Beirut diary

Homophobia in Lebanon

22 August 2007

Last weekend I found myself at a theatre in southern Beirut attending a discussion forum hosted by the Leftist Assembly For Change. Given their name, it’s probably not hard to work out who they are – a left wing organisation, seeking to promote dialogue about a number of social and political issues, many of which are taboo in current Lebanese society. 

The conference came to my notice through a friend of mine who was part of the organising committee. When I asked why “The Leftist Assembly For Change” had been chosen as the name of my group, she answered, much to my laughter, that they tended to change their name each year – confirming my suspicions that hard left groups tend to agree about little, and that perhaps constant name changing would manage to placate all those involved. 

Arriving at the conference on Friday evening, there was one slight problem; my translator had failed to turn up. With my knowledge of Arabic still lamentable, rather than being an active participant in debate, I ended up sitting in stony silence and drawing doodles on my notepad. The reason I had turn up to that session was that the George Azzi, former head of Helem (LGBT rights organisation in Beirut) was talking about homophobia in Lebanon. He was taking part in a wider debate about prejudice in Lebanese society, including attitudes towards both Syrian guest workers and to Palestinian refugees. 

Luckily for me, I managed to corner George at the end of the discussion and to grab a quick interview with him at a local café for him to explain exactly what he talked about during his speech, over an Arabic coffee the interview began…

George explained that the problem with fighting homophobia in Lebanon is partly due to the fact that even when discussing the issue with people who may be involved with fighting discrimination in society, the response will often be that gay rights is not an important enough issue in this society, that because of the sectarian divisions in this society, efforts must be made to break down those divides first, instead of concentrating on an issue like gay rights – essentially that LGBT issues are crowded out by the multitude of problems which currently face the country. However, he explained that he told the conference that the issue of gay rights in Lebanon should be seen as a part of a wider campaign against the interference of the state against the private lives of individuals, and that this can pertain to many different groups in society. For example, that the gay rights group, Helem, should not be forced to register with the government and gain their approval in order for them to become a legitimate organisation. 

He also made the point that with other forms of discrimination, religious, cultural, you are not on your own, and that if a Muslim man were attacked because of his faith, then all his family would rally round to support him. However, this is not the case in the gay community, where often gay men and women are forced to leave their families behind and to come to somewhere like Beirut, to become independent, and that this is often their only chance to be free and open and about their sexuality. 

However, it was George’s third point that was the most revealing and which really strikes at the heart of the issue about gay identity in the Arab world. He explained that the West will often use the issue of gay rights in the Arab world to point their finger at all that they think is wrong with Arab society, and perhaps to add credence to claims that the Arab word is “uncivilised”. He also highlighted that Arabs often see the gay and lesbian community as a western important, and as such the gay community is rejected by them. As George neatly put it, “There are those who use us to justify their attacks on Arabs, and those who reject us because they don’t see us as a part of their community.” 

This comment made me think about the argument about “bringing democracy to the Middle East” that oft-used and highly spurious phrase banded around the West, particularly by the Bush administration. How do you allow a gay community to thrive in the Middle East (just as with democracy) without it being seen as Western-influenced, or a “Western import”? George believes that the key to this is in home-grown organisations, such as Helem, playing a large part in seeking to change the mentality of society. 

One of the ways in which Helem has successfully started to do this is by participating in wider civil society issues. For example, they opened the Helem building as a relief centre during last summer’s Israeli –Hezbollah conflict (even receiving a letter of thanks from Hezbollah themselves!), also they have provided stewards to the annual Beirut marathon. Both these things not only help to increase the visibility of the organisation, important in it its own right, but also to integrate the organisation with wider society, to show that the lesbian and gay community here are not something separate, but indeed are a part of the society in which they operate. 

Prejudice on the road from Damascus

16 August 2007

OK, so I can’t really claim that it’s a re-enactment of the great biblical story of Paul’s conversion to Christianity (my mother would be ecstatic if it were), however, my journey on the road from Damascus to Beirut certainly made me “see the light” in a very different way. 

