A barbarian in Beirut

B is for barbaric, bestial, and bombed. Michael Azar on Beirut, the city that was one day described as the Paris of the Middle East and the next lay bleeding on the ground. Out of necessity, the story of Beirut is also a story of power, memory, and statecraft.

Beirut. Beyrouth. Bairout. Beryt. Berytos. Berotai. The name itself has the power to tame this chaos without beginning or end that is the city. The name and the city are locked in a life and death struggle with one another. A peculiar war, since one cannot live without the other and since the death of one would immediately be followed by the death of the other. The city will die if it cannot surrender to its name and the name will die if it cannot sink its talons into the city’s flesh in one place or another. They have to penetrate one another mutually as skin seeks skin though they know that their union threatens them with extinction: the knife, the virus, or the deadly melancholy of threatened loss. In each new tale and perspective is a new city: this is the riddle and it is this that makes the origin, the beginning of the beginning, the city before its naming, such a fatal attraction. To return to Beirut in order to find once again how it really was there – that is, here – in order to see once and for all where and how everything began. To be a witness to how the city first came to life, when the name first came to the city, when everything later was shaken to the joints just as the joints were trying to hold the shaking at bay, how the people live their lives and meet their deaths in these tremors. How the people do everything that people do no matter what is going on around them: life’s parasitic union with the world, like the union of name and city, in more or less violent exchanges where the boundary between person and world is placed at risk: the oxygen circulating in and out of the body, the food transformed to movements and shit and fluids, the stimuli of the skin and the soul’s invisible nerves that bring forth new worlds.

To wake up for the first time in Beirut is like waking to a new dream. Or better: to an empire of signs, whose inner combinations and compounds at first seem fortuitous and arbitrary. This is the agony of the barbarian: he does not understand the empire of signs, is a stranger to the language that plays out before his eyes, and lacks the most elementary means of taming the swarm. The name deserts him. He knows that he is in Beirut, but where in Beirut? He knows that he has the city outside his hotel, but which Beirut?

At the same time I rein myself in: the barbarian is in agony because he has heard all too many tales of the city that probably have less to do with the city than with people’s need for tales. When we step into the city we step into the tales about it: we step into the name. I realize that there is no other way than to become part of the tale: a part of the words that circulate from ear to ear in the same way a coin moves from hand to hand, a virus from body to body. At the same time one must not blindly repeat the name; one must stamp it with the singular perspective of one’s own seal.

The barbarian knows that no tale of Beirut is like another, that all of them are told out of a particular perspective and a particular interest. In fact, Beirut exists only in these tales. Or rather, there are as many Beiruts as there are tales, eyes, lips, sorrows, frenzies, nerves, and hopes to perceive with. Not so much Leibniz, where the various points de vue tend to radiate together, as Deleuze, where “each perspective is a different city”.

Not to speak of thresholds in time: there was a time when the city was not associated with war, when it was, on the contrary, the name of a place where the Occident and Orient soaked up the rays of the sun together in perfect harmony. The time of the dream-like image of the city as it appeared to the French Orientalists: Lamartine’s, Nerval’s, Flaubert’s, or Barrès’ “Voyage en Orient“. Beirut as the hope for a new world, a happy fusion of spirit and body, of the West’s reason and the East’s magic. European artists and authors hurried here in waves and followed in the path of the early Crusaders: this was as much a holy land, a place where the first Christians collected their tales and spread them over the world, as a land of reflection, a seat for dialogues about cultures, religions, and civilizations. It was to this city they came, the refugees of the region: Armenians, Assyrians, Palestinians, the intellectuals who hoped for free speech and an open life.

But it was also to this city that the conquerors of the world came: Phoenicians (since the Iron Age), Persians (between 559 and 333 BC), the Romans from the west (between 324-630), the Arabs (from 630), the Crusaders (from the twelfth century), the Egyptian Mamluks (from the end of the thirteenth century), the Ottoman Turks (from 1516 to the end of the First World War), the Russians (during a short invasion in 1772), the British (who bombarded the city in 1840), the French at various times (for example in 1860, when they intervened in order to rescue the Maronites from the Druses, and in 1920, when, under a UN mandate, they divided Lebanon from Syria and thus created the modern nation state Lebanon, “Le grand Liban“), the Israelis (in 1976 and 1982), the Syrians (in 1977 and at the end of the 1980s), the Americans (in 1958 and at the beginning of the 1980s), and so on.

“Say right away that you’re Swedish… then we’ll get through faster,” says the Lebanese taxi-driver to novelist Jan Guillou’s protagonist Hamilton when they pass the first of three private roadblocks on the way from the airport to central Beirut. “Why,” asks Hamilton, “is it good to be Swedish?” “It’s the only country that hasn’t tried to invade Lebanon,” answers the driver.

