Lebanon is a paradox! Earlier this month, I spent a week in Beirut re-acquainting myself with the local colours, tastes and cultures of this vibrantly eclectic city! And by tastes and colours I do not merely mean the souks, foods and galleries, or for that matter its politics and religions. I also mean the opinions of ordinary people.
Lebanon is a centrifugal paradox that works against gravity! One need only look at its political structures to feel the constant tug-of-war between the different institutions and personalities at play. When one party in government pulls in one direction - because its vested interests nest there - you can be sure that another party will push in another direction. This in part is why there is a constant drama about issues like the supply of electricity and water or the exploration of oil or gas reserves in Lebanese territorial waters. Entrepreneurship in this country dates to Phoenician times but it manifests itself even today with public servants busily slicing the cake. And the people know it, speak about it, make fun of it, scorn it, mimic it, but little changes anyway.
One day, I had just finished three consecutive meetings at Haigazian University, at the American University of Beirut and finally at the Middle East Council of Churches (all in the western Hamra district of Beirut) and was being driven to a mezze dinner at the somewhat expensive but taste-friendly Mandaloun restaurant. My local cabby spent the whole time (well over 90 minutes for a 20-minute ride due to constant heavy traffic and potholes) complaining to me about endemic corruption and the costly let alone ostentatious futility of the ruling political elites and the religious or confessional hierarchs. And for good measure, he also argued during his tirades that Israel is the source of all evil, that Syrian refugees are grabbing jobs from the locals and that some Palestinian camps across the whole of Lebanon have been harbouring a hornets' nest of radicalism. Was he a tad racist or merely a nationalist? Dare I add a 'populist' perchance? Yet, he was so matter-of-factly about the realities of the country, and so humorous about the stories he recounted to me, that I could only laugh at his rants. Exasperation might depress some people; it certainly fired up my driver!
To understand Lebanon, let alone to appreciate its contrasts, one needs to acquire a basic knowledge of the chaos theory where things no longer work in accordance to a deterministic "butterfly effect" but rather in an unpredictably random manner. This is somehow the charm of this country let alone the resigned demeanour of its men and women. Many of them are externally full of verve. They sport cheerful go-get attitudes. But they are also dragged down by the vicissitudes of a system that liberates and crushes human beings at the same time. It is hard when freedom becomes a bullied bargaining chip - at times through the barrel of a gun.
But my theory - and it is admittedly not very original - is that Lebanon somehow works better when power is shared by different fulcrums of influence which vie for their interests and are therefore by definition open to compromise. After all, if one such centre collapses, the domino effect will not be far behind for others too. And much as this not encouraging, it is different from the system of top-down dictators who brutally crush all dissent or kill and gaol all objectors. After all, Lebanon's neighbours do not inspire much confidence when one sees how their peoples are brutally denied their basic citizenship rights and treated like serfs or worse chattel.
Lebanon is indeed a paradox! On the one hand, it hosts roughly 1.5 million (registered and unregistered) Syrian refugees who are sharing the resources of the country. However, whilst almost everyone I met pleaded poverty, I was struck by the myriad restaurants brimming with people who behave like there is no tomorrow. Are those many gastronomes living in elitist bubbles that challenge reason and defy prudence? Are they snubbing Lady Luck, or are they veteran nihilists who prefer to think only of today as if tomorrow is far too haphazard?
As I visited different parts of the capital Beirut, I reminded myself that this country with its ever-receding cedar trees has survived 15 years of civil wars. More alarmingly, and more pointedly, I concluded that its political smorgasbord of governance is making it more difficult for donors to help Lebanon with its Syrian refugee burden - unlike say Jordan. Why? Because different politicians sing from different hymn sheets in Lebanon whilst donors seek centrality, coherence and certitude to reassure them - three ingredients in short supply. Yet, call it a hackneyed aside or even a pedantic cliché, but Lebanon the Paradox still succeeds to captivate its visitors. Just go to the Sursock Museum of modern and contemporary art opposite the Greek Orthodox Archbishopric and you can witness beauty alongside ugliness, and excitement next to drabness.
Besides, let us not dismiss the fact that Lebanon is also the only Arab country where Christians and Muslims share some of the levers of power. This is unheard of in the MENA region and says a lot about the country too.
But the overall redeeming quality of this paradox? The ordinary citizens who are its textbook in survival!