The public minibuses that traverse Lebanon's mountains and coastline share many of the elements of a good speakeasy -- close quarters, unobtrusive music and instant camaraderie, in this case created by hairpin turns. So conversation between strangers comes as naturally as the nausea. In the summer of 2000, while I spent six weeks traveling through the country as a college student, I took advantage of these mobile saloons and engaged my fellow travelers on every topic that intrigued me. Every topic, that is, except the one most on their minds: the Syrian occupation of their country.
After one particularly animated conversation with a businessman from Lebanon's city of Tripoli who bemoaned his company's falling profits, I prodded him about what was causing his economic demise. He grabbed the subscription card out of my New Yorker magazine. "The problem," he scribbled, "is Syria," looking furtively around the vehicle as he wrote, aware that the Mukhabarat, or intelligence service, could be anywhere. Then he tore up the flier.
The Lebanon File|
About half the size of New Jersey
Population: About 4.4 million (2004 estimate)
Ages 26.9 percent under 14, 6.9 percent over 65; median age, 26.9 years
Ethnic groups 93 percent Arab, 6 percent Armenian
Internet users 400,000
Major religions Muslim 59.7 percent, Christian 39 percent
Refugees Nearly 400,000 Palestinians
Lebanon is the historic home of the Phoenicians, traders whose maritime culture flourished for more than 2,000 years. The country's fortunes have taken a series of dramatic turns since the end of World War I:
1920 Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations grants France the mandate for five provinces forming the new state of Lebanon.
1926 The Lebanese Republic is declared.
1940 Lebanon comes under control of Vichy France.
1941 Lebanon is occupied by Free French and British troops; independence is declared.
1943 The foundations of the independent Lebanese state are set out in a National Covenant; public offices are distributed proportionally among the religious groups, with Christians in the majority.
1946 French troops withdraw.
1948 State of Israel established. Lebanon accepts thousands of Palestinian refugees, most of whom settle in the south.
1958 U.S. Marines intervene to quell a Syrian-aided revolt against the Lebanese government.
1967 As the Arab-Israeli war ends, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) begins to use Lebanon as a base for actions against Israel.
1975-90 The Lebanese civil war. Leftist Muslims and Palestinian units fight Maronites, Phalangists and other Christian forces. An estimated 100,000 people are killed, another 100,000 permanently handicapped; up to 20,000 remain unaccounted for. About 900,000 flee the country in 1975-76, about 250,000 emigrating permanently. The country suffers billions in damage.
1976 Lebanon calls for help from Syrian troops. Arab summits establish the Syrian Arab Deterrent Force to maintain a ceasefire.
1978 Israel invades in response to PLO attacks from Lebanon bases. The United Nations creates a peacekeeping force. Israel withdraws but turns over positions to its ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and sets up an informal "security zone."
1982 Israel invades to remove PLO forces. President Bashir Gemayel is assassinated. Israeli troops stand aside as Lebanese Christian troops massacre nearly 800 Palestinian civilians in two refugee camps.
1983 The United States, Lebanon and Israel agree to Israeli withdrawal; at least 30,000 Syrian troops remain. Israeli forces pull back to the security zone. Hezbollah, a terrorist group supported by Syria and Iran, emerges. Attacks against U.S. and other Western interests begin: a bomb kills 63 at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut; two bombs kill 241 U.S. Marines and 56 French paratroopers at U.S. and French forces headquarters.
1987 Prime Minister Rashid Karami is assassinated.
1989 The Taif Agreement, under the auspices of the Arab League, produces a blueprint for national reconciliation, giving Muslims a greater say in the political process. President-elect Rene Moawad is assassinated.
1990 The Syrian air force attacks the Lebanese presidential palace. Civil war ends.
1991 Lebanon and Syria sign the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination. All militias but Hezbollah are ordered to dissolve.
1992 Rafiq Hariri becomes prime minister.
1993 Israeli military actions against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon force hundreds of thousands from their homes.
2000 Israel pulls its troops from the south and the Bekaa Valley, ending 22 years of occupation; SLA collapses, but Hezbollah remains active in the area.
2003 Syria reduces its troop presence in Lebanon to about 15,000.
2004 The U.N. Security Council adopts a resolution demanding that foreign troops leave Lebanon; Syria refuses to withdraw.
2005 Former prime minister Hariri is killed by a car bomb. Separate pro- and anti-Syria rallies draw huge crowds. The cabinet resigns in response to the anti-Syrian protests. Reacting to these and pressure from the United States and the United Nations, Syria begins to withdraw some troops.
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Five years later, no Lebanese citizen bothers to be furtive when speaking Syria's name. Today, they hang it from the tops of buildings in Martyrs' Square. They work it into clever English-language puns on signboards: "Syria'l killers get out." They chant it in slogans, on CNN and on al-Jazeera, and freely give their names to international news reporters. After the shocking assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri last month, the anti-Syria movement has become big, brash and unapologetic. "Why should we be afraid of Syria now?" one protest organizer in Martyrs' Square asked me. "The world is watching us on television."
