Lebanese reminisce about war years during Ramadan

Despite hardships, the war was also a time of solidarity and hope in a better future, compared to the bleak outlook 2020 has brought

In Lebanon, this Ramadan has echoes of the civil war

In Lebanon, this Ramadan has echoes of the civil war
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The 15-year long Lebanese civil war is best remembered as a traumatic experience never to be repeated.

Nearly 200,000 people died during the conflict that pitted neighbours against each other, exacerbated sectarian divisions and created deep wounds that, many say, never properly healed.

But as Lebanon sinks deeper into the worst financial crisis in its history, a recurring theme keeps cropping up in news coverage of the country’s plight: many Lebanese think that life today is worse than during the war that ended 30 years ago.

This is not nostalgia for war, observed Azzam Awaida, a gynaecologist from the northern city of Tripoli: it’s “nostalgia for life during the war.”

Last week, Mr Awaida reminisced about the war with close friends and family as they enjoyed coffee and sweets after Iftar. Their memories were infused by a strong sense of camaraderie that blotted out the hardships of life back then, when, as young teenagers, their life was suddenly turned upside down.

This solidarity was most obvious during Ramadan, said Imad Sayegh, 62.

“My late father asked each building resident, when the street watchmen started guard duty at 7pm, to prepare two packed meals for the guards because they were fasting. Residents would deliver soup, potato, kofta, bread, orange and kharroub [carob] juice, sweets,” said Mr Sayegh. “We used to put our efforts together in a way no one could know the source of the food or help. All people were united.”

“Today, I only take 5 minutes to walk the one kilometre between my flat and my office. At the time, it took me 2 hours, as I saluted everyone,” bemoaned Mr Sayegh, who started working at 17 years old in customs at Beirut’s port and airport.

Music also played an important part in Mr Sayegh’s memories. In 1976, a neighbour, who had a habit of blasting a song by famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum called “the night of Eid” on the last day of Ramadan, played it one day too early. “Half the people stopped fasting, thinking Ramadan had ended” laughed Mr Sayegh.

Sitting at the same table, Naeya, 61, concurred. “There were bombs and explosions, but life was better than now,” she said. “We were happier.”

And this was despite enormous challenges that were part of everyday life in Tripoli, including power cuts and fighting between Palestinians and their Lebanese allies against Syrian forces that occupied the small Mediterranean country at the time.

“It was difficult. We used to not get a lot of food because of power cuts,” said Naeya. “During ceasefire, we used to go to the market. The market was bountiful. Everything was available.”

Naeya, who declined to give her full name, also had terrifying tales of unexploded rockets falling through her roof and of running from bullets while dodging dead bodies lying on the street.

But still, she said: 2020 is “the worst year ever.” The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the feeling of despair caused by the predating financial crisis. “Everything has become more expensive and the poor are unable to buy” food, she added.

"This is not an exaggeration," said Mr Sayegh. "This is the first Ramadan that people are not out all night buying foul, hommos, special kaak bread, orange juice, or smoking shisha in cafés," he observed. "They are afraid."

For retired sociologist Waddah Charara, Lebanon’s civil war represented a break with normal life that was welcomed by many, especially at its beginning.

“It was like a holiday. Work and schools stopped. People learnt to know their neighbours. They shared everything,” he said.

Today, isolation makes confinement less alluring. Though several generations still often live together in Lebanese households, the young tend to increasingly move away. “Neighbours have little relation to each other,” said Mr Charara.

However, there are many other reasons that explain why people adapted more easily to life during the civil war than to today’s health and financial crisis.

Cash flowed freely into the country, as militias received financial support from abroad, explained Mr Charara. Revolutionary pan-Arab left-wing movements blossomed throughout the region. Mass migration from the countryside to the city was still recent or underway, so many Lebanese were used to hardship and deprivation.

“People believed the future would be better. That is not the case today,” said Mr Charara.

The current economic crisis pushed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to the streets last October in protest. Though demonstrations dwindled with time, they picked up again this week as the local currency rapidly lost value and banks increased restrictions on access to money.

In Tripoli, rioters torched banks and fought with security forces, leading to the death of a 26-year old mechanic on Tuesday and further angering protesters across the country. “We are hungry,” people chanted.

Last March, the government defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time ever. Absorbed with the coronavirus pandemic, foreign countries are not keen to help. Nearly half the population is poor, according to official estimates.

Back in Tripoli, Mr Sayegh and his friends are still part of Lebanon’s shrinking middle class. But even they have started feeling the pinch.

“It would be impossible to buy a house. And it would be difficult for me to buy a car. Banks do not lend money anymore,” said his neighbour, Hisham Nazer, an endocrinologist.

“Nobody believes that the current crisis is the beginning of more justice, equality, or fairer politics. We only have more difficulties and obstructions as a horizon,” Mr Charara concluded.