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Lebanon’s enduring contradictions

Oct 12

Ever since it was created by the French colonial (or mandatory) authorities in 1920, Lebanon was dotted by all sorts of ideological, social, and economic contradictions. The cultural identity of the new polity has always been at the core of these contradictions.

Two competing ‘visions of Lebanon’[1] – in Albert Hourani’s memorable words – emerged at the time: Lebanism and Arabism, associated respectively with the Christian and Muslim communities.

Whereas the former anchored Lebanon’s identity, cultural orientation, and foreign policy in the west, the latter insisted on the new country’s Arab origins, culture, and political choices. Ultimately, as Hourani noted, new visions of Lebanon would emerge, but especially that championed by Lebanon’s (then) ascending Shia community.

A recent debate suggests that a century later, and after several civil wars and invasions, not much has changed in how different Lebanese communities invent and reinvent their national identities, with devastating consequences for the prospects of living peacefully in a deeply divided society.

It is a classic example of what Julien Benda famously labelled La Trahison des Clercs, in this case the treason of sectarian entrepreneurs bent on stirring political discord for purely populist purposes. Its main protagonists are two MPs: the Sunni Khaled al-Daher and the Maronite Neamatallah Abi Nasr.

Daher is behind a proposal in Parliament demanding the state recognize a new official weekend, Friday and Sunday, instead of the commonly practiced western weekend. After all, Daher contends, Friday is the standard Islamic holiday in most Muslim countries. He is supported by no other than the Sunni Mufti of the republic.

In response, Abi Nasr introduced a proposal demanding that 1 September, the date commemorating the French declaration of the founding of Grand Liban in 1920, also be declared a national holiday.

The first proposal would cut Lebanon off western economies for one full day, and is bound to be ignored in Christian areas and by many private schools. The second would add another useless holiday in a national calendar laden with sectarian vacations. After all, in Lebanon each sect celebrates the holiday that best fits its own vision of Lebanon and ignores those of other communities. At least for now, both proposals are buried in barren parliamentary committees.

Here we have an example of sectarian entrepreneurs deploying populism callously at the service of mobilizing sectarian votes and electoral constituencies, always at the expense of the greater national good. It is also a vivid reminder of how the ‘invented’ foundational visions of what Lebanon is and should be have changed little since 1920.

For embedded in Daher’s proposal is the insistence that Lebanon is first and foremost a Muslim Arab country; its Muslim cultural identity supplants any other mongrel or composite one. By contrast, Abi Nasr’s counter proposal attempts to celebrate Lebanon’s Christian western orientation. It should be viewed as a demographic minority’s struggle to defend its own vision of Lebanon and its political economic role in it, now and in the future, against what it views as an irreversible Islamisation of the country.

Such binaries do not build an intercultural nation at peace with its diversity, however; they raise communities ghettoised behind sectarian barricades.

We have a devastating glimpse into the psychological workings of these barricades in Toni (a diehard supporter of the Maronite Lebanese Forces); he is one of the main protagonists in Lebanese cinematographer, film director, and writer Ziad Doueiri’s new film The Insult (2017).

Doueiri’s first, semi-autobiographical, movie West Beirut (1998) took Lebanon by storm as it followed the lives of two young boys growing up during the civil war in Beirut. The film ignited debates about the war and Lebanon’s cultural identity and political divisions. The Insult continues this critical interrogation of the war and its memory.

A confrontation between Toni and Yasser, a Palestinian engineer working illegally for a Lebanese contractor over an illegal water pipe blows out of proportion and divides the country along religious and political lines.

An insult by Yasser enrages Toni, who decides to sue him, a situation that becomes more complicated after Yasser throws a fist at Toni when the latter makes a hateful reference to Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians.

Toni is haunted by wartime memories, but especially the massacre perpetrated against the inhabitants of his southern Christian village, Damour, by (pro-Syrian) Palestinian guerrillas. He is obsessed by what he takes to be the marginalisation of the Christians in post-war Lebanon. He feels that, like the Palestinians, post-war Christians have become ‘the victims of the victims’. He seeks refuge in assassinated Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel’s wartime speeches berating the Palestinians as the cause of all of Lebanon’s miseries, and in his unshakable post-war support of the Lebanese Forces and its leader – who, oddly, comes out in the film as a bigger than life character.

The spectacle in the courtroom, as the lawyers build their cases against or in defence of Yasser, reveals a country still divided along mainly religious lines, and the failure of post-war generations to interrogate critically the horrors – more precisely, the many massacres – committed during the war.

This is almost virgin territory in a country where – unlike other post-war societies, whether in Rwanda, South Africa, or East Timur – no truth and reconciliation commissions were established after the end of the civil war. Amnesia was considered a better elixir than truth-telling.

Doueiri seems to suggest that there is no hope for true post-war reconciliation unless the Lebanese face up to, and seek the truth behind, their past crimes. At this level, all are war victims: Christian, Muslims, and Palestinians.

Doueiri’s movie is not unproblematic, however. It rightly introduces a new generation of Lebanese to devastating footage of the horrific 1976 Damour massacre, but there is no mention of the countless other massacres committed on all sides of the barricades, or of the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres perpetrated by Lebanese Forces militias bent on avenging Bashir’s assassination – this, despite the aforementioned reference to Sharon, one that prompted Yasser to assault Toni in the first place.

There is also something odd about Doueiri’s insistence on privileging religious (Muslim-Christian) and national (Lebanese-Palestinian) divisions over what are currently more powerful sectarian divisions.

This is not to say that religious divisions are not important in post-war Lebanon, as the aforementioned Daher-Abi Nasr episode suggests. But Toni’s fixations with the threat of the Palestinian ‘other’ seems to belong to a different time, and may have been overtaken by what many Christians now consider to be more dangerous Sunni and Shia ‘others’.

But perhaps this is what irks Toni so much: that his community is doomed politically and culturally, and has simply replaced one existential threat by another.

On this view, then, Doueiri wants post-war generations to realise that nothing has changed in their country; that different generations invent their own visions of Lebanon, and in the process their own demonized others. A perfect recipe for perpetual disasters.

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