Can Lebanon be Saved?

There was something slightly odd about the way this tragedy was retold in the west.

By Robert Fisk and cross-posted from Counterpunch.org.

“Well, we can all agree that the sea took 70 per cent of the blast!” a close Lebanese friend announced to me this week, with intriguing if doubtful science. I had asked him – because I knew the answer – which of Lebanon’s religious communities had suffered most grievously from the explosion that changed the nation. Or did not change the nation, as the case may be.

Like everything in Lebanon, his calculation may have been right. Because Beirut, like Tripoli – and Haifa, for that matter – is built on one of those ancient east Mediterranean promontories, like “the face of an old fisherman” as Fairouz memorably called her capital city. The great clap of sound may have embraced more salt water than buildings. And the fish, so far as we know, are not religious.

But my acquaintance – a Sunni Muslim, a civil servant of many years, a reader of books rather than memos – was quick to caution me. “Let’s not see this in civil war terms. But yes, the Christians were hit worse because they live next to the port in the east of the city, the Maronites mostly. The Muslims side of Beirut lost its windows, the Christians lost their lives.” But even that wasn’t quite true.

Those who said that the dead contained Lebanese of every faith were also correct. There were Muslims – Sunni and Shia among the firefighters, shopkeepers and others – not to forget the dozens of Syrian refugees who may be a quarter of all the fatalities. In fact, the Syrians somehow got included in the death toll for Lebanon. But there was something slightly odd about the way this tragedy was retold in the west.

In France, in Britain and America – and, I noticed, in Russia, too – the narrative (a word I hate) was a little different. The “Lebanese”, so we were told, were now protesting against the “elites” and the government – which had corrupted the country, bankrupted its economy, failed to protect its people – and now demanded a new system of politics, democratic, non-sectarian, uncorrupted, etc etc, etc. True again.

And yes, the smashed houses and apartment blocks and devastated streets were indeed part of the destruction of Beirut. But their names – Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Ashrafieh – were presented as mere locations on a city map rather than the very epicentre not just of the blast wave but of the old Christian heartland of the Lebanese capital. These districts were beautiful, their Ottoman heritage magnificently preserved – just look at what has happened to the breathtaking Sursock Museum.

These areas were joyous, centres for young people (largely middle class but Muslim as well as Christian), filled with restaurants and bars, immensely popular not only among Lebanese youth but with the westerners who lived in the city and felt safe in a French-speaking, English-speaking, largely pro-European (and often anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian) population

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