Tuesday, March 18, 2008

This is a rough translation of my article on Lebanon (Bem-Vindo ao Libano), published in Rolling Stone Brasil, August 2007.

Welcome to Lebanon
by Paula Schmitt
August 2007, Rolling Stone Brasil

Beirut, Friday, 3 pm, my phone beeps with a text message. It is a notice from Basement, a nightclub in the dungeons of an old, abandoned factory, calling for a party with an international DJ, Abe Duque. That could be just another invitation for a night out in a cosmopolitan capital in the world, were it not for a detail that has become very Lebanese: at the end of the message, a reminder that has almost become the slogan for the club gives me yet another reason to go party at Basement: "It is safer underground".

In the first four weeks of this summer, in Beirut alone there were six explosions and several deaths, almost all of them from car bombs. One could expect the Beirutis to get frightened and spend their nights at home – but not the Lebanese. While bombs explode on the surface, they have fun in the underground and on top of buildings. Bars that sit on the terraces of hotels and commercial buildings were resuscitated by necessity and pack every night, though tourists failed to show up this summer. The resilience of the Lebanese is such that last year's war with Israel was barely over and construction works started the next day. Since then till now, in one single ten-block area in the neighbourhood of Gemayze, 14 new bars and restaurants have been opened. Fear – the Lebanese seem to insist – is a failure bigger than death.

When he was here in 1997, Pope John Paul II said something that synthesises the fascination exerted by this place: " Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message". Confined in a small area (88km in its wider part and about 220 km in length, almost half the size of Sergipe), the four million Lebanese in the country represent a social and religious diversity among the richest in the world. In a region dominated by religious fundamentalism, where the colours of the individual are diluted in a monochromatic behaviour, Lebanon is an oasis of freedom in a desert of prohibitions. And I noticed that the first day I arrived here.

After two years working in Egypt, at the end of 2001 some friends and I came to ski in the snowy mountains of Lebanon. The Lebanese like to boast that in their country one can ski in the snow and in less than half an hour be at sea swimming. But the contrasts here go far beyond geography – and that is the message the Pope was referring to. While in Egypt a group of men were awaiting trial under the 'accusation' of being homosexuals, on my first night in Beirut I saw the unthinkable: public displays of affection between people of the same sex. In Lebanon there is even an association founded for the protection of homosexuals – moral protection, not physical. This is because, according to George Azzi, coordinator of Helem (dream, in Arabic), in Lebanon there have been no cases of attacks against homosexuals, as those committed by skinheads in Europe or the United States. "Gays and lesbians have here a freedom that one cannot see anywhere else in the Middle East , but we still have a lot to do in order to eliminate the stigma within the families". After years living here, I am still surprised at the diversity, though I keep bumping into it on every corner.
Images of the Virgin Mary punctuate the city, sharing space with Iranian ayatollahs. Women with their head covered walk by the corniche side by side with friends exposing legs and bellybuttons. At the end of the year, Christmas trees decorate the streets, and in downtown Beirut, late afternoon, one can hear a religious battle that has a charm of its own: church bells and muezzins in the mosque try to see who can call for prayer the loudest. While in Saudi Arabia red roses are taken from the market during Valentine's Day, since this is considered a pagan celebration, in Lebanon even Muslims have the nativity scene at home, in a religious syncretism that would put people in jail or send them to death in other countries in the region. But freedom, like almost every concept, is relative.

Having just arrived from Egypt, where more women were opting for the niqab, the full veil, in Lebanon I felt that freedom seemed to suffer another type of oppression, albeit consented. Women here had so much plastic surgery and silicone in their faces that some of them became deformed. According to data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, in proportional numbers Lebanon occupies the fourth place in the plastic surgery rank, and in absolute numbers it is the 22nd in the world. The demand for plastic surgery is so high that a Lebanese bank ended up launching a whole loan exclusive for plastic surgeries. According to George Nasr, Marketing Manager of First National Bank, "the number of surgeries here grows more than 100% every year". But in their quest for impossible perfection, some women looked like inflatable dolls. Plastic surgery today is a little more subtle, but five years ago the permanent black contour on the lips was so ostensive that a friend used to describe the women who had it as "black belts in blow-job". For me, Lebanon was beginning to make sense: good or bad taste, extravagance or simplicity, it was refreshing to be in a country where one is free to copy or innovate, hide or reveal, be what one wants to be – or almost.

