a businessmen. He had a vision for
Lebanon, a rather altruistic vision of Lebanon being independent, sovereign,
free of Israeli occupation and free of Syrian domination. He was an Arab
nationalist. He'd been an Arab nationalist since his teenage years and had an
affinity with Syria, with the Arab cause, the Palestinian cause, and he was
also pragmatic enough to know that Syria was just a fact of life for Lebanon.
And he tried from 2000 onwards when Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria,
he tried to accommodate the Syrians, reaching out to the Syrians to tell the
Syrians, that, `Look, basically, I'm a friend of yours. I'm going to act in
your interests. The only thing is that I can't continue operating the way we
are when I have a Syrian military intelligence general calling me up every day
telling me what to do.' Now the thing is that Hariri came into confrontation
with the, specifically, friends of Bashar al-Assad and this younger generation
that took over in Damascus in 2000.
Hariri was friends with the older generation, the generation of Hafez
al-Assad, Bashir's father, who had been president of Syria since 1970, I
think. So Hariri found himself sort of out of favor with the new crowd that
had shown up in Damascus and their allies in Lebanon, so he was trying to
reach out to the Syrians at the same time his enemies in Lebanon were
whispering to the Syrians, saying, `Don't trust him. He's a powerful Sunni.
He's with the West. He's with America. He's with France. He's trying to
undermine you.' And it was an intensely frustrating period for him, and,
eventually, he felt that `It's just not working. My message is just not
getting through to the Syrians. I'm getting weaker and weaker,' and he began
slowly to shift into the existing Lebanese opposition to Syrian domination,
which essentially was geared around the Christians and the Druze communities,
and there was a very strong feeling of foreboding and fear indeed in the
Hariri camp at the beginning of 2005.
And, of course, Hariri was killed on St. Valentine's Day. And this was seen
as a bold, decisive move by the Syrians to remove this very serious threat,
this guy who potentially could weaken Syria's hold on Lebanon. You remove him
from the scene and hopefully cowl the Lebanese opposition at the time. Of
course, it had completely the opposite effect. It was the catalyst for what
became the Cedar Revolution, and within two months of Hariri's death, the
Syrians had disengaged from Lebanon.
GROSS: You actually heard the explosion that killed Hariri and other members
of his convoy. Would you recall for us what happened that day?
Mr. BLANFORD: Yes. Actually, that morning I had driven past the St. George
Hotel with my family to go and check out a potential school for my children,
and I got back home late morning and I was working at my desk and I was
actually on my phone to someone who was on the other side of Beirut when there
was this enormous blast, largest blast I've heard in Beirut, and we do
occasionally hear loud bangs in Beirut from the sonic booms of low-flying
Israeli jets, and this is what I and most people assumed it was and
particularly as the person I was talking to who was on the other side of
Beirut also heard the explosion. So I assumed this must be a sonic boom and
not just something local down my street or a gas bottle exploding or something
like that. So I grabbed my camera and notebook and ran out the door and
jumped in the car and raced down toward the center of town, which is only
about five minutes drive away, and, of course, as I was leaving my
neighborhood, I could see this huge plume of black smoke climbing into the
sky, and I thought perhaps an airplane had crashed, at first, and then I
arrived at the scene and parked up the car and ran down--it was obviously
immediately that it was a bomb blast. There were huge clumps of asphalt from
the roads that had been blown 300 yards--I parked about 4, 500 yards away and
ran the rest of the way to the bomb site, and I was having to jump over these
massive clumps of earth and masonry and asphalt from the road before actually
getting to the scene, and it was quite astonishing because, I mean, you know,
I'd driven along there a couple of hours earlier with my family, and then
suddenly to see a scene that looked like something out of Baghdad on a bad day
with this enormous crater in the road. I mean, it really took the breath
away, this huge hole, and it was surrounded by troops, of course, and police
and burned-out cars and people covered in blood and panic-stricken and so on.
But it was, in fact, a friend of mine, a photographer, who was the first on
the scene after the bombing, and he came up to me and said it was Hariri, and
he'd seen Hariri's burned body and recognized some of the bodyguards. So it
came as a complete shock, of course. I mean, my reaction was the same as most
Lebanese. It was a stunning, stunning moment to have this guy that was known
as `Mr. Lebanon,' who dominated the politics and economics of post-civil war
Lebanon to, you know, to have him, a burned body, lying on the road next to a
smoking crater and burning cars.