At the international school where I now teach, I've come to expect that a mini-rally may erupt at any moment among my sixth-graders, who largely come from wealthy, educated Lebanese families. A usually reticent student bounds into class one day exclaiming, "Miss, I'm proud to be Lebanese!" He summons public speaking skills I'd never seen in him before and begins addressing the class: "Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!" It's nearly impossible to get this bunch to do anything simultaneously (I should know), yet my student's outburst inspires an impassioned and united response. He takes advantage of the soapbox to intone, "We must disarm Hezbollah, or they will cause another civil war, and we must make peace with Israel." I gasp; the sixth grade applauds in unison.
Two-thirds of my students and their families attended last Monday's massive anti-Syria demonstration after school closed early, and they arrived the next morning decked out in red-and-white opposition scarves, relating details of speeches they had heard. It's any teacher's dream: collective gusto to start a meaningful discussion. But this level of political engagement is particularly startling for my class. It's hard to believe this is the same collection of 12-year-olds who, when Yasser Arafat died four months ago, had been puzzled about who the Palestinian leader was and seemed uninterested in what he represented for Arab independence.
That lack of interest has been echoed by a kind of willful forgetfulness that I've noticed among older Lebanese. I've often wondered, over the 18 months I've lived here, why recollections of the lengthy civil war, which began in 1975 and ended 16 years later, are often so vague, as if many here live under a sort of group amnesia. Parents, understandably, have little desire to relive the conflict, even -- especially -- when some of the parallels to today's politics are striking. Older Lebanese are still trying to repress the memory of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's destabilizing arrival in their country 35 years ago. "Good riddance," one mother said to me after Arafat's death. "We have nothing to do with that man."
But suddenly, their children do. This week, a student raised her hand and asked if we could study the civil war. Her classmates cheered. Meanwhile, their high school-aged siblings were caravaning downtown to be part of the demonstrations. I couldn't help seeing these teenagers' sudden political involvement as another stunning departure from the recent past. After two years of doing alumni interviews with ambitious Lebanese high-schoolers interested in attending Yale, I've been simultaneously electrified by these students' detailed geopolitical knowledge, and deflated by their vehement disgust for politics both as a process and as a profession.
Their only experience with government is of Lebanon under Syrian occupation; thus, many young Lebanese have grown up believing that corruption and interference were the stamps of political machinery. The resulting brain drain to North American and European colleges, or to other Arab countries, seemed inevitable. Why stick around to live as pawns under a sham government, capable young people asked me, when I could be making money in Dubai?
Yet it's now the resolve of these students and twenty-somethings that anchors the sit-ins in Martyrs' Square. It's their penchant for creative headgear that has made the Lebanese-flag-turned-turban into the hottest fashion in Beirut. It's their trend consciousness that has lent the movement its Benetton-inspired logo: "The United Colors of Lebanon." It's their drums and guitars that keep the campsite lively all day, and their dance moves that keep the square throbbing into the night.
Many of these young protesters are inspired not only by Ukraine's Orange Revolution, on which they have modeled their so-called Cedar Revolution, but by the conviction that George W. Bush's approach to redesigning the Middle East is generally the right one. A 20-year-old man named Awtel reminds me that "Bush is strong against Syria. Besides," he adds, "he is so clear when he speaks." I can't dispute that. Still, I begin to explain to Awtel, I worry about convictions that seem too clear, too black and white. But I slowly realize that this crowd is the wrong audience for my argument.
So are these the United Colors of Lebanon? I'm unconvinced. At the Hezbollah-sponsored counter-demonstration earlier this month, a protester confided to me that his friends call the crowd who've been occupying Martyrs' Square "the resistance of Monot Street" -- referring to Beirut's upscale nightclub district. He had a point. The square has been full of idealists rather than realists. These bright-eyed protesters, with their guitars and flags, had never suffered Israeli occupation on their family property. The young student who told me he had no fear speaking out because the "world is watching" might not have felt that way if for years he'd been subjected to Israeli bombing in southern Lebanon -- with the most vocal American objections reserved for Hezbollah's retaliations. Sure, some of the pro-Syrian demonstrators were likely bused in from Syria. Many may not have a wide range of news sources at their disposal. But when I saw the way the crowd throbbed with joy when Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah took the stage, I had to wonder: What does this say about Lebanon today? Can several hundred thousand fervent pro-Syrian protesters all be ignored?
My sixth-graders think so. "My driver -- he's Syrian -- says all the people at that rally were forced," one relates. "Yes, and my driver told me that at the end of the month, they get paid," adds another. Who can be sure? But it's revealing commentary for a country deeply polarized between the families who can choose to send their children to a Western-oriented private school, like the one where I teach, and the people who have no choice but to work for them.
I can claim a foreigner's perspective -- inexperience in the layers of the past under which the Lebanese continue to labor. When I ask questions, most people gladly tell me their story. But even in the midst of this exhilarating political reawakening, the country's two sides seem rarely to be telling each other. To me, and to CNN watchers everywhere, the energy of Martyrs' Square is infectious. But if these rousing demonstrations truly signal the start of a "new Lebanon," then that energy needs to find a common expression much closer to home.
Frances Brown is an American teacher at an international school in Beirut. Her articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor.