Coffee House

With Hitch in Lebanon

18 December 2011

One afternoon a couple of years ago Christopher Hitchens, Michael Totten and I had gone for a walk along Hamra street in West Beirut when Hitch spotted a signpost put up by a local fascist group
called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The SSNP is a Hezbollah ally that does a lot of the Assad regime’s dirty work in Lebanon. Totten was in the middle of telling us about the
SSNP’s reputation for for brutality and its skill at making bombs when Hitch took out his pen and started to deface the sign. It was an action that typified Hitch’s commitment to his
political convictions — the same dauntless commitment that enabled him to risk excommunication by lifelong comrades on the left — and also the schoolboyish delight in making mischief
that was part of that intoxicating mix of qualities that made him the best company in the world. His response to what happened next that was even more revealing.

For within a few minutes leather-jacketed SSNP goons appeared from nowhere and attacked us, and Hitch got the worst of it. They knocked him down, and only stopped kicking and hitting him when their
leader gave a nod indicating ‘enough’. Totten and I picked him up and fled with him to a taxi. When Hitch talked and wrote about the incident afterwards, it was evident that he believed
that the beating hadn’t been worse was because of the interference of the Beirutis sitting in a nearby café. As Totten and I remembered it — and we, unlike Hitch, were still
standing while he was on the ground — they watched the violence impassively, the café being a hangout for upper middle-class Greek Orthodox supporters of the SSNP.

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It made sense that Hitch, for all his hard-headedness about the need to fight tyrants and villains, chose to believe this. He was an idealist and an optimist with a romantic but profound faith in
progress. Unlike the so-called realists, and like some of the so-called neoconservatives with whom he made common cause, he believed that Arabs, like Kurds, Africans, Chinese, Indians and all the
other non-Western peoples of the world, were capable of democracy and deserved it just as much as Europeans and Americans.

Though bruised and bloodied by the attack, Hitch showed no a trace of self-pity. He knew he had in a sense asked for it, and the idea of being hurt or killed for his beliefs was, I think, one that
rather pleased him. Of course Totten and I had not signed up for such a fate. In any case we loved him too much, and were too upset by the blood on his face and shirt after the incident, to be
angry for long. Moreover for admirers already deeply proud to have him as a friend and mentor, there was something thrilling about sharing such an incident with our longtime hero, and to have seen
at first hand that his physical courage matched his courage on the page and in debate.

It is one reason why it is so very hard to accept that he has gone. Like many of his friends I half-believed that he would somehow beat his cancer — or at least be around a lot longer. After
all, his writing during this last year seemed as brilliant and morally astringent as ever, including superb pieces on Pakistan, and that last stunning essay for Vanity Fair about illness and death.
Knowing now that he wrote those pieces in conditions of physical misery and raging pain makes them all the more astonishing.

Now that he has gone the world feels like a darker and dumber place. He had no equal among public intellectuals working in the English language. And on a personal level, the knowledge that I will
never again hear that deep, dry voice live — never again be in the presence of mischevious smile — is even more painful than I expected. How I wish I had spent more evenings with him,
corresponded more. The times I did spend seem all the more precious, all the more a privilege. There is perhaps consolation for those who miss Hitch in that so much of the man is preserved in books
and on the internet, though today it is impossible to read him or watch him debate without lamenting a future where that unique voice is silent.

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Show comments
  • Frank P

    As for the Marxist schtick, I was only quoting what he said himself. I can’t imagine that any sane person, who isn’t, would want to claim that he is.

  • Frank P

    Daniel Maris

    I assumed you were using ‘spirit’ in the ‘soul’ sense, rather the the smell of scotch which must surely have been the most obvious manifestation of his spirit for those who ‘got close’ to him.

    I was rather amused by Douglas Murray’s rather naive remark about Hitchens saying to him, “Never order the house whiskey, they serve it from a bucket under the bar.” House whisky? Who the fuck ever ordered house whisky? What a strange couple they must have made in their mentor – acolyte relationships? One thing that roused my curiosity. In the photo at the top of this post, Hitchens appears to have very short arms. Is that a fact or just the camera angle?

  • daniel maris

    Re “his spirit” – unless you ever actually met the guy,you’ve only been dealing with him second hand – a ghostly presence in your life. So his presence lingers, though no doubt it will now fade quite rapidly.

