lebanon the long devision
Your Comment Is In Review
Sep 9th 2008
Scenes from an uneasy peace
THE bus from
Through the window I see the city spread out against the sea (pictured below). This view suddenly brings
The drive to the centre provides me with my first lesson in Lebanese politics. The apartment blocks rise one over the other. Some are brand-new and shining; others remain scarred by damage from the civil war. Vegetation is as ubiquitous as political posters.
There is no obvious racial divide between the Lebanese sects, but the faces on the walls show who owns what. Faded images of Bashir Gemayel, a former president of
I follow the moustache of the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the pin-up of choice of the Sunni community and icon of the Future Movement, which is today led by his son Saad. There are no obvious front-lines; posters and flags just fade out into different neighbourhoods. They lead me to Hamra, the heart of Sunni West Beirut and the scene of street fighting this May when Hizbullah seized most the city.
“When they came, the Hizbullah and their allies, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, we took out our private weapons. My father passed me one of the guns he’s used in the civil war and we defended ourselves. I shot. I do not know if I killed. I just fired.”
I ask him if anybody he knew anybody who got killed. “Yes. My cousin. Ziad Ghalayini.” He points to a massive poster of a teenage boy standing in front of
Over the road is the Ghalayini family bakery. The boy’s father is listening to the Koran on tape when I come in. A veiled women in mourning brushes past me clutching flowers. “That’s my wife. Those are for the cemetery,” Ramadan Ghalayini announces. When I ask him who killed his son he has a one word answer for me: “Shia.”
Over the road, the pharmacist tries to explain her neighbourhood to me. “You know, there is peace now in
IN THE evening, I drive south into Dahiya.
There are no obvious frontiers. The buildings just get closer together, dirtier and more dilapidated, and the electric wiring starts to become visible. Piles of rubble from the 2006 Israeli attacks are left seemingly untouched. Large posters announce “We will build it better than before.” Placards bearing the faces of stern Hizbullah martyrs adorn the lamp-posts.
I stop for a kebab outside the
The centre is associated with the charitable foundation of the Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah and financed by his supporters. Mr Fadlallah is one of the spiritual guides of Lebanese Shia. He played a key role in giving the community the necessary drive and convictions to overcome its traditional place at the bottom of
For dinner I meet Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese political analyst who represents his country at Chatham House, a prestigious British think-tank. I am shocked to discover that in the middle of poor south
Mr Shehadi points out the extreme variety of clothing. “As you can see, the families eating here do not all dress in the same manner. Some men have full beards and their wives are wearing a chador; this means they will be following a more conservative spiritual guide. Others may simply be veiled and their husbands clean shaven. There may even be a secular member of the family or a nationalist.” My impression of Lebanese Shia as uniformly poor and religious are overturned;
“It’s such a pity we can’t have a glass of arak with such a good meal,” Mr Shehadi jokes before the conversation turns to politics. I ask if the coalition that comprised the previous government was defeated when the Hizbullah-led opposition forced its way into government after May’s fighting. “No, that’s the wrong way to see it. Imagine you and your opponent are 18th century English gentlemen, and he challenges you to a duel. Now imagine he challenges you at a moment you are certain to lose, in a place that will defeat you and with a weapon you cannot match. If you manage to change the time, place and weapon with which the duel is fought and live with your honour intact, then you have won the duel.”
Mr Shehadi believes that because the previous coalition managed, through clever manoeuvring and intelligent politics, to transfer Hizbullah’s challenge from street fights to negotiations in