Lebanese fear their nation is close to its demise
Belonging to a nation, or adhering to a homeland, may appear at face value to be a “natural” sentiment. Yet the nation is anything but a simple idea. Granted, an individual may have misgivings about the country they belong to, or indeed may feel that they belong to more than one country or nation at the same time. But it is not only how individuals (and even groups) feel about the idea of a nation that makes it complex. It is articulating the essence of the presumed nation that really cuts to the heart of why nationalism is a complicated story. Lebanon, a small and relatively young nation in the Middle East, which has been in the news for many sad reasons over the past couple of years, is the example I want to think about today.
In what were largely deemed to be spontaneous mass demonstrations during the autumn of 2019, people took to the streets to protest the uninterrupted rule of the country’s powerful elite since at least the 1975-1990 civil war. Predominantly peaceful and somewhat whimsical in its slogans, the Oct. 17 Revolution, as it became known, took decades-worth of political song and repurposed it as protest song. Through attacking individuals and specific leaders by name, the ideological manifestations of political purpose were remade. Demonstrators chanted against a number of individuals, albeit a large enough number to encompass almost the entire government.
Strikingly, especially for Lebanon, traditionally contested national determinants were no longer an issue in 2019. The nation demonstrators were chanting for was defined neither by ethnic nor religious alignments. Yet the Lebanon they wanted to rescue from “the lot” was still deeply marked by political alignments, which would come back to haunt it two years later, however unified the protesters and their common economic demands were.
In previous columns, I traced the trajectory of Lebanon’s politics through song. Examples ranged from political songs that were baptized as protest songs or nationalistic songs that were reimagined as humanitarian pleas, going all the way back to the turn of the past century. Not surprisingly, given the chain of conflicts and diasporas that have plagued the nation’s short history, even Gibran Khalil Gibran was invoked on the first anniversary of the August blast in Beirut.
Arabism, some might suggest, is another tired trope that was left to fall by the wayside over the course of the country’s deepening economic crisis. So were all the cultural references that pertained to it, dominant as they had been only a handful of years ago in articulating one of the nation’s rare unifying notions: Territorial integrity. As if still fresh out of the 1960s, with Nasserist-style populist leftist appeal and three decisive wars with Israel still hanging in the air, Arabism was, until recently, still something of a radical ideology that appealed to the masses. Even though, in Lebanon, Arabism had a smaller popular base than in countries such as Syria and Egypt, and where non-Arab ethnic forms of identification never lost currency, Israel remained something of a common enemy whose expansive agenda had massive impact internally, not least through the presence of Palestinians on Lebanese territory and a constant militarily encroachment on the country’s southern border. But in the ongoing crisis, even that unifying front has lost nationalistic currency.
It appears as if the life of Lebanon — cultural, political, historical, religious, artistic, philosophical, musical, literary and even ideological — now boils down to the economy, or rather to its disintegration. It is not only the economy, really. It is the country, or whatever might define it as a nation, that is slowly disintegrating. With recent outbursts of deadly violence on Beirut streets, the ghost of the civil war looms, threatening further disintegration. Sticking together just enough to get the International Monetary Fund to inject some life into a country that should not be in intensive care a moment longer is extremely crucial for the survival of Lebanon.
The economy is now a litmus test for the ultimate coherence of this nation. In the early 1990s, and throughout the decade that followed the ceasefires agreed across Lebanon, the US dollar was used alongside local currency. While dollars continued to circulate well into the 2000s, businesses and, soon after, individuals heeded the government’s invitations to conduct financial transactions in Lebanese lira. While people had the choice, many opted to use the local currency not only to encourage the recovery of their country’s economy, but also as a way of demonstrating their commitment to Lebanon and its revival as a viable, coherent nation.
With recent outbursts of deadly violence on Beirut streets, the ghost of the civil war looms, threatening further disintegration.
Many Lebanese moved back to the country over recent decades, in most cases bringing along their savings to further boost the nation’s economy and build their futures. Over the past year or so, however, with the effective collapse of Lebanon’s banking system and currency, the loss is beyond economic.
Class, not language, ethnicity or even religion, is the contested divide in Lebanon today, and the rift could not be wider. Small wonder the guillotine was evoked by protesters demanding the departure of the ruling economic elite. People crowding Beirut airport’s departure halls nowadays are not reckoning with losing mere livelihoods. They may well be losing a homeland — a nation they fear not being able to believe is viable in their or even their children’s lifetimes.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is visiting research fellow at King’s College London and associate fellow at the Yale College.