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Beirut: Faith No More?


For my inaugural column here on Spot-on, I wanted to look at the grand political events of the region, how America and Iran, along with their allies, have squared off in multiple arenas over power and resources.
Screw that. Instead, I wanted to write about my home, Beirut, and invite y’all in for a bit. It’s a messy place and frankly more than a bit depressing. But it’s also important and exciting, full of folks who (mostly) deserve better than they’ve received. But this is also a place under a kind of mental siege from within the country’s collective psyches. The reason for the fear is not that the Lebanese fear the Syrians or the Israelis. They fear each other more.
There are moments that disguise this undertone. I’m writing this in a coffehouse called Te Marbuta, named for a letter in the Arabic alphabet. It’s a groovy little place in the once fashionable district of Hamra. Lebanon’s national chanteuse, Fayruz, is playing from the iBook in the corner through the joint’s speakers and the hummus is dripping in olive oil. Just now, as I glance at the door, two young women come in. One is in tight jeans and a tight tanktop, brown Mediterranean skin glowing with youth. Her long black hair swings free and she smiles easily at her friend who’s with her. Her friend is also young, but swaddled in a hot pink hijab, the head covering that marks a religiously observant Muslim woman. There is not a trace of awkwardness between the two, and neither is the least self-conscious about one’s flagrant display of shoulder or the other’s lavish use of fabric.
This is Lebanon, which has never quite figured out where it belongs. Geographically of the Middle East, in some social circles it is part of the Western sphere (particularly France’s) and, in other cliques, part of the Arab world. Between friends, the cultural divide is an easy transition, and it’s reflected in the languages Lebanese speak: French, English and Arabic, often with all three in the same sentence.
But between the various communities in Lebanon, the cultural divide is a chasm, and it’s one — for all but a brief time — that has been tearing Lebanon apart since the Crusades.
Which is why these days Beirut feels like a city at war, a capital under siege. Since 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered by a massive truck bomb, Lebanon has experienced a terror campaign of bombings, assassinations, war and interference by its larger neighbors. The Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah — with Syria’s support — has been pushing against the Western-oriented government in an attempt to combat “the American agenda” in the Middle East. Many pro-Western and pro-government people here in Beirut squarely blame Syria for their woes, saying Damascus is responsible for every woe that has befallen Lebanon since… well, since forever, basically. Last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel? If it’s not Syria’s fault, it at least benefitted from it. Lebanon’s droopy-eyed Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the civil war’s fiercest warlords now turned statesman, can always be counted on to point fingers at Syria.
Hezbollah and its Shi’ite supporters, for their part, point to every action as a work of America, Israel or some other unspecified “agents” from the West. (They really don’t distinguish much.) Iran’s conspicuous involvement in Lebanon’s affairs is seen as “help,” however, rather than interference, which is what the U.S. contributes when it lends its support to the government in Beirut. Syria, too, is merely looking out for its “brotherly neighbor,” when it allows weapons to be shipped to Hezbollah and militant Palestinians in the Bekaa Valley.
In this political climate, the Lebanese have been cowed. Their famous joie de vie, which was formerly so evident that numerous travel magazines ran “Beirut’s hip again!” articles extolling the town’s nightlife and restaurant culture, has been ground down. This has happened, however, not by the boot of a Syrian occupier, but by the Lebanese themselves.
The campaign of bombings and assassinations has been awful, but it’s certainly not been on the scale of, say, Iraq. And I spent two years in Baghdad; I know from terror. The bombings here, as bad as they are, are nowhere near that level. And yet every Lebanese I have spoken with about this always agrees with me and then adds the warning, “it’s not that bad… yet.”
Terrorism is winning here, like I’ve never seen terrorism win elsewhere. As traumatic as 9/11 was, most New Yorkers went back to their daily lives pretty quickly. London, as the home of stiff-upper-lipism, carried on the day after the 7/7 bombing as if nothing happened. But the Lebanese are terrified. It has affected how they live their lives in ways far outside what might be considered reasonable precautions. According to my fiancé, women at her nail salon say that many of their friends are delaying weddings this summer. (Although one woman said yesterday that if it weren’t for the fact that she had a wedding that night she wouldn’t be there.) Few are going out. Beirut’s famous nightclubs and restaurants are practically barren. Parents are forbidding their adult children to stray too far from home and those that can leave Beirut for another country or the mountain retreats above the city for the summer break are doing so earlier and earlier.
“This is worse than during the war,” my friend Haysam Eid, who, as a Lebanese dude, embodies the term, “tragically hip.” Young, popular and good looking, he should be enjoying the hell out of the summer, chasing girls and hanging with his buddies. Instead, he goes to work at the barbershop and goes home. “You don’t know where the next bomb will hit, man,” he said. “It’s the uncertainty. During the war, you had an idea what might happen. This is hell.”
The older generation likes to tell stories about how, during the civil war (which was truly vicious) they maintained a beach-going schedule and risked their lives to go to nightclubs. Today’s generation is the offspring of those wartime partiers, and they’re huddling in their homes at night. Yes, Beirut is under siege, but it’s not just a siege from outside forces.
That’s why I look at those two young women who walked in the coffeeshop with both appreciation and sadness. I worry that any conflict here will mean the divides between Christian and Muslim and the religious and the secular will trump friendships. Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Druze all live in a state of deep anxiety toward the other sects and evidence of that tension can erupt at any moment.
Time and again, I’ve been told there will be another war here because “the Lebanese are stubborn” or “the Lebanese never learn.” There is a quickness to suspect bad intentions, even in everyday encounters. And then those same people will tell me it’s the outside powers trying to stir up trouble in Lebanon because a war here will benefit the U.S. or Iran or Syria or Israel for one reason or another.
But make no mistake: if there is a war here it will be because the Lebanese lack of trust in each other allows outside powers to manipulate them. That’s the greatest irony and tragedy of Lebanon: in a land of many faiths, its people have no faith in each other.

Share  Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:17 PM | Permalink

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