Hi kifak ça va?

These are scattered notes from a recent trip to Lebanon. 

Beirut and the war.  The capital city of Lebanon used to be an influential cultural and financial centre of the Middle East. After narrowly avoiding a civil war in 1958, the so-called 1960s “golden age” saw Lebanon flourish as an affluent, multi-lingual, secular, and open country, attracting droves of American and European tourists. The golden age came to an abrupt end in 1975, when the country plunged, this time for good, into a vicious civil war that razed large parts of Beirut, killing 120,000 people in the process. The 15 years of war, which ended in 1990, left Lebanon scarred culturally, economically, and psychologically, and did little to appease the deep sectarian tensions that caused it in the first place. The consequences of the conflict can be observed everywhere in Beirut, where large bullet holes in buildings are commonplace. Despite the country’s many unresolved issues, tourism is growing, and I cannot but energetically endorse Lebanon as a fantastic holiday destination for its culture, heritage, landscape and, indeed, friendly and welcoming people.

Demographic balance.  The country has a tripartite population dominated by Christians, Shia, and Sunni Muslims, and the political system is driven by sectarian affiliations more than ideological ones. Policymakers are wary of changing this delicate balance in any direction. A baffling aspect is that Lebanon has not run a census for decades precisely not to reveal changes to this imagined tripartition. To grasp the complexity of the ethnic composition of the country, a glance at the map below is sufficient. In this sense, Lebanon provides a good example of the European imperialist practice of creating artificial nation-states that did not correspond to any demographic, cultural, or linguistic grouping, setting the stage for long-term, unsolvable tensions. Borders that are just lines in the sand, as they have been famously called, but with very real consequences.

Dominant ethnic groups in Lebanon (Source: Wikipedia)

Refugees welcome.  In these times of nationalist revival, many European leaders talk about an alleged invasion of African undocumented immigrants when referring to very modest inflows in proportion to the massive size of the Union (in total, 4% of people in the EU are non-EU citizens). In Lebanon, by contrast, the proportion of refugees is arguably the highest in the world. Between 1 and 2 million Syrians (fleeing from the Civil War started in 2011) and 150,000-200,000 Palestinians (fewer than previously thought, expelled from Palestine in the late 1940s) live in refugee camps, alongside a population of about 4 million Lebanese. While in Europe the “invasion” appears to be a manageable problem masterfully exploited by right-wing xenophobes, Lebanon, a small, middle-income country, struggles to provide refugees with basic infrastructure, food, water, electricity, and sanitation. To draw a parallel, it is as if 20 million refugees entered the UK in a couple of years (a place where the arrival of a few hundred undocumented immigrants is classified as a major incident). The attitude of the Lebanese towards the refugees is an unsurprisingly complex matter. Forms of pan-Arabist solidarity exist, but are sadly countered by the fear of altering the delicate demographic balance of the nation.

Cold war and geopolitics.  Lebanon lies at the geographical nexus of several actors that project (or try to project) power onto the region. As a Western European, I think of the Cold War as something that ended in the early 1990s. To the Lebanese, it is still raging on, with their country acting as a battleground between two blocks (Israel, US, and the Saudis on the one hand, Syria, Iran, and Russia on the other). This clash is carried out almost exclusively through proxy groups, in a mind-boggling, ever-shifting network of alliances. The official Lebanese army possesses limited military capacity and the real fight is done through unofficial militias that have better weaponry and training (and less restraint and accountability than national armies). Notably, the ranking of the most effective militias in the country is topped by Hezbollah, and not by the Lebanese army.

Security (or lack thereof).  As a European tourist, I had a certain degree of (misguided) anxiety about travelling to Lebanon. The British Foreign Travel Advice states that “terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Lebanon. You should be vigilant at all times, avoid crowds and crowded places and follow the advice of the Lebanese authorities”. To put things into perspective, a similar piece of advice is given for France, which happens to be one of the richest and safest countries in the world. After exploring the country for a few days, I was struck by how safe Lebanon feels, with a notable lack of petty crime, and with the chaotic traffic being the only slightly worrying aspect of the experience. Kidnappings of foreigners are not a thing either. Not being involved in the local conflicts as a militant (or as a spy), and avoiding no-go zones such as refugee camps, I perceived no particular threat anywhere in my short stay in the country. It is amazing to observe how terrorist attacks remain definitely one of the least likely ways of dying, but carry extraordinary psychological weight because of the morbid attention that they receive.

A cultural capital.  Before the ravages of the Civil War, Beirut was a thriving cultural hub of the Middle East. As many Lebanese are fluent in three languages (Arabic, French, and American English), and I mean fluent, their cultural production reflects these diverse geopolitical influences, mixed in creative ways. The greetings “Hi kifaak ça va” and “jalla bye à toute” wonderfully encapsulate this trilingualism. Among the many examples of influential cultural phenomena that one could pick, Fairuz is the singer-symbol of Lebanon who came to fame during the golden age (an example of one of her classic songs). A couple of generations later, Yasmine Hamdan has been combining trip-hop with alt-rock with a melancholic touch (here’s a great song and another one that was used by Jim Jarmusch in one of his movies). A whole other chapter could be devoted to Lebanese literature, but I’ll just mention Khalil Gibran.

