Reversing the natural course of history in Lebanon

The boundaries and horizons within which people circulate and interact continue to shrink.
by Samir Khalaf

3 May 2019 | 13:53

Source: by Annahar

  • by Samir Khalaf
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 3 May 2019 | 13:53

West Beirut seen from the Holiday Inn hotel in the Lebanese capital. (AFP Photo)

Social and intellectual historians remind us that a fascinating transformation in the historical evolution of most societies involves its passage from a relatively “closed” to a more “open” system: membership, entry or exit, and access to privileges and benefits are no longer denied by virtue of limitations of religion, kinship, or race.

Such openness accounts for much of the spectacular growth in the philosophical, artistic, and political emancipation of contemporary societies. What Lebanon experienced during its seventeen years of war (1975-1992) is the reversal of this natural and usually inevitable historical transformation.

We are, once again, creating closed communities.

The boundaries and horizons within which people circulate and interact continue to shrink. A generation of children and adolescents has grown up thinking that their social world cannot extend beyond the confines of the small communities within which they have been compelled to live. This same fear prompts many to forfeit legitimate claims or rights, lest they offend those who have usurped these rights.

Sometimes a slight reprimand, an accusing glance, or a hint that might be perceived as incriminating or injurious, even when appropriate and justified, is enough to provoke outrage and hostility. Those who are arrogant, abrasive, or violent in temper got their own way. One's esteem and social standing, in fact, became in direct proportion to one’s arrogance and abrasiveness.

In Lebanon the meek inherit nothing; they are more likely to be disinherited of the little they have. Manifestations of such aberrations are legion; from street encounters to the inner sanctum of schools and universities, the offended is at the mercy of the offender. The violator, through shameless impudence and assertiveness, gets away with his transgressions.

Since many have come to accept all such violations of private rights with resignation and passive submission, it is little wonder that they should meet the demoralization of public life with the same moral indifference. Instructors and university administrators, for example, accept the erosion of academic standards as a reality they have to reckon with, not resist. Professors admit they are reluctant to fail students or censure misconduct in the present political climate. Cheating, purchasing of exams and term papers, and tampering with grades are becoming more widespread. Students resort to intimidation to have their grades changed, and teachers are known to acquiesce.

Disciplinary committees, which normally consider these cases of student misconduct, have been suspended. Hence much of the aberrant behavior of students goes undetected and undisciplined. Despite stringent controls in the preparation and administration of examinations, leakages are also more common. Ventures, indeed in commercial outlets, to prepare term papers, book reports, even MA dissertations are readily available and publicly advertised.

To disguise the fact that one had sought the assistance of an outside agency, one is given the option to choose the desired grade level. So if you are a C student, and not to arouse the suspicion of the instructor, you will receive a paper consistent with your actual academic standing. The moral indifference with which the Lebanese are accepting the demoralization of public life assumes other disquieting forms.

As noted, people cannot depend on public authority for security and safety or to secure their basic amenities. The average citizen has been reduced to a helpless victim of extortion. The more fortunate, those with proper political connections or some sense of daring, either take the law into their own hands or resort to their own ingenious, and often devious means to safeguard their lives and interests.

For example, because water and power supplies are getting scarce and erratic, private citizens have restored to resourceful ways of securing them. Many apartment houses in Beirut (at the cost of not less than U.S. $1,000) have been drilling their own artesian wells to guarantee, by internal hydrostatic pressure, an ample supply of brackish water. Almost all major apartment houses and commercial establishments have installed their own power generators.

The adverse consequences of such indiscriminate abuse – both to the future level of water and its hygienic quality or noise pollution – is of no regard to those who undertake such projects. As in other instances, the government cannot impose limits of this flagrant abuse of natural resources and public welfare. More despicable is the abandon with which the Lebanese litter and pollute the environment. I am referring here to abuses prevalent in the mid-1980s and beyond. 

Even garbage has been politicized. A multi-million dollar incinerator plant, constructed in the eastern part of Beirut in the 1980s, could supposedly accommodate seven hundred tons of garbage daily. Back then, It hardly received one-tenth of its capacity. Christian militia groups had refused to permit garbage trucks from the city’s western districts to unload their waste. Such garbage, they said, could have easily contained time bombs or other explosives. Several decades later, mounds of uncollected garbage get bigger, and the temporary garbage dump near the airport runways became a nuisance to public health and a hazard to civil aviation.

The government has yet to approve the site of an alternative incinerator, appropriate on both political and ecological grounds. Successive cleaning campaigns by various civic-minded groups have done little so far to render citizens less negligent in disposing of their waste.

The waves of car explosions, yet another form of reckless violence which generated a staggering increase in casualties and damage to property, prompted furtive and panic-stricken citizens to resort to their own means of warding off such lethal hazards. Sidewalks, streets, and sometimes entire blocks and neighborhoods are cordoned off or blocked by stones, barrels and discarded furniture to prevent cars from parking. Others have resorted to more permanent means of implanting iron bars and chains in order to barricade areas adjoining their premises.

This has not only meant the usurpation and abuse of public property, but has obstructed the flow of traffic and compounded the problems of urban congestion. It has also eroded that little which remains of the aesthetic quality of the urban environment. Beirut, without a doubt, has become one of the most barricaded cities in the world. The deplorable evidence is very visible. Sidewalks are blocked. Side-streets designated for parking are also blocked. Quite often entire neighborhoods, particularly those where important political figures reside, are completely cordoned off to control entry and exit.

Beirut is not only barricaded, it is also bereft of pedestrian quarters and courtyards. Hence the ordinary citizen is denied the sheer pleasure of waking through its familiar streets and sidewalks.

The ordinary citizen is also at the mercy of daredevil vehicular traffic: recklessly-driven cars and a rich assortment of motorcycles, vespers and scooters. These, like other equally belligerent elements of urban life, are the outcome of three aberrant, persisting features: unappeased hostility, endemic distrust and rampant incivility.

There is some ludicrous irony in this; while Beirut is seen as a barricaded and fortified city, it also perceives itself and is perceived by others as hedonistic, sensuous, glamorous, even erotic city. Clearly a hedonistic and barricaded city cannot possibly co-exist. The two together make for a disjointed, contentious entity. This is why it is very difficult to uphold a neutral, impartial or bland perception of Beirut.

There are those who are exultant about its exotic and restless charms; others are more inclined to decry its hectic traffic, urban congestion and symptoms of squalor, disorder and vulgarization of public life. The once attractive streets and sidewalks of certain neighborhoods are littered with garish and gaudy products. Itinerant street vendors display their merchandise on cars, carriages, lamp posts, street railings, and trees. Makeshift eating stalls are flanked by vendors of cosmetics, perfumes, electronic products, pocket computers, ready-made clothes, household appliances, and lewd periodicals.

The rhymed chants of vendors compete with the amplified blasts of cassettes and recorded music. Street walls and shop windows are defaced by layers of political graffiti, portraits of martyred fighters, and suggestive ads for the latest lascivious films. The people one encounters on public streets have also changed. One no longer sees neighbors strolling casually.

There is hardly a safe and edifying place for friends and families to meet, let alone where children can frolic and play. All one sees are shabby and fierce-looking strangers jostling each other as they heed their impetuous and fleeting impulses.

The neighborhoods of West Beirut epitomize today all the demoralization that has impoverished public life and eroded traditional Lebanese civility and decency: vulgarity, greed, gaudy commercialism, and grace-less hedonism.  

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Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has been a director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.                

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