Disclaimer: This article should be thought of more as a rant than an organised polemic — the product of nearly 25 frustrating years of being Lebanese (well, let’s make it more like 15 to factor in the years spent in diapers, conversing with teddy-bears about tea-party imaginary guest lists and daydreaming about playing stuck-in-the-mud during recess). In the paragraphs that follow, you will find no references to scholars, journalists or authoritative social commentators. “Where is the evidence?” you might ask, while reading my claims about and criticisms of certain aspects of Lebanese society. “Where are the hard, cold facts, the statistics and names, the dates and locations of events?” I cannot (or will not) offer you any of these things. This article was born, somewhat violently, from a gnawing feeling of discomfort and mild nausea that I’ve been experiencing as of late; every time I visit Lebanon, read about it in the news or find myself discussing its current affairs. What follows is my attempt at investigating this unsettling feeling. I’m writing this from the gut, throwing my eyeballs and ears at you with everything that has rubbed them the wrong way over the past few years of floating in and out of Lebanon. I invite you to hit the litter-stained streets of Beirut to investigate my thoughts for yourself.
The second part, The stuff liberals are made of, can be found here.
What’s a Lebanon?
I am Lebanese.
I spent a significant portion of my post-pubescent youth desperately trying to define this seemingly ineffable term to my Western peers. In high school I felt like a foreigner despite growing up in Qatar — a wealthy, prim and proper cousin to my disheveled, broke and troublemaking mother nation. My school and the small city of Doha in which it was located were saturated with Western expatriates, and I was the lone Arab in my group of American, Canadian and European friends. I found myself constantly on the cultural defensive, engaged in a looped mortal combat-style battle of my own imagining with the cheap, paper-cutout perception of Arabs I was certain lurked behind my peers’ politically correct smiles. In the midst of friendly gatherings and conversations, feeling self-conscious and somewhat paranoid, I was certain I could see those insufferable stereotypes I feared — fanatically religious, uptight, socially conservative, oppressively traditional and the like — float up from the depths of their private thoughts and onto the surface of the whites of their eyes where they would splash around, mocking me. I watched enough television to know what misinformed caricatures potentially lay curled under the blanket of polite, cross-cultural chitchat, and I was determined to slaughter all the Aladdins and Lawrence of Arabias prancing around their minds.
I desperately wished to project an image of a liberated Lebanon that, if only it could, would dig its fingernails into the sordid soil attaching it to the diseased Arabian Peninsula — infected as it is with cultural gangrene — and float happily towards holy mother Europe with arms outstretched and tongue dangling in utter joy as its nose picked up the scent of civilisation. KO! My brain would scream when a friend saw my parents’ liquor cabinet, or witnessed my mother picking out halter-tops and mini skirts for me on a shopping trip. Day after day I would scrub frantically at the cultural divide I was terrified might undermine my precious teenage social existence. I tried desperately to prove that we Lebanese, unlike our ignorant regional brethren, had shed our archaic ‘Arabness’ and long embraced the West. “We’re not really Arabs,” I would say, parroting what has long been a national slogan directed at tourists, potential lovers and foreign investors, among others. “It makes more sense to think of us as Mediterraneans. Yes, I did just make that up. I mean really, if you think about it, in essence we’re Phoenicians. The Arabs passed through here historically, but so did the Franks, the Ottomans, the Romans, and so many more. But at the beginning there were the Phoenicians. They invented the alphabet, you know. Oh and indigo, don’t forget about indigo. It’s a lovely colour. Where would the West be without the alphabet? Where would it be without indigo? We built the cradle of Western civilisation. That’s right.”
