All of Life in Miniature: Reflections on 70 Days in Lebanon

Sunset in Ashrafieh, the heart of Christian East Beirut.

xhilaration with a tinge of annoyance — that’s how I would describe the first thing I felt when I arrived in Lebanon. I flew into Beirut late at night, and quickly got my first taste of chaotic Middle Eastern bureaucracy when Turkish Airlines left one of my bags in Istanbul. Unlike the airports that I was used to, Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport did not deliver misplaced luggage to its rightful owners once it arrived. In a reflection of my own relative privilege, I was both mildly annoyed yet amused by the whole affair, but returned to the airport the following afternoon to retrieve my belongings. After delivering a claim form to the Turkish Airlines desk, trekking across the airport to the security office to get another special clearance form, and then presenting it to guards at the entrance to the baggage claim area, I walked through a checkpoint into a massive warehouse where I had to track down my bag amid a mountain of other suitcases. All things considered, I was actually pretty lucky — other people I spoke with told me they had to wait over a week for their lost bags to arrive, and even then had to wrestle with airport authorities to tell them where they could pick them up.

But even on the four trips I had to make to and from the airport during my first 24 hours in Beirut, I saw everything outside my window through a child’s eyes — first the city’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, and then not a minute later, the upscale shopping malls in its reconstructed center. I felt like I had drifted off into an absurd and impossible waking dream.

That was ten weeks ago, although it seems like much, much longer. A month in this country can feel like the course of an entire lifetime. I later felt that same sense of pleasant disbelief on the back of a Vespa careening through the shadowy alleyways of Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut. After a press tour of an UNRWA-run elementary school, I arranged a ride back to the agency’s field office with a short but loud-mouthed man named Aasim who was an acquaintance of the local staff. When he asked me if I wanted a quick tour of the camp first, I knew I would never forgive myself if I refused. We soon found ourselves swerving from left to right between makeshift houses and past boisterous Palestinian boys who were for some reason riding horses through Shatila’s dusty streets. My scrappy chauffeur was commanding me to take pictures. Sawwir, sawwir! He yelled as I tried to focus my DSLR while holding onto my seat for dear life.

One of the more coherent pictures I took on my wild ride through Shatila.

The energy of Shatila was extreme, but I found glimmers of it everywhere in Lebanon. From West Beirut’s unpolished nightlife hub along Hamra Street to the cramped working-class apartments in Burj Abi Haydar, the country’s capital is awash with car horns and flashes of color. In Lebanon’s second largest city Tripoli, once the Mamluk port of Damascus, the smells of coffee, nargileh, and fresh produce mix with the chatter of a thousand shopkeepers in a labyrinth of souks that have seen fifteen-hundred years of conquests, Crusades, and the construction of fabulous mosques and madrasas.

Yet mere kilometers from these places of dizzying activity, I have found ruwaa’ — calmness and relaxation. Walking the winding streets of Ashrafieh in East Beirut on a Sunday evening, modest shrines with statuettes of the Virgin Mary and St. Charbel peer out from behind quiet corners or along beautifully graffiti-ed staircases. Below the steep mountainsides of the Valley of Nahr Ibrahim where the Greek god Adonis was said to have gone to die, men toil in family plots as the quiet fog of the evening rolls in over the forests and rock walls around them. On a beach in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, called Sur in Arabic, my friends and I sit drinking beers as yellow Hezbollah flags flutter surreally on the street behind us and a warm Mediterranean breeze dries out our sandy feet.

A mountain is engulfed in clouds in the Nahr Ibrahim Valley.

hen I started writing my history thesis about Lebanese politics in my senior year of college, I quickly became amazed that a country like this could be real — I saw Lebanon as a place where anyone and anything could coexist, as a safe haven for religious minorities from all over the Middle East. I saw it as a place that had for so long tried its best to remain outside of the turmoil of the modern Arab world, only to succumb to outside pressures that conspired to ruin its self-imposed exile from Middle Eastern affairs. The Lebanese Civil War was an anomaly, I thought, and Lebanon in its purest form was a land apart, guarded by the romanticism of its mountain valleys and famous cedar forests.

Although my fascination with this country has never faded, it has definitely changed significantly. Whereas once upon a time it was a fetishized netherworld in my mind, it is now all intimately and sometimes painfully real. I am still as amazed as I once was by how a country like this could continue to exist after all it has been through, because I realize now that it is barely a single country at all. Since its foundation under the French Mandate after World War I, the Lebanese state has always been interested only in maintaining order rather than cultivating any true national unity — and ever since the end of the civil war, identity formation has consistently been the responsibility of sectarian political parties rather than the national government.

French balconies in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighborhood, with Muhammad al-Amin Mosque in the distance.

