- Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground
In the 1990s, after 16 years of war and economic hardship, a profound sense of relief and guarded optimism emerged in Lebanon. The slogan al-balad macheh (the country is moving) summed up the collective desire to rebuild the country and reestablish Beirut as the financial and cultural capital of the Middle East. A new constitutional arrangement, the Tai’f Agreement, promoted national reconciliation; state institutions were modernized; Beirut’s city center was rebuilt; and the Lebanese economy was rescued by businesses both corporate and small.
But this “movement” did not resolve deep underlying problems, as Samir Khalaf details in his latest book, Lebanon Adrift. The Tai’f Agreement recommitted Lebanon to political confessionalism. Collective denial and historical amnesia became coping mechanisms that prevented the country from confronting the horrors of the war years — thousands of lives lost, unspeakable crimes against the innocent, and unresolved political, economic, and social issues — and crucially, the complicity of the Lebanese in their own destruction. Hostility, rather than pluralistic coexistence, still prevails in Lebanon, manifesting itself in periodic clashes between profoundly divided groups that threaten to erupt in sectarian violence. The possibility of violence is alarming: during the war, inter-sectarian or inter-communal violence led to horrific in-group hostilities in which “Fighters were killing not those they wanted to kill but those they could kill” (p. 14). In the face of such atrocities, Khalaf presents the continuing dilemma in the form of a searing question: “Does one remember or forget?”
Both remembering and forgetting have heavy consequences. Without an opportunity to forget, Khalaf says, the prospects for accord and coexistence are slim. Yet one is left to wonder whether Lebanon, like South Africa, should have attempted “truth and reconciliation,” which focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders and involves the community in a process of healing. Is the concept of “restorative justice” alien to the Lebanese? Why did those who committed atrocities become, for the most part, the new political elite?
A distinguished sociologist, Khalaf cites the work of renowned scholars in support of his thesis that Lebanon is adrift. He analyzes in great detail the coping mechanisms the Lebanese have employed to deal with their unresolved conflicts. These include the unprecedented surge in mass consumerism. Instead of being released from their prewar excesses, Khalaf tells us the Lebanese have “discovered insatiable desires for extravagant consumerism, acquisitiveness and longing for immoderate forms of leisure and sterile recreation” (p. 139).The result is a commercialized, soulless society in which consumers have become commodities, and goods and services fleeting substitutes for personal relationships, cultural expression, and the arts. Paradoxically, a consumer society not only fails to satisfy, but makes non-satisfaction permanent, thus dooming the consumer to a condition of seeking without fulfillment. Vanished in Lebanon are responsibilities for the common good, in which people look out for each other and concern for one another is reflected in the nation’s corporations, communities, and government. Even ordinary civilities have [End Page 741] been replaced by acquisitiveness; good taste has been replaced by spectacle, giving rise to kitsch and the debasement of cultural products.
Khalaf leaves us with one glimmer of hope. He cites promising alternatives to commodification in the advocacy and civic-conscious groups that have recently taken root in Lebanon alongside traditional NGOs. But are individual and non-governmental initiatives enough to transform Lebanon? Is not the root of Lebanon’s malaise its confessional system of government? Khalaf himself admits that more and more Lebanese are brandishing their confessionalism as both emblem and armor (p. 225). As an emblem, confessional identity is a means to assert one’s presence and to secure vital needs and benefits. As armor, confessional identity becomes defensive and hostile when faced with real or imagined threats. Khalaf points out, “the thicker the armor, the more vulnerable and paranoid other communities become.”
One is forced to conclude from Khalaf’s excellent sociological analysis of contemporary Lebanese society that as long as social fragmentation, political feebleness, and sectarianism...