This piece originally appeared in AUB’s Outlook in a slightly modified form, in print as well as online, for the week of October 28, 2014.
The year is 1980. Haitham Haddad is an architecture student and a musician at the American University of Beirut (AUB) when Nadia Tueni, Lebanon’s famed poetess, approaches him. She had been walking across our war-ridden country with film director Maroun Baghdadi when, at the end of her journey, she stopped at AUB. The exchange, seen above, is surreal.
The scene is taken from “Whispers”, one of Baghdadi’s most hauntingly beautiful documentaries. Throughout the film, Nadia Tueni’s relentless optimism is sharply contrasted with the cynicism of the destruction around her. The shattered streets she walked on are the same ones we walk on today, suggesting perhaps that optimism scored a small but significant victory.
“Whispers” allows us to briefly glance into the past, although a disturbing one, with Tueni narrating this journey of fainting life amidst the rubbles of death. But “Whispers” isn’t just a look into the past. The ghosts it tries to hunt are still present today, albeit in a more discreet manner.
Today, we live in a state of profound cynicism where no individual action is believed to be capable of leading to genuine change. At the same time, we live in a country of talent and extraordinary resilience. The challenge, therefore, is to break down the imaginary barrier which separates the imagination from the cold reality of everyday life. This is not only feasible, but a moral imperative.
And here comes a very profoundly held belief: that just as students have been at the forefront of change in virtually every society for over a century—from Chile to South Africa, Hong Kong to Vietnam, Egypt to Palestine, France to the United States—so do we, the students of Lebanon, have a major role to play in the way this country runs. In fact, we have the most important one.
Students have shaped history when history seemed to be at its most rigid state, and Lebanon is no different. The exchange between Haitham Haddad and Nadia Tueni revealed a student who dared to hope and trust that young people can bring themselves together and change the world around them. Thirty-four years later, have we betrayed that trust?
The government is by its very nature incapable of radical change. The only thing Parliament managed to get done was extend its own term illegally. We had to go to the streets in our thousands to demand, over and over again, that the women of this country be protected from the savagery of domestic violence; and when parliamentarians finally agreed, the resulting law passed turned out to be a very weakened version of the one we demanded so loudly and so repeatedly. (Rape is still legal, in case we forgot. We can thank religious ‘authorities’ for that.)
Why do we expect them to care about the injustices that countless Lebanese women are told to ‘accept’? Over half of them voted against the domestic violence law to begin with. Our foreign minister confuses representing Lebanon at the United Nations with representing his penis, and the very man who proposed the illegal extension of parliament’s term seems to be too busy punching women in the neck to listen to what we have to say.
And this is just one issue among too many issues to list. Realizing their urgency is necessary for the illusory helplessness we hold so self-destructively to fade away. In 1991, just as our parents were celebrating the ‘end’ of the Civil War, the great American historian Howard Zinn wrote: “If those in charge of our society—politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television—can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.”
Is this not true of Lebanon as well? The corrupted religio-political class—those warlords, their sons and the clergy which absolves them of guilt—that dominate the very intricacies of Lebanese life have domesticated us. They don’t need to show whatever strength they can muster. We’ve internalized the status quo so deeply, so thoroughly, that we just lower our heads and keep silent without even being asked to. Does this not also put us at fault? Allow me to quote Edward Said who, perhaps more than anyone, was able to aptly summarize Lebanon’s current situation, almost 20 years ago:
“I have almost given up trying to plot the changes and the turns [in Lebanon], each of them denser and more complicated than the preceding ones, each of them astounding me with Lebanon’s capacity for money-making, conspiracy, and both individual and mass murder. Yet the so-called traditional leaders and their variously mediocre progeny remain unchanged, as they forge and almost immediately betray alliances with each other, as well as with the Syrians, Palestinians, Iranians, Americans, Israelis and Saudis (who seem to be bankrolling everyone). There is no one to admire or trust in this too long and too sordid spectacle of idiotic violence and limitless corruption. Even the innocent civilians who have gone on and on, with their brave routines, their ability to rebuild and restart their lives a dozen times, their courage under fire, must have secretly connived, one feels, with the leaders who have kept the war going. Otherwise, how could it have continued for such a long time?”
How could it indeed. And we could go further back in time. Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote in the 1920s—90 years ago—that there are two Lebanons: the Lebanon that is the “arena for men from the West and men from the East” and the Lebanon of everyday life, of beauty and laughter. Do we need another century before realizing that the other Lebanon, the one we loathe and are disgusted by, must be abolished for the Lebanon we cherish to be able to breathe?
Too often have we seculars blamed ‘sectarianism’ for Lebanon’s ills. But we also tend to portray it in simplistic terms: as a mere system which differentiates between the sects, and which essentially puts into practice a state-imposed definition of one’s religious belief regardless of the individual’s choice.
But sectarianism isn’t just national divisions based on one’s sect, which he or she rarely chooses in the first place. It has strong historical roots that have paved the way for Lebanon’s current system since at least the mid 19th century. It’s in our constitution, and has shaped our social classes and the way we deal with one another. Paradoxically, it has even breached the sectarian divide by infecting us all with its rampant moral corruption. In other words, sectarianism, like death, is more ‘secular’ than most of us are.
Let us remember the countless students around the world who have succeeded in transforming their society for the better of their friends and loved ones, neighbors and strangers. Let’s use our privileged status as Lebanese students to provoke the world around us into asking deep questions so that, together, we can put into effect that old Marxian adage, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”