Living with Lebanon

We’ve heard all about Lebanon’s instability.  If you haven’t, just take a quick look at the U.S. State Department’s travel warning for Lebanon, which offers:

The potential in Lebanon for a spontaneous upsurge in violence is real. Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders, airports, and seaports can be interrupted with little or no warning. Public demonstrations occur frequently with little warning and have the potential to become violent. Family or neighborhood disputes often escalate quickly and can lead to gunfire or other violence with little or no warning.

So before I left the States to help Empowerment Through Integration’s Camp Rafiqi in Beirut and Tripoli, I asked around for advice about Lebanon.  The diversity of advice was troubling, to say the least.  Without fail, each person I talked to who had been to Beirut supported my itinerary.  Of course, a foreign woman should be careful and aware, but none of them believed there was any reason for me to stay away from Lebanon entirely. On the other hand, people who had not been to the Middle East gave advice that ranged from “Stay in your hotel room the whole time” to “Don’t go there at all; you could get yourself killed.”  Their concerns are valid, considering that popular news outlets like to feature the most dramatic incidents in Lebanon, but I was still intrigued.  A little wary of living in this part of the world, I decided to work at Camp Rafiqi anyway.

I’ve been in Lebanon for over two weeks now, and I still can’t give an adequate gauge of my safety in this country.  Just as I began to feel comfortable, my greatest fear was realized: the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri issued four arrest warrants and demanded that the Lebanese government deliver these men immediately.  Two of those indicted are linked to Hezbollah, which at the moment, is in control of the Lebanese government. Lebanese political leaders have warned publicly that the Tribunal's findings could spark civil unrest, and Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate if they are accused (which, of course, they are).  Furthermore, leaders of Hezbollah are painting the indictments as American-Israeli conspiracies, making me feel even better about my blonde-haired, blue-eyed appearance. This was the one event that might spur serious violence and instability in Lebanon, and here I am in the thick of it.

At this point, I should come clean that I am an anthropologist, so I am well-read on social and political instability.  In fact, many of my Harvard professors have this fascination with how people endure ever-present threats to their wellbeing, so I was forced to read ethnography after ethnography on this type of social and political climate. I was able to engage with the concept in only a detached, abstract way when I read them in some posh café in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Now, I get it, and I am confounded.  The first couple days after the UN indictments, I lived with chronic tension in my shoulders, and I jumped every time a car backfired on the streets below.  Even on insignificant errands in Beirut, I moved through the streets with stifling paranoia—a novice mistake.  To the people of Lebanon, this is business as usual.  Everyone continues as if nothing has happened and nothing significant will happen.  How can they be this relaxed, even as many of them are prepared for protests and uprisings at any moment?  How does their heart not drop every time they see fireworks on a Friday night?  (Protests are most likely to occur on Friday nights after mosques let out).  How is this society not riddled by stomach ulcers and heart attacks?!

I wish I could answer any of these questions, but all I can say is the reason that navigating opinions about security is such a quagmire is that Lebanon itself is exactly that: a quagmire. I think blogger Nasri Atallah at describes the Lebanese reality best:

I’m never quite sure how to answer that question [about security in Lebanon]. And it comes up quite a lot. On the one hand, walking the streets at night in Beirut is probably safer than anywhere I can think of. There are no hooded youths on the streets waiting to steal my Blackberry and use it to film me as they go about on a happy slapping rampage. On the other hand, we tend to pepper our existence with Ak-47s and the occasional car bomb. Armed with these two realities, I gave my usual answer, which is “it’s safe until it’s not”.

The Lebanese have somehow adapted this sort of relaxed-vigilance to cope with ever-present dangers, and I don’t envy them for it one bit.  “It’s safe until it’s not” is not exactly comforting information, and it hasn’t exactly helped me cope, but it has given me a new way of thinking about our work at Camp Rafiqi.

At the Beirut camp, the most difficult part of our work is not assisting the blind; it is trying to understand the strange behavior we witness from many of the sighted children.  In the past week, I have seen children scream without provocation, insist (falsely) that another child is their sister and refuse to leave her side at any time, hit themselves repeatedly, ask to use the bathroom twelve times in a day and compulsively use every stall, and one 12-year-old even drank out of a urinal!  After the first two days, I had no idea how we could relate to—let alone teach—these children, until our insightful dance instructor Clara put their behavior in a different perspective.  She concluded to the staff that these kids have serious personal and social “luggage” (“baggage” to Americans) that they are acting out at the camp.  I was already fascinated with the emotional balancing act that the Lebanese people perform, but I never thought about how children would respond to this atmosphere!  How terrifying and dizzying it would be to be a child in a society that asks them to face such adult problems every single day.

As frustrating and confusing all this new information is for us Americans, I think it makes us even more committed to the work we are doing in Lebanon.  A couple of us have even adopted the troublesome campers at Beirut as our favorites.  As sappy as this may be, thinking about some of these children brings to mind Jason Mraz's "Love For A Child".  Although we have kept our focus on empowering the blind youth of Lebanon, I’m glad we’re here to give all of these children a little security in their insecure world.