On Friday, I was sitting at a café escaping one of Beirut’s torrential rainstorms accompanied by resonating thunder and flooded streets. The internet was down, people were hiding under awnings. Perfect time for a Turkish coffee and some urban planning theory reading.
I go to this place often, so I know the guys that run the place. We were going back and forth a bit about the weather and politics. After a few minutes, a sheepish little older woman walks up to my table and asks me, “You were speaking English, right? Are you from America?” I tell her I am, and she takes a seat. She says 50 years ago she came to Lebanon to visit a friend she had made in college. Now, she had come back with another friend to see how Beirut had changed. Then, she cut right to it- “Should I be scared?” she said. The question threw me off, and I tried to maintain my eye contact with her so that my answer was convincing- “Of the traffic in Beirut? Yes, I supposed we all should be a bit scared.” She laughed slightly, but continued, “We have been reading about the rising tensions. Some people have told us that the mood in Beirut is the same as it was before the civil war. Why is Ahmadinijad coming to Lebanon? What does that mean? What is this Special Tribunal and why are people so mad about it? Are we going to be okay?”
I couldn’t imagine asking another person this series of questions, especially one I had just met in a café. But, all of her questions were valid, and ones I have been considering over the past few months myself. At the end of the day, I don’t know who has control over the future of Lebanon. However, there is something I know quite confidently- it certainly is not me. No matter what I do here, the future events- whether they be driven by Syrian encroachment on Lebanese sovereignty, the political, military and religious whims of Hassan Nasrallah, or by Lebanese citizens is some form or another saying “enough is enough”- I will only be here to watch it happen.
As a momentary aside to describe my current views of Lebanese politics, I can only say that I am beginning to think some forms of dictatorship or authoritarian regime are in many ways more responsive to the needs of citizens then a faux or broken democratic system, or one riddled with corruption. Those authoritarian regimes have to cater enough to the basic needs of the populace to keep them complacent. I have not seen that in Lebanon. The price for the right to vote seems to be quite high. The disgust your average Lebanese has with politics has me again questioning the American approach of idealizing democracy in the Middle East- at least when it doesn’t effect our strategic goals of securing oil markets, malleable partners in the global war on terror and strategic counterweights to Iran.
Back to the nice little lady with fear written all over her face- knowing that she was going to persist with her line of questioning, I told her about the way I have been thinking about the current Lebanese political state of affairs. I told her that the Special Tribunal (click here to read about it from the UN point of view) has to be put into the current context- it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but given the current political climate, who can benefit from STL indictments? What will they help? People have back peddled so quickly that nothing but a vacuum of mistrust and rumor surround the STL. She looked quite worried at this point, and I realized that no matter how much I explained, that the end point was the same. Yes, Lebanon could disintegrate at any time. But what does that mean? How many times have we seen on the news that a country is falling apart, or that international leaders are “worried?” I honestly don’t know what that means. Simple catch phrases to fill the void between sports and entertainment. Ultimately, I ask myself this- what would it mean for me if I am here when things fall apart?
I told her not to worry because worrying would get her nowhere. It was interesting for me to tell this to a woman well into her 70s, but it was all I had. I told her that her apartment was in a safe, diverse neighborhood, and ultimately no one would benefit from hurting her, no matter how bad it got. I told her I wasn’t scared, and that millions of Lebanese survived even the worst of times here. She said thank you, and went back to her table.
I tried to concentrate on my reading, but I was at a loss. I couldn’t put my finger on where I was hiding my own fear, or what I have done to diffuse it. At the end of the day, I think my ultimate belief that everything happens for a reason is what keeps me sane. I have never found utility in contemplated fear- the natural gut instinct to flee danger is the only fear I trust. I have not felt that here. I hope I never do.