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February 19, 2009

The Trip; General Impressions

I added this as a long edit to the last post. Figured I should pull it out of there and make it its own post.

Met most of the heads of the March 14 coalition here. (That's the sovereignty-independence coalition, the ones who united after the assassination of Rafik Hariri to demand Syria get the hell out of their country.)

Here are some impressions:

The country works, surprisingly enough. After a bitter 14 year civil war, the feuding factions are mainly peaceful and friendly towards each other. With the big exception of Hezballah in the south, of course. And, again with that major exception, it's very moderate. Not just moderate politically, but moderate in terms of religion -- except in Hezballah controlled areas, people can drink and women can dress sexily and so forth.*

Just on the edge of Hezballah territory -- this area controlled by a more moderate Shia faction -- we passed a sex shop and then a lingerie shop with the odd name "Jolly Corner," which I'm taking to be some reference to the vagina, and might just start using myself.

Israel gets discussed differently here than in other Arab countries. (Or at least as I've seen it discussed in other Arab countries, in their press.) About one quarter of the population, I'm told (and I think I believe this) actually supports Israel, at least to the extent they pound the hell out of Hezballah.

Another quarter has the typical grievances about the Palestinians, but it is discussed in a more adult fashion. Israel is discussed as a threat or even an "enemy" state (the PM Signora called it such when we met him), but not as an apocalyptic one, not as a fantasy one. Those who don't like Israel tend to discuss it in the way Americans might discuss France, rather than if it were Satan's Asshole. Don't get me wrong -- a lot of people here don't like Israel. But there's a difference between opposing a state on political grounds and opposing it on apocalyptic grounds.

I observed, talking to someone, that in Lebanon, they really can vote and make political choices and so forth; thus they tend to discuss real politics. In other Arab countries, without any sort of democratic tradition, there is no sense discussing real politics, as no one has any power whatsoever to contribute meaningfully to a real politics. So what gets discussed is fantasy politics exclusively; a fantasy world of Zionist Enemies and Great Satans and omnicompetent CIA agents able to do just about anything.

Without a meaningful stake in genuine politics -- where outcomes can actually be influenced -- discussions turn to the surreally theoretical and from their into fantasy and conspiracy-mongering. After all, if you're talking about stuff over which you have absolutely no power whatsoever, why confine yourself to trivialities like water projects and taxes? Why not bullshit about big stuff like the worldwide Zionist conspiracy?

I suspect this is what happens in American universities, too, actually, but without so much gunfire.

In Lebanon, however, the discussions tend to be about real shit, like how do win the upcoming June 7 elections, will Jumblatt flip over to the Hezballah coalition, will Michel Aun flip back to the March 14th coalition, etc.

Even Lebanon's civil war wasn't really a religious war per se -- it was fought to change the actual governance of the country. In the old system, Christians had an effective lock on most of the levers of power, which wasn't such a problem when they were the numerical majority; but in the ensuing years their numbers had fallen to about a third of the population, and other groups (such as the Sunnis and the Shias, each about a third, more or less) wanted their fair share too.

A war sort of about religion, yes, but about something tangible and real, not merely killing for God.

It doesn't hurt that the north of Lebanon is a commercially-oriented state, and that's good for liberal democracies generally, because people making money tend to want the government out of their way and in the smallest corners of their lives. As one academic said, explaining how the Christians and Sunnis and Druze had suddenly become quite united after killing each other for fourteen years, "Shopkeepers hold a country together."

I would say the middle east needs more shopkeepers and fewer clerics, but I'm not sure that's exactly right; people are religious here. It's not the religion that's causing the problem, exactly. It's the type of religion.

On Valentine's Day, February 14, they commemorated the anniversary of Hariri. At the time of his death, 12:55 (or thereabouts -- the Lebanese seem to be slightly loose when it comes to punctuality), the mosque blared out the call to prayer or some other verses from the Koran at the same time a church clanged its bells.

It was actually quite a sweet and hopeful sound, the two sounding out together, not in competition, but in unity.

As a side note -- I also got to meet Chalabi, the "Liberator of Iraq" as Hitchens likes to call him, who had stopped in Beirut en route to a talk he was giving in London. That was random, and hadn't been scheduled.

Another Impression: While I was surrounded by the politically oriented, speaking to politicians and the like, the trip did nothing to dispel my belief that Arabs talk about politics incessantly.

Why do you guys never stop talking about politics, I asked our Druze handler Makram.

He shrugged and smiled. "There's nothing else to do."

Which isn't really true. Beirut isn't just a loose city by Middle East standards; it's a loose city by American standards. In fact, it's a loose city by Vegas standards. Pretty much nothing is against the law and the shit that isn't against the law isn't terribly against the law.

So I guess I still don't have a real answer to the question.

* Oh, let me mention the women dressing sexily. I joked during the Feb 14 rally that the eighties didn't die, they just came to Beirut and mutated.

There's a curiously standard fashion among young girls and women here -- very tight jeans and leather or suede boots coming up to the knee. Sometimes, in a flair I approve of, they roll up their jeans to reveal one or two inches of stockings or tights beneath, before the tights disappear into the boots.

What they dress like, in other words, is all the "bad girls" I was so horny for in middle school and high school. If only the feather ear-ring came into style here, it would be perfect.

How Lebanon Avoided the Financial Crisis: It's quite simple, it was explained. Due to the civil war -- when one might have money, but the banks were all closed, so your net worth was precisely defined by how much you had in your pocket -- the Lebanese became very suspicious of illiquid assets. They like cash. Cash in the bank, some in safe stuff like money markets or t-bills, and a fair amount actually hidden in the house.

The banking system reflected this, and the banks were not permitted by law to dabble in very derivative instruments. By and large they had to keep their money in tangible stuff -- real estate and so forth.

The net result is that Lebanon was only superficially wounded by the financial meltdown. The wealthy lost 18-20% or so (at least the ones bragging about it lost that much, but they seemed to mean that this was fairly common).

So, as the Financial Minister told me, they're simply not worried about that; it just doesn't affect them very much. (They do worry about the global economic slowdown likely to follow, of course.)

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posted by Ace at 12:03 PM

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