Filming Lebanon.  For film lovers, several movies about Lebanon can help understand some of its complexities. West Beirut (1998) focusses on the outbreak of the Civil War from the viewpoint of local kids. With a completely different tone, Caramel (2007) is a bittersweet comedy about the struggles of Lebanese women in a sexist environment. Unexpectedly, US-made Beirut (2018) manages to escape a simplistic American perspective and portrays, again, the Civil War with a relatively sensitive outlook (despite not having any Lebanese actor involved). The animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008) provides an Israeli viewpoint on the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre and is banned in Lebanon because it is deemed to be too absolutory for the Israel Defence Forces.

Media and storytelling.  In the Lebanese news ecosystem, every actor pushes its own storytelling and interpretation of important events (such as the violent deaths of leaders). Considering the number of secret services, rogue groups, and militias active in the country, it should not come as a surprise that widely divergent interpretations exist of the same topical events, ranging from perfectly plausible ones to deranged conspiracy theories. In fairness, in this context, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the official version of events can hide obscure motives and agents, and the locals try to make sense of their surroundings using the information they have (what we call in Italian “dietrologia”). This search for explanations takes the form of “they say it was X, but actually it was Y”, where the variables are Israel, the Saudis, the CIA, Iran et al. Interestingly, indirect sources of information, for example the flows of foreign investment, are seen by the locals as a more reliable indicator of change than headlines in news outlets, which, in their view, mainly report on propaganda statements by the various actors.

Corruption.  A rotten fruit of the Lebanese Civil War is the persistent influence of war lords-turned-politicians—mutatis mutandis, a similar process occurred in many civil wars. These local leaders, whose portraits are visible all over Lebanon, exert considerable power on their constituencies and are well known for abysmal corruption that inflates the cost of any public investment. In recent years, Italian oil & gas giant Eni was asked for millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for a deal. This widespread behaviour might account, at least in part, for the contrast between pristine private spaces (residential buildings, malls, schools, and universities) and the often unkempt public spaces. The Civil War (and the more recent 2006 war with Israel) also damaged the transport infrastructure, which accounts for the lack of trains and for the poor state of some roads.

The causality chain.  When exploring the geopolitics of this troubled part of the world, one cannot avoid talking about the Israeli-Palenistian conflict. The diverging interpretations of the conflict clash with ripple effects across the region. The two main strands of storytelling (basically, anti-Israel or pro-Israel) differ on the most basic causal chain of the events they support. The narrative shared by most Arabs and progressive forces in the Global North claims that the Zionists invaded Arab territories expelling their long-term residents with violence; this was an act of ruthless colonisation, supported by historical claims of Jewish presence in the area millennia earlier; subsequently, the Arab resistance emerged as a violent response to that initial act of aggression, and failed so far because of the overwhelming military power of Israel. A causes B. In the Israeli storytelling (also shared by large portions of the population in the US and the EU, particularly at the conservative end of the political spectrum), the violence of Arabs against Israeli the occupation of Arab territories is a response to the threat of annihilation by neighbouring Arab powers. In this sense, invading Lebanon and bombing, kidnapping, and killing its citizens affiliated with Hezbollah is a survival necessity to stop the existential threat to Israel. B causes A. My political position on this issue is not particularly interesting, and hundreds of books have been written on the subject from both viewpoints. Travelling in the region provides a great learning opportunity about the roots of this conflict.

Dehumanisation.  Both sides of the conflict dehumanise their enemy in many different ways. From the Arab side, the Israelis are seen as members of a militaristic (and racist) power that keeps expanding and expelling Arabs from their territories, without any concern for the fate of their victims. In the Shia areas in South Lebanon, it is understandable to see Israel this way, considering the repeated bombings and invasions. The Hezbollah propaganda portrays Israelis as cowards that use their advanced technology provided by the US to oppress impoverished Arab populations. On the other hand, racism against Muslims (and Muslim Arabs in particular) is sadly widespread in the Global North—an excellent documentary from 2006 showed how Hollywood movies massively contribute to foster negative stereotypes of Arabs.

One man’s terrorist.  In South Lebanon (and also in South Beirut and beyond), Hezbollah is the most successful para-military and political organisation—and is famously considered as a terrorist organisation by the EU, the US, and many others. Funded by Iran against Israel, the organisation managed to achieve considerable military power and support from the local population. Travelling in the Southern part of Lebanon, the presence of the organisation is palpable, with flags and portraits of leaders and martyrs popping up everywhere. Before this trip, I hadn’t realised how pervasive and rooted this movement actually is. A crucial piece of information escaped my attention in past years. In 2006, Hezbollah won against the seemingly invincible Israeli army, driving its expensive armoured units back South with vastly inferior technology. As the local Muslim population (particularly Shia) dreads the possibility of sharing the same fate as the Palestinians, Hezbollah is viewed by many as the only barrier keeping Israel from attacking Lebanon again. Widespread support is gained not only by displaying military power, but also by providing basic services to deprived communities that are entirely neglected by the Lebanese government. The old adage is trite but insightful: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Fast Kalashnikovs and t-shirts.  The Hezbollah fighter ethos combines devotion to a particular strand of Islam, abundant anti-Israel sentiment, military prowess, community service, and an Iran-inspired socially conservative lifestyle.  This is beautifully summarised in the motto: “obedient wife, fast Kalashnikov, and shiny Volvo”—Volvos are particularly appreciated in the region for their reliability on poor roads, while the first two points are, well, rather self-explanatory. In some areas, the organisation is so popular that its propaganda material not only is not hidden, but openly displayed to tourists among generic tack (a bit like the “I love New York” t-shirts). A street seller approached me just next to the majestic Roman city in Baalbek and said, without a hint of irony: “Ah, Italian… Viva Italia, Viva Roma, Viva Torino, do you want a Hezbollah t-shirt?” I politely declined.