Everyday Terror

BY THE TIME TWO SUICIDE BOMBINGS killed forty-three people in the southern Beirut suburb of Burj al-Barajneh last November, Lebanon had been without a president for a year and a half. It’s an almost casual fact of life here that would be unthinkable in the United States, where the incumbent president is derided for lacking an operational plan to defeat the stateless leaders of ISIS on the field of battle—and where the Great Leader figure who now is atop the GOP presidential field seeks to exploit terror attacks with fascist calls to register America’s entire Muslim population.

The AWOL status of the Lebanese executive isn’t the first power vacuum in the country’s modern history, or even in recent memory. Lebanon’s previous president, Michel Suleiman, began his six-year term after a similar impasse in 2008. Suleiman had had a distinguished career as commander in chief of the armed forces, having routed the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp just outside of the northern port city of Tripoli.

While America tends to mark political time with the succession of presidencies, Lebanon of necessity tends to do so with eruptions of violence. Suleiman’s engagement with Fatah al-Islam was just one of the many small wars in the region over the past twenty years that have barely registered as international news. This is in part because they are so intractable and so complicated; they fail to fit into the preexisting narratives of mainstream media (black and white, good versus evil, terror impinging on freedom). But it’s also in part because they are so common, and (seemingly) so inconsequential to the rest of the world, especially the United States and Europe.

There’s a nagging sense now, however, that the aching futility (or, if you prefer, the futile pain) of Lebanon’s wars is becoming a global commonplace, seeping into Western cities and blending into the upsurge in jihadist terror. The same sorts of assaults, fueled by the same perversions and distortions of religious zealotry, are being unleashed on quotidian work sites, cafés, soccer games, and concerts, and now threaten to become the new normal in Paris, in San Bernardino, in London, and elsewhere in the West.

Against this backdrop, the absent presence of Suleiman symbolizes an all-too-brief and all-too-poignant between-the-wars interregnum. Suleiman was rare, for Lebanon, in that he was considered a hero for his efforts to resecure an always-fragile public peace. He was even more exceptional on the Lebanese political scene because he was regarded as uncorrupt. He was elected to the presidency by parliament after a deal brokered in Doha among a clutch of interested parties who were flown over and holed up in a hotel for a week of intense negotiations in May 2008. The deal brought an end to fighting in the streets, as well as the dismantling of Hezbollah’s long, irritating, and economically debilitating occupation of downtown Beirut. Then, in the spring of 2014, Suleiman’s term expired and he quietly and swiftly exited the political stage—graciously, according to some, and with a typically enlarged personal fortune, according to others.

Since his departure, Lebanon’s parliament has proved incapable of choosing a successor—indeed, incapable of functioning at all, even as the rickety parliamentary majority has extended its own mandate by emergency decree, remained in power far past its sell-by date, and generally acted with total disregard for the laws, people, interests, and constitution of the country.

Given the persistent state of political chaos, the twinned explosions in Burj al-Barajneh—two of four, apparently, that were planned by ISIS as a message to Hezbollah, which is fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—were not surprising in the devastation or the terrible loss of life they wrought, or in their unconscionable targeting of a popular district of working-class people at the busiest hour of the early evening. No, they were more of a shock here for the simple fact of not having come sooner, more often, and in greater numbers, and for not having sown more destruction, chaos, and mayhem.

What is it like, or what does it mean, to live in a place where this kind of violence is normal and routine? In the nearly fifteen years I’ve lived in Beirut, I have been schooled in a set of skills, facts, and experiential challenges ranging from the bizarre and useless to the passably profound. I now know how to be fully functional without electricity (and how to avoid burning your house down as you keep dozens of candles lit during a power cut); how to pinch a bottle of water between your elbow and your rib cage to brush your teeth and wash your face when there’s no water; how to tell the difference between the cracking thunder of a melodramatic winter storm, wedding fireworks, a street-level explosion, Israeli fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, and a bunker-busting bomb that’s been dropped from a warplane to flatten a neighborhood. I’ve also learned that a stick of lit dynamite lobbed into a building from a passing car is called a zucchini (amateur stuff by the standards of today’s terror impresarios—something on the level of a boyhood prank); that sex during the siege of a city is outrageously intense; and that the relationships able to withstand this day-to-day experience of siege, war, or insurgency (select your euphemism of choice) are both tender and tenacious in ways I could never explain.