Even before getting into the servis car I knew this was going to be an interesting journey as the middle-aged one-legged man registering names for the car passengers hobbled up to me and announced in a very accurate southern US drawl, “I’m a fuckin’ Yankee, you know!” Ever anxious to avoid appearing to be a US citizen I proudly announced that I was, in fact, a UK citizen (as if that had some higher moral quality to it), unfortunately this failed to stop the man whacking me in the stomach with his clipboard – in a very American, ‘slap on the back’ kind of way, you understand.

The car itself reminded me of the US 1970’s hit, “The Dukes Of Hazzard” although being in Damascus there was, perhaps unsurprisingly, no Texan flag emblazoned on the bonnet (I think some rapprochement between the US and Syria would be needed before anyone could seriously snarl their way around the jammed streets of Damascus with a Texan flag on their car). The car not only looked like the one from the TV series, but the driver also did his best to drive like they did in the programme – including screeching round corners at ridiculous speeds and leaving an exhaust trail so big that one almost expected environmental protesters to suddenly jump out from the roadside brandishing placards. 

As we sped along the highway to the Lebanese border I kept wondering why I was seeing posters of Captain Darling from “Blackadder Goes Forth” tied to almost every single lamppost, in fact, I had seen posters of him pretty much everywhere in Damascus. I mean, obviously there’s no reason why the Syrians couldn’t enjoy “Blackadder”, I certainly did, but it seemed a bizarre programme to gain cult status in the Middle East, nonetheless. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me; it wasn’t the guy from “Blackadder”, but none other than their illustrious and esteemed President, Bashar Al-Asad. It all made sense now, and as I congratulated myself of my intellect and skills of perception, I mused on whether Bashar could find himself a bit-part in a BBC comedy series if ever he were to find himself out of a job. 

Upon our approach to the border my attention began to turn to my fellow passengers. There were six of us in total. My friend from London, Colin, was sitting squashed in the corner, next to me. As his face turned a lighter shade of green, I realised that he had not had had the crash-course experience of being a Lebanese car passenger, which I had fortunately gained during my few months in Italy this year, when my friend, and the director of “The Beirut Apartment”, Daniele, would regularly show me his impression of a Beirut taxi driver, including the incessant horn tooting.

The other passengers were all Lebanese and were a pretty good reflection of general Lebanese society. Ali, the brooding Shia, sat next to me, occasionally muttering to himself and managing to miraculously burp every time the car went over a pot hole. In the front sat George, a rather dapper Lebanese Armenian businessman, and next to him, Mohammed, a Palestinian refugee. The driver himself I know nothing about as he barely said a word, and I wondered if he perhaps belonged to some mysterious Lebanese sect which lived in the mountains and had taken a vow of silence. 

However, it was at the border itself that the true fun began. Leaving Syria was a piece of cake, but trying to get into Lebanon was a different matter. It perhaps resembled the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, although there is no doubt that Moses would have organised things much better than the Lebanese border police. We jumped out of the servis and headed towards the portacabin which served as border control in order for the authorities to issue us with re-entry visas for Lebanon. Although we headed for the queue marked “forigner” (sic.), it seemed that everyone there was a “forigner”, and it was only with the help of Mohammed that we managed to get our visas at all. As we stood in the queue with Mohammed he started telling us that the Armenian businessman was a “bad man who hates all Muslims” and that we should stay away from him. Perhaps he thought that I was Muslim – probably the blonde hair and blue eyes gave it away. This was followed, outside the portacabin, by the Armenian businessman informing Colin and I, without prompting, that yes, all Muslims were bad and how on earth could they believe in a religion like theirs, a religion that preached “hate and murder” and “encouraged boys to blow themselves up on buses”. The irony was that for all their talk of their dislike for what one another stood for, they spent the majority of the journey chatting away quite happily to one another, with the Armenian’s arm casually draped around Mohammed’s shoulder. 

