Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tick Tock!

There is not a single unhappy story in Lebanon that knows how to keep its hands to itself. This summer’s bad news, which has been raining on everybody’s party, is like a bacchanal of forebodings.

But then, it’s not unusual for this country to let it all hang out. Unlike the people, problems here do not live bubble-like in parallel worlds; they’re so close to one another, they’re like one family.

So it goes without saying that the recent public health warnings about conjunctivitis, typhoid and scabies are of a piece with the blood curdling Burj abu Haidar September clashes that pitted Shiite Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, with Sunni Ahbash, a fundamentalist Syrian-sponsored group.

They’re certainly of a piece with the trickles of electricity that light up the life of only a trickle of Lebanese, the mountains of garbage that tower over us at the entrance to every other city and village as monuments to our carelessness and indignity, with the cities of modern concrete that have wiped clean entire vistas from our past…

Of a piece with the press conferences by Shiite Hezbollah’s Hassan Nassrallah and Shiite Jamil al Sayyed, the former head of the General Security Bureau, that have made ridiculous the once fearsome prospects of the Rafiq Hariri International Tribunal and a punching bag of a dumbstruck Sunni prime minister.

Of a piece with so-called Syrian-Saudi arrangements—SS, as Nabih Berri, the speaker of our venerable parliament, aptly calls the combo--that signify nothing more than an audacious Syrian comeback and a very embarrassing, and telling, Saudi retreat.

Of a piece with the “national unity” government of a brood of sects that long ago laughed these two words out of the room.

And these pieces, few and scattered though they are from a much larger heap, do very well in explaining the mechanics of how Lebanon actually does not work, and hence how it actually refuses to be.


My depiction is not exactly unpopular—it’s in good company here-- but, it has to be said, the competition is fierce. A favorite Lebanese mantra (the last line of defense every time we’re about to drop another notch or two) is that the damage wrought by habitual sectarianism, ubiquitous corruption, an on-paper-only state and ugly, destructive behavior all around is actually beside the point, because--look! Just look at it, won’t you?—the country keeps rising from the ashes and going about the business of living.

And what a living! For every sign of impending doom, for every recital of failure or sound of a crash, an example of Lebanese ingenuity or hipness is brought out of the bag by way of a comeback, as if to say, there is that…but then there is this. Jekyll and Hyde breaking the china and painting the house at one and the same time. Daylight chasing the demons of the night. The final comforting picture is that of an army of Houdinis magically escaping the plots hatched against them, or sheer Lebanese grit always pulling itself up by the bootstraps and dusting itself off after every bruising knock out.

Of course, the showcase itself is none other than swinging Beirut (check out Tyler Brûlé’s accolades). I mean, if we’re so bad, how come we’re so hot? It must be in our genes, this instinct to beat the odds, trick, wrong foot, mock our ill fortunes. And what other Eastern city dares display, with such gusto, this remarkable range of liberal moods in a desert of messianic conservatism? 

Some commentators go so far as to argue that Lebanon’s deep-to-the-bone sectarianism, as illiberal and noxious as it may seem, forces a stasis that automatically rises like an impregnable separation wall in the face of any sect that connives for more than its designated space.   The happy result is a terrible mess, yes, but one that is infinitely more benign and way more freethinking than, say, Hassan Nassrallah at the helm.  

There’s a noble cause to rally the crowds around!

And the state? Why, in God’s name, would you insist on it, or miss it even, if you never had any use for it in the first place? Besides, in a region where bad governance reigns like the plague, isn’t it the damndest feeling to run around stark naked in this Hobbsian jungle?  


These arguments may not be out-and-out silly, but they’re like pats on Lebanon’s back after a merciless street fight with the facts.

And the fact is, Lebanon is for show, not for real. True, once upon a time the show was more than enough to keep the reel turning, but here’s the thing: with time, the performance is getting progressively poorer and more unseemly. The Lebanon of today is not where it started 67 years ago, as problematic as it was then. We’re not at the beginning of the experiment; we’re way past the end. We might have had people guessing a couple of decades back. Now the margin for bluffing is practically nil.  

A dear friend told me not so long ago, “God, no matter what, this place keeps coming back and ticking along.”  Perhaps, but the ticking sounds he has been hearing recently are not a clear sign of stubborn life, they are the tick tocks announcing the sure approach of midnight.

From Bahr Lubnan’s recently launched environmental awareness campaign. Timely!