An Assassin’s Land

Charles Glass in Lebanon

After all, who didn’t go through the most improbable adventure during the civil war?

Mikhail Bulgakov, Black Snow

When a Lebanese wants your attention, he lowers his voice. You draw closer, and he asks: ‘Do you want to hear a story?’ If you say yes, and everyone does, you’re hooked. You listen. In the most Lebanese of his novels, Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells a story about stories. In 1975, early in the civil war, fighters of the pro-Palestinian leftist-Muslim alliance are trapped inside Beirut’s Cathedral of Saint Louis during a battle with the Christian militias. An old French priest starts talking to them. He came to Lebanon as a soldier in 1920, he tells them; his regiment advanced on Damascus to depose King Feisal. The French defeat of Feisal’s army at the Maysaloun Pass brought to an end the prospect of post-Ottoman Arab unity and independence. It also set the stage for the civil war that his listeners were then waging. ‘I took part in many other battles,’ Father Marcel says. ‘In the battles for Jabal Druze and Ghawtah, outside Damascus. And I recall that we were models of chivalry and discipline, and harmed no one.’ Shells falling around the cathedral light up the priest’s memory.

‘Listen carefully.’ (Here, the priest’s tone sharpened.) ‘War is war. You can’t fight your enemies, you can’t stop terrorists and spies and the enemies of civilisation without killing some of them. The fate of civilisation was at stake. The fate of French history hung on the outcome of the Jabal and Ghawtah battles. Leniency was out of the question.’

Khoury wrote Little Mountain in 1977, and imperial discourse has not altered. Leniency is still out of the question.

I returned to Lebanon this April in time for the 30th birthday of the civil war and to watch the Syrian army depart after 29 years. An old friend met me at Beirut’s flashy new international airport. With him was his son, whom I’ve known since he was 12. We went to dinner in the rue Hamra, lazily described by prewar journalists as Beirut’s Champs Elysées. Now, after the war, the once vibrant avenue was deserted and its glitzy cafés – the Café de Paris among them – were dark. The only other customers in our kebab restaurant were a Syrian family, parents with two children. ‘They won’t be here much longer,’ my friend said. The Syrian army was withdrawing. Thirty Syrian workers had been murdered, and more than a hundred thousand had gone home, leaving Lebanon’s construction boom without labour, its public gardens unwatered and its oranges unpicked. Born in 1968, my friend’s son did not want his children to live through war as he, his brothers and sisters had done. If Lebanon remained at peace, he said, he would like to stay. But, in case war resumed in the wake of Syria’s withdrawal, he had applied for residence in Canada. The Canadians had granted his request that afternoon. He asked me what he should do.

Since 1975, every Lebanese has confronted the dilemma of leaving or staying put. They all tell stories of living through war, fleeing into exile, fighting, hiding, violent dramas, funerals, betrayals and assassinations. Most have experienced the ‘leniency’ of foreigners: the Palestinian sack of Damour in 1976, the Israeli onslaught in 1982, the USS New Jersey’s 16-inch guns pounding the Shouf in 1983, and the Syrian bombardment of East Beirut in 1989. Every foreign army that camped in Lebanon during the 20th century has gone: the Turks, the British, the French, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Israelis and now the Syrians. Their futile military campaigns have become legends that mothers pass on to their children, as my Lebanese grandmother passed on to me the story of how the Turks killed her father. The fables are unending, and nobody connects one to another.

When the historian Kamal Salibi was 17, he watched the French army’s reluctant retreat from Lebanon. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement with Britain in 1916, France had assumed a mandate, later ratified by the League of Nations, to govern Syria and Mount Lebanon. Its mission civilisatrice to the Christians of Lebanon led it to expand the borders of the Christian statelet, incorporating so many Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – from outside the Ottoman governorate of Mount Lebanon that the Muslims inevitably became a majority. The Sunnis in Damascus and the Druze in southern Syria revolted against French rule again and again, and the French bombarded Damascus and the Druze villages. By the time the French departed, even the Christians were in the streets demanding that they leave. ‘The French left very nicely on the last day of 1946,’ Salibi recalled, sitting in his West Beirut flat near the American University where he taught for forty years. ‘The Lebanese gave them a 21-gun salute. They were thanked for what they did for the country. The ugly side of the mandate was quickly forgotten.’ Only a compromise – the unwritten National Pact that distributed government offices by religious sect – saved Lebanon from fratricidal violence in 1946. Every sect took its share of the spoils: from the presidency, the prerogative of the Maronite Catholics, through the Sunni prime ministership and the Shia office of house speaker, down to the lowliest post in the civil service. Now, almost sixty years later, Salibi, the author of the standard history of Lebanon – A House of Many Mansions – was watching the Syrian army pack up and go home across the French-created border. There was no 21-gun salute. ‘If they had withdrawn gracefully of their own accord, they would have left with some courtesy and perhaps some gratitude. Instead, they left like housebreakers.’ To pre-empt embarrassing televised scenes of toppling statuary, the Syrian troops took with them imposing statues of two men: Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president who sent his army into Lebanon in 1976; and his heir, Bashar al-Assad, who under international pressure brought the troops back in time for the United Nations deadline of 30 April.

Lebanon is an assassin’s land. In a way, the war began not with the violence of April 1975, but when an Israeli death squad murdered three Palestinian politicians and two of their wives in April 1973. Ehud Barak, who led the hit-team, would become Israel’s prime minister and withdraw the last Israeli troops from Lebanon in May 2000. On the morning after the April 1973 killings, the Lebanese lined up for and against the Palestinians. Sunni Muslims demanded that the Palestinians be allowed to defend themselves, to conduct a commando war against Israel from Lebanon and to maintain an armed state within the state. Maronite Catholics wanted the Palestinians disarmed, as they had been in all other Arab states. The Christian-commanded Lebanese army attacked the Palestinians in May 1973; these were the first street battles I had ever seen. The antagonists in the struggle – which became full-scale war in 1975, after the diplomatic activity prompted by the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 had come to an end – were the same as they had been during the French mandate, when the divisions were over borders and identity: Christians and a few Muslim notables welcomed Lebanon’s detachment from Syria, while the Muslims and a few Christian intellectuals rejected it. In 1975, Arab nationalism, embodied in the Palestinian cause, battled Lebanese nationalism. (Although each side would say they were both Lebanese and Arab, their nationalisms lost the war to tribalism and religious orthodoxy.) By the summer of 1976, the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies were on the verge of defeating the Christians and the state itself.

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