Origin and repetition I

What is left of before in after? What has time made of the people, the ruins of the city? And at the same time, the question has to be raised from a longer perspective in which conquests and wars are just some of all of the violent tremors that have shaken Beirut’s body. Can she ever be herself again after the violent earthquake that levelled her completely in 551 AD? Can Beirut find her way back to herself after the Arab conquest in 635 or the attack of the Crusaders in 1110? Can she find herself as she was before the arrival of the Turks in the middle of the sixteenth century, before the massive Russian attack in 1772, before the British bombing that destroyed her city walls in 1840? Or why not before the enormous famines and the typhus epidemic during the First World War (the dead were reckoned by the hundred thousands)? What should we say about the massive inroads in urban planning and architecture backed by the French during the 1930s which, in the name of transparency and surveillance, modernized away the old Beirut, le vieux Beyrouth, le zouk – the city of small marketplaces, of narrow alleys, the shady bathhouses, the city of bazaars sung by the poet Nerval, dressed as an Arab, and whose great Hammam was left such detailed testimony by Alphonse de Lamartine? How was Beirut before the Second World War and the anti-colonial uprisings? Before the French fought their civil war between the adherents of the Vichy regime in the country and the forces of de Gaulle? Can Beirut ever find her way back to the life before the bloody conflicts of 1958 and back to a city that lost its entire centre ville during the civil war between 1975 and 1990? The name is always inscribed in the movement between origin and repetition, between before and after. The city is founded as an independent kingdom in Phoenicia (around 1400 BC) and takes the name that is perhaps her first from her first queen, Beryt. When the Romans besiege the city under Emperor Augustus in 14 BC, she is rechristened as Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Berytus – Julia Augusta after Augustus’ daughter. And the emperor transforms her at the same time into the symbol of both happiness and repetition: Felix, “happiness” in Latin, the name for Phoenicia, is at the same time the bird Felix (also Phoenix – trans.) which, like the city, always rises from the ashes… In this happy military colony, symptomatically enough, prominent schools are founded: one of the Roman Empire’s foremost law schools (under Septimius Severus, 192-211 AD) and a centre for education which rivalled even Alexandria and Athens. When the French author Alphonse de Lamartine arrives in the city during his Oriental tour in 1832, his Voyage en Orient, he places his hopes in its healing powers. Lamartine believes that this terre sainte, this happy Berytus, will be able to save his seriously ill daughter and make her as happy as the city that bears the daughter’s name: Julia.

Even though the country has been plagued constantly by inner conflicts and has been subject to all the political turbulence that has always shaken the region, there were still many who were astonished by the rapidity with which the relative peace disappeared in the absolute war during the spring of 1975. The peculiar aesthetic of rapidity: suddenly everything – people, houses, streets, schools, radio broadcasts, rumours, noises, smells – everything is drawn into a completely new whirlpool of life. All of Beirut accelerates; the subtle difference between a man who one day playfully demonstrates to his children how one loads a weapon and the same man who the next day protects the same children with the same weapon from the other side’s fire.

It only takes three months to demolish Beirut’s centre ville, that magnificent, open, and very beautiful downtown. Al-Bourj, the tower. Places des Martyres, Place des Canons. The famous battle for – and from – the hotel now begins. The luxury hotel and the skyscrapers had to be taken over as quickly as possible: it’s a matter of finding a secure point de vue from which to observe one’s enemies and fire missiles at them at the same time.

Looters and snipers take over the core of the city, the battle lines are fortified and the legendary green line is established. The object is to not stick your nose out through the window or door: to stock up (with food, water, medicine, wax candles, and flashlight batteries) and stay indoors for as long as possible. No place is secure, the snipers can find their way at any time to people eating, making love, and sleeping – even through walls and roofs. Beirut’s children, like my cousins, spend half their childhood in dark shelters – and hopefully learn slowly to tolerate the sound of falling missiles and buildings. Centre ville/downtown Beirut: the obvious objective for all occupiers. If you control the downtown, you own the city. Here are the city’s fortresses and towers (al-Bourj), her panopticon, the place from which power rules and holds surveillance over life. The original twenty-metre-high tower lacks a year of origin, but we know that Emir Fakhreddin had it restored during the 1600s and that Emperor Napolean III’s generals chose to put up their base camp here in 1861 – even though the tower itself had already disappeared earlier in the nineteenth century. As Roland Barthes writes, the centre of the modern city is always filled up – it is from this centre that “the values of civilization are unified and condensed: spirituality (with the churches), power (with the offices), money (with the banks), the market (with stores), the language (with its agora, cafes, and promenades). To move through the city centre is to encounter the social ‘truth’, to participate in ‘reality’s magnificent’ excess.”

And then suddenly, in a few intense and sun-baked months, Beirut loses the entire ground on which she rests. The city centre dissolves into an empty nothing while the city’s soul fights to resist being sucked into this black hole. The hole in a ring, the nothing at the centre of being: during the entire civil war the hole has gradually expanded at the cost of the ring; the city implodes into herself while large portions of the population choose to flee into the mountains or away from the country entirely. The whole downtown becomes a desolate landscape of ruins that scarcely anyone visits for fifteen years. Probably Beirut’s centre ville is the place in the world that has had the most ground zeros per capita.

