Beirut Diary, April 2010
Walking into Beirut this spring was like walking into history. Not ancient history, necessarily, but the history of the city which is the history of Lebanon, pulled apart between “western” and “eastern” poles. Being in the city evokes the memory of people who lived there. Writers, intellectuals, activists, and artists from all around the world found a home in Beirut. In recent times, Arab poets and artists such as Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, and Naji Al-Ali as well as South Asian literary figures such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Eqbal Ahmad have all lived there, walking around neighborhoods in Beirut that continue to be the hub for progressives and leftists, both Muslim and Christian.
From the time of its founding as a nation-state, Lebanon justified its existence and secession from Syria by drawing on a French colonial narrative to make sense of such a move, and by highlighting a “non-Arab” identity for the new nation. The mythology of “Phoenician” origins that continues to be used disassociates the Lebanese from their Arab and Islamic heritage. It also emphasizes an identity with the “West” and hence plays into the Zionist attempt to find allies of the West and its representative in the region, Israel. The complicated origins of the state has haunted Lebanon to this day, with political leaders on each side of the equation, broadly, pro-Western or pro-Arab, changing positions with the shifts that have been taking place regionally and globally. One almost successful attempt at claiming a Lebanese political identity that allied itself with pan-Arabism and Nasserite movements failed with a coup and the U.S. intervention in 1958. Today’s Lebanon is a battleground between those who want to appease the U.S., France, and Israel, and those who want to construct for Lebanon a national identity connected to the region and in solidarity with its struggles.
After the tragedy of the civil war that lasted for decades, and which was driven by the battle for Lebanon’s political identity, the city has been transformed into a vibrant, cosmopolitan urban center. Today, neighborhoods such as Achrafieh, Gemmayzeh, and Al-Hamra have elegant restaurants, chic bars, and upscale boutiques similar to those in San Francisco or New York City, though with a distinct Lebanese/Arab flavor. But memories of the civil war and the wars against the Palestinians in Lebanon that were fought in and around the city still haunt some of these same neighbourhoods we visited: Al-Hamra and West Beirut, Achrafiyeh and East Beirut, Al-Dahiya and other southern suburbs of the city, the seafront Corniche, the airport, and Palestinian refugee camps such as Shatila.
The streets of Al-Hamra are full of graffiti art documenting political events and movements. Stenciled icons of Arab nationalist leaders such as Kamal Jumblatt are around the corner from posters of Palestinian youth conferences. In the recently reconstructed downtown area, full of gleaming new stone buildings with cranes overhead and cafes in the streets, there is a statue memorializing the civil war in the grassy strip--Martyrs’ Square. The memorial names neither victims nor perpetrators. Next to it, in a concrete domed building that looks like a gigantic gray egg surrounded by chain link fences, is a photography exhibit of the missing persons from the civil war, which is supposedly the platform for a real memorial. Yet the perpetrators of the violence of those years are comfortably in government today.
Memorials and Walls
We also visited another memorial in a place that seemed in a different world from the French architecture and grand buildings of downtown. Shatila camp, just south of Beirut, is the site where over three thousand Palestinians were massacred in 1982 by local Lebanese militia at the behest of the Israeli military that was occupying the area at the time. The memorial is a ghostly site, much like the camp itself. A place peopled by the wretched of the earth and their specters. The only “green” space in the camp is the graveyard that is also a memorial for the massacre in Sabra and Shatila. It is simply a field with a single grave opposite the entrance. On one side is a billboard with posters marking earlier massacres of Palestinians with dates and photos, such as that in Qana in 2006. That is all. No statue, no interactive exhibit, no museum. Just this empty space, a placeholder for the dead and the living. The war of 1982, in which Israel invaded Lebanon and bombarded it for weeks, remains the largest Israeli campaign against the resistance in Lebanon, under the guise of “fighting the PLO terror” much as the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was waged with the rationale of “fighting Hezbollah’s terror.”
Inside the camp, the streets get narrower and electricity wires criss cross between the buildings that are close together, so that the sky is narrow, like the alleys, laced with black lines and edged by laundry hanging from balconies. A young Palestinian, himself from a refugee family, takes us to visit the Palestinian youth center which is in the only open space inside the camp, a small plaza that has posters of Arafat in one corner and maps of Palestine painted on the walls. The Children and Youth Center is the only public place, apart from the video arcades, where youth from the camp can go to be off the streets. We go up the stairs to the library, an airy, bright room. The director of the center, Abu Mujahid is in the midst of a study circle with a group of girls and boys sitting around a table. The walls are lined with shelves of neatly stacked books in Arabic and English and art by the children. Abu Mujahid takes us upstairs to look at the classrooms, small spaces that can barely fit a table and six chairs. He bends down and points to the bottom of the pale yellow walls; they are on wheels, so that the moving partitions can be opened in the summer. In one of the rooms is a group of five or six young children who are learning English with a couple of foreign volunteers.
