Sunday, July 3, 2011

Don't Screw Us We Screw You

I received numerous reactions on my Twitter account during my latest visit to Lebanon. How is Lebanon? You are lucky to be there. Tell me everything about it. Lebanon, between the sensuality of the Orient and the dangers of the Middle East, keeps evoking many people's emotions.

How is Lebanon then? To start with, there is no Lebanon. "Lebanon" doesn't exist. Lebanon is a patchwork of regions, religions and lifestyles, held together only by a disdain for everything government, for everything authoritarian. Lebanon is not only Beirut. Lebanon is not only Casino du Liban, not only marketing agencies, not only plastic surgery. Lebanon is not only Resistance, although Twitter wants you to believe this. Hassan Nasrallah's speeches are the only ones of any politician I know that get translated and broadcasted - word by word, thought by thought - via Twitter. (They say tweeting Nasrallah speeches gets a you lot of new followers; you might try this yourself next time he takes center stage.)

the Hijab and the Bikini: Lebanon

I was reading an article in a psychology magazine the other day that dealt with couples and how they manage to live together for a long time. The main concept the author put forward was "differentiation". In a relationship, every individual, every partner must preserve his or her own personality to make it work. It is unhealthy for any couple when partners completely depend on their counterparts for their emotional well being. The author calls this "emotional meltdown" and if this is reminding you of the nuclear catastrophe that hit Fukujima, you are on the right track to understand the idea.

Differentiation is the heart and soul of the Lebanese character. Lebanon is a country full of differentiated individuals who hate to be alone and always manifest themselves in groups. At times there is so much differentiation inside the Lebanese people that they forget that they actually want to live together. It is an individualism born under fire, a personal survival kit, most clearly visible, at least for recent memories, during the dire times of the Lebanese civil war. Preserve yourself, preserve your community, then fight the rest.

The rest today, this is the government. In order to prevent a future civil war, Lebanon has adopted a political system that is paralyzing the country. When nothing goes, there goes the war. A paralyzed government makes for great individual freedom. No central power is powerful enough to set rules for all of Lebanon. Nobody dares to ban the hijab or the bikini. It seems that outside actors like Iran, Syria, the US and France are more eager to have a government in Beirut than the Lebanese. It is through these governments that they exert their influence on the playing field of geopolitics that is Lebanon.

Last week, I was sitting in a restaurant with a neighbor, having dinner. Michel explained to me the Lebanese tax system that is basically consumption based. Lebanese pay hardly any income taxes. Their government doesn't know what they earn and how they earned it. Ahmad, a carpenter working in my apartment, has his own one man business that he manages with a mobile phone alone. He doesn't have an office, a computer, not even a car. His tool boxes are miraculously moved from place to place, by friends, sometimes by taxi. Everything is paid in cash so the billionaires sitting in the ministerial palaces in Beirut can't know about his income. 

the Hijab and the Bikini: Lebanon

My neighbor has a different lifestyle. The "I consume therefore I pay taxes" lifestyle. He drives a car, his wife another one - taxes. He eats out in restaurants - taxes. He is a heavy user of mobile phones and internet - taxes again. He has a nice apartment with lights and air condition - taxes, taxes, taxes - and not even a reliable service from EDL. He feels that he has to finance the entire budget of a corrupt regime in Beirut that doesn't take care of anything, only wasting his money.

Fast internet for everybody in Lebanon (my favorite topic, you guessed it)? He goes into a rant: are you kidding me? These guys in the south, the Bekaa, the mountains, up north: they drive old cars, they never eat out, steal their electricity. They don't do accountable business. They don't pay taxes. And if I had to pay for their fast internet, you will see me take to the streets like the people in Egypt and for the same reason: freedom from my government.

It always struck me in Lebanon how splendid private places are and how neglected the public space often is. The view on what is beautiful and what is not differs from culture to culture - agreed - but there is no "national contract" in Lebanon like in many countries I have visited. There is only a minimal understanding of the concept of "public sphere" and the permanent effort it takes to get there, to cultivate it so everybody can enjoy. Giving money to the state so the state can make your neighborhood nice is a no seller in Lebanon. The money I send to the tax man will never come back to my place but will end up in the pockets of politicians ruthless enough to be on the board in Beirut. The Lebanese individual is in a constant battle with his or her government, with the authorities of state power. You have to be differentiated to stand a chance. You need to be quick and witty to win. Don't screw us, we screw you. Blink and you're dead. There is no Lebanon. Lebanon is different.

"Don't blink. Don't even blink. Blink and you're dead. They are fast, faster than you can believe. Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink. Good Luck." Lebanon is like an episode from Dr. Who, only real. Here's the video: