Lebanon under my skin

Lebanon got under my skin.

It was not the beauty of the place. Beirut is a city with little to discover for the classical tourist. One can walk along the Corniche – the boulevard along the Mediterranean coast. One can spend time getting lost in the shopping streets of Muslim West Beirut. One can eat in good French restaurants in the Christian quarter. On Saturday evening all the outdoor tables of the many restaurants in the rebuilt downtown are full with people, many smoking water pipes. All of this is nice, the weather in October is glorious, but the sights hardly compare with Istanbul or Thessaloniki: not the walks along the water, not the shops, not even the restaurants and cafes.

What transforms this city into something remarkable is not what one can see but the stories that cling to every building: it is discovering the downtown’s pre-war history, its war-time fate and the remarkable story of its reconstruction after 1990 (which is still ongoing), that turns sitting here into an exercise of rubbing Aladin’s lamp. Ghosts quickly appear, and take one on trips to the past and future.

First one finds oneself in the middle of a pleasing yet “sterile urban ideal of cobble-stoned streets, art galleries and boutiques” (Nicholas Blanford): the present. Then one sees oneself sitting on top of an archeological goldmine, with Roman roads, Greek mosaics, Phoenician burial chambers: the distant past. The next image is of this very same place looking like “a wasteland of shell-scarred ruins and overgrown streets, inhabited by families of destitute squatters and packs of prowling wild dogs”: the downtown two decades ago. Then “countless bullet holes pitted the sandstone facades of Ottoman-era houses lining streets named after First World War generals such as Foch, Weygand and Allenby” (Nicholas Blanford in his gripping “Killing Mr. Lebanon”). I look up and see that the elegant shopping street where I sit is still named after Allenby today.

On Saturday I drive to Byblos. This is one of the oldest towns in the world, on the coast north of Beirut. It was one of the obvious tourist attractions when a 2-day visit to Lebanon was still part of most package tours to the Middle East. Tourists would be shown the remains of a crusader castle and a 12th century church, some Ottoman buildings, and a little harbor going back to Phoenician times. A picturesque and interesting site, definitely worth an excursion but hardly warranting a special trip. Today there are very few tourists, however. I learn in Byblos that most EU embassies have put out a travel warning for Lebanon, so tour operators coming to Syria do not dare to come here at the moment.

What fascinates me more than the old remains is the drive from Beirut to Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic): the chaotic and dense construction along the coast, the obvious lack of urban planning, coinciding with the construction of shopping centres, casinos and nightclubs: a “glittering and shallow facade of ersatz Westernization for rich Arab tourists”, as one author unkindly calls it. The Beirut metropolitan area does not end north or south of the city itself. Kosovo is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with some 2 million people living on 10,000 km2. However, in Lebanon there are 4 million people living in a territory of the same size as Kosovo. This is a very crowded place indeed.

The area north of Beirut is largely populated by Christians. Lebanon’s current president (who is always a Maronite Christian) comes from here (the Maronites are the largest Christian group). Here, as in East Beirut, one can see evidence of Christian life everywhere: pictures of the Virgin, statutes of saints, signs pointing to educational establishments run by religious orders.

Lebanon is not only crowded; its population is also – proverbially – extremely diverse. It was the strong presence of the Maronites in the region of Mount Lebanon which led the French to create Lebanon as a separate country, severing it from Syria when both were a French protectorate. This explains one cause of Lebanon’s recent turmoil: a Syrian reluctance to accept Lebanon as a fully sovereign neighbour. Damascus is only some 30 kilometers away from the Lebanese border, and friends tell me that it takes less than 2 hours to drive there from Beirut.

Lebanon’s diversity has been a source of tensions throughout its modern history. Who should be in charge? How is power to be divided between different sects, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Armenians, smaller Arab Christians groups and the very large number of Palestinian refugees? The formula found to share power was “confessionalism”, based on a very rough idea how many people of different faiths lived in the country. And since demographic balances change over time, it was decided early on to stop counting the ethnic make-up: ignorance was to be a solution where too much knowledge was dangerous.

In her book Bring down the Walls Carole H. Dagher describes the demographic evolution. The last official census was undertaken in 1932: then there were 32,4 percent Christian Maronites, 9.8 percent Greek Orthodox, 5.9 percent Greek Catholics as well as 22.4 percent Sunnis, 19.6 percent Shiites and 6.5 percent Druze (plus other smaller groups).

