Since 2011, violence in Syria has worsened the widespread displacement of people in the Middle East and destroyed several cities. The images of displaced Syrian families fleeing to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon broadcast around the world had a haunting resonance. Archival photographs of Armenian refugee camps in Aleppo from one hundred years ago are today echoed by images of Syrian refugee camps across the southern Turkish border. Bourj Hammoud is widely regarded as Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood, built by survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915–1919. This densely populated city has seen ethnic cleansing, transnational migration, war and displacement. Sadly, the Syrian crisis is a new chapter. Yet Bourj Hammoud has again become a place where people regroup and reimagine home, advocate for their families and wonder whether they might ever be able to return home.
Nine years since the last national parliamentary election, many in the country expected the emerging civil society groups to challenge the tradition sectarian-based parties. Despite the rumblings for change, the status quo prevailed.
Trumpism as experienced from Lebanon is inextricably linked to the effects of the Trump administration’s positions and policies in the broader Middle East. The complexities of Lebanese politics and intrigue, and the social and economic challenges faced by the Lebanese as well as the country’s huge refugee population, however, are of little interest to President Donald Trump and his inner circle. Their de-contextualized fixation on Hizballah reflects US domestic politics and parochial Israeli anxieties rather than broader US geopolitical interests.
On May 31, 2017, Fatah commander Col. Bassam al-Saad was juggling three telephones—two mobile phones and one landline—at his office in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh. As the commander of the Joint Palestinian Security Force (JPSF), the defacto military police of the self-governed camp, the colonel was in the process of overseeing the deployment of his roughly 100-strong force. Entering a particularly sensitive area in the war-torn Tiri neighborhood following devastating clashes in April between the JPSF and a local Islamist group, he was also juggling the ratio of police from each political faction to ensure a smooth operation.
The municipal system has been a key pillar of debates on administrative decentralization, economic development and political participation in Lebanon. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, activists sought to stop the demolition of the 1924 Barakat Building on the basis that it was a heritage site. In response to public pressure, the Municipality of Beirut expropriated the building in 2013, and has since overseen a contentious process of transforming the space into a memory museum. International donors have increasingly directed aid flows for Syrian refugees in Lebanon through municipalities instead of the central government. Concomitantly, many of these municipalities have imposed curfews and other systematic violations of the civil and human rights of Syrian refugees residing or working within their boundaries. During the 2015 garbage crisis, protesters demanded that waste management revert back to municipalities in Beirut and Mount Lebanon rather than the central government’s Council for Development Reconstruction (CDR). At the same time, several municipalities colluded with the government to create makeshift dumpsites that threatened environmental and health risks. Across such examples, municipalities serve as a crucial site of political praxis in Lebanon.
In late July 2015, mounds of garbage began piling up across Beirut and the towns of Mount Lebanon to the capital’s east. While not without precedent in poorer neighborhoods, such heaps of rubbish had never appeared in more affluent areas. By mid-August, Lebanese government officials, businesspeople, activists, residents and media outlets were all speaking about a garbage crisis. Some observers took a benign view of the accumulating trash, seeing it as one more symptom of the alleged absence of a state in Lebanon. For those inclined to more sinister interpretations, the crisis was the logical outcome of the purported strain that more than 1 million Syrian refugees have placed on Lebanese infrastructure.
Negative stories about the Middle East dominated Western news headlines in 2015. It’s easy for Americans, especially those who listen to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters, to get the impression that the region is just one miserable homogeneous place of violence, terror, religious fanaticism and authoritarianism.
More than 50 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are 17 or younger. Back home the great majority of them were in school. But youth who try to continue their education in Lebanon face social, economic and bureaucratic obstacles. The cost can be so steep that their parents may opt to keep them at home. There is a lengthy wait list to attend Lebanese public schools, which are soliciting outside donations to pay teachers and other staff for a second shift made up of refugee children.
The September 11, 2001 attacks marked the beginning of large-scale trade between the Middle East and mainland China in the modern era. New visa restrictions in the United States — until then the number-one trading partner of Arab countries — forced Arab merchants to find business destinations in various Chinese cities. Statistics attest to the intensification of Sino-Arab trade: In 2004, the volume was less than $36 billion but in 2011 it reached nearly $200 billion. The Chinese government’s goal is to boost trade to $300 billion in 2014.
