Lebanon: It's Normal to be Crazy
May 15, 2000
There's writing on the Hard Rock Café in Beirut: "The time will come when you see we are all one." It's by the Beatles. I strolled away from this quote down the seacoast and looked out at the water and the fishermen on the rocks. Scarf-clad and bareheaded women walked hand-in-hand with their husbands and children. Men in brightly-colored wind-suits jogged. Young girls in short skirts and tank tops snacked on pita bread and leaned on railings. Everyone smiled, enjoying life. This place might be on to something, I thought.
With this in mind I ambled down along the coast. Christian, Muslim, I tried to discern as people walked past. A woman in a form fitting cream dress, white headscarf, sat on a bench listening to a walkman. Muslim, I decided. Another woman wearing a blouse and knee-length skirt accessorized with a huge cross around her neck pushed a stroller. Christian. A large man in what must have been his early 20's hulked by wearing nothing but yellow lycra shorts and running shoes. No clue. Figuring out who was who was not such an easy task.
Lebanon has been involved in such heavy fighting for so much of it's short independence that discerning who belonged to what organization or religious faction used to be a matter of survival. When Lebanon gained total independence from French mandate during WWII it looked as if this international playground in the eastern Mediterranean was on its way to becoming the Paris of the Middle East. But internal conflicts between the supposed Christian majority and the Muslim population broke all hopes of Lebanon achieving that goal. Civil wars ripped the country apart and between 1975 and 1992 more than 50,000 lives were lost.* To add to the internal strife both Israel and Palestine joined in the mess, battling on Lebanese ground over further power disputes. Now in the year 2000 the Lebanese appear to have an I'm-tired-of-fighting attitude towards one another. Besides, the conflicts were never clear-cut to begin with. It always seemed to be a struggle between the strong and the week, and not necessarily defined between Christian and Muslim, Palestinian and Israeli, or United States and Russia. This being the case it makes it easier to understand the unique Lebanese view where the absurd is ordinary.
Just a week ago when Israeli jets once again bombed parts of Lebanon, taking out power stations in Beirut and Tripoli, the people's reaction was pretty much nil. It was around two in the morning when the jets screamed through the city forcing me to sit straight up in bed out of a deep sleep. The windows and doors shook with the vibrations and I sat there, eyes bulging. A few seconds later, sent by the enormous blasts from the bombs that exploded a few kilometers to the north, I lay curled up at the foot of the bed. After a half an hour of being completely frozen - something akin to what children do when they think there's a monster in their room at night and the slightest movement might cause it to attack - I climbed out of bed and walked out onto the balcony.
The stars shone brightly through scattered puffy clouds. A few taxis drove by on the street below. "Hello!" I called out. "Does anyone know that we just got BOMBED?!" There was no one outside, lights from televisions shone out of few windows. Where am I? I thought as I went back inside and flung myself on the bed, falling asleep as I hit the pillow.
In the morning I plunked down the six flights of stairs to the reception desk. "Bonjor." The little man behind the counter said to me. "Would you like your breakfast now?"
I nodded, standing there looking at the people passing by in the street and the soda deliveryman in the lobby. "Excuse me, but was the city perhaps bombed last night?" I couldn't think of more delicate way to phrase it.
"Absolutely. But do not worry. We have a generator."
It's this what-can-we-do-about-it attitude that defines Lebanon. You can see why the country is the way it is when you're out on a drive in the mountains of southern Lebanon, a traditional Sunday afternoon thing to do. People are scattered over the countryside happily munching on baba ganoush and hummos and drinking arak and water. They spend hours picnicking the day away. And all this time Israeli jets are screaming by overhead (also a traditional Sunday afternoon thing to do). "It's nice to sit by running water and enjoy nature." Said my friend Ali Sirhal. "And this way you can't hear the jets while you eat." You have to just shrug your shoulders like the Lebanese around you and call it normal.
Foreign countries have always had a strong hand in Lebanon's actions. Because of this the country has never been able decide for itself what internal as well as external directions to take. Everyone has always had a different answer to where Lebanon should be. Most of the literature on Lebanon claims that the country was too diverse in its beginning to ever hope of becoming a cohesive community under one flag. Others believe that "They let us go too soon", declaring that the French did not prepare the country to govern itself properly. Either way Lebanon became and has continued to be ever since, in some form or another. What is the answer to Lebanon's future? The best idea of them all might be for the Lebanese to remember what the Beatles said, "We are all one." Absurdly enough, maybe Lebanon's problems might be solved if the Lebanese alone were left to solve them.
-Sarah Reed Bargren
*Peter Mansfield, The Arabs, Penguin Books, London, 1992, pg. 396