In a philosophical contortionism, for some the freedom to show invades the freedom to not see. As soon as I got here I was confronted with a very emblematic example of this situation. When one drives on the highway from the north of Beirut (Junieh, Christian area) to the south of the city (Ouzai, Shiia area), the horizon of billboards changes drastically. In Junieh, billboards advertised a jeans brand showing women wearing practically no jeans at all. But as soon as one gets to Ouzai, close to the international airport, one has the impression of being in another country: photos of women baring nothing more than their shoulders were blacked out with paint to hide what they dared to reveal. According to Hughette Nassar, Sales Manager of Pikasso, the biggest billboard company in Lebanon, the problem is not restricted to the Shiia areas controlled by Hezbollah. "In Dahie (Shiia area) as well as in Saida (Sunni city south of Beirut), Pikasso simply does not show women on the billboards, unless they are completely dressed. It is not the law that forbids the billboards, but the local customs, and we respect those customs".

The only time I needed to cover my hair was when I interviewed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the shiia group Hezbollah. In 2003, after having paid them a few visits and having probably been investigated, the party accepted my request to interview its leader, the first exclusive interview for a Latin American journalist. The excessive security is not for nothing: reporter and photographer are two of the professions most used as cover for spies, and Lebanon is considered by specialists as having the largest proportional number of intelligence agents in the world. Two former agents who worked as spies in Lebanon were contacted by this reporter, Alastair Crooke (ex-MI6) and Robert Baer (ex-CIA), but they refused to confirm or deny the information. Regardless of how many spies are working in the country, Hezbollah is certainly one of the biggest targets of intelligence agencies operating in the region. After the end of the civil war, which lasted 15 years and killed around 150 thousand people, Hezbollah as the only militia in Lebanon allowed by the government to keep its weapons. Unlike other groups in the civil war which used to fight each other, Hezbollah was created with the declared objective of fighting for the liberation of Lebanon, occupied by Israel.

But nothing is clear or definitive in the Lebanese civil war. The first time I watched the 12 hours of the longest documentary on the subject, Harb Lebnan, I had to rewind the DVD all the time, thinking I had misunderstood the story. Apologising to the Lebanese friends who were probably watching that story for the umpteenth time, I used to put the blame on my short-term memory: "Sorry, guys, I thought that militia was fighting against the other one, I must have missed something". "No you didn't", was the answer, "you saw it correctly – they just changed sides". But it was not only the Lebanese who fought each other. The list of countries directly involved in the Lebanese civil war shows the strategic importance of this land, and how it was used as a field for other battles. Throughout its 15 years, the Lebanese civil war had the participation (through money, militias and/or armies) of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, Libya, Iraq, Iran, the Vatican, Jordan, Egypt, Russia, PLO, USA, Franca, Italy and others.

One of the scenes in Harb Lebnan that made me believe my brownie was enhanced was when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in 1982. In one of those paradoxes that are not often discussed, the Israeli army was welcomed to Lebanon with rice and rose water, kindly cast upon them by no less than Shiia inhabitants of the South. This is because the Palestinians, taking refuge also in the South, tried to liberate their land attacking Israel – but those who got the retaliation back on their heads were the Shiia living in the area. The Palestinians, who in large part were the trigger for the civil war in the country, today are confined in 12 refugee camps, 400 thousand of them living in conditions that would put the Brazilian favelas to shame. In their fourth generation, the majority are made of people without a passport, without the right to own a property, without the right to work on any specialised profession, from engineer to lawyer, doctor to teacher, and without the right to become a Lebanese citizen, even after decades living here. There are two main reasons for the almost total lack of rights by the Palestinians, one is openly declared, the other not so much. The first is that Arabs believe that the Palestinians have the right to the land from which they were expelled, specially the ones
taken by Israel after the creation of the Jewish state, beyond the borders sanctioned by the United Nations. The other reason is that in Lebanon the political power is shared among the religions, according to the number of citizens in each religion. If 400,000 Palestinians were naturalised, the power – numerical and therefore political – would be in the hands of the Sunnis, the religion of the absolute majority of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon.

