Last night the sound of gunfire punctuated the Beirut soundscape. Supporters of the anti-Syrian and majority Sunni Future Movement clashed with members of the pro-Assad and Sunni Majority Arab Movement. The fighting, which was most intense around the Beirut Arab University, continued until the early hours of the morning.
The area around the Beirut Arab University is mixed. For the last several decades, “mixed” used to refer to Christian and Muslim co-habitation in this city, but today it is increasingly used to describe areas where Sunni and Shiite Muslims live side by side. This shift, or more accurately this proliferation in categorizing self and other encompassed in the term “mixed,” reflects the shifting sociopolitical landscape of Lebanon, a country that is said to be composed of minorities. Of course, categories always determine demographics. After all, a majority of Lebanese residents are women, Muslim, urban dwellers, and working or lower class. But these identifications, these categories, are not the vehicle of political incorporation into the state, its institutions, and its services. Thus, Lebanon is a country of minorities, as long as the minorities are always based on the category of “sect.”
Yet, if we step out of the shallow of increasingly entrenched definitions of difference encircling the city and its invisible borders, we can think more deeply about the word “mixed.” We can see that the area where fighting broke out last night, around the Arab University, is in fact an incredibly diverse part of the city. The reason is simple: it is one of the more affordable reputable universities in the country. After all, not everyone can, or wants to attend American University of Beirut (AUB) or the Lebanese American University (LAU). It may surprise some to know that Ras Beirut, where AUB and LAU loom large, is not in fact the only hub of college life in the city. I know this not because I have made some sort of extra effort to discover “other” parts of Lebanon or Beirut—although I have been asked countless times by others to “show me” what lies outside of the borders of the Ras Beirut comfort zone. I know this because I grew up in Tariq al Jadidah, where members of my family still live, and where generations of them have attended the Arab University since its establishment in 1960.
Tariq al Jadidah is not on the periphery; it is one of the cities` most densely populated and highly politicized neighborhoods. It is home to a quarter million Lebanese citizens and thousands of Palestinian refugees. What happens there is not an aberration of life in Beirut; it is one reflection of it. And that is why last night`s fighting is truly terrifying. Because it is not a violent incident or a warning: it is a funeral dirge for the future.
The local, regional, and international news coverage of last night`s armed clashes was largely silent about the demography of Tariq al Jadidah other than to point out that it is “Sunni.” The fact that the most vicious fighting took place at the gates of a university where thousands of students attend classes daily went unremarked. Around the Arab University students, faculty, and staff from all parts of Lebanon live, work, and study. In fact, the institution of “the university” is supposed to serve as a place where the very categories of self and other can be interrogated. But in Lebanon, elite universities offer a sectarian mixing to the country`s elite, and more affordable universities offer this same mixing to the non-elite classes. And there is a chasm between each of these “mixed” student bodies.
If similar fighting had broken out between the pro-Syrian regime Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the anti-Syrian regime Mustaqbal Party at the gates of AUB, the reaction of the news media, both local and international, would be different. Protests would be organized, editorials would be written, and social media would be ablaze protesting the threat to the dignity and sacrosanct nature of university life. But this recognized university life is the purview of a select elite. The majority of Lebanese families can barely afford the tuition of the Arab University, one-fourth the cost of its more renowned counterparts.
At this moment, when the guns around a university in Beirut still stink of gunpowder, we must insist on solidarity, not discourses of difference or anthropological curiosity. It is not enough to speak the language of the state and claim sectarian solidarity in the face of sectarian violence. We must insist upon the grammar of class, and the conjugation of economics. We need a deep understanding of what the word “mixed” does, or could, entail. The clouds of smoke rising around one of the few affordable and well-regarded private universities in Lebanon affect everyone. The violence is not something that is happening “over there” in the Sunni ghetto. It is happening here. In Beirut. In Lebanon.