This is something that I have witnessed time and time again in Lebanon. People come from different backgrounds, they work together, socialise together, perhaps even live together, and yet they often hold true to the very ideas and prejudices that could also, once again, tear this society apart. It is almost as if these prejudices about another’s background are so commonplace and so accepted that they are not even considered unacceptable or wrong. I even witnessed this last week when I attended the party of a Shia friend and his Armenian friends made it quite clear that if push came to shove, they would defend their Armenian community, even if it meant that their Shia friend would become their enemy. 

Apart from the depressing fact that these things are even seriously considered here, it makes you realise that in Lebanon, if you dig a little deeper, this society still has so much more work to do. 

The 'beleaguered' Christians of Lebanon

14 August 2007

Much is written is the Western press about the plight of the Christian community in the Middle East, no doubt partly driven by the less than glamorous media portrayal of Muslims in recent years and a belief, perhaps, that Christians represent some kind of civilising group within the “untamed Arab animal”. 

The ongoing orgy of violence in Iraq tells a story that has been repeated so often in recent history - that of the emigration of Christians of the Middle East to the West in order to start new lives and to escape persecution. It is undoubtedly true that in many areas of the Middle East, Christians have indeed suffered persecution, whether as a result of Shia and Sunni militias in Iraq, or the Israeli stranglehold of Bethlehem, which has led to a dire economic situation for the Christian community, as well as helped forment increased Islamic fundamentalism amongst their Palestinian brothers. 

Throughout the history of Lebanon, from its inception in 1943, there has been a constant flow of Christians heading to the check-in desk at Beirut International Airport to seek a “better” life in Canada, Australia, France and elsewhere. This route out of Lebanon gathered momentum during the Civil War, and indeed there is now such a big Christian Lebanese Diaspora that perhaps Right-wing Christian Phalangist groups have more power outside the country than they do within, cosying up to the Neo-Conservatives in the US administration to help direct Washington’s policy towards Lebanon. 

Many of the Christians that I have met during my stay in Lebanon seem to have become the voice of the “new generation” – viewing their compatriots based on their own individual merit, rather than their religious background. However, I have met an alarming number who also seem to pine for a so-called golden age of Christian supremacy in Lebanon and who argue that, “If only those pesky Muslims would stop making trouble, then everything would all be alright.” It almost reminds one of South Africa, with the Christians representing the Whites; the Sunni’s the South African Asians, and the Shia playing the part of the South African Blacks. For just like in apartheid (and post-apartheid) South Africa, the Christians here have held the levers of economic power, even as their own numbers have diminished faster than a Western European birth rate. 

And as these same Christians bemoan the antics of Nasrallah and his cohorts, they seem to forget that they and their forebears, in fact, helped to foster them. For decades following independence, successive Lebanese governments paid scant regard to the needs of the Shia community, the most impoverished of all Lebanon’s groups. As a result, Hezbollah filled the gap, providing a social support and welfare network to help the community’s most needy. Of course, Hezbollah found added legitimacy by resisting on-off Israeli occupation through so many decades, occupations which themselves were often supported by the Lebanese Christian community in order to diminish the power of Muslims within the state (I don’t need to go into detail regarding the various Phalangist atrocities committed during the civil war here). 

The reality is that because much of the Christian community has only been interested in the maintenance of their own power, they have, in fact, become victims of it. Take the closely fought by-election in Metn, for example. It showed a Christian community (especially the Maronites) deeply divided. In his effort to become the Republic’s next President, and with his near-Messianic belief that only he can save the Country, Aoun has dumped the principles that sustained him for so long and allied himself with the opposition, thereby causing a rift within the Christian community. 

Unfortunately this is just a reflection of a community that has become arrogant through its maintenance of power, and yet is becoming weaker because of it. And let’s look at the faces of last week’s by-election. It’s the same old ‘tribal’ leaders - Aoun, Gemayel, et al… only this time they’ve swapped their fatigues and combats for Hugo Boss suits and shades in order to appear more “democratic”. 

