Why Lebanon?

Bashir Gemayel
Bashir Gemayel; drawing by David Levine

Abdel Mohsen Abu Maizer is one of the older independent members of the PLO executive committee. In his office in Damascus, which since the PLO left Beirut has been his exile in exile, he talked to me about Arafat, who was soon to be deported from Syria; about Syria and American Middle East policy; and about the Lebanese-Israeli accord. The conversation wandered naturally toward Lebanon. Abu Maizer asked, “Do you really want to understand Lebanon?” He might as easily have asked, “Do you really want to understand the Trinity?”

“It’s simple,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, as though he were taking me into his confidence. “Look at the first and last cabinets of independent Lebanon. The first was in 1945, just after independence, and the last was the emergency cabinet of 1975, just before the country collapsed. The first cabinet had only six members, representing the main religious groups. The prime minister, representing the Sunni Muslims, was Abdel Hamid Karami. Camille Chamoun represented the Maronites, Adil Oseiran the Shi’ites, and Selim Takla the Greek Catholics. The Greek Orthodox were represented by Habib Abu Sha’La, the editor and publisher of An-Nahar [then, as now, Lebanon’s leading daily].”

It was an unremarkable list of the major figures of each community in Lebanon. But, Abu Maizer recalled, “The six-man emergency cabinet thirty years later had as the Sunni prime minister Rashid Karami, son of Abdel Hamid Karami, who had died. Selim Takla had died also, and was replaced by his cousin Philippe Takla. The Greek Orthodox were represented by the next editor and publisher of An-Nahar, Ghassan Tueni. And the other three were the same: Camille Chamoun, Majid Arslan, and Adil Oseiran. In thirty years, despite all the changes in the Arab world, nothing had changed in Lebanon. Nothing.”

Abu Maizer, whose cause and people had suffered as much as any other in Lebanon, provided a piece of the puzzle—a necessary one but not sufficient to understand how a pleasant Mediterranean and Arab country of 3 million people destroyed itself and invited its neighbors in to help with its destruction, over eight bloody years. But understanding one large fact about Lebanon is not the same as understanding the country itself. Lebanon’s is a tragedy of epic proportions, which has defied interpretation by political analysts and scholars, diplomats and politicians, novelists and film makers, since the country began to disintegrate in April 1975. Many journalists covering Lebanon have, like most American policy makers, treated it as a sideshow, or as merely the battleground for more important struggles, as Tony Clifton has done in God Cried.1 No journalist has tried harder to understand Lebanon itself than my old friend and colleague, The Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal. Yet even Randal, while writing a book so good that it is certain to be banned in Lebanon, can only circle around rather than answer the…

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