I came to Lebanon looking for answers, to find the key to a centuries-old problem. What was it about this tiny scion of French colonial intrigue that allowed it to remain relatively stable in a region rocked by sectarian strife? How could a country a quarter Shia, a quarter Sunni, and 40 percent Christian, with some Druze (an Abrahamic religion) thrown in for good measure, live in peace? Do they leave in peace?
It hadn’t always been this way. In Beirut, the scars of the 16-year civil war that tore the country apart and led to Lebanon’s occupation first by Israel, then by a multinational force, and finally by Syria, are visible on almost every street corner. And it wasn’t until 2005 that Lebanon truly became independent again, only to find itself facing yet another Israeli invasion. Even now, after ten years of peace, the military presence in Beirut is almost suffocating, as if the country is still at war.
Under the Yellow Flag
I left the capital for the Beqaa Valley. My destination: Baalbek, the birthplace of Hezbollah. Considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Hezbollah enjoys popular support from Lebanon’s Shia community, and even some Christians have praised the group for the security it provides along the Syrian border. Despite its designation by various governments as a terrorist organization, Hezbollah directly controls 11 seats in Lebanon’s parliament, making it the third largest party in the nation.
Unlike heavily militarized Beirut with its armored cars, pillboxes, and machine-gun-toting soldiers, Baalbek appeared peaceful, this despite the fact that the city is only 10 KM from the Syrian border. As I was later told, Hezbollah works mostly in the shadows through a sophisticated network of informers. There is no need for guns here. In fact, if it weren’t for the occasional yellow flags bearing the emblem of a clenched AK-47 flying from the window of the odd apartment building, it would have been easy to forget that this was a Hezbollah stronghold.
From the center of the city, I walked over to the mosque housing the tomb of Saieda Khaoula, a great-granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and important Shia shrine. The mosque’s Persian architecture was unmistakable, a reminder of Iran’s influence here. A pair of smiling Hezbollah guards casually checked my backpack before allowing me to enter. The inner courtyard was adorned with a few shops selling religious knickknacks and Hezbollah t-shirts (I briefly considered buying one just to screw with TSA on my next flight to the States but didn’t think it was worth being placed on a no-fly list).
Underneath the mosque’s main iwan, a man with a scruffy black beard approached and welcomed me into the mosque. As it turned out, he was from New Jersey visiting family. While we ambled beneath the gaudy lights, he explained the importance of family and why Hezbollah was so popular. “We just want to live in peace. People here support Hezbollah because they provide the environment to do that.”
The Duality of Lebanese Society
On my way back to Beirut I met a young girl. Her family was from the Beqaa Valley, although she grew up in Colombia and was moving to Texas with her fiancé. “Lebanon is a lot like Texas,” she said. “Life basically revolves around guns, barbecue, and religion.”
Lebanon is still a deeply religious country. Around 40 percent of Lebanese attend a house of worship at least once a week, roughly the same amount as in the United States. But religion is also how Lebanese identify themselves. It is woven into the fabric of society.
At the same time, Lebanese live in the moment. Beirut exemplifies this attitude with its almost sickening level of pretentiousness. Life here seems to be measured only in how many Gucci bags you own or which nightclubs you can get in. Why is the city so obsessed with excess and consumerism? As one Beirut man pointed out, “You never know what’s going to happen here tomorrow.”
Nowhere is this dichotomy between religion and hedonism more on display than in Jounieh, a satellite city of Beirut. The once idyllic Mediterranean beaches now fall beneath the shadow of apartment high-rises, the streets lined with strip clubs and casinos. 650 meters above this modern Gomorrah stands a 13-ton statue of Mary, Mother of Jesus, hands outstretched, her head tilted in silent resignation. The shrine is visited by millions of Christians and Muslims alike.
The Safety of the Valley
I was warned about going to Tripoli. In August 2013, the Syrian civil war exploded onto the streets of this historic city when twin bombings killed 47 people and injured more than 500. Sunnis and Christians blamed Hezbollah, although no one claimed responsibility. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Tripoli has seen sporadic fighting. But the violence has its roots in Lebanon’s own civil war when Syrian-backed Shia fought their Sunni neighbors for control of the city. The wounds have never healed.
Like in Beirut, there is a substantial military presence. Nevertheless, in the predominantly Sunni old town, the souqs bustle with activity, children play in the alleys, and old men sit drinking coffee on sidewalk cafes. The conflict feels far away. As one Tripoli resident told me, “people just want to get on with life.”
Not all people, though, are so optimistic about Lebanon’s future. Just east of Tripoli is the Christian village of Bsharri, nestled below some of Lebanon’s last remaining cedar trees. On the winding bus ride up the Qadisha Valley, where Christians have sheltered from prosecution for centuries, I struck up a conversation with a family on their way home. They had moved back to Lebanon only a few years ago from Australia (as it turned out a surprising number of people in Bsharri speak with Australian accents). The father, Anthony, felt that it was important his children learn about their homeland.
