- Adieu to Lebanon
The Middle East presents great contrasts. The cultures of the region are old, yet the states are new. The religions are old, yet the religious ideologies are new. The contest for empire is old, yet the excuses for conducting it are new. For historians—like us—who are classical scholars, the contrast is even greater. The Middle East was a part of the Roman Empire and so belonged to the West, but today that is no longer so. It contains Muslim nations named after Roman provinces: Syria, Egypt, and Libya. And if the Middle East ever includes a Palestinian nation, that will be one more state named after the province of an ancient empire that today matters to few. Tiny Lebanon presents the greatest contrasts of all. Home to some of the oldest cities in the world, the Lebanese state is only sixty years old. It contains large communities of Shiite and Sunni Muslems, of Druse, and of Maronite and other Christians, all of whom have lived there for centuries. Yet the rising political and ideological force, Shiite Hezbollah, originated just thirty years ago. Along with neighboring Israel and Syria, the U.S., France, and Iran have ambitions in Lebanon, but none of these nations have the same ambitions. To Syria, for example, Lebanon should be part of Syria. To France, it should be part of la francophonie.
In recent years, Lebanon seems to have collapsed under these pressures. The Lebanese government now amounts to a city-state consisting mostly of Beirut. Southern Lebanon, the bailiwick of Hezbollah, is a client of Iran. It has some of the features of a sovereign entity, including control over access to Beirut International Airport. To the east of Beirut, the Druse are autonomous, as are the Sunni Muslems of Tripoli and the Palestinian refugee camps to the north. Farther to the east, in the Bekaa Valley, the government’s hold is tenuous. Until recently, this part of Lebanon was occupied by Syria, and the Lebanese government has yet to assert itself as Syria’s legitimate successor.
Yet Beirut and its surroundings remain viable in another form, that of a city-state. Beirut is a center of both commerce and money laundering. Hezbollah relies on Beirut’s money-laundering expertise. Yet the financial specialists who provide these skills are Sunni and Christian, not Shiite. They come from Beirut itself, not Hezbollah’s territory in the south. Whereas Hezbollah is provincial and pious, these financiers are cosmopolitan and tolerant. Hezbollah nevertheless needs them. And so Hezbollah has reason to spare the rest of Beirut, just as the Chinese communists for a long time had reason to spare Hong Kong, or Malaysia had reason (not that it had the power) to spare Singapore. The seaside city-state has often been a territorial insult and sometimes an ideological threat. But typically it has also been a commercial asset.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Beirut’s commercial strength reflects another characteristic of city-states: diversity. The people of Beirut and its environs are Muslim, Christian, and Druse, Arabic-speaking and French-speaking. In the rest of the Arab world, comparably mixed populations have recently existed only in Alexandria and Baghdad. This diversity presents obstacles to unity, but also to demagoguery. Neither Hezbollah nor Al Qaeda finds Beirut an easy target for recruits.
Beirut is not the first Lebanese city-state. City-states in present-day Lebanon date back to the Phoenicians, who traded as far west as Spain and Britain and as far east as India but never formed a national state or a common identity. Instead they comprised a dozen or socity-states with local identities. At first, the Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language akin to Hebrew and worshipped Semitic pagan gods. In the Hellenistic period, many learned to speak Greek. Under Rome they spoke Latin, and, when the time came, they followed the emperor’s bidding and converted to Christianity. The contrast with ancient Israel is sharp. The adaptability of modern Beirutis is an ancient trait.