GROSS: Nicholas Blanford, speaking to us from the BBC in Beirut. We'll
continue the interview in the second half of the show. His new book is called
"Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on
the Middle East."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with Nicholas Blanford, the Beirut correspondent for The
Christian Science Monitor. He's covered Lebanon for over 10 years. His new
book, "Killing Mr. Lebanon," is about the assassination last year of the
former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and its impact on the Middle East. His
assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, in which tens of thousands of
Lebanese people took to the streets in a series of anti-Syrian demonstrations
that led Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Why do you think that Hariri's assassination became such a turning point in
Mr. BLANFORD: A number of reasons. First of all, you don't kill someone
like Rafik Hariri, quite frankly. He was too big, he was too powerful. There
had been lots of assassinations in Lebanon before, during the civil war
years--presidents, prime ministers, political leaders, leading religious
clerics--but none of them had the stature of Hariri, not because of Hariri's
position so much as prime minister of Lebanon, although he was a former prime
minister, of course, by the time he was killed, but he had enormous clout
internationally. He was a close friend of Jacques Chirac. He used to visit
the White House all the time. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was a close
friend. He had enormous clout in the Arab world, of course. He was a close
friend and adviser to Iyad Allawi, who was then prime minister of Iraq. Very
close to the Saudi royal family, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. This was an
international figure. He wasn't just a Lebanese politician.
So by killing Hariri, particularly as he'd been under threat of death and the
Syrians had been warned, of course, by numerous sources in the weeks and
months before Hariri's assassination, `Do not kill Rafik Hariri. That is,
you'll be crossing a red line.' He was assassinated anyway, and, of course,
the immediate assumption was that it was the Syrians, but I think also because
the situation in Lebanon at the time was becoming increasingly polarized, this
whole idea of Syria's dominion over Lebanon was the hot political subject.
The UN Security Council the previous September had issued Resolution 1559,
which was a very blunt demand that Syria leave Lebanon, and this was extremely
controversial resolution in Lebanon and dominates the media and the political
discourse, as well as the whole, you know, the growing mobilization, momentum
by the opposition and preparation for the parliamentary elections. So it was
almost like all this tension was building up like a pressure cooker, and then
Hariri's assassination sort of was the moment that the ballast was released
and all this pent-up pressure came bursting out in the form of the Cedar
GROSS: You know, it seems like such a paradox. The Cedar Revolution demands
that Syria get out of Lebanon's politics. Syria, you know, withdraws from
Lebanon, but then in elections, Hezbollah gains more seats in parliament, and
of course, after the war with Israel, Hezbollah emerges with a newfound like
power and respect from a lot of Lebanese, and Hezbollah's, of course, aligned
with Syria. So in the post-Cedar Revolution era, does Syria in some ways
still have as much influence as it did before because of Hezbollah's power?
Mr. BLANFORD: Well, it doesn't have as much influence as before, that's for
sure, but it does still wield considerable influence through Hezbollah and
various other Lebanese allies. Hezbollah--I think that part of the way of
looking at this is that Hezbollah sees itself as part of this anti-Western
alliance of Iran and Syria and Hezbollah, and it feels that it's acting not as
a tool, if you like, of Damascus but it feels that it has shared interests
with Damascus and with Iran, and it acts within that context, so it's not
necessarily--I mean, it's still an extremely popular organization on the
grass-roots level with the Shia community, even though--and it should be
remembered that a lot of Shia had no love for Syria. The one million or so
Syrian laborers that used to work in Lebanon were stealing jobs effectively
from the Shia, which remains one of the poorer communities in Lebanon,
although albeit perhaps the largest, so--but the Shia do view Hezbollah as the
protector of the community, the champion of its interests, and that has helped
quell some dissatisfaction in some Shia quarters about Hezbollah's ties to
Syria and its sort of military campaign against Israel, which, of course,
resulted in devastation in mainly Shia parts of the country, the southern
suburbs of Beirut in south Lebanon, but the Shia recognize Hezbollah as their
protector, their guarantor of their rights, and so they're sticking with
Hezbollah, which is, I think--I mean that is the ruse of Hezbollah's power.
If Hezbollah was seen simply as a pro-Syrian entity that had no real
grass-roots support, then Hezbollah would be marginalized immediately. It
would effectively cease to exist.
GROSS: You report from Beirut, and I'm wondering if you see Lebanon as an
indicator of what's happening in the larger region?
