Lebanese fear their nation is close to demise
Belonging to a nation, or joining a homeland, may at first glance appear as a “natural” feeling. Yet the nation is anything but a mere idea. Certainly, an individual may have doubts about the country to which he belongs, or may even feel that he belongs to more than one country or nation at the same time. But it is not only what individuals (and even groups) think of the idea of âânation that makes it complex. It’s articulating the essence of the alleged nation that really goes to the heart of why nationalism is such a complicated story. Lebanon, a small, relatively young nation in the Middle East that has made the news for many sad reasons over the past two years is the example I want to think of today.
In what were widely seen as spontaneous mass protests in the fall of 2019, people took to the streets to protest the continued rule of the country’s powerful elite since at least the 1975-1990 civil war. Mainly peaceful and somewhat fanciful in its slogans, the October 17 revolution, as it has come to be known, took decades of political song and turned it into a song of protest. By attacking specific individuals and leaders by name, the ideological manifestations of the political objective have been remade. Protesters chanted against a number of individuals, although a number large enough to encompass almost the entire government.
Strikingly, especially for Lebanon, traditionally contested national determinants were no longer an issue in 2019. The nation the protesters were calling for was not defined by ethnic or religious alignments. However, the Lebanon they wanted to save from the “lot” was still deeply marked by political alignments, which will come back to haunt it two years later, as united as the demonstrators and their common economic demands were.
In previous chronicles, I retraced the trajectory of Lebanese politics through song. Examples ranged from political songs dubbed protest songs to nationalist songs reimagined in humanitarian pleas, dating back to the beginning of the last century. Unsurprisingly, given the chain of conflicts and diasporas that have plagued the nation’s short history, even Gibran Khalil Gibran was summoned on the first anniversary of the August explosion in Beirut.
Some might suggest that Arabism is another tired trope that has been left out during the country’s deepening economic crisis. The same goes for all the cultural references which relate to it, dominant as they were only a few years ago in the articulation of one of the rare unifying notions of the nation: territorial integrity. As if it was still emerging from the 1960s, with a populist leftist appeal to the Nasserist and three decisive wars with Israel still pending, Arabism was, until recently, still a kind of radical ideology that attracted the masses. Even though, in Lebanon, Arabism had a smaller popular base than in countries like Syria and Egypt, and where non-Arab forms of ethnic identification never lost their value, Israel remained in somehow a common enemy whose broad agenda has had a massive impact internally, not at least through the presence of Palestinians in Lebanese territory and a constant military encroachment on the country’s southern border. But in the current crisis, even this unifying front has lost its nationalist motto.
It seems that the life of Lebanon – cultural, political, historical, religious, artistic, philosophical, musical, literary and even ideological – now boils down to the economy, or rather its disintegration. It’s not just the economy, really. It is the country, or whatever it is defined as a nation, that is slowly disintegrating. With the recent explosions of deadly violence in the streets of Beirut, the ghost of civil war looms, threatening further disintegration. Sticking together just enough for the International Monetary Fund to breathe some life into a country that should not be in intensive care any longer is extremely crucial for Lebanon’s survival.
The economy is now a litmus test for the ultimate consistency of this nation. In the early 1990s, and throughout the decade following the ceasefires across Lebanon, the US dollar was used alongside the local currency. As dollars continued to circulate into the 2000s, businesses and, soon after, individuals responded to government invitations to conduct financial transactions in Lebanese lira. While people had a choice, many chose to use the local currency not only to encourage the recovery of their country’s economy, but also as a way to demonstrate their commitment to Lebanon and its rebirth as a viable nation. and consistent.
With recent explosions of deadly violence in the streets of Beirut, the ghost of civil war looms, threatening further disintegration.
Many Lebanese have returned to the country in recent decades, in most cases taking their savings to further stimulate the country’s economy and build their future. Over the past year, however, with the actual collapse of Lebanon’s banking system and currency, the loss is beyond economic.
Class, not language, ethnicity or even religion, is the contested division in Lebanon today, and the divide could not be wider. No wonder the guillotine was mentioned by protesters calling for the departure of the ruling economic elite. Nowadays, people who crowd the departure halls of Beirut airport do not expect to lose simple means of subsistence. They may well lose a homeland – a nation that they fear they will not be able to believe is viable while they are alive or even during the lifetime of their children.
- Tala Jarjour is the author of “Sense and sadness: Syriac song in Aleppo”. She is a visiting scholar at King’s College London and an associate at Yale College.
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