Review: Two books on Lebanon

Tim Llewellyn, Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon, I.B. Tauris (2010). From £12.59 at Amazon.co.uk, also available at The Book Depository, Waterstone’s and Blackwell’s.

Michael Young, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, Simon & Schuster (2010). From £11.33 at The Book Depository, also available at Amazon.co.uk and Blackwell’s. Also on the Kindle and as an EPUB e-book.

In 2010 two books about Lebanon were published by leading journalists on the Middle East. Both Tim Llewellyn and Michael Young’s books are well worth reading and offer fascinating windows into a small but important country in the Arab world. But the two books are rather different in what they write about and in style, which makes them good complements rather than competitors.

Tim Llewellyn is a former Middle East correspondent for the BBC, who since leaving the corporation has criticised its coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict for bias in favour of Israel. Israel (and indeed the PLO) are impossible to ignore if – like Mr Llewellyn – you are writing about Lebanon’s modern history, so its frequent appearances in these pages is neither surprising nor unwarranted.

Mr Llewellyn’s book is a collection of vignettes rather than a narrative covering a certain period, so if you are looking for a history of modern Lebanon this is not the book for you. But the advantage of his format is that it is easy to read for someone with little background knowledge (as in The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, there is a useful chronology and brief biographies of key people at the beginning of the book). It is also a well-written book, though sloppy copyediting means that the reader occasionally reads about the Shia demanding their “fare share” of political power, or the “enormouse wealth” of the Hariri family. The endnotes have also suffered disorganisation in a couple of places. These are however pretty minor blemishes on an otherwise well-produced book.

In the various chapters Mr Llewellyn introduces us to some of the key protagonists in Lebanon’s civil war and current politics. Often these are the same people, like the Christian leader Samir Geagea, who is the subject of a particularly perceptive interview. There is also plenty of coverage of Lebanon’s traditionally politically and economically marginalised places and people: South Lebanon (a chapter on Tyre is another highlight) and the Shia. Mr Llewellyn brings home the miserable situation of the people leaving near the border with Israel: for years under Israeli occupation, or the control of Israel’s Lebanese client army, and victims of seemingly indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Children are still being maimed by unexploded cluster bomblets left over from the war.

The most powerful chapter is the one on the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who make up perhaps a tenth of the country’s population but are not eligible for citizenship and (until recently) faced legal discrimination preventing them from working in many jobs available to other foreign residents in Lebanon. As Mr Llewellyn says, despite the beginnings of electoral democracy in the West Bank and Gaza, no one has yet bothered to ask these refugees their opinion on anything through the ballot box. Though it contains interviews with Palestinian figures now, the chapter mainly concentrates on history, specifically the gruesome massacre of hundreds (probably over 1000) unarmed refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps during Lebanon’s civil war.

Mr Llewellyn, as BBC’s correspondent, was the first journalist to report on the massacre and he is right to feature it prominently in his book. But the prominence of events from the civil war means that his book is not sufficient if you want to understand the situation in Lebanon today. As Michael Young argues in The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, Lebanon’s problem is that people don’t want to remember the civil war, not that they are obsessed by it. Lebanese politics has a short memory, and political alliances shift without much rhyme or reason.

This informs Mr Young’s approach. His book is written specifically to cover the “slice of time” from the assassination of Rafic Hariri on St Valentine’s Day 2005 and the ensuing “Cedar Revolution” that expelled the Syrian army from Lebanon to the unclear political results of the 2009 elections. It gives a solid grounding on the events in this period as well as a perceptive analysis of why Lebanon is such a tolerant and liberal place compared with its Arab neighbours.

Mr Young’s seemingly paradoxical argument is that the sectarian political system (parliamentary seats and public offices are carved up between Lebanon’s 18 recognised religious confessions) means that the paternalistic instincts of politicians and religious leaders are cancelled out, leaving breathing space for individual Lebanese. As he writes, “Lebanon will remain a forest of fathers, so limiting in its own way, yet so much more tolerable than a place with a single father who cuts down the rest of the forest.” (p. 85) As that quotation indicates, Mr Young has an eye for a striking metaphor and writes very well.

His argument actually makes a lot of sense, and despite rejecting any pretensions of objectivity Mr Young often cuts through the propaganda of both the anti-Syrian March 14 movement and the pro-Syrian, pro-Hezbollah March 8 (which he makes no secret of disliking). A particularly good example of his careful analytical journalism is his dissection of what was actually behind the Islamist uprising in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May 2007.

The subject where having the different viewpoints of Mr Llewellyn and My Young is most valuable is Hezbollah. The “Party of God” is a strange animal, somewhat like the combination of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein in being both a military force and a political one. To be fair, it is hardly the only political party to have a military background: both the Amal Movement (the other main Shia party) and the Christian Lebanese Forces, to give just two examples, were militias before they were political parties. But Hezbollah is the only non-state actor in Lebanon to retain significant military force, as all of the other civil war militias were more or less disarmed.

Mr Llewellyn points to Hezbollah’s origins in the reaction of many Shia activists to a seeming sell-out by the leadership of Amal during the Israeli invasion of 1982 (Amal were negotiating with a Christian leader allied to Israel). His argument is that it is primarily a Lebanese phenomenon, and that while it is supported by Iran it is not Iran’s puppet. More tendentiously, Mr Llewellyn uses the provision of social services by Hezbollah and unaffiliated Shia charities to demonstrate the Lebanese state’s dismissive attitude towards the Shia, who are by now probably the largest single sect in Lebanon but have traditionally had less political power. On this reading, Hezbollah’s use of its military muscle (latent or not) to magnify its political power is simply a way of redressing the balance.

But in reality, the Lebanese state is pretty poor at providing services and electricity throughout the country. And all politicians (not least the wealthy Hariris) dole out philanthropy to their constituents in a quasi-feudal exchange for their loyalty. This is one reason why elections rarely change much in Lebanon: voters stick with their za’im (boss, chief) regardless of his political alliances. As Mr Young argues, Hezbollah’s charitable work is no different from this, except that it is institutionalised in the party rather than personalised from one particular politician or political dynasty.

Mr Young argues that Hezbollah’s exceptionalism lies not in its concern for the downtrodden Shia (or in its links to a foreign power – until 2005 there was a whole class of Lebanese politicians who were essentially Syrian clients), but in its “totalistic” aspirations. In Lebanon compromise and flexibility is the norm, fanaticism and idealism the exception. Bashir Gemayel, the Christian leader who played with fire in working with the Israelis in 1982, is memorably described as “short and squat, a charging bull…a linear politician in a country of contrapuntal ones.” (p. 95) That he met a sticky end exemplifies the folly of trying to overthrow the balance between Lebanon’s sects.

Mr Young argues eloquently that Lebanon has suffered too much from “the hubris of individuals who have regarded themselves as better than the system, which hardly ever seems to satisfy their aspiration to be great men.” (p. 249) Hassan Nasrallah’s open contempt for the “leaders of alleyways” worries him. Hezbollah would be nothing without its weapons, as its raison d’être is “the Resistance” against Israel, but these weapons and Hezbollah’s desire for freedom of action against Israel are incompatible with the Lebanese state having full control of its territory.

Mr Young’s plea for modesty certainly strikes a chord with me, as it should with any European: it was the narcissistic desire of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and company to transform the world that lead to the horrific bloodshed of the two world wars and the mass destruction of human life in the concentration camps and Gulags. Perhaps the Arab Spring will make visionary, autocratic rulers unfashionable in the Arab world just as they have become in Europe. If so it would be a very good thing.

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