Mr. BLANFORD: Well, I think you certainly have Lebanon--Lebanon is today
perhaps one of the main battlegrounds for control of the Middle East. You
obviously have one in Iraq, but with Lebanon, Lebanon has always had this
role, and I think it boils down to the fact that there is no one community in
Lebanon that's large enough and strong enough to dominate all the others. So
the communities here have a tendency to look for outside support to bolster
their domestic position. So you have a government that is ostensibly backed
by the United States and France, supported by chiefly Sunni states in the
region like Saudi Arabia and like Egypt, and then on the other hand, you have
Hezbollah, which is the spearhead of the pro-Syrian opposition here, and
Hezbollah, of course, is part of this alliance with Syria and Iran and
like-minded pro-Syrian Palestinian groups and so on.
You can strip away all the local detail if you like and boil it down to a
confrontation between Iran and the United States for control no less of the
Middle East. It's really big stakes stuff and indeed the war that we had this
summer between Hezbollah and Israel was part of that same conflict. So you
had the United States and Iran fighting a war, using two local proxies,
Hezbollah and Israel, and Lebanon as the battleground. So this is the sad
reality for Lebanon, and this is why I think many Lebanese feel that the
situation is beyond their control, and they have the sense that, you know, `It
doesn't matter what we do, what we say, our strings are being pulled by much
larger powers, and we have no choice, either to put up with it or pack our
bags and leave,' which unfortunately, many Lebanese are so doing.
GROSS: So you saw Israel as the proxy for the United States in the war over
Mr. BLANFORD: Absolutely. Absolutely, and I think that many--certainly many
Lebanese saw in some respects Israel as the slightly hesitant partner and the
United States pushing Israel to continue the campaign against Hezbollah
because the--from my perspective, and--I mean, I was up in sort of the front
line, as it were, so it was a fairly local perspective down in south Lebanon,
but the war was not prosecuted at all well by Israel. For six years, we've
been listening to the Israelis saying to Hezbollah, after every little
instance along the Israeli border, the Israelis would say, `Look, if you do
this again, we're really going to get mad. This is your last chance. You're
playing with fire.' And Hezbollah didn't believe it, of course. They had this
balance of terror that they felt that Israel wouldn't go too far in
retaliating to whatever Hezbollah did along the border because Israel was
scared of Hezbollah's enormous arsenal of rockets being unleashed on all of
Israel, and it seems that Hezbollah bought into this theory a little too far.
So when they kidnapped the two soldiers, they crossed a red line without
knowing it, and so the Israelis reacted, you know, in an extreme way, bombing
the southern suburbs of Beirut and sending in troops across the borders, but
nonetheless it was a very hesitant campaign, and it fell into Hezbollah's
hands to a certain extent. You know, they were doing these hesitant little
probes across the border, testing Hezbollah's defenses, rather than perhaps
the bolder moves right at the beginning of the war that might have had a more
decisive edge over Hezbollah in the longer run.
And we got the sense that, you know, the Americans, for all their backing of
the Lebanese government, largely dropped the Lebanese government during this
war, and I think Condoleezza Rice called it `the birth pangs of a new Middle
East,' and I can tell you that many Lebanese didn't particularly think that
was an apt description for the billions of dollars' worth of destruction in
Lebanon and over a thousand civilians killed, but that was nonetheless the
feeling in Lebanon that this was the Americans pushing Israel, encouraging
Israel to prosecute their campaign against Hezbollah for the reason, partly,
to see how a campaign can be fought against Hezbollah in light of the possible
military strike against Iran, the war this summer can be seen in those terms
GROSS: It was reported this week that Hezbollah has been training members of
the Mahdi Army in Iraq. This is the Iranian Shiite militia being led by
Muqtada al-Sadr, and I'm wondering what you know about that.
Mr. BLANFORD: I treat these reports with a degree of skepticism. It's
certainly plausible. Hezbollah, of course, is extremely closely allied to
Iran. It is a component of Iranian foreign policy, and it has certainly
trained up Palestinians during the course of the al-Aqsa intifada since 2000
over the past six years, and this is really specialist training, the use of
explosives, anti-tank missiles, things like that, training that can be done on
a small scale, pretty much an ad hoc basis, in remote areas of the Beqaa
Valley, which is in eastern Lebanon close to the border with Syria. There is
no way that Hezbollah is capable or can undertake in Lebanon mass training of
militiamen in terms where you'd have sort of big training camps because this
country's very, very small. There are Israeli aircraft flying around in
Lebanese airspace all the time, taking pictures and flying reconnaissance
patrols and looking out exactly for this sort of thing.
