Lebanon at A Loss: Once Again

It took the apocalyptic 4th August 2020 Beirut blast for me to scan my stack of books on Beirut and Lebanon. It took the long lockdown for me to read 'Beirut Reclaimed' (1993) which was gifted to me in 1999 by Dr. Samir Khalaf, my Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology when I was a MA student in his Department in the late 1960s at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The book remained unread for twenty-one years. It remains in spic and span condition despite its interval of close to three decades since its publication. The same cannot be said of the contents of the book. 'Beirut Reclaimed' was written post-Lebanon's long civil war (1975-1991). Reading it today, one has to assess it in one of two ways. Either, as it was written in a framework of optimism and looking forward to the future at the close of the twentieth century; thus 'Reclaimed' or in cynicism and despair in the early twenty-first century; as yet another humanitarian catastrophe finds the city and the country hurtling towards an uncertain future. The long road ahead could swing either way; evolution or revolution; once again navigating a new reality.

In retrospect, I should have read 'Beirut Reclaimed' at some point in the long two decades interval since I was given the book. It should have been read at some point pre-explosion. A personal sense of reckoning now finds it challenging to bring hindsight perspective in light of today's explosive Beirut. In his words: "The horrors spawned by the war are particularly galling in the case of Lebanon because they are not anchored in any recognizable and coherent set of causes nor have they resolved the issues which sparked the initial hostilities. It is this poignant sense that the war has been wasteful and futile, ugly and unfinished. It must, however, be "reclaimed." Otherwise, the memory of war, like the harrowing events themselves, might well be trivialized and forgotten and hence, are more prone to be repeated…The effort to "reclaim" Beirut in this sense prods us to confront again and again the issue of memory. Whose memory?" Which brings to my mind the quotation by the French novelist Marcel Proust whose words: 'The rememberance of things is not necessarily the rememberance of things as they were' remain timeless.

Samir Khalaf writing in the early 1990s was reckoning and visualising a spectrum of Beirut reclaimed. He wrote in the backdrop of a brutal national legacy with continuing fragments of nightmares. For it takes many voices to find the truth. Black and white full page images of “treeless modern cities” flanked by Lebanon’s mountain ranges and the Mediterranean coastline provide contextual visuals. Haunting photographs of a child with a machine-gun in hand and a woman washing clothes at a roadside tube-well pump provide comparative reality. This is 'Raw Material' writing. A book that is "part autobiographical and part analytical and prescriptive" explores the massive impact of the sixteen year civil war particularly on "the redrawing of Lebanon's social geography." A changed urban landscape presents pockets of population with paucity of public space. Reckoning with Lebanon's past of political gridlock, whereby competing sectarianism amongst multiple communities has created communal walls excluding 'the other’. There are eighteen officially recognised sects. Furthermore, “With internecine conflict, as combat assumed the manifestations of “turf wars,” quarters often splintered into smaller and more compact enclosures” or ghettoes. Here we have a moving account and analysis of Beirut’s turbulent urban history and its seismic rapid transformation – post civil war.  Deeply humane, 'Beirut Reclaimed' remains an ever relevant book; as he explores both the beauty of the land of commerce and creativity, as he does the fissures that Lebanon falls into; deep and dangerous schisms leading to displacement and disruption - extreme and painful. The book remains wistful if not wishful in retrospect. Surviving while swimming in the aftermath of the caste-ridden civil war, Khalaf encourages and explores national and community efforts to create some sense of normalcy, while pleading empathy for the soul of the nation. Today, at the honourable age of 86, Professor Samir Khalaf must often ask himself: how often can Beirut be reclaimed?

The most compelling chapter is the first; ‘Lebanon Through Ramzi’s Eyes.’ Ramzi is Samir Khalaf’s two year old son. The family is spending the summer in Beirut “After an involuntary exile of eight years.” From the son: “How can such a beautiful country be so vile and ugly?”  In the language of the father: “In no time, he too in fact evolved his own survival strategies – mostly through confinement, distancing and silence – to cope with such cruelties.” At any time of crisis; even as we today cope with the pandemic; the words of Edward Said ring out loud: “In the long run, any form of confinement is deprivation.”

Edward Said, the Palestinian by birth, Cairo and Beirut by childhood residence and American by adulthood address; a towering intellectual of the twentieth century in his Preface to Samir Khalaf's book presents his take on ‘Beirut Reclaimed.’ “Yet what is most admirable about Khalaf’s sense of Lebanon’s past as it bears upon its future was the country’s tolerance, openness, multi-culturalism…Lebanon can be saved because it is mixed, hybrid, composite: its history is the history of hybridity, mixture, tolerance.” Ironically, in his last book written while undergoing treatment for leukemia, 'Out of Place: A Memoir' (1999), Edward Said offers us a black and white photograph. The caption reads: 'A 1980 view of the summer house rented from 1946 to 1969 in Dhour el Schweit. The rocket hole made during the Lebanese Civil War went through the master bedroom.'  A massive opening on the first floor wall is evidence of the rocket's impact.