Downstairs, Abu Mujahid’s office is simple, adorned by a picture of Handala, Naji al-Ali’s iconic symbol of the Palestinian refugee, faceless but wryly critical of all forms of injustice. We comment on how impressed we are by the library, by the work of the center. Abu Mujahid responds by launching into a history of the struggles of Palestinians in Lebanon. He talks to us about the situation of refugees in the camps, in Shatila and also Nahr el Bared, Burj al-Barajneh, and other camps in Lebanon. He talks about the people displaced from Nahr el Bared in Tripoli who have nowhere to go. Many of them are now living with relatives in other camps, already crowded and lacking adequate services. Shatila has about 18,000 residents, mainly Palestinians, but also Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds. About 40% are between 6 and 18 years old; the majority of these are fourth-generation refugees.
Abu Mujahid is passionate, and also frustrated. ‘We are not asking for charity or handouts,’ he says. ‘We are just asking for what is our due. All the houses you see here have been built by Palestinians themselves. The businesses that Palestinians have created after they came here have been started by Palestinians themselves. Yet, we cannot get citizenship or the same services as others. If we get the equal rights we are asking for, nothing else, we can take care of our own communities. The Europeans give us all these models, of youth-centered learning, of participatory learning, this and that. I tell them, we were already doing this here, but look at our conditions. Is this a joke? Why is it that we can barely fit into these rooms? Why do we need to have moving walls to create more space?’ This is the response to our naively laudatory remarks. Yes, this is amazing, but it is also an achievement born of tragedy. And the tragedy keeps happening, over and over again.
Movements and Barriers
Despite the constant internal wars and Israeli invasions, Beirut is a bustling city humming with activity. A large number of people flooded the city after the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and decades-long occupation of the South. Upper-class residents of the city employ domestic workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Ethiopia who accompany their children to restaurants and beaches dressed in maids’ uniforms. Asian and African workers now do the low-wage jobs that used to be filled by Palestinian refugees as well as Lebanese workers from the South who were mainly Shi’a. Now the Shi’a have managed to elevate themselves to higher paying jobs, and the Palestinian refugees live like persona non grata in their camps and are barred from 77 occupations by state laws.
In some ways, Beirut resembles urban centers in Spain or France, with the wealthy living in trendy enclaves in the heart of the city while the immigrants and the poor generally live in the suburbs. Money to the country flows from Lebanese working abroad and from the Gulf states, as well as from Iran, France and the United States, all of whom are competing to shape the politics of the country. Lebanon has an inflated economy; the prices of goods and services are as high as in any major cities in Europe and the U.S., mirroring a trend in many Third World countries where the distance between poverty and wealth is increasingly beyond sanity.
Politically, the situation in Lebanon remains relatively tense, yet this is a state of normality here. The people and the media continue to discuss when Israel is going to invade again, and how best to avoid or respond to that looming possibility. Fear of the state next door that has been bullying the neighborhood continues to be defied by people who go about their life as usual, constantly organizing social, political, and cultural events. There is always something happening in Beirut--lectures, music concerts, art festivals, not to mention business as usual. One evening, we went to see a hip hop show at Ta-Marbouta, a progressive café/library/arts space, by a young Lebanese MC, Rayess Bek, whose lyrics challenged sectarianism and imperialism and spoke of the lives of Palestinian refugees. On the last day of our visit, there was a rally on the Corniche in support of secularism and in protest of the Lebanese political system, established by the French colonial regime that has enforced communal identities in government as well as social life. Participants carried roses and held signs such as “Civil Marriage, Not Civil War.” There was much debate about the potential as well as limitations of this newly emerging movement among progressives we met while in Beirut.
The city is still trapped by the legacies of Western colonial projects and European interventions in the region. The future of the country remains ambiguous: whether to be a part of the Arab and Islamic heartland or to be part of pax Zionist/Western Americana? Yet, the shift to the “West” will continue to be opposed and challenged by those who persistently frustrate the American imperium and its local proxies. As one stencil on a wall in West Beirut read: “Got Charlie?”
(This article is from BOL ASIA/Naked Punch Asia issue 04, Summer 2010).