It has become increasingly difficult to write about Beirut from abroad; to insolently lecture the city’s steadfast residents on how to respond to senseless tragedies and the maddening spectre of full-blown war in a ‘civil’ and ‘productive’ manner. Self-imposed exile has become a luxury for many of us – a blessing, one that not only nourishes our pockets and protects our bodies, but safeguards our humanity, keeping it from mutating in the de-formative hands of routine violence, allowing some of us to easily “tut tut” at those whose lives have become so saturated with brutality they are no longer capable of performing the values we take for granted.
I often wonder if I would be able to preach patience with this or that political party, tolerance of this or that situation, sympathy for this or that position, if one of the many bombs Lebanon has been promised stole a loved one of mine. If one of these ineffable acts of cruelty that can make the faithful doubt god and the faithless beg for his existence targeted my family, would I be able to stay calm? Would I, in my grief and anger, be able to resist the political devils that would quickly find their way onto my shoulders, looking to suck the souls from the dead and to turn them into zombified mascots for their baseless causes? If I heard the sound of bullets piercing the air in celebration of my loss, would I want to mend the wounds of my carved up social body, or would I want to dig my enraged fingers in, ripping the flesh apart?
A few weeks ago, I read an interview with Omar Shatah, son of former finance minister Mohammad Shatah, who was murdered in a Beirut car bombing on December 27, 2013. I say murdered, because I don’t approve of the desensitising effect of the term “assassination”. I find that it deprives the deceased of their victimhood by implying that they somehow “had it coming”, that they “brought it on themselves”.
In the emotional interview, Omar spoke of a father lost, not of a political party targeted. He spoke of a tragic experience he shared with families in Dahiyeh, where one bomb stomped out the old year and another kicked in the new one. He criticised partisan vultures who tried to turn his misfortune into an opportunity for political gain. Most significantly, he warned against blaming whatever sect the perpetrator(s) might or might not be loosely associated with, and even more profoundly, he asserted that political parties, in their complex entirety, should not be made liable either. “In the interest of finding a way to move forward by living together,” he said, “I would operationalise the accusations and suspicions to the key people involved…I would try to limit it to the people who executed, coordinated and ordered the attack, not make it the whole group.”
We often expect cataracts of mourning to – understandably – cloud the sight and judgment of the affected after a calamity, but in this interview Omar seemed to be viewing the Lebanese socio-political landscape with more clarity and thoughtfulness than any of its dime a dozen politicians. He was able to recognise the layered, webbed anatomy of the country’s many political parties, the divisions and contradictions that characterise them, the complex circumstances and networks of power within which they are enmeshed, and acknowledged the kind of calculated reconciliatory approach the country and its citizens desperately need to adopt if they are to recover from this fever of hatred.
Omar remembers his father as a man who wanted normalcy, who wanted bridges built and compromises made. And, honouring that memory, he refuses to let his death serve the purposes of sectarianism, pointing out instead the shared pain of a citizenry that is in its entirety afraid, victimised, and on the losing end of the political tug of war, regardless of what our glorified feudal lords mumble, shout about or preach on their respective stages.
This is probably not the right time to try and reform Lebanon. It is probably not the right time to call for revolution. So many factors, domestic and regional, are out of our control as citizens and/or residents. We are victims, yes. But, we still have a degree of agency – a little sliver of space within which we can manoeuvre. We can, I think, aspire to emulate the few but nonetheless existent Omars of our country, who respond to partisan violence by championing coexistence, who use the tragedies that afflict them to connect with those in Lebanon who, under normal circumstances, inhabit a completely different “lifeworld”, but with whom they now share a common suffering.
Omar gave me hope. Hope that no matter what happens, I can somehow hold onto my humanity and to the humanity of others in Lebanon, that I can continue to look behind the political podiums and fix my eyes on the masses of people who are just trying to survive, focusing my energy on imagining a tomorrow that can save and accommodate all of them, even the ones who have wronged me.