On a recent visit to the North with a friend, I popped in to visit some of his family members. Driving through the Lebanese Forces heartland, with portraits of Samir Geagea plastered everywhere (another ‘democrat’ with hands ‘supposedly’ stained with blood) we arrived at a somewhat unassuming building overlooking a beautiful valley. After traditional Arabic pleasantries and interminable questions about why, at 30 years of age I wasn’t yet married (I declined to answer, considering that Lebanese Forces supporters probably don’t have the most liberal view of homosexuality) we got on to the subject of politics. 

After listening to an impassioned speech by one of the family members about how the Shia were ruining the country and leading it back to civil war, and that the only salvation for Lebanon was a Christian-Sunni alliance (for that: read “the present government”) I gently enquired as to how they could feel so confident of the Sunni community, when barely 15 years ago they were at war with them. The reply was simply, “That was then, and this is now.” 

You see, the Christian community’s political ‘raison d’etre’ is its maintenance of power, however that is to be achieved, through whatever alliances need to be made, and unfortunately for Lebanon, and for its future, it seems to be the one thing that all of Lebanon’s sectarian groups have in common. 

When the lights go out

13 August 2007

One of the lingering consequences of last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel, apart from increasing the sectarian divide, has been the damage inflicted on Lebanese infrastructure. Much of this is obvious at first sight – the bombed out roads, bridges and other transport links, much of which still needs to be repaired. However some of the damage can be harder to spot, but just as inhibiting to one living in this city.

The Lebanese telecoms system, already having gone from being one of the most advanced in the Middle East by the late 1990s, to one of the most backward by last year, was near decimated by the Israeli bombardment in their attempt to disrupt the communications capacity of Hezbollah. 

For me, as a freelance subtitler working in this city, the dire state of the telecoms industry is obvious. With internet connection speed here one can almost imagine a Lebanese (or perhaps Syrian) worker having to turn the cogs to make the connection work. When trying to download programmes for work, I have far too frequently ended up at 5.30 in the morning with my head in my hands after yet another unsuccessful download attempt. Not only is the internet connection poor, it is also exorbitantly expensive, if one wishes to obtain anything approaching a half decent connection speed. This obviously has dire consequences for the Lebanese economy, making e-commerce virtually impossible here and helps to stunt Lebanon’s ability to take its place in the global economy. With the fight of capital from the country already occurring due to political instability, poor telecoms infrastructure is something that Lebanon can ill-afford. 

The other aspect of this damage to infrastructure is that which has been done to the national power grid. Power cuts, something of a fond, yet distant memory of my own youth, are all too frequent here – again hampering business and economic productivity. Electricity costs, like those for the internet, are exorbitant, and the Tourism Ministry, aware of the clipping effects of last summer’s war on the tourism industry here, recently announced a plan to subsidise electricity costs for a number of hotels and restaurants in the city in a vain attempt to stop even more businesses from going to the wall. 

However, there has been one positive upshot of Lebanon’s power failure … Two nights ago I was invited to a performance of traditional music by a local band. The music was accompanied by much singing and dancing, and every time a power cut occurred, the band kept on playing and the singing turned into a chorus of excited ululations – an almost two-fingered salute that nothing would spoil their fun. 

As ever with the Lebanese, when the going gets tough, they just keep carrying on. 

The invisible homosexuals

20 July 2007

What would you expect as a gay man in Beirut? If like me, you are hoping to experience some of the local delicacies (all in the name of research, of course) then you’d better hope that you fit the bill here, and ironically, cover up all traces of your homosexuality.

You would think that in a city riven with social and sectarian divides, as it is, the “gay” community here would balk at the suggestion of segregation and discrimination and would perhaps take a chance to show their heterosexual brothers and sisters how it’s done, thereby gaining greater legitimacy for the LGBT community here. Sadly, amongst many here, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Trawling the gaydar pages of Lebanon (I told you it’s for research) has proved to be both an enlightening and utterly disappointing experience. Two words shriek out from the profiles of many of the guys listed there. No, it’s isn’t a reference to kinky sex, or, God forbid, a relationship, but the words “straight acting” and “discreet”. 

