Like most places in the world that, time and time again, have been fit into the journalist’s script or forced into the novelist’s frame, Lebanon has been tirelessly taxed with metaphors and allegories. Simultaneously, it has been presented as the terrain for metaphorical and allegorical construction. In its pre-war heyday, Lebanon was the “Paris of the Orient,” the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” the “land of milk and honey.” During its 17-year civil war, Beirut became itself the metaphor for the no man’s land of destruction, captive to a self-sustaining cycle of armed conflict. Mikhail Gorbachev warned of the “Lebanonization” of Yugoslavia as that country’s dismemberment into ethnic, religious and cultural cantons loomed.
It is very difficult to find a metaphor that does justice to the country or its capital since the post-war chapter opened in 1992, and even harder to find one for the shock of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14, 2005 and the momentous “Independence Intifada” (in Arabic, intifadat al-istiqlal) that followed. This time, the revolution really was televised. Rarely has a popular mobilization received so much attention from the global media, and possibly never before has a movement for political change been so conscious of the image it was projecting to the world. Never, for instance, has a franchise of the global advertising mogul Saatchi & Saatchi participated so overtly in the shaping of a popular uprising. With the benefit of only a few months to look back upon Istiqlal ’05, it would not be unfair to evoke Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and interrogate the “spectacular” virtues of the uprising. From the myriad events that have punctuated these months, myriad anecdotes have inspired myriad metaphors.
I kept a diary in the days leading up to April 13, the thirtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war. If my entries do not lend themselves to drawing conclusions, they underscore the contradictions of the historical moment ushered in by Istiqlal ’05.
‘Alam al-Sabah, the morning show on the late Hariri’s Future television network. The anchors are still decked out in the black-and-white palette of official mourning. It has been 50 days since the fateful morning of February 14. A thick black streak diagonally bisects the Future logo, and a log marks the passage of days since moment zero. Newscasts begin: “Today is the nth day since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and the investigation has yet to reveal the truth.”
Straightforward grieving for Hariri and demands for a full investigation have morphed into a non-stop kaleidoscope of mourning: video clips, songs, graphics, slogans and public service announcements unreel incessantly across the screen. Along with the anchors’ self-presentation, the morning show’s structure has been adjusted to fit the new “circumstances.” There are more news updates. Astrological predictions and segments on fashion, hairdressing, beauty and child psychology have been canceled.
The adult psychology segment is still running. Today, the psychologist, a warm, sensible, bespectacled fellow, is planning to reply to a query from Damascus. A woman had called a couple of days ago, but considering the gravity of her question, he intends to dedicate the entire segment to answering her.
The woman, a mother of three, employed, lives and works in Damascus while her husband lives and works in the United Arab Emirates. She had called for advice on tranquilizers because she is no longer able to control her anxiety attacks. She said she was becoming a “bad mother” and a “bad employee.” Ever since Hariri’s assassination, she has been captivated by the news; she feverishly reads all the newspapers available in Damascus, including the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. She is consumed with fear about the fate of Syria if the Americans harbor the designs for her country that they did for Iraq. She believes the country would fall apart, and worries about protecting her children. She cannot afford to flee, nor does she wish to. She cannot sleep and cannot eat. She has lost hope and her will to live. Her children are aware that she is increasingly detached and angry; they see her crying helplessly.
Momentarily interrupting the atmosphere of grief and repressed fear that the nation’s prodigal patriarch was no longer there to hold the fiction of post-war Lebanon together, the psychologist goes through the conventional litany of cautions against the impact of stress on the psyche and the body. He advises the woman to seek the help of a psychologist in Damascus and find a way of explaining to her children why she is in this state without transferring stress onto them. On the subject of alarm, he explains that she should diversify her sources of news, and pay equal attention to the positive reports in the media.
Traffic in the city is almost back to normal. Rumors abound that undocumented or “illegal” Syrian workers are leaving Lebanon in droves. Every other person in the Rawda Café tells of a building concierge who has packed up and left. The Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, thriving residential quarters for these migrant workers, are said to have been almost entirely emptied of their Syrian populations. Sukleen, the waste management company with a contract to collect garbage countrywide, is reported to be frantically recruiting workers from Sudan and Bangladesh as replacements for its almost entirely undocumented Syrian labor force.
Rumors also abound of booby-trapped automobiles being discovered and dismantled in the nick of time. Three in Burj Hammoud yesterday. One in Dhour al-Shuwayr the night before. Checkpoints are being set up all over the city to reassure people, many in eerie locations, such as near the Saint Georges Hotel, where the force of the February 14 explosion has left a gaping crater. One night, they stopped and searched only black cars; another night, they stopped and searched exclusively BMWs; and yesterday they were targeting Mercedes.
