This was originally published on my blog, Our Man in Beirut.
Sometimes it’s tough to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about being Lebanese. I got called unpatriotic for not getting behind the Vote for Jeita campaign. Apparently, I had to blindly support something purely on the basis that it was something everyone in the country agreed on. Presumably we can all also all agree that kittens are cute, so let’s go ahead and put one on the flag. It’s not like we have many Cedar trees left anyway.
My main problem with the New7Wonders campaign that Jeita was part of was the, now well-documented, fact that it reeked of con-artistry. It felt like a scam from the very beginning. But then we Lebanese are suckers for a good scam. We get scammed about a dozen times a day, and we grumble in silence to ourselves.
Earlier, I was pounced on by a bunch of friends because I had no desire to go watch Where Do We Go Now?, Nadine Labaki’s latest cinematic offering. It was my patriotic duty to watch it apparently. Well, I don’t know how you decide on your cinema-going schedule, but patriotism doesn’t have much to do with it. I saw the trailer, it bored me half to death, so I decided not to watch it. The same happened to a lot of Americans with Transformers 3, but they weren’t ostracized or lynched on a town square as if they’d burnt the stars and stripes.
I have an Almodovar DVD box-set I’ve never touched. Does that mean I dislike him? Does it mean I hate Spain? No. No, it doesn’t. It just means I’m lacking the intellectual curiosity to delve into them at this point in time, and that I should be less trigger happy when I shop on Amazon. But I’ll get around to watching them, then I’ll make my mind up about them in my own time.
That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the fact she’s getting a ton of international recognition, and winning awards, quite the contrary. I just chose not to watch it. I probably will someday, and from what I gather from like-minded friends, I’ll like bits and pieces of it. But the vitriol to which you’re subjected for not toeing the party line, is quite shocking. The level of discourse in the country in general is reaching worrying levels of incivility. In a way, I think I avoided watching it because I was concerned I wouldn’t like it, and that would put me on the defensive when discussing it.
We’ve slipped into a worrying pattern in Lebanon, where true conversation is frowned upon. We’ve turned into a nation of Dubya Bushes, where every verbal exchange has to reach the inexorable conclusion that “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Any form of independent thought is discouraged outright. You cannot claim to be non-political. You cannot argue with something supposedly patriotic. Basically, you are faced with the impossibility of rational thought.
In the last couple of days we’ve had a reason to be deeply ashamed to be Lebanese, in a way we can all agree on. A couple of our politicians took it upon themselves to hurl insults as well as office furniture at each other on live television on Monday night. The YouTube video of the incident quickly made the rounds and went viral in a matter of hours, reaching hundreds of thousands of views. It was also the most watched video on BBC News yesterday, and on a bunch of other websites around the world. It’s a shame that viral videos are normally of kids saying cute and silly things about Halloween candy or X-Factor contestants belting out cheesy tunes after a video montage of how they were adopted by a pack of monkeys when they were 6, but ours are about bickering politicians.
The experience of watching the video was cyclical. The first time I watched it, I was just disgusted. The second time, I was saddened. By the third time I was laughing. By the fourth, I was thinking maybe it was time to find that tattered suitcase, fill it up, and head for the airport.
Political discourse has never been a shining beacon of civility in Lebanon, not by any measure. But the increasing polarizaiton is having a trickle-down effect on the population at large. I mean, I probably care more about the Large Hadron Collider than I do about Lebanese politics, but you cant help but feel its insidious effects on a daily basis.
People look to their leaders as an example, whether they voted for them or not. It’s much like working in a company, if you think your boss is a bit of an idiot, you don’t take your job too seriously. If he or she is aggressive, you become aggressive. If you admire them, you aspire to become a harder worker and to achieve more. So when we see our politicians endlessly calling each other names and engaging in infantile and corrupt behaviour, can we really expect the population at large to aspire to more than this.
Maybe we could do with a little less testosterone in our leadership. A friend of mine on Facebook posted a status lamenting the fact that the role of women in Lebanese politics is reduced to being featured as mothers and sisters in the insults of male politicians. I’m afraid she’s right on the money with that one. Maybe if we had better people representing us, who actually conversed with one another rather than at eachother, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today. It’s becoming very hard to be proud to be Lebanese, however pretty Jeita is.
On a brighter note, the Lebanese national football team beat South Korea in a world cup qualifier yesterday. And the country went nuts. You’d think we had just beaten Brazil in an actual World Cup final. But all we’d really won were three points. As Anthony Semaan over at the Football Supernova points out, “Lebanon have not yet qualified. Not only do Lebanon have to beat the UAE in February to officially qualify to the next round of the Asian Qualifying section for the World Cup 2014, but if they do win, they will have to qualify from another pool of 5 teams – with 8 matches to prove themselves over the course of a year between 2012 and 2013”. How can we explain the euphoria after such a victory? I’d say it’s a symptom of a country thirsty for something to be proud of. And those eleven men on that pitch did make us proud. And I hope they keep doing it, because we haven’t got much else going for us right now.