Of course, it’s not like we haven’t seen similar references on the profiles of guys in the UK, but certainly not with the frequency that you see it here. That’s not to say that there aren’t guys here who are comfortable with their own sexuality (and God bless every one of them!) and who do not feel the need to highlight a dislike of the more feminine or open in their midst (like those who write “It’s nothing personal, I have nothing against feminine guys or open gays, it’s just that I don’t think we’d ‘click’ ”), but there are many who display a paranoia of the great evil that stalks this society – the tutu-wearing, dancing queen Arab, the nemesis of this ultra-macho society who, if they had their way, would force men to go for a “back, sack and crack” and even, perhaps, help their mothers with the housework.

This dislike, or even sometimes visceral hatred, for the fem boys of Beirut was made apparent to me when I recently interviewed someone for the book. Sitting in Starbucks Café, I asked a young professional gay man from Beirut what he thought of those who displayed camp mannerisms, or who were overtly open about their homosexuality. He immediately responded in the negative, “We don’t want to see men walking down Hamra Street wearing a pink feather boa, all it will do is reinforce society’s stereotypes about the average gay man and we don’t want ‘them’ to rock the boat.” 

My first reaction was to think, “Well, what kind of effeminate guy would want to walk around in a feather boa? Most of them would have far better taste than that (drag queens excluded).” And secondly it seemed to me that what he was actually saying was, “We’re quite alright as we are, thank you very much, and we don’t need anything to change.” 

Sadly, it’s a reaction that I have heard time and again.

Still pondering the reasons behind this hostile response, I by chance met with a very good friend of mine. She pointed out to me (well, she is a psychotherapist) that the reason behind this ‘anti-gay’ gay stance is that those who are more visibly gay in society are the ones who will actually change the social views of society. Remember, it wasn’t the sexually frustrated gay married men of Middle America who started the momentum for change in the West, but the stiletto wearing ninjas of Stonewall in ’68, who after years of abuse, and often rape, by the law enforcement agencies, came out fighting and showed people who the REAL men were.

Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting that the obviously small transvestite or transsexual community here should choose pick a fight, not least because given the current economic situation they’d be hard-pressed to replace a pair of damaged stilettos, however the basis of the argument remains the same. It is those who are openly gay, either through their dress, actions or words, who over time force a change in the mentality of society.

So why should the “discreet” gay guys be afraid of this? Surely it would help them in their lives if some within the gay community forced society into increasing tolerance of homosexuality? Unfortunately, not so. By doing so, they would force others to start making choices about their own lives, with all the inherent risk, including whether to be open with their family and friends about their sexuality, and to become more accepting of their own sexuality, However, perhaps his would allow them to build positive, committed relationships with the special people in their lives, and not let familial or societal pressure stop them from achieving their own happiness.

I don’t want to sound overwhelmingly negative because there are indeed glimmers of hope. The LGBT organisation in Beirut, Helem, understands the need for greater visibility for the LGBT community in Lebanon and through organising workshops, parental education classes and linking up with local NGO’s they are slowly pushing the boundaries of tolerance within Lebanese society. Helping us as much as they have with both the documentary and research for the book is an obvious reflection of the value they place on the power of visibility. 

There are also individuals I have met for the book, and on a personal level, who aren’t involved in any form of activism, but who have displayed their courage by being open with their families and/or friends and who by doing so, in their own small way, educate this society about the presence of gay men and women.

So, what will it be, visibility or invisibility? Let the battle commence – it’s handbags at dawn.

You may think this is a valid argument, or perhaps just the musings of a frustrated blonde boy in Beirut. Either way, comments gratefully received.

