Lebanon is a country under severe stress. Torn apart by internal divisions and flooded by a constant stream of refugees from neighboring Syria, Lebanon struggles to stay above the waterline of a tsunami that is about to swallow the entire Middle East.
How do young Lebanese assess the situation they live in? What do they think about the declining security in Lebanon and about growing up in a country where the future is uncertain, if not impossible? Do they support the politics of a particular sect or are they secular?
In January of 2014, I had the possibility to interview six students from the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir. The school is located in a upper middle class Christian neighborhood 25 km north of Beirut. The students were four girls and two boys between 16 and 17 years old. The following text contains seven statements about their life in Lebanon.
1 “I personally dislike the idea of being bound to a particular sect; it would put boundaries to my flow of thoughts and actions.”
The Lebanese are a free spirited people, pushing for individualistic approaches even when they are in a group. They cancel appointments at the last minute and make their own plans instead. They see themselves as leaders, not as team players.
Good news: the free spirit will remain part of the Lebanese national character. Most of the students from Ghazir call themselves secular. Well educated and with their eyes open to the world, they advocate a strict separation between politics and religion; if not, as one student put it, exhibit A: Lebanon.
Will this secular attitude hold once the students enter adult life? Only the younger generation has the privilege to think without compromises.
2 “We are mature enough to understand that we can no longer pretend that we don't know what is going on.”
In the harsh environment that is Lebanon, children grow up to be smart quickly. Everywhere you go in Lebanon, your personal survival kit must be your company. Don't leave home without your brain.
In Europe, the younger people often refer to themselves as “the disenchanted generation”. There is nothing left to fight for in Europe. At least not in a positive way; the populist fight against immigrants even from within the continent will gain much momentum in the years to come. In Lebanon, the future is at stake.
But will the realization that “we know what is going on” be turned into action? Social movements have all but disappeared in Lebanon.
"we know what is going on": the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir
3 “Lebanon is a chaos. The rest of the Middle East is a massacre. What happens in Lebanon once a week happens in Syria every day. The thing is that Lebanon is in a kind of half-war, half-peace state. You can't take action because you are not even sure what the situation is.”
There is no easy way out for Lebanon. After the civil war and with the Taif agreement, a political system and a distribution of power based on sects was conceived and written almost in stone. What was meant to be a temporary solution to hold the country together is now the force that drives the country apart, again.
The sectarian system, as one 16 years old explained, has gotten the Lebanese more labeled. And indeed: everybody seems to carry a X or a Y on their foreheads. If you have this name then you belong to this religion and you live in this region, following this politician. There is no need for Lebanese to talk to each other anymore. The brand that I have given you tells me everything.
But without a dialog, only the forces of evil will be heard.
4 “In my opinion the only way to solve the problems (of Lebanon and the Middle East) is to erase religion from all political and legal matters.”
5 “Christianity is a common ground I share with my family and my environment; it gives a reason to my existence and helps me understand what science has not been able to explain.”
Whatever is the question in Lebanon, religion is part of the answer. To ban religion in the public sphere would be like teaching a horse how to speak. It is quite impossible. Confronted with a world in turmoil, religion gives an identity and a comforting sense of not being alone when things turn sour.
While a social system based on religion allows for a high degree of liberalism within the respective sect – every sect is able to live by its own rules – it is a gravedigger of liberalism on a state level. If religion is the standard by which a state defines its subjects, the power in this state will be held by the masters of these religions.
A weak executive branch and non existing state institutions won't be the cause, but the consequence of such a system. Remember: it's institutions that make a functioning state, not elections, nor democracy as such.
"Lebanon is a chaos. The rest of the Middle East is a massacre": a Lebanese student
6 “I have no fear for my own situation since I have an almost set future ahead of me which Lebanon's situation cannot affect.”
The prevailing thought in Lebanon these days appears to be this: I can't affect Lebanon but I won't permit Lebanon to affect me. After living with a mental immigration for years, the physical emigration is a well established path for many to cope with the situation.
Many dreams for a personal and professional future that the Lebanese have cannot be achieved in Lebanon. Lebanese, and certainly the younger generation, are too well educated and too bright to be restrained by the restrictions of their country.
Of course it 's true: the Lebanese have always been a migrating people. They live by the sea and yearn to peek beyond the horizon. However, with the brain drain, and without an incentive to return, a country will be drained of its prosperous future.
People remaining in Lebanon will be people who do their own thing, no matter what. The crazy people: people who believe that blowing up other people is the solution to everything. The “inner exile” people: people who have given up on Lebanon and its society and pursue their happiness within their very private space.
This may be enough on a personal level, this may be enough to make Beirut the entertainment capital of the greater Middle East, but it won't contribute to the development of Lebanon, and the Lebanese society, as a whole.
Does this sound too pessimistic? There is hope. Lebanese are the perennial optimists and world champions in suppressing unpleasant facts that don't fit their self given image of God's own country. This is what keeps the Lebanese going and what keeps the country from going under.
7 “I have to say that Lebanon is a country full of action; you can never get bored here. If it's not a bomb or a suicidal bomber, it's a snow storm, or it's a bunch of people trying to make 'the world's largest hummus bowl'. I have learned to be optimistic about everything. It's not always as horrible as the news present the case here. We go to school, go watch movies, go party and enjoy our lives just any other normal teenager, but with the occasional 'fireworks' as I would call it.”
Calling a bombing “the occasional firework” against boredom? Felix Libanus! There is no reason to worry then. Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun's topless photos stir up Lebanon much more than the continual threat of car bombs. We shall overcome.
Thanks to Sasha J. Mattar from the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir. Her help was essential for this article.