Suffocating in south Lebanon

Translator: 

Despite the presence of Hezbollah, over 100,000 Syrian refugees live in south Lebanon, often for economic reasons. While outwardly they may appear to have adapted to the environment, inwardly most live in great private fear, estranged not just from their homeland but themselves. 

To walk the streets of south Lebanon is to smell the Palestinian orchards nearby, and to sense the weight of the long years of occupation and war, and on top of them the thousands of stories told by the lives of Syrians who have taken refuge on the same land.

The population of south Lebanon predominantly hails from the Shia Muslim community, with smaller numbers of Christians and Sunnis. With its captivating nature and distinctive sectarian composition, the South has served as a sanctuary for tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing war and oppression in their home country, who have settled in the region to avoid the high living costs of Beirut and other Lebanese provinces.

In some respects, life for refugees here differs little from elsewhere, in terms of the disappointments of living in limbo with no clear horizons. Yet in other ways the South is worse, in that it denies Syrians even a bare minimum level of free speech or thought, keeping them in a state of constant fear of the consequences of uttering an opinion or idea dissenting against the politically and militarily dominant local party: Hezbollah.

Despite the relatively large number of Syrians in the South, their presence generally flies under the radar, leaving no detectable trace. According to the UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered Syrian refugees in south Lebanon is around 107,000, putting it last among Lebanon’s provinces in terms of Syrian refugees hosted.1

The legal situation for Syrians in the South is no different to other Lebanese provinces, insofar as residence permits, housing rent, and work permits are concerned. The difficulty of finding a Lebanese legal sponsor, together with the prohibitively high cost of applying for a residence permit, have led to a majority of refugees living without such permits, leaving them wide open to exploitation in the labor market.

Social and health services, too, are much the same for Syrians in the South as in other regions. Refugees are treated the same as Lebanese citizens in the governmental health centers, whether the care is free or charged at a nominal cost. As for education, the last academic year brought a certain amount of anxiety and confusion for refugees, following the ministry of education’s announcement that no new Syrian students would be admitted into public schools. These conditions were later loosened, allowing public schools to admit new Syrian students so long as this did not entail opening new classes to accommodate them. Yet the decision nonetheless prevented many families from enrolling their children in public schools. As a result, a minority took it upon themselves to pay expensive private school fees, while others sent their children to schools run by UNHCR—a lifeline for many Syrian children, despite the dire educational and psychological conditions therein.

Political and sectarian divisions have played a large role in the distribution of Syrians across Lebanon’s various regions, with the majority of those taking refuge in the South being of rural background, with modest education and very limited financial means. In south Lebanon, many among these rural communities have found a suitable place in which to return to the professions they practiced in Syria, such as construction or agriculture in the South’s plentiful lemon, orange, olive, and banana fields. Some tend to lands owned by Lebanese in exchange for accommodation in a room or small caravan next to the land. Despite their clear preoccupation with securing their basic livelihoods and lack of interest in political action of any kind, these refugees are nonetheless subject to intense pressure and surveillance probing for any sign of agitation against the status quo.

Indeed, there is almost zero desire among refugees in the South to engage in political or intellectual discussions of any kind, even concerning their immediate economic circumstances and everyday affairs. The hegemony over the region by political currents charged with sectarian hostilities has prevented the emergence of any political activity among these refugees, extending even to a bare minimum of discussion of or interest in public affairs.

Instead, refugees’ lives are enshrouded in an atmosphere of stagnation, fear, and constant worry, and a wish to preserve their relative position of safety. It’s as if the further south they go, the more estranged they become from themselves, and the more they identify with the set of values and tendencies prevailing over all facets of life.

“You’re Syrian, right? What do you do for a living, agriculture or construction?” This is the standard question faced by every young Syrian man in south Lebanon. Rarely if ever will the reply go beyond the two options set by the question; if so, it’s usually, “I work in a restaurant.” It’s always shocking when the answer falls outside these narrow confines of possibility, due to the stereotype of the Syrian refugee as destitute and uneducated, with probable links to “terrorism” or the opposition groups that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria. Such is how refugees end up marginalized, dissuaded from political involvement, and denied any feeling of comfort in their environment, the better to ensure their return to Syria at the earliest opportunity.

Recounting his journey from Afrin to south Lebanon, Abu Muhammad tells Al-Jumhuriya, “Anyone who has visited Afrin knows the value of land and olives. When I’m not working the land, I feel like a fish out of water; I can’t breathe unless I’m tiring myself out tilling, planting, and harvesting.” The main reason for his choice of the South, he says, was the way of life here; the land on which he can practice his former profession with minimal losses. He speaks at length about the differences in soil between Afrin and south Lebanon, claiming there exists no soil like Afrin’s. With pain, he then divulges how he sells his labor for the lowest possible wage as a condition for him and his family living in a concrete house among the fields.

