“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.