4 September 2008

Paradoxes, abstractions and indulgences: the myth of Lebanese joie de vivre

Posted in Comment, Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , at 8:39 pm by lilithhope

The notion that Lebanon is a country of brazen paradoxes is a commonplace conclusion arrived at by many foreigners who come here for any significant amount of time. So commonplace, in fact, that such contradictions have become the template for Westerners’ representations of this quagmire country in both the media and academia alike. The stark social disparity, in which up-market, glitzy neighbourhoods are situated a stone’s throw away from dirty, overcrowded refugee camps; the incomprehensible speed with which the nation goes from being on the brink of civil war to lapping up the vastly exaggerated, pop-star blessed and firework-christened festivities of a superficial band-aid of a peace deal; the relentless drive towards luxury and indulgence in the face of institutionalised marginalization and repression… This is Lebanon.

Often, these anti-intuitive, ill-fitting pieces are considered to be the root reason for why Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, wields such a powerful magnetic pull on all who stray into its sphere. Lebanon can be both heaven and hell, and this is a powerful source of attraction for those who, coming from outside, are privileged enough to derive cheap thrills by walking the precarious tightrope between the two universes. This ‘naughty-but-nice’ message resonates ironically in each and every tongue-in-cheek regurgitation of this countries’ well-meaning but largely vacuous mantra: “Welcome to Lebanon”.

The paradoxes of Beirut are all-pervasive, and manifest themselves almost all aspects of life in this city that inhabits the borderline between the sane and the absurd, the shining and the decrepit. It is not rare to perceive a bullet-ridden, blackened-by-smoke carcass of a building lurking in the shadow of a towering shard-glass luxury residence. Nor is it uncommon to witness the merging of the worlds of a fashion victim and a mine victim: a diamond- and gold-clad, collagen-lipped tummy-tucked breast-enhanced platinum blonde stops to buy a pack of Davidoff slims from a legless old man on a street corner. Not surprisingly, it is the former who is offered bank loans to ‘remedy’ her condition, while the limbless latter is extended no such compassion. The focus on extravagance in favour of post-conflict reconciliation or shared humanism has led many to ask why the Lebanese seem to have their priorities so skewed.

Several attempts have been made to reconcile Lebanon’s paradoxes, to understand how such unabashed pleasure flourishes so shamelessly aside such festering pain. The general consensus to emerge from academics, bloggers and journalists alike is that many Lebanese suffer from some form of ‘national amnesia’1, or as ‘Angry Arab’ As’ad Abukhalil would say, ‘Lebanonesia’, that drives them to forget their conflict-plagued past by filling themselves with the petty frivolities of the present. A similar diagnosis was recently echoed in an article published in The Times a couple of weeks ago, in which the author, Alice Fordham, claimed the existence of some “Lebanese tendency” to ignore troubles and focus on fun, which represents “a national psychological defence mechanism” 2. In a more patronising tone, the author continues:

These people have endured decades of internal and external strife and they live in a country where sectarian rifts are getting deeper and, very likely, storing up trouble for the future. If they focused on what had happened and what was likely to happen, they couldn’t cope. So, in Beirut at least, they go to the rooftop nightclubs or the road of bars in the beautiful, battered area of Gemmayze and make the most of the clubs that stay open no matter what the security situation… So if it is denial that fosters this charm, then it is hard to condemn it… Everyone here has deeply held affiliations, inherited and totally incompatible with the views of their friends. Who can blame them for skirting around the issue and thinking instead about society, style and about how great they’re going to look after their surgeon is finished with them? ”.

Yet while the middle and upper class Lebanese are good-naturedly chided and admired for their ability to put painful aspects of their national past behind them by focusing their energies on trivial pleasures, some of the darker characteristics of Lebanese society are glossed over.

In the effort to paint the Lebanese as victims of social and political conditions that precede them and choosing to frame their pleasure-seeking as a coping mechanism, their own role in aggravating the bottomless rifts that haunt this country and perpetuating other socio-political injustices is ignored. For while the Lebanese pride themselves with their hospitality, spouting the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” at the drop of a hat, they are simultaneously resolvedly reluctant to critically assess their own agency as causing the persistence of divisive sectarian identities and the lacunae in dealing with the ghosts of the civil war, both factors which continue to push the Lebanese into armed conflict with on-another. Perpetual escapism and denial can only lead to the exasperation of the causes of social and political differences.