By 1990 the total number of Christians had fallen to 43 percent, plus another 29 percent Shiites, 24 percent Sunnis and 4 percent Druze. These figures do not include some three to four hundred thousand (mostly Muslim) Palestinian refugees, nor a large number of guest workers from Syria. It is due to this “fragile balance” that even the descendants of Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948 have not been given citizenship or other basic rights (such as owning property) in Lebanon. This was an obvious second major cause of instability in recent decades: the uncertain relation between Lebanese society and these refugees, and the direct link this created between Lebanese politics and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict (triggering a number of Israeli interventions).

And yet, comparing population figures from the beginning and the end of the 20th century, one remarkable fact stands out: how little has changed.

By the standards of the early 20th century Beirut was a normal Ottoman town: a city with an ethnic variety similar to Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem or Thessaloniki. By today’s standards Beirut boasts an almost uniquely mixed Christian-Muslim population. In most other places, including Mediterranean Europe, such diversity was destroyed in the 20th century. In Beirut it survived.

Visiting this city today is thus to travel back in time to the communal organisation of Ottoman times. As Charles Winslow wrote: “People in the Middle East must not only learn to live with differences but also must institutionalise the means of doing so … the individual needs security at the communal level, something parallel to what the old Ottoman millet system used to provide.” Sectarianism remains very much alive today, even though the Taif accord, which ended the war in 1990, had called for the “phased abolition of political sectarianism.”

Walking through Beirut I begun to wonder: was this what Istanbul “felt” like one century ago, when it was still a city with a large Christian population? When villages along the Bosporus were populated by Greeks and Armenians and when today’s Bosphorus university was run by American protestants? When the legacies of the millet system were still visible?

It is difficult to feel romantic about Beirut’s diversity, even if it is impossible not to be fascinated by it. Everywhere there are reminders of a recent history of inter-religious conflict as much as of millenia of coexistence. Opening the English or French daily papers, one reads about continuing tensions which confound all easy categorisation: there is a history of Muslims fighting Muslims, of Christian militias fighting other Christians. The crisis of this moment is one pitting Salafist Sunnis near the Northern city of Tripoli against other, more moderate, Sunnis and the government (as one recent Carnegie Paper on “Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists” describes well). At the same time, throughout most recent conflicts, the large Armenian community in East Beirut also managed to stay neutral in the confessional battles of recent decades.

[As elsewhere, I wonder if Samuel Huntington has ever actually set foot in Lebanon: he could not have possibly have come up with his theory of the clash of civilisations in light of this particular complex story]

In fact, visiting today’s Lebanon is a bit like visiting a modern-day Al Andalus … only without the romanticism that comes with the distance of time. A place where the meeting and mingling of cultures and religions can be observed without any certainty about the next chapter in an open-ended story of coping with diversity. And as in the case of medieval Spain there is a sense that the fate of multi-confessional Lebanon, like that of multi-confessional Bosnia, matters in a wider sense.

Carole Dagher concludes her book Bring Down the Walls with a reference to the “mission” of Lebanon:

“Its challenge illustrates somehow the challenge of the entire region. The failure of the Lebanese would mean the failure of a meaningful experiment in the Arab world to manage religious pluralism and cultural diversity, and to institutionalize freedom, equality, respect and participation for all. It would deprive the Arab world of a model it could relate to, reminiscent of its lost Andalus.”

The history of medieval Spain was a history as much of interaction as of conflict. There were local struggles, manipulated and even instigated by outsiders; crusading Christians in the North and fanatical North African rulers in the South played their part in the eventual destruction of a unique culture. But today Andalus is a myth, no less than its hero, the mercenary El Cid.

Multiethnic Beirut is a reality; the fate and future of this modern millet system a matter of war and peace. Beirut is Mark Mazower’s Thessaloniki without being a city of ghosts: a place where different confessions continue to live together as they did a century ago. It is a mirror of a universal promise, and having looked into it, it becomes hard to tear oneself away.

It is on my way to the airport that I finish another little book, recommended by a friend: Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut. If there is one book on Lebanon that I have come across these days and that I would recommend to you to read it is this one: an ingenious personal reflection by a Lebanese writer, artist and activist on the urge for revenge after horrendous crimes, on slippery notions such as honour and treason in times of conflict. It is a very rich book and I will return to it later, but let me conclude my description of what I saw in the mirror of Beirut with Ghassoub’s case study of Lebanese reconciliation:

“In Lebanon, in 1994, the victims of a massacre in the Chouf area were invited to participate in a three-day conference on Acknowledgement, Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Alternative approaches to conflict resolution in Lebanon. The village concerned, Maasir al-Chouf, a Christian enclave in a Druze-dominated area, had lived in peace for the major part of the civil war. So much so that a few days before the massacre, a number of French journalists, invited to visit this haven of civil coexistence between two rival communities, had rushed home to write articles under headlines such as “Peace is still possible in Lebanon”, illustrated with big pictures of hte local priest and the Druze sheikh shaking hands and smiling.”