    I’ve never read anything by him indicative of being a serious Marxist, though he appears to have thought himself one in his youth (as did his brother I believe). I haven’t supported his politics particularly – I never took him too seriously – but he had a pretty good prose style and liked his controversialist style. I used to like it when Kingsley Amis went pop-eyed with right wing rage as well.

  • David Lindsay

    Holdsworth, although the SSNP is not itself a Christian organisation and in fact subscribes to the separation of Church and State as well as to various weird racial theories, nevertheless its base is among the Antiochian Orthodox, so it is no wonder that it was not too keen on the antics of the less important Hitchens brother.

    He and Foreman were in Lebanon as guests, not of the alliance backed by Syria (Christian-majority provinces, Christian festivals as public holidays), but as guests of the rival alliance, which is backed by Saudi Arabia.

  • Frank P


    For those who are genuinely interested in the C. Hitchens phenomenon I commend the following links:

    A devastating 2 part critique by another apostate of Leftism (DH is probably a true one, like either Gerard Vanderleun or Melanie Phillips).

    Hat tip Kennybhoy.

  • Frank P

    daniel maris (9.12am)

    Comments “vinegary”?
    “His spirit”?

    Hmmnn. Iconoclastic rather than vinegary, perhaps? As for ‘his spirit’, Hitchens himself fervently relinquished any such notion through his aggressive, arrogant and dismissive atheism, surely?

    Hitchens forged, wrote and spoke words and phrases to create controversy in order to make money from the words and phrases. The causes he espoused and opposed (in some cases both at the same time) were those that would sell most copy or get him invited to speak, ‘or debate’ – for money. So he was at least a part time ho (albeit a ‘high class’ ho – an oxymoron of course)). He lived a privileged and hedonistic life and had what his academic and journalistic cronies describe as a ‘fine mind’ a ‘first class brain’. I would have been more convinced of the latter had he harnessed the alleged cerebral brilliance to summat useful. Political (or polemical) scribblers are, after all , just scribblers, usually envious and always devious. Readers enjoy the ones that confirm their prejudices and hate the ones who oppose them. Christopher had the knack of appealing to all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But like everyone else, he failed to please all of the people all of the time and realised he could earn off that ,too. He was a notorious chameleon, but beneath all the guises a hard-nosed Marxist – never denied it, the one constant as far as I can tell from his emissions over the years. As for those who want to drop his name around and reminisce anecdotally for reflected glory? Pshaw! (No relation to Patriccy). Perhaps Carl Foreman’s pup is already preparing a biopic for Hollywood on the life of Hitch. Obviously the political legacy of Carl lives on through Jr.

  • ed l


    “I don’t think this is the response you were looking for Mr Foreman. Is that you with the specs on your head?”

    No, that’s Michael Totten. The intrepid Jonathan is the one wearing children’s shoes.

  • Peter Jackson

    Given that Hitchen’s characteristically puerile and vainglorious act needlessly endangered all your lives, I trust you gave him another pasting when you got back to the hotel.

  • disenfranchised

    hitchens was a polemicist of the old school, fearless in every way.
    love him or hate him (and there seem to be several of the latter here), he was a man of towering intellect, and i, for one, will greatly miss his brilliant writing…..

  • Maggie

    To co-opt the death of an ex-pat journalist as an opportunity for political propaganda really is a bit crass and shouldn’t be encouraged by The Spectator. We’ve already heard numerous first person reminiscences from well-known close friends of Hitchens. We don’t need to hear from people we’ve never heard of about how he supported their political views.

  • RocketDog

    This is a wind up isn’t it?

  • Jez

    I’d like to genuinely apologise for the below paragraph i have just written- having just read it back.

    It was rather insensitive and for the record is not in any way criticising Hitchens personally- it was a general observation by myself and this is an opinion only.

    For the record, there seems to be a huge gaping bias within the media that could be out of control.

    Anyway, the paragraph;

    “i’m sure you wouldn’t have a platform to write drivel in the mass media”

  • Holdsworth

    “One of Lenin’s great achievements … is to create a secular Russia. The power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was an absolute warren of backwardness of evil and superstition, is probably never going to recover from what he did to it.” — Christopher Hitchens

  • Louisa

    I don’t think this is the response you were looking for Mr Foreman. Is that you with the specs on your head?

