Michael Totten

From Damascus to Beirut

During my month’s stay in Beirut I read Thomas Friedman’s brilliant, terrifying, blackly hilarious, and heart-wrenching From Beirut to Jerusalem for the second time. It wasn’t the same book anymore. I stayed in his part of the city — Hamra — and much of what he described happened right outside my own door. Even so, it was hard to believe he was describing the same place. So much has changed. The Beirut of Friedman’s time reads like a twisted inverse of the present, a dark twin of the modern Beirut, as though the scenes he described took place in an alternate history novel by Philip K. Dick.

Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea — an idea that meant something not only to the Lebanese but to the entire Arab world. While today just the word “Beirut” evokes images of hell on earth, for years Beirut represented — maybe dishonestly — something quite different, something almost gentle; the idea of coexistence and the spirit of tolerance, the idea that diverse religious communities — Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze — could live together, and even thrive, in one city and one country without having to abandon altogether their individual identities.
Many Lebanese were either too young to remember or too poor to have ever tasted the cosmopolitan life of the Beirut city center, so they never mourned its passing. But for those members of the Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie who really exploited the beautiful side of Beirut, life will never be quite the same again without it. True, they had never paid much attention to the Shiite, Palestinian, and even Christian underclasses upon whose backs Beirut’s joie de vivre rested, and they believed in the fantasy of Lebanese democracy much more than they ever should have, but they were my friends and I happened to be a witness when their world was murdered.
Long after the civil war began, many of these true Beirutis kept the addresses of their offices in the ravaged city center on their stationary as symbols of solidarity with the past and hope for the future. As the years went by, some of them emigrated, unable to tolerate a Beirut in which Christians and Muslims were being forced to live in separate, isolated ghettos. But many of them stayed, and today they form a whole new class of Beirut refugees. They are existential refugees, homeless souls, internal exiles. They are still sitting in their old apartments with bucolic paintings of the Lebanese countryside decorating the walls, in their favorite chairs with their favorite slippers — but they are no longer at home and never will be again.

It breaks my heart to read that. I have seen what they missed and what they held out so bravely and valiantly for.
I met a Lebanese refugee when I was there. He is a Maronite Christian named Charles. He left home for Australia, where he lived for many years. He’s back now, and he told me that never in his life has he felt so much at home. He’s too young to remember the glittering cosmopolitan Beirut as it once was. But the old Beirut is returning, and this time the center might hold. The scars of the civil war — the stupid pointless bloody sectarian conflict that all factions lost – are deeply etched in the memories and the hearts of everyone over the age of 20.
But the shadow authorities from the totalitarian city on the other side of the border have not gone away. They, along with Hezbollah, are the still-existing remnants of the dark Beirut that ripped the city and the country to pieces in the 1980s. It was so easy, at times, to think that they had gone — although of course I knew that they hadn’t. But they killed Samir Kassir, anti-Syrian journalist at An Nahar newspaper, and there’s no denying it any longer for even a minute. The liberal dream lived on in Beirut during the war. And now during the peace, fascism – however much the Cedar Revolution may have diluted it – lives on in Lebanon.
I only met Samir briefly three times, not really enough to call him a friend. But he was a good man, I liked him, and we had some things in common. It was those very things that we had in common that got him killed. It brings the war home to me in disturbing ways that are hard to describe. “Beirut,” to me, was always somebody else’s problem — even while I was there. That will never be true again.
Likewise, times 1000, “Damascus” is a problem for people who live outside Syria. A modern, tolerant Lebanon is screaming to get out from under its rule. It is still governed — violently — by people who lurk in the shadows like serial killers.
It is intolerable. The Baathists in Damascus have no right to export their vicious political system to any place that does not want to accept it — which is to say, no place at all. Yet they do. All the more insulting that the country they’ve chosen as their unwilling satrapy is the one Arab country where liberalism comes, in uneven fits and starts, somewhat naturally.
Thomas Friedman wasn’t quite right when he said the cosmopolitan internal exiles of Beirut would never feel at home again. They do again, now, to an extent. But they will never feel fully at home in their country until their country fully belongs to them.
My friend LP at the Lebanese Political Journal showed me a place in Ras Beirut, just down the street from my hotel, where (if I remember correctly) an opposition member of parliament was car-bombed shortly before I arrived. The bomb didn’t kill him, thankfully, and the site was just an ordinary-looking driveway in front of an ordinary-looking apartment building. Assassination attempts, as well as successes, are frightfully normal in that city even today.
Imagine if Syria unsuccessfully car-bombed Rudy Giuliani on his way to work in the morning. Then imagine Syria succeeded in using a 650 pound car bomb to murder Bill Clinton in Harlem, killing dozens more and blowing facades off buildings. Then imagine Syria assassinated Christopher Hitchens, also with a car bomb, in front of his Washington home.
What do you think the U.S. response would be?
It may not be wise under the circumstances, but the people of Lebanon are well within their rights to declare regime-change in Syria an official policy of the Lebanese government.
UPDATE: I should clarify. I don’t want to see Lebanon invade Syria. It is neither possible nor desirable. But there are ways to influence events in somebody else’s country – ways that do not include invasions or car bombs.