But perhaps the shock was hardest for the name itself: one day “Beirut” was the magnificent symbol of peace, harmony, burgeoning economy and smiling bodies stretched out in the sun; the next day we see her bleeding bodies in the street. First the massive idealization of the city that took off after the Second World War, when she was depicted as “the Paris of the Middle East” in tourist guides, the media, postcards, and film (during the 1950s and 1960s a “must” for the international jet set). Here is how she was portrayed for example in a guide from 1957: “Everything is free, trade, the press, the individual”.1 And like this right before the war breaks out: “Welcoming, open, tolerant, these words that usually seem abstract in the extreme, permeate the Lebanese even in their most modest gestures and daily life”.2

After that, the crime: Beirut appears in film after film, book after book, as the very symbol of war, kidnapping, suicide attacks, snipers, and terrorism. She becomes the abyss of the world, the new Babel, the city of the barbarians. During the final phases of the Cold War it was always here that spies were sent (Kim Philby, for example, was one of the city’s regular visitors), Islamic terrorists were hunted, contacts with weapon traders were made, men were picked up for new militias. Beirut becomes an arena for the politics of the superpowers: it is here that the globe’s and region’s states battle each other via emissaries. With the collapse of the Lebanese state, every political actor steps forward as a representative of the real Lebanon – all of them with a greater or lesser power backing them. The Shiite Hezbollah backed by Iran, the Amal militia by Syria, SLA (South Lebanese Army) by Israel, The Chamounists by the US, and so on.

Shibboleth/Checkpoints: Barbarians at the gate

It is soon as difficult to know whom one is fighting with as it is to know whom one is fighting against. Against the accelerating paranoia – which is always in danger of spreading into a war of everyone against everyone else – influential interests strive to set up clearer lines of division, sharper threatening images, and to enforce fragile loyalties. Firm boundaries are required in order to control the inside as well as the outside, intricate passwords to hold the line against ambivalence. So new checkpoints are continuously invented: first and foremost the requirement for the correct name – the definitive metonym for religious as well as tribal belonging – and then the requirements to come from the right quarter, to carry the right identity papers, to be able to pronounce words in the right way. Sibbolet or shibboleth. The interrogations about identity organize life, without them you do not know who should take part in the circulation of life’s gifts or, respectively, decrees of execution. To measure the correct distance to the other, the one we don’t yet know, who can just as easily constitute a danger as a possibility, is a difficult art. Not least of all in a country where anyone could be your future murderer.

A password, un mot de passé: skin colour in South Africa, the Star of David under the Nazis, glasses under Pol Pot, the passport for so-called “illegal refugees” at the walls of the EU. And so on. The right shibboleth opens the important gates; the wrong one can mean that you will have no tomorrow. In Lebanon, the tragedy by the River Jordan is repeated. That is journalist Robert Fisk’s description of how, at the beginning of the war, the Falangist and Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel, after four Christians had been found dead in a car in December of 1975, gave his men orders to kill the first forty Muslims they got in their sights. So they set up a roadblock and cut the throat of all who could not prove that they were Christian. This so-called black Saturday soon tallies more than 300 dead. The tactic goes on to kill legions.

It is not what an identity is that’s important, but what it is possible to do in and against its name; not what a political faction or nation really is or has been, but what is signed with its name.

The constantly emerging new militias deal with one another and foreign interests as if Lebanon were already in their hands: that is how a certain militia that controls a part of Beirut can sell land for European nuclear waste, while another militia a few quarters away sells to foreign investors the right to the land for a future construction project. International drug and weapon dealers from around the world turn up in the city. The black market blossoms in the midst of a raging war. In 1979, a luxury hotel is even built, Hotel Summerland, in the middle of an area in which bombs fall daily, equipped and protected by its own militia. In 1982, the same year Israel invades Lebanon seriously for the second time, with almost 20 000 civilian dead and a bombed out Beirut as the result, the famous Barbar Bakery opens, and it is soon transformed into a part of the popular Barbar Street, an entire pedestrian zone with Lebanese fast food specialities. The conflict escalates from year to year and the city collapses like a house of cards; the people pull away from the wave of newly formed militias and assault forces from the rest of the world. The refuge to which earlier so many people fled now becomes the city from which everyone flees. In 1982, even the PLO is put to flight by the invading Israeli troops. Not all of the Palestinians: it is especially the military forces that are driven out, while defenceless older men, women, and children are left to be slaughtered in short order by the Christian Falangists – under the supervision of Ariel Sharon. The massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila become the new symbols of Beirut. B as in barbarian, bestial, and bombed. Instead of being the land of religious tolerance and diversity, Lebanon is now the example of the impossibility of the “multicultural” society. In political debates in western Europe it is a favourite tactic to use her – like the Balkans later – as a warning sign for immigration in general and the Middle East especially.

Orientalism’s other side: the rhetoric of the age of the Crusader, the Christian world’s paranoia against Islam, the tolerant Western world’s resistance to “oriental despotism” hits the Lebanese at full force. Both George Bush Sr and Jr place Lebanon on the list of rogue states and terrorist strongholds – and perhaps it is just a matter of time before the US finds a reason to intervene yet again in the name of civilization.

