Flooded with refugees, without even a President in charge, Lebanon is a country divided. Will it survive?
THIS is not much of a town. A hushed higgle of neat streets and dusty whitewashed shuttered windows, gardens and bright winter flowers.
A mosque, a church, a little cafe, a sleeping cat, an old woman shaded at an upstairs window. A rural town that’s too quiet, with bated breath. There’s a vegetable market at the weekend. We’re surrounded by vineyards and claggy fields of rich brown tilth that stretch away to a ridge of hills that simmer in the milky sunlight. On the further side is the Syrian border. The mayor of Al-Marj, Nazem Saleh, sits behind his heavy ornate desk, a sarcophagus of civic good intentions. There is a flatscreen TV that plays silent news and another that shows silent football, there are basketball trophies on the shelf and a sidekick on a low chair. All Middle Eastern mayors come with a straight man. Saleh laughs as he waits for us to be served coffee: Nescafé and then thick Arabic in little cups. He laughs, not because anything is funny, but to put us at our ease. Nothing here is funny.
“We need help urgently.” He runs his fingers through his purple-black hair and strokes his moustache. “We need money and resources from government, from outside, from charities. The situation is critical.” Al-Marj has a particular and pressing problem that is repeated up and down the border: that the indigenous population will be outnumbered by the other – incomers, refugees. The inhabitants are now a minority in their own home. It’s the same terror always evoked by fist-waving politicians. “We can’t cope,” he says and tugs a cuff. “It’s not safe. I want a curfew. We need police, soldiers.”
“Have there been incidents?” I ask. He shrugs and waves a hand, indicating not yet. “But there are our women,” he says obliquely. “And they [refugees] break into the water pipes and they become polluted. There is no sewerage system. They steal electricity from the pylons. There is a danger of disease and wages are falling. Refugees will work for very little. There is no work for local men.” He talks of what the town once was. What does he think will happen to it now? Again, the laugh. “That is politics beyond my responsibility,” he says. He has opinions, of course, but they’re personal. OK, what sort of town does he think his son and daughter will inherit? The smile fades, his baggy eyes grow hard and angry. “They are already planning on leaving,” he says.
Lebanon has an indigenous population of about 4 million. There are now 1.5 million Syrian refugees; add that to 500,000 Palestinians who have been here for a generation and a sizeable population of Iraqis and Sudanese. This gives it the highest proportion of refugees of any country on the globe. If refugees were valuable, Lebanon would be the richest nation in the world. But they’re not. The largest industry was once tourism. They’ve swapped holidays for disaster relief – and the World Food Program, which is feeding most of these incomers, has announced it is going to have to cut rations because the First World has reneged on its promises to support.
Winter is coming and this little nation is floundering and sinking into something dire, and here’s the punchline: Lebanon has no government. There is no one on the bridge. Its reaction to the crisis has been to agree to disagree. There hasn’t been a president since May last year. The nation bobs in the swell of the most turbulent politics in the world, surrounded by enemies, anarchy and draconian fundamentalism, not just without a Plan B, but with no Plan A to begin with. But maybe a non-administration is preferable to any of the practical alternatives in a region where a century of hardline conviction has spread the misery thick as hummus.
On the edge of a fallow field, a child reclines on a pile of rubbish. His mother, aunts and sisters are sifting through the stinking garbage. They pull apart remnants of cotton and spools of lace trim. It might, for a moment, be a mad bridal fitting, but they’re looking for things to burn. There are no trees. Tiny bundles of kindling are prohibitively expensive. They need to heat their plastic-sheeting huts and cook their potatoes. A woman sits in the thick mud of a ruined onion factory and makes flatbread on a tiny rubble oven. The gagging aroma of burning plastic masks the comforting smell of baking.
Syrians have always come to these fields. They arrived as agricultural workers and built seasonal huts, to pick grapes. The civil war has sent them back with their families, their neighbours, whole towns. The shanties have taken over the fields. They pay a little rent to the farmers, who now make more money from growing humans than they did from the onions. The camps are squalid affairs, built from borrowed, begged and found materials. Sheets of corrugated iron and plastic, billboards held down with old tyres. Here is one made from a Bentley advertisement, another from a poster for dream flats. Here is the mascaraed, blonde, provocatively vacuous face of a Lebanese soap star sheltering a family from Homs.
The tiny alleys between the shelters are slimy quagmires of muddy sewerage. Children’s feet are boluses of sticky mire. Their faces are rimed with snot and filth. A little girl sits on a chair of detritus watching an empty TV without a screen, describing imaginary programs to her muck-dressed doll. Her fantasy game is to imagine peace, home and normality.