So it's possible that Hezbollah could have taken--I think the report said that
there were around 1000, 1200 Mahdi Army militiamen had come to Lebanon in
dribs and drabs and being trained up in various military skills, but I do
question a little bit why the Mahdi Army would have to come to Lebanon for
this sort of training when they're bang next door to Iran and, of course, it
was the Iranians who trained up Hezbollah in the first place. And given that
this is a very small country, Lebanon, and that you have so much surveillance
and reconnaissance and attention focused on this country, I'm not sure why
they would take the risk of transferring these people over to Lebanon for
training when it seems to me that they could be trained in complete secrecy
and privacy in Iran, bang next door to Iraq. So I treat these sort of reports
with skepticism, and I've been to Iraq, not for a couple of years now but on
previous tours there, in 2003, 2004, I did look quite closely into the reports
that were circulating then of Hezbollah involvement in Iraq, and they either
came out to be verifiably false or just really sort of lacked any real
integrity. So I'm not saying it's not true, but I'm just a little bit
GROSS: Well, Nicholas Blanford, I regret we're out of time. I want to thank
you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BLANFORD: Sure, you're welcome.
GROSS: Nicholas Blanford speaking to us from the BBC in Beirut. His new book
is called "Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its
Impact on the Middle East."
The jazz singer Anita O'Day died last week. Coming up, we listen back to a
1987 interview with her.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Remembering jazz singer Anita O'Day who died last week
of heart attack at age 87
TERRY GROSS, host:
The jazz singer Anita O'Day died last week of a heart attack at the age of 87.
The music critic Will Friedwald has described her as, quote, "always the
greatest, the coolest, the hippest and the swingingest. She completely
changed the definition of what it meant to be a big band singer. The band
could play it as fast, as tricky, as loud, as rhythmically supercharged as
they wanted, and they would never lose O'Day," unquote.
Anita O'Day first became known in 1941 when she joined the Gene Krupa band.
She later sang with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and many small groups. In her
1981 autobiography "High Times, Hard Times," O'Day explained that her last
name was Colton but she changed it to O'Day because in Pig Latin, that meant
"dough" and she hoped to make plenty of it. Unfortunately, most of the money
she did make from her records and concerts went into her arm. She had always
been a hard drinker, but in 1954 she started using heroin. It wasn't until 15
years later that she kicked the habit.
Before we hear the interview I recorded with her, here she is in 1959 with a
band led by Jimmy Giuffre.
(Soundbite from Anita O'Day's "The Way You Look Tonight")
Ms. ANITA O'DAY: (Singing) "Some day, when I'm awfully low and the world is
cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, just the way you look tonight.
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. Lonely, with your smile so warm and your cheeks so soft,
there is nothing for me but to love you, just the way you look tonight. With
each word, your tenderness grows, tearing my fears apart, and the smile that
wrinkles your nose clutches foolish my heart. Lovely, never, ever change keep
that breathless charm. Won't you please arrange it for I love you, just the
way you look tonight. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I spoke with Anita O'Day in 1987.
Throughout your career, you've always not wanted to be the, quote, "girl
singer," the person who's accompanied by the band, accompanied by the
orchestra. You've always said you wanted your voice to be part of the band.
Ms. O'DAY: Right.
GROSS: Would you explain some of the things that you did and didn't want as a
singer with a band?
Ms. O'DAY: Well, the things I did want was to be there because you learn and
you earn while you learn, nothing wrong with that one. The band work is
really very simple work. It's called pattern work, and you'd mostly sing
quarter notes, and the band fills with patterns.
(Singing) "Pleasure you're about..."
The band goes "doo-wah, doo-wah." You know what I'm talking about?
Ms. O'DAY: So it's called pattern work, and then, well, after Gene Krupa
Orchestra for five years and Stan Kenton for one year, this was a few years
back, I decided that I would like to try for a small group, which is different
kind of work.
GROSS: You have a very unique voice, and physically one of the reasons for
part of the uniqueness of your singing is that you don't have a uvula, which
Ms. O'DAY: Oh, you read my book.
GROSS: I did read your book. Can you tell us about how you lost your uvula?
