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 01:14 AM
Comments

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.

Similar things can be said of most Arab capitals, with Cairo, Baghdad, Algiers at the top of the list. Beirut is different in that the result was chaos instead of some form of totalitarianism.

Posted by: Yafawi at June 21, 2006 02:08 AM

"I have more faith in their country than they do, but they know it better than I. Is my own judgment* 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."

It is human action that will build back Beirut, but not in a day, or destroy it again, perhaps in a day. Building & destroying seem symmetrical, but are not.

The "good" result will only occur if good people consciously work for it, and pay the prices to get it -- and even then, only if enough good people work for it against those who oppose it.

Michael, they do NOT know its future better than you, only its past better; themselves better; their friends better; probably their enemies better. But are these people really the decision makers of the future? I think not.

Do they know the West better? The Islamofascists? The future of Iraq? The future of Iran? As you've mentioned here before, Lebanon can be a model for Iraq -- but Iraq seems to me more likely to be a model for Lebanon in a few years, if Iraq "makes it."

I'll call Iraq a full democracy when: two more Prime Ministers have been democratically elected, and power has peacefully passed. Perhaps 8 - 20 more years.

How will the Iranian nuke issue be resolved? Or the Palestinian-Israeli (two states but what borders)?

The existential question you and your friends are struggling with also involves what personal price, if any, are you willing to pay, to invest, in helping create the good Lebanon result -- knowing that Hezbollah's idea of "good" is close to your own idea of evil?

Well, I'm investing in Slovakia, where one of the two best reforming economies in Central Europe (with Estonia) has just lost an election to a Social Democrat tax & spend increaser.

Please keep up your fantastic work. Yet I don't quite believe Abu Kais when he says: "There is so much the international community can do for Lebanon when its own cannot steer away from self-destruction." I think there is quite little, realistically, that any internationals will, or should, do for a Lebanon that is unwilling to do more for itself. But I'm sure his blog, like this one, helps a bit. (Thanks for the rant space, hope it's not as boring as C-span)

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at June 21, 2006 05:55 AM

Thank you for pointing out Abu Kais' sentiments. When I moved to Beirut with him, I finally felt (not as fully) the despair and depression that comes with seeing the many sides of Beirut, and Lebanon for that matter.

Beirut is one the best places on earth, and it is my second home, but I wish it would stop disappointing its inhabitants, time after time. I hate seeing my husband so sad for his country. Just when you think it's getting better, something happens. I am an optimist too--maybe it's an American thing--but I hope that people like us never lose our optimism, and with good reason.

Posted by: Umm Kais at June 21, 2006 06:52 AM

I lived In Athens, Greece when the war in Lebanon erupted. My school was flooded with Lebanese refugee kids, such that two overlapping school "schedules" were created to handle this new, secondary student body. I have often wondered how many ever got to make it back to Beirut. It was like a whole community decamped en masse.

Posted by: johnny eck at June 21, 2006 07:20 AM

I knew Emo Music, but it seems we now have Emo Blogs. I guess it is in the great Arab poetic tradition of "Wookoof 'ala al atlal". So Lebanon has been a work in progress for a few millenia? Great, let us deal with it, and keep working.

Posted by: MsLevantine at June 21, 2006 08:13 AM

Another excellent report.
Will you still be travelling to Iran?

Posted by: Mark Eichenlaub at June 21, 2006 08:29 AM

Mark,

I'm working on it. But I have something else less exciting coming up first. Iran in two months maybe, depending on if and how long it takes the mullahs to give me a visa.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 21, 2006 10:20 AM

OT: Live on FOX

Senator Santorum and Congressman Huckster just announced that-
Declassified:
Since 2003 coalition forces have recovered 500 Chemical rounds in Iraq.
Degraded Sarin and Mustard filed.
More rounds expected to be found.
Filled and unfilled rounds.

Posted by: dj elliott at June 21, 2006 02:48 PM

What WMDs? Nothing to see here. Keep moving.