There are many others in Abu Muhammad’s shoes across the South. Like his family, thousands more have also had children during their years of exile; children born with no proof of identity, registration, or birth certificates, creating a crisis of documentation giving rise to widespread despair and lack of future prospects.

The simplicity of Abu Muhammad’s words masked the complexity of their implications. I didn’t have the courage to ask him about the present, nor the folly to inquire about the future, near or distant. What I could clearly notice, however, was the sheen in his eyes when he mentioned the word “Afrin,” suggesting inscrutable memories, as though his eyes themselves were requesting my silence.

Walking the roads of the South at night, one’s heart becomes darker than its skies. Black robes everywhere; flags and banners outnumbering people; cartons at the doors of shops. Nearby children dozing next to their wares of balloons, packs of gum, and red roses. Small 500-Lebanese-lira coins in the pocket of a young boy called Hassan.

After encountering this child many times, he whispered in my ear that his name was actually Omar (a name associated with Sunni Muslims, as opposed to Hassan, preferred by Shia). “But here they call me Hassan. I liked my new name, and people started liking me more after it.” Each time I visit him, I teach him a few English words, at his request. He tells me his dream is to become fluent in English, but he knows how difficult that would be. All the dreams of Omar and his friends bend at the knee like cumbersome delusions, then sprint off toward the impossible in the distance.

 

Sectarianism, or a political stance?

 

Some of the south Lebanese—those who neither participated in nor supported the fighting in Syria—oppose Hezbollah’s involvement in the war. Yet they do so without taking a serious, openly declared stance on the issue, resorting instead to such phrases as, “Lebanon deserves its youngsters and men more.” By contrast, the many who take Hezbollah’s side do so loudly and unequivocally, even if they themselves have not physically participated in the war.

Most of Hezbollah’s people visit Syria regularly. The grocer, the butcher, the teacher, even the taxi driver—all of them can describe the current situation in Syria, and offer predictions about future developments. I could easily ask any taxi driver whether the road to Syria is open or if “something will happen in the next few days.”

Populist and inflammatory rhetoric in recent years has produced an absurd caricature among Southerners about Syrian opposition supporters, which might be summed up as “ISIS member.” This renders the voicing of any support for the opposition an act of apostasy or even terrorism, thereby justifying Hezbollah’s fight in Syria as one against the bogeyman of ISIS.

Another kind of discourse one hears, particularly among women and mothers inside their homes, boils down to the notion that the “Syrian state” deserves help eradicating “terrorism” in light of the “noble position” it took regarding the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

At a funeral for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria, a woman sobbed in grief, and cried out, “Our boys are buried while theirs live comfortably in Beirut.” I asked her what drove hundreds of families to sacrifice their children, who had children of their own, families, lives, and futures ahead of them. She replied, “Do you see these houses, even this house that you’re in right now? He [Bashar al-Assad] built it, like the others, after the July war. He opened his door and country to receive us with no conditions. Does he not deserve us sacrificing our blood and souls for him, and standing alongside him in his war against ISIS?” This ISIS neurosis was ever-present in their conversations, to the point that the same woman said, “Were we able to hunt them down in their dreams, we would, so they would never be able to reach us.”

Such a reply raises more questions than it answers; it certainly doesn’t provide sufficient reason for a mother to agree to send her children to fight and die. Despite the many attempts to conceal the sectarian motives behind these stances, they were clearly discernible in the discussions I had with people in the South, which often ended with them declaring their dream of “standing amid a large crowd beating their chests in front of the Umayyad Mosque and the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus.”

 

Acclimatization, and beyond

 

Syrians in the South generally avoid partaking in sectarian, religious, or political discussions, or involving themselves in any kind of political activity, including mere expression of basic opinions, ideas, attitudes, or fears. The farther south one goes, the worse it becomes—certain villages in the deep South are like outposts of Assad’s Syria, so stifled is the speech regarding anything to do with life in Syria.

Despite the substantial differences between Southerners and Syrians in terms of religious beliefs and practices, the latter try their best to integrate and adjust as much as possible. They demonstrate great respect for Shia religious tenets; perhaps this is one reason the South appears relatively calm compared to other Lebanese cities and suburbs. Nonetheless, announcements are still made through the loudspeakers of the Husayniyat (religious congregation halls), shrines, and mosques instructing Syrians of a 7pm curfew, after which they may not roam the streets, as is the case in many other parts of Lebanon.

Throughout Ashura, the most important annual Shia religious occasion, such restrictions are intensified. Checkpoints are erected, and the streets transform into military barracks. At these times, it’s advisable for Syrians to stay out of sight, much like when a funeral for a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria is taking place. For forty days, Syrians live in fear of any gesture that may suggest indifference toward the grief of Karbala, the battle commemorated during Ashura. Curtains are drawn; decorations, music, and even excessive use of water are prohibited. Everything seems as bleak as the blood spilled during the Ashura rituals of self-flagellation, of which some Syrians speak highly despite how strange they seem to them, in an attempt to maintain harmony and avoid any conflict that could hinder their goal of living in peace.

Indeed, Syrians in the South often wear black during Ashura, and cook food traditionally made for the occasion, such as Kaak al-Abbas and hreese. The women of the neighborhood gather and prepare these dishes together by hand in large pots on stoves, before pouring them into containers and distributing them to the entire neighborhood—all in the name of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, slain at Karbala in 680 AD. Many Syrians also attend the mourning sessions, and share in the grief and sorrow of the Southerners, to the point that some have even changed their names from Omar, for example, to Hassan or Ali.

There may be some positive aspects to such behavior. On the one hand, taking part in both the joyous and melancholy occasions of the South allows Syrians to coexist and adapt to their new environment. On the other hand, there’s an element of self-effacement, and a desire to identify with the more powerful in order to avoid being harmed by them, resulting ultimately in alienation and a loss of individual identity. In some cases, this has even led certain younger Syrians, who are more susceptible to Hezbollah’s discourse, to convert to Shiism.

Fear reigns supreme over Syrians in south Lebanon, with seemingly nothing capable of preventing its influence, implicit or explicit, over all aspects of their lives. Ideas kill them, and they fear everything, including the Israeli fighter jets they’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the skies. They’re afraid of both questions and answers; of speaking about their beliefs and convictions, or about their tragedies and concerns, for fear of informants and “the walls that have ears.” And they’re also afraid the reactions they’ve suppressed all this time may someday rise to the surface.

There is a scene that has yet to leave my thoughts: the moment when the husband of one of our Syrian neighbors broke the television when he discovered his family was watching Al-Jazeera; the Qatari channel deemed “pro-terrorist” in Hezbollah and Assad regime discourse. He stuttered, with a pale face, “They could have found out we were watching it.” I felt a tight constriction in my chest at the horror of the spectacle. How is the human soul to bear all this irrational fear?

On my daily trip to work, which lasts around half an hour, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the driver. The passengers change now and then, but their turns of phrase and everyday bickering never change. On one such journey, a south Lebanese lady said to me with surprise, “You’re from Damascus, right? I was just visiting [the shrine of] Mrs. Zaynab, there’s nothing there. Damascus is heaven. God damn whoever ruined it. Free schools, free hospitals...” Time stopped for a moment, and in my head I replied, “Hospitals! If you only knew how those hospitals became slaughterhouses for the wounded detainees after the revolution.” But I stayed silent. I’d decided to keep my mouth shut since the last time I was threatened with dismissal from work for my outbursts that marked me as “pro-opposition.” Deception and self-restraint are our wisest courses of action.

Since arriving in the South, I’ve witnessed the funerals of “martyrs” killed in Syria. I’ve seen the anguish of the mothers as they tear their clothing, and I’ve heard their wails of lament. When the Syrian town of al-Qusayr fell to Hezbollah, the sky thundered with the sound of celebratory gunfire, and I heard the women ululating with joy as I’d once heard them cry. I saw yellow flags waving in honor of this great victory, and the Syrian flag bleeding just like al-Qusayr. I watched the celebrations from the balcony of the house while my mother told me over the phone that one of her relatives was killed.

As an inevitable consequence of exile, we are unable to change, and we live in a state of disturbed schizophrenia. How painful it is to speak of our memories, which have become part of the reality with which we coexist; how painful is our betrayal of ourselves; how difficult it is to live in two separate worlds while retaining some sense of acceptance and satisfaction.

The driver who picks me up every day lowers his rearview mirror and looks me straight in the eye. “I’m off on a job, do you want anything from Aleppo?” he asks. I summon the reel of my memories from Aleppo, where I spent the most beautiful days of my life. Whenever my father used to ask my mother this same question, she would reply by singing the famous song: “You, who are going to Aleppo, my love goes with you/ You, carrying the grapes; underneath them are apples.” The driver rouses me from my daydream with his thick voice. Once again, I opt for silence, suffocating on my jumbled memories and thoughts.

Syrians have not achieved the freedom for which they risked death in their millions, neither in their own country nor outside it. Instead, this freedom has become a shackle around their necks, one they carry with them wherever they go. In south Lebanon, most Syrians live estranged from themselves, above and beyond being estranged from their lost homeland.

 

[Editor’s note: This article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 23 January, 2019]

  • 1. At the time of publication, Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley topped the list, with 342,000 registered refugees; followed by North Lebanon, with 245,000; then Beirut and its suburbs, with 231,000.