Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Those who Leave and Those Who Stay

On Lebanon's war and its residues

At a dinner party back in 1995, I had the fortune of sitting next to a professor who braved the entirety of the Lebanese civil war. As I began to share my encounters with the many ills of Lebanon, the professor’s cut down was immediate: “Where do you get off lecturing us about this country’s problems? You left. We stayed. You Lived. We died. We know about pain. You don’t. We are not remotely interested in what you have to say.”

The message was clear. I had opted out of mayhem. Opting back in came with strings attached: silence.

The good professor didn’t know that my family had left way before the civil war, driven out during Lebanon’s supposed heyday by my father’s secular politics, of all sins. He just assumed that we had abandoned ship, and I was content not to stir up that other pot.

So, my riposte was simple: “Absence is no less a casualty of war, professor. We both, each in our own way, endured loss. And just as there is no shame in my family’s decision to turn our back on sectarian bloodshed, there is no honor in yours to live with it.”  

And so it has been, astonishingly, at every other dinner party for the better part of two decades. Last week, as I sat chatting in the living room, the same argument had again erupted at the dinner table between a friend who had recently moved back and another who’d never left. As the upstart proceeded to enumerate this town’s countless aggravations—just as bad today as they were 20 years ago-- the veteran’s retort mimicked the professor’s.

Of the many walls that civil strife erects between a warring people, the one between those who stay and those who leave is perhaps the most fraught with overtones of betrayal. For the former, it’s as if a sense of ownership and belonging is forfeited at the moment of departure, and embraced and claimed—exclusively--at the decision to stay put. For the latter, it’s as if the residents’ conscience had died along with the country’s.

But, of course, never cut such a clean line through dichotomies that mean to carve up life. There are plenty of people who lived the worst of the war and are unrelentingly critical of Lebanon’s self-inflicted tragedies. And then there is the Shawarma Effect, as a chum hilariously described the phenomenon once: happy returnees who land, have their first shawarma sandwich and, faster than you could say “ya hmar!” (you donkey!), drop every good habit picked up in exile, including that silly one of not treating your country as a whorehouse or a garbage dump.

Truth be told, this Lebanese conversation is everywhere you go. “You don’t like it here, leave!” echoes through many a heated exchange between long timers and newcomers in moments of crisis. Citizenship is a hierarchy with unspoken rules of conduct. With right must come gratitude, with equality deference, with freedom quiescence. But, to my mind, what makes this story uniquely Arab and Lebanese is the scandalous assault on citizenship that it does reveal. For regimes that have reduced the state to a personal fiefdom, a family-run affair, the motherland is akin to, say, a restaurant: much like you have no business frequenting a joint to complain openly about the food, you have no business hanging around in your country if its behavior is not to your liking.

And hence, the ease with which accusations of betrayal come, and the defensiveness that accompanies the invitation to leave. Pride in one’s national identity becomes politics of the most partisan kind, the mere call for change incitement.

“Stop complaining and do something about it!” has a welcome place in this argument. It may, in fact, have underwritten much of the potentially radical change we are witnessing today in Egypt and Tunisia. It may even explain—at least partly--the surprising resilience of Syria’s own citizens against a state which has long been hacking at the fundamentals of proper governance as viciously as it has at dissent.

One would have thought that Lebanon might have escaped as the exception, Hobbesian as its jungle is. But sectarianism’s mugging of civil society and the state turned out to be infinitely more effective than Arab authoritarianism’s. Here you might not die or go to jail should you choose to engage in civic action. Instead, you get to run around in circles, or etch beauties in quicksand. Those who complain and actually do something about it finally find themselves having to shape their own little islands of excellence--mighty work that puts to shame a small country--but the effect is that of bubbles floating over a swamp.

The saddest bit about Lebanon is that while it might be the least cruel Arab system towards those who are very eager to change things, it is perhaps the most indifferent towards them.

“You talk like a tourist,” once a friend, who is passionate about this place, told me when I vented about Lebanese corruption. This time around I chose to keep my mouth shut lest my answer do away with the friendship. All I could think of was that famous Arab proverb: “ Wa min al hubi ma qatal.”

“From a certain kind of love, death.”