Everything you ever wanted to know about Lebanon* (*but were afraid to ask)

Lebanon is one of those places that occasionally jump up at the front of the international debate, and keeps intriguing and bringing strange explanations. In a way, Lebanon has turned for a lot of people into a token, and I seem to always hear every now and again idioms like “We don’t want to turn into a new Lebanon!” (this one being particularly popular among that special breed of French columnist that have nothing to say about the Middle East but still kind of want you to know what they think of it). And of course, as a token, Lebanon brings a lot of clichés: for some, it would almost be a land of milk and honey, a brave land that concentrates all the good the world has to provide; for others, it is basically Hell on earth, a terrorist chaos dominated by fascists and inhabited by mobs of bloodthirsty murderers who keep starting wars for no reasons. Of course we all ought to value the opinion of very enlightened persons who don’t bother a lot to try and go see a place with their own eyes before explaining what it actually is like (who has time for such things as experience, anyway?). Nonetheless there are some among us who believe in information, especially with places very strongly charged with clichés.

The recent experience with the serie Homeland had just shown it once more: the hilarious case of the fake graffiti moking the serie, or this guy on the web’s remark about the misrepresentation of Hamra in Beirut, have only highlighted the tendency to just rely on myths when it comes to Lebanon (and, of course, the Middle East as a whole). This could be just made fun of as bad writing and the anger of Lebanese people when confronted to such prejudice shrugged away as a bit pointless, were it an event happening out of nowhere, which it is not: bad reporting happens constantly, mistakes and errors are constantly put in serious papers, as for instance with the Telegraph publishing in July a text that could easily make it in a textbook on how not to report about Lebanon. When I went to Lebanon for the first time in 2010, we used to watch as a joke a French “documentary” titled “Business, tourisme et kalachnikovs, les mille visages de Beyrouth” (Business, Tourism and Kalachnikovs, Beirut’s thousand faces). Of course there is a lot of genuine, serious information out there, and Lebanese people are always willing to point out how bad reporting – but also fiction, as in the case of Homeland – on their country biased, poorly informed, and globally wrong. Is it merely an issue of their pride being stinged by people telling hard truths, and them not being able to take criticism? If only it was that, that would be reassuring, wouldn’t it? But no, there is a mostly an issue of bad practice in journalism being forced on people who would want to do their job well but rarely have time enough to do so, and publishers as well as producers in Europe and the USA generally not caring about mistakes when it comes to the region, because, let’s face it, they consider their audience as a bunch of morons who thrive on clichés.

The best answer to prejudice being information, I asked people what questions they would like to have the answer of on Lebanon, as I did on Israel-Palestine. Please bear in mind, as I say in the Israel-Palestine note, that I’m answering with what knowledge I have (that is, one and a half year spent in Lebanon, and five years of study of this country, especially its politics). So I don’t claim omniscience. Most of my answers may not be entirely complete but, I’ll say it again: anyone claiming their case is different and they’re giving you the full picture is a liar. And the first lie to dismiss is the idea that Lebanon is mysterious, too complex, or incomprehensible. Lebanon can be understood, as any society in the world, but the complicatedness of the situation demands ackowledging that there is no straightforward answer. Which is what we already acknowledge, when you think about it, on most countries and situations in the world. So with all these warning about the fact that my answers will necessarily be incomplete, let us begin.

Copyright Aglash, 2008-2015
“Lubnân”, Copyright Aglash, 2008-2015

Question 1: How do you make arak, exactly? (Priotities, always)

Well I don’t get to decide the order of the questions, so why not start with this one. Arak. How to explain it to laypeople? Arak is a Levantine liquor (it is also produced and consumed in various forms in Syria, Palestine, and Israel) close to Turkish raki, Greek ouzo and French pastis, because of its strong anise flavour and omnipresence. This flavour makes it taste like divine bliss for most people, but as an anise-hater I have personally always considered it as an ordeal directly sent from Hell to test me, and probably a plot to get me to hate the Near East. But apparently there is no accounting for taste, yada yada. Arak is not sweetened, and thus generally drunk while eating (some of my friends consider it an offense to drink it without food), but it’s not mandatory, and as the Beirut leisure ressembles that of every city in the world, you find people drinking arak outside of their meals. It is generally mixed with water (in which case it will turn from transparent to milky), but can also be taken pure (in which case it will cause your brother to ruin your flat, puke in your bedroom, and have a massive hangover in the morning).

