BEIRUT: I just concluded yet another trip to Lebanon from my adopted country America.
It is probably my 100th New York-Beirut (or back) flight in four decades of refuge, exile or immigration, you can take your pick from one or more of these three words (describing what catapulted our war generations overseas for centuries). In my hands, on this flight, I have a great heartwarming gift, a just acquired and personally signed book of a famous Lebanese sociologist (almost as Lebanese American as I am).
One of the chapters made me want to plagiarize, with a strange sense of pleasure, if only to help spread the beauty of that book around to more of my compatriots (of a different generation, and who, like me, may not have had the opportunity to read and enjoy and admire this writing that was first published almost 30 years ago).
After nearly every visit to Lebanon, I have had that longing to write, draw or sculpt an impression of that trip. And one of my sons but especially my daughter often urged me to do so even lending a hand or a pad. There is a description in that book I am alluding to above that is written in such magical language that it seemed to beat the best painting or sculpture that one could try to produce in months or years of work.
It conjured or awakened images imprinted in my eyes and in my mind. In addition, that chapter sparked and delivered to my heart a powerful and inspiring message. I seemed to quickly expand on that timeless message myself and felt the urge to deliver from it an outcry.
In that chapter Dr. Samir Khalaf invoked images of Lebanon’s colorful, lively and diverse scenes that seem to with every trip appear inexorably juxtaposed against a different set, the American set.
So as I juggled the keys in the pocket of my jacket looking forward to unlocking my suburban American home in a couple of hours, that I left behind 25 days ago, he managed to so correctly make me envision “the ordered, flat, antiseptic milestones of America: the manicured lawns and parks, shopping malls and mega-highways”, a contrast that is stark and clear from the Lebanese scenes of “ancient Roman monuments of Baalbek, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Anjar; Phoenician mosaics and amphitheaters, Crusaders’ castles; Ottoman souks and bazaars; feudal estates; fortresses, caverns, tombs and quaint villages with their picturesque red-tiled roofs huddled in deep gorges, on hilltops or coastal towns hugging the Mediterranean shore...”.
My heart smiled broadly as it “saw” those images better and faster than any of my 500 photos tucked in my smartphone could depict. I imagined large posters of these images on the wall, one of America the beautiful and one of Lebanon the beautiful.
Then I looked sideways and I imagined more posters, perhaps a third one as our writer goes on to describe, was of “the compelling view of Sannin, with the highest snow-capped peaks and ridges of Mount Lebanon standing out in splendor against the blue skies. It is incidentally this same view that captivated generations of Orientalist painters and engravers like Roberts, Taylor, Bartlett, Wilson, Van de Velde, Harper and Woodward; and inspired native poets and writers. It is also this view that is etched vividly in the memory of emigrants and speaks to their longing for the old country.” The eyes were joyfully dazed with the accuracy.
Our sociologist then went on to send a message of hope to his compatriots that they seem to have partially heeded so far: “Now that many of these young and old compatriots” with the war ending, “are in fact visiting parts of their country previously inaccessible to them, they have a chance to renounce all the alien and borrowed ideologies they embraced to sustain their belligerency. They could at least begin by disarming themselves of the instruments of collective violence.”
Disarming means no second civil war. That seems to have completely sunk into the Lebanese. I had often wondered if any nation had ever experienced two civil wars in rapid succession? Happily, I couldn’t think of any.
But sadly all other devastating civil wars seem to have been followed by successful nation-building. Not us. Our naturally optimistic sociologist was worried and somewhat prophetic as he went on to say that “Lebanon has long been plagued by disharmony between the beauty of its natural endowments and its boisterous political culture. An awakened sense of geography, sustained by an ethos for preserving and enriching the edifying features of their habitat, could be life-enhancing, enriching and a means of bringing tranquility and vitality.”
“Geography can be an antidote to fear. Stripped of their bigotry and intolerance, territorial entities could become the bases for the articulation of new cultural identities. With visionary leadership and enlightened spatial planning, communities can be resocialized to perceive differences as symbols not of distrust, fear and exclusion but of diversity and enrichment. Herein lies the hope, the only hope, for transforming the geography of fear, which has beleaguered Lebanon for so long, into a new political culture of tolerance.”
Have we heeded some of that golden advice? Has failure here become worse than the war itself? I see a fourth poster added to the three above (American suburbia, quaint Lebanese mountain villages and coastal towns and majestic Sannin head butting the blue skies). That fourth poster is now depicting the environmental disaster befalling Lebanon in the past few years.
This new poster stood in stark contrast as the saddest of the four, showing our dirty beach waters and the huge and omnipresent garbage dumps... and the poster now nearly wreaks of that smell at the Beirut airport when you disembark from the taxi to unload your suitcases onto the baggage carts. And it nearly chokes you with the dust and exhaust fumes of the traffic-choked street ways in Jounieh and Khalde.
All of a sudden, in that 1991 piece Dr. Khalaf seemed to me to be writing in a prescient fashion of how “ecological and environmental concerns are becoming generational issues. It is the eco-smart children who are most incensed by the damage done to their environment, it is, after all, their future abode that is being violated. For the disinherited children of Lebanon, almost half the victimized society, such concerns could well serve as the rallying call for their active reintegration and involvement in pacifying and healing their damaged environment.”
It is perhaps time that something needs to happen that is very “out of the box” in an attempt to fix this disaster. Before my plane read I had actually mentioned the environmental concerns to my airport taxi driver and his comment resonates now so well in my head. This man was about my age, and like me, was around during most of the hostilities of the 70s and 80s and he said that in many ways this current deplorable state of affairs is worse in 2018 than then.
He made it clear that two vital conditions for survival are now lacking, money ... and more: hope. He said there is definitely less money in people’s hands ... and less hope for a solution in their hearts. Think about that statement for a moment: in war, you know it will stop one day, and war financing is plentiful.
Today there is less money and a strong feeling of hopelessness, and that may explain the accelerating emigration despite no war, and all these tables in Beirut restaurants filled with Lebanese women only, an observation many have recently made, as their husbands and sons are working in faraway lands. The taxi driver may be right. And our sociologist is certainly absolutely accurate. Thus the republishing of his piece a couple of generations later.
So what to do? The government seems totally useless at least on societal issues: garbage, healthcare, electricity, internet, ease of doing business, tourism, traffic, education etc.
Perhaps it is time for a two-tier government: let the politicians divide among them, and keep the sovereignty portfolios. And let the services portfolios become a hybrid of technocrats and civic-minded leaders from the great well of local talent ...and the expatriates.
Some of that talent that is being exported daily to build companies and institutions in faraway lands can be redirected internally, utilizing the same skills that they have shown to be capable of, perhaps only as you strip politics from hard patriotic work. A national debate on such thoughts and other ideas are now becoming absolutely necessary. Yes, conventional wisdom will say that is nearly politically impossible, but what wisdom can one find in our current situation going unchecked? Something needs to be done to slow arrival of the train wreck awaiting us, as we strive at keeping hope alive and start planning for the hard work for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
Dr. Jack Tohme is an endocrinologist in the New York area and is affiliated with Columbia University and the Valley Hospital in New Jersey. He left Lebanon in the 1980s after having studied medicine and practiced in Beirut at the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He has now been in practice in the U.S. for more than 33 years. Dr. Tohme is also a board member of the American Task Force For Lebanon.
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