The Fog of War.

“Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

So it would seem we’re in for another few months of what foreign media outlets will inevitably euphemistically call turmoil. Last week eleven ministers walked out of the Lebanese government, leading to its collapse. Not that the difference is immediately obvious, given the systemic paralysis the country ritually suffers from. We’ve come to expect very little from our leaders, all the while bestowing them with demi-god status. The result is that most Beirutis are pretty self-reliant, providing themselves with essential utilities the state fails to provide, like water and electricity.

However, it’s still nice to know there’s someone in power somewhere taking care of things, however badly. Saying I’m not particularly fond of Lebanese politics is the understatement of the decade. I wrote a piece in l’Orient Le Jour a couple of months back detailing the extent of my disdain for a system that has forced me to live for decades in lands that weren’t my own. Despite having a father who’s a political analyst and journalist, and having studied the politics of the Middle East for years at university, I have absolutely no interest in the country’s politics.
Politics is a pretty fancy word to describe the Machiavellian machinations a cabal of self-interested ideologues. I find my level of happiness in Lebanon is exactly correlated to how little news I read in a given week. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few good people in the system on all sides, but the overwhelming presence of corruption and pettiness drowns them out, and I’ve stopped caring about them too.

All I want is to be able to go to work in the morning without seeing 15 tanks on the way there. Without the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere today might grab his finest AK-47 and head out into the street. Knowing for sure that we’re not on the verge of armed conflict in the streets would be nice. You know, the simple things in life and whatnot.

I just want a normal life really. I want to make a career for myself; I want to be able to hang out with the people I love and even a few of those I don’t. I want the stress of my day to revolve around how much heart-clogging saturated fat was in my lunchtime sandwich, not around whether there are going to be a few armed thugs shooting at each other in the streets tonight. Or whether a car bomb is going to go off in my neighbourhood. Or whether the road to the airport is going to be blocked. I want to worry about my next paycheck and the health of my family, not about whether or not they’re going to get caught in the crossfire of what are essentially rival gangs.

Truth be told, were not there yet. Everything’s still pretty quiet. But a power vacuum is a dangerous thing. Every major regional power involved in negotiations with the conflicting parties has withdrawn from talks. They see no solution to what is intrinsically a zero-sum game. Everyone is fighting for survival and relevance. And this is not Belgium, where a lack government means people just drink a bit more beer, have some mussels and hate Walloons. People here have guns, and they haven’t been shy about using them in the past. The tension is palpable. The air is heavy. My food hasn’t tasted as good in the last week. The things that usually make me laugh out loud are barely raising a smile. Everything is infused with just a touch of melancholy. And it’s been getting to me.

My friends try to reassure me by saying things like “don’t worry, there won’t be a war. At most there’ll be a bomb or two and some rioting, then a few hundred guys from all factions will exchange gunfire, then they’ll strike a deal and it’ll be fine for a couple of years”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but that scenario scares the shit out of me.

I haven’t really ever experienced violence in Lebanon. I was here during the Israeli offensive in 1996, a spate of car bombings in 2005 but that’s about it. I grew up being scared of the IRA in London and was on the Piccadilly Line when some young Asian men decided to blow up some trains. I’m lucky that that’s the extent of my relationship with violence, and if people start shooting each other in the street, I’ll be about as petrified as an exchange student called Kaitlin from Wisconsin sitting in her Hamra studio apartment. I don’t have that inbuilt resilience that people who experience the war have. To all intents and purposes, I feel like an expat when it comes to violence here.

I know we pride ourselves on our resilience. I know of very few countries that would come out of what we went through with such a desire to prove to the world that we’ve held on to what makes us Lebanese, even if it’s by a thread. When I wrote that piece in L’Orient, I said I wasn’t planning on leaving, regardless of what happens. That may still be true, or it may not, who knows really. These aren’t the kind of decisions you can make theoretically; you make them when you’re confronted with harsh realities. I guess what bothers me the most about what’s happening right now isn’t the threat of violence. There are ways of dealing with that, of avoiding it, of surviving. What has made the last 8 days in Lebanon that saddest for me since I got here 18 months ago is the unknown. However much people analyze the situation – and boy do we love to analyze – no one, absolutely no one, knows what’s coming next. And that void, that gaping void in the immediate future is what scares me the most.

