November 1, 2010 Beirut, Lebanon
*** Please note: the posting below is based on information I have gathered through my personal experiences and interactions with people therefore is not necessarily fact-driven nor does it reflect any political agenda. Politics in the Middle East are complicated and many have strong convictions about where they stand however this is simply a little about what I have learned that I would like to share to give people a deeper understanding of the current context of Lebanon and the Middle East.
Over the past week I have really grown to love Beirut. I admit that initially, I didn’t feel the warmth or energy in Beirut that I expected from a Middle Eastern city and though it is so beautifully constructed place, I struggled with getting underneath the superficial layer of the city. In a quest to have a more ‘genuine’ experience in this country, a few days ago I put out some calls to all the acquaintances I had here in Lebanon and was fortunate enough to meet some wonderful people who revealed a different side of Lebanon and expanded my understanding of this city. It took understanding the political context and the impact the history has had on the people to really see Beirut for what it is: a dynamic, complex, and contradictory place.
A friend of mine from Seattle who grew up in Syria put me in touch with her Syrian friend who is enrolled in pharmacy school in Lebanon and she was gracious enough to spend an afternoon with me. We went to a beautiful restaurant on the waterfront and she ordered us some typical Lebanese food. We talked about things like our families, careers, religion, pressure to get married, growing up in Syria and life in the US. Even though we live worlds apart from each other, we had a very natural understanding of each other’s experiences and through our conversations realized our lives are actually not that different. We feel the same pressures and struggle with similar life questions. As we continued our exchange, she also explained a bit about the political context of Lebanon she had come to understand only after living in the country for the past several years. I learned that right now, there are over 100 different legitimate political parties in Lebanon (and 18 official religions) all of which have their own set of supporters. The various political parties even have a great influence and are organized on college campuses. For example, even for student body elections, candidates must state what political party they represent. Much of this has stemmed from the fact that when independence from the French was declared in the 40’s, the constitution was written to mandate that the president of the country must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the house a Shiite Muslim, and the chief of staff a Druze in an attempt to accurately represent the population of the country. Unfortunately, this structure and attempt to distribute power evenly among groups inadvertently set the stage for 15 years of civil warfare between these various groups. Since Lebanon has one of the highest populations of Christians in the Middle East and is also the most religiously diverse country in the region (and the only country in the Middle East to have a Christian President), strong divisions among groups and a tug of war over a national identity and religion have haunted the country. The country use to be about 6:5 ratio Christian/Muslim but now it is speculated to have a higher population of Muslims due to many Christians leaving the country during the civil war. However, no one really knows the make up because the country has not conducted a census since the civil war due to fear that if population fractions are released, this will disrupt the power dynamic and another civil war will break out. I have found the civil war in Lebanon so hard to understand and contextualize and the only way I actually grasp the magnitude of the tragedy is to imagine the LA race riots lasting for 15 years with over 20,000 causalities.
After lunch we went on a walk along the beautiful oceanside boardwalk of Beirut (which felt more like Miami or San Diego than the Middle East) taking in the air from the Mediterranean. She showed me the site where the former prime-minister, Rafiq Hariri, (a Lebanese multi-millionaire who owns most of the reconstructed downtown area and whose pictures are strewn all around the city) was assassinated. His death was unexpected and there are many conspiracy theories around his it: some think it was the doing of governments of neighboring countries, others say it was Hezbollah, while some point the finger at Israel or believe it was an inside operation. Bottom line, no one really knows who was responsible and although the trial is in process now, the truth may never be revealed (similar to the JFK assassination). However, Hariri’s death resulted in public demonstrations that ultimately allowed Lebanon to declare freedom from Syria and Syrian troops (who had a strong presence in the country since the civil war).
That same night, I had dinner with a wealthy Muslim Lebanese hotel owner and gained insight into a different perspective of life in Beirut. This is someone who economically represents the top of the Lebanese community and had the luxury of leaving the country during the civil war. Being from an older generation, he has for the most part lived through Lebanon’s entire history as a country and recounted some of this for me. In the 40’s, just as Lebanon gained independence from the French, the war and struggle for land with Israel and the Israeli invasion of Beirut and occupation of south Lebanon again destabilized the country. Absorbing a large number of Palestinian refugees has also been difficult because it has resulted in a clash between the Lebanese army and Palestinian militant groups. This in turn also instigated internal conflict between Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze which was the bases of the civil wars in the country which really tore Beirut as a city down. Almost everyone you meet in Lebanon has lost someone to the war and years of civil unrest. Not only has Beirut had internal conflict between the different religious groups but just as the civil war was ending and the city was getting back on its feet, the 2006 Israeli attacks again caused Beirut to crumble to the ground. All of this conflict has caused Beirut to rapidly experience periods of extreme prosperity and destruction with very little stability in between. Hearing this man recount the history of the city solidified the troubled and complicated place Beirut is which is so hard to reconcile as a tourist eating in the fancy restaurants, shopping in the designer stores and seeing the multimillion dollar hotels.