As per the question itself: arak is basically distilled fermented grape juice in which you add aniseseed for second distillation and then let it age in clay jars (at the contrary of pastis, commonly made of grain or herbs). Apparently being made from grapes makes hangovers on arak less brutal than hangovers on other similar grain or herb-based liquors. I believe it to be true, as I’ve never had a hangover after an evening staring helplessly at a glass of arak without touching it and hoping there were other drinks offered. Arak by the way comes from the Arabic root “3a – Ra – Qa” which refers to transpiration (a reference to distillation), which is why the term is also applied to many distilled drinks in the places in Asia (in Iran, for instance), although they do not refer to the same thing. Many seem to argue that making good arak require good grapes, but as far as I am concerned such a thing as “good arak” seems highly improbable and good grapes should be wasted trying to invent it. Of course this is only a subjective statement. But I’m right.

Question 2: Some speak of a very “confession-like” country, very divided/partitioned and which works, year in, year out, without any real unity… what is the reality?

Alright. That’s a pretty tough one, so let us start by clarifying some terms here. It is common knowledge that Lebanon is a confessional (or, to be more accurate, consociational) regime (other consociational regimes, by the way, include Switzerland or Belgium or, arguably, the European Union). But what this term actually covers is generally misunderstood. So what are these “confessions” we are talking about? To understand that we need to distinguish between two things:

  • Religious ideas and/or faith: That would be what someone believes. They can be believers or non-believers, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians or what have you. They may follow this or that tenet of their religion, this or that sect, and so on and so forth. To understand the political system of Lebanon, religous ideas can overall be ignored or overlooked, as the consociational regime does not actually care about such things. Legally and constitutionally, religious freedom is guaranteed in Lebanon, the Constitution mentionning “the Most High”. There is nonetheless a legal punishment of one year of imprisonment for “blaspheming God publically”. I do not personnaly know of a case in which this sentence has been brought to execution, and as far as I could observe problems of that nature were generally not with the state.
  • Community: Community is a legal label transmitted by the father. It is a religiously-based group that does not require any specific religious behaviour. There are 18 recognised communities in Lebanon. 12 of those are Christian (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Copts, Protestants), 4 are Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Ismailis), to which one must ad Druze (who may or may not be considered as Muslims, depending on who talks) and Judaism.

Communities are at first important in two domains, which are personal status law, and administration and politcs. Personal status law concerns all matters related to the “code civil”: marriage, inheritance, divorce (mostly). This domain falls under religious recommendations, meaning that your marriage contract will not be the same depending on your community. The struggle for civil marriage has been ongoing for ages, and Lebanese couples willing to marry under a non-confessional law do so through a trick: the law that applies in front of a judge are the laws of the jurisdiction that has pronounced the marriage. Therefore it is common for Lebanese couples to wed in Cyprus, easily accessible, and then to return to Lebanon (incidentally I once heard that some Lebanese judges eventually judged more marriage cases according to LebCyprus law than Lebanese law, although this is likely to be an exaggerration). Civil marriage could be the next step towards secularism (after the possibility of refusing to inscribe a community altogether, obtained in 2013 when a “community-less child was born in the country) in Lebanon, as the cause is arguably more or less acknowledged in the country now (it would probably be an option). Politics and administration are a different concern. Consociationalism is present politically. How this works is not overly-complex all in all: Lebanon is a democracy (which doesn’t mean it is a great regime, but one relying officially on representative government of the people). But it is a consociational one: members of Parliament are elected by all Lebanese, but each seat is secured for a specific confession, according (in theory) to the proportion of each community in Lebanon. For example, let us suppose you are a Maronite voting in a district where there are two Sunni, one Maronite and one Druze MP, you will vote to decide who will be each, but you can only candidate for the Maronite seat. To that you may add the system of the three presidents (of the Republic, of the Council of Ministers, and of the Chamber) which is shared between the three main confessions of the country according to the “National Pact” (a political agreement made in 1943 and confirmed by the Constitution): the President of the Republic is Maronite, the President of the Council is Sunni, and the President of the Chamber is Shia. Finally, it has become a practice to attribute posts in administration according to community (although as far as I know this is not planned by a law). Voilà, for what concerns the system in principle.

