My toddler asked my father about the moon. It was night in Beirut, and the generators were off. My father’s face was lit only by the phone screen. The electricity provider ostensibly follows a schedule but, as he’s a one-man operation, that schedule follows his own: he turns the generator on when he gets up, and off when he goes to bed. The electricity provided by the state is down to a couple of unpredictable hours a day: you have to be home at just the right time to do a load of laundry; private generators don’t give enough power to run a washing machine.
It was during a visit to UMAM Documentation and Research in 2014 that I found out the truth about my grandmother’s death. My aunt, Rania Stephan, was making a film about a car bomb planted in West Beirut in 1983. An AP report from 1991 states the bare facts: ‘5 February 1983: Palestine Research Centre explosion kills 19, wounds 136.’ UMAM’s holdings were more substantial. With the help of the archive’s founder, Lokman Slim, we looked through magazines, newspaper articles, photographs of the explosion’s aftermath. The leftist magazine al-Shirā‘ carried the story on its cover: ‘Saturday Massacre: Perpetrator Known!’Everyone who lived through the civil war knew the motive: to destroy what could have become the Palestinian national archives. No one doubted it was carried out by the Israelis.
Structural conditions – the protections afforded by kin groups, the weakness of state institutions, the state’s being shored up by the international community – make it reasonable to wish for a secular state but to turn to one’s sectarian group for protection, to believe in the law but circumvent it as necessary, to long for change but reject all existing alternatives to the status quo.
It was unimaginable that things could get worse in Lebanon. But they did. Weeks into the country’s worst economic crisis, compounded by the pandemic, 2570 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in Beirut’s port, exploded on Tuesday. Because the blast was preceded by a fire, phone cameras were already trained on the port when the mushroom cloud went up. Most of the video footage lasts only a couple of seconds before the people taking it are knocked to the ground. Blurry upside-down images follow, to the sound of cries, screams, prayers, metal and glass shattering, walls collapsing. One video I have seen was apparently taken by a man who died from the explosion. The blast has so far killed 137 people, injured 5000, and made 300,000 homeless.
Earlier this month, on a Lebanese variety show called Menna W Jerr, a man performed a skit dressed in blackface – he wore a braided, beaded wig – and a domestic worker’s uniform. In the sketch, the overworked domestic worker berates her employer for complaining that he has no money, and constant headaches, but meanwhile ‘has fun with’ his wife every night. The audience laughed, but one of the show’s judges, the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, spoke out against the portrayal. There was no need for blackface, he said, and the sketch was especially insensitive considering the system under which most domestic workers in Lebanon are employed. The programme issued an apology on Twitter, saying it meant no harm to domestic workers, whom ‘we consider part of the family.’
At around 6.00 p.m on Thursday, 12 November, two bombs went off in a shopping district in southern Beirut. At least 43 people died and more than 200 were injured in the deadliest blast to hit the Lebanese capital since the end of the civil war in 1990. Isis claimed responsibility. No monuments in Europe were lit up with the tricolour Lebanese flag; no Facebook safety check was turned on for Beirut residents; there was no one-click feature to allow Facebook users to add a Lebanese flag filter to their profile picture. Not many Western heads of state felt obliged to offer public condolences to Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million people which has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees.
Thirty years on, Uri Avnery on the causes and consequences of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and Sharon's 'plan for a new Middle East':
On Jadaliyya, an anonymous eyewitness account of the violent dispersal of a protest outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday night: The Lebanese security detail disappeared, and the now larger group of counter-protestors began to push towards us, clearly trying to intimidate us into leaving.
A given number of parliamentary seats in Lebanon are proportionally assigned to representatives from different religious communities. In theory, this prevents any one group from dominating the political agenda and encourages compromise (though it’s not really working like that at the moment). It also, however, assumes that everyone is religious, and that they want the country to be governed accordingly. On 20 March, 30,000 people took to the streets of Beirut to call for secular laws to be applied to marriage, domestic violence, child custody, divorce and inheritance, currently under the jurisdiction of the separate courts of each of the 18 recognised religious communities.
One way to keep track of the shifts in belief and allegiance as you walk through Beirut is by watching the walls. In the backstreets of Gemmayzeh and Ashrafieh in the east of the city, they are covered in stencil graffiti for the right-wing, Christian Lebanese Forces Party:
The Lebanese braced themselves – some in excitement, others in dread – when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit was announced. Since the early 1980s, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard helped to set up Hizbullah, Lebanon has been ‘the lung through which Iran breathes’ in the Arab world, as the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, an early mentor to Hizbullah, famously put it. That lung has developed into a mini-regional power – the only Arab army to have forced Israel to withdraw from Arab land, as Hizbullah often brags – and a major player in Lebanon’s highly sectarian, highly volatile political system, adored by its Shia followers and resented by many Sunnis and Christians.
Misperception, willful or naive, is to be expected in US commentary on the Middle East. But it's hard to think of an Arab figure as consistently misperceived as the Lebanese Shia cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who died on 4 July (a holiday you can be fairly sure he wasn't celebrating). In obituaries in the American press (and in poor Octavia Nasr's tweet, which cost her a job at CNN), Fadlallah was, as ever, described as the ‘spiritual leader' or ‘spiritual father' of Hezbollah: never mind that he'd been estranged from Hezbollah since the 1990s. And he was invariably portrayed as a dangerous extremist, if not a terrorist.