I sat down today to write an article on proposed legal reforms to both the personal status and the electoral system in Lebanon. I have been meaning to write this article for over a month, and have it sketched out on paper, and half written it in my head. Its sentences haunted me while preparing for class and its arguments interrupted my thoughts, demanding to be written down.
But it is hard to see the utility of writing on the legal system, or on a feminist approach to both electoral and personal status reform. Does it matter, when as I write the bullets and the flames and the bombs round up another set of bodies before the day’s end? Is this how researchers and commentators felt in 1973 or in 1957, consumed by the futility of writing into war’s yawning mouth?
In Sidon, Lebanon’s third largest city, a man in a beard who no one had heard of three years ago has decided to restore the honor of Lebanese Sunnis by killing Lebanese Shiites. He has warned that “Hizballah supporters” (read: Shiites) live next to his mosque and must be removed. His popularity is growing, as are his armed brigades in that city. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, hundreds have died and been wounded over the past two years, all civilians and soldiers and armed men. Almost every day Lebanese border towns and villages are bombed by the Syrian army and the Syrian rebels with equal disregard. Lebanese are also killing each other in Syria just as Syrians are, where it has become common to use the word “civil war.” The sporadic violence, shootings, car bombs and deaths in Beirut seem luxurious when compared to Tripoli, and even more so when compared to Syria. There is speculation that sectarian and political leaders can no longer control, or no longer wish to, “their base”— that armed men and boys are too frustrated, and too enflamed, to listen to those that purport to lead them. It is a strange thing to wish these corrupt and corrupting leaders had more control, to hope for a political decision behind every act of violence. The fact that there might not be is terrifying.
Israeli war planes illegally fly over the country daily, low enough to taunt people with their own helplessness. The sonic booms, a staple of Lebanon’s soundscape, are a clear message that the country is at the mercy of Israel’s brutal war machine. This message vibrates in the bones of those that have lived and died under countless Israeli raids over civilian villages, towns, and cities. It is a strange thing being bombed from the sky while knowing that there is no air force or anti-aircraft to protect you, and that you have only the concrete of your building to shield you from one of the strongest air forces in the world. To be teased with your own death and the deaths of those that you love. How does one ever feel safe again?
The news says that the Syrian war is now also a Lebanese war, as if it hasn’t been for a while now. As if being in Beirut and unable to go to Damascus is not an amputation of sorts, a phantom limb that tingles with expected and delayed reunion. As if Lebanon without Syria was not a cage. Without Syria there is only the sea, an airport that is often the first to go in a war, and a border with a settler colonial state that has bombed that airport countless times. Where will people go, with Israel at their backs and the sea in their eyes?
Measured against the civil war of 1975-1990, the occupations of South Lebanon, the Israeli bombings of Beirut in the 1980s and the 2006 war, today’s violence seems tame, almost safe. Later historians might confidently tell us that today we are living our “ahdath,” the slow avalanche of violence that culminates in that deceptive word, “war.”
There is no elected government in Lebanon. Yesterday and today, protestors against the illegal extension of Parliament’s term clashed with riot police in Beirut. The government has oppressed these protestors with impunity, just as armed and murderous militiamen walk by Lebanese army deployments in Sidon and Tripoli with impunity. For the first time since the [big] civil war ended, elections have been postponed.
Employees, both government and private sector, are not being paid. Unemployment and underemployment is chronic. People plan their days around water and electricity cuts. Inflation is high. Infrastructure is failing, and government agencies and institutions are corrupt and also failing. Across the country hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Syrian refugees have fled violence in their homes. They have found themselves unwelcome and unwanted in a country that has become accustomed to sending their citizens and residents to Syria during their wars, and now finds itself in the awkward and unwanted position of having to return the favor.
Is it madness that makes war so familiar and ever so ever present, or is it nostalgia? Whatever it is, waiting for war makes it easy to believe that war is not already here. Makes it easier to wake up and go to work, to have dinner with family and friends, to protest a government’s illegal and ineffectual record, to go to school or university, to look for work or to plan to emigrate, to go to the beach or to play cards. It even makes it easier to think about what a feminist reform of Lebanon’s legal system might look like.
Waiting makes it easier to live while staring into war’s yawning mouth.