And I should say that that's the little fleshy overhang in the back of your
Ms. O'DAY: That's the little thing that hangs down in the back of your
throat. When you see the cartoons and it shows her singing and that little
thing's going, `Laaaaa,' well, that's gone. I was in the hospital for just a
regular bit of tonsils or something, I think. I was seven years old, and my
mother said--years later, I said, `You know, I want to be a singer, and I've
really got a problem. I can't get any vibration going there, and I have to
make a different type,' and that's when she told me about this uvula having
been--it was a slip of the knife.
GROSS: During the tonsillectomy.
Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, during the like, you know, tonsillectomy, right. That's
how that went down.
GROSS: So how did that change your singing?
Ms. O'DAY: Well, not knowing about it from seven years old and not knowing I
was going to be singing at 20 and still singing at 68 years old, it didn't
make much difference, because you find a way to do it because where there's a
will, you know...
GROSS: When you were singing with big bands, you were usually the only woman
in the band, and I think it was always a source of pride for you that you
could, you know, keep up with the men in every way. In your book you wrote
that you were proud--you carried your own bags, you paid your own checks when
you were with the Krupa band.
Ms. O'DAY: Yes. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I sort of became one of the guys because
that was the only way to play it, you know. I mean, I guess you could play it
girl, but I haven't played girl yet. Let's see, I'm 68. I'm going to play
girl next year, because I'm always too busy.
GROSS: What does playing girl mean to you?
Ms. O'DAY: Just that. You know, you wear girls clothes and you don't pick
up your own bags. I've been wearing slacks since 1932.
GROSS: I want to play the first really big hit that you had. Play an excerpt
of it. This was--you recorded this in 1941 with Roy Eldridge.
Ms. O'DAY: With Roy--yeah, I do it every night. I call it my nostalgia
portion, and I do "Let Me Off Uptown."
GROSS: What's the story behind the record? How did you get to do a duet on
Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I have no idea. Gene bought it from somebody who made the
arrangement and taught us how to do it.
GROSS: And the record...
Ms. O'DAY: It belonged to Gene. It was in his books.
GROSS: The record sold, I think, a million and a half copies.
Ms. O'DAY: That's the one. Gene bought a house in Yonkers. Yeah, that's
GROSS: Well, let's play an excerpt of it. This is my guest, Anita O'Day, as
recorded in 1941.
Ms. O'DAY: Right.
(Soundbite from Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge's "Let Me Off Uptown")
Ms. O'DAY: (Talking) "Hey, Joe."
Mr. ROY ELDRIDGE: (Talking) "What do you mean, Joe? My name's Roy."
Ms. O'DAY: (Talking) "Well, come here, Roy, and get groovy. You been
Mr. ELDRIDGE: (Talking) "No, I ain't been uptown but I been around."
Ms. O'DAY: (Talking) "You mean to say you ain't been uptown?"
Mr. ELDRIDGE: (Talking) "No, I ain't been uptown. What's uptown?"
Ms. O'DAY: (Singing) "Pleasure you're about, and you feel like stepping out.
All you've got to shout is let me off uptown. If it's rhythm that you feel,
then it's nothing to conceal. Oh, you've got to spiel it. Let me off uptown.
Rib joints, juke joints, hep joints. Where could a fella go to top it? If
you want to pitch a ball, and you can't afford a hall, all you've got to call
is let me off uptown.
Mr. ELDRIDGE: (Singing) "Anita, oh, Anita." (Talking) "Say, I feel
Ms. O'DAY: (Talking) "What you feel, Roy? The heat?"
Mr. ELDRIDGE: (Talking) "No, it must be that uptown rhythm. I feel like
Ms. O'DAY: (Talking) "Well, blow, Roy, blow."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Anita O'Day, how did that record change your life?
Ms. O'DAY: Well, it didn't change it too quickly because at that time there
was no union for girl singers. I made $7.50.
GROSS: From a million and a half selling records?
Ms. O'DAY: That's right. He built a house in Yonkers.
GROSS: My goodness!
You're listening to a 1987 interview with Anita O'Day. She died last week at
the age of 87. We'll hear more of the interview after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: The jazz singer Anita O'Day died last week at the age of 87. Let's
get back to our 1987 interview with her.
You played with several other big band leaders in addition to Krupa. You
performed briefly with Benny Goodman, and you described him as a band leader
who always tried to distract attention from the performers so that--why, so
they wouldn't take attention from him?
Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, well, that was just his style. I don't think he did it
maliciously, but, you know, that was just his way.