For those who think there was only one concept of democracy, the Lebanese political system is an eye-opener. So far, the concept of democracy for me was the one taught by Rousseau: the will of the majority. But even Rousseau made a caveat: the will of the majority can only be democratic if this majority is volatile, mobile, and at each election is composed of different people. If the majority group is always the same, then the system becomes a type of tyranny of the majority. Thus, let us suppose the majority of Lebanon citizens are Sunnis: if each voter has the right to a vote, the will of the majority would always be the will of the Sunnis. To avoid this and other distortions, Lebanon has a political system almost unique in the world, known as Consociationalism.

Under this system, the government is shared among the religions: the president of the country is always a Maronite Christian (the Maronite Church has its own liturgy but accepts the authority of the Pope), the prime-minister is always a Sunni Muslim and the leader of parliament is a Shiia Muslim. The parliament is also divided: half of the seats go to the Christians (among them Greek-Orthodox, Romans, Armenians) and the other half goes to Muslims (Shiia, Sunni, Druse). One of the problems with such partition is that the religious demographics in Lebanon today are different from when the rule was created. Scared by war and religious fundamentalism, and with less children per household compared to other religions, Christians no longer make half of the country's population, and therefore should not have the right to half of the government. But if the numbers do not match, just hide the numbers: since 1932 there has been no official census in the country.

While politics and religion sleep in the same bed, political chiefs acquire an almost holy status, and religious leaders meddle in politics. The incestuous relation causes situations rarely seen in other countries. In my Master's thesis in Political Science about the personality cult in Lebanon, a collection of over a thousand pictures shows how the religious-political allotment of the government ends up creating anomalies – some of them, fascinating. One of the most venerated Christian leaders in the country, the ex-warlord Samir Geagea, accused of having killed more Christians than Muslim militiamen, has photo-montages spread around the city in which he is posing with none other than Christ himself, and with the founder of the Maronite Church. Pictures of Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief who is almost as much a religious leader as he is a politician, decorate the walls of student dorms along the photos of Che Guevara. Yet other posters manage to be endearing for how much they reflect a popular will, rather than reality. That is the case with the billboards of Musa Sadr, perhaps one of the most courageous and rational political-religious leaders ever to live in Lebanon. Founder of the Movement of the Deprived, the Shiia leader used to lecture in churches and Christian schools, and used to say that the Koran and Science could not be in contradiction. In his book "The Vanished Imam", Fouad Ajami claims that Sadr got to say that if the Koran and Science determined different things, either the Koran – or the interpretation we make of it – would have to be wrong. As could have been expected, Sadr did not last long. In 1978, in a visit to Libya, the Shiia leader disappeared, probably assassinated. But for many Shiias, Sadr is the Mahdi, the hidden Imam who is alive and will return one day to rule his people. Posters of Sadr are spread around the city, with a detail that is almost imperceptible: rejecting the evidence that the leader is dead, in some of the paintings and montage Sadr's beard continues to grow grey.