Mostly, though, the grinding testimony of daily life in Beirut offers the rest of the world a more urgent sort of lesson: how to be sensitive to history, to insist on complexity, and to be resilient about everything, especially actions more physically and psychically damaging than the general run of what gets grouped under that dismal ideological abstraction terrorism. In the plainest of language, Beirut offers the basic lesson of how to carry on. Even at their worst, politicians in Lebanon could never utter inanities as recklessly stupid as those of Donald Trump. (And anyway, what drives them isn’t ideology or demagogic pandering in the Trump vein, but money, business, contracts, and the spoils of war.)

Consider the question of ISIS—which in American political debate has become a crude and idiotic synecdoche for “Muslims”—in the light of the shifting religious movements and their ongoing historical echoes in this multiconfessional metropolis: the revival of interest in Sufism, the restoration of a synagogue, the radical potential of rereading the religious iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Life goes on, brazenly, because it’s too messy to accommodate a medieval, antimodern story line—or its opposite number in the right-wing West, a blind fealty to a polity ethnically cleansed of Islamic influences.

Sure, there were all the signs of a city in mourning after the bombings in November. There was an official investigation. The media were swimming in speculations about motive, target, and intent. Still, what happened in Beirut stood apart from what happened in Paris, not only because of media bias—as abundantly plain as that bias was for anyone counting headline mentions or state-sanctioned expressions of official grief in the West—but, perhaps more significantly, because it fit a pattern. Locally speaking, ISIS has been an increasingly irksome presence since 2013, but the same goes for the Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam, two Sunni Salafist groups making up the more fanatical side of the Syrian opposition that consider all other religious minorities with deep roots in the region (from Shiites to Zoroastrians) to be heretical sects and legitimate targets of violence. Before the most recent attack, Nusra leaders carried out a double-suicide bombing of their own, in January 2015, at a bustling café in Tripoli. And prior to that, in February 2014, it was two explosions outside an Iranian cultural center in Bir Hassan (those were claimed by another minor Salafist group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is linked to Al Qaeda and opposed to Hezbollah’s actions in Syria). There’s a sad little Wikipedia page titled “List of attacks in Lebanon,” which, at the time of this writing, described sixty such incidents since 2004 alone, including a suicide bombing during an army raid in the north on December 5 that killed three, wounded eight, and barely even made the local news.

Burj al-Barajneh represents only the most recent variation in the pattern. Throughout 2013, Beirut endured a series of attacks orchestrated by the various violent religious factions that took root after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war—in addition to the continual violence that had been packed into the structure of the Syrian state since Hafez al-Assad, with his fifteen layers of intelligence services and snitches, made it coup-proof forty-five years ago. Between 2007 and 2012, Beirut withstood a string of assassinations targeting intelligence and security figures investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. And before that, throughout 2005 and 2006, a separate but related series of assassinations began in the wake of Hariri’s killing, targeting both political leaders and public intellectuals who had publicly protested Syria’s interference in Lebanon while forging important alliances with the secular and democratic—and therefore threatening—elements of the anti-Assad opposition (that campaign was itself interrupted by Israel’s war in the summer of 2006). If we reach further back, to the 1990s, it was leftists in a spat with Hezbollah. And then, even further, in the middle-to-late stages of the civil war, it was nearly anyone who had ever been elected president (Bashir Gemayel, René Mouawad).

Very few of these crimes have been solved. Not for nothing is there no real tradition of the detective genre in Lebanese fiction or film. It seems almost miraculous, then, to consider that in the past few years, the country’s army and security services have actually stopped so many attacks from happening—curiously heartening evidence that even a failed state functions sometimes.

The day after the Burj al-Barajneh attack, the university where I teach was closed. My daughter’s nursery school was not. This split-screen reality is typical of Beirut these days: A gesture of respect and honor for the dead sat alongside another mundane routine that bore eloquent witness to the need to go on living your life. In this case, as well, the routine in question allows a culturally diverse array of women to pursue professional lives—i.e., to defy all the reasons that ISIS exists.

In the weeks that followed, a deal to resolve the presidential crisis emerged. It was cynical and craven, and recycled all the same old names. Worse, it was patently beneficial to Bashar al-Assad; so much for Lebanese independence. But the explosions, perversely, seemed to have loosened a stalemate, to have set some kind of bitter solution to a minor problem in motion. They also seemed to have resolved a bigger issue, which was the kidnapping of around thirty Lebanese soldiers and policemen by the Nusra Front in August 2014. The last of them were released in a prisoner swap on December 1.

And in a way, that may be the worst of it: In this part of the world, such events are no longer horrific or grandiose. They have become political levers, business as usual, thoroughly ordinary. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it may become a more pervasive one amid the difficult days of reckoning ahead. It is, once more, a political object lesson in how to carry on.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer and critic based in Beirut.