Seasons of Migration to the East

Charges incurred while roaming in Lebanon. Check out Clare’s previous post on her trip to Jordan.

Creative Commons photo by Katrine Syppli. Source: Flickr

If you stand in downtown Beirut and look up towards the general skyline, you’ll see the former Holiday Inn. The 30-story building is riddled with bullets, bullet holes, cannon holes, and shells. It is a not-so-ancient relic of Lebanon’s terrible civil war, a testament to the sudden destruction that befell the entire country when the war began in 1975 — just one year after the hotel opened. The building became a target the moment fighting began, all of its stunning grandeur quickly decimated. Though it witnessed fifteen years of conflict, it still stands today, looming in stark contrast to the new opulent five-star hotels close by. The building itself is empty and dead, so much so that there aren’t even ghosts to haunt it. It just sits there, wind, rain, and sun streaming through the holes in its façade. It is a shell of whatever it once was — completely gutted, broken, and ruined.

As my friends and I walked past the hotel, we passed a military guard near the entrance. The military uses the ground floor for storage, and the soldier standing by the little security gate carried a very large and rather terrifying gun. My friend said hello, and the guard returned the greeting with a smile. We stopped to talk to him, something that became a bit of a trope throughout my travels. We found out the guard was twenty years old — our age. He was born a couple of years after the civil war ended, which meant that the monument he guarded was not his memory; it belonged to his parents and grandparents and maybe his older siblings. He, however, came of age as rebuilding ended and a period of (relative) stability set in. His Beirut was one of the street called the Corniche that ran along the Mediterranean, the nightclubs frequented by college students, the slightly-yuppie environment of the Hamra district. This was the person who eagerly talked with us and complimented our Arabic, an openness and geniality in marked contrast to the gun on his shoulder.

This disconcerting contrast between the vestiges of chaos and the vitality of the “Paris of the East” was visible everywhere in Beirut. On the Corniche, just a couple of streets away from the Holiday Inn, girls dressed in short skirts strolled along the waterfront as couples walked to fancy restaurants and planned to order wine with dinner. The Islamic call to prayer, so penetrating in the conservative city of Jordan where I lived during that summer, was barely audible above the bright din of traffic and chatter that was Beirut. College students discussed last night’s score at a nightclub as they casually passed by a police guard on a street corner.  Nearby would be another guard, this time military, sitting in a white plastic chair with a very large gun strung across his shoulder. All of this was set against a backdrop of restaurants, hotels, shops, cafés, and the occasional shelled building.

Such a bifurcated picture has its immediate roots in the civil war (1975 – 1990), but societal tensions stretch back to colonial times and color the political situation even today. The war, which killed an estimated 120,000 people, injured hundreds of thousands of others, and displaced a million more, affected every possible facet of life in Lebanon for fifteen years. Though often portrayed in Western media as a sectarian conflict, it was nowhere near as clear-cut as Christian vs. Muslim or Sunni vs. Shi’a, but rather encompassed a variety of political factors, including the increasing numbers of Palestinian refugees and guerilla operations led by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) based in Lebanon. Israel invaded in an effort to stop the PLO, and Syrian military forces were stationed in the country for over a decade. Only after fifteen years of US and UN pleas for ceasefires and interventions was a peace agreement finally signed.

Factionalism and sectarianism, noticeably present during the civil war, have had a long history in Lebanon, thanks to French policies enacted during Francophone rule of the Levant. When the French Mandate was established in 1923, France implemented a “divide and conquer” policy to control their new territory: they privileged minority religious communities over the Sunni Muslim majority in order to diminish the relative weight of Sunni anti-French sentiment and thus prevent a popular uprising. This meant that Christians and Shi’is were beholden to and dependent upon the French for various economic, political, and social favors. If they had wanted to disown their French benefactors and join in a Sunni anti-French movement, they would not have been able to — Sunnis deeply resented religious minorities because of their perceived complicity with the illegitimate foreign rulers. The French plan of sowing dissension among Lebanon’s religious constituencies had worked.

When the last French troops finally left the country in 1946, an uneasy peace — or rather a lack of conflict — emerged between religious groups, supported by the new Arab nationalism and its supra-sectarian spirit. Since the 1940s, a political system has been in place in which the President of the country is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the House a Shi’i Muslim. Each religious group is allotted a certain number of seats in Parliament based on their percentage of the population. Despite this compromise, there are still some underlying sectarian tensions, which the civil war only worsened.

This is the situation the friendly young military guard has inherited: a history of brutal war and difficult rebuilding, sectarianism and favoritism, and a political system that has somehow managed to survive despite its seemingly shaky foundation. This history combines with a new glaze of Western culture and political values to create the strange double-vision Beirut I saw that trip. The historical concerns, however, aren’t just historical. They have real implications today, given the proximity of the violence in Syria. There is an ever-present fear among many Lebanese that the violence will spill over into Lebanon and reignite conflict, upsetting the delicate balance that was achieved after French rule and again after the civil war.

As I observed all of this combined in the physical experience of Beirut, it brought several thoughts to mind: What does it mean when this duality is so present in daily life? When reminders of your parents’ terrible civil war continually confront you while you’re having dinner on the Corniche? How does this affect your national conscience? How does this affect how you live — and does it? I do not pretend to have answers to these questions. I am not Lebanese; I have not lived through a civil war; I have not experienced real religious tension; I do not live close to a country racked by violence. I did not have the chance to ask the military guard about any of this, but perhaps someday, when I return, I’ll be able to take another step towards understanding that beautiful, complicated, captivating country.

Clare Duncan ’14 (cduncan@college) took the title for this article from a line-item charge description on her phone bill after she returned home from the Middle East.

  • Hajjar

    The tension between the communities existed way before the french arrivedI!! I suggest you read more of lebanese history especially under the ottoman rule when all religious non sunni minorities were oppressed by the sunnis for more than 400 years.