On a school trip to Beirut for a forensics tournament my junior year, I proudly walked down the streets of my beloved city, pointing at the bare navels and overexposed thighs of women in twenty inch heels, mummified in leather, their faces pounded repeatedly with cotton pads soaked in all manners of toxic creams and coloured powders. I strutted confidently into stores to purchase alcohol, presenting the appalling lack of proper law enforcement in Lebanon — which has helped cultivate a bizarre country-wide perception of crime as a God-given right — as indicative of a charming national hedonism. I pointed at couples devouring each other’s faces in the streets as though they were national monuments or public sculptures, but instead of encapsulating in stone and marble the pride, distinctness and history of a people in the form of an immortalised martyr, benevolent political leader or exemplary citizen, these writhing bodies transmitted through their symphony of moans and public display of saliva what to me and a good a chunk of the Lebanese population was an immensely important message we desperately wanted the West to hear: “We’re just like you — with our ubiquitous night clubs and bars, the women we treat like hollowed out chickens stuffed full of sex that comes bursting out of their corsets, ready for sale as they’re advertised on billboards, displayed on television shows, or invited to groan their way through euphemistic songs on the radio. We’re just like you — with our beach parties in pools of vodka and ski weekends in chalets built of ecstasy pills. We’re liberal, just like you.”
“We’re not really Arabs,” I would say, parroting what has long been a national slogan directed at tourists, potential lovers and foreign investors
“This is Lebanon,” I said to my peers in my adolescent ignorance. West is best, I believed — like so many of my fellow countrymen. But, I was a teenager desperate to conform to the largely American crowd, terrified of being “outed” by some cultural idiosyncrasy as an Arab, as an “other”, and ostracised from the coveted social herd. It was only later that I realised I was the one caricaturing my Western friends — reducing their many cultures and religions down to a shallow sauce composed of cheap Hollywood stereotypes, presuming to know how they all perceived me based on what I had gleaned from the international news which, it has become clear over the years, offers up more gossip and rumour than it does fact; transmitting distorted words and reworked ideas like the last mouth in a game of broken telephone. Thankfully however, I grew out of this mental footie pajama and learned to fit comfortably into my custom-made hybrid shoes. I recognised the effect that my Western education, multicultural environment, eccentric parents and addiction to American pop culture had on me, but I also came to terms with and affectionately embraced the aspects of my persona and lifestyle that could only have been nurtured through the rootedness of my toes, spine and heart in the uniquely-spiced soil of the Arab world.
I am Lebanese.
“This is Lebanon,” I said to my peers in my adolescent ignorance
I love garlic and I eat it shamelessly, never worrying or caring about embarrassing toxic breath. If Lebanon were to ever declare a national smell, to hoist the flag of any odour other than garlic would be sacrilege. I speak to my mother on the phone an average of four times a day. When I say inshallah in response to a request, it probably means no. I stare at strangers all of the time. When riding in a car, I’m often overwhelmed by a feeling of hatred towards ‘pedestrians,’ and when driving in countries with “civilised” traffic laws I usually join my mother in fantasising aloud about running them — and bicyclists — over. I think taxi drivers are the best source of national news. I’m loud. I don’t go anywhere without an eerie eye dangling from my neck to ward off evil. I knock on wood every time someone compliments me. I’m not religious but I believe in God because it feels strange not to. I love unconditionally this memory, idea and sensibility we call Palestine, even though I wasn’t around to see it before it burned, and I join millions in the belief that together, somehow, we will resurrect it. When I see a photo of a martyr who fought to liberate my country — even if it was just the “tip” — my body inflates with pride.
My maternal grandmother is veiled. She has been to Najaf and to Mecca and to every other imaginable holy stretch of land one can imagine. She would’ve forced herself into Jerusalem if she could. My uncle married his cousin. My father grew up in a village in the northwest of Lebanon with ten siblings and a pet sheep named Sahsah. As a young boy he dreamt of becoming a street vendor because they sold treats he always drooled over but could never afford. He’s a lawyer now, and a damned good one. My mother grew up in the South; she makes delicious lahmeh madou’a and frakeh; she remembers the UNIFIL soldiers who used to visit the corner store to buy orange soda — she wasn’t too fond of them. My maternal grandfather died when I was six; I remember shadows of him sitting in their front-yard by the fig tree, drinking Turkish coffee in his traditional, Arab sleeping gown. If I ever get married it’ll be in that house, by the tree and the thyme bushes and the spirit of my grandfather.
When I contemplate what Lebanon means to me and why I love it despite its endless flaws, and when I meditate over what it is that makes me an Arab, I think of these things among many other tiny specks and grains of detail that link together to form the web of my identity, and the kaleidoscope through which I perceive my homeland.