Precarious Lebanon

For decades, this tiny Mediterranean nation of four million has segued between two identities

Beirut, from an apartment damaged by Hezbollah shelling. As sectarian tensions flared this past May, hostilities escalated. The renewal of violence dashed hopes that Lebanon could soon become -- once again -- "a freewheeling place where everybody could live his own life.” (Kate Brooks / Getty Images)
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Beneath the still-alluring facade, however, Beirut was a mess: the government was barely functioning; the Hezbollah-led opposition was boycotting Parliament; downtown was nearly deserted. Many parliamentary representatives were hunkered down at home or in fancy hotels in fear of assassination, and the Executive Mansion had been sitting empty for four months because Parliament couldn't convene to select a president. The political standoff would come to a head two months later, when the Sunni-led government banned a private fiber-optic communications network that Hezbollah operated and also fired the Hezbollah-backed airport security chief, claiming that he was acting as an agent of Syria and Iran. Hezbollah's Nasrallah called the moves a "declaration of war." His fighters took to the streets, overrunning Sunni militias loyal to Saad Hariri. Fighting spread throughout the country; by the time the government backed down and Hezbollah withdrew, dozens had died. Now a fragile truce is in place, protected by the relatively weak Lebanese Army.

"Lebanon is a failing state," Goksel said, between narghile puffs. With the administration effectively paralyzed, most Beirutis had fallen back on a kind of traditional feudalism, taking their problems to powerful local families. "In Hariri's time, these [feudal] families lowered their profile," Goksel told me. "But in the absence of the state, in the vacuum, we went back to our good old ways. The country is really running by itself."

That afternoon I went to see Bernard Khoury, Lebanon's internationally renowned architect, who works out of loft space in Beirut's Quarantine—a run-down neighborhood near the port. Khoury's studio could have been in Manhattan's Tribeca, were it not for sweeping views of the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs from his floor-to-ceiling windows. An austere figure who dresses exclusively in black, Khoury has designed buildings from Berlin to New York City. But it is Beirut, he says, that remains the source of his inspiration. His output here has been prodigious: sushi bars, nightclubs, office buildings and apartment blocks.The city, Khoury told me, has always been a place of contradictory realities compressed into a tiny space, but the juxtapositions had taken on a surreal cast in the past three years. "At the end of the 2006 war, I could sit here watching the fireworks at night over the southern suburbs," he recalls. "It was seven minutes away by taxi, and it was a radically different world."

This bizarre collision of realities is perhaps most visible in the "martyr" billboards and other memorials that seem to rise on every corner of the city. When I arrived, the highway from Beirut's international airport—Hezbollah territory—was lined with yellow placards of Imad Mugniyah, the just-assassinated (in Damascus) chief of Hezbollah's military wing. Mugniyah allegedly had engineered the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, where 241 Americans were killed. A ten-minute drive away, in the heart of the downtown area that Hariri had rebuilt, the martyred pro-Western leader's image was everywhere: on giant posters on the sides of buildings, on billboards and on dozens of hagiographic photographs looming inside the huge mosque where his body lies entombed. (Hezbollah would overrun this neighborhood two months after my visit.) On the very spot where Hariri died, a metal sculpture erupts in symbolic flame every afternoon at five minutes past one—the moment when the car bomb detonated.

"Losing Hariri was a massive blow," Paul Salem told me. "He could have stitched together a stronger Lebanese coalition than anyone else. He was a master dealmaker, and when he died, the chances for reconciliation fell apart." We were sitting in Salem's office just off Martyrs Square, where a million-strong crowd had assembled a month after Hariri's assassination to demand Syria's military withdrawal. The demonstrations, along with mounting international pressure, forced Syria's dictator, Bashar Assad, to remove his 14,000 troops that May. This so-called Cedar Revolution also spawned a pro-Western governing coalition in Lebanon known as the March 14 movement. The Assad regime, however, is widely believed to be working to neutralize the March 14 movement and regain its footing in the country: since Hariri's death, car bombings in and around Beirut have claimed the life of a young investigator looking into the murder, as well as those of a dozen journalists and politicians opposed to Syrian dominance. Not one of the killings has been solved. Salem, for one, has little doubt that high-ranking Syrian officials are behind the terror. "Syria is a very scared regime," Salem told me. "If you live in Damascus, you see the Lebanese mountains to the west, and if you don't control them, you imagine the CIA peering down on you. With the United States in Iraq, and the Golan Heights in Israel's hands, it all adds up to paranoia."

