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The Yesterday & Today of Lebanon
It is quite true that I am getting on in years, but I am still young enough and sprightly enough to remember my years as a tiny tot when I was still living in Jordan. My mum and dad would often travel to Beirut for weekends or short breaks at a time when the city was considered the Paris of the Middle East and the country its Levantine Switzerland.

25 July   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Dad would drive us to Qalandia airport - a mere fifteen minutes away - and park his car in the lot before we walked into the airport and onto the plane heading to this exciting city. Mum and dad were well-known in Jordan: she was the daughter of the first self-made millionaire, whose principal trade had been handmade Persian carpets, and he was a medical man whose profession at the time earned more respect and possibly less slog - unfortunately unlike our over-worked but brilliant NHS practitioners of today.

In less than two hours, compliments of Alia Royal Jordanian or Middle East Airlines, we will have completed a door-to-door journey from Jordan to Lebanon. And even though I was hardly out of nappies at the time, such short trips were exciting. There was a buzz to Beirut: the people, the shops, the languages, the restaurants, the energy, the smells! Imagine, I could eat loquats and asparagus (that incidentally was introduced into Spain and later Europe in the 9th century by an Iraqi man known as Ziryab) that I could not yet find in Jordan let alone the huge variety of delicious fish that came from the Mediterranean shores. My mum and dad would often put me to sleep and go out at night to the Casino du Liban or elsewhere for some fun and a drink or two.

In short, Lebanon was the envy of the whole region - and beyond. You wanted to ski in winter? Lebanon. You wanted to surf in summer: Lebanon too. You wanted to invest your money in a secure bank: go to Lebanon. You sought specialist medical care: why not Lebanon. You wanted to find designer clothes? Yes, Lebanon! You preferred to speak French rather than Arabic and pretend you were in France? Yes, you got it! No wonder then many tourists, from the Arab world and far beyond, would visit Lebanon for their holidays or entertainment.

Fast forward some four or five decades, and what does this country offer its visitors or tourists today? What does it offer to me personally every time I travel to Lebanon and touch down at Rafik Hariri International Airport?

Lebanon is no more yesterday. It is today. In fact, if the country has somehow held together, it is largely because unlike almost every other country in the region, it is run from the bottom up. The government has no centralised authority to turn into the despot or dictator that is so common in many of the 22 Arab countries sucking the blood of their citizens and ruling over them with unfettered powers and prurient self-interest. This is willy-nilly due to 18 confessions - Muslim and Christian - that comprise the country. They all survive together or die together. And so, whilst there are stronger communities and weaker ones, there is almost an osmosis that makes them tick together. It does not always happen, even imperfectly, but the civil war that lasted from 1979 till 1990 has left its traumatic scars and taught the Lebanese the instinct of survival and compromise - or of political manumission.

Granted, I dislike sectarianism, and I abhor any system no matter where in the world that so lazily or deliberately lumps God and Caesar together. But let us not be judge and jury at the same time. We are not talking here of evolved or even devolved systems of governance. Rather, we are referring to systems that are literally held together with social clips or the power of guns and are alas creaking at the edges.

So, when I now travel to Lebanon for conferences, to launch a book or even to spend time with friends, I see a country that is being torn apart by proxy wars. Different statelets, with their differing militias, are involved in a tug-of-war to pull the country in one direction or push it in another. And today, in 2019, Lebanon is not only host to some 300,000 Palestinian refugees spread across 12 refugee camps, it is also hosting well over a million Syrian refugees. Its limited resources - medical, educational, financial, sanitary and also moral - are being crippled and it is increasingly suffering from a severe brain drain. Yet, this dreaded confessional system, which some people consider a blessing in disguise toward stability is a bane for many Lebanese too.

However, before I apportion the blame entirely on those refugees who often are desperate, desolate and broken human beings being paraded for political or fund-raising agendas, let me also add that the corruption in the country is of dizzying proportions. This is not unusual in many parts of the world, and Lebanon is no exception. It seeps everywhere. And yet, the warlords and financial lords are so busy getting richer by plundering the state (understand, citizens) and not always prioritising the welfare of the country. Patriotism, nationalism, loyalty or civic duty are slogans that help write speeches. But ask the few dedicated NGO’s their opinions and they will tell you that these are only words - and words without deeds remain hollow. In fact, the Lebanese - like many other peoples - are at their most cohesive when they are abroad. That is when personal, factional, confessional or sectarian interests are forgotten for the sake of a nice get-together over a glass of arak, along with some tabbouleh and a waterpipe!

But what worries me perhaps more is that the freedoms that were entrenched in Lebanon are also being slowly manacled by politicians and militias alike. Lebanon was one place in the Arab world where the freedom of expression was strong and prevalent. In fact, the Lebanese press and theatre were (comparatively speaking) fiefdoms of personal expression. Yet today, peoples’ mouths are being muzzled and their pens broken if they write against the excesses of a country teetering on the edge of collapse. And when that freedom to express oneself without fear or favour is lost or even weakened, a country slides toward despotism and anarchy, or worse toward authoritarianism. Just watch how the religious establishment in the country came together to attack the Mashrou’ Leyla band that was meant to perform at the Byblos Festival. Why? Because the lead singer is openly gay and the lyrics of a couple of their songs on Facebook are critical of religion and the state. Rewind the time a little and the Lebanese would have been proud in distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Levant with their openness. No more, and yet I watch courageous men and women like Hazem Amin, Diana Moukalled or Hazem Saghieh who still voice their consciences and raising their concerns on podcasts or in public arenas. But is the state machinery listening to them? And did Albert Camus not remind his readers that freedom is nothing but a chance to be better?

I was born Jordanian, not Lebanese, but I love Lebanon too. It evokes in me myriad emotions: the joie de vivre that is endemic in the national character no matter the disasters, or the polished conversations and subtle thinking. I like the mercantile and business-like skills of its commercial sector as I do its academic institutions and many churches, mosques, restaurants or even shops. I even have fun with my Armenian chums! In short, I enjoy Lebanon despite its vanishing cedars, its piling garbage mountains everywhere that are almost a rotting health hazard and the levels of pollution where the fetid smell of diesel overwhelms the redolent smell of those delicious pizzas with thyme.

But can Lebanon deal with its ills - from corruption to a grab mentality - or will other countries continue to use and abuse it? Will its own politicians become aware of the looming dangers and think of the national interest rather than of their own interests that are linked to foreign powers or illusory hopes? Will a sense of togetherness replace the usual screeds? After all, the dangers loom both from far and near. Let us not forget that Syrians under the Assad (so-called Baath) dynasty have never really forgotten that Lebanon and Syria were both under French mandate until 1943 when two countries emerged after colonialism and Lebanon became independent in 1946. Syria still thinks it owns Lebanon. Conversely, Christians who comprise some 30% of the overall population in the country view the West - quite wrongly - as their protectors. Whereas other political parties think that Lebanon is a vassal state that is subservient to either Iran or Saudi Arabia. But despite all these pockmarked ills, many people still consider Lebanon a test-tube for exceptionalism. Sadly though, the gloss that was once Lebanon is fading as the Lebanese fail - or are hindered - to wrench themselves out of the political tutelages in which they have been trapped for decades.

The Lebanon of yesterday and of today: the yesteryears of my childhood have morphed in ugly ways into the realities of my adulthood. So, will Lebanon show its flair and wake up before it is too late to shape its future? I suppose my future travels will provide me with some additional clues.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   25 July


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