Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Welcome to Lebanon!

There was mention of a livable abyss in this Lebanon, in an earlier post (Jan.9, 08)): not like Zimbabwe, not like Haiti, not like Iraq, not that kind of carnage, not that side of turmoil. Something much kinder in fact: death a la carte, chaos on a tight leash, violence that leaks from the kitchen faucet as opposed to that which floods the entire house. In political speak: a tacit agreement between the warring parties to inflict pain but stay away from wholesale torture, to peacefully divvy up the place and sink deep in red ink the sharp, clear lines, the dos and don’ts, that drive its politics.

I pronounced Lebanon dead. Dead because it never could figure our why it must be. Dead because from the start it was made up of tiny dreams, of small calculations, of trivial ambitions, of narrow visions all at odds, all happy to embrace any idea but that of Lebanon. Dead because the cynicism of its shepherds comes in abundance, their wisdom in dribs and drabs. Dead because, for all its blemishes, to its many suitors it remained beautiful, ready to be had again, and again, and again.

But it seemed to me that the so longs and as ifs in this enclave on the Levantine coast might just be enough for a semblance of an afterlife. Perhaps mine was nothing more than fascination with a people who were collectively finished but individually very much alive, going about the business of life while their screaming politics, a mad Mrs. Rochester, let loose dreadful sounds and lunatic giggles every once in a while from the attic reminding the residents below of an ominous moment yet to come. And here it is with us now. This house burns.

Last week’s fury has shown how buffoonery can at a moment’s notice morph into madness. Sacrosanct, sky-high red walls have been brought down. We, Lebanese, are sitting stunned, the politically astute amongst us unable to predict tomorrow or fathom exactly what happened yesterday, the most cynical confidently churning out tactics and chess moves so utterly devilish, so pitch-perfect, you’d think the gods are in this fight and the rest of us are just poor, hapless, stupid humans lining up for the usual ritual sacrifice.

Such is the price of ignorance when you are asked to think your way out of near-total darkness: facts appear to you as shadows would, the tangibles fading in and out of the mind’s eye. And such is the price of ignorance in a Lebanon where the givens are so temperamental and politics is at once unbearably crude and ridiculously complicated. That is why our facial expressions keep changing as we bear witness to a country that keeps swinging between seismic shifts and stasis.

Eventually, and maybe very soon, events will point to the shape of our future. Into it, they are sure to pour the residues of the cruel pounding our realities have just received; realities dictated by sectarian taboos and fed by age-old parochial sentiments; realities sustained by a very fragile regional and local balance of wills and a resistance movement’s multiple identities and grand ambitions.

I don’t know what will happen next, but the latest disturbances were more than replays of Lebanon’s morbidly familiar sectarian discords. They were the last rung in the ladder that has taken the Party of God to the bottom of the Lebanese morass. These past five days have finally ushered in a very provincial Hezbollah--its nationalist credentials now muddied and strategic weight made much lighter. However powerful it shall remain within the political confines of Lebanon, against Israel its status has become perceptibly more vulnerable. For what resistance movement in history has thrived and fought well and won when its own people were deeply suspicious of its intentions and actively hostile to its cause.

It is not clear which ally incited, or which enemy provoked, Hezbollah’s military offensive, but what is unmistakable is that the gambit has failed. I hear its aftershocks are already reverberating in the Southern Suburbs. If this is true, then Damascus and Tehran and Tel Aviv are well into evaluating their impact.

The sad irony for Hezbollah is that it would not have ended up so very small and Lebanese had its grasp of the country’s confessional mosaic not been so mystifyingly weak. I suspect that the party genuinely believed that it had enough cross-sectarian support to bless its assault on the Sunni and Druze pillars of March 14 and the frustrating status quo that has held against its best efforts in the past 18 months. Hezbollah must have been convinced that the Lebanese people, across the divides, are just as taken as the movement is with its exceptionalism, not realizing that in Lebanon no one, however mighty, can ever be an exception to the rules. And hence during a week of crass muscle flexing, the earth shook but time-honored mind-sets and practices barely stirred. Only the sanctity of Hezbollah’s weapons died on the streets of Sunni Beirut and in the villages of the Druze mountains. Only the dignity of its purpose took a serious drubbing.

What a rude awakening!

As of this moment, I have only one message for Siyyid Hassan Nassrallah: Welcome to Lebanon.