Monday, June 20, 2011

The Work Around Society

I am back in Lebanon and there is still no light in my apartment. I go down to see Electricite du Liban (EDL) again and take a Lebanese friend with me to help me out with his Arabic. I was told to speak to a certain Mr. Jihad who seems to have the right name for what I aim to achieve. Mr. Jihad takes my order from last December only to get information from one of his men that my case is still pending. “It shouldn’t be pending no more”, Mr. Jihad frowns, “because this is my friend.” Friends take care of each other and that’s what we had said to Mr. Jihad just before. The end of the story: the next day, power is flowing to my apartment and Mr. Jihad could have taken his wife out to a nice dinner.
Power is flowing to my apartment as long as EDL delivers. They deliver quite randomly. But it doesn’t matter because the “generator guys” back things up. They run big diesel engines and get rich thanks to the failures of the official Lebanese production of electricity. My generator guy’s name is Dani and he drives a big Mercedes. He is not interested in EDL bettering their performance or stabilizing their energy production. EDL and the generator guys are a system of mutual interests and dependencies and a symbol of why progress in Lebanon is so difficult to achieve. It is one yarn of the fabric that makes the Lebanese society.
It occurred to me this past week that Lebanon should be called “the work around society”. Lebanon doesn’t work straight, it works around. It gets somewhere, but maybe not anywhere. Lebanon worked around a no-government for almost five months this year – they even worked around the Arab spring! While Mubarak was ousted in Egypt and Gaddafi came under fire in Libya, there was no government in Beirut to demonstrate against. Last Thursday the new government was finally presented. A long list of 30 ministers – no ministress, beware – was read down on TV, working around the requirement that government should be slim to not waste their people’s money. Their people? Critics say it is a government for Syria and Iran, not for the Lebanese. It certainly is a government that cements once again the sectarian system, the most durable yarn of the Lebanese fabric.
For the government to start working around, it needs to draft a policy statement first. The statement will certainly skid around the fact that Hezbollah boosts more military power and is better armed than the Lebanese army. The new government will have to find a formula that pleases Hezbollah, that pleases the rest of Lebanon and that pleases the rest of the world. Basically it is unacceptable in any functioning state that a particular group holds more arms than the state itself and thus challenges its monopoly of power. It can be argued that the case of Hezbollah is “historically grown”, but growth is never indefinite and rather sooner than later the Lebanese army must secure the defense of all of Lebanon and replace the People’s Liberation Army that is Hezbollah.
the work around society: Lebanon
After the new government is approved, it will start its only real task: to work around the Hariri tribunal. Lebanon will find ways to let the tribunal go bust, despite international pressure. Did anyone believe that the Hariri tribunal would ever take place? Surely not me. I know, a lot of controversy is surrounding the tribunal – the false witnesses, the “Israel theory” laid out by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah – but I believe it is unhealthy for any society when politicians get killed unpunished, when history is not addressed and dealt with. Or is it better to forget, to bury the dead and not talk about them anymore? I’m sure Dr. Freud would strongly disagree but I bet Dr. Bashar would favor this option. But he is an ophthalmologist, not a psycho analyst, and his eyes are set on different goals than the well being of Lebanon.
I was working around myself these days in Lebanon. First my people asked me to cook for them, something Thai, which I gladly did. When I started my preparations I found out that they didn’t have a decent frying pan in their household, only a tiny version of it, hardly enough to fry an egg. Lebanese have quite outsourced their home cooking. It’s either delivery food or their Filipina maids’ cuisine. When I drove the maid to the super market last week and walked with her through the aisles, I felt like a real Lebanese, maybe for the first time since I regularly visit the country. I worked around the missing frying pan and was glad to have the maid cleaning up after me. Working around cleaning: that’s when life takes on another quality. Do I sound like a little asshole here? Or is it just me who is not really comfortable with having servants?
Last Thursday then, I went to Tripoli for an early Friday appointment with my dentist - again – to work around the high expenses for teeth care in my country. I had barely shut my mouth and made it out of Tripoli when a shootout started, in the part of the town some refer to as “Afghanistan”. Working around Saad Hariri to form a new government in Beirut had made some in Tripoli sad and six people lost their lives in this stupidity. The incident was as much Lebanese politics as it was Syrian revolution. One can only fear the repercussions that an overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus will have in this Tripoli neighborhood. By coincidence, I had bumped into Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, in a Tripoli elevator late Thursday afternoon. He greeted me with “welcome to Lebanon” and by Friday I knew what he had meant to say.
What is it then that makes Lebanon such a worthwhile trip, such an attractive place to be, despite the rollercoaster ride of emotions that one has to live through almost daily? In German language there is the wonderful expression “Erfolgserlebnis” and that’s exactly what it is: an Erfolgserlebnis, an experience of success, on a very personal level. In my country, everything runs smoothly, you don’t have to work around anything and over time you get bored by this. In Lebanon you have frustrations every day but you have also success stories to tell, every day. The electricity goes down: frustration – the generator sets in: success! You are stuck in a traffic jam: frustration – you roll with 10 km an hour: success! Somebody arrives late for a meeting: frustration – you run late for a meeting yourself and it’s ok: success! It is these Erfolgserlebnisse that make the jolly colors of Lebanon’s tightly knit fabric. It is these Erfolgserlebnisse that compensate for all the nerves you lose when doing business in Lebanon. It is this rollercoaster ride that makes LEBANON being ALIVE.