Shedding Light on Lebanon

An examination of the historical roots of a conflict that Americans are peculiarly ill suited to understand

THE STATE GETS A BAD PRESS TODAY. IT DOES TOO little, it does too much. It serves itself, it serves anyone but you and me. The rich seek to deny it the wealth it needs to run. The poor demand more of it than any organization can deliver. "Special-interest" pressure groups condemn it when it heeds the pleas of others. Individualists decry it as interfering when it tries to play fair with all. Disarmers depict it as warmongering. The defense community warns that it neglects the simple necessities of national security. The law-and-order lobby complains that it is soft on criminals. The civil libertarians allege that it wants to send honest men to jail. Everyone, left, right, center, wants more or less of the state and finds few good words to say about it unless he gets what he wants. Even the Marxists, who put their shirt on the state's back, look forward to the time when it will wither away. The state seems to have no friends at all.

What would its critics, even its enemies, make of a country where the state does, because it can do, virtually nothing? Such is the condition of Lebanon. Even in February, the outward trappings of the state were all present. There was a governmental structure, with a head of state, a prime ministerial office, a parliament, and a raft of political parties. Lebanon had a seat at the United Nations and maintained embassies in most foreign capitals, which issued visas and revalidated the passports of its nationals resident abroad. There was a constitution, a judicial code, and a legal apparatus whose courts occupied prominent buildings in the country's major cities. There was a police force, and a customs-and-immigration service that inspected the papers of travelers at ports of entry. There was a civil service, whose members continued to be paid, and a rapidly dwindling army, whose maintenance was the principal charge on the government's account. But of a state that defends, adjudicates, taxes, heals, educates, governs, there was no trace at all.

This is the country that the four contingents of the multinational force were pledged to rescue from anarchy. Not anarchism, of course; that idealistic creed holds that communities, if untroubled by state selfishness, will learn to settle their differences and regulate their relationships by homespun diplomacy. Woe to the hopes of Bakunin and Malatesta! Lebanon abounds in communities, few of them subject to state authority, that cherish their differences and conduct their relationships at the point of a gun. A few heroic elements of the state system rise above the prevailing tide of sectarianism. On the second night of a visit I made to Beirut in December, a car-bombing of a Greek Catholic church round the corner from the Commodore Hotel brought the international press corps, sped thither by the taxi fleet that hovers at the hotel's door, to the scene within a minute of the bang. But the Beirut ambulance and fire services were ahead of us, the crews of their little Volkswagen buses busy with the damage and the casualties. They are almost the lone representatives of what you and I—hatethe state, love it, or pass by on the other side—expect as a matter of course.

The other normalities of existence function erratically or not at all. Self-interest ensures that the public utilities—electricity and water—are generally spared interference, and the corporations somehow collect their revenue. The service of both utilities is nevertheless frequently interrupted, either because shelling or sabotage damages their installations or because demand exceeds output from the machinery left intact. Many streets run with water from unrepaired pipes, and most stores and public buildings are flanked by petrol-driven generators. The sound of their springing to life in chorus is the sign that the electricity has been cut again. Only half the numbers in the national telephone system function. The postal service has been in disarray for years, unsurprisingly so when letter carriers may be murdered for belonging to the wrong religion. When the Beirut airport closes, foreign mail cannot leave or enter the country at all. Closures are frequent and often prolonged, for the airport lies in the shadow of the Shouf Mountains, within easy artillery range of the Druze and Syrian guns hidden behind their crests. And it is not only the airport that lies under their threat. The whole of East Beirut, the Christian quarter, can be and is reached by shells from the Shouf.

