Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ugly American (Lebanon)

So I’ve had fun playing the foreign clown. Some of the slip-ups have been pretty run-of-the-mill tourist things, e.g. taking a “bus” instead of a “service,” hugely overpaying the driver, and getting dropped off miles from home without any kind of map. Other faux pas were a bit more daft in hindsight—like my assumption that everyone in Lebanon is fluently trilingual, just because all the people I met in the first week (through Sabine) happen to be.

We get such a kick out of my Americanisms that I find myself intentionally disregarding the little taboos (“You can’t buy only two tomatoes at a time!”) to provoke the benevolent ribbing that ensues. I’ve learned that the humor in these situations is directly proportional to the rigidity of the rule being broken, so it makes perfect sense that I’m met with the biggest chuckles when I start to describe my project, and what I hope to do here.

I get it. After a week here, I get the joke perfectly. I don’t know if I can articulate it—the punchline might get lost in translation—but I’ll try.

The Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years between 1975 and 1990. There is very little unanimous agreement as to what it was about or what started it or even what exactly happened at each stage. Militia groups cropped up in every corner—split along religious lines, socio-political lines, class lines, and ethnic lines—and often these lines criss-crossed and overlapped. Some members of the oligarchical elite manipulated popular movements to steer the political situation in their favor. Some personally motivated, mafia-backed operations were coopted by social movements and grew sprawlingly out of any one person’s control. Organizations that took part as independent fighting entities include the LF, GC, KRF, Noumour, PSP, LCP, COA, SSNP, MB, SLA, LNM, LNRF, PLO, Amal, Hezbollah, LAF, PFLP, DFLP…

Get it? No? Okay, let me try again. Imagine you subscribed to an ideology as a kid. Maybe someone you knew got shot and it pissed you off and you wanted to get the bastards back. Maybe you were up to your ears in repeated injustice, and there was one organization out of all of them that genuinely had your people’s interest at heart; a beacon in all of the insanity. Maybe your big brother was a fighter and a family hero. It’s not hard to imagine, we all subscribe to ideologies.

Within and in addition to the 20+ national parties, there were both official and non-official interventions throughout the 15-year period from neighboring nations—notably Syria and Israel, as well as Iran and Iraq. Foreign involvement was so extensive that even the term 'civil' war is quite rightfully contested, as is the existence of any purely 'Lebanese' party. At some point or another, almost all of the parties were aligned with or fighting against almost all of the other parties. Because of the complexity of foreign involvement and strategic maneuvering, combatants frequently found themselves aligned with militias that didn’t share their ideological or religious views (at one point, Syria and Israel were both propping up the Maronite-dominated government, technically putting them on the same side, though for vastly different political reasons). Conversely, fighters also quite often found themselves in the position of—literally—firing at their brothers.

Imagine you lose sight of the ideology. Imagine the dust settles and no one can seem to tell you what the heck you’ve been fighting over the last 15 years. Or imagine that you still believe quite strongly in what you fought for. Either way, with 20+ parties in the mix, coming out as an ex-combatant for any one of them is statistically going to piss off 95% percent of your neighbors. And by “piss off,” I mean, “they might blame you for the death of their mother.”

Imagine that a polite amnesia grips your nation. Not a childish act of denial, but a rational—perhaps even wise—enforced attitude of quiet. There are things we won’t discuss for a bit. “Ideology” is kind of a dirty word. People are mourning. Let’s not enter into any kind of conversation that could stir things up; lead to more confusion and blame. The war we talk about, sure, unendingly. “We are bored with talking about the war.” Victims we can talk about, we are all victims. But combatants? Combatants fought for a party, and “party” is a dirty word…I won’t allow my children to support a party. Ask my children who they support, and they’ll tell you, “Brazil.”

It’s no coincidence that, in a 2009 documentary about the war, only 1 of the 6 ex-fighters interviewed chooses to remain anonymous; and of the 6, he’s the only one who expresses a continued belief in the stance of his party—the only one whose narrative doesn’t include “I feel manipulated and betrayed, and the war was a huge mistake.” I don’t think he’s actually a minority, by any means. I just think most ex-fighters wouldn’t go anywhere near a camera.

Now. Imagine that an American clown wanders into Beirut and starts to naively and systematically break all of the unspoken rules. She wears chunky foam flip-flops (more of an eye-roll than a laugh); she gets stuck in the elevator because she rides it just before the daily 6pm power-outage (okay, that’s pretty funny); she asks for plastic bags to take the dog for a walk (she wants to do what with the poop?!); and she’s planning to network with ex-soldiers—not just to talk with them about the war, but actually to do some sort of creative “art” thing together (hilarious. oh my god, hilarious).