Friday, July 21, 2006

Broummana Diary

My Lebanese friend and I spent our final day together in Broummana playing a number of roles: amateur military experts, relief convoy coordinators (for his relatives), analysts of the regional political dynamic, examiners of the country’s domestic political situation, and monitors of the television coverage of the war. We also checked up on our circle of friends, who were in various places. A lot of the conversation focused on Hizbullah, the southern suburbs of Beirut, and the Shi’a community in Lebanon. When this war is summed up on the news, in 30 or fewer seconds, you hear a lot about “terror” and crap like that. The war’s real political repercussions, however, involve the Lebanese state and the country’s sects, if you want the use the standard lexicon of politics here. Many wonder about the implications for the political regime and the ease with which sectarian conflict could erupt once again.

My friend described his trip to my apartment, which he made by catching several shared taxis (services), from (Muslim) west Beirut to (Christian) east Beirut and then up to (Christian) Broummana. Of course, they’re not pure sectarian-ethnic neighborhoods and towns, but those are the majorities. My friend noted bitterly that the tension of the war got progressively lighter as he left behind one side and went to the other. “In Hamra, people were subdued as they walked around. Then you move through Ashrafieh, and things get more relaxed. Then the (Christian) suburbs, and people seem to be a little animated even, and then you come up here, where all these people are walking around outside.” Before the fighting, tourists from everywhere had flooded Broummana; many left and many more, mainly displaced or fleeing Lebanese, have taken their places in the resort town’s many hotels and furnished apartments. Of course, members of all sects have left or lost their homes this month, but I am assuming that the Shi’a form the overwhelming majority of the displaced in the country.

Some friends of mine and I have recently joked about what we call the “neo-Shi’a.” (my profound apologies to Leo Strauss). By this we mean those Shi’a in Lebanon who, after the political tension resulting from Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, feel threatened by the anti-Shi’a climate among other groups. Hence, such people identify more strongly as Shi’a, or have become more inclined to support Hizbullah’s policies than those of other Lebanese groups. This climate of anti-Shi’a feeling has grown sharply, although it predates recent problems, and has several sources. My friend from Beirut’s southern suburbs is not a partisan of Hizbullah, but the Maronite- and Sunni-dominated political class of the pre-civil war period, and their heirs today, don’t provide any guide for the future, as far as he’s concerned. “All of those idiots, ever since 1943, were so famous for believing in the saying ‘Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness’,” as if opting out of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the guarantee of security and prosperity. “What a joke. That’s been proven so wrong.”

“Air defense – it’s air defense,” my friend concluded. “Look at Hizbullah. It’s been a week so far and Israel can’t beat them on the ground. Unless there’s a big invasion, but that will be costly for them. So they rely on air power, and even then the missiles keep heading toward Israel. If only we had a proper missile defense system, we wouldn’t be in the condition we are today, totally open to attack. After the civil war, Rafiq al-Hariri’s reconstruction involved a foundation of tourism, Gulf tourism, cabarets and all that. Fine, but don’t you want to protect these tourists?”

“This kind of policy is great if you’re an island in the Pacific Ocean,” I said.

“Or Monte Carlo,” my friend responded. “But not here. We need air defense. We have a $40 billion debt, because of all that waste from reconstruction. If we had taken $4 billion of that and gone to the black market, the whores’ market, whatever, and just bought some second- or third-rank air defense system, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. This means you need to have a strong state.”

I wondered what the country’s other sects would think about the idea of building a strong state, one that might limit their influence as socio-political institutions, and see the Shi’a possibly gain pre-eminence, as the biggest sect.

After my friend finally made it back to Hamra, his new refuge, I prepared for my departure via the US Embassy’s mysterious evacuation process. On my way to the port, I dropped off my car for safekeeping at a repair garage owned by friends of mine, Christian Lebanese. I spend a lot of time at this garage, in a Christian suburb of Beirut, talking politics and other matters with a group of guys who hang out there. With very few exceptions, they are Maronite Christians, and are around my age, the generation that came of age during the second, nastier, post-1982 phase of the civil war. They were much too late to catch Lebanon’s golden age. I am particularly close to one member of this “garage group,” a union leader. He was leaving for an urgent appointment with the prime minister in Beirut, so we rushed through our goodbyes and assessed the situation. I told my Maronite friend that as I expected, my Shi’i friend from the southern suburbs ended up staying with me, for three nights at it turned out. Since this war began, I have encountered more than one comment, in Christian areas of Lebanon, of tacit support for Israel’s attacks and the need to “clean up” aspects of this country, whether it’s Hizbullah, the southern suburbs, or the Shi’a.

My Maronite friend asked what my Shi’i friend thought about the conflict. I told him, summing it up as a disagreement over tactics, that the war was proving that Lebanon needed to have a functioning air defense system. I repeated the part about spending $4 billion of the $40 of debt on decent weaponry. My Maronite friend’s eyes lit up, as he nearly shouted his agreement. He began talking about the need for a strong state, and telling me about his days in the Lebanese Forces militia, when the Lebanese Air Force was an active ally in bombing the other side’s positions. This demonstrated the value of having a state, a functioning army, an air force, an air defense system, little details like that. His next statement made my hair stand on end. “The whole problem is this ridiculous saying that ‘Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness’.” I asked him to repeat himself, I was that stunned, and told him how my Shi’i friend felt the same way. “But if you’re going to have this strong, and stronger state,” I asked, “what’s going to be the role of the Shi’a?” My friend began rocking back and forth, as if to prepare an answer, and then was reminded that the prime minister was waiting. “We’ll have to talk about this further,” he said as he raced off. I sat down with another member of the garage group, another “typical” Maronite Christian, who began to describe Israel’s military failures during the first week; he said that all this bombing of trucks and certain other places had demonstrated that their intelligence was bad. “They’re lost,” he said. “They can’t even get across the border on land against Hizbullah, unless they have a real invasion, and this is going to be costly for them.”

Marlin Dick, Broummana, Lebanon


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