Moreover, those Western journalists who romanticise and victimise the Lebanese predicament are also guilty of naïve abstraction. By excusing the middle and upper class’ superficial obsessions with physical beauty and material wealth as means of escaping the bigger issues around them, one condones their choice to not be part of the solution, and hence their role in deepening certain social divisions. Moreover, if one were to examine the fact of Western representation of the Lebanese more closely, many assumptions are taken for granted. Significantly, any vocal celebration of the apparent Lebanese ‘joie de vivre’, charm and hospitality is a selective reading of how outsiders are received here, most importantly because it tends to be race blind.

Racist attitudes towards those of darker complexion are very common in the Arab world. The word ‘abeed’, which means ‘slave’ in Arabic, is commonly and unquestioningly used by many Arabs to refer to individuals with black skin. My half-Sudanese half-Latvian friend stormed out of the 2006 African Nations Cup final in Cairo because a group of Egyptian boys in front of us were referring to the Cote d’Ivoiriens on the pitch using that very word and others of a similar lexical set. In Lebanon, the situation is compounded by the Lebanese tendency to see themselves as also superior to other Arabs, a consequence of their supposed Phoenician roots3 and lighter skin.

In Lebanon, this twin prejudice is clearly apparent in the division of labour, which fixes those of darker or more alien features (Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Philippino) in the most base jobs, including street cleaners and live-in domestic help (aka personal servants), while other slightly more coffeed Arabs, such as Syrians and Iraqis, form a large portion of the manual labour force. In fact, I would even go as far to argue that regardless of their political leanings and sect, upper-middle class Lebanese Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite and Greek Orthodox probably have near-identical takes on social justice issues, whereby they probably do not question the ethical implications of importing individuals from East Africa or East Asia, locking them in houses, controlling their movement by retaining their passports and paying them a (for lack of better word) shit wage.

Such racial prejudice is not restricted to labour, and is equally present in the realm of leisure, that sphere in which the Lebanese are so allegedly adept. While Lebanon’s many pleasures are praised by foreigners right and left, the extent to which one has access to the jilted universe of the privileged largely depends on one’s complexion. While myself, Fordham and other white Europeans and Americans are received with open arms, the same hospitality is often brutally refused to non-white visitors. A Kenyan acquaintance of mine and her compatriot were recently flatly refused entry to one of Jounieh’s plush beach resorts. No, the facility was not full, as others continued to enter unimpeded. The two girls were, simply, perceived of as being too dark to partake in Lebanese luxury. An Indian acquaintance relayed a similar story to me, in which the wife of the Sri Lankan ambassador was once chased out of a swimming pool at a mountain resort by to hotel staff amongst cries of “Maids are not allowed in the swimming pool!”

Those narratives indicate that the extent to which an outsider can access the celebrated Lebanese hospitality depends on skin colour. Ask any non-white foreigner in Lebanon about their experiences with ‘Lebanese hospitality’, and their narratives are worlds away from the charm that Fordham mentions. Her race blindness toward this issue is blatant when she states: “[Beirut’s] reputation for fun and the Lebanese reputation for charm and hospitality do attract visitors who support the many employees of hotels, shops and beaches”. She does not indicate the discrepancies in treatment of those who are ‘attracted’, nor does she question the extent to which employment in the tourist sector may also have a racial dimension. Therefore, while it is glaringly obvious that the revered Lebanese hospitality is tainted with a white Europhilic stain, such prejudice is glossed over by flattering portrayals of the privileged Lebanese as soldiering on in the bars, clubs, mountain villas and beach resorts despite violent clashes or the constant threat thereof. Such portrayals play into the image that many Lebanese wish to give of themselves, one of victimhood, which exempts them from questioning their past and present responsibilities in the continuing shambolic disintegration of this country.

The suffering that has been endured by the Lebanese people in over 15 years of civil war and foreign occupation is undeniable. But the solution to such suffering is not abstraction. Foreigners who revel in the open, accepting, welcoming image of the Lebanese should be aware of that those attitudes are, quite literally, skin-deep. Furthermore, representing the Lebanese as tortured by history and as passive victims in a confessionalist political system that precedes them chooses to ignore the ways in which they are responsible for exacerbating many of this country’s problems along class and race lines. By romanticising the paradoxes and forgetting the agency of many Lebanese in perpetuating social injustices, we only assist in hammering another nail into the coffin of this increasingly decaying nation.

1See Deeb, Lara (2006) An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, p. 67.

2 See Fordham, Alice. “Bombs and Botox in Beirut”, The Times, 15 August 2008.

3 For a critique of the Lebanese claim to Phoenician heritage, see Salibi, Kamal (1990) A House of Many Mansions. University of California Press