Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cedars and/or Embers

Lebanon is reeling. Lebanon is tense almost to the point of utter havoc. The warning signs are everywhere, and ordinary people seem defeated by the unassailable reality that the quasi-failed state they inhabit is doomed.

You can see it in the eyes of Sunni shopkeepers in Beiruti neighborhoods like Borj abi Heydar, where the fragile rapport between Lebanese soldiers and local Amal agitators is increasingly attenuated.

You can feel the hatred pulsating from uppercrust, urbanized Lebanese in Jbeil who lament the tendency of the Lebanese masses to follow their respective group leaders. To each his clan-like father figure and to each his right to be a pawn in the civilizational clash in which Lebanon is a central battleground.

You can breathe the gentle country air of the Beqa’a Valley, where Hezbollah radicals in Baalbeck swear never to allow Western imperialists to gain a foothold in their beloved homeland. Anti-Americanism runs high in this part of the country, and the region still suffers from last summer’s war.

Yellow Hezbollah flags contrast with massive images of Rafik Hariri, both affixed to bridges, light posts, office buildings, and apartment buildings across the stunningly attractive yet ravaged nation. The signs of political chaos are juxtaposed among the dazzling array of features of natural beauty that make Lebanon so coveted, so invaluable.

You can also sense how ordinary Lebanese are held hostage by political thugs. Most folks care not to implement this or that ideology or program. Most folks are motivated by material gain or lack thereof and not by some grand scheme to promote Islamist, American, or Communist dominion the world over.

While ideology is powerful and has driven so many people to fight interminably for their sector of society, you get the idea that the struggle for socioeconomic resources is integral to the Lebanese predicament.

Lebanon is an eternal paradox. People take their faith and their ethnic background so seriously. People are willing to take their religion with them to their final resting place if need be. Yet, curiously enough, most Lebanese have changed sides an incredible number of times throughout history. Not only have families been converted, for example, from Maronite to Shiite and back again, but each side in question has switched from being pro-Syrian to pro-Israel to anti-Western innumerable times.

Hatreds last only as long as the trend of which they are a component. Loyalties die hard but are often won over by political promises, international jockeying, and financial bribes. The current political quagmire appears as utter deadlock, but inevitably, the present balance of political forces will give way in due time to a fresh assortment of animosities and allegiances.
Some Shiites who fought with Israel in the 80’s are now the fiercest opponents of the Jewish state. Druze militiamen who swore never to coexist with Christian mountaineers have now made a pact of peace. Michel Aoun, once the most vociferous opponents of the Syrian occupation, is now one of the staunchest and most powerful leaders of the March 8th camp, the anti-Western, pro-Syrian coalition that has been buoyed by Hezbollah’s ongoing campaign against Israel.

The parallel occupations of Lebanon by Syria and Israel reflect an infinitely complex array of ethnic and political arrangements that only seem to become more elaborate and disjointed. The Syrians, in response to growing political agitation by PLO supporters, originally arrived to instill order in a society that was gripped by a legacy of colonial injustice and sectarian strife. The Israelis, in order to protect their northern border from rocket attacks, have invaded Lebanon on three occasions. Shiite militias, namely Hezbollah, have now replaced the Palestinian militants as the iconic rebellious Lebanese faction on the international stage. All the while, the festering Palestinian refugee problem is perhaps the most important long-term problem to address in Lebanon. Without a solution, this aspect of the conflict will continue to afflict peacemakers and elude resolution.

Military checkpoints and security checks are everywhere in Lebanon. After more than a handful of political assassinations in the past two years, the people are afraid. Ideology runs up against the cold reality of livelihood, land, and other scarce resources. Are Lebanese people more driven by blind ideological devotion to sectarian leaders or are they motivated by material want?

These two options are inextricably tied together in Lebanon, a country where the areas most affected by Israeli bombardment are the most impoverished. In addition, Iran and the United States are pumping money into their respective allies, investing in infrastructure, arming factions to the teeth. Yet, are institutions strengthened that can protect ordinary people? It seems ever more true that clever leaders take advantage of gullible citizens in this ongoing chess match.

Lebanon has been the site of countless proxy wars and functions in many ways as a pawn in international rivalries. Even if it be a pawn, the nation is now split more than ever into its eighteen religious denominations and seventeen political groups. While polarized into diametrically opposed camps, ordinary Lebanese people suffer. Some groups promise thorough peace with Lebanon’s southern neighbor, yet others swear to continue the anti-Zionist crusade until the end. Mere mention of the name “Syria” in certain circles will result in harsh rebuke, while particular groups swear by the righteousness of the one-time Lebanese occupier and current Iranian right hand.

In a country where reportedly more Shiites were killed by other Shiites than by any other group and where more Maronites where killed by other Maronite than by any other group, there are many questions and few answers. Lebanon is eternally perplexing, always charming, and incessantly perilous. For the Lebanese diaspora who have fled the political turmoil in their homeland, it is increasingly difficult to observe the rapid disintegration of the national fabric. Accords tend to fade with time in Lebanon, and Lebanese seem to find infinitely more security in communities across the globe than in their embattled heartland. For the one quarter of world Lebanese who remain in Lebanon, Greek Orthodox and Sunni, Druze and Melkite, life is a struggle for identity. The diversity of the country is baffling.

Despite all of the tragedy and the potential for ever more violence, Lebanon awes and Lebanon breathes. She reels, bracing herself for more civil war. Yet, at the end of the day, she prevails; and the Lebanese spirit emerges triumphant from the cedars and embers.

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