IT IS NOT AS IF BEIRUT WERE SOME FORMLESS THIRD World sprawl, with wasteland and vacant lots be-tween the buildings to absorb the weight of hostile firepower. Beirut is a large, densely built, and densely packed modern city. Most of its buildings are European in style and so is its pattern of life. Indeed, its inhabitants look European—an observation offered in an entirely unracialist sense. The Lebanese political leaders who attended the November meeting of the "reconciliation" conference in Geneva may have succeeded only in agreeing that "Lebanon is an Arab country," and it is certainly true that all Lebanese speak Arabic. But many speak English, a lot of Christian (and some non-Christian) Lebanese prefer to speak French, and virtually all Lebanese look Mediterranean French—or Greek or Italian—rather than what Europeans and Americans think of when they visualize Middle Eastern people. In many ways the Lebanese look more European than their near neighbors the Israelis, who, since the immigration of round about a million Oriental Jews, present in some districts a distinctly Asian appearance. And while Israel turns increasingly in upon itself, agonizing over policies that mean little to the Western world, a large part of the Lebanese population—Sunni Moslems as well as Christians—strains to emphasize its Westernness, and many residents seek nothing more earnestly than the chance to escape into the Western promised land. Two million Lebanese do in fact live abroad (there are major Lebanese communities in Wheeling, West Virginia; Austin, Texas; and St. Louis, Missouri), and by now the money they send home amounts to 40 percent of the national income. Many in Lebanon are sustained by the hope of joining the branches of their families in the diaspora.

This emphasis on the Westernness of the Lebanese is not intended to imply that what has been done to them (leaving out of consideration what the Lebanese have inflicted on themselves) would be more excusable if it had been done to Yemenis or Ethiopians. I emphasize their Westernness because I am addressing a Western readership in a Western magazine and I believe that people understand best the troubles of those with whom they can most closely identify. Which takes us back to the devastation and suffering that nine years of war—civil war, factional terrorism, foreign intervention against terrorism, war between foreign armies on Lebanese soil—have visited on Lebanon in general and on its capital in particular. Beirut is a city of a million people, one third of the population of the country. Perhaps 400,000 (no one has counted) inhabit the ramshackle southern suburbs around the airport, most of them newcomer, whether Palestinian refugees or Lebanese fugitives from the Israeli occupation of the south. The rest live in the city proper, which, seen at a distance, resembles any other prosperous port metropolis on the Mediterranean. The center is dominated by the high-rise towers of luxury hotels. The waterfront is girdled by a corniche and lined with charming seafood restaurants, blocks of expensive apartments, foreign embassies, and the tree-shaded campus of the American University. At the well-equipped harbor, efficient modern installations mingle with Franco--Islamic buildings instantly reminiscent of the setting for Casablanca.

Particularly Casablanca-like is the customs building, through which travelers who arrive by sea—as I did and as all must do during the frequent airport closures—make their entry. Arched and colonnaded, overhung by cypresses, it has honey-yellow walls that breathe the tranquillity of Mediterranean voyaging in the era of the Blue Train and the Messageries Maritimes. Close inspection reveals the irruption of Early Devastation style. Overturned container trucks, loopholed for defense and draped with barbed wire, block the main entrance. Splashes of bullets pockmark the façade. A lopsided sign points across the basin to the jetty of the Beirut Yacht Club, where the moorings are occupied by the funnels, masts, and derricks of cargo ships that have been resting on the harbor bottom since shelling—Syrian, Israeli, or Lebanese—sent them there in some forgotten round of the war in any year since 1975.

Early becomes Middle and Late Devastation style as the traveler penetrates the city. Every television viewer has watched the Battle of Beirut, though haze of memory will prevent him from putting dates to the episodes. Absolutely nothing in what he has watched will prepare him for the results. The gaps in the blockfronts of the South Bronx, opened by arson and urban decay, approximate somewhat the damage done to Beirut's center. Probably no city in the world has been as physically afflicted by the effects of street fighting as this one. For the Battle of Beirut—the many acts of which have involved almost every party to the Lebanese conflict—has been fought in the age of ammunition affluence, and every wall bears the marks. Block after block, high-rise and low-on the front, side, and back-the buildings are smallpoxed, measled, and acned with bullet strikes. An average building, fifty feet high and thirty feet wide, will show. two or three thousand bullet marks on its face. A building that has been the focus of a prolonged street battle will have been windworn by bullets, its contours eroded like the rocks of Monument Valley—doorways doubled in width, window pillars narrowed to sticks, roof lines serrated, all sharp edges rounded or flattened. It is perfectly possible, given the quantities of ammunition available, that large buildings at the borders of mutually hostile districts, like the Holiday Inn and the Phoenicia Hotel, have been hit by a million bullets, or two, or three: who can say? This is not just the nuclear age. It is also the age that has made ammunition junk, a throwaway commodity like popcorn or wedding rice.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus