Beirut Letter: In Lebanon, Fighting ISIS With Culture and Satire
Lebanon may be small and a mess politically, but it brandishes weapons against ISIS that no other Arab country can.
A few days after ISIS took Mosul in June, I was jolted from my sleep one night in Washington by a vivid nightmare about ISIS fighters on a rampage in my parent’s town, in the hills east of Beirut. We could hear them running outside, yelling and firing their guns. We hid in the basement, paralyzed by fear.
The eerie part was that it was an exact replay of what I had been through in 1990 when Syrian troops, which already occupied most of Lebanon, invaded the enclave where I lived. The dream was a visceral reminder that I come from a country and a region where history seems to go in inescapable, violent circles. (Assad has been accused of knowingly leaving room for ISIS to grow, the better to weaken the less radical rebels.)
By the time I travelled to Lebanon in late July to visit my parents, ISIS was at the gates, not of our town but of the country. Fierce fighting had erupted in the Lebanese village of Ersal, on the border with Syria, between the Lebanese army and the extremist fighters who had infiltrated a Syrian refugee camp.
The anxiety I had felt in Washington was only amplified by the deserted streets of Beirut and headlines about ISIS barbarity in the local press. Could it be that after holding on to very relative stability during three years of regional tumult, Lebanon now faced all-out war? But the army showed surprising mettle. It suffered heavy losses and ISIS took some 30 soldiers and police hostages, but the extremist fighters did not advance further.
On the coast, by the Mediterranean, normal life resumed, and I was reminded of all the reasons why Lebanon could still be a rampart against the advances of ISIS, a last vestige of cosmopolitan, pluralistic Levantine life that once defined the region and is still thriving in Beirut.
Don’t get me wrong: Our political system is warped, and we have spent many years killing one another. But at the same time, most of the public debates and cultural or popular responses to ISIS have come from Lebanon. There was the #burnisisflag challenge, when Lebanese teenagers publicly burned copies of the ISIS flag to protest the group’s hijacking of Islam and challenged others to do the same. When the minister of justice threatened to punish them for burning a flag that carries words from the Koran, (“there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”), he was roundly rebuked by politicians across the country, including the mufti of Tripoli, who dismissed the incident. And there were the satirical articles explaining that ISIS got stuck in Beirut’s snarling traffic as it tried to invade the country and despaired about Lebanon’s dysfunctional, sectarian politics: “Who the fuck do we overthrow here?” Most media organizations also agreed not to give a platform to ISIS supporters.
But my favorite expression of protest was more somber: The Lebanese minister, Alice Chaptini, a well-respected 68-year-old judge, offered to give herself as a hostage to ISIS in return for the freedom of the captive Lebanese soldiers.
Another positive sign of resistance to ISIS: The group couldn’t find a single Lebanese who wanted the honor of volunteering as its emir of Lebanon. So the group appointed a Jordanian no one has ever heard of. The summer wedding of a prominent Christian event manager to her Sunni love from Tripoli was widely celebrated. Mixed marriages are not that numerous, but neither are they unique.
But protest, creativity, and cultural pluralism are not limited to the elite or a minority, and this is what sets Lebanon apart in the region. We may be beset by deep political divisions, but the moderate, outward-looking center is large; not a fringe section of society. It’s partly to do with history, and partly with religious diversity. Lebanon is the only country in the region where no single religious sect dominates, and where Christians still play a key role in politics. Lebanon’s president is always a Christian (the seat is sadly currently vacant). Shias send their kids to the nearest private schools run by nuns because they believe it’s the best education. Christians will travel an hour to the conservative Sunni city of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon to get the best version of a meat pie.
Casa Nostra is a popular Italian restaurant in Tripoli. It organized an evening of standup comedy in July. A video of the event shows a mixed, middle-class crowd: some women were veiled, most were not, the men (most clean-shaven) wore suits. One act was a man with a short beard, and a short flowing robe: a trademark style of Salafis.
“My beard is real,” he tells the audience in Arabic. “I am what some of you call a Salafi.” Silence. But then, to much laughter, Sheikh Bilal Mawwas tells them he doesn’t understand why the word “Salafis” scares them when so many people take “selfies,” in English, and riffing off the similar sounding words.