Crossing the border at Masna‘, al-‘Abboudiyya or Mashari‘ al-Qa‘a, Syrian refugees entering Lebanon face an immediate choice: Stay in the tented settlements in the north and the Bekaa Valley or make their way to coastal cities such as Beirut and Sidon. Their experiences will vary greatly depending on the choice they make. The tented settlements are exposed to the elements, lack privacy and have virtually no job opportunities, but are accessible to aid providers. By contrast, refugees from Syria often have family connections in the coastal cities. Though Beirut and Sidon are expensive and crowded, there are more varied accommodations, schooling options and limited chances for employment.
Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004) was a pioneering scholar of Islam and the Middle East, as well as a prominent Marxian public intellectual. A product of classical Orientalist training, he was professor of Old Ethiopic and South Arabian languages at the Sorbonne. His scholarly sensibility was historical-materialist, a perspective he brought to his famous biography of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (1961), as well as later publications including Islam and Capitalism (English edition, 1973), Marxism and the Muslim World (English, 1979) and Cult, Ghetto and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1983). Rodinson was a contributing editor of Middle East Report from 1988 to 2000.
One of the many plot lines lost in the summertime discussions of a US strike on Syria is the pace of refugee movement out of the country. As it stands, the refugee crisis is overwhelming and likely to stay that way. Another external military intervention would further accelerate the mass flight and exacerbate what is already a humanitarian emergency.
Each year in April, the municipality of Burj Hammoud, a densely populated residential and commercial city just east of Beirut, hosts a three-day festival called Badguer, the Armenian word for “image.” Free and open to the public, the event has variously been staged in an old concrete factory, a blocked-off street and other sites. In 2012, Badguer was held at La Maison Rose, a newly opened cultural center for Armenian artists and craftsmen. Like the annual celebration, La Maison Rose is part of a local effort to promote “our living Armenian cultural patrimony.”
Jamal is not yet a teenager. His school closed in 2011, soon after the Syrian revolution turned into an armed conflict, and his father found him a factory job. One day in 2012 as he returned from work there was a battle going on in the main street near his home. Jamal immediately started carrying wounded children smaller than he is to shelter in a mosque. Then Syrian army reinforcements arrived, clearing the streets with gunfire and hitting Jamal in the spine. The youngsters who took him to the hospital advised him to say that “terrorists” had caused his injury. But Jamal did not want to lie — he told the doctors that a soldier had fired the bullet. The doctors told him to shut up and say it was the terrorists. But they treated him anyway.
On August 15, Beirut awoke to the news that more than 20 alleged members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been captured by a group calling itself “the military wing of the al-Miqdad family.” The group had sent footage to the al-Mayadin television network, which was quickly picked up by other local and international channels. In the clip, men dressed in camouflage and black ski masks, and gripping Kalashnikovs, surrounded two prisoners seated in a dark room. A man with his back to the camera posed questions to the prisoners, who replied that they worked for the FSA, on orders from Khalid al-Dahir, a Lebanese parliamentarian affiliated with the Future Movement, the Sunni-majority political party led by Saad al-Hariri.
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.
Tripoli is the epicenter of a high-stakes conflict unfolding in Lebanon. In 2012 alone, armed clashes have erupted six times, in mid-February, thrice in May, again in early June and most recently in late July, between Sunnis and ‘Alawis there. The firefights in Lebanon’s second city, a port town of some 500,000 on a head of land jutting from the northern coast, have added to fears stoked by the proximity of the increasingly lethal civil war in Syria. The three days of battles in May left 11 dead; the July skirmishes took two more lives, and have put the population on edge.
The Syrian presence in Lebanon was visible and audible to all, from the large numbers of Syrian construction workers to the peddlers selling the latest music CDs on the sidewalks to the military checkpoints in the mountains. In shared taxis there was often talk about which Lebanese politician had just returned from Syria, along with parodies of Syrian Arabic dialect and jokes about Lebanese men going to Syria for what they called a bicycle ride — a visit to a prostitute. A parallel social hierarchy separated those who could use the military lane to cross the border into Syria and those who had to wait sometimes long hours in regular lanes.
Thanassis Cambanis, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel (Free Press, 2010).