Anthony invited me over to his place for drinks and meze with some of his friends. Over raw kibbeh and arak, the discussion quickly turned to security. “Bsharri is safe,” he said. “It is Christian, and we know everyone. The Christian community is tight. We look out for each other.”
I told him that I hadn’t felt unsafe anywhere in the country.
“Listen, it’s just a matter of time,” he replied, slightly red in the face from the alcohol. “The thing is you don’t get it. Daesh wants to kill us. Hezbollah wants to kill us.”
I asked him about Hezbollah’s defense of Lebanon in 2006 and the protection they’ve provided to Muslims and Christians alike in Beqaa Valley.
“We wouldn’t have even been at war with Israel if it weren’t for them,” boomed Anthony. “Look, you don’t understand. They only thing they think about is killing. They are savages.”
I looked around the room at the other guests nodding in agreement.
“In a few more years I’m going back to Australia,” said Anthony. “It’s important that my son learns about his roots. But this is no place to raise a family. They hate us.”
My last stop before leaving the country was Tyre, in the extreme south of the country. Tyre is home to the Palestinian refugee camp El-Buss. There is a misconception that all refugee camps are sprawling tented labyrinths behind barbwire and concrete. In fact, I had walked clear through El-Buss before realizing where I had been.
Lebanon is home to about a million and a half refugees, most of them from Syria. That’s 25 percent of the country’s population. In contrast, Europe, with a total population of 500 million, has taken only one million Syrians since the start of the civil war. The pressure that the influx of refugees has placed on Lebanon’s infrastructure is immense.
Amongst the ruins of the Roman hippodrome across from El-Buss, I met a Christian family from Beirut. It was their first time making the two hour car ride to Tyre. I asked why they had never come here before. It was too dangerous they told me.
After explaining, that I had taken the bus here, they insisted that I return to Beirut in the car with them. “The buses are full of Syrians,” said the oldest woman, Joelle, with disgust. Tired and rather thankful that I wouldn’t have another cramped journey back up the coast, I accepted. We hopped into the vehicle and drove down the streets of Tyre provocatively blasting Israeli radio through the opened windows of the car.
On the way back, we conversed about Lebanon’s refugees. “They are thieves, all of them,” said Joelle. “The Palestinians are the worst of course. They’d kill you if they could.”
I told her that the Sunni and Shia I had met in Lebanon were warm and welcoming.
“They would never tell you how they really feel about us. Just as I would never have told you how I feel about them if you were a Muslim.”
I sighed. Not because I found her to be terribly offensive (although she was) but because she probably was right. It would be foolish to think that Lebanon’s Christian population had a monopoly on hate; I was only getting half of the story.
Joelle pointed out Damour as we drove by. The town was the site of a 1976 massacre of Maronite Christians by the Palestine Liberation Organization, itself a reprisal for the massacre of Muslims by the Christian Phalangist militias only two days before at Karantina. In 1982, when at least 800 Palestinian and Lebanese Shia were massacred at Sabra and Shatila under the eyes of the Israeli Army, the murders were partially carried out by the Phalangist Damouri Brigade. Violence has a long memory here in Lebanon.
The Unanswered Question
They say that if you think you know Lebanon you haven’t lived here long enough. In the two months that I had called Lebanon my home, I realized I was no closer to comprehending this country. And how could I? I have never had family members lined up against a wall and shot, nor have I had armed militia burst into my apartment to fire upon my neighbors the next block over. I’ve never had to live with the constant explosion of bombs, shells, and RPGs or the fear that a sniper’s bullet would find me while walking to the market.
At times, it felt like the entire country was just one big cauldron of hate on the verge of boiling over into full-fledged conflict. But wherever I went, Lebanese, whether they were Shia, Sunni, or Christian, would tell me the same thing: they wanted to live in peace. And for the most part, that was just what they were doing. What was lacking was faith, faith that their fellow citizens wanted the same thing. There is a profound lack of trust in Lebanon, and as much as I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs that these are good people, that the Lebanese are good people, sometimes all you can do is listen.
Just as the conflict in Syria appears to be ending, Lebanon faces a new threat. On November 4, 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned while visiting Riyadh. The resignation has yet to become official. Hariri is widely believed to have been held captive and pressured into resigning by the Saudi government in an effort to force Hezbollah out of Lebanon’s parliament and touch off a civil war or another Israeli invasion as part of the kingdom’s proxy war with Iran. So far, Lebanese from all faiths, including Hezbollah, have rallied around Hariri, but the situation remains tenuous. If Lebanon is able to weather this latest crisis, it may very well mark a turning point for the country and breathe new life into its embattled political institutions.