A fish in dirty water: Love, loss, and self-improvement in Lebanon

Twenty-five years after returning to post-war Lebanon, our writer reflects on the disappointed hopes of a generation, and how the country “somehow feels worse now than it did then.”

“Why is that man so dirty?”

“Son,” my father began, with reflexive forms of denial and defensiveness that reflected his love of Lebanon, “there are poor people everywhere. It’s just like Mia—”

"That’s not really the point,” my mother, the Patron Saint of Propriety and Kindness, interjected. “We should not leave people to ‘fate’ like that…”

“What?” my father cut back, incredulously. “You want to wage a war on homelessness here, too? This isn’t America. Let’s stop killing each other, first. Then you can worry about building soup kitchens. Anyway, never mind—I’m just tired. Don’t worry. They’ll clean it up soon.”

***

A quarter-century ago, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese returned home. They weren’t just visiting. They weren’t just marching through for a summer, to perhaps imbue their children—born and raised as Americans, Brits, Canadians, Australians, or French, making them the Lebanese-origin equivalents of Italian-Americans, Pakistani-Brits, or Greek-Australians—with an appreciation of their roots and a love of their motherland.

They were back. And they were back “forever”—as they said, invariably, in the parlance of the times. On a whim, these people packed their bags. Some were so high on hope—so driven by a delusional decisiveness—that they didn’t even do that. They left their hard-earned silk and money for long-lost milk and honey. Houses. Cars. Assets. Accounts. Trinkets. Friends. Abandoned… all abandoned. They dispossessed themselves, in a rush to return to a land ruled by vicious minorities that had once dispossessed them.

My parents, whom I love dearly, were among these delusional people. In 1992, they brought me to Lebanon—the far-too-far, far-too-fabled motherland—for the first time. I’ll never forget the smell: a magical mix—still enraging, still enlivening—of Mediterranean mist, red soil, pine, tarmac, diesel, and sewage. And I’ll never forget that man: perhaps homeless, he was sleeping on a cardboard slab inside the airport, reeking of his own piss and shit.

He looked at us with (what I now know was) despair. Still a dumbass child in white sneakers, I gawked at him like I gawked at everything else that summer: with no sense of embarrassment, copious curiosity, and a general sense of wonder. It was all an adventure, a prelude to ensuing decades of misadventures and misanthropy.

***

A mercurial lunatic, otherwise known as my grandfather, gathered us into his Oldsmobile—one of those beautiful American beasts, with big engines, big seats, and big doors—and ushered us into a different world. Cutting through a lush dale dotted with villages, we sped to a certain town where the true criteria of citizenship and belonging were personality traits that most average fuckers can’t muster and certainly can’t handle: mercurialness, temperamentality, boisterousness, gregariousness, volubility, incendiary indignation, and generosity.

Arcing through the peaks of Mount Sannine, we caught a glimpse—and then a taste—of the Lebanon we’d heard so much about. We saw snow for the first time—in June, in the Middle East. Then we ate handfuls of it, dousing the ice-hard chunks with lemon juice and sugar.

Ahla! Welcome!” he roared, beaming like the Mountain was his garden. “This is better than America. Right?”

“No…”

“No?!” he said, feigning horror. “No?!”

“Do you have Nintendo?”

Shoo yaaneh Nintendo?” he asked my father. “Is it like Barretta?”

My father explained with a chuckle. And then my grandfather erupted, basically blasting us as being as soft as toilet paper. “Wlik kiss ikhta shoo mghannaj!!! Hala min shoof…” (Words perhaps better left untranslated.)

A couple days later, in what was a desperate attempt to get the “American Boy” to love Lebanon, my folks drove us to a beach north of Jounieh Bay. All we saw was trash: bottles, bags, boxes, and—as far as I recall, though everyone else in my family has, perhaps conveniently, erased the memory—dirty diapers and half-used containers of drugs. My grandfather, the ruffian, tried to make us laugh by throwing some of the plastic bottles our way. My mother protested, but he told them that we needed to “toughen up.” Then, my grandmother protested—but missed the mark by a mile: “They should be wearing hats,” she moaned, as if the late-evening summer breeze, not the plateau of pollution, was the problem.

My mother hid her eyes; I believe, but still don’t know, that she was crying. Seeing this, my grandfather—in one of those tender moments that enriched a life marked, in ways I’d better not describe, by coarseness and ferocity—reassured us that “Lebanon” would soon be resurrected and restored.

"They’ll clean it up soon.”

***

Five years later, Lebanese-origin folks in the United States began another round of hyperactive, hypersensitive speculation: The Lebanese parliament was about to elect a new president—in the first peacetime election of its kind since 1970, no less. Sure, the elections would be neither free nor fair. Sure, the electors—parliamentarians who, in Lebanon’s quasi-republican system, elect the president—were neither representative nor competent. And, sure, the politicians who were then propping up Lebanon’s post-war order—a godforsaken griffin of Saudi money, Syrian guns, and American acquiescence—were slowly strangling Beirut. A city, somehow, survived fifteen years of war only to lose itself to reconstruction—just as the state, somehow, survived that war only to become a satellite of Syria while the rest of the world went through the Third Wave of Democratization and the first wave of all-out globalization.