A veneer of normality

16 July 2007 

You would think that given the current political turmoil engulfing this small nation, normal life would have stopped, that it would become immediately apparent to the eyes of a foreigner that the country is on notice for conflict. Granted, and it’s a big granted, there is the obvious military presence on the streets of Beirut, but other than that life seems to go on as normal. The police still inadequately direct the traffic, the boot boys still clean the shoes of the businessmen and the taxi drivers still mercilessly pursue me along the streets.

Two days ago I hailed a cab to the ABC shopping mall in predominantly Christian East Beirut. The annoyance of being stuck in Saturday afternoon traffic wasn’t helped by the driver casually informing me that although he is married, he also likes to have sex with girls of 16 and 17 (Beiruti taxi drivers probably being the filthiest on the planet). And the way he spoke was almost as if I’d asked! No, he just volunteered it as if I wanted to know . The thought of some balding, overweight and middle aged Lebanese guy slobbering over some poor 16-year-old was enough to make me puke. He didn’t get his $1 tip.

I arrived at the shopping mall in order to conduct an interview for the book. The place really is indistinguishable from any standard UK shopping complex; in fact I almost felt I was in Bluewater (God forbid). But thankfully there wasn’t a Burberry cap or ‘hoodie’ in sight, and no foul language as the children walked by – although I may have missed it considering I am yet to master the intricacies of the Arabic language (beyond “please”, “thank you” and counting to three, I tend to get a bit lost). 

The place was heaving with customers putting British consumers to shame – although, here they probably can at least afford to spend the money. The fact is that it didn’t feel in this shopping mall that the country is heading to any kind of political and civil crisis. On one level, at least. But scratch beneath the surface and things begin to look a whole lot different - on entry to the shopping mall you are now subjected to a thorough body and bag search, a result of the bomb attack there in May which resulted in the death and severe injury of a number of people.

This veneer of normality also became apparent during a recent excursion to the beach. As I lay on the sun lounger ogling at the sight of muscle-bound Lebanese men filling trunks, the size of which even Kate Moss would find difficult to breathe in, a message came over from the nearby tannoy (up until this point playing a mixture of Arab and Western music). The announcer cheerfully wished to inform us that the recent Nescafe competition (presumably for the man who can fit into the tightest trunks) had been suspended due to “the unfortunate situation in the country”, still Nescafe values all it’s customers, blah, blah … With all the frivolity at the beach, and men and women strutting around in their Italian designer label swim suits one could be forgiven for thinking that this was the French Riviera. However, just to look up and gaze at the site of a bombed out building in the near distance (the spot where Hariri was assassinated) told you the truth.

However, the real effects of the current political situation can be seen through the economic malaise in which this country finds itself. Normally at this time of year the city is teeming with tourists from the Gulf. And unlike me, these are tourists who really do spend their money. Although all the bars and cafes are still open, with their sometimes garish lights casting a neon glow over the darkened streets, travel around the city during the night and you will see the dire situation which last summer's Hizbullah-Israel conflict and the ongoing political paralysis has created - row upon row of bars and restaurants empty. It’s a harsh reality which surely fills the industrious and entrepreneurial Lebanese with despondency. 

This was made abundantly clear to me last Friday night. After having spent two days suffering from Delhi Belly, or should that be “Beirut Bottom”? (Yes, there is a double meaning for those in the know) a friend and I decided to go to the cinema. Expecting to be sharing the cinema with lots of loved-up young couples; I was pleasantly surprised to see that we had the entire cinema to ourselves. It may have been that the film was poor and my friend and I perhaps have incredibly bad taste, but I’m guessing it’s because many Lebanese are too afraid to go out at night for fear of bombs, creating a near ghost town after dark. 

Even interaction between Beirutis, both friends and colleagues, reflects the ongoing political tension. Having met up with a couple of friends a few nights ago, over a dinner of traditional Lebanese cuisine, I created a diplomatic faux-pas by bringing up the issue of domestic politics. My dinner companions, one Shia man, and a Sunni woman, have been friends for many years, studying at the same school and living in the same neighbourhood. They represent, I guess, the “enlightened generation” of Lebanese who although born during the civil war, reached adult life during a time of peace and relative prosperity (prior to Hariri’s assassination) and who it was hoped, would symbolise a break with the sectarian divisions of the past.