I remember early on, I told a Lebanese friend in Beirut that everyone I had met so far in the city had been adamantly opposed to the sectarian system of governance that had dominated this country since 1943. He responded with the following cynical take — everyone says they hate the system, but at the end of the day, if you’re a Maronite Christian and you happen to be in trouble or you want to get something done, who’s going to help you? The Shi’a? The Sunnis? Of course not — only the Maronites will. They are your people, like it or not. And in Lebanon, that’s what ultimately matters — your religion and your party.

Sassine Square in Ashrafieh, where a banner of former Lebanese president and militia leader Bashir Gemayel hangs high. Gemayel has been a powerful, if controversial, symbol of national unity for Lebanon’s Maronite Christians since he was assassinated in 1982 during the war.

During the most recent parliamentary election cycle here this past May, there was a group of young and iconoclastic candidates who ran together on the Civil Society list. They were a non-sectarian group, focused on tackling systemic corruption and addressing key issues like inadequate electricity, political responsiveness, and Lebanon’s trash crisis. There was a lot of hype around them, and some of their most high-profile candidates like journalist Joumana Haddad stood a serious chance of winning seats.

But of course, on election day, their campaign fizzled out, partly because they didn’t have the deep community connections the traditional parties did, and partly because those same traditional parties were intent on conspiring against them. Videos appeared on social media soon after the elections showing poll workers tampering with ballot boxes before election monitors had a chance to review the results. These videos were widely shared, and everyone acknowledged their authenticity, and yet nothing happened. Such is the reality in modern Lebanon, and everyone, willingly or unwillingly, is a co-conspirator.

Political posters in the ancient city of Sidon, in southern Lebanon. The one on the left features members of the Hariri family who dominate the largest Sunni party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Above flies the flag of Saudi Arabia, the party’s chief financier.

Although great strides have been made since the civil war to integrate and rebuild Beirut, it remains a divided city. West Beirut remains largely Sunni, East Beirut remains Christian, and South Beirut remains Shi’i — but it is class rather than sect that is the most important divider here today. Be they Muslim or Christian, the landowners in Beirut’s vibrant central neighborhoods are all wealthy, and almost all live lives that are totally separate from the city’s middle and working classes. As rich Lebanese who visit their homeland once a year sip champagne on condo rooftops, disenfranchised Palestinians hustle day and night to make a living at restaurants only a few floors below them. Taxi drivers from Beirut’s poor south suburbs ferry foreigners like me to the coolest bars in East Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, where Syrian children float among the crowds collecting money for their bosses a la Oliver Twist. This is something that is evident not just in Beirut, but across all of Lebanon itself — Tripoli, one of the country’s poorest places, sits only a few minutes’ drive from Batroun, a seaside getaway for the rich and famous. If the chaos of Beirut is too much for the city’s Christian community, they can always escape into the mountains, where many people own summer homes in the ancient villages of their family clans.

I remember gazing at all of this with a sense of wonder once I first arrived. It was all part of the landscape, and I was here to try to write about it. That changed earlier this month, when the realities of life here suddenly became personal. A good friend of mine, one of the first locals I met after arriving here, was arrested by Lebanese security forces in his family’s home. Neither I nor his family have seen or heard from him since then. At the time of writing, no one knows what he is being charged with, aside from the fact that he is currently in the midst of a military trial process. He has not been allowed any legal consultations, and hiring a lawyer remains out of the question.

The text reads: “From you, for you, on top of you.”

Much like many people close to him, I have had a hard time processing all this. Although I felt like I knew my friend well, I recognize that we had only been close for just over a month and I really had no idea what he had been doing in his spare time. But even with this knowledge in mind, not a day goes by without me imagining what he is going through. I have tried to block these thoughts out as best I can, and have kept on hoping for the best — at the end of the day, there is truly nothing I can do to help him right now.

The most frustrating thing about the whole situation is that if he had come from a different segment of society or from a family that had ties to Lebanon’s security apparatus, this would all be over by now. These are the privileges afforded to those at the top of Lebanon’s social hierarchy — anything and everything can be solved as long as you have some wasta, or connections, in all the right places.

Muhammad al-Amin Mosque with the Martyrs’ Monument in Downtown Beirut

Yet despite this looming dark cloud, I have never stopped hoping, and I have never stopped loving it here. Lebanon is a place that draws you in with its chaos, its contrasts, and its lust for life, but it’s the little things that ultimately keep you in its grip. The comfort of finding a bakery that makes man’oushe just the way you like it, the curious satisfaction of watching your neighbors go about their daily lives in their own idiosyncratic ways, the awe of finally seeing Mount Sannine emerge from behind its curtain of clouds… these are the things that have made me never want to leave. It’s precisely because I have grown so attached to Lebanon that I am so infuriated by it — the ingredients that would allow this country’s people to thrive are all here, but somehow, they never quite manage to come together. Unfortunately, given the current state of things, I doubt they ever will. I desperately hope I’m wrong.

Freelance writer/reporter constantly in transit. Middle East & Eastern Europe | National Security | Foreign Affairs

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