I am of course picking the hopeful anecdotes. The ISIS flag is fluttering in some border villages. Deep pockets of poverty in Sunni border areas make people vulnerable to recruitment. “The Islamic state is coming” has been scribbled on a church in northern Lebanon.
So there is reason to worry about our ability to hold on to diversity. The Levant is already a far cry from the cosmopolitan melting pot it once was. Could it get even worse in Lebanon?
We are now home to 1.2 million Syrian refugees, so one in four people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. Donors have failed miserably to give enough, so underfunded U.N. agencies are doing their best with local NGOs and average Lebanese, who have opened their homes and shared their meals. But tensions are rising, and the infrastructure buckling. One woman told me, “We want to help them, but we don’t have what it takes. Our sewers can’t even cope if every refugee pees just once a day!”
I spent six weeks in Pakistan earlier this year, where I reported on the more than million Afghan refugees still in the country, decades after they arrived. It got me thinking about the other similarities between Pakistan and Lebanon today: a country on our border wrecked by civil war, a massive refugee population that will likely stay for years, and armed militant groups, in our case mostly Hezbollah, that are fighting in the war the next door, bringing the violence back with them, just like the Taliban did. Endless power cuts and corruption are a bonus. Of course, we’ve never had a military coup, and we still have religious tolerance. But just in like in Pakistan, where decades of Taliban presence and militarization deeply changed society, the longer ISIS is able to hold territory across the Middle East, the more fabric of societies will be altered here as well.
Lebanon is fraying at the edges, but for now the center holds. On one of my last evenings in Beirut, I went to a beach party at the Sporting club, at the tip of the city that juts into the sea. Nightlife in Beirut can be an over-the-top, sensory experience: Imagine being in the clubbing scene at the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, where you’re simultaneously crushed by the crowd, the music, and the decadent beauty of it all. Access is exclusive, and the party only starts after 1 a.m. The men are smoking cigars, the women are tanned and bedecked. At some point, there is dancing on the bar top.
The scene at Sporting was Paris Left Bank hip, which gave me hope too. The city had not been overtaken by the rich and infamous. Every Friday, openly gay men, young women in shorts and trendy sneakers, and kissing couples flocked to Sporting’s “Decks on the Beach” party, a mix of all sects.
I bumped into the owner of a vintage furniture shop in central Beirut, currently displaying a stunning 1970 Oscar Niemeyer lounge chair. I had expected a bigger crowd and asked him if it was because of Daesh (the Arabic name of ISIS). No, he told me, another venue had just opened across the city and was creating competition. But he still seemed wistful. “Between Daesh and decks, we don’t know on which foot to dance,” he said.
It’s often facile to portray the Lebanese approach to war and instability as insouciance: oh, look, they just party on! But there is more to this behaviour than intentional amnesia. There is a resilience and a deep desire to feel alive and create—both at home and abroad—that propels the Lebanese forward in the hope that the more art we display in New York and London, the more Hollywood stars we dress, the more restaurants we open in world capitals, the less likely we will forget who we are.
Lebanon has often garnered an outsized level of international attention compared to its small size. But it isn’t getting enough of it now, when we need to think of ways to counter ISIS that don’t involve airstrikes. Lebanon matters for what it continues to represent for the region and the inspiration it could still provide, not just during the current tumult, but especially when the Arab world emerges from the current darkness.
There is darkness in Lebanon too. Two of the soldiers held hostage have now been beheaded. And there is more culture. The Lebanese band The Great Departed recently performed a new number in a cabaret, mocking the self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, with the Arabic lyrics: “O Baghdadi, you who rule by God’s laws, you will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other… Because there is no duress in religion, we will wipe out the apostates.” Then, a priceless line that the songwriter said was written in response to a purported Baghdadi edict requiring that the udders of cows be covered. “Faith is decency… if I were a cow I would be wearing a bra.”
As long as we can still laugh, sing, and speak up in the face of barbarism with no fear, then not all is lost for Lebanon or the Arab world.