The journalists wrote their articles on 7 March 1977. On 16 March, following the death of Kemal Jumblatt, Druze armed men opened fire on Christian houses in Maasir al Chouf. …

In this conference for reconciliation, designed to encourage the relocation of the Christian refugees in their village of Maasir, the victims of the violence made a statement: ‘We buried our dead with dignity, we transcended our wounds and we forgave … The state wants time to work towards a solution: time would weakend resentment, and the effect of forgetting would be that the demands for justice would recede. We, the victims , are not asking for the impossible. but we refuse to be ignored, neglected and subjected to a fait accompli. We insist on our right to return to our village and our land. … at the same time, we believe in the logic of coexistence.'”

And here it was: the echo of Bosnia’s displaced, one decade ago, asking to return to their homes in Central Bosnia, in Herzegovina, in Republika Srpska. The universal dilemma of forgiveness after conflict, of the struggle for justice, while trying to build a viable future at the same time.

Leaving Beirut this Sunday morning, I felt that I would soon be back.

And that, in fact, we have all been here before.

Beirut Place d’Etoile

It is my prefered routine upon arriving in a new, unknown city: First, drop all luggage at the hotel. Second, take a taxi to the nearest foreign language bookstore. Third, find a nice cafe in the city centre to read through the pile of new books on the country in question. Forth, go for a walk, get lost in the city, take a taxi to criss cross the town from one end to the next. Then meet people who live here from all walks of life.

This is how I ended up here: in the rebuilt downtown of Beirut, on the Place d’Etoile in an outdoor cafe, opposite the Lebanese Parliament. Before me a stack of books: “At home in Beirut – a practical guide to living in the Lebanese capital”, “Lebanese cinema”, “Paradise divided”, “Refik Hariri and the fate of Lebanon”, a few books on the history of Lebanon, two books on the Lebanese Hizbollah, and one collection of speeches by Hizbollah leader Nasrallah. In addition a map of Lebanon, a few policy papers by the Carnegie Middle East Centre and Oliver Roy’s “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East.”

The weather is perfect to sit outside. The downtown is quiet: the only sounds one hears are the chattering of some neighbours on the other tables in the cafe – mixing Arabic, English and French words within every other sentence – and some children playing football under the bored glances of the soldiers near the clock tower. This peace is also due to the fact that cars are not allowed to enter this area. Guards with machine guns control everyone walking through checkpoints before one reaches the Place d’Etoile and the downtown area. There are numerous check points in the city still, soldiers standing in front of little wooden guard houses, like those outside royal palaces in EU capitals, painted in the Lebanese colours and boasting the cedar flag. On the way here I also saw two tanks alongside the road and numerous gaps in the architecture of the town, plus a few houses still riddled with bullet holes. However, considering that this downtown area was for almost 15 years the fought-over green line, dividing majority Muslim West Beirut from mainly Christian (Arab Christian and Armenian) East Beirut, there are few traces of the distant war. And the area around the parliament is full of glittery cafes, with outdoor tables and fancy restaurants next to a Christian church and, behind it, a new Ottoman style mosque.

I have come to Beirut to give a talk on Turkey’s Muslim Democrats at the Carnegie Middle East Centre; to do interviews to better understand Turkey’s new foreign policy in the Middle East; and to satisfy my basic curiosity about a country that has been in the news so often since my childhood, with reports of war and assassinations, that I have started to wonder how any peaceful life was possible here. I realise that this is also how people in the rest of the world might feel about the Balkans, an area which has superficially a lot in common with Lebanon: the Ottoman past, different Christian denominations living among Muslims, a tradition of outsiders interfering in domestic politics and a very bad international image. And as one Lebanese asks me, when I explain that I have worked for many years in the Balkans: “Why are people in the Balkans getting on so badly? Here, at least, tensions are at the political level, not on the level of the religious communities, which are getting on more or less well.”

It is an interesting shift in perspective. Of course, Lebanon’s reputation for instability even now is not undeserved. Only this year in May there was fighting between the Shiit Hizbullah and government forces in the very centre of Beirut. The last real war which saw the bombardment of Beirut took place in summer 2006 (when Israel attacked Lebanon in its struggle against Hizbullah). And the string of recent political assassinations, including that of Mr. Lebanon, long-time prime minister Rafik Hariri, in 2005, is worse than anything that one has recently seen anywhere in the Balkans.

So Lebanon is a perplexing case: a deeply imperfect example of a multicultural democracy. But a democracy it is, the most liberal place in the Arab world, and a true patchwork of ethnic and religious identities despite a 15 year horrendous civil war that only ended in 1990. As Paul Salem, director of the local Carnegie Centre, writes in a not yet published book “Lebanon’s quick return to normalcy is proof that failed states – even failed nations, in a sense – may be historically bound phenomena and that failed states, under certain conditions, can succeed again.” For somebody interested in how to manage ethnic and religious diversity in a small country this is indeed an extremely interesting case study.

The muezzin calls to prayer from the nearby mosque. I turn to the practical guide on living in Beirut to get a sense of what everyday life in the city is like. P. 52, security: “Beirut is a relatively safe place. Women walk around during the day dripping in gold jewelery and diamonds with little or no threat to their safety.” Page 40, Adapting to life: “There are few other places in the world where you will come across such a fascinating mix of cultural identities. It thrives on diversity.” Descriptions of different neighbourhoods: Hamra, the “busy shopping street close to the American University in Beirut”; Ashrafieh, a “European style inner city environment”; Rabieh, “luxurious apartments and villas nestled on the wooded slopes”; Khaled, a busy southern suburb where “rental prices are reasonable.” There is a 20 page section with activities for childen, and a long list of international schools. The first impression this guide gives is not of a city teetering on the edge of intercommunal tensions.

On the contrary: a few hours later I meet a friend, posted in Beirut as diplomat, who attempts to persuade me that this is the best possible city to live and to bring up one’s children. Learning that I am wondering wether to relocate eventually from Istanbul to Paris, he objects: why Paris? Why not Beirut? Better weather, good schools, a multilingual environment, a buzzling, endlessly interesting city full of entrepreneurial energy …

I am left baffled. This was not what I had expected to find here. And I think of those uninformed visitors who probably have the same experience coming to Tirana for the first time …

Then, scratching the surface a little, I turn to my other books. “All Lebanese films seemed to be about the Civil War in one way or another”, I read. Sectarianism continues to thrive, the author notes, and this has influenced all post-war Lebanese cinema, “consumed by a feeling of loss and emptiness, where violence lurks at every corner.” And the author continues: “suddenly I realized that Lebanese cinema’s obsession with the war was more than simply that. It was as if the cinema was warning us against the inevitability of what was to come.” And it came: 10 days in May 2008 saw the worst sectarian fighting since the Civil War: “those 10 days in May saw more than 80 people killed and 200 wounded, the takeover of most of Beirut by Hizbullah militants and their allies and street fighting between militiamen of different factions … a nightmarish reminder of the days of the Civil War, where a person’s sect could determine whether they lived or died.”

Yes, my diplomat friend would add later in the evening, there was one (slight) draw-back to settling in Beirut: one should expect that every year there might be a short security crisis, a few days when it is better not to leave the appartment with one’s family, and when armed people might roam around the streets and shot. But these crises would pass, and even then, all depended on where in the city one had one’s apartment.

Is this enduring instability simply a by-product of the complex communal organisation of Lebanese society, with 18 recognised religious communities, a history of tensions, and many weapons? Or is it above all the unfortunate product of wider conflicts in the neighbourhood, from Sunni-Shia tensions elsewhere to the rivalries between the US and Iran, Israel and Syria? I realise, perusing through the other literature, that even reading all the books on my table will not allow me to come to a tenative conclusion. But this is not my ambition, and it would be a foolish one to begin with.

Instead, I note some questions that I hope to find out more about.

  1. Given that the country is run along confessional lines, with all family matters settled by the religious courts of the 18 recognized denominations, how does this work in practice: and what does it mean in particular for women in this society?
  2. How does this economy actually function … in a society that is largely urban, with no raw materials, having received very little outside assistance for reconstruction following its own civil war? (one book notes that “Lebanon’s main asset is its educated, westernized and multilingual population.” Another notes the huge influence of the diaspora)
  3. What is the relationship between democracy and the confessional system, allocating positions, according to a complex key, to all 18 communities? What is the prize paid in terms of good governance of not having dared to have another census since the 1930s? How does this confessional system work on the level of local government, for instance in Beirut?
  4. Given the complex politics of this society, and the many outsiders who are tempted to try to shape it, what is really the influence of the European Union on events and local actors … if there is any? And then, my main question: what role is there for Turkey?

The first day in a new country is successful if it leaves one thoroughly baffled, with a string of articulated questions that relate to the burning issues one cares about most, and with a growing appetite to find out more. By the time I return to my hotel in the evening, this has turned into a very successful first day.