Death solves everything (Stalin) – The biopolitics of siege

There is a scene that is deeply engraved in my memory, though I have seen it only on film: during a family wedding, where one of my cousins is getting married, two powerful bombs suddenly explode in rapid succession somewhere in the vicinity. The happy and beautifully dressed guests throw themselves to the ground to take cover, lie there for several long seconds, but then get up again immediately as if nothing has happened and apparently without commenting on the event at all. This is an example of the “ethics of the siege” that Lidija Ginzburg speaks of in Notes from the Siege (about the German army’s siege of Leningrad 1941-44). People continue to live in the midst of a raging war, they try not to notice it, they hold out so that others will hold out and because they themselves would not hold out if the others did not. The powerful abstraction of social prohibition, she writes, demands that one does not give up, that one does everything to preserve hope that it is possible to live in the world:

In calm and peaceful times, for example, one can wake up at home in bed, stiff with terror at the unavoidability of disappearance, while one can walk around distracted and indifferent in the midst of a bombardment […] Sometimes it is easier to approach a deadly danger without thinking about it than going to work without thinking about a public reprimand one has received. There is no other situation in which it becomes so obvious and visible what kind of power social pressure exerts. Since time immemorial and up to our day the word “coward” has been a magic word. It is all right to be afraid of catching cold, but to be afraid of death is shameful. How was it possible to engrain something like that in human beings, with our strong sense of self-preservation, how was it possible to educate us for that? The explanation is perhaps that no society or state could have otherwise existed, and that is why all of them have invested their educational resources in that very thing.

Politics are biopolitics, a way of regulating a person’s relation to his life and to his death, to threaten death and tempt with life, but at the same time it has to play a double role and exploit the riddle of death in political economics. On the one hand, one has to get people to stop fearing death, or even further, to dare to die for a cause that is depicted as so valuable that life itself has to be sacrificed to it. On the other hand, people really have to fear death, or better, a particular way of dying, so that power can still have the ultimate means of terror to use against the people. It is less a question of extinction than the form of extinction. From the public executions (whose logic Foucault so thoroughly depicts in Discipline and Punish) to the public humiliations (which were incarnated in images from the American torture centres in Iraq). To torture to the verge of death without necessarily killing in a physical sense, that is a form of politics whose aim is the dissolution of all personal dignity in the victim by subjecting them to the trauma of total powerlessness. Power’s extreme stagings of naked, harrowed, and mutilated corpses: Christ on Golgotha, the dead American soldiers who were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the staged execution of Nick Berg in Iraq, and so on. It is a matter of killing in the name of life. For every death on their side, another life on ours. Soon the entire country is possessed by this politique du massacre. Out of nowhere they show up in a neighbourhood, a village, or a camp – and the massacre is launched. No one is spared: they club and slash people to death, scalp people alive, use small children in target competitions, slit pregnant women open and use the foetus as a football. Examples are set; it is shown what a deadly power one’s own life possesses. Terror spreads – as does the demand for vengeance. As Foucault stresses, power develops through this double movement: on the one side, destruction, subjection, annihilation (of the enemy); on the other, creation, construction, mobilization of new life forces. By killing the enemy together, community is strengthened: it is with the blood of the other that the oath of one’s own group is sworn. This invests executions with the feeling that, in the midst of the most gruesome massacres of civilians, they work in the service of life despite everything. Foucault: one gets entire populations to kill each other off in the name of survival. Massacres have become vitally important. It is as stewards of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to conduct so many wars and thereby kill so many people.

With the collapse of the Lebanese state and the outbreak of civil war, the state loses this power: it loses its role as steward of death as well as life.

The executions and declarations of war now become the business of the militias. They perform their power clearly by making manifest their ability to control and torture the bodies of others, they demand no loyalty of the dying but hope for their fear and pain, they do not expect love, but fear and subjection. The militias are not controlled by a state apparatus; now the Lebanese mafia structure takes over entirely. The politicians who were once influential leave the marketplace in order to take up (once again) their role as head of family and clan leader (zuamas), which in practice means that they become a kind of commander of their own armies, directing troops from particular regions of the country. Here we find the Druse clans Jumblatt (with their father Kamal and the still-active son Walid at their head) and Arslan, the Maronite families Chamoun (where Chamille, for a time the country’s president, functions as leader), Franjieh (with Suleiman, who was also president for a time, as leader and his son Tony as heir) and Gemayel (with the father Pierre, who is building his organization and his army – the Falangists – according to the model of the Nazis after his visit during the Olympic Games in 1936, and whose two sons Bashir and Amin were both president), the Sunni clans (Sohl, Karame, etc.) and the various leaders of the Shiite groups. The civil war is just as much, or perhaps more, a dispute between these various clans.

The world is full of demons (Heraclitus)

Meanwhile, death solves little. The dead tend to become even more alive. In a capital with a city centre called Places des Martyres this ought to be obvious: the dead return as ghosts and get their life’s blood from the unsettled affairs of the living. Beirut is literally besieged by ghosts, phantoms, spirits, demons, zombies – one for every unpaid debt – and life circles to just as great a degree around the necessity of satisfying them as it does around the necessity of satisfying the living. The dead walk again on the legs of the living. As long as the dead are not really dead, the living are doomed to eternal repetition: the ghost is reminiscent of the director who forces the actor to perform the same action again and again, and who is only satisfied when the actor has realized his debt to him. Meanwhile, the living forget for some reason that they themselves are the marionettes of the dead. Within every living person hisses the sound of endless generations of dead, within every person the dead and the living fight a dreadful battle that always ends with the dead taking the victory as well as the person they inhabit. And for every person who dies, they strengthen their hold on the survivors.