Now begins the hard part: confession also has consequences in society, and they are various. The first of these consequences is spatial. In Beirut, neighbourhoods are generally invested by a confession, and this is often displayed in public space (via little altars in Christian neighbourhoods, for instance). It does not mean that it is forbidden to live in a district where a majority of another confession lives (I lived in Furn el-Shebbak, a Maronite neighbourhood, and two of my flatmates were Sunnis, for instance), although it can become a source of rumours (in Furn el-Shebbak, there is an ongoing rumour according whuch Shias buy buildings to take the land off the Maronites, for instance). This remark can be extended to the country in general (certain regions are inhabited mostly by Druzes, or by Shias, and so forth). It becomes very difficult to distinguish territorial identity of confession, and other elements. A casual remark is that when two Lebanese meet, the first questions are where they are from and what their family name is, which indicates regional, confessional, economic, social, political hints (which may be wrong). Confession also has implications politically (everybody keeps hearing that the Hezbollah is a Shia party, for instance, because it uses a lot of the Shia imagery in its discourse and is dominated by Shias, the same remark can be made about most political parties). Political alliances, nonetheless, are pluri-partisan and pluri-confessional: Hezbollah, for instance, is currently allied to the Patriotic Free Movement, a mostly-Maronite party. The opposition is led by the Future Movement (a mostly-Sunni party) and the Lebanese Forces (a mostly-Maronite party). Therefore it would be inaccurate to say there is a “Muslim front” and a “Christian front” in Lebanese politics, this is not the case.

And finally confession is present in the everyday life: you generally don’t necessarily hate other communities, but still don’t really live with them as well (even though some Lebanese would throw discourses of hatred, of course). You may go to different universities, work in different companies, live in different neighbourhoods, or go to different places to have fun. Is this the mark of a discriminated society? Yes, but the same observation can be made about most countries in the world (it would be foolish to say the French haute bourgeoisie and banlieue-dwellers are not separated in perhaps an even stronger way than Beirut’s Sunnis and Maronites, for instance). This may, by the way, be a long-term social change in the country, as since the 2000s this reality is slowly changing: a share of the Lebanese youth has the same leisure, the same practices, and therefore mixes. For some this would indicate “the birth of a secular generation”, which seems to be an over-exaggerated term (and I remember reading articles about such a “birth” and written in the early 2000s, it is more of a recurring truism). What is more accurate is to say that the socialisation and politicisation of a part of the Lebanese society is now, in a context of growing defiance toward the political parties especially, happening in a pluri-confessional context. Whether this has political effets or not is beyond my knowledge, but it is argued by some that the “You Stink” protest represents this group (or not, I don’t know).

This allows me to go more directly, to conclude, to the question: how does it all work? My take is, pragmatically. By this I mean that all these elements are related to a certain “order” or a certain “level” of things: the legal, the administrative, the political. In the everyday, these things don’t really matter. A Maronite taxi driver who spends his time complaining about Geitawi being “invaded by Muslims” (this is an extremely cliché character, this character does not really exist) doesn’t care to take on veiled women and shuyukhs, because what matters is to make a living (which is a reaction you can see pretty much everywhere). What is more the confessional division is but one of several divisions: the territorial one is important as well, as is the economic one: all in all, someone living in the “Maronite neighbourhood” of Furn el-Shebbak has more in commin in his everyday life with someone living in the “Sunni neighbourhood” of Tariq el-Jdideh than with someone living on the Corniche, for example.

To deepen this debate (because all of that was the short story and things are actually more complex), I can recommend a few books and films, which are:

  • Lara Deeb and Mona Harb, Leisurely Islam, Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi’ite South Beirut, which shows how confession and identity interplay in leisure for the Shia middle-class of South Beirut.
  • Daniel Meier, Mariages et identité nationale au Liban, Les relations libano-palestiniennes dans le Liban de Taëf, which discusses how these confessional (and Lebanese-Palestinian) oppositions are a matter of scale and can matter less in the everyday.
  • Reine Mitri, In this land lay graves of mine, a documentary that shows how the Civil War has not emerged from confessional differences, but made them, and anchored them in space.