The following day, I spent the afternoon with a lovely Christian family living in a suburb of Beirut. Meeting a family that is trying to raise children and actually build a life of stability in a country with such an unstable past (and potential unstable future) definitely brought a different angle to the picture. They kindly picked me up from my hostel and we drove up the hillside of Beirut to a predominately Christian area with an unbelievable view of the city. We ate dinner at a restaurant on the hilltop and while watching the sunset, we talked about the reality of life in Beirut. While I was expecting to hear their perspective on the
tensions between the Christians and Muslim and insecurity over Israeli attacks they talked about things such as the financial ability to buy a house, low wages, lack of professional and educational opportunities and the city’s crumbling infrastructure. They explained that the average middle class family in Beirut can’t afford to buy a house without either inheriting it or the help of their parents due to the inflated housing market. The thing Beirut has in common with most other societies is that life is really only what it appears to be on the outside for the top 5% who are very wealthy (who mostly live abroad and send their money back home). The remaining population struggles to make due and can rarely access the luxuries that have the illusion of being available but clearly not accessible for most people. Then new developments are built for the needs of the upper class and though the downtown really is amazing, beautiful and more posh than anything I have seen in the US, you can’t help but think all of this money is being invested into commercial consumerism while the infrastructure of the country is a disaster. Also, this rift between rich and poor also brings about another layer to the society pertaining to immigration patterns. Although clearly there is a lot of poverty in Lebanon, similar to the US, there is an influx of immigrants from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Palestine and neighboring Syria to provide cheap labor. Walking through the downtown it is common to see many South East Asian woman dressed in nurse uniforms pushing the strollers of rich Lebanese families.
After dinner, the family and their two daughters took me on a drive around the city and I had the opportunity to see places that I could only see with local people. We first drove through an Armenian neighborhood which to my complete surprise was actually only 1 mile from my hostel. The Armenian district was quaint and had the chaos and character of a typical Middle Eastern area with old buildings and houses and many small street restaurants and shops. Within a 5 minute timespan we were in the rodeo drive of Beirut with high end hotels and designer boutique shops; seeing these two places in such close proximity to one another further brought the contrast of life in Beirut to the surface. The family explained to me that the downtown, though during early independence was a beautiful, historic area, was totally destroyed during the civil war and for many years was a jungle that was completely deserted and no one even dared cross into this area because it was on the green line, the area that separated the east Christian areas of Beirut from the west Muslim enclaves. As we drove out of the Christian neighborhoods, within a few minutes we drove by one of the major Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Although we could not go inside, even from the exterior, the conditions and destitute of this area was striking. No electricity, no running water and homes that look like the shanties in the townships of South Africa. I learned that this group is even more disenfranchised because although many Palestinians have been in Lebanon for generations now, they are still not viewed or integrated as part of society and many live without rights and opportunities. Passing the Palestinian camps then led us to the Muslim Shiite neighborhoods that are controlled and governed by the Hezbollah party (the armed wing of the Iran backed militia group) which was one of the most surreal experiences. Only 5 minutes away and it actually felt like another country, with a strong police presence, conservatively dressed women and streets lined with flags of Iran and Iranian leaders. This Shiite area is also where Israel focused its attacks in 2006 and there are still some remnants of the destruction but similar to the downtown area, it has been rebuilt so fast that the damage is hardly noticeable. Generally, this area is more impoverished then the rest of the city and Hezbollah has invested a lot of money into rebuilding this neighborhood ( as well as a school and a children’s playground on the Israeli border in the south) which made it more clear as to why the people support this party. It really parallels politics anywhere: disenfranchised poor people are desperate for a leader and a way out of poverty therefore it is easy to appeal to these populations to win support and votes which are often then exploited to gain power (I find it similar to how the conservative-wing of the republican party has won support among the Christian religious populations in the American south by appealing to morality, nationalism and independence). Finally we drove out of the Hezbollah area back though the different districts of Beirut and as our hours of conversation came to an end, the family dropped me off at my hostel in the Gemmayze district of Beirut and I was back in the land of cafes, backpackers and nightclubs but with a renewed and much more expanded sense of the city.
I am so grateful to the people who have been kind and open enough to help me peel back the layers and understand this complex city in a deeper way. It would be so easy to come to Beirut and only see the beauty, glamour and exciting nightlife it has to offer but for me, seeing the city for what it really is, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, in the end is what won my heart.
More photos from Lebanon