Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mabrouk El Safara!*

By Joseph El-Khoury

The Lebanese flag floats over Damascus as Lebanon officially inaugurates an embassy in the Syrian Capital. This highly symbolic step 65 years after both countries gained independence from French colonial rule has clearly been forced down the throat of Syrian officials who did not bother attending the ceremony. While the official propaganda tells us that the split of Greater Syria was a treacherous act by Western powers against the will of the indigenous population, any serious scrutiny would reveal a much more complex picture. I find it unhelpful to indulge in wishful thinking on what could have been and believe that it distracts from the real issues facing the relation between Lebanese and Syrians. Whoever is interested in bridging the gap has to accept the fact that a sense of separate national identity, shaped by diverging political, social and economical paths, is firmly established in both countries. Expressions of it on the Lebanese side of the border take various shapes and fashions but are increasingly cross partisan: Whether you are a ‘resistant’ Lebanese or a ‘patriotic’ one you integrate your national identity to your political views.

It is harder to gage the Syrians attitudes because of the restrictions imposed on their freedom of expressions. Nonetheless they do appear to have developed a genuine sense of Syria-Centric pride separate from the broader Arabo-islamic culture they contributed to for centuries. This was very apparent in the few weeks that followed the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and the show of sympathy in public and private for the regime. Bashar El Assad, posing as a defender of the nation against Zionist attacks, successfully capitalised on this sentiment at home and evaded internal criticism of the Syrian legacy in Lebanon. But it is this legacy that essentially shapes the opinion of millions of young Lebanese who lived through 30 years of Syrian military presence.

This presence was not an amicable arrangement but a heavy-handed occupation that the Lebanese experienced on a daily basis and which pervaded every aspect of their life. Many who had only known the war could hardly see past the roadblocks, tanks and uniforms to discern the real Syria with its hospitable cities and enchanting scenery. We were taught early on that ‘The Syrian is your enemy’. This slogan was ubiquitous in the Eastern (Christian) Region and made sense to us as we sheltered from Heavy artillery, loosing life and limb in the name of an independent 10452 Km2. On the other hand, the allies of Syria did little to help its image, as they helped the Baath Big Brother extend its tentacles across the border. For years the moukhabarat would run Beirut the way they run Damascus and Aleppo... ruthlessly.

As the lid was lifted following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, resentment gave way to some ugly manifestations of generalised abuse against innocent Syrian nationals. The signs of anger had been there for years waiting for an opportunity. I still vividly remember a soccer game held in 1998 between the Lebanese and Syrian national teams in the then newly refurbished ‘Cite Sportive’. A hardcore group of Lebanese fans started hurling verbal abuse and bottles of water at anyone suspected of being Syrian. In selecting their targets they relied on a strange formula of racial and social stereotyping: dark-skinned men dressed in colourful shirts and sandals. One of their victims, a middle aged man screamed that his was a case for mistaken identity. He held his Lebanese passport begging for the projectile shower to stop. Following a dismal performance on the pitch which resulted in a 2-1 victory for the visiting team, the previously bellicose crowd left the stadium in a sheepish orderly manner under the watchful eye of the Tank crews. Inside, the Syrian spectators who had kept a low profile throughout the game took their revenge on the stadium by vandalising the stands.

The mutual mistrust remains and the embassy is a necessary step which will hopefully be mirrored by the Syrian regime. Late Hafez El-Assad once remarked that Lebanon and Syria were ‘eternally linked by History and Geography’ while his actions did much harm to these links. I am hopeful that they will recover one day but can hardly see any of the prominent Lebanese factions providing us with a road map to this partnership for the future.

*Congratulations on the Embassy


Nour said...

The bottom line is that you have to make a choice between whether you want to impose your will and advance your interest over your land or whether whether you want to become a servant of the "status quo." If you argue that we should simply accept colonial divisions of our nation because they are a done deal, then you are in effect accepting that your destiny would forever be controlled by foreign will. If foreign powers choose to divide us further, then we should also accept that outcome and not "indulge in wishful thinking on what could have been."

Your mischaracterization of reality is that when we speak of the unity of our people, it is not an exercise in what could have been, but an expression of what IS. The people of present-day "Syrian Arab Republic" and "Lebanon" are in fact one people with a single socio-economic unity. The argument that there is now a "separate national identity" between the two that is "shaped by diverging political, social and economic paths" is an argument that has no basis in fact and is a superficial reading of the respective characteristics of "Lebanese" and "Syrians". The same argument could have been about West Germany and East Germany by merely looking at the surface appearance of each country and ignoring the essence of the one society.

One needs only to travel to the border areas between Lebanon and Syria to see that there is absolutely no distinction between the one people on either side of the artificial border, and that the socio-economic life-cycle continues unabated, despite all the efforts to inhibit it.

As for people from Lebanon who "integrate [their] personal identity with [their] political views" this no more than an admission that our people have lost their national identity and have falled victim to a confusion of thoughts and ideas that have been established to reinforce and increase divisions within society. Even inside the Lebanese entity itself people do not identify with a single national identity, as each particularistic group, whether tribal or sectarian, identifies with its own group and differentiates itself from other compatriots.

We have seen that all these divisive and fragmentary thoughts and mentalities have brought us nothing but more misery and destruction. Until we become conscious of our one national identity and recognize our single interest and our unity of life across the entire Syrian homeland, irrespective of temporary political developments, we can continue to expect more woes to descend upon our people in the future.

Arab Democracy said...

Dear Nour

Thank you for your very well written response. But unfortunately it is again based on the same ideological rhetoric that we have grown tired of. Borders regions share characteristics and develop economical links everywhere in the world. This is not a reason for ignoring the deep divisions that now exist between the two countries.

What is also insulting is that you choose to dismiss as irrelevant the bulk of my article which tells of a personal but shared experience of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. I will be honest and say that although I consider myself an Arab without question I resent being patronised by so called Arab or Syrian nationalists who are otherwise blind to the reality that Arab unity cannot be imposed by force and certainly not by dictatorships.


Anonymous said...

Dear Nour,

I have read your comment with a lot of interest, and though I agree with much of what you say, I must say that I fail to understand what you mean by "one people with a single socio-economic unity"? Could you give further details on the socio-economic characteristics of such "one people"? Dont you think that you contradict yourself when you argue in the same article that "Even inside the Lebanese entity itself people do not identify with a single national identity". How could the Lebanese be so similar to the Syrians when they initially do not relate to a single (Lebanese) identity?

Look forward to hearing your opinion.


Nour said...

Dear Joseph,

I completely agree that unity cannot be imposed by force, nor was I ever arguing such a position. Moreover, I am not tremendously interested in a political unity across the Syrian homeland as much as I am interested in safeguarding our national unity, so that the energy of the nation is not dissipated and we don't continue to suffer from economic, political, and military woes that have plagued us for some time now.

I was not disregarding as "irrelevant" your account of much of the behavior of the Syrian regime in Lebanon, as I join you in condemning it and in criticizing it as being counterproductive to creating a spirit of unity between the one people. However, I believe that our natural unity transcends temporary political developments, as the presence of Syrian Arab Republic troops in Lebanon is an incredibly short period when looking at the history of the nation as a whole.

Again, you are repeating the same contention that our people today have different national identities across the different political entities. But this would imply that national identities are created dependent on particular political circumstances, such that if Kissinger's plan had materialized and Lebanon was further divided, the different regions in Lebanon would also form separate national identities. Remember that even today the likes of Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea are calling for the establishment of separate, autonomous regions inside Lebanon in accordance with the sectarian divisions of the country. Many of their followers agree, and thus we can also argue that they hold an identity that is separate from that of the rest of the Lebanese.

The position that we should safeguard our national unity and take control of our own destiny is one that should be absolutely adopted by all members of our society as it is the only way to further our interests and safeguard our future. It is not merely "ideological rhetoric" as you so easily dismiss it. The rhetoric that we should be tired of is the sectarian agitation that has defined our country for decades now and that has led us to one catastrophe after another.

Nour said...

Dear Joelle,

I thank you for your question and your interest in my post. If you notice in my comment, I am differentiating between the illusory positions of our people on the one hand, due to our present-day divisive mentalities, and the reality of our national unity on the other. That is, I was making a point that the mere fact that large segments of the Lebanese population identify themselves as a different people than citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic is not an adequate factor in determining national identity, as even inside Lebanon itself people separate themselves into different particularistic identities. However, this cannot deny or negate the reality on the ground which is that there is an actual unity of life across our entire homeland.

The socio-economic unity that I am referring to is the continuous movement of our people and their natural, ongoing interaction with each other on the single piece of land despite the attempt at creating borders between them. If you visit the border regions you would not be able to differentiate between one side of the border and the other and you would notice that the people move back and forth as if the borders do not exist. The lives of the people in SAR are tied to Lebanon and the lives of the people in Lebanon are tied to SAR. There is an actual unity of life. Moreover, the people have identical characteristics in terms of their psyche, temperment, language, culture, traditions, etc.

And contrary to what Joseph wrote above, this is not a manifestation that is true of all border regions across the globe. While there may be certain links and similarities across borders of different countries, there is not a single socio-economic life-cycle as we see between the one people of the Syrian homeland. I know my response was brief and it requires a more thorough explanation of this reality I discussed but time and space limit my ability to respond more elaborately. However, I would be happy to address any further concerns or respond to any further questions you may have. Thank you.


Arab Democracy said...

Hi again Nour. I personally believe that identity is a fluid dynamic concept. it is also a relative one. I dont know how many Lebanese or Palestinians feel 'Syrian' (in reference to greater Syria, as opposed to the SAR). But this is less important than developing true productive cooperation between the various Arab countries which is based on mutual respect, non-aggression and a sense of shared past and future.
Yes we may share racial and cultural characteristics, historical and geographical ties but what we are asking for is recognition as equals first and foremost. The embassy is a symbolic first step in that direction. I would not wish more than to roam the roads from Damascus to Baghdad and Jerusalem freely and safely as a citizen of a modern independent and democratic Arab space but maybe taking a step back for all of us to reflect on the errors of the past is not a bad thing after all.