Question 3: Can you talk a bit about the Christian phalanges? I don’t really understand their positioning…

So at first a bit of clarifying is required about the term “Christian phalanges”. The term, and the very non-Lebanese source of information most people had about them (I’m talking about the movie Watz with Bashir, which is a good movie, but a movie about the experience of an Israeli soldier, not about the Lebanese Civil War) makes most people imagine they are a sort of chaotic militia that rampages in the country. This is untrue. The actual name of the group is the Party of the Lebanese Phalange, or Kataeb, to stick to the Lebanese term for “Phalange” (no “Christian” involved, as you can notice; remember when I wrote that Hezbollah was not a Shia party but a party supported in majority by Shias and using Shia representations and symbols, well it’s exactly the same model here: the Kataeb is not a Christian party, but a party supported in majority by Maronite Christians and using a Christian imagery, although it is a bit more complex, I’ll go to that). The Falangist ideology has also given birth to another party, the Lebanese Forces, originally created by Bashri Gemayel, the son of the founder of the Kataeb (and the Bashir of Waltz with Bashir) to serve as an armed bridge between the different “Christian” organisations during the Civil War, and nowadays existing as a parallel, allied organisation (the difference being that the Kataeb are still under the influence of the founding family, not the LF, and a question of political anchoring, more than an ideological debate).

Historically, what happened with the creation of the Kataeb in 1936 was a somewhat common story in the history of political parties in the Near East. The legend is that the founder of the Kataeb, Pierre Gemayel, got impressed by the organisation and discipline in the German athletes in 1936’s Olympics and molded a political movement that aimed at becoming the type of mass party the fascist movements had developed in Europe. Knowing whether the fascist ideology was at that time the core of the Kataeb ideology is beyond me, but nothing I read so far seems to indicate that (and the very notion of Falangism comes from Spain, not from Germany or Italy). Beyond that legend, another historical reality was the development of the party in the region at that period, which was almost systematically importing the formulae of what worked in Europe, that is mass parties with a strong welfare and a functioning close to that of a political machine, and opposed to colonialism, although divided on the forms of the states to come. The main influence here may have been the creation of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1932, to which the Kataeb were an opposition: the SSNP had a pan-Syrian agenda, while the Kataeb immediately employed an anti-Arabist “Phoenicianist” stance, arguing that the identity of Lebanon was ontologically different from the Arab identity, therefore legitimising its independence from any pan-Arab project. Because of its composition, the party is after the independency associated – but not representative – of “political maronitism”, a practice of power which associated the interests of Lebanon to the supposed interests of the Maronite community which would have induced in Lebanon ideas of democracy and liberalism (a debate I am very keen on not entering). During the War, the Kataeb have maintained that ideology, instituting themselves as the head of the pro-Western, right-wing, nationalist, anti-Palestinian, and Christian front. The main fear was not Islam, but indeed a certain xenophobia towards Palestinians, associated to a fear in front of the practices of the PLO, which was using Lebanon, and especially the South, as its HQ for nationalist struggle (another debate that I will not enter here). From that period, both the Kataeb and the LF have gained a certain prestige as managing to represent themselves as a line of resistance for the Christians of the country. This has been helped by the fact that several core members, especially in the Gemayel family, have been murdered during and after the war during the Syrian occupation of the country, the least of which being Bashir Gemayel in 1982 (when I was studying in his alma mater, Saint Joseph University, his portrait was still in the university’s hall, and in the streets of Beirut you can occasionally see it with the mention “We will never forget you !”).

Regarding the current stance of the Kataeb and the LF, the first thing to be said is that the times of mass parties is over for them, like it or not. Today the LF and the Kataeb represent respectively 8 and 5 seats in Parliament, making them the second and third forces of the opposition (far behind the first force of the opposition, the Future Movement, holding 35 seats). The Falangists maintain the core of their ideology: Lebanese Christian nationalism, Phoenicianism, the opposition to the resettlement of the Palestinian – and now, Syrian – refugees in Lebanon (a consensus in the Lebanese political spectrum), a certain form of xenophobia, promotion of a free market economy, the defence of decentralisation (which went as far as promoting federalism at certain periods) in order to maintain the place of Christians in Lebanon, and opposition to Syria. The main concern in the discourse of the parties is clearly the influence of Hezbollah, in which they see an armed organisation defending foreign – Syrian and Iranian – interests and putting Lebanon in jeopardy by dragging it into foreign conflicts. The LF and Kataeb, despite a relatively small presence in Parliament, still represent a certain influence in the political world which is hard to evaluate in electoral terms as the last election was in 2009. The leader of the LF Samir Geagea is still one of the main candidates for the Presidency of the Republic as I write. The FL and Kataeb now exist mostly through the alliance of the 14 March, which gathers anti-Syrian groups, under the leadership of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri (so, once again, not a “Christian Front” at all) and opposed to the alliance of the 8 March, led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement. As for the term “phalange” and its military denomination, it must be relativised by the fact that most political groups have disarmed now (except for the “national resistance to the southern enemy”, that is, Hezbollah).


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