Every battle between human beings plays out against this background: will the enemy be sent into the realm of the dead or is there some other way of neutralizing his power? In Lebanon today it is difficult to forget the risks that are run in political murders – not least because the martyr and suicide bomber annul the classical foundation of biopolitics by turning the threat of death into a gift. The privileged classes of the country choose instead to intensify the classical strategy in order to control the threat from the others: to erase them from the political map, marginalize and reduce them to outlawry, as homo sacer. If there is no possibility of giving everyone political influence, social rights, and economic power, one is forced to ban them from the agora, from justice, and the city’s zones of pleasure. And most importantly: they must be erased from memory and knowledge. The poor masses do not exist.

Around Beirut one encounters a special category of the Lebanese nation’s outlaws: the Palestinians. It is not easy to identify them with the naked eye since they bear no obvious outward signs. For that reason the specific checkpoints and shibboleths are required to distinguish these intimate barbarians, those who in language as well as appearance are almost the same, but not quite (according to Homi Bhabha’s formulation). Baudrillard’s description of the modern neoliberal states fits the Palestinian existence in Lebanon quite well:

Whole portions of the population fall into oblivion and are completely abandoned. […] Society forgets them, and they forget themselves. They end up outside the field of vision, like zombies destined for extinction, destined to be recorded on the statistical graphs of disappearance. Whole sectors of our modern societies, whole countries from the third world wash up in this fourth world’s desolate zone.

Just to name one example: on 16 February 1996, during the rebuilding of the old city centre by the powerful private company Solideres, their bulldozers crushed a bombed-out house in order to build new houses and hotels for the well-to-do on its ruins. The only problem was that the house was occupied by a whole family of homeless Palestinians – and that they were still in the building when it was razed. With their deaths it became clear to many that the new Beirut would in fact be two: one for the privileged and one for the country’s zombies. One Beirut for those who belong to both the political and economic elite – like multibillionaire Rafic Hariri, who at the time was both owner of Solideres and the prime minister – and one for those who are robbed of power to the point that only violence can break through their isolation. When Hariri explained that Solideres’ aim was to recreate and reproduce “the original look and feel of central Beirut”, it was clear to many that it would (once again) be a kind of gated community for the rich. Lebanon would be reborn, return to its origin – which meant that it would again take up precisely the same position it had before the war, on the edge of the same abyss. But this execution order for the living creates a whole new arena, a gruesome scene in the middle of the River Styx where zombies arriving from death unite with zombies arriving from life. The dead that refuse to leave life and the living that refuse to die build a powerful alliance, a reserve army for revolutionary as well as fascist interests. Soon various leaders are competing to get them on their side with every thinkable temptation: revenge, drama, drugs, and bread.

Origin and repetition II: The past begins in the future

One does not invoke the dead, however, in just any way; one has to call upon them in a certain constellation and lay claim to a certain affinity and lineage in order for them to mobilize their resources. In all “ethnically loaded” confrontations we find these repetitions, where one’s group’s identity is rationalized by examples of historical persecutions by other groups from the past and by horrific visions of how it will go for them in the future. Many Christian groups, for example, the Maronites especially, anchor themselves in an historical collective that binds them to the Phoenicians rather than to the Arabs, thus setting themselves against the latter. The Maronites imagine themselves as having been threatened constantly throughout history – for example by the Arab conquest, the Ottoman rule, the massacres by the Druse, the growing Arab nationalism, the arrival of the Palestinians, and not least by the wave of Islam beginning at the end of the 1970s. They like to see themselves as the West’s and Christianity’s last outpost in the Arab world.

In fact, they can take up a position as an active subject in the history of Europe. They are the ones who make up the first Christian congregations (St Paul founds a Christian congregation in Tyros, for example, which also becomes the first episcopal seat); they are also active along with the Crusaders in the battle for the spread of Christianity. Their close relationship to France, la douce mere, was established during the era of the Crusades; the French King St Louis IX (Louis the Holy) can even proclaim the following already in 1250: “We are convinced that this nation that was founded by the holy Maron [the founder of the Maronite church] is part of the French nation.” At the same time he promises the Christians that they will be protected “as if they were Frenchmen themselves“. During the nineteenth century, Maurice Barrès notes hopefully during his Oriental journey that the Christian Lebanese might be in the process of creating a “French-Oriental civilization” and warns of the dangers that threaten them. “They are striving,” he continues, “through their language toward an ideal they call ‘France’ and which they desire with the kind of nostalgia that plagues exiles.”

At the beginning of the war, the mainly Christian alliance keeps a low profile because of potential inner conflicts. Later, when Bashir Gemayel unites the separate groups within the alliance at the beginning of the 1980s, its Christian profile becomes more striking. They now put themselves forward as representatives of a threatened Christian trans-historical “us” – with thousand-year-old roots – which must hold together for its future existence against a threatening Muslim trans-historical “them”. The dead on their own side are invoked to fight the living on the other side – while the living in their own group are mobilized to fight the return of the zombies to the other group. During the civil war, certain Christian groups are supposed to have dressed as Crusaders in order to give themselves courage in the face of attacks by Muslim groups. The living walk literally on the legs of the dead.


Two well-known creation myths about Lebanon are widely prevalent. In the first, God creates the land according to the image of any paradise; a land of milk and honey where the sun always shines and the sea embraces the Lebanese earth like a lover. When the people of the neighbouring countries see Lebanon they are green with envy and ask God how this injustice could have occurred. God’s answer calms them: “Note well that I also created the Lebanese for this world.” In the second, it is the Lebanese who wonder how it is possible that God has given them all this goodness. When they ask God why he privileged them to this degree, He answers instead: “Note well that I did not leave you without neighbours.”

