Never a truer test

Apologies for the silence from Beirut, if you’ve been in the vicinity of a radio or TV anywhere in the world over the last week you’ll surely know why.

Last friday a huge car bomb went off in my neighourhood, in a very busy public place, in the vicinity of 3 Lebanese political Head Quarters but without damaging any of them. In the minutes after, the phones of everyone in the office unexpectedly started lighting up in a chorus of tinny tunes, each without its own confused messenger concerned for their friends and family in the vague vicinity of the bomb – but each equally at a loss as to why.

Why detonate such a large bomb with such disregard for innocent members of the public’s lives?

Most assumed it was a brash attempt by Syria to stir up Lebanon’s sectarian tendencies that have proven so divisive in the past. An open and shut case of divide and rule by the Syrian regime in its last death throes, determined to take down not only its own country but also the one its occupied and scarred for so long.

But as the dust settled on the bomb site, the casualties evacuated, the site cordoned off, and buckets and buckets of blood donated, the prospect of a potentially imminent yet also long term indiscriminate threat from across the border was brushed aside – because Internal Security Chief of Lebanon, Wissam al-Hassan, was identified as having died in the bomb. My immediate reaction on this news, without having had the background experience of war or clashes was still along these accurately described emotive lines: What is a car bomb?

The discourse immediately changed. People were relieved for their own sakes that this did not present the general threat of the arm of Syria (at least not yet) that meant anyone and everyone within Lebanon is a target. The mindset becomes one of drawn out political machinations rather than a more fundamental base question of survival. And so the last week has seen much political wrangling, but also much unity within the average population. Some might disagree with my saying this, but every Lebanese person I have spoken to since then, whether friend or acquaintance has expressed their disgust, their fatigue, and their sadness at such events; whether Christian, Sunni or Shi’ite. I may be talking only to those who would never fight anyway, but in the national media coverage, on Twitter and from other sources I get the impression this event has become a test of whether Lebanon regresses or moves forward. I think the consensus of the average person votes to move forward – that is, not step back 25 years into sectarian strife and allowing confessionalist violence to reign as it so destructively did in the past. I also get the impression no one claims to have the solution for how to move forward, and there aren’t similar groups of revolutionary youth political parties as have popped up in Tunisia and Egypt. The bottom line however is that there is inequality of arms in Lebanese politics right now, Hezbollah is armed to its teeth, but the opposition Christian coalition does not possess the fighting power to even enter into a political discourse reliant on civil war as a resolution, and, as I hinted at earlier, the public opinion is not in favour of anything like civil war, and thus the mass mobilisation required is lacking. This wonderful ‘White March‘ was organised last night, I hope its message grows and grows because it might just have the potential to tap into the general feeling of “Challas!” “Enough!”.

For a full rundown of the politics attached to the assassination of al-Hassan see this article. Anyway, without just repeating the reams of media coverage anyone can source on the internet, I wanted to offer my reaction to this instability that’s pervaded the place I am living and working in.

Concerned family and friends have been suggesting I leave, others asking what’s it like to experience clashes etc. As neither I nor any of my friends here were hurt by the events, my first response is one of mild relief given its proximity, and then after that, you would be surprised how quickly you move on. Life returns to almost normal very quickly. Immediately afterwards, and for about a maximum of 2 days after the streets were deserted throughout Beirut – except for the odd taxi, mopeds of young guys racing to beat road closures and create their own road blocks of burning tyres, and of course, the Army out in force in thickset tanks, each with their berets and weapons strapped to their chest, in the areas most likely to experience clashes or with greatest political significance. Friends racing home to beat the road closures so they could park their cars near their flats; bars and public places totally devoid of people except foreigners, mostly young Europeans or Americans – surely not ignorant of events but not as cautious as the Lebanese trained by years of civil war and clashes to go to ground for a couple of days as a reflex reaction.

With the reassurances of friends and work mates I stayed indoors and within my district for the entire weekend, using the time to catch up on work and reading that I’d put off for too long. Eventually cabin fever had set in by Monday morning and I was ready to go to work.
In the immediate aftermath however, I made get-out-quick plans in case I needed them. Picking my possible destinations on getting out of Lebanon. As I was forcing myself to really work out the practicalities, I just couldn’t force myself to feel anything other than dissatisfied at the prospect of having to leave 1month early. It runs deeper than simply I just don’t want to leave – I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an adrenalin junkie and I do not get off on feeling unsafe or at risk; as far as I’m concerned this is my life right now, and it should be so for another month before heading to Qatar. I am not ready to say goodbye to the friends I have made here; to the stories of the old Lebanese woman I live with; to stop having Arabic lessons with the fantastic Hussein with three brothers and ten sisters; to stop visiting Noah for cocoa shots and informal Arabic-learning; to stop eating manoushe and other food heavens; to stop toasting “God Damn everyone” with Saad over a glass or several of Arak; to stop experiencing and learning from the politics of the small but complicated gateway to the East.

Perhaps controversially I also feel like this so-far short period of instability and schism in the national narrative with its resulting outpouring of anger and political fatigue is key to me really getting under the skin of Lebanon.

On the surface I see people who are unfalteringly welcoming, though sometimes bad at delivering on the promises they make genuinely at the time; but now I can see for instance that this could easily stem from a national habit of living in the moment and doing as you really want to do despite small promises made, because lets face it, things could change in an instant. The offhand acknowledgement of clashes one street over (by one friend) and her genuine frustration at not being able to go shopping above any other feelings, continue to fascinate me. The human psyche is incredible, and I tread the line between the naivety of my gut reactions, untrained in the discourse of violent disagreement, and learning from the Lebanese ability to mentally move on from distasteful things to the things they care about – going out, meeting friends and just generally carrying on their lives as normal and as planned. In combination with a steady flow of political updates, information, measured voices from different sides, the ability of the Lebanese to move on from this jarring experience, the fact that clashes are restricted to certain neighourhoods, the heavy crackdown on those causing clashes and the general presence of the Army, as well as the calls for no violence from religious and political leaders reassures me for now that things have calmed down sufficiently for me to continue on here for now.

But now is a period of time constantly under my review, you can’t rest on your laurels here, that I feel is the root mentality of many Lebanese who are constantly flying in and out of Beirut according to their judgement of the now.

I’ve realised what started out as a bare intention to do my internship and move on has developed into a realisation that now I’m not happy to say I came here just to do my thing and leave, I’m here to experience Lebanon, without getting injured or dying in the process admittedly, but flying out at the first sign of political clashes would not do justice to my experience here so far, and it would be a rejection of the last month and a half of discovery and friendship that’s come to form this short-term life of mine. Leaving now, without being forced to by circumstances outside my control, would be a schism in my narrative that I’m constructing piece by piece, person by person.


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