Posted by: Carlos at June 21, 2006 08:14 PM

I stayed at the Hotel Intercontinental in Beirut in 1967 - one year after the six day war. I met a fellow from India, he was there as a UN peacekeeper, and we went night clubbing. Beirut was as peaceful and as welcoming as Paris. It was the Paris of the Middle East. During the day, in a large square in the center of town was a money market. There were about 200 men standing behind glass pedistals (each 3 feet high, 1 foot square) which were decorated with bank notes from every country in the world. Since I was headed for Egypt, I went from pedistal to pedistal looking for the best exchange rate for Egyptian pounds. Each pedistal was full with currency, yet there were no guards visible.

I suppose all this is gone now. It took centuries to build the Lebanon of 1967, but only a year to destroy it. It is always easier to destroy then build.

You are right. It hurts. Its gone forever.

Posted by: sol vason at June 21, 2006 08:22 PM

A wonderful riff on Abu Kais' wonderful article.

BTW can someone explain Ms. Levantine's post? It sounds snarky but since I don't know what Emo means, (except for Emo Philips) perhaps I misunderstood.

The psychiatrist gave me a chocolate easter bunny and I ate the bunny, then I thought, hey, this isn't easter. "Is this a test?" And he said, "Yes." "And what does it mean?" He said, "Had you eaten the ears first you would have been normal. Had you eaten the feet first you would have had an inferiority complex. Had you eaten the tail first you would have had latent homosexual tendencies and had you eaten the breasts first you would have had a latent oedipal complex." "Well...go on, what does it mean when you bite out the eyes and scream 'stop staring at me?'" He said, "It means you have a tendency towards self destruction." I said, "Well, what do you recommend?" He said, "Go for it."
- Emo Phillips.

Posted by: Josh Scholar at June 21, 2006 09:39 PM

Josh,

Emo, I believe, is short for emotion or emotive or emotional or all of the above.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 21, 2006 10:03 PM

Or this...

Posted by: Bruno Mota at June 21, 2006 10:38 PM

MJT,

Yes, Lebanon hurts us. But I'm getting sick and tired of so many Lebanese I know (all of them Expats by the way) that keep putting the place down. 'It'll never change'. They speak about the Lebanese in Lebanon as 'They' instead of 'We'. These same people are negative about Lebanon's future. They talk about it as a hopeless case. 'We can never live there again'. Fine. Don't.

I love Abu Kais's new posts. They're emotional. Yes. They hit home. Absolutely. I wish more of us would get these grievances out into the open.

And I love the fact that through his writing, he's doing something about bettering his country. He's reaching out to people and they're listening. I hope he continues on this route.

As for the many others, STOP IT ALREADY. I'm sick of the negativety. If you really care, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. If you don't care, live your suburban fucking lives. BUT STOP WITH THE FUCKING NEGATIVETY.

I made a choice on December 12th, 2005. I decided to start doing something about it. I'll write about what I started doing. And it's only the beginning.

Lebanon will prosper again. There is no other choice.

Posted by: The Perpetual Refugee at June 21, 2006 11:50 PM

I enjoy your posts tremendously but I am a bit troubled by your tendency to romanticize places. Spain under Franco was indeed different but I much prefer it now to then. It's very easy to romanticize difficult living conditions when one doesn't have to live in it on a day in day out basis. In "The Epic Wanderer" Davis Thompson quotes a Shawpatin chief, "Under are present circumstances, we can never hope to be better. We must continue in the state of fathers and our children will be the same unless you white men bring us arms, arrows shod of iron, axes, knives and many other things you white have and we very much want."

Posted by: pacific_waters at June 22, 2006 06:44 AM

Thanks MJT, and thanks Joshua, Perpetual and others. It means a lot to me to see that my humble words are reaching others.

Ms Levantine was referring to a type of ancient Arabic poetry called "crying over the ruins" which was popular and I dare say still is. One of those poets, ironically, was called Imru' al-Kais (Qays). I do hope that what I write is not classified as such, for what motivates me is a strong desire to change the status quo and move forward, and certainly not cry over past failures, which is something "Arabs" have mastered over the centuries.

