Wednesday, January 9, 2008


I am not sure how to greet this 2008 and I don’t know what to call this post. Flipping through pontifications for some insight about this East is like hunting for shy meanings in a world ravaged by blah-blah-blah. But they are there, in that unspoken bit or that gliding mention of a skidding fact which perk up the mornings just when they are about to slide into a murderous ennui.

In this manner Lebanon has been splintering daily on the front page of newspapers and in living rooms. We have no president, our parliament is in hibernation, our government is a paraplegic and our recent past is a repository of wars, assassinations, Israeli cluster bombs crippling our south and a near-empty tent-city crippling our center. If doom had an army, it would conquer thus.

Absent from this screaming tragedy is the whirr of a divided nation purring its way through calamity. It’s as if the Lebanese people had finally descended into the abyss and found it, after all, livable. The state, struck dumb by the political class, parades around practically naked and headless and the implausible becomes an embarrassing fact: we have no need of a Maronite president, a Shiite speaker of the house, a Sunni prime minister and council of ministers because we have no need of the state. So long as each sect has its generous chief and each tribe its caring father; so long as each municipality can pretend to breathe on its own; so long as basic services, such as garbage collection and electricity and water, don’t cease; so long as the army keeps deploying its youngsters here and there to calm and reassure the jittery, Lebanon has no practical need of its politicians. To boot, it turns out that we, the parts, do not need to be the sum of anything in order to add up to something. This country has not been one or whole for a long time now, and while the people seem to have accepted this reality quietly and moved on, our “statesmen” are sounding like Johnny’s-come-lately, warning us that the dire end may yet arrive when, in truth, it has come and gone.

This is the way we live but, admittedly, it is not the way we think because the mind is a creature of habit. Conventional wisdom does not know what to make of a people who seem to have outgrown their myths, and so it sees Lebanon’s latest trouble as a political crisis rather than the last gasps of a state playing catch-up with a country that already functions in pieces. Of course, you would not know this from our hacks because, well, where would they go, what would they do, if this upheaval is exposed for what it actually is: pure political theater that is of no worth to us beyond its entertainment value. It is the sheer audacity of this truth that explains the dissonance between a paralyzed political elite and the hustle and bustle on the streets, the busy shops, the parties, the record sales, the happy balance sheets, the humming factories, the soaring price of real estate, the sects mingling with each other peacefully if, at times, nervously. That this place can chug along in the midst of political turmoil says as much about the state’s insignificance to us as it does about our indifference to it.

All this does not mean that our poor are not hurting, or downtown’s businesses are not suffering, or our peripheries are not limping, or our sectarianism is not alive and kicking. It does not mean that we have become less attractive to the Syrians, or less relevant to the Israelis, or less susceptible to Shaker Abssi’s (remember him of Fath al Islam?) terrorism, or less moved by the region’s whims and wishes. It just means that, for us, for our dreams, our hopes, the Lebanese state is today as it was yesterday and shall be tomorrow: inconsequential on the best of days, a bungler on the worst.

Amr Musa, the maestro of the Arab League, arrives today with a new Arab initiative supposedly blessed by every power that matters to Lebanon: Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the US. No doubt it comes as well with an Israeli nod. It might succeed this time not because there is anything new or original about it, but because the parties appear to have milked the standoff for all it’s worth. Sadly, whatever comes next, it will mean nothing for the future of Lebanon, for Lebanon is dead.