  • daniel maris

    Oh well I don’t think CH always spoke well of the dead, so I guess his spirit can cope with some of the more vinegary comments here.

  • Jez

    ‘and I’ll go to bed at noon’,

    I am humbled.

    Mind you, he must have. He was allowed to exist in the bubble.

    Remember, Liberal dogma encompasses a whole lot of things these days; bombing foreign lands / not bombing Left leaning lands in the Sixties and Seventies, social engineering, mass immigration, locking people up for speaking incorrectly, psuedo Marxism / Capitalism / Globalism / Internationalism etc, etc.

    You do not ideologically fit this criterea, then i’m sure you wouldn’t have a platform to write drivel in the mass media- nevermind having the whole industry promote many hundreds of hours of obituaries across the media world.

  • mjain

    An interesting insght into the man, and a moving tribute to a friend

  • Malfleur

    It is always a joy to hear English spoken articulately and forcefully. The opportunities are fewer and fewer now; that is reason alone to regret the passing of Christopher Hitchens.

  • Frank P

    Oh, I see. Only under the interrogation of the brutal Coffee Housers does your true intrepid spunk emerge. How modest of you!

    Actually, this story get’s shakier by the minute. Further and better particulars, please? Are you sure you weren’t mistaken for three sex tourists looking for Arab boys, or noxious substances – and that the local yokels didn’t even notice the graffiti gesture, but just thought they would have some sport with some foreign nonces or junkies? After a glimpse of that picture, they could forgiven for assuming that, don’t you think? An incongruous trio if I ever there was.

  • Jonathan Foreman

    Actually we all got punched or kicked. Totten and I did what we could to pull them off. We did not just stand there and watch, though I wish we could have done more. Fortunately it was over very quickly.

  • Erica Blair

    The lesson here being, if you visit another country don’t carry out acts of mindless vandalism and expect to get away with it.


    For the record, they didn’t vandalise a ‘signpost’, it was a memorial to a resistance fighter who had fought against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. What if someone tried to deface the Cenotaph? Oh I don’t think we have to imagine the consequences of that.


    Totten, Hitchens and Foreman were in Lebanon as guests of a coalition which included the Lebanese Phalangists. So much for their ‘anti-fascism’.

  • and I’ll go to bed at noon


    “Toed the liberal line”? Christopher Hitchens “toed the liberal line”?

    This may well be the funniest thing I’ve read in a very depressing week. You were even considerate enough to chuck an unnecessary W in there, thus allowing me to mock your subliteracy as well as your pitiful knowledge of the deceased and politics in general. Truly, a hero among trolls.

  • Jez

    I’d just like to add to the above comment.

    Hitchens was different from you probably JF.

    He seems eccentric- but a bit of a loose cannon.

    He towed the liberal line (Interventionalist and all) so he was ok in your eyes.

    The thing is though, usually it’s the lower snarling type paps that have the balls- the journo’s are the ones that’ll smile their way out of an incident / a tight corner- watching their nearest and dearest getting a hiding (one way or an other) and then, once a hundred miles away, safe and sound- write a really nasty little story, with no right of reply to make themselves feel better.

    That could usually be the case. With some exceptions recently.

  • Jez

    I don’t think that Jade Goody should have been hounded- or to be honest, her career and life as she knew it be destroyed by journalists.

    There’s loads of other stuff too…. but then it’s all taken into perspective when fake sheikh’s tell us that they concentrate only on gun runners and Gary Glitter.

    The Journalists defacing signs or in extreme cases having special forces put their lives on the line (and ultimately seeing some of them killed) for them to get their scoop- thus proving some ‘spin’ point they’re trying to make in places like Afghanistan / Iraq etc, must make the rest of you journo’s very proud.

  • merlinthepig

    It’s hard to believe this article was written by an adult, despite the evidence of the photo accompanying it.

    It is bad enough to profess awe for a mere puerile act of defacing a sign (Hitchens should have known better)but then to nonetheless stand by and watch a companion getting done over, not assist and then praise his courage is bloody outrageous! Cad!

  • Ivan D

    That’s enough: we’ve got the message: A Journalist Has Died.

  • Frank P

    So Totten and Foreman stand by and watch while ‘leather-jacketed thugs’ bet the shit out of friend. Obviously your ‘profession’ is a spectator sport. Wankers!

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