In the locker room at the gym, I eavesdrop on a conversation between two 20-year old women. Theirs is a generation born just as the war was ending. Presently, they are “discovering” the rituals of adjusting to living in fear and taking precautions against the arbitrary explosion of violence. There is no rhyme or reason to the booby-trapped cars, and the logic of spreading terror seems to have taken hold. The two girls are chatting about their fiancés and their social lives. They are scared of making plans to go out at night and partake in their usual walks on the Corniche. They have been shopping at small grocery stores near their apartments, avoiding big shopping centers and their parking lots because “they are such obvious targets.”
They are everywhere. If it’s not a flag, it’s a sticker that demands “the truth.” What would happen if “the truth” came out? According to quite a few in the opposition, the government in Syria would fall “comme avec Milosevic,” replete with the UN-led investigation, due process and a tribunal in The Hague. To many, that scenario seems far-fetched, embarrassingly unimaginable.
At the instigation of the ex-prime minister’s sister Bahiyya Hariri, the mayor of Beirut, ‘Abd al-Ghani ‘Aris (who can’t stop French from slipping into his Arabic as he is interviewed live on Future), and downtown business owners have decided to launch a series of festivities beginning with the weekend preceding April 13, to celebrate national unity and restore life to what has become a deserted, desolate city center. People are exhorted to perform their patriotic duty, defy the barriers of fear that national tragedy and car bombs had instilled in hearts and minds, and go out to wine, dine and be merry in downtown Beirut. Restaurants and cafés are offering their menus at half-price from April 9 until April 13. A program of free concerts and activities is planned to animate every nook and cranny in the area, celebrities plan to make appearances, television programs are planning to broadcast from the midst of the celebrations, and Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s flagship airline, will be offering discounted tickets for Arabs to come and celebrate Lebanon’s rise from the ashes. “It’s democracy tourism,” says Bahiyya.
Every aspect of the spectacle is thought out beforehand, including a slogan encapsulating both life-affirming celebration and national unity: “Lebanon, a country for all, a country for life” (Lubnan lil-jami’, watan lil-hayat). Each day is assigned a symbolic color that people are encouraged to wear on their sleeves. Saturday will be colorless; Sunday will be red for the bold Lebanese people and their valiant army. Monday will be green for the hope-filled future; people are encouraged to plant an olive tree or a cedar tree. Tuesday will be white to wish peace upon all Lebanese; people are invited to plant white flags everywhere.
Rawda Café, a gorgeous spring day. A Filipina nanny pushing a toddler in a carriage is humming the national anthem to lull him to sleep. By now a slew of pop stars have released “versions” of the anthem, each accompanied by a dramatic video clip documenting the Independence Intifada. The dictionary of political rhetoric has acquired a new expression — “the living martyr.” Rafiq al-Hariri is a “living martyr” because his spirit, his legacy and his courage will live on despite his assassins’ sinister designs. Marwan Hamadeh, one of Hariri’s allies, is a “living martyr” because his body and soul survived the sinister attempt on his life.
In downtown Beirut, people are out in massive numbers. Bahiyya al-Hariri’s initiative is an astounding success. Shouts of support for her dead brother rise intermittently from the crowd. Joie de vivre — regarded by Lebanese as a national trait — is back with a vengeance. Restaurants use the flag to cover tables. There is an average two-hour wait at every one. A man flanked by his family of four, doused in perfume, screams at a headwaiter: “I flew from Dubai for this! Can’t you find me a table?” The frenzied, breathless maitre d’ throws back the sharp upward nod that means no.
The Marathon for National Unity. Since marathons have become a global phenomenon, a way for the yuppies of the world to promote a good cause while looking good and burning calories, we had to have one for ourselves. Forty thousand runners are in Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut to affirm their commitment to national unity. In the Mediterranean Sea off Amshit, 40 scuba divers plant 40 Lebanese flags in the ocean floor, just in case the marine life questions our patriotism. If only to underscore the motto of tourist brochures from the pre-war era, a ski competition is staged high up in the mountains where a handful of cedar trees embody the emblem on the Lebanese flag.
The country remains without a government. Negotiations between the two major political camps over the formation of a cabinet are tense. On the face of it, there is an atmosphere of looming national crisis and total collapse. However, underneath the surface, there is a barely muffled sense of exhilaration, because never before in the post-war era has there been a real contest for power. Syrian hegemony was such that contests for power were despairingly petty, subverted to serve narrow ends — sectarian, communitarian and, most often, individual.
While the map of sectarian divisions remains significant, the alignment of coalitions undergirding the two major camps does not break down on strictly sectarian lines. That, in some sense, is also hopeful. The two organized Shi’i forces, the Amal movement and Hizballah, have been aligned in their pro-Syrian endorsement with the president and his nebulae of Christian allies, organized conservative Sunni movements, Sunni figures who competed with Hariri over his claim of chief Sunni leadership and the Druze figure challenging Walid Jumblatt’s claim to chief Druze leadership. If the opposition camp represented a similar coalition of forces, including sectarian elements, but secular ones as well, their feat was that they superseded differences in ideological vision by agreeing to a set of common goals.