We find the first version, according to the historian Fouad Said, among those who continue to blame the country’s misfortunes on other Lebanese, on other ethnic and religious groups. The other version prevails among those who attribute the causes for the war and conflicts to the involvement of foreign elements; whether Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iran, or the US. “Both cases are of course tragic,” says Said, “but in the latter case there is an ounce of feeling for the nation that at least promises the possibility of a Lebanese we.” We should not forget, he believes, that “no national state has been able to establish itself without aggressively marking its specific nature against that of other peoples”.

At the beginning of the national mythology there are always the others, the neighbours. The nation never begins on its own – its utmost foundation always exists in an external element, a founder that created it from the outside, or an enemy that is externalized out of the chaos so that a certain inner order can be possible. This logic can be expressed in many ways: the essential thing is that the powers of nationalism work to hide this anomaly in order to cover over the nation’s own original otherness, its original foreignness to itself. America did not begin with the Americans, the Nazi would have been nothing without the Jew, Christianity nothing without the Judaism from which it developed, the West would lose its identity and self-image completely without the so-called uncivilized barbarians and terrorists in the Orient. In one of Freud’s most beautiful texts, Moses and Monotheism, he lays bare this dynamic in the heart of Judaism as well by maintaining that its founding father Moses was in face an Egyptian. The Israeli national state – like all states that insist on the state as a kind of vessel for a single identity, whether confessional or ethnic – is thus struck at its very foundation, since in this case it is working to close out the very grounds on which it rests.

At the beginning was not the nation, but the resistant shard; not the race, the nation, or the community, but the antagonistic fragment. No original puzzle into which the pieces will harmoniously fit, but pieces that cannot be put together no matter how one tries. An agonistic combination that different forces try to exploit and put together in conflicting ways. Besides, we know where metaphors of organic and harmonic unity usually lead us – that which does not fit in is thrown out, fenced in, or exterminated like a virus, a cancer, lice, rats. On the whole, these sort of social ideologies develop a violent sensitivity to deviance, to antimony, that is, to everything that does not belong to the name. Everything that the name has not managed to tame and that falls outside the nation’s, the race’s, or the religion’s unified body: the stateless, the nationless, the godless, the paperless, the illegal refugee, the immigrant, the stranger, the homosexual. The negation of negations. The intimate stranger who from within undermines the powers that look for transparent structures. The one with no state, who like the barbarian does not speak the language of the state, is either a “wretch” or “better than human,” according to Aristotle. “A person without a nation defies all known categories and arouses revulsion,” explains Ernst Gellner. Against homo sacer – to use Agamben’s term again – civilization cannot uphold civilized standards, since this type of human, or non-human, knows no language other than violence. “Homo sacer,” writes Giorgio Agamben, is a being “one is allowed to kill” a pure, naked, and pared down life, a bios, unprotected by any judicial restrictions. It suffices to name Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib in order to understand what we’re talking about: in the name of civilization one gives oneself the right to become one with one’s own image of the barbarian.

The double negation and the birth of the nation

One should, according to George Naccache’s famous formulation, be able to maintain that the modern nation state of Lebanon is the result of a double negation. At least that is the foundation that was formulated in the unwritten “National Pact” established in 1943 among the country’s powerful men of that time: the Maronite leader Bishara al-Khoury (who also became the country’s first president) and the Sunni Muslim leader Riyadh al-Sohl (who became the country’s first prime minister). In that decisive agreement, it was determined that the country should be neither solely Arab (Muslim) nor solely Western (Christian). That is how the country’s historical compromise is articulated: a kind of third way, or, if you like, the choice of an identity without identity. The Christians would promise not to try to turn the country into a part of the West, while the Muslims in their turn would promise not to try to turn it into part of the Arab world. In this way, Lebanon would become a nation large and tolerant enough to accommodate several visions, an institutionalized and independent meeting place for a peaceful cross-fertilization between the Orient and the Occident – precisely in accordance with the European fascination with the country during the nineteenth century. One could also, however, formulate the pact as a double affirmation: the country would be Christian and Muslim, Arab and Western at the same time.

Thus, in the same pact, the right is inscribed to preserve the already existing bonds to the Arab world and the West, respectively – if only to a certain limit, the specific location of which can of course not be specified. The bonds will be both preserved and broken: it is out of this difficult birthing process and balancing act that the new national state Lebanon fights to find a future after the declaration of independence on 22 November 1943 (and again after the French troops leave the country in 1946).

In order to guarantee this order, life has to be breathed into the political system of representation that was already worked out in the constitution of 1926 and that defines Lebanon as a parliamentary republic, made up of different religious sects. The distribution of political posts will be made on the basis of confessional identity: the president will always be a Maronite, the prime minister always a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament always a Shiite Muslim, the chief of staff a Druse, the commander-in-chief an Orthodox Christian, and so on in a hierarchal distribution for the nearly twenty officially registered religious groups that exist in the country. (A structure that borrows essential features from the Ottoman Empire’s mutasharrafiyah.)

