As a recent arrival in Beirut, I quickly learned the Lebanese map, geographic and political, when the bomb hit Ashrafiyya on October 19, killing eight and injuring more than 100. A friend in the US e-mailed to ask if the bomb was close, but since I didn’t hear it explode or smell the smoke, gauging distance and direction by senses, it couldn’t have been. Even before it became known that Wisam al-Hasan, a Lebanese intelligence chief, was the apparent target, a friend here parsed the “political grammar”: neighborhood, bomb location in relation to the headquarters of various political parties with various stances toward Syria. Once Hasan’s death became known, his identification with the March 14 camp and the family of ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri, killed by car bomb in 2005, complicated the syntax. But grammar, as any US college teacher knows, is relative. This friend described Ashrafiyya as a poor Christian area, while the Guardian called it “middle-class Christian,” and another friend pointed out that plenty of Shi‘a live there, too, along with Christians of the upper class. Certainly, the bomb did not discriminate: One of the dead civilians, Georgette Sirkassian, was a 42-year old mother of three.
A local news website posted headlines every few minutes, recording the accusations and appeals for calm of various politicians, broadcasting calls for blood donors and naming the roads blocked by protesters’ burning tires. There was shooting reported in Tripoli in the north, where mostly poor neighborhoods of different political leanings have clashed periodically as the war in Syria has intensified. Roads in the south were also said to be cut off. Quick e-mails to local friends gave some sense of the spaces and places. My first thought was of the Syrian refugees, people who had fled government attacks in their own country, only to wind up in the thick of things again.
Eventually, shooting was reported in Beirut, in districts explained to me as populated with Sunni Hariri supporters. I was urged not to go out, with warnings that the nearby headquarters of the pro-Syrian regime political group, the SSNP, might become a focal point of anger. My mental map, however, assured me that the path to the burger joint where I’d just placed an order didn’t take me past any obvious target. On the way there, I noticed that a building site I pass during the day is home to someone at night. Lights and a TV glowed from deep in a second-floor “room,” with nothing for a door but the large plastic sheet announcing a restaurant that’s been “coming soon” for quite some time. It was probably a Syrian worker or two, the people who are slowly raising the building around them during the day. In recent months, there has been a new rash of apparently random attacks on Syrian workers. What will happen to them now?
Then, a typical Beiruti juxtaposition: I elbowed my way past a trio of young girls in very tight clothes and very high heels, as if decked out for a costume ball — either that or face masks and feathers are the new chic. They were not visibly worried, except maybe about tripping in their stilt-like shoes.
Back home with my chicken burger, I could not resist the urge to hit “refresh” on the news sites. Time spent in the West Bank during the second intifada left a habit of constant news updating. Then it was a matter of needing to know where the tanks are rolling and whether it’s time to consider the angles of windows and bullet trajectories. Here it’s still just a matter of burning tires and blocked roads. The call for blood donors to go to hospitals around Ashrafiyya brought me back to Bethlehem TV’s Urgent News Update banners, scrolling in blurry red font across the bottom of the screen.
A friend engaged with me in armchair analysis over the phone asked if all the “whodunit” speculation on the Internet wasn’t common in Palestine, too. “Well, no, actually. There it’s usually pretty clear who’s responsible — it’s the Israelis.” Laughing for a moment in recognition of this obvious fact, she exclaimed, “But here it always ends up being the Israelis, too!” Eventually Hizballah did blame the bombing on Israel, insisting it was the Zionists who wanted to stir up trouble in Lebanon.
So far, there is otherwise a lot of pleading to avoid hasty conclusions, but fingers are nonetheless pointing at Bashar al-Asad’s regime or Hizballah or other Lebanese actors said to be in Syria’s pocket. Wisam al-Hasan had apparently gathered evidence that a former information minister, Michel Samaha, had plotted with Syria to stage other bombings. Immediately after the explosion, Prime Minister Najib Miqati called for a national unity government and Michel Aoun for wisdom. By the next day, Miqati was saying he would step down “sooner rather than later.”
The English-language press is particularly sure about what’s going on in “deeply fragile and sectarian Lebanon.”
It took no time at all for the language of inexorable chaos to spread in outlets like the Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera English and the BBC. Double, double, toil and trouble. The spells are cast in every article: “The melting pot of the region has barely been holding together as Syria boiled.” The bombing “could set off tit-for-tat killings and reprisals that could spiral out of control.” “Our correspondent said that already there were fears that the bombing meant the Syrian crisis had spilled over into Lebanon.” “Many here had feared something like this would happen sooner or later and that Lebanon would be inevitably dragged into the conflict in neighboring Syria.” For these Western reporters, sectarianism and the way it maps onto the conflict in Syria explain it all: “Lebanon’s religious communities are divided between those who support the Syrian government — including many Shias — and those mostly from the Sunni community who back the rebels.” Left out of this neat picture of religio-political factionalism are the Lebanese activists gathering donations for the traumatized people made homeless in Ashrafiyya and the hotel owners offering them rooms. Or the teenagers following a new iPhone app that provides updates on which cafés are open and which roads are blocked. Also unreported are those staying put at home, keen to avoid trouble, cynical about the overt machinations of the parties trying to make political gains out of the blast.
Indeed, Hasan’s funeral in downtown Beirut was turned into a political rally, with the opposition head, Saad al-Hariri, calling for a new government, while Miqati’s offer to resign has been put on hold. The attempts by protesters from the March 14 grouping to storm the prime minister’s office, though so far repelled, are now being transformed through political alchemy into more accusations, met with more calls for Lebanese unity and respect for state institutions.
We shall have to wait and see what reality all the incantations will summon.