The opening line by Peter Mansfield in the chapter 'Lebanon: Arab Supermarket; Ruin or Reform' in his book 'The Arabs' (1978) declares: "All nations require a certain degree of tolerance and compromise between their different communities; for the Republic of Lebanon it is a matter of survival." Furthermore, "experience has shown that if Lebanon is to continue to exist they cannot afford to be exclusive in their loyalties." Mansfield reports that "According to a Lebanese economist even agriculture is sectarian: Maronites grow most of the apples, Sunni Muslims the citrus fruit, and Greek Orthodox the olives." The assessment was written at the height of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991). Lebanon had already undergone "The muted civil war of 1958…when all its cities were under a dusk-to-dawn curfew for six months - to assume that the nation could not survive. But it seemed for a time that the resolution of the great majority of the Lebanese never again to allow the nation to venture so near to the horrors of religious civil war had been strengthened." That sense of optimism and its celebration was short-lived. In less than two decades, a fifteen year long civil war raised its vicious head. Mansfield, a former British diplomat, then journalist and historian specialised in the Arab region. He studied Arabic at the renowned British Foreign Office Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies at Shemlan, Lebanon.

In further retrospect, P.K. Hitti in his pioneering book 'Lebanon in History' (1957) the eminent Lebanese historian and AUB graduate; Hitti noted many decades back in the chapter 'Under the Cedar Flag: Problems and Progress': "Nor has it yet inculcated in its citizenship that measure of loyalty which transcends the narrow provincial and sectarian ones."

Will Lebanon ever recover? 'Sectarianism' has ravaged the land; the stand-alone word has been 'carved in stone.'  The multi-diverse entrenched political elite, nepotism and neglect, the nation's economic insolvency, public service shortages of electricity and water, demolished infra-structure, anti-government protests, the pandemic pressure, the psychological paralysis and trauma and in the entirety of this societal context; host to thousands of displaced Syrian refugees who are victims of second/third tragedies presents an over-whelming scenario for a nation on the brink of a precipice. Beleaguered Beirut is currently facing a two week partial lockdown including a night-time curfew in effect due to the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Paramount players in the region and beyond exercise influence on communal communities in the country. These non-state actors include: France, Iran, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Lebanon has been on the edge long before the Beirut blast. The explosion is a turning point. Following the largest man-made non-nuclear explosion in world history, punishing years lie ahead for a nation once again traumatised; in a crisis like no other. One voice expressed: 'This is 'peace time'! Not a war zone even by Middle East standards.'

Lebanese diaspora figures are remarkable in that for long, there have been more Lebanese emigrants   living abroad than the population living in Lebanon. Current AUB President Fadlo Khuri in a June 2020 interview, stated: “He was concerned that when Beirut airport reopens after the coronavirus shutdown, even more of Lebanon’s best and brightest will emigrate.” A generational exodus by a population exhausted with long conflicting currents in every sphere. The Beirut blast was yet to come.

A certain vacuum has been filled in by migrant workers from abroad; including Bangladesh. No official data on number of Bangladeshis in Lebanon; official migrant workers and undocumented labourers is available. Some sources state more that 150,000, many without documents. For our nationals, fallout from COVID-19 combined with the Beirut blast is a huge setback. Many injured, most jobless; majority choosing to return home. How? Global travel restrictions remain in force. In the words of one affected domestic female worker: 'the last straw on their woes.'

The generational gulf between above quoted commentators and a current faculty member of the Department of English at AUB, Rima Rantisi in her blunt article ‘Losing Beirut: On Life in a Shattered City’ which appeared a week following the Beirut blast is frankly fierce and forthcoming in its substance and sensitivity. I quote her last paragraph: “ But today, all of the clichés of beauty that have defined the country – the joie de vivre, the resilience, the hospitality, the food, the harmony of east and west – have no weight. The ugliness outweighs the beauty and outweighs any semblance of identity that has buoyed this festering place of corruption all of these years. Today Beirut city is the site of mass murder. The blast did not only destroy our city, it destroyed any previous delusions that we could get it back without bloodshed. To get our country back, our city back, they said, we need blood. But it’s our blood that was lost. Now we need theirs.”

The new reality of Lebanon is 'enough is enough.' The country is burnt out. How many last chances are permitted? If it was an uphill task 'Reclaiming' post-civil war; today it is metaphorically speaking, measures needed to move a mountain. This time, the volume of angst and anger is deep and tall; a sickening feeling of loss has seeped in; a seminal moment. Much has been made for long of the 'Resilience' of the Lebanese people. Now, with backs against invisible walls, how far does the well-touted 'Resilience' alone serve as a force or fulfill the notion of salvation? If there is no trust left in the 'System' how does one move forward? What is the future as seen by the post-civil war Millennial Generation for the post-blast Covid Generation? A tough scenario to contemplate and confront by any account.

Raana Haider is the author of ‘Fragrance of the Past: A Middle Eastern Itinerary’, Tara-India Research Press, New Delhi, 2007.

  • American University of Beirut (AUB)
  • Once Again
  • Lebanon at A Loss
  • Beirut Blast
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