Michael Young/The Daily Star/Lebanon’s Civil War, 40 years on

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Lebanon’s Civil War, 40 years on
Michael Young/The Daily Star/Apr. 09, 2015

In a book on life in Syrian prisons, where he spent 16 years, the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh wrote that it was not rare to feel nostalgia for one’s years of incarceration.

Without minimizing the brutalities and humiliations of prison life, Haj Saleh explained that the reason for this nostalgia was that “he who endures this sacrificial rite accedes to something extremely precious, which rarely appears twice in one’s existence: a new departure, a resurrection, a second birth, a mandate to reinitiate life.” To him, the prison experience gave structure to his existence at a time of confusion and despair.

In many respects the war in Lebanon, which began 40 years ago next week, on April 13, provokes many of the same paradoxical reactions. To an unknowing observer, the sheer horror of the 15-year conflict that destroyed and transformed the country cannot in any way invite nostalgia. And yet for many of those who lived through the war’s permutations, it also provided an enthralling occasion to be reborn, to seek new departures and it provided a structure and meaning to the lives of those who survived.

There has been a cliché circulating since the war ended in 1990 that the Lebanese have developed amnesia toward it. However, put together any group of Lebanese over the age of 30, mention the war, and you will see that the reality is precisely the contrary. Indeed, a factor that has calmed political ardors in the past decade is the recollection, and fear, of what war brought us.

Lebanon’s conflict pales in comparison with the unadulterated savagery of the one in Syria – and that’s saying something because what took place in Lebanon was once regarded as a benchmark for the potential barbarism of sectarian hatred and state decomposition. The word “Lebanonization” is still used these days, but it is almost beginning to sound quaint in light of the merciless slaughter in other parts of the Middle East.

What does one remember in a war like Lebanon’s? The friends lost, certainly. The ultimate foolishness of partisanship and unbending political conviction as alliances and beliefs were altered in light of changing circumstances. The terrible price a country can pay for losing a generation or more to emigration. But also the enjoyment felt when the nightmare was over, when streets were no longer borders and when one finally woke up to grasp, and abandon, the countless lies sustaining the war. Often, after killing there is tolerance, and management of such tolerance is one of the most difficult of postwar legacies to negotiate.

This anniversary gains in meaning from the fact that the roles have been reversed since 1975. Whereas then Lebanon was a rare country at war in a region characterized by cataleptic stability, today it seems to be a country that, for all its trials and the proximity of chaos, yet has avoided the worst. Let’s hope this lasts amid the maneuvers of those who refuse to isolate Lebanon from the region’s enmities, thereby threatening the country.

Nor does the Christian-Muslim divide have the meaning it once did. Lebanon’s Christians at present are a minority in a country defined largely by Sunni-Shiite relations, at a time when Christians in the region face existential challenges. Wars throughout the region, beginning in Lebanon, started the process of Christian flight. In a matter of decades, two of the Arab world’s ancient communities, the Jews and Christians of myriad denominations, became increasingly less a part of the Arab landscape. What was once an area of religious and ethnic diversity is drifting into drab, necrotic sectarian uniformity as animosities gain ground and homogeneous territories follow.

In that sense Lebanon, 40 years after the start of its war, has something to offer. The country may be riven by mutual antipathies, and no one should have too many illusions about the Lebanese being intense missionaries of coexistence. But the reflexes of coexistence are a different matter. The Lebanese are well-versed in the language and games of compromise. Ours can often be a violent country, but years of war only brought home to those who lived through the conflict the merits of having a social contract like the often-maligned National Pact.

For all its rigidities and shortcomings, the National Pact outlined a system based on the principle of compromise, even as it recognized and adapted to Lebanon’s sectarian and confessional differences. Rather than artificially camouflage this under a tarpaulin of bogus Arab nationalism, the Lebanese sought to address their pluralism and manage it through a commonly agreed arrangement. This could not prevent the war in 1975, but perhaps it was responsible for ensuring that it did not break Lebanon up irrevocably, despite the attractions of partition among some of the wartime political leaders.

The same cannot be said of Syria or Iraq, both of which are being undone, quite literally, by the centrifugal forces that have been released in their societies. It seems difficult to imagine that Syria will ever be one again, while Iraq will at best survive in the context a political system that ensures a very loose confederation. The greater the nationalist myths, evidently, the harder the fall.

Lebanon is not out of the woods, and war not out of our thoughts and anxieties. But I recall some Syrians quoted in newspapers following the imposed departure of their army from Lebanon in April 2005: “The Lebanese will soon eat themselves,” was a notable comment. It was a shameful, bitter thing to say, and without an ounce of schadenfreude one can reply that it’s always better not to tempt fate. We began learning that lesson four decades ago, and it’s a pity that much of the Arab world, depraved and degraded, is only starting to learn it today.

**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.