Symptoms: Part I

Not long ago, I was in Beirut having a debate with friends. I was arguing that many of the problems we have in the country are just symptoms of a long-standing mental condition of sorts. I think the war, or the wars, have scarred us, traumatized us, and our lack of ability to process what happened, what each of us went through, is showing up in very troubling behaviors in the population, exacerbated by a host of added circumstantial problems, with things getting worse and worse over time.

In Lebanon, people are violent. Physically, but also verbally: we’re violent to our friends, our spouses, our children, to random strangers. There is a lot of negativity and aggression going around, with every interaction making things worse, and continuing the thread of exchanges, like a vicious circle. There is also a lot of denial, so much so that I think it has become a national trait, reappearing in many of my closest friends and my family in their daily life. I feel mostly comfortable saying this, however, because I’ve discovered it and watched it play out in myself. An exceptional ability to look the other way, to pretend things are okay when they are really not; this superpower we have is bleeding us dry. Lebanon’s situation is very complicated, and no one can sum up the entire paradigm in a few phrases and diagnoses. But I think we should try to look beyond the surface, the circumstantial, into more systemic and deeply-rooted behaviors in order to uncover approaches that would help us make things better.

Because let us be honest: things are really bad. Everybody is constantly complaining how Lebanon is terrible these days, things are at their worst, and so on. I’ve been hearing it for years, every time I go back, and it’s probably true. But I think we’re doing nothing to improve the situation, because we’re often looking at symptoms (the corruption, individual stories, tragedies), instead of looking at the very complicated disease that ravages our society, a condition with multiple causes, a snake with many heads.

As often happens in these conversations, my friends laughed at me a little bit (perhaps uncomfortably, although I think it’s just wishful thinking on my part). They were telling me that I was being “too serious,” that I needed to relax. They often add that I’m being “too European” about things, whatever that means. This happens frequently, and I suspect it also happens to many people like me who spend a lot of time thinking abstractly, and who often do so outside the box. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, but it has to be said that people who refuse to be cynical, and who manage to maintain a healthy dose of idealism in our society are considered na├»ve and silly by a massively disillusioned population. I denounce that, and I urge whoever wants to brush this all off as impractical to pause, to slow down, and to be honest with yourself. Do you really think things can get better if we don’t all hold ourselves up to a certain standard of introspection? It’s personal, I know. It makes you feel insecure to go there, it’s terrifying to most, and that’s why we don’t want to do it. It’s a can of worms. But I would say: that’s why you wouldn’t go there publicly, openly. But you must do so with you family, your friends. We all need to open up.

Some of us have killed people. Neighbors, other people’s friends, sons, sisters, our fellow countrymen, some did it out of fear of “the other,” others because the criminal in them that many humans harbor and learn to repress found a perfect outlet. To those people – let me be direct, they were mostly men – the war was a happy time of sorts. They found a structure in the war that made them feel empowered, needed; it gave their existence meaning that they lost once the fighting stopped. There have been documentaries and interviews made with some of these men, who admit to feeling empty once the war ended, as though their purposes vanished. These are some of the people who still have guns in their basements, and who are the first on the street when problems happen, their weapons on their hips, or in their trunks. It’s almost as though they miss the war, and who it allowed them to be. And for younger men, eager to get into fights, it’s as though they haven’t heard enough about how horrible it was. Their parents haven’t spent enough time telling them what war does to people because they haven’t admitted what it has done to them.

Most of us watched people kill our neighbors, our friends, powerless and crushed under the weight of the events unfolding in the country. The war was a terrible time. It has been over for twenty-five years, and we are barely beginning to scratch the surface of the horror stories that took place. The terrible experiences of the many and the even more terrible deeds of the few were pushed under the rug and, one day, everything went back to normal. Well, “normal.” Watching someone die changes you, whoever you are, and watching hundreds die, living in fear of death for years on end: you don’t just walk away from that.

We cannot hide behind fake symbols of reconciliation, and pretend like all of this never happened. We cannot let Majida el Roumi and others sing about it alone, “Bayrut, ya sit ed’dunya, na3tarifu,” and pretend like this does the trick. We all need to go through the motions. The only time the war is mentioned is by politicians who threaten each other and remind each other of the “dangers of sectarian violence,” Taif this and Taif that, but what about the people? When do the people talk about what they’ve lived through? How many of us spend time venting, speaking of what we saw, describing how we felt, what it did to us?

Understandably, no one wants to dwell on this. No one wants to talk to others about what others did to them. We shy away from it, and bury our frustration, our trauma, deep within us, and inevitably act out this massive repression on our children and on people around us. We grow cynical and raise cynical children. We grow suspicious and weary of others, collectively, and we create a toxic climate for ourselves and our children to grow up in and perpetuate the problem.

My reading of the situation regarding violence in Lebanon (and again, it is a very complicated situation) puts the blame on two, deeply connected phenomena: intense machismo and sexism on the one hand, which our patriarchal society is very attached to and always figures out ways to be apologetic for (I’m always teased, even by women, when I bring this up to people in Lebanon); and just as importantly, this collective repression and denial about what we’ve all lived through, and a general refusal to face our reality head on. We’ve lived through an insane war. But don’t bring up the war to be apologetic. I don’t mean to say, “we’ve lived through a war, cut us some slack,” the way many do. I don’t mean to say, “what do you expect?” “We need time,” yes we do, but only if we’re doing something about it.

Our young men are violent. Many have guns. And we do not judge them. We do not criticize their actions. “Boys will be boys.” Really? Is this healthy? Do you really think this is going to lead anywhere? Guns are everywhere, and always in the wrong hands. People always tell me: “they” have guns, why shouldn’t we? First of all, the idea of people in Lebanon referring to each other as “them” baffles me. The fact that a Shiite from the da7yeh will feel closer to an Iranian, or that a Maronite will feel closer to a European Christian than to a Lebanese praying to another God makes no sense to me. We eat the same food, speak the same language, tell the same jokes, and have lived in this little piece of land for centuries. Wake up, people. Which one of you ever met your God? You live together, for… God’s sake. You’re each other’s only reality, stop letting yourselves be manipulated. Stop letting God be the excuse for you to avoid looking at yourself. Stop saying “them” when instead you should be saying “we.”

When you should mostly be saying “me.” Look at yourself. And leave it at that.

So “they” have guns. Alright. But do you really think that, if fighting broke out, guns in the hands of idiots like Charbel Khalil will protect you? When have these guns ever been used on anyone except on the community that has them? Furthermore, when have guns ever protected anyone? With guns, people fight. And when people fight, people die. On all sides. When you see incidents break out in the country, violent incidents, stop seeing new problems. See symptoms.

Look at yourself first. Tell it like you mean it, tell it to others, show they how you felt, how you feel. And let them you what they’ve experienced. Express yourself. It’s all you can do. It’s all we all can do. And leave the rest… to time.