June 21, 2006

Lebanon Hurts Those Who Love Her

My wife and I honeymooned in Spain. It is our favorite country in Europe. We stayed in the Hotel Murillo in old Sevilla and I read to her passages from Jan Morris's breathtakingly beautiful book Spain. Morris wrote of an España that no longer is, when it was an enchanting yet troubled country desperately clawing its way out of the Franoist hole dug by the Falange.

I'll never forget one of the Spaniards she quoted. "Spain hurts me," he said. "It hurts me."

I knew what this Spaniard meant, though I couldn't feel it. Shelly and I fell in love with Spain almost on contact. But it never hurt us. It's a modern prosperous European democracy now. The Spain of Jan Morris was the same place, but it was also a different place. Just as beautiful, just as romantic, and even more still exotic. But also dark and despondent with a tortured past and a precarious future. I almost wished I could have seen the old Spain and knew what it felt like to fall for such a place.

Now I know what it feels like.

When I first arrived in Beirut more than a year ago I thought, amazed, how dramatically different the city is from the one depicted in Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem:

Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea - an idea that meant something not only to the Lebanese but to the entire Arab world. While today just the word “Beirut” evokes images of hell on earth, for years Beirut represented - maybe dishonestly - something quite different, something almost gentle; the idea of coexistence and the spirit of tolerance, the idea that diverse religious communities - Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze - could live together, and even thrive, in one city and one country without having to abandon altogether their individual identities.

[…]

Many Lebanese were either too young to remember or too poor to have ever tasted the cosmopolitan life of the Beirut city center, so they never mourned its passing. But for those members of the Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie who really exploited the beautiful side of Beirut, life will never be quite the same again without it. True, they had never paid much attention to the Shiite, Palestinian, and even Christian underclasses upon whose backs Beirut’s joie de vivre rested, and they believed in the fantasy of Lebanese democracy much more than they ever should have, but they were my friends and I happened to be a witness when their world was murdered.

Long after the civil war began, many of these true Beirutis kept the addresses of their offices in the ravaged city center on their stationary as symbols of solidarity with the past and hope for the future. As the years went by, some of them emigrated, unable to tolerate a Beirut in which Christians and Muslims were being forced to live in separate, isolated ghettos. But many of them stayed, and today they form a whole new class of Beirut refugees. They are existential refugees, homeless souls, internal exiles. They are still sitting in their old apartments with bucolic paintings of the Lebanese countryside decorating the walls, in their favorite chairs with their favorite slippers - but they are no longer at home and never will be again.

The longer I stayed, the more I realized the city in some ways has hardly changed at all. Friedman is often accused of trafficking in cliches. And it's true, he often does. That's partly because he managed to distil the place down to its basics.

There's no war in Beirut any more. But Beirut is what it is, and refugees are its biggest export.

If you read the Lebanese bloggers in the diaspora you'll come across the same painful cry of the Spaniard who told Jan Morris that his country hurts him. You might have noticed the same sort of sentiment expressed in my own writing, although never so anguished or pointed, where - at least while I lived there - my dispatches were sometimes swooning, other times frustrated, and still other times filled with despair. Lebanon is like that. I have never been anywhere in the world as fun and exciting and as endlessly, bottomlessly, fascinating as Beirut. And yet it's a damaged place that could, if the locals are to be believed, fly into pieces at any moment. I have more faith in their country than they do, but they know it better than I. Is my own judgement more objective or more naive? I ask myself that question a lot, and I don't know the answer. Perhaps I am a bit of both.

One of the best Lebanese bloggers is Abu Kais. He left his country and now lives in Washington. I nearly choked up when I read one of the recent posts on his blog From Beirut to the Beltway. He captures the dysfunctional relationship perfectly:

It used to be I saw an article in a Lebanese newspaper, or watched something on television that got my juices flowing, prompting a post or two. Alas, last Tuesday, after hearing [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah’s red lines speech, in which he declared himself and his followers an independent island within the sectarian archipelago that is Lebanon, what flowed were not my words, but my tears. I am ashamed to say that Hassan Nasrallah’s red lines, and Michel Aoun’s burning solutions made me cry.

[...]

Am I living a false promise by believing that Lebanon will one day succeed? When I decided that I could no longer live in my country, it was out of fear of self-destruction, much like Amal did in the video. I was too old to keep battling the thorns of Lebanese society, and not live my life to the fullest where I can. But look at me now. I may have left Lebanon physically, but I am still there in spirit. On Tuesday, the thorns managed to hurt again and caused my heart to bleed, despite the distance. For there was a person on television speaking on my behalf, setting limits I did not believe in, and reinforcing a reality that I chose to leave to him to shape. Do I even have the right to complain, let alone cry over a country I left behind? It makes no difference, for my actions then and now are the same, and the feeling cannot be helped, whether I am here or there. Lebanon is etched in my heart and my mind. My dreams are still set in my old Beirut apartment, where I grew up amid a bloody war. Every night, I go back to my old school that overlooked a Syrian missile launcher. And I sit in class listening to my favorite teachers as the explosions rock my classroom, and then I wait outside for my father to take me to shelter. And then I forget myself in my comic books, amid superheroes and infallible beings. And when reality beckons, I dive into biographies of great ones.

In 34 years, I have turned myself into an idealist from an evil, self-destructive world that haunts him no matter how much he tries to get away.

That is my predicament, and this is my blog.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 21, 2006 1:14 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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