In one of those incursions into the Shiia neighbourhoods to take photos of political and religious leaders, I ended up in Haret el Horeik, where the offices of Hezbollah are located. With the help of Ali, a Shiia driver, I kept on shooting photos, usually from inside the car, of the pictures of martyrs who died fighting Israel and the Iranian Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, omnipresent in the area. But at a certain moment a Hezbollah member, tall, strong, wearing a earpiece and carrying a radio, comes towards me and says I cannot take pictures in that area. "Why?" I asked. "Because you can't", he answered. I retorted saying that Lebanon was a free country and he was not an authority. "No", he said, I was wrong: that was a security area and he was indeed an authority. He asked me if I knew anyone from Hezbollah. I was going to say "Hassan Nasrallah", but until then I hadn't thought it was necessary. I said I knew Hussein Naboulsi, head of Public Relations in the party. The man then gets away, makes a phone call, comes back and tells me to call Naboulsi and "solve my problem". I respond saying "the one who has a problem is Naboulsi, not me. He has my number, he can call me". My problem, in fact, was not with Hezbollah, though somehow it is as well, but with authorities that authorised themselves a little too much, regardless of their political inclination – I am almost democratic in my disrespect of authority. In downtown Beirut, reformed and made into a private company whose main shareholder was Prime-Minister Rafic Hariri (in opposite camp to that of Hezbollah), private security personnel asked me to go and register in Solidere, the company that manages the area, so that I could use my movie camera. "I prefer to be arrested than ask permission from a private company to film a public area", I said. It worked. But with Hezbollah, it didn't. After refusing to call Naboulsi, Ali and I could not get in the car again. We were approached by several Hezbollah agents, all very big, polite, and incisive: they wanted to see the pictures I took. Until then I thought the problem were my photos of Khomeini. In a very broken Arabic, I would squeak "you revere Ayatollah, you put photo Ayatollah all over and I no can make photo of photo?" How silly of me – the Ayatollah was not the problem. At that time I didn't know, but those posters I photographed were plastered precisely on the walls of Hezbollah's security buildings, which a few months later would be destroyed in the Israeli bombing in July 2006. In the forty minutes that followed, Ali and I had to fill forms, give our passport number, contact, telephone, address, and we were taken to a parking lot where armed men were guarding I don't know what. When it looked like that drag was about to end, other men showed up, and with all the education in the world, without touching anyone, convinced me to delete some of the photos in my camera. At that moment, amidst the more than a thousand pictures that fit in my camera card, I see one photo that could help me: there I was, hijab covering my hair, sitting pretty with Hassan Nasrallah, a photo I had left in my camera in case I should need it. But the photo made no difference at all – or perhaps it did, for the worse. For the Hezbollah security men, I suppose, if I were a spy that picture could only be further evidence that I was doing a great job. I had already read the book By Way of Deception, written by a probable ex-Mossad agent describing the way they work, and after that the paranoia made all sense. The book, unfortunately, is not sold in Brazil. When it looked like everything was about to end, and both Ali and I thought we are going to be let go, one of the Hezbollah guys gets in the car with us. "What on earth is that, Ali?" I ask, thinking the situation is ceasing to be funny. "We are being taken to the headquarters", he says. I froze. But I tried to keep my cool. Breath in. Breath out. I tried to find something to do. I opened my camera and started looking at old pictures, remembering the happy moments: my beach house, my relatives, the wedding of my friend Dushanka in Italy, when we ended up swimming naked in a volcanic lake, the… QUE??? Pause to avoid fainting. I could not believe it. Right after my photo with Nasrallah,
there we were, eight friends, including me, walking out of the volcanic lake in pairs, hand in hand, completely naked, each one with his/her underwear covering the hair… My god. How the hell do I delete this? Does it help that I covered my head? The worst part is that those pictures had that bloody little key sign on them, protected from deletion, and I had no idea how to erase them. I started to tremble. We arrived.

The three of us went up in an elevator of a very simple building. We stopped on a certain floor. A door opens. A man with a calm voice, bare foot, and a hand over his heart, says "salam aleikom". "Waaleikom salam", I answer. "Your camera", he says in English, before letting me in. U-oh. Pause to think. Nothing came up. "I can't", I say. "The camera, please", he repeats, in a more serious tone. "Sorry, sir, but I cannot give you my camera". "Why? What is in there?" he asks. "Personal pictures", I try. "Personal?" "Yes, personal, private". "I need your camera. What are those photos?" The tension was pretty noticeable. Ali, without knowing what to do, with his eyes open wide, didn't blink and did not move a muscle. The other men seemed to be waiting for an order. As for me, I don't remember well, but I think that in the absence of a better option, I just started to whistle mentally, looking around and conveying the unspoken message that the Hezbollah guy should not touch that or he would need to wash his hands forever. Ali looks scared. And then the Hezbollah man insists again, "Give me that camera". At that point I was not mentally whistling anymore. I became afraid that I could be dealing with an Islamic fundamentalist who, lacking the grounds to accuse me of being an Israeli spy, would arrest me for indecent exposure. He insisted: "What are those pictures?" Ali looked at me. I looked at Ali. We all looked at each other. I couldn't bear the suspense anymore and shot: "I have pictures of myself, naked". Shock. Silence. I begun to feel sorry for Ali. But that's when I had the big surprise: the Hezbollah official puts his hand over his heart, apologises and says I can keep the camera. "But give me your phone", he says. The machine, not the number. I did.