These camps are unofficial and vulnerable, rudimentarily tended by NGOs and the UNHCR. Lebanon won’t allow official camps, wary of what has happened in Jordan – where the huge Zaatari camp has become an unpoliced city of gangs, anger and despair – and its own experience with the Palestinian camps, which precipitated its civil war in the ’70s. Large concentrations of refugees have political momentum, power and gravity. These small, insecure pockets salted into the population keep their heads down to avoid problems.
Lebanon has had a left hand, right hand attitude to the refugees: officially it has been strident and tough, offering little help or consolation, but the Lebanese individually have been astonishingly generous. A million and a half displaced souls have been given shelter. There has been little open hostility to them. Almost everyone I ask says locals have been personally kind.
Nasreen is 35. Her husband, a carpenter, is still in Syria. She found refuge in a small shop front in Saida, the third largest city. The war has been bad for business, so, like the farmers, landlords now stock people instead of frocks and tourist tat. In one small room, she lives with a pile of mattresses, her three daughters – aged 15, 13 and eight – and a toddler. Nasreen was gassed while pregnant, her health is bad, she worries about the effect on her sleeping child. She also has two boys, 10 and nine. She is given food vouchers every month; she spends it all on biscuits and the boys sell the biscuits on the road. She has to make $150 a month in rent. She’s quiet, close to tears. The girls sit like silent owls in their tight hijabs, close like buffers against a wind of sorrow. She worries about the boys. People shout at them for begging and the roads are dangerous. Just imagine being a nine-year-old lad and knowing that every morning you’re responsible for the lives of a family of seven.
The milk of human kindness is growing sour in Lebanon, tired out by the huge weight of the refugees and the horror of the war that’s leaching across the border with them. Isis and the al-Nusra Front have kidnapped Lebanese soldiers and are executing them. In the cafes there are comically grim comparisons between al-Nusra, who shoot their victims in the back of the head and tweet the death notices, and Isis, who saw their heads off and plaster the verities on YouTube. There is a palpable hardening of sympathies. The Lebanese were furious at how many Syrians went home to vote in the fixed, face-saving election of President Assad. It seems an affront to their hospitality. And there’s Hezbollah, crossing the border to fight on behalf of the Syrian government, which has plainly helped to turn the tide and elongate this war. Lebanon’s relationship with Syria was ever abusive.
I ask refugees in huts, in fields, in alleys, in queues, squatting in underground car parks, where they thought they would be in 10 years’ time. No one, not one, had a hopeful answer. Mostly they shook their heads and shrugged and stared at their hands, and offered a doubting Insha’Allah that they’d be home. Very few wanted to stay here. Even fewer wanted to move to the West, and only then to glean an education for their children. “I would give everything to lie on the dirt my home and my business stood on,” says one man, close to tears.
Driving back from the Bekaa Valley, past the mountain villages, under the Shi’ite martyrs’ flags, past the wayside Madonnas and the snow-dusted mountains, Beirut appears as by a magician’s trick. Seen through the trees, surrounded by the mountains – Ta-da! It is a great shining city, wearing the veil of the pale Mediterranean, a miraculous place. In this region, there is no other like it. Homogeneous, sophisticated, amused, garrulous, epicurean, safe. Surrounded by an angry, hunched and increasingly fractious state.
Within an hour of sitting in onion fields with the despairing Bedouin who have been given the worst choice of the 21st century, I found myself in a soigné street party of boutiques where everything cost a thousand dollars and came with a knowing, chic irony. Where a band played and there was champagne and delicious things on sticks, and folk air-kissed and were as glamorous and interesting and studiedly starry and beautiful as any gaggle you’d find anywhere in the cordoned, red-carpeted rest of the First World, except that these were better-looking. Beirut is a very handsome city: wide, knowing dark eyes, invitingly arched eyebrows and a discreet addict’s taste for plastic surgery. I’d see coveys of expensively animated women with hot, hot Semitic faces all looking down identical retroussé little oriental noses. “Look at her,” my Shi’ite Hezbollah-supporting driver says at a blonde with cleavage popping in a tiny, bum-clutching dress and vertiginous nude heels as she sashays past. “Can you tell if she’s Christian or Muslim?”
This is a city where everyone can tell and no one says. This is a city that was riven by religious divide in a civil war where the Palestinian refugees were massacred by the Christian Phalange and the Israelis, a war that cost this tiny country 150,000 lives, where the buildings are still shrapnel-dashed and everyone remembers a dead relative, a lost home. But it has managed to take a civilised breath and revert to being a liberal, sybaritic, separate but encompassing city, where mixed marriages are common and women can wear miniskirts next to their sisters in burqas.
