Every Sunday morning, no later than eight and not earlier than seven, when the cars are taking a breather and Beirut is mute, I take an energetic sprint through the streets of my neighborhood. Depending on the route I choose for that day, I either start or end the walk by passing under the Fouad Chehab Bridge, otherwise famous as one of the civil war’s favorite sniper haunts. It could be the unusual silence of Sunday, but every time I walk that 20-meter stretch, it’s as if I am mingling with the dead.
It’s a peculiar feeling for a Lebanese who did not live the war and whose family was spared the worst of it. I can count a couple of distant relatives among the 150,000 lives lost. I can count a male friend as a casualty—beaten to a pulp by a militiaman at one of the city’s many roadblocks; a female friend who was “encouraged” at another checkpoint to give a lift to a Syrian man, Kalashnikov in hand, only to hysterically (and hilariously) plead her way out of a detour that was sure to end with a sexual assault.
For far too many Lebanese, this is kids stuff. And, frankly, as forbidding as my Sunday thoughts are, they are without roots. They drop in like casual visitors and soon enough drift away with the lazy tick tocks of the day. Ask those who survived our 17-year sectarian strife about the remnant scars and they begin to hurt afresh with the incessant pain of the deepest wounds. Watch them when a new round of violence is about to erupt: ire, blunt and furious, locks their faces in a permanent scowl.
You wouldn’t think that Lebanese have grown tired of internecine conflict, judging by the dangerous antics of the likes of Sidonese Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir, or the chest pounding of Hassan Nassrallah, or the shrill tone of March 8 and 14 (not a single Cicero, I am afraid, on these shores). And you certainly wouldn’t think that, judging by the latest car explosions in Sunni Tripoli and Shiite Southern Suburbs. After all, that’s how the bloodletting started in 1975.
And yet, 37 years on, it is clear to most of us that the war and the shape of the peace that ended it have pretty much pocketed their main goals, turning Lebanon into a rent-a-cause kiosk, a minor theater of a sort where the big boys get to vent every once in a while or register a point against the opposite side; and yes, why not, since this is Lebanon, a staging post for all manner of illicit transactions and trades. Ours has become too much of a zaroub (back alley) to be home to an event as grand as that of a civil war.
However amnesiac the Lebanese may seem about their tragedies, this is an exhausted people. Perhaps one of the more intriguing outcomes of two decades of combat is a collective mood that can tolerate turbulence only if it comes in fits and starts, or, if you like, a chronic instability that releases itself every other year with a few hard slaps. Degradation of life continues apace, of course, people here and there die, each sect crawls deeper into its trench, but wholesale collapse is averted precisely because nothing remains, in fact, intact. Lebanon is a nation dismembered, a polity in shards.
On the face of it, you might argue, this actually bodes trouble of the very loud, serious and prolonged kind. But ever since the official end of the fratricide in 1990, Lebanon has been lurching onward, from one blow to the other, with a chorus of observers warning of impending disaster, only for this slice of the Levant to lurch some more under a barrage of new blows. Count them! Israel’s assault in 1996; the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and the targeted killings that ensued; the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel; the offensive against the Nahr al Bared Palestinian camp up north in 2007; the descent on West Beirut by Hezbollah et al in 2008…
The backdrop, it goes without saying, is the nonlethal confrontations that bespeak of an utterly broken political system: March 8‘s resignation from Fouad Saniora’s cabinet and the tent cities of Hezbollah and Michel Oun’s Tayyar downtown that followed in 2006-2007; the parliament that for months would not convene and the president that for months could not be elected; the joke that is the parliamentary elections, sullied by fraud and a flood of money to achieve nothing more than a balance of bad intentions; the Hariri Tribunal’s pursuit of Hezbollah as the party that pulled the trigger; the clandestine spy wars between the Shiite behemoth and Israel, the mounting public debt and the mismanagement of the economic file… And now the close to one million Syrian refugees, the Sunni-Shiite collisions along some of Lebanon’s demarcation lines, the ineffectual March 8 government…
By any measure, these should be signs of a people on the brink of another suicidal trajectory. But then, as I wrote above and countless times before, we are not a people and this is not a country. The tragicomedy is that which has killed us bit by bit saves us from all out bloodshed.