Caught up in the fervor, Melhem Barakat—a madman known to his legions of loyalists as El Maestro or El Musiqar—put pen to paper in honor of then-future and now-former President Emile Lahoud. “Head held high,” the song went, “yada, yada, yada.”

“He’s a military man,” mused people—including, I’m sad to say, many of my family and friends—who were otherwise rational and clear-eyed. Like many psychologically distraught and politically despondent Lebanese, they—always misguidedly, always dangerously—attached their hopes to an uninspired, uninspiring, unqualified creature of circumstance. (Sound familiar?) Perhaps projecting some of the values and perceptions they’d acquired in exile, they sought the sort of discipline that they imagined only a strongman could bring—though they knew deep down that Lebanese elites and masses, with their indifference to rational authority and political control, would resist and reject such a strongman from the jump.

“You wait and see,” a man I love then said, succumbing to stupidity. “He’ll clean it up.”

***

“He” didn’t do a damned thing. Nor did the ever-present “They”—those little lords rotating in and out of the Lebanese Pantheon of Princes. Meanwhile, their Syrian supervisors were all too happy to let them squabble, manipulating their differences and harnessing their ambitions and fears to position themselves atop the inter-state system. Over time, a Syro-Lebanese faction—made up of the Syrian regime, military intelligence in Syria and Lebanon, and elements of the elite—came to dominate all aspects of political life in Lebanon.

Gatherings of more than three people after a certain hour were “political” mobilizations. Boys were taken to open-air cells in the Beqaa Valley, or what we jokingly called “tanning salons.” Some were taken to Damascus, to “drink a cup of tea” or “have their shoes re-fitted”—the latter joke a reference to the beatings they received from the Syro-Lebanese security services.

Then came the rupture.

In 2005, millions of free-minded Lebanese—Christians, Muslims; Gucci Revolutionaries, rural ruffians; intelligentsia, the illiterate—took to Beirut’s streets and squares to demand change. On the one hand, of course, they were doing what their predecessors had been doing for generations: converging to protect their position within a system, despite their deeper divergence and their limited competition within said system. Suddenly discovering Lebanon, many Sunnis sought justice for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Someone, see, had killed their Prince—whose slaying was the final act in an arc of acts that forged them into another arch-typical Lebanese community, with their own grievances, hopes, sins, and follies. Suddenly resenting Sunnis for joining them in their century-old project, many Christians simply sought to rid Lebanon of Syrian troops. They didn’t care about why or how they could drive their occupiers out—and they certainly didn’t stop to think that it was their own leaders, who in the depths of their desperation decades ago, first invited the Syrian regime into Lebanon to do their dirty work in the war against the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Lebanese left. Having long been the standard-bearers of a flawed, but genuine and authentic, sort of statist nationalism, they now found themselves in the trunk of a car that they’d once built—knowing only that whoever ended up driving the damn thing would, even setting aside whether they wanted it to exist, probably take a road that the Christians would’ve preferred to avoid altogether. Suddenly faced with the same communal convergence that in part created the conditions of their prewar marginalization, many Shiites—never as fond of the Syrian regime as is imagined, during an occupation period in which their political parties were props for a Syro-Lebanese regime that exploited their insecurity while shooting and beating their supporters in the streets—reacted with caution to a political frenzy that threatened Hezbollah’s privileged position in Lebanon.

On the other hand, however, they all went a step farther—a degree further—than necessary. They certainly went further than their leaders, and their leaders’ patrons abroad, would have initially preferred. In addition to pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, they—for a moment, only a moment—tried to push for a better Lebanon. They wanted their leaders to deliver on the details, even as they struggled over structure, strategy, influence, and money.

***

Beirut reeks. It reeks of sewage. It reeks of trash. It reeks of piss. It reeks of shit; it reeks of bullshit.

It reeks, mostly, of a culture of corruption—and an associated disregard for rules, even those flawed and frustrating rules ostensibly agreed to, shaped by, and meant for the Lebanese themselves. And while Lebanon is more stable today than it was ten years ago and more prosperous than it was twenty years ago, it somehow feels worse now than it did then. It feels worse because Lebanese leaders have failed to deliver in peacetime what they had reasonable excuses—or, at least, explanations—for failing to deliver during war or occupation. It feels worse because successive generations of Lebanese have engaged the environment as it exists. Not only have they have lost their Lebanon—as it was, or as they imagined it to be, before or even during the war—many have lost hope, and the ability to hope, that things can be different. After all that has happened, they putter along without working to make the progress that is possible a reality. They’ve lost their will to act like they speak—to do what they say, and what they would seemingly have others do. They’ve lost awareness, if they ever had it, of how to conduct themselves in a fair-minded, self-critical, self-improving, and progress-pushing manner.

