12.7.07

Lebanon: Elusive Peace and Despair

Next year, I will be 50. I was born the year Fouad Chehab ended the pro-western pro-US Chamoun presidency to rally all sects in Lebanon around a certain idea of neutrality between pro-western (mostly Christian tribal leaders at the time) and Pan Arabist (mostly sunni tribal leaders at the time) elements in the Lebanese society. I have a clear memory from my childhood, that of soldiers appearing around our village house while my younger brother and I were playing outside. I was terrified. My brother started crying loud and my mother came out. The soldiers explained they were looking for fugitives. And then from their pockets, they pulled some sweets and gave them to my brother. That was enough to calm him down.
Long after, I will learn from my parents that the incident happened in 1962, few months after a failed coup was attempted in early 1962 by members of the Syrian Nationalist Party on the presidency of Fouad Chehab.

With this childhood memory, another one is still vivid. It is about a dream I would make repetitively. I always wonder if I had started making this dream before this encounter with the soldiers or after. In my dream, I would wake up during the night while my parents and the whole village were sleeping. I would go to my grand'parents' and walk past their house in the empty street as if expecting something. And suddenly the road before me would open, a riffle would rise ripping off the asphalt. At this sight, I would run to our house, voiceless and breathless, and wake up in my bed sweating and crying.

Nearly more than a decade after this dream started to haunt my nights, I witnessed the ugliness of the civil war as a teenager within my own community and the savagery applied on other rival communities and sects during seven whole years between 1975 and 1982. I left Lebanon, not before loosing my mother to illness and depression and seeing the rest of my family shattered on three continents. I had my own family and children, forgot about Lebanon, only on the surface. I couldn't for example listen to Arabic music, Fayrouz, or any other music I used to listen to when I was a young person growing up in Lebanon, without breaking into tears. I was always postponing a visit to Lebanon after the country was pacified, inventing excuses to my husband and grown up children who are from another country and had never visited. Until 2005. The events that unfolded in 2005 led me to think that the fragile equilibrium that was prevailing in the country was going to be shattered again. I opened up to my husband and told him about my fears and at the same time about what I thought was maybe our last chance to visit the country with the children in 'normal' times. He was kind enough to suggest approaching Lebanon from a distance, slowly, and with a perspective. We visited that summer Cyprus for one week, Syria for another week, before arriving to Baalbeck in the Bekaa and witnessing the 5kms stretch of trucks delayed at the border between Syria and Lebanon. We stayed the first night awake on the roof of the Palmyra hotel in Baalbeck admiring the Roman ruins by night. The hotel concierge told me that Fayrouz used to stay on the roof admiring the ruins the night before performing at the Baalbeck festival.

I was welcome in Syria. While the Syrian workers were persecuted in Lebanon, the Syrian people, wherever I went, gave me a warm welcome. While visiting the Omeyyade Mosque in Damascus, the man at the door who lends 'abayas to women to cover themselves in the mosque asked from where I come. I answered worried: 'I am from Lebanon but I live in Canada'. And he kindly said: 'welcome our sister' and refused that I pay the price paid by foreign tourists for the 'abayas. In comparison, at Beyrouth airport, when leaving, the woman at the flight registration desk remarked with an air of disgust that we had been to Syria before Lebanon.

In 12 days, we drove Lebanon from north to south, from Bcharré to Qana and the southern border, taking all the small roads and totalling some 6000 kms in a country of 200kms long and 80 kms, at most, large. I arrived to my village unannounced. I walked to my grand'parents'. The door was open, as in most village houses. My aunt came to the door and asked who we were. I said: I am your niece. We embraced while my husband and children were behind, crying. I visited our empty house in the village, gathered some old pictures, talked with neighbours and old friends, took a walk to the olive orchards, trecked deep in the Qadisha valley, drove among crazy Lebanese drivers, bathed in the sea near Tyre, sampled baklavas at major Lebanese pastry stores in Tripoli and Saida, ate Falafel in Saida's souk, slept on the sound of the nearby prayer of the muezzin, walked one day in the ugly Beyrouth downtown, ultrarenovated as to erase the memory of any past or future wars.