Although in every other way, they displayed an obvious deep friendship, when the issue of the current political situation was brought up the atmosphere changed. The issue of the Lebanese Army’s continuing bombardment of Sunni militants at the Nahr-al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp provoked a furious exchange - my Sunni friend arguing that it was right for the government to send in the tanks as this was an attempt to undermine the Siniora administration, while my Shia friend saw it as the action of a constitutionally illegitimate government. After that, there wasn’t really an appetite for dessert. 

So, it rests on this – will the economy be able to cope any longer with the current paralysis, and will society here be able to withstand a deepening of divisions? The political parties here are en route back from Paris after their weekend tête-à-tête with the French Foreign Minister. I suggest that upon their return they get together and give this place a good clean. It’s certainly in need of a polish. 

Anyone know what’s going on? 

11 July 2007

It’s been a month since the last explosion in Beirut which assassinated Anti-Syrian MP, Walid Eido, and killed and maimed many more. In light of the frequency of the recent attacks which began in May, in advance of the UN decision to try suspects connected with the assassination of former PM, Rafic Hariri, it would seem that the masterminds of carnage have now taken a well-earned summer break, perhaps topping up their tans, along with the fashionable Beirutis who are lining the beaches along the Corniche.

You would think that the current period of relative quiet would see a more relaxed atmosphere on the streets of the city. Not so. July has always been a difficult month for this country; as last year’s Hezbollah-Israel conflict demonstrates. Coupled with this, there’s the ongoing violence at the Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, the relentless political deadlock of the pro and anti-Syrian groups, the continued economic malaise resulting from the July 2006 war and concern about Lebanon’s role as the political football of the US and Iran, with many believing that the match has gone into extra time. Given this toxic mix, unsurprisingly there’s an expectation that something dreadful is about to happen, perhaps not unfounded, and the rumour-mill, probably more reliable than government or opposition statements, has revved into top gear. 

I’ve been here six days, and have already heard more theories about what will happen to Lebanon this summer than a bunch of academics debating the origins of the Universe. Believe me, I could wander down Hamra Street asking ten different people what they think is in store for Lebanon over the next few months, and I would get ten different answers. These range from the highly probable to the downright ridiculous. One of the most amusing came from the owner of an Internet café where I was trying to download a programme for my freelance work. Standing in front of a war mural of the Lebanese Forces that would have seemed more at home on the Belfast Shankill Road, than a suburban Beirut Internet café, the owner earnestly informed me that Lebanon is paying the price for a secret alliance between the US and the Syrian regime to ensure that the Lebanese Sunni population is kept in check. After having given me a lecture on the “Kissinger Doctrine” (they never taught me that at University) he argued that both Syria and the US are jointly funding Hezbollah in order to stop Sunni dominance of the country.

Hmmm . I wonder what Sheikh Nasrallah would think of that? Perhaps he should jump on a plane to Damascus, just for peace of mind. Other views range from a further Israeli assault on Hezbollah; unlikely given Olmerts domestic standing following last summer’s attempt, or that the Lebanese government itself will forcefully assert authority over Hezbollah, well, yes, if you’d like to spend the lazy hazy days of summer in a blood bath. 
Some of these theories may sound absurd, but the danger is that in a society where the government is weak and society is so polarised, a vacuum is created where fertile imaginations can become self-fulfilling. Even if nothing is about to happen in Lebanon this summer, if enough people THINK something will happen, then it’s quite conceivable that it will. Renewed sectarian violence, however isolated, would then be used by politicians to further their own populist positions, unleashing a chain of events over which nobody would have control. 

If anyone does know what is going to happen in Lebanon this summer, answers on a postcard please.