Not that this poetry isn't beautiful. Here are excerpts from one of Imru' al Qays' well known poems, which I had to memorize at school:

Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved.
Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal.

.. As I lament thus in the place made desolate, my friends stop their camels;
They cry to me "Do not die of grief; bear this sorrow patiently."

Nay, the cure of my sorrow must come from gushing tears.
Yet, is there any hope that this desolation can bring me solace?

I am not that poet, nor do I wish to sound like him. My greatest challenge, in fact, is to not default to this kind of beautiful defeatism. I think that when I declare to the world that I am a Shia who does not approve of Hizbullah, that's not lamenting or nagging, that's forward-looking. And when we, the few bloggers who go to places the Arab and Lebanese media fear to touch, we are making an essential (though modest) contribution to the awakening of the region's dormant inhabitants.

Posted by: Abu Kais at June 22, 2006 07:11 AM

It seems funny to be communicating with you today via a comment on your blog, but this seems like something to share with the whole class.

I clearly remember as a child playing in a house on the beach that had been bombed by the Luftwaffe...sorry, Condor Legion...in the Civil War. The roof had fallen in and we climbed up the tiles from the inside to look out from the top of the standing walls. As a child, I didn't really understand everything that had gone on, I conflated the Spanish Civil War with the Second World War. That ruined house, unrepaired after thirty years of Franco's rule, was the first time I saw the broken bones of destruction that war leaves in its path.

Perhaps people who never saw war's destruction as a child never really understand it. Today that usually manifests itself in a psychosis of fixating only on the images of destruction without understanding the limits of war's devastation. They fixate on the fear and ignore the scope. I remember the trees around the broken house, and all the intact houses just down the beach. Without that context, I might be just another fear addict.

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at June 22, 2006 11:26 AM

Hey, liberal turd. Many WMD's found. Eat crow.

Posted by: Bilbo at June 22, 2006 01:58 PM

Patrick, that was beautiful.

Kais, it takes more effort for me to imagine the devistation of mru' al Qays from a war that, I imagine, was more brutal than the one of Patrick's memory. One where a lost loved one must have died on a sword, or been sold into slavery after seeing her family massacred, after rape. Qays' devistation must have been much deeper, though I suppose I can imagine it.

Posted by: Josh Scholar at June 22, 2006 03:38 PM

Bilbo: Hey, liberal turd. Many WMD's found. Eat crow.

I don't know who you think you're talking to, but you need to act a little more like a grown-up if you're going to post comments around here.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 22, 2006 03:45 PM

Maybe it's my mood tonight, but this post resonates with me. Perhaps I am, darkly, looking at a possible future of America.

Nostalgia, within today's context.

Posted by: cj at June 22, 2006 06:25 PM

cj,

The United States has already been through the trauma of a civil war. It was an event we called the Civil War. It was devastating, but the liberal industrialists won over the doctrinaire anti-change folks who had a limited view of freedom and individual rights.

This does not bode well for the Left in a replay.

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at June 22, 2006 07:32 PM

There is a very patriotism relevant post at Grim's Hall about John Wayne & love for America.

Lebanese readers might benefit a bit knowing that "Americans" are full of love for America -- or not, also.

I think my 15 year hiatus in Slovakia has only increased my own love for the ideals of America, without needing to live there. So I know I don't love "the land" the way some do.

Optimism and action to make things better -- not mere protest against what's not perfect.

It's funny how the US losing to Ghana in the World Cup sort of didn't affect me; yet it did. It made me sad a bit, mostly for the US fans (many military) watching, and yet also glad for Ghana. It was strange that Iran was also in the 32 teams of the World Cup.

There is a "patriotism" sized hole in many people's souls, that seems to want to be filled. Rooting for your country's team seems an excellent way to fill it.

[really funny to see a PJ ad "So I Don't Have to Forgive Them!" as I write about love; with the idea that forgiveness is needed for optimism and action to create a better future.]

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at June 23, 2006 12:45 AM
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