Let us go back to the riverbed. Let us recall the days when we had a school on the scenic banks of that river. The days when cascading rivers existed. Let us go back to 3000 years BC when there were archives, ownership systems and governing laws from Sumer to Ugarit to Babylon and let us ponder what went wrong. Let us contemplate why we awaited the arrival of Western missions to start organized schools in the nineteenth century and why we waited that long to see females enroll in schools. Let us ask ourselves how can we live in a country where the sick and the injured are left to die on the doorstep of the hospital due to poverty and to lack of health coverage and where the youth aspire to nothing but emigration? Is the havoc in which we are wallowing today an eternal doom? As the centenary of World War I approaches, let us recall the words of Gebran Khalil Gebran 100 years ago:
“My people died on the cross…
They died while their hands stretched toward the East and West, while the remnants of their eyes stared at the blackness of the Firmament.
They died silently, for humanity had closed its ears to their cries.
They died because they did not befriend their enemy. They died because they loved their neighbors… They died because they placed trust in all humanity. They died because they did not oppress the oppressors. They died because they were the crushed flowers, and not the crushing feet. They died because they were peacemakers. They perished from hunger in a land rich with milk and honey.”
How close are we to that state and how can we prevent it? We have the willingness, the capabilities and the opportunities. And with brains in our head and feet in our shoes, there shouldn’t be room for despair. Unfortunately, our media’s preoccupation with mediocre politics and entertainment has thrust numerous success stories into the shadows. Em Sherif, owner of a renowned gastronomic restaurant in Beirut, is one of many such stories. She owes her success to none of the Zu’ama.
“We, the Lebanese, are second to none,” we repeat to ourselves, taking pride in what’s not ours. Soon after, we switch into a state of frustration and complain saying “we’ve never been good enough.”
The fact of the matter is that we are neither as great nor as degraded as we think we are. We are better than we believe, yet we still haven’t taken the first step on the path to comprehending our history and ourselves. Let us look up to South Africa and draw lessons from how it was able to attain social cohesion, rather than “coexistence”, through notions of confession and forgiveness. Inside us lies far more virtue than we could ever imagine.
Amidst this living hell, and despite the absence of the state and the decline of its services, from electricity to water to public education and transport to lack of legislation, we have managed not to err, clinging to lofty intrinsic norms and values that we have chosen to self-enforce of our own volition. Theft rates for instance are far lower in Lebanon than in many countries that enjoy far better security and living conditions. Imagine the traffic violations that would occur in London or Paris amidst continuous blackouts and in the absence of functioning traffic lights and the direction of the traffic police. We have adapted and adopted a self-critical system that has outplayed the depleted state system.
Yet, our generations, old and young, strive for change not adaptation. Let us then explore our history through facts and documentation and cease to view it as a residue of tales of patron saints versus devils. If we are to herald real change and state-building, we ought to remember that paying allegiance to sects and Zua’ma has always brought us disasters and to firmly uphold a saying by Plato: “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”
Jawad N. Adra