“It has managed it by doing the opposite of the South Africans,” says a BBC reporter. Instead of a truth and reconciliation commission, where they talked about everything as therapy, here the Lebanese never talk about history. Like a fractious family, they maintain a fragile peace by pretending there’s nothing the matter and never mentioning the war. It’s really very English of them. “What is the prognosis for Lebanon?” I ask an American analyst of Lebanese extraction. “Well,” he says guardedly, “it’s not looking good.”
The country’s politics is based on the principle of athree-legged stool: it doesn’t matter how uneven the ground is, the stool doesn’t rock. The three major religions are each guaranteed a lever of power. Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister always a Sunni and the speaker always a Shi’ite.
The Christians lost a lot of their power after the civil war and no one really knows what their strength is because the last census was taken in 1932. The likelihood is the Shi’ites are the majority, but the influx of Palestinians, and now Syrians, increases the number of Sunnis in the country. The Sunnis are supported financially and politically by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the Shi’ites by Iran, and the Shi’ites support the Assad government because he is a member of the Alawites, a Shi’ite sect. The Christians have traditional links with Israel and Europe. The minorities include the Druze, a Muslim sect who believe in reincarnation (their population is growing, which is difficult to explain theocratically), and a Salafist movement (extreme Sunnis with a bad look of short trousers and beards without moustaches. Hipsters with attitude.)
At the moment, no one can agree on a president and their differences are becoming stronger than the imperative of getting along. The country is staggering under the weight of the refugees and the neighbours from hell. So what’s the prognosis in 10 years, I ask the analyst. “If you force me, I’d have to say it looks unlikely that there will be a recognisable Lebanon in 10 years.”
“Where is Israel in all of this?” I ask the resident correspondent for a US newspaper. “Well, interestingly, Israel is almost irrelevant at the moment,” she says. “Driving the Israeli occupation out of Lebanon was seen as being down to Hezbollah. They are the only regional force that ever beat the Israelis and they gained a lot of military bravado from that. They have a reputation for supplying grassroots community support: food, medical attention, setting up schools.”
All the religious factions do this. Lebanon has virtually no civic infrastructure; it’s all run piecemeal, by interested groups. “But did you know that when the LGBT community held its first ever press conference and rally in Beirut, Hezbollah supported the brothers and sisters. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else in the Middle East,” she points out.
So where does she think Lebanon will be in 10 years? “Oh, I don’t think there will be a Lebanon in 10 years, not as we know it.”
In the cafes of Beirut, couples smooch on dates, girls sit writing novels on computers, gangs of men watch football. Everyone still talks about politics, but only in the present tense. It’s a perennial obsession. Listening to this is like being pitched contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare: all the tragedies, histories and comedies are mirrored in Lebanese life. There are Caesars and Henrys, Shylocks and Romeos and Juliets, there are Lears and any number of Hamlets. It’s as if 400 years of European history was edited into a single lifetime in Lebanon.
“Look at this city, look at it.” A Lebanese journalist waves his hand across a cafe table. “What keeps it going? What keeps the boutiques, the restaurants, the beautiful apartments? What do you think keeps all of this aloft? Lebanon makes nothing. Do you drive a Lebanese car? Have you a Lebanese computer? No. Is there oil? No. Or gas? No. There is barely any water.
“What keeps this city bright and bustling? It is the diaspora. There are 10 million Lebanese abroad. We are the Phoenicians. We have always travelled and done business. West Africa, Latin America, Asia, Australia, you find Lebanese businessmen everywhere. They send money home.
“Have you heard of Lebanese banks? No? That’s because no one wants you to know about Lebanese banks. They are the most discreet and trustworthy in this part of the world. All the Saudi money, the backhanders, the gifts, the skimming, comes here. It is laid to rest in Lebanese banks, no questions asked. All the graft from the Gulf ends up here, all the opium money from Afghanistan comes here. The business of Beirut is a giant money laundry. We take in dirty laundry and hand you back clean sheets. That is why property prices are as high as New York.”
The table falls silent and another voice says, angrily: “You, from the west of the Mediterranean. You see refugees as the problem. They aren’t. They are a symptom. You see them in our fields as weeds, invasive species, but you never ask, ‘What is a weed, but a flower in the wrong garden?’ That is the real problem with Lebanon, and the whole Middle East: we are all flowers in the wrong garden. You English should understand this; this is the garden you planted.”
And I realise that around this table there is me, a Brit, Rena the photographer, who is Azerbaijani, my travelling companion from the UNHCR, who’s a Croat, a visiting aid worker, who’s an Afghan, a Shi’ite Lebanese, a Christian Lebanese, a Sunni Lebanese and an American, and we’re all perfectly at home in this place, with each other. “What would you have said,” I ask of the journalist, “if I had asked you the question 10 years ago: ‘What will happen to Lebanon?’ ”
“Ah!” he laughs and throws his hands in the air. “The same thing, of course. Lebanon can’t possibly survive.”
by AA Gill