Furthermore, in accordance with the same constitution, the share between Christians and Muslims in the parliament and other political organs should always be based on a 6:5 ratio (that is, six Christians to five Muslims). All of this in accordance with a principle for the division of power that takes as its point of departure the religious groups’ supposed demographic strength (a principle that created enormous problems because the only census ever taken – which was accepted by the privileged groups – was from 1932 in which the Christian population was declared to have a slight majority over the Muslim).

In essential features, this Lebanese political structure could be classified as a consociational democracy. The national pact’s role for the future history of the country is hotly debated. On the one hand, it has been held up as an example of a successful compromise – it is thanks to the pact that Lebanon was able to enjoy relative stability and a rising economy up to the war. It hindered any single group from taking power, it made it possible for every group to feel a certain amount of security: they were always able to count on representation in elections and their leaders, with the help of coalitions, could resist coalitions from the other side that threatened their interests. The confessional representation system lent a certain security in the form of a guaranteed influence for the country’s minorities. That was in any case Michel Chiha’s idea, one of the minds behind the constitution of 1926: “the system should guarantee a fair political and social representation of minorities” and allow these often exiled groups to be able to continue to “freely practice their own religion”. In this way, the state would “recognize the different identities of the various groups,” until they “would slowly disappear” and no longer be required as a protection against that same state.

The national pact gave, in other words, an institutional form to the right to deny other religious groups their right to nationalize their version of Lebanon’s past and future, of the country’s political and cultural identity. The right to protect yourself against others was written into the legal system, so to say, just as belonging to a particular confession was sanctioned as a form of social and political identity. The balance of power in political sectarianism was, as long as it did not break down, accepted relatively well by the population – and often praised as successful by intellectuals both within and outside the country. It was especially appreciated by those groups – Maronites and Sunni Muslims – who were accorded the lion’s share of political influence over the future of the country and who saw it as a security measure, a barrier against what they saw as a threat from one another. The lack of a common positive Lebanese identity for these divided groups was taken for granted and raised to the level of an organizing principle for the nation.

If it was useless in any case to find a dominant content for the Lebanese nation state, if every attempt to a hegemonic power structure would have to result in a mobilization for war, a cold war was preferable. Better to distinctly and clearly recognize which inhabitants were the intimate strangers in order to be able to hold them in check. A most fragile balance of power, which at one and the same time sanctioned and regulated hate. The great risk was therefore always that the various groups would not be able to hold their own under control: the least conflict between individual representatives of the antagonistic groups threatened to spread throughout the entire nation.

When I put the question to Samah Idriss, the editor of the legendary journal al-Adab, how the National Pact ought to be judged now, after the war, he answers dryly and laconically: “Isn’t the civil war itself proof enough of its complete idiocy? We lived for more than twenty years under a system that sanctioned daily a sectarian identification with our own groups, which distanced us from all the other groups and annihilated any striving for a sense of Lebanese unity. We did not turn to the state as a kind of representative for the interests of all of us – we turned to our own representatives in order to represent us against the state and all the other groups. We lived in a society that from the very beginning declared its lack of confidence in us and in which we from the very beginning declared our lack of confidence. The National Pact raised this suspicion to the norm.” The researcher Samira Natallah, whom I meet in her office on Hamra Street, takes her criticism even further. The decisive question we have to ask, she maintains, is the question of which groups it was that benefited most from this political system: “In whose interests was the National Pact designed? By encouraging identification with the most primitive of loyalties, this political system hid the actual class differences that were emerging in Lebanon during the 1940s and which were gradually established in the country during the whole period up to the breakout of civil war in 1975. The National Pact buried the emergence of an ideological and political climate where a secular class politics could have taken root.” She points out that those groups that lost most in the National Pact – especially the great numbers of Shiite Muslims who were the losers in the new economy and were clearly under-represented because of the dated census – never mobilized in terms of class, but instead reverted to a religious argument. Instead of fighting against the great economic class differences and the National Pact as a reactionary constitution, they took on the role of the Iranian revolution’s extended arm in Lebanon. This made it possible for the privileged classes themselves to protect the ruling order with the same theological rhetoric: every question about social, political, and economic injustices was put in the background; instead we had the menacing images of religious and sectarian hysteria. “In fact,” Natallah says, “we have to understand how the National Pact and the political elites who formulated it founded a political system that corresponded precisely to the economic interests of the elite. In that way, the National Pact was a constitution that best protected the common interests of the upper classes because it strengthened their position by giving them legitimacy as the representatives of the people and by giving them the right to enter into alliances with international capital.” And indeed, it was the political elite which benefited from the economic boom that took off in Lebanon during the 1950s and onward. Lebanon became a paradise for foreign investors, both for the multinational companies that wanted to escape high taxes and cooperate with a benevolent state and for the OPEC states that wanted to deposit their oil profits in banks with high rates of interest.

Lebanon became the Switzerland of the Middle East: since the country had free currency exchange, upheld statutory secrecy in banking, and offered the possibility of secret bank accounts, it attracted capital from around the world. Shortly before the war there were more than eighty big banks available, sixteen of which were domestic. As usual, the rich became richer – while the ordinary citizens, in the absence of a secular political power that could distribute the wealth, became more and more dependent on the religious and political zuamas for their social existence and actual survival. (That is also how the extensive infrastructure for military recruitment needed by the mafia leaders when the war was imminent was developed.) Thus the postcolonial Lebanese state was at once both an expression of a very complex history of conquests and sieges, of global capitalism, of deeply traditional family and clan models and of religious-ideological loyalties, and of regional and international tests of strength. The absence of a public agora, where the feudal antagonism of interests is replaced by a more individualized debate, as well as the absence of a public sector, produces a very fragile nation state where all the groups guarded each other’s slightest movement – and where the state itself was in the hands of the divided collectives.