I drove into the hills of the Christian eastern half of Beirut to meet May Chidiac, a talk-show host and former anchorwoman for a Maronite-run television station. For years, Chidiac had used her TV pulpit to lash out at Syria and Hezbollah and to agitate for withdrawal of the Syrian troops. After Hariri's death, her criticism grew more vociferous. On September 25, 2005, as Chidiac stepped into her Range Rover, after a Sunday morning visit to a monastery near Mount Lebanon, explosives attached underneath her vehicle detonated.

"At first I just wondered: What is happening?" she told me, as we sat in the living room of her guarded hillside condominium. "I started seeing something like black snow falling all over my head. I lost consciousness. I heard a voice calling ÔWake up, my girl'; maybe it was my late father speaking to me from the sky. Then I found myself lying on the back seat, trying to pull myself out of the car, because I was afraid that a fire would start and I would burn alive."

Chidiac, 44, lost her left arm and left leg in the explosion. Hundreds of pieces of shrapnel penetrated her body; she suffered third-degree burns over her torso and remaining arm. (She says the bombers had laced the dynamite with C-4 flammable explosive, because "they wanted me to burn.") She spent ten months undergoing physical therapy in a hospital in Paris, learning to walk with a prosthesis—arriving back in Lebanon the day before the Israeli-Hezbollah war began. Chidiac moves around her apartment in a motorized wheelchair, using the artificial leg only when she ventures outside. She says that it would have been easier to accept her injuries if the "sacrifice" had helped to bring about "the Lebanon that I believe in. But it's no closer to coming true. Maybe it's better for everyone to have his own piece of land and rule it the way he wants," she says. "Then [Hezbollah's] Nasrallah can continue his war against Israel on his own land, and Israel will respond on his land, not on mine."

Early on a Saturday morning, I headed east out of Beirut to visit one of the country's most powerful feudal leaders: Walid Jumblatt, the chieftain of the Druse, adherents of a secretive religious sect related to Islam and found primarily in Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Jumblatt was to play a critical role in the events leading to the fighting in May: the Druse leader alleged that Hezbollah had set up cameras near Beirut international airport to monitor the movement of anti-Syrian politicians—and possibly to plan their assassinations. As a result, the government demanded the ouster of the Hezbollah-backed airport security chief, Brig. Gen. Wafik Shoukair, one of the moves that touched off the explosion of violence. I drove up a winding road that led high into the snow-dappled Shouf Mountains, passing ancient, stone-walled Christian and Druse villages still scarred by fighting from Lebanon's civil war. Hundreds of Druse men, many wearing traditional white skullcaps, were gathered around the gated entrance of Jumblatt's ancestral palace, while Kalashnikov-toting guards checked every visitor. I found Jumblatt, a scarecrow-like figure with a wild fringe of graying hair and world-weary demeanor, in the crowded drawing room of his 300-year-old palace, a turreted sandstone chateau. He was seated in an armchair, patiently listening to constituents' concerns—legal problems, marital woes, access to civil service jobs. "I can't please them all, but I do my best," he told me with a shrug, during a break between one-on-one sessions.

Jumblatt's life story reflects the byzantine and bloody politics of the region. When war broke out in 1975, his father, Kamal, was a Socialist politician allied with the Palestinians and their Lebanese Muslim partners against the Maronite Christians. Kamal Jumblatt begged then-Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to keep Syrian troops out, but in 1976 Syria moved in, initially backing the Maronites. Kamal continued to criticize Assad; the next year he was shot dead in an ambush on a mountain road, allegedly by Syrian agents. Twenty-seven-year-old Walid, then something of a playboy, found himself in charge of the Druse. (Walid keeps his father's bullet-riddled identification card on display in his office.)

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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