The visit was like a therapy for me. But when I returned I started to be obsessed with the security situation in Lebanon, not being able to pass a day without looking at the news from there. And as the news from there were becoming more and more alarming, culminating in the 2006 Israeli agression on the country, I started to despair, and I am still in this mood. And while the lebanese army is pounding now in the north a Palestinian camp emptied of half of its inhabitants and 'equipped' by the Hariri family with some few hundred islamist militants, on orders of the Sanyura government trying to distract from crucial issues in Lebanon, exactly as Al-Qaida serves as a useful distractor for the internal political goals of western governments in power, not in a war of attrition, but in a divisive war of rallying and regrouping different communities around resentment, like what is happening in Iraq, Lebanon is commemorating the 'Second Israeli War' and the second major Israeli agression which rallied its citizens for the duration of the agression across the sectarian divide.

For the time being, and this time seems to last forever, I have adopted a substitute to Lebanon. I went vacationing in Turkey (and partly in Greece) this summer, and will do so often, until of course Turkey also will be reached by the neo-con destabilising and debilitating enterprise for a new middle east and a new century.

There is only one word to describe my hopes for Lebanon and what I think of its political tribal elite and their followers: Despair. And I apologise before my Lebanese friends and parents for my pessimism.

Fear and fragile peace

A son waits to join Hizbullah to avenge shattered family

Bint Jbeil in pictures one year later.

Some background on the Israeli invasions of south Lebanon. The article dates from 1999 but gives a perspective much needed since everything today has been formatted within the new 9/11 explanation framework while dismissing the rest, the rest is history for the US and Israel and much of the western world, but history matters when we need to analyse conflicts.

Olmert, Peretz, and their generals, would have benefited from reading this article published in 2004 in the Daily Star, before launching the 2006 agression against Lebanon.

7 comments:

Bedouina said...

Dear Sophia - thank you so much for your heartfelt expressions.

I am living in California; have not returned to Lebanon since 2000 - we left Beirut as the protests surrounding the second intifada began, and we had the sense then that the hopes for wider peace in the region were finally crumbling. every year that i think of trying to go to Lebanon again, some new disaster happens and we put it off.

All I can say to you is that I am with you in your sorrow. I am only the "American cousin"; I spent my childhood summers in our village in South Lebanon; my loss is not as large as yours. And yet I think I know what you are feeling.

Sophia said...

Thanks Leila,
Your kind words comfort me and soothe my angst.

Anonymous said...

Sophia,

What is it with Fayruz and tears? So many friends of mine (Syrian and Lebanese) start crying when they hear Fayruz.

I am a bit more optimistic than you are. I hope in a year or two things can get better again. The same way good things don't last forever, bad things do not last for ever either.

For the next few months though ... it will likely get worse.

Alex

Sophia said...

Alex,
You are probably too young to understand about the Fayrouz thing. I hope that you are right about the future.

frenchy said...

Nice post.

I remember also of my child's dreams. However I grew up during the war...
I remember that many time i was having a nightmare, the war and my father dying.
He is still alive but when i was 5 years old, a bomb explosed under his car, killing 17 people around him.
They annouced his death on the radio till we got the news of a miracle, he was alive, in hospital, someone, an unknow person took him there.
Till now sometimes, I am having that nightmare going back during my nights, till now when I am hearing about lebanon being bombed or people been killed, sometimes tears are appearing without falling from my eyes.
It is not i m emotive, but ...

Sophia said...

Thanks Frenchy for sharing this. I think being as young as a five year old during the civil war in Lebanon must have been a differently traumatic experience.

Anonymous said...

Sophia,

Not that young ;)

I remember my parents took me to see Fayruz live in Damascus (Damascus international fair) in late 70's I think.

I love her, and I love the music. But she does not make me cry.

Is it the Lyrics that make you cry?

So in Syria and Lebanon we cry listening to Fairuz, my Egyptian friends cry over Abdul Halim Hafez.

Alex.

 
Since March 29th 2006