They’re not blameless, but they’re not to blame. People bribe officials to avoid official fines and measures, but they live in a land where officials design, adopt, and enforce official fines and measures arbitrarily and capriciously. People launder money, run guns, or smuggle drugs out of every orifice of their crumbling state, but generations of their leaders have made a pretty penny or two as money launderers, gun runners, and drug smugglers operating outside of, alongside, and within the self-same state institutions tasked with regulating finance, controlling arms, and combating drugs. They cut you off in traffic, but you’ll cut them off up and down the road. They’ll throw their cigarettes and bottles out on the highway, sure, but their state and its esteemed contractors will dump tons upon tons of festering garbage in valleys, back alleys, ditches, and riverbanks round the country.

Still struggling to clothe, feed, and educate their own families, most Lebanese could give two shits about vote-tabulation methods, electoral districting, campaign-finance rules; refugee rights; production-sharing agreements; or your—our?—cutesy English-language campaigns for change. (Those who do, incidentally, are usually exiles or elites—and, often, exiled elites—whose political interaction with and impact on Lebanese living in Baino, Baadaron, Bint Jbeil, Kour, Khalwat, Sourat, Tirbul, Roum, Qab Elias, range from negligible to nil.) The Lebanese live. And they struggle to live with dignity that should be a pillar—not the price—of peace.

We—privileged princes and princesses, deluding ourselves into believing that our ability to dream represents our daring to dream—think and fret, self-flagellate and self-hate, hope and rage, try and fail… until, that is, we succeed at some point, in some way, in some place, and for some time. And there’s power in privilege—power that will continue to beget the sense of responsibility, and in turn beget a sense of hope, that we see among those sowing the seeds of future change. “Hope isn’t a strategy,” skeptics of the Springs never cease to say. “Neither is apathy, Asshole!” I’ve long longed to shout in meetings.

If 2005 was only a moment, just as 2011 was only a moment, then we’ll have others. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a Cedar Evolution someday.

***

“American Boy!” he gasps, running around the counter to kiss my face and pat my back. “Wayn yo?”

Wayn?” I hesitate, dusting off my contrived local twang for the first time in years. “Wayn, ka zalmay?”

“How’s the family?”

“Ask them. You see them every day…”

“You know,” he shakes his head, sizing me up, “you’re just like your granddad: trouble, from the mouth on down...”

He flicks my crotch, twice, then starts making people their breakfasts. “One meat with spice, one bulghari with extra spice, and two bottles of pineapple juice… eh habibi?”

I haven’t visited The Bakery—or any place up here—in years. But the lovely, loving bastard—red-faced, as ever, serenading pedestrians, sweating near the oven, and unleashing praise that is as endearing as it is insincere—hasn’t missed a beat. “My pupils are mere buttons in your blouse,” he smarms, rather intensely, at a woman. “I mean, you can tie your shoes with my blood vessels.” “We’re all just bullets in your gun,” he tells a local political operative. “Well, of course you can have thyme,” he smiles a little boy, handing him an imaginary basket. “And here’s a bushel of blessings.”

After we chat, he invites me to stay at the front of the line. I hesitate, bracing for a barrage. The customers complain. Having doubtlessly disregarded every rule in the book today, and having milled about with nothing to say and nowhere to go, they—abruptly, absurdly—rediscover their civic faith and sense of purpose at the fucking corner bakery. Armed with newfound citizenship, righteousness, empowerment, and time, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder like a choir of complainers—the Lebanese, uniting only in their disdain and scorn for a (perceived) outsider.

They’ve “already paid,” see, and they’ve “been waiting a while.” They’ve brought their own dough, thyme, cheese, or meat, see, and they’ve got “husbands and wives and children in the car.” They’ve got a “party at home,” see, and need to be there five minutes ago. They’re hungry, see, and it would be “unfair”—“disrespectful, indeed”—to let me cut ahead the line.

Shoo, wasta?”

W’air!” the baker blasts back. “He’s from [the village].”

“Prodigal Son!” a man jests from the back. “What’s the matter? Did you lose your job?”

The baker annihilates them, one by one. “You paid for today’s pies,” see, “but not last week’s breakfast. Where’s my money?” “You brought your own dough, thyme, and cheese, but your dough, thyme, and cheese are terrible—so now I have to use mine, so you don’t blame me later.” You may have a gathering at home, but I wouldn’t call any gathering at your place a party. “You may be in a rush, but someone like you has no reason to rush and no place to rush to—so just relax and eat when I tell you to eat.” “You may be standing in line but, the last time [George] was here—six years ago, by the way—he asked me to save his spot in line. And, anyway, the line isn’t for important people.”

“You eat breakfast. But I’m the baker.”

***

Pies in hand, I step outside—only to see a friend chuck his juice boxes onto the curb, though there’s a trash can about twenty feet away.

Ya, zoozoo—”

“What?”

“There’s a trash can right there. Right! There!”

“Oh,” he smirks, pushing the button. “They’ll clean it up...”

We laugh. Fish are better off in dirty water than clean air.