Shedding Light on Lebanon

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

Yet even the evidence that guns have been used like aerosol cans in Beirut's streets these past nine years will not attune the visitor to face what has been done to the city's heart. Beirut, time was, liked to think of itself as the Paris of the Levant, and photographs of the Place des Martyrs ten years ago lend substance to the claim. The Place was tree-shaded, filled with gardens, and lined by the dignified facades of a great commercial quarter, where French fashions were sold beside Islamic antiques. Today the Place is a silent shell, eerily magnificent, resembling a gigantic film set conceived with a megalomania exceeding Griffith's or De Mule's. The scale and the extent of the destruction beggars belief. It is as if midtown Manhattan had been burned out from Grand Central Station to 50th Street and from Fifth Avenue to Third. The streets have been bulldozed clear and—thanks to the bravery of the engineers of the French contingent—swept of unexploded munitions and mines. The walls stand. But the interior of each building is filled with the rubble of its collapse. And for block after block the sightseer meets not a living soul.

Beyond the empty heart of the city, and outside the hours of curfew, which, when I was there, fell every evening at eight and lifted at six in the morning, life, in the intervals between outbreaks of civil strife, went on with a bizarre normality. No doubt even now cars coagulate in enormous traffic jams, shoppers throng the streets, children troop to class—when their parents judge it safe—wearing the neat cotton tabliers of French elementary school pupils. Doctors and dentists receive patients, banks (there are sixty Lebanese banks) change money, stores offer for sale the gamut of international merchandise: Japanese electronic goods, Hong Kong textiles, Italian shoes, East European glassware. There is a Mediterranean-café life to the city; a plethora of newsprint, daily and weekly, French, English, and Arabic; leisure to gossip and pass the time of day in the famous Beiruti argot: "Shu haida, chérie, how's business?"

But there is also a strained, harried, almost frenetic dash to Beiruti street life, as if the passers-by were hurrying to put distance between themselves and each parked car. "Roving massacres" is what a Beiruti journalist has called car bombs, and their detonations have punctuated the city's life, often with ghastly results, ever since the shooting began. The strain goes deeper. Acute mental illness has declined since the outbreak of the civil war, an effect familiar to psychologists: external troubles rout ones that come from within. But the mentally stable are afflicted by chronic, low-level anxiety, which manifests itself in psychosomatic illness, ulcers, overeating, dependence on tranquilizers, and an inability to face a future of more than a few days' duration. A sense of powerlessness and an inability to comprehend what has happened to them, and why, lie at the root of the Lebanese neurosis. Many Lebanese confess to feeling like the victims of a conspiracy that they do not understand and whose source they cannot locate. There are, nevertheless, objective reasons for their situation, ones for which the Lebanese cannot be held wholly to blame. Some of the objective reasons are recent and contingent, particularly those stemming from the Israeli intervention, and some originate with the earliest appearance of Christian and Moslem populations in the Levant.

LEBANON IS A COUNTRY THAT AMERICANS ARE peculiarly ill suited to understand. The American miracle may be represented in a number of ways, political and economic as well as cultural. But it can be argued that the supreme triumph of the American people is to have produced the largest homogeneous cultural unit on earth. Neither China or Russia, comparable though each is in extent and population, can claim that the official lan-guage of the state is understood from border to border or that the values that obtain among the governing and intellectual class of the capital are the raw material of public life in the remotest province. Both countries are the cultural inferiors of the United States in that respect. But the "melting pot" ethos that has long directed the outlook of the United States is nevertheless a drawback when the country seeks to exercise its power in regions that do not resemble it. And there is probably no country in the world, not even multilingual Nigeria or multi-ethnic India, that resembles the United States less than Lebanon. An American might suppose that in a territory 135 miles long and fewer than 40 broad, with a total area smaller than Connecticut's, and with a civilization dating back 6,000 years, cultural differences would have mellowed if they had not altogether disappeared. Such a supposition would be entirely wrong. There has been no Lebanese melting pot. The Lebanese have been at daggers drawn for centuries, and in recent times the differences among them have sharpened rather than blunted.

It has been suggested by a Palestinian commentator, Hussein Sirriyeh, that influences on Lebanese affairs may be categorized under four headings: the Lebanese, the Palestinian, the Arab, and the international. Then, he says, differences among Lebanese may be divided into four kinds—sectarian (Christian against Moslem), socio-economic (poor against rich), political (pan-Arabist against Lebanese nationalist), and dynastic (local Lebanese leaderships against one another). This is to oversimplify. It leaves out of account—to mention but two factors—Israeli strategic concerns and Lebanese regionalism. It also passes over the puzzling and important question of what Syria wants from its embroilment in Lebanon. Syria has never accepted the separate existence of Lebanon, which under Ottoman rule was counted as part of the same political entity. To Damascus, therefore, Lebanon is Syria irredenta. But irredentism does not fully explain Syrian policy, which is also influenced by the desire to get Israel out of the Golan-an aim that Syria will perhaps realize by protracting its occupation of northern and eastern Lebanon and by the determination to see a pro-Syrian government installed in Beirut. It may also be that Syria is pessimistically convinced of the inevitability of another war with Israel, and hopes to see it fought on Lebanese territory rather than its own. Some or all of these considerations help to explain Syria's dogmatic refusal to move as long as there are Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, an intransigence it justifies by arguing that its forces arrived in the country at the invitation of the Lebanese government and not by unilateral act, as Israel's did. Because it leaves out the immense imponderable of Syria, Sirriyeh's analysis is even more limited as a tool for understanding. But it does at least bring into immediate focus the most fundamental and sanguinary of the differences among Lebanese, which is the sectarian one.

Lebanon belongs to the heartland of Christianity, and thereby to the storm center of Christian heresy and schism. Quarrels over the nature of Christ are no longer the staple of relations between Christians, but 1,500 years ago they were. The Nestorians, who believed that in Christ there were two separate beings, and the Monophysites, who believed that Christ had a divine nature alone, energetically propagated their doctrines against the official teaching that Christ was a single person with a divine and a human nature. The Monothelites, who believed in two natures but a single will, were later entrants to the fray; later still were the Orthodox schismatics, who had their own views about how the Holy Spirit descended from Father to Son. Regionalism and difficulties of communication between regions solidified these differences. Thus, the Christians of the Euphrates Valley became firmly Nestorian, the Armenians Monophysite, and the Maronites, now the leading Lebanese Christian community, Monothelite. The Syrian Christians eventually came to be numbered among the Orthodox churches. But these were not outcomes that Rome would let rest. At various periods between the Crusades, which greatly strengthened papal influence in the Levant, and the eighteenth century, Roman emissaries talked these churches or portions of them back into the fold, within which they preserved their own rites and customs. The Maronites came back en masse, the local Orthodox in part, the Armenians in a minority. The result is that there are today in Lebanon ten separate versions of historic Christianity: Maronite, Syrian Orthodox and Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Catholic, Chaldean and Assyrian Nestorians, and some mainstream Roman Catholics, under no fewer than five professed occupants of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. The presence of some undisputatious Lebanese Presbyterians seems a comparative blessing.

Many of the representatives of the ancient churches would not be where they are but for the second important religious factor: the Arab conquest and the waves of religious persecution that the rise of Islam provoked. Moslems should not under Koranic law and do not much in practice persecute Christians. But all sects fall short of perfection by their own standards. Islam, which is a political as well as a religious system, often seems to be persecuting when, by its own lights, it is merely punishing non-Moslems for dissidence or aggression. The effect is the same.

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