Yet my nightmare was far from over. Ali and I were taken to a corridor with several doors, all with a number on it and at the same distance from each other. I didn't like it. The Hezbollah official opens one of them. It was a tiny room, something like 2m x 1.5m, with a mirror covering one of the walls, two small speakers close to the ceiling, a simple plastic stool facing the mirror and an accessory that somehow triggered my fear: an ashtray. "Come in", the man says, politely, like someone inviting a guest in. "No, thanks, I will wait here", I answer, like a guest who doesn't want to impose. "No, no, sit down". "No thanks, I am fine here". "Madame, you have to sit down". "But I don't want to". I could see Ali sweating cold. Someone comes and tells him something. He turns to me and says, "Please enter, Paula, it's better". I do, and as soon as I step in the door is shut and locked behind me. Ali was also locked in another room. Seeing that the situation was irreversible, I sat down and tried to relax. I begun singing a bossa-nova in Arabic, which despite the strangeness of the language, is probably the most beautiful version ever recorded of Sabia, from Chico and Tom, transformed in Min Zaman by the Lebanese Paul Salem. But I had forgotten the lyrics and preferred to stop singing, afraid I would say something wrong (like the day I was searching for a restaurant called Saiah, a proper name, and ended up asking where was the restaurant "Sahioun". Facing the most puzzled look in the world, someone was kind enough to tell me that there would hardly be a restaurant in Lebanon called "Zionist". Despite all the odds, there is indeed one - Sahioun is also a family name.) And the life in the cubicle was boring. I didn't have much to do. I looked at myself in the mirror. I stared and stared. I got tired of my face and, in the interminable infinite of the next minutes, I started making funny faces in the mirror, in case there was someone behind it as bored as I was. While I made funny faces and saw nothing beyond that, everything was fine. But then from behind the mirror a door opened and, with the light that got in, I managed to see two guys laughing like malignant gargoyles, bwaahahaha – that, of course, was my mind reinterpreting what was certainly inoffensive laughter, provoked by my own funny faces. But the mind is something really fascinating, and a mind with fear is even more so. In a matter of seconds, I remembered the most sordid details of the book "An Evil Cradling", the real story of a professor in the American University of Beirut who was kidnapped during the civil war by a shiia movement (not Hezbollah, probably Islamic Jihad in Lebanon). In captivity for four years, Keenan was used as exchange currency between fundamentalists groups and foreign governments involved in the civil war. In one of the most terrorising passages, the author is approached by one of the wardens. Kind and nice, the guardian asks Keenan to teach him English. Happy to have a
purpose and make a friend in the solitude of that dungeon, Brian Keenan teaches English to his captor everyday. But the same man who was so docile during the day comes at night to Keenan's cell and, with a voice forcefully different, screams at his captive saying things like "you, aids, fuck, America satan" while beating the hell out of Brian Keenan. When I saw those two gargoyles laughing, the whole thing came to my mind and I had only reaction: I started hitting the door with my hands, so hard and frantic that they started to bleed. I transferred the task to the feet, kicking the door while screaming "moukhabaratak khara" – your intelligence service sucks. Under a lot of stress, silly me started to 'threaten' Hezbollah, saying that from then on they would have me as an enemy. I certainly didn't scare anyone and at that point the gargoyles may have been rolling on the floor with laughter, but after eternal ten minutes (yes, it was only that), the door opened and the man returned with my telephone, apologising, again with his hand over his heart, bowing in a sign of respect. And I, like a child who realises that someone else realised she fell down, finally begun to cry.

According to Amal-Saad Ghorayeb, a scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion, one of the best-selling books about the group, "Hezbollah does not pursue religious objectives but strategic, political and social ones". Indeed, the Party of God is more rational than its name suggests. And it is hard to see this rationality outside of Lebanon. One of the quaintest religious celebrations in the world is the Ashoura, when the Shiia commemorate the assassination of Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, in 680. Every year, shiia followers gather in several cities in the Middle East and simulate Hussein's suffering in a ritual of self-flagellation. In Nabatieh, south of Lebanon, the spectacle is more grotesque than in places like Iraq, and it is reserved for those who have no problem with someone else's blood. Men of different ages, including children, queue up to have their forehead cut by a knife, generally with one single strike, in a part of the forehead from where the blood spurts more easily. The blood bath is supposed to denote faith, but what I really noticed was the good old macho exhibitionism taking a form I had not seen yet – the more the blood, the bigger the pride. What many people don't know is that, despite being an old shiia tradition, every year the leader Hassan Nasrallah goes on TV and, condemning the ritual, tells the Shiia followers the same thing: he recommends that instead of wasting blood, people donate it to hospitals.

In a country where critical thinking and religious dogma walk together, though avoiding the same sidewalk, extreme contradictions happen even in areas where the residents share the same religion. Baalbeck, a predominantly shiia city where Hezbollah has the majority of the votes, is looking more and more like Iran, and women cover themselves with the chador. In the town that boasts the largest temple in the world dedicated to Bacchus, it is hard to find alcohol beyond the Palmira Hotel, and drug consumption is seen as anathema, even of the local hashish, the famous Red Lebanese – in the good old times, hashish export was one of the biggest source of foreign currency in Lebanon. Today, with hashish production all but forbidden by the United States through the pressure of entities like USAID and the World Bank, plus the threat of being included in lists like the Axis of Evil, Lebanon is destroying its plantations – and poverty keeps on increasing. The produce that replaced hashish, among them the tomato, unfortunately doesn't fetch the same price per kilo. (Meanwhile, in America there are already 12 states where the medical consumption of cannabis is legal, and in at least one of them, New Mexico, a recent law determines that the state itself plant and distribute the cannabis). For the Lebanese economist Marwan Iskandar, "it seems a bit perplexing that Lebanon has to abandon growing hashish to please the US and UN authorities over a restriction that has become debatable (…). While Lebanese farmers suffer loss of income, hashish smokers in the US, the UK, Holland and other European countries enjoy the produce of Turkey and Afghanistan". But notwithstanding the US and Hezbollah, one can still get hashish in Baalbeck, even if it is hard to find the rolling paper – hard, that is, to the uninitiated. To evade the whistleblowers and the nosy, hash consumption created a small anomaly that may be making knots in the heads of some Japanese executives.

As an homage to god (god Bacchus), a group of friends went out to find rolling paper. I went with them. In the car, one of them, a resident of Baalbeck, insisted that we searched for a pharmacy or supermarket. I found it strange, since rolling paper in Lebanon is bought from petrol stations and newsstands (the Brazilian Aleda, transparent, is the best selling paper in many places). Stopping by a supermarket, my friend chose not to leave the car but insisted: you can ask for the paper, they have it. We asked the cashier and, without looking at us, he pointed at the cosmetics shelf. We were intrigued, looking at the shelf and seeing nothing. Noticing we were not locals, the cashier came closer and took from the shelf the most unlikely rolling paper I have ever seen, after the pages of the New Testament: a little pack by Shiseido with a wad of "oil blotting paper", a rice paper that absorbs excessive oil from the skin without messing the makeup. The Shiseido executives must be having smoke coming out of their brains trying to figure out how such product would sell so well precisely in an area where so many women chose to wear the chador.

Hashish is used practically in the whole Middle East region. There are no statistics but one can find hash with ease in places like Egypt, and even in Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, during the civil war hash became currency used to buy weapons from Israeli soldiers who occupied some areas in the country. One of the stories I know was told by a former member of the Christian militia Lebanese Forces. In one of his dealings to buy and sell weapons, he was left with a brick-size piece of hash. With so much abundance, the guy threw a party in his chalet in the mountains, turned on the fireplace and, as he was not a smoker himself, placed the hash brick among the wood, burning more than two kilos of the drug in one go. Last summer, one of the complaints of the Israeli youth during the war was that hashish had disappeared from Israel – during its conflict with Lebanon, drug smuggling between the two countries was stopped. But stories of the war are rarely so harmless. One of them is so extraordinary that it seems to have been made up – but it hasn't.

In Marjayoun, a mostly Christian village in the south of Lebanon, the situation seemed awful for General Adnan Daoud in August 2006. Near the border with Israel, with missiles and rockets flying over his head, the general led a small military-police joint force that could barely protect itself, let alone the local residents. A few days from the end of the conflict, the post of General Daoud was invaded by the Israeli army in what would still become one of the most surreal stories of the latest war. Under the threat of a military power infinitely bigger than his, and incapable of defending his troops, the general didn't hesitate: when he was invaded, he applied what the Lebanese do best, the hospitality, and served tea to the invaders. Inviting the Israelis to come in, the general showed them that there were no Hezbollah guerrillas in the place, and that his arsenal was practically harmless. But the civility was not reciprocated – nor the honesty.

According to accounts of the Israeli soldiers themselves confirming Daoud's version, the general's hospitality was going to be rewarded: around 3,000 refugees and soldiers would be able to leave the town in safety, in a convoy that would leave from a specific place and time. Despite the agreement, in an outcome that many Arabs see as a lesson about the Israeli style, the convoy followed the pre-determined route at the right time, but even then was bombarded by the Israeli Air Force, killing at least seven people and hurting dozens. But Daoud's drama was far from over. Adding insult to injury, the Israeli visitors, ill-mannered, had filmed the Lebanese hospitality and showed the scenes to the whole world. In utter disgrace, Daoud saw himself showing the premises and serving tea to the invaders. Daoud was arrested, and policemen that did not even participate in the story had to swallow for a long time the humiliation of having cars passing by their station and people screaming from the window "Can I have some tea, please".

But Israel, despite being the only country officially in a state of war with Lebanon, is not its only enemy. Since 2005, politicians who had previously had an unctuous relationship with Syria begun to resent the neighbour's power and its intrusion in local politics – till then, practically no politician could be elected in Lebanon without the blessings of the Assad family, which has been ruling Syria for the past 37 years. The group's major demand became the withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had been stationed in the country since the civil war with the consent of Lebanon, which needed an external power to protect the Lebanese against the Lebanese. Rafiq Hariri, the billionaire who was five times prime-minister, responsible for a large part of the debt and corruption in the country but also for its post-war reconstruction, decided to head the anti-Syrian movement. In February 2005, with a blast that broke windows in buildings two kilometres away from the scene, 300 kg of explosives killed Hariri and at least 20 other people. After that, other politicians and journalists opposed to Syria were killed, usually in car-bomb explosions, one of them gunned down in broad daylight, in the middle of traffic. I asked Saad Hariri, the son who inherited his father political sceptre, if he saw any possibility, albeit remote, that
Syria was not responsible for those crimes. "No", he said. "All the people assassinated followed the same political line. Maybe the tool was different, but the source was the same". The last victim was murdered in June. The government, which still has a small majority in parliament, has its members hiding somewhere – if three more die, the government loses its majority and may be toppled.

Since Hariri's assassination Lebanon has been divided, despite the supposed union resulted from the war with Israel. To explain in a simple way a question that is beyond complicated, on one side of the divide there is the government, in its majority Christian and Sunni Muslim, which after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops has been demanding the disarming of Hezbollah. On the other side there is Hezbollah, Syria, and some Christian parties allied more out of political convenience than ideology. According to Hezbollah's rhetoric, the opposition alleges that the army doesn't have the power to defend Lebanon against an Israeli attack, and therefore Hezbollah's weapons are justified. They are also against the International Tribunal that will try the suspects of Rafiq Hariri's assassination and of the other politicians and journalists, adversaries of the Syrian regime. The government accuses the opposition of playing the game of Syria and Iran, the biggest supporter of Hezbollah. The opposition accuses the government of following orders from America and Israel. Last year, tension increased when sympathisers of the opposition camped in downtown Beirut .

Since December 1st, hundreds of tents and hundreds of Hezbollah members changed the layout of downtown Beirut. Camped in front of the prime-minister's office, they demand a new government in which the opposition would have more power in order to, among other things, vetoed the creation of the international tribunal. Months after a war with Israel that left more than 1,200 dead, destroyed more than 80 bridges, several telecommunications antennas, exploded water reservoirs and polluted the beaches with oil spills, the occupation of downtown Beirut is another blow against the Lebanese economy. Full with bars, cafes, shops and nightclubs, the capital's centre is one of the biggest attractions for rich Gulf tourists. After the 9/11 attacks, Arab tourists who ceased to be welcome in Europe and United States come to Lebanon to spend their money, fomenting an industry that until recently was Lebanon's third largest source of foreign income.

Today, downtown Beirut is practically dead, and that is more owed to Hezbollah than Israel – so says Michael Karam, editor of Executive Magazine, one of the best-selling English-written business magazines in the Middle East . According to Karam, "Since the occupation of downtown by Hezbollah sympathisers, 80 commercial establishments have been closed". According to Paul Ariss, president of the Restaurant and Nightclub Owners Association, 30 of those businesses closed permanently. As soon as Hezbollah militants started to replace tourists, an ideological war started. This time, the weapon was the billboard.

In the advertising war that took place, sympathisers of the government and the opposition started to spread billboards around the city. Using the heart sign to replace the verb 'to love', the two sides were fighting to prove who loves Lebanon and life the most – or who can spend more money claiming so. "I love life", says the pro-government billboard, alluding to the supposed ease with which Hezbollah members give their lives for the party's cause. "I love life – with dignity", retorted Hezbollah. The pro-government executives then tried to clarify their concept of life: "I have school", "I am going to work", "I want to go out", said the billboards. "I love life without foreign interference", insisted Hezbollah, accusing the government of extra-marital relations with the West while forgetting its own affair with Iran and Syria. According to Eli Khoury, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Levant and founder of the pro-government campaign, "we are independent, but we cannot afford the luxury to be neutral". More than 1.2 million dollars have been spent in a war so full of love that was becoming nauseating. The campaign inspired other people and, professing a less elevated love, shops and other businesses started to make their own billboards like "I love carpet", "I love jewellery". Lebanese with a knack for creativity, and without political affiliation, printed their own posters with the photo of politicians and religious leaders from all parties and, above the pictures, the line "I love life – without them". And to prove that Lebanon is a country where Socratian wisdom may bump into people all the time, even I started admitting a love that, years ago, I would only have professed under torture. In a country where almost all levels of the government are divided by religion, and where the army is practically the only institution where all religions are fighting together for a common cause, I painted my own t-shirt: "I love the Lebanese army". Walking by the seaside corniche, passing by people of all colours and beliefs, I hear, even if timidly, Lebanese of unknown religions yelling back "me too".


Leo Vidigal said...

Olá, meu nome é Leo Vidigal, sou descendente de cristãos maronitas sírios, meu bisavô veio de uma aldeia que fica perto do Krak de Chevaliers, perto da fronteira sul. Me preocupo muito com a situação aí com essa ameaça de guerra civil rondando novamente o Líbano. Gostei da sua materia na RS, estou tentando emplacar uma lá sobre a Jamaica. Não tenho tido muito tempo para ver TV, então não sei o que vc está falando sobre a nova crise, mas quem sabe você não nos coloca mais a par do que está rolando aí? Na Folha saiu um artigo dizendo que o exército vêm se mantendo neutro, será essa uma postura correta?
Acredito que vc deve estar com muito trabalho, com seu mestrado e tudo, sei disso muito bem, estou tentando terminar meu doutorado em comunicação. Mas seria legal se vc pudesse nos dar mais inside informations nesse momento tão crucial. No mais, keep the good work. Abraço,

Leo Vidigal

Anonymous said...

Awesome article! LOVE IT!