On the eve of the thirtieth commemoration of the outbreak of the civil war, the power struggle between the opposition and the pro-Syrian forces moved to the realm of the constitutional mandate for holding elections in May. The debate, due to take place in Parliament, would be an endurance test, and an intelligence test as well, for the coalition cementing the opposition camp.
Meanwhile, the showcase of national unity is still on display in downtown Beirut. Today, downtown churches will hold concerts of patriotic songs. Artists will begin painting a mural in the Saifi Village, the pre-war carpenters’ souk turned into high-end loft-like housing for the very discriminating few, to commemorate the war and celebrate national unity. Cartoonists and comic book artists will decorate an alleyway in the Village. Corazon Aquino, who was invited to speak at a rally on April 13, has announced that she will not be able to come. Neither will Nelson Mandela.
In the storytelling corner, Nancy Ajram, one of the most adulated of Lebanese pop stars, is reading the story of “The Two Butterflies” to a group of children. The story was later recounted word for word on television: Two butterflies, one with blue wings and the other with yellow wings, were flitting about seeking protection from the pouring rain. They batted their wings and pleaded with tree after tree and bush after bush — but in vain. No tree or bush would shelter both of them together. Determined to stick together rather than be separated, the butterflies continued their dangerous quest. Moved by their bond of unity, the sun took pity on them, and emerged from beyond the clouds to stop the rain. The two butterflies were saved. The moral of the story is Lebanon’s newly forged unity, Ajram tells the children. Her most assiduous competitor, Haifa Wehbe, is scheduled to read a story on April 13.
“What of memory in the question of reconciliation?” Three panelists, Hani Fahs, a Shi’i cleric and intellectual, renowned psychotherapist Shawqi Azouri and Ziad Baroud, a lawyer and activist for human rights and democracy, are scheduled to answer this question at the annual event of Mémoire pour l’Avenir (Memory for the Future), an association dedicated to preserving the memory and archives of the civil war.
Under the faux crystal chandelier in the fancy downstairs room of the Phoenicia Hotel, which was quickly renovated after sustaining extensive damage from the February 14 explosion, Hani Fahs pleads for reconciliation with the wondrous eloquence of a man schooled in Nahj al-Balagha, the collection of speeches and sermons attributed to ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad venerated by the Shi’a as the first Imam. Reconciliation, he proposes, needs a language forged in national unity and the living experience of our collective being. Memory can find a domicile in the metaphorical domains of that language, because metaphor is constitutive of the expression of truth. Memory as allegory, spoken in a subordinate clause, will endow that language of reconciliation with the strength and grace to subvert the demons of the war and those who try to hijack national unity.
After apologizing for his poor command of Arabic and his inability to translate “technical” terms from French, Shawqi Azouri prefaces his presentation by quoting Jacques Lacan in French: “Etre ce n’est rien d’autre qu’oublier” (Being is nothing other than forgetting). Azouri is advocating forgetting — turning the page, so to speak — but not before reading that page and understanding it. His extensive clinical experience with the lingering trauma of the war has led him to conclude that generations of Lebanese have yet to achieve “closure.” Mourning and grief have been dragged out well into the post-war era. While the shelling ended in 1991, Azouri argues, the war did not. In lieu of armed conflict was Syrian tutelage, administered through terror and capable of holding the entire population captive. The tragedy on February 14 was the first occasion for a collective expression of grief. Borrowing the “Stockholm syndrome” metaphor, Azouri explains that a portion of the population could not yet break free from the hold of its captors and partake in the cathartic release of collective grief. Those who have recovered their agency have a duty to extend a gentle and loving hand to rescue their brethren, still bound up in the psychopathology of the hostage. The clue to achieving closure, he says, is to be found in the report drafted by a UN-appointed commission of inquiry that confirmed the necessity for a UN-sponsored international investigation into the crime. In its conclusion, the report says that in order for the Lebanese to weep over their dead, they had to know the truth.
Ziad Baroud, the last to speak, argues that reconciliation is predicated on restoring to the justice system its true mission. He proposes to repeal the 1991 General Amnesty Law that allowed warlords and heads of militias to go home free and stake their claims in the political arena. Instead, Lebanon should organize trials to recognize crimes committed during the war, attribute responsibility, determine punishment and unburden the pain of victimhood from silence. There it is, frozen into a snapshot: Lebanon, the country where ‘Ali bin Abi Talib sits side by side with Jacques Lacan, with the journalist Samir Kassir (since assassinated) mediating their conversation.
