Denial Runs Through Lebanon

It’s time for Beirutis to face up to reality.


BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 13, 2006—Thursday is one of the liveliest nights of the week here in Beirut—except tonight, about 18 hours after the Israeli siege began with the early-morning shelling of the Rafik al-Hariri International Airport and only a few hours before the bombing of the city’s southern suburbs, an almost exclusively Shiite area, where Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah is headquartered. The Israelis have warned the neighborhood’s residents to evacuate, and so it seems the only people out tonight are Shiites looking for shelter—except in Gemmayzeh, the center of the city’s nightlife scene, where there are Shiites and Americans, and we are looking for a place to drink.

Hassan is driving. His father’s side of the family is leftist, which is how many Shiites identified politically until the rise of specifically Shiite parties in the 1960s and ‘70s. There is a lot of Hezbollah on his mother’s side, and while he is fairly sympathetic to their position now, he is deeply at odds with their religious strictures, like those against drinking.

Hassan is in his mid-20s and old enough to remember the final acts of the civil wars that wracked the country for 15 years, but I don’t think that explains his calm and clear-headedness tonight. Like a lot of younger Arab intellectuals throughout the region—especially in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—he recognizes that the regional status quo is untenable. There are national, political, sectarian, and even class issues that have to be settled, and it is unlikely they are going to be resolved peacefully.

Every place but one is closed. Ahmed owns Club Social and a number of other Beirut restaurants and bars where I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last year and a half since I came to Lebanon. Ahmed’s father is a former president of parliament, the highest post allocated to Shiites in the country’s sectarian scheme. His father is a famously moderate, secular official who many had once hoped might represent a viable alternative to Lebanon’s most powerful Shiite party, the grim and fanatical Islamic Resistance, which took Lebanon hostage long before it abducted two Israeli soldiers Wednesday morning and initiated the current crisis.

Ahmed wants me to join an argument he’s having with two Americans about school vouchers. “I’ve got a liberal over here and a libertarian,” he says somewhat disdainfully. I’ve heard Ahmed described as conservative, but I haven’t had much chance to talk politics with him in the past, and this particular issue seems a strange choice right now. “You mean school vouchers in the States?” I ask. “Yes!” he replies. I say it’s not something I’ve been following closely, but I’m probably pretty close to his position—the individual is rational enough to decide what is best for himself. And then again, tonight I cannot help but recognize the virtues of a strong central government enjoining good and forbidding evil. It would have benefited all of Lebanon had its elected government moved to disarm Hezbollah rather than let it pursue an independent foreign policy.

When Ahmed leaves with his girlfriend, there is only one woman left in the bar. She is Lebanese, and so is the guy she is speaking with. They are definitely together. Perhaps their relationship will now intensify thanks to the events of the last 24 hours; maybe they have plunged headlong into love. Maybe she will go home with him, assuming he has his own place, and give herself to him for the first time. Or maybe she already has. Regardless, I bet that come morning, she, like every other unmarried Lebanese woman, will rise early to hurry home before her parents wake, lest she scandalize them, their family, and neighbors.

And this issue is, in fact, at the very crux of the matter that Israeli warplanes, gunboats, and troops mean to address right now. A society in which both youth and authority have tacitly agreed for the sake of an easy comity and false appearance not to upset the established order, a society where the young will steal hours from the vigilance and envy of their elders and yet don’t challenge them for the right to lie two hours longer in their lovers’ arms—that kind of society is by its very nature incapable of disarming an Islamist militia.

One of the Americans in the bar is a Marine, who politely agrees with part of the group arguing that the Hezbollah kidnapping was a “successful operation.” He elaborates, “It was successful tactically,” a qualification that here seems to apply to any belligerent gesture in which the aggressor does not literally shoot himself in the foot. It is not clear to me how anyone can draw solace from an act that has brought chaos to their home. I guess the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was also tactically successful.

The analogy is exaggerated, but not entirely farfetched. Israel’s Lebanon campaign is a serious escalation of a regional conflict that involves, among others, Iran, the United States, Syria, Israel, Shiite militias, and Sunni extremists. Some believe that the U.S.-Iran standoff represents a Middle East Cold War, which is also a way for many Lebanese to say that this is not really about Lebanon, or that Lebanon is only a venue for Washington and the Islamic republic to vent their issues. So, some Lebanese think it is about everyone else besides them, as though there were decisions made so far over their heads that they can barely guess at the machinations and deals that have been made without their consent.

And yet the international community—especially the United States and France—has, over the last year, explained quite clearly that Hezbollah is a serious problem. Several U.N. resolutions, as well as almost every Western diplomatic initiative here, have emphasized the urgent need for the Lebanese government to disarm what the U.S. State Department calls a terrorist organization. Instead, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other national leaders have insisted that Hezbollah is neither a terrorist group nor a militia, but is rather “the resistance” and nothing but “the resistance.” In other words, we side with the Party of God and agree that their arms benefit all of Lebanon! And then, this week, the democratically elected government disclaimed responsibility for the actions of Hezbollah, which is part of the government. The Lebanese are not innocent bystanders; they did not tempt their fate, they ignored it.

Those Lebanese closer to the reality of things—the materialists, not the ideologues—bemoan the fate of the tourist season. Maybe it is a psychological defense mechanism to reckon loss in terms of tourist dollars, not lives; maybe it is too painful and terrifying to think beyond the vacant hotel rooms and the empty restaurants. And it is true that after a string of assassinations last year kept Gulf Arabs away and the Lebanese diaspora from returning, this summer promised to be especially lucrative. Things were looking up for Lebanon—except for the small matter of an Islamist militia based on a border facing the most powerful military in the region. All the tourists were willing to overlook the unpleasantness, just as the Lebanese were, but now the tourists are gone, and the Lebanese are left to themselves to figure out what happened, what to do about it, and whether or not they are capable of it.