Hazem Saghieh

How Did I Get into Lebanon, and How Did It Come Out of Me?

I did not come from a Lebanese background. My family supported neither the Kataeb, nor Chamoun. A relative of mine uprooted a cedar tree to protest what he saw as the bigotry of Lebanism. Our north star did not point to Beirut or Mount Lebanon, but Tripoli and, behind it, Homs in Syria. We did not grow up hearing about Adonis or Astarte, but the swords of the early Islamic conquests of Yarmouk and Qadisiyah.

Through many fluctuations, and several disasters, I found myself shifting from one idea, Arabism, which has no parallel in reality, to a reality that is Lebanon, whose idea, with its romantic and rural connotations, was not very alluring or exciting.

And when I say "Lebanese reality," I am first and foremost referring to freedom, a scarce commodity in our region: freedom of thought and expression, political assembly, the press and union organizing, and the freedom to go against everything, from the ruler to Lebanon itself. As a result of freedom's centrality to the emergence of Lebanon, nationalism has not been a prominent feature of Lebanese patriotism, and there was never a time when more than few identified as Lebanese nationalists.

In this country, we have never known a leader who sought to forcefully homogenize us. We never had a ruler like Amanullah Khan, Reza Shah Pahlavi, or Kemal Atatürk, nor did we ever come under the rule of a man like Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad. In the years leading up to the war, political parties categorized as being "anti-Lebanon" were legalized, and a Baathist and a Nasserist, who considered the entire country superfluous, won parliamentary seats.

Meanwhile, capitalism was expanding from the Mountainous-Beiruti core hub towards the North, the South, and the Bekaa Valley. Under Camille Chamoun, and especially under Fouad Chehab, infrastructure, modern administration and a respectable national university were built, giving rise to the broadest middle class in the entire region.

Yes, the Maronites enjoyed privileges, some resulting from the legacy of the Mountain's historical pre-eminence and others that reflected the animus of sectarian communities, their fears, and their tendency to refuse compromise and seek domination. Nonetheless, it is not delusional to claim that betting on peaceful and democratic development could have allowed for smoothing over this disparity at much lower costs than those that were eventually paid.

If our surroundings had been less belligerent, tense, and fraught, there would have probably been a lot more room for compromise and to bridge the disparities among the Lebanese. However, that has not happened. Freedom did not tempt many, neither in our country, nor the region, while nothing seemed easier than sacrificing it.

The antagonisms of the Lebanese allowed the external to gradually but increasingly become their internal, until nearly everything interior faded away. For Lebanon ought not to be stable so long as Nasser was waging the battle of Arab Nationalism, nor should it stabilize so long as the Palestinian question remained unresolved. Today, stability is undesirable so long as Iran is in a precarious position. Just days ago, Iran's Foreign Minister Abdollahian expressed this view unequivocally, saying that "Lebanon's security is Iran's security."

This erasure of the internal in favor of an imperial illusion coincides with a comprehensive retreat into the smaller community. By retreating from the nation-state, we are breaking with our actual nation in favor of a larger, ideological, and imagined nation and simultaneously breaking with our state for the sect.

With this erasure of the internal, which has been accompanied by a martial vigilance of both the sect and the empire, we are transitioning into a permanent state of exception in which life and freedom are suspended and in which nothing flashes but violence and the anticipation of violence.

We were afforded, over this period, two opportunities to remake the interior: one on March 14, 2005, and another that a more grassroots movement with a broader base granted us on October 17, 2019. However, the failure of both attempts justifies fears that any attempt at reform could be akin to pouring water into a sieve. Indeed, what is the point of repairing the floors of a building when its foundations are rusty and decrepit?

Today we are split into two "camps": the fighting camp and the camp of those who are being killed by fighting, and the two are divided on almost everything. The warriors, with greater force and tenacity than ever before in the country's history, are imposing an official ideology that issues a new dictum every day: be like this and do that; otherwise, you are traitors and conspirators.

As for the casualties, they are not necessarily killed materially. They can be killed by being deprived of their freedom and the right to determine their fate, though many were also physically assassinated after disregarding those orders and refusing to give up their freedom.

Naturally, the old and free Lebanon was no paradise, but it was certainly not hell either. The immense distance separating it from paradise was far shorter than that separating it from hell. More importantly, it was a country of open opportunity, albeit with a degree of unevenness, one part of which can be attributed to history and another to communitarian zeal. Today, we find deep and justified skepticism about whether this country will endure for a second century.

I say this with apologies to all of you, especially the highly optimistic among you. The people of this country find themselves at a greater loss than any other about what to do about the situation it is in. It might be time to bid farewell to this harrowing perplexity and settle on a conclusion, which, I believe, will also be harrowing.

As for what concerns me - and many like me, I believe - it is that Lebanon, where freedom is contracting, has turned into a repellent country. Some of us are leaving it physically, and others are leaving it spiritually, in search of places where we have a better chance at freedom.

*Excerpt from an intervention delivered at the American University of Beirut, as part of the "Lebanon in its Second Century" seminar series.