I’m 28, and I have a world full of plans and projects and ambitions and aspirations. I think days, weeks, months and years into the future. The current situation doesn’t allow me to see 5 minutes into the future. It’s like driving through dense mountain fog. Your visibility is reduced to a bare minimum, you drive slower, your body tenses up and your mind starts anticipating an accident that may or may not happen. Basically, part of you is rational and part of you is scared. And that’s where we stand now, driving as a nation through a dense fog. We can drive as carefully as we want as individuals, but the thicker the fog gets the less we control the situation and the more likely we are to run into something. And I don’t think I’ll breathe a full satisfying lung-filling breath of fresh air until the fog clears.

17 Responses to “The Fog of War.”

  1. NathD
    January 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

    Excellent article Nasri! I do feel the same way! and i sincerely hope we won’t be blogging soon about a stupid conflict that we have nothing to do with!

  2. Z
    January 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Hold tight Nasri. And thanks for sharing that with us.

  3. mama noel
    January 20, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    And there you go.. one more state of liminality we are put in. We can feel what not knowing feels now. (?)

  4. Mohammad Fawaz
    January 21, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    I enjoyed this article,I am sure is coming from the heart and not just useless words.I enjoyed it does not mean it was a pleasant article;it is sad and all in all reflects reality in general.It is said that when your neighbour’s house is foreclosed it is a recession but when your house is foreclosed then it is a depression.Are we not a part of the Middle East village? Are the houses of our neighbours on fire and do we care or do we have to wait till our house catches fire before we can feel their human tragedy?Nasir, how much can you isolate and insulate yourself away from your surroundings,both the immediate and in the village? How can you not feel the pain of the people of Palestine and of Iraq? How can you say we have nothing to do with”it(Lebanon’s state of disarray) as Nath D implied?Nasri, take a look outside of your skin and you will feel better;there are people,humans, out there and their fate is decided by your actions as well as by your inaction.

  5. Marillionlb
    January 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    This is my first visit to your little corner of the woods (thanks to Mustapha at the Beirut Spring), and it won’t be my last. I too lived in England (for over 16 years) and decided to come back in 1999. I can relate to many of the arguments presented in your post, but unlike you I felt very safe in England. I think our paths have crossed in the UK but you were probably too young to remember.
    Looking forward to reading your next post.

  6. raphael
    January 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Loved what u wrote.. and I think u have the choice to leave. I did 10 years ago and never looked back . Coz I know mafi amal bi Hal balad. It’s sad but its true. I have a business . A home and a family that lives in a safe country. Al I have to worry about is $ and where To spend my next vacation..

    No more to say. Very simple. Lebanon is a beautiful waste. Di3an:…

  7. Nasri Atallah
    January 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Thanks for all the reactions guys, I’m glad and sad that it struck a chord. I think all we can do is hope for the best at this point.

  8. Tony Sayegh
    January 22, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    Dear Nassri:

    Finally after reading your Dad for over 40 years, I now have the pleasure of reading his son.
    And” the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
    I read you with great interest and I felt your pain, to say the least. Unfortunately, this great
    ideal we hold dear called “The Lebanon” failed us all since 1840.
    I am not going to preach why. You are simply asking why not?!.
    Demagoguery, religious or political alike stand in the way of reasonable solutions. The politics
    we practice in Lebanon is nothing but demagoguery at its best.
    The peoples’ rights and economic well being are nothing but proformas for public consumption at best.
    Our politicians promote big “beyond the borders” slogans to cover up their many failures.
    SORRY Nasri. I tried very hard to come up with answers to your fears. I failed miserably because
    none exists in the present Lebanon. A system that does not equate your right
    to happiness and prosperity with your national “obligations” produces nothing but national malaise .
    We had a President in the early 70s who defended his pretense with a slogan he borrowed from
    distant history ” right or wrong my country” . The result was the all kind of wars that never ended and
    perhaps one in the making.
    Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. ~
    – Francis Bacon, is right on the first 3 counts. A nation can only change to the better when it reads
    “YOUNG” authors like you Nasri. Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes,
    Tony Sayegh
    New York

  9. Nasri Atallah
    January 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Tony
    Hope all is well in the Big Apple. Your words are extremely touching and much appreciated. I am grateful for the faith you invest in my generation, and I sincerely hope we won’t let you down. Thank you again.
    Best,
    N.

  10. Mansoor
    February 4, 2011 at 5:11 am #

    Pffft fessto2 fadeh

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