The least disturbance threatened to wipe out the delicate balance of power. A decisive event of that kind occurred when Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952 and stirred the feelings of the masses of Arab nationalists. In 1958, the Nasser-effect sucks the country into a kind of whirlpool that brings it to the brink of civil war. Armed clashes take place for several months. With the threat that Lebanon might lose its independence and be swallowed up by Nasser’s new realm, the US soon intervenes, with the approval of the Maronite President Chamoun, in order to secure the balance of power in Lebanon and establish a new ally in the so-called Cold War. The interventionists refer to the Eisenhower Doctrine, which gives the US the right to intervene throughout the world in order to protect “the free world” from the spread of Communism, which Nasser is accused of representing. The next great challenge to the delicate balance of power comes in 1970 with the so-called Black September in Jordan. King Hussein drives the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) violently out of Jordan, and they take refuge instead in Lebanon. The number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon rises radically – along with the refugees driven into Lebanon in connection with the formation of Israel, there are approximately 400 000 of them. The fragile state is now put under heavy stress. This happens first when the PLO gradually takes over the control and administration of the refugee camps, introducing a mobilization and military discipline of the refugees, thus in time emerging as an ever more independent force in the country. The stress develops further when the PLO continues its armed struggle against Israel from Lebanon (raids, mortar attacks, etc.), which leads to Israel’s revenge against Lebanon in the form of massive bombing attacks on Lebanese villages and cities (that is, not only against the Palestinians, but also against civilian Lebanese). Lebanon is drawn, regardless of its own desire, into an increasingly intensive war against the state of Israel – while it is not able to control this newly emergent state within a state, the PLO.

This new predicament creates deep uneasiness among the privileged and Western-oriented political elite, since it sees the Palestinian mobilization as a threat against the country’s independence and a step toward an increased Arabization-Orientalization-Islamization of the country. After the catastrophic defeat of the Arab world in conjunction with the 1967 war against Israel (when Israel conquers and takes over the control of Jerusalem, the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights), the PLO steps forward as a kind of replacement for Nasser’s lost power. The Palestinian freedom fighters, the Fedayin, interpellate large portions of the radical portion of the population – and threaten a radicalization of the entire Middle East. Lebanon begins to be shaken by hot debates about the Palestinians, and two opposing demands are put to the state: from the conservatives that the state should neutralize the PLO (as Jordan did during Black September) and from the radicals that the state should actively intervene on the Palestinians’ side.

It is a political dividing-line that pits the Lebanese Left – loosely organized in the National Movement under secular Muslim and Druse leaders like Kamal Jumblatt – against the Lebanese and especially Christian Right in the so-called Lebanese Front under the Falangists of the Gemayel clan and the Chamoun family. If the former want to reform the country and pursue a pro-Palestinian line (Palestinian groups were also included in the National Movement), the latter is defined by its desire for the political and socio-economic status quo and its fear of the Palestinian presence. Traditional historiography situates the lighting of the civil war’s fuse on 13 April 1975, the day when the first real battles break out between what would come to be known as Palestinians and Falangists, ending with the massacre of twenty-six civilian Palestinians. On the other hand, almost precisely two years earlier, another event takes place that mobilizes all of the violent paranoia that will be channelled into the war two years later. For on 10 April 1973, the Israeli security service, Mossad, conducts an underground operation in the middle of downtown Beirut – to be precise, in a house on Rue Verdun, where my family lives – and assassinates three highly placed Palestinian leaders, Kamal Nasser, Kamal Oudouan, and Abu Youssef, who was Arafat’s second-in-command and a co-founder of Al-Fatah. A few minutes before Mossad storms the building, killing the doorman and several neighbours, my father (at that moment having arrived home from Sweden) had just shut the door to the building on his way to see his family – a door that is shortly blown up and which admits not only the macabre execution of the Palestinian leaders but the onslaught of paranoia that soon will seep throughout Lebanese society.

Confidence for the Lebanese state bottoms out: how was it possible for the Israelis, under the leadership of a certain Ehud Barak, dressed as a woman, to conduct this kind of commando raid in the middle of the capital? How did they know that Abu Youssef – who, like Arafat, rarely stayed more than one night in the same place – was there? How did they get into the country at all? And why were the Lebanese police and army so passive? Protest marches take over the streets of Beirut and the country’s prime minister, Saeb Salaam, chooses to step down. For the groups on the Left and the Palestinians, all of these vague circumstances became a sign that the Lebanese state could not be trusted – on the contrary, it was suspected that it had in fact taken part in the operation.

Photographs: Michael Azar

Album des Guides Bleus, Lebanon 1957.

Album des Guides Bleus, Lebanon 1975.

Published 3 May 2006
Original in Swedish
Translated by Linda Rugg
First published by Ord&Bild 6/2004 (Swedish version)

Contributed by Ord&Bild © Michael Azar/Ord&Bild Eurozine


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