On the Future channel this night, Yahya Jabir, a poet and playwright, anoints the “martyred” former prime minister with still a grander title. Jabir inaugurates his lengthy opus, spoken in free verse, chock-filled with colloquialisms, this way: “On Saint Valentine’s Day, in front of the Saint George Hotel, Saint Rafiq al-Hariri was martyred.”
No color code for the day. Today will be the last opportunity to buy candles and scarves decorated with the Lebanese flag, gingerbread cookies with red-white-and-green icing, ashtrays that read “freedom,” “independence” and “sovereignty,” necklace pendants where a crescent hugs a cross. There was more to buy. There were T-shirts to suit every taste: 100 Percent Lebanese, We Remember to Forget and Istiqlal ’05. All of it, of course, made by “100 percent Lebanese designers.”
The most meaningful event is a protest organized by the association of parents and kin of the kidnapped and missing from the war whose fate remains unknown. They carry pictures of their beloved, nearly 17,000 souls snatched in 17 years of civil conflict, the nagging ghosts and open wounds of the war. Most of them have been killed, but their deaths are not yet acknowledged. Some, perhaps a mere handful, languish in the jails of Syria, suspended between life and death. In downtown Beirut, their families’ protest is the only site where the horror of war is resurrected from forgetting. Sets of postcards reproducing difficult images from the war — the checkpoints, the crossing points, the snipers, the militia fighters, the tanks — are sold as mementos.
There is a sweeping magnetism to crowds. I lose myself in downtown Beirut to become one of “the people.” The moment was staged for them. I don’t know exactly who they are. I know they are not those who can’t afford to be in downtown Beirut. I know they are a very small fraction of the people, perhaps an even smaller fraction of those who are genuinely afraid, whose lives are under threat. The people who staff the tourism industry, who make the orange juice seem fresh and deliver it promptly, the people who carry trays of food and cut sandwiches into the dainty squares that earn them the name “nouvelle cuisine.” Bahiyya al-Hariri’s call for the consumption of leisure — under the guise of patriotism — could only be heeded by the well-to-do. But the “other people,” the taxi drivers, the waiters, the delivery van drivers, the farmers, the manicurists, the cashiers, the fortune-tellers, even the peddlers, all are relieved the commerce of leisure and joie de vivre are back.
I am caught in a paradox. I am moved by stories of when “people” took to the streets and the government fell, and when people took to the streets on March 14, in answer to the Hizballah protest, when “other people” thanked Syria for its guardianship of Lebanon. Compelling stories tell of young men and women carrying a Qur’an in one hand and a cross in another, of Druze carrying their flag in one hand and the flag of the Lebanese Forces, once their sworn enemies, in the other. Hands clasped together as the national anthem transformed distinct communities into “the people of Lebanon.” They willed themselves for the first time into being “the people,” reclaiming citizenship.
And yet something is amiss. Crowds make one giddy and dizzy. They can push one toward dangerous degree of self-righteousness. I am moved to the depths of my heart watching a crescent hug a cross, the Qur’an and the Bible in one clasp, but the country remains profoundly hostage to sectarian segregation. The picture from inside the meanderings of the leaders constituting the coalition of the opposition camp is a poignant testament. The political maneuvering around the electoral law, the calculations, the shaping of interests, the negotiations are staunchly, stubbornly, familiar. Nothing has changed. Worse yet, the country seems at an impossible impasse and not a single voice is able to imagine an effective reconciliation, a vision for an all-inclusive nation.
Ultimately, “the people” will be betrayed. They will prove to be more noble, progressive and courageous than the political class claiming to represent them. So observed Samir Kassir, one of the chief architects of Istiqlal ’05, just weeks before he was assassinated on June 2 in Beirut.
It was not all Gucci commemorating the thirtieth year since the outbreak of the war — not all “Cedar Revolution” as per the coinage of the State Department. There was an alternative stage at the National Museum on the “Green Line” that used to split the city along an east-west axis. It was organized by agents of civil society, activists for social justice, human rights and gay rights, advocates for the physically handicapped. There was civility, solidarity, patriotism and national unity without the baubles and the dainty square sandwiches.
April 13 ended with fireworks. By April 14, frustration reigned again. The country was still without a government, and the investigation into the assassination of Hariri had not advanced by a single meaningful step. It was not clear whether Syria would be out or just out and back in. The leadership of the opposition was upset that the celebrations had deflected energy and focus from the exertion of political pressure from the street. They still had the fight in their spirit and planned to reclaim Martyrs’ Square as a public space for dissent, not parading flags and selling cedar-shaped gingerbread cookies. By the end of the week, an electronic clock counted the days until the parliamentary elections. On May 29, the opposition claimed another victory as elections were held in the administrative district of Beirut.