GROSS: How would he do it?
Ms. O'DAY: Well, for instance, if I was scheduled to do four tunes and the
people are giving me too much attention, he would just automatically go into
"Sing, Sing, Sing," which is his tune, and I'd have to leave the stage waving
GROSS: You've had a lot of hard drinking in your time, and you've also done a
lot of drugs in your time. Do you think that your involvement with alcohol
and drugs had anything to do with, oh, wanting to keep up with the men that
you were talking about before and wanting to be as tough as they were?
Ms. O'DAY: That's a good question. I never thought of it that way. No, I
do it because I enjoy it. You know, everybody has their things, and that's
what I do. I didn't want to have a family. I didn't want to sit at home. I
didn't want to be a housewife and own property, and I didn't want to work in a
office from 9 to 5, and so I was just out there looking to find something that
I could like go along with and maybe contribute to the people of the world.
GROSS: You were convicted several times on drug charges. How difficult did
that make it for you to get bookings in certain cities that had...
Ms. O'DAY: That helped. That's show biz. They come to look at the girl
that went to jail for smoking dope. I don't say that happens today because
it's too popular today and the kids grew up and they say, `Well, that's a
scam,' you know, but at that time, that was part of it. Man, I'd work a club
and they'd be standing out down the street and around the corner getting in to
see the girl just got out of jail.
GROSS: So it just didn't matter for you when you were hooked?
Ms. O'DAY: I worked all the time.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did people know?
Ms. O'DAY: Everybody knew. I worked those kind of places.
GROSS: But did it affect your performance? Could you tell?
Ms. O'DAY: I don't know. I just did it. I was asked to do 50 minutes. I
did 50 minutes. That was my job.
GROSS: How did you finally kick after...
Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii, and I didn't know
anybody in Hawaii, and when you get chills, I just laid in the hot sun, and
when you get the sweats, I'd jump in the water. I did it for five months,
cool, cold and straight ever since.
GROSS: Did you have to almost relearn how to sing straight after you'd been
performing high for so many years?
Ms. O'DAY: Yeah, you kind of have to work around it, right. That's why I
went back to the nostalgia things because I'd been doing bibop and whatever
else, and so I went back to before that time, and that's what I'm doing now.
GROSS: I recently had the opportunity to see a movie that I suspect a lot of
our listeners have seen, "Jazz on a Summer's Day"...
Ms. O'DAY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...which was a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival...
Ms. O'DAY: Oh, I was feeling no pain that day.
Ms. O'DAY: I was on "60 Minutes" and Harry Reasoner asked me the same thing.
He said, `That day, when you were on "Jazz on a Summer's Day," and you were
out there, that big picture hat and the breeze was blowing those real ostrich
feathers on top of it,' he says to me, `were you high?' and I looked at him
and I looked back at the little film they were showing me, and I says, `I
would say yes.'
GROSS: Well, you know, what I really wanted to know, was how you--you were
wearing these great white gloves in it, these like--I think, wrist-high white
gloves, and it's very sharp-looking. I don't know how many women were
actually wearing those gloves back in 1958, but how did you decide to wear
them? I think it almost became a trademark for a while.
Ms. O'DAY: Well, I went to George Wean who was the promoter of the whole
thing, and I said, `What night am I on?' because it was Thursday, Friday,
Saturday, Sunday nights, and he says to me, `Oh, you're on Sunday afternoon,'
and I said, `Oh, thanks a lot.' You know, what am I going to wear on a Sunday
afternoon? I'm not going to wear a frock to the floor, and I'm not going to
wear it off the shoulder, so I got to thinking, so I lied prone, and I kind of
like thought, `What would you wear?' I was due at 5:00, so I wore a
cocktail--afternoon cocktail party dress with the black sheath and the white
peplum and little glass slippers and the little white gloves and this black
hat with the ostrich feathers, and it worked out apropos for the `time o'
day.' That's a joke. O'Day. Terry? Hello. Terry, are you there? Yeah,
that's what happened, love. Yeah. That was it.
GROSS: Anita O' Day, recorded in 1987. She died last week at the age of 87.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite from Anita O'Day's "That Old Feeling")
Ms. O'DAY: (Singing) "I saw you last night and got that old feeling. When
you came in sight, I got that old feeling. The moment that you danced by, I
felt a thrill. And when you caught my eye, my heart stood still..."
(End of soundbite)
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