Even Khalil Gibran couldn't have imagined Lebanon's horrors

Picture from the 1950s shows a general view of Martyrs Square, also known as Sahet el-Burj, in down town Beirut which has remarkably changed after the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war and the reconstruction plan that covered the heart of the city afterwards. Beirut's city centre, where the green line dividing it into eastern and western hostile sectors was drawn in the first months of the civil war, witnessed some of the period's fiercest battles and got the brunt of destruction. (Photo by AFP)

I want to remember what there is to love about the Lebanon that was - and I hope will be again

A century ago, in a love poem to Lebanon, Khalil Gibran wrote: "You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon."

Gibran spoke of his affection for the people, their poetry, art, music and love of life; their generous and welcoming spirit; their gifts to the world – especially their gifted people; and the sheer beauty of the country from its snow-capped mountains to its pristine seascapes. Gibran contrasted this with the country's petty, bickering politicians who lead because of an accident of birth.

That poem has stayed with me since I first read it.

Fifty years ago, my wife, our toddler son and I went to Lebanon for my first visit to the country of my father's birth. I found the country just as his stories had described. Beirut was a vibrant, splendid city, the mountains were stunning, and the people were as hospitable as I had been told they would be.

We had an apartment near the American University of Beirut – a few blocks off Hamra Street. It was an exciting adventure to awaken each morning and just walk the city streets, see the shops open, listen to the chatter and the noise of city life, and feel the remarkable energy of the place.

We were able to spend time with my family in their little village safely tucked amid towering mountains. While in Lebanon, we also had the opportunity to meet with people from all walks of life, visit with Bedouins in their campsites and spend lengthy periods in Palestinian refugee camps – where I was engaged in research for my doctoral dissertation.

Even after we returned to the US, I could feel the pulse of Lebanon beating in my heart and see its sights in my mind's eye. It wasn't hard to have fallen in love with the place and its people.

And yet, my wife and I often recalled an unsettling undercurrent we had experienced in our conversations with those whom we met. We had become concerned listening to the subtle ways some Christians had spoken dismissively about Muslims, or Muslims about Christians, or the distrust or resentment some Lebanese and Palestinians exhibited towards one another. It reminded us of simmering racial tensions in the US. And when I heard Lebanese from one village disparage their fellow Lebanese from a neighbouring village, I thought of the Hatfield-McCoy feud involving two rural American families in the West Virginia-Kentucky region that defined conflict in US mountain country in the 1800s.

I wrote a paper a few years later in which I tried to unravel what had been bothering me.

Lebanon was a country that was modern on the surface, but its forward path was hamstrung by a political system that fuelled traditional feuds born of sectarian, tribal and regional divisions. And so I wasn't surprised when Lebanon erupted in civil war a few years later and these tensions exploded into full view – with devastating results for the people and the country.

I went back to Lebanon a few times during its long war with itself. Each time, as the plane crossed the Mediterranean and approached Beirut, my heart would skip a beat. I saw the glorious city of white, with its orange-tiled roofs, against the blue sea, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. And I would think "it's alright", only to have this notion shattered once on the ground.

A katyusha rocket is fired from the back of an army truck into an apartment complex during the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon, probably 1975. The war, which lasted until 1990, was fought between a bewildering array of sectarian, ideological, and foreign armed factions in continuously shifting alliances. Most prominent were the rightist Maronite Christian Phalangists, the secular Palestinian PLO, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Druze, the Shiite Amal, and Hezbollah. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)
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Yours is the last generation that will know Lebanon as a whole country
Dr Amal Shamaa

What couldn't be seen from the air became all too clear travelling through the city: buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, armed men (and boys) everywhere, and checkpoints separating all parts of the city. Once glorious and prosperous Hamra had lost its lustre. Its walls were papered with pictures of dead young men and bearded, dour-faced religious leaders. The eastern side of the city fared somewhat better but was choking under the weight of congestion. Here, too, signs of war were ever-present. Up in the mountains, village life continued. It was like a refuge from the conflict raging below.

In the mid-1980s, I helped found "Save Lebanon", a project to bring to the US for medical treatment children who had been wounded in the civil war or from Israel's massive destruction of Beirut and southern Lebanon. In 1983, we hosted Amal Shamaa, a heroic Beirut-based paediatrician, to speak about medical needs and help us raise funds for the project. After appearing in a few cities in the US and listening to the questions and comments of the young Lebanese Americans she met, she said to me: "Yours is the last generation that will know Lebanon as a whole country. Future generations will not be able to speak about the north, south, east and west – because they won't know it. Hold on to this vision of the country that was."

Lebanon got a second lease on life with the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in 1990. And under the leadership of the visionary prime minister Rafik Hariri, Beirut was rebuilt, block by block. It once again became, in Hariri's words, "the beating heart that brought life back to the country".

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2005 file photo, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, center, speaks to people outside the Lebanese Parliament minutes before an explosion killed him and 22 others, in Beirut, Lebanon. More than 15 years after the truck bomb assassination of Hariri in Beirut, a U.N.-backed tribunal in the Netherlands is announcing verdicts this week in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah allegedly involved in the killing. (AP Photo, File)

But Lebanon remained deeply divided with sectarian elites draining the country and foreign powers – especially Syria, Israel and Iran – competing for advantage or occupying it through surrogates. Hariri, the former economy minister Bassil Fleihan and supporters were assassinated in 2005, and since then the country has been in a tailspin, deteriorating to the point where it is today.

I have often thought of Dr Amal's words as I watch Lebanon unravelling before our eyes. And I recall Gibran's love poem to Lebanon as I see horrors that even he could not have imagined: widespread poverty; corrupt, feudal and sectarian elites trying to sustain their privileged roles; and an armed militia functioning as a state within a state – willing to use force to maintain its position.

In the future, I want to write about the political situation in Lebanon. For now, I just want to remember what there is to love about the Lebanon that was (and I hope will be again).

Published: August 17th 2021, 4:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National