The Sursock Gallery in Beirut features a video installation by Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian, in which he is seen destroying his childhood home in Damascus. Forced from home by war, this is a man who has lost everything. In a video set on infinite replay, Sarkissian is seen again and again striking his home. His is an act of utter futility, but as a survivor of war this is all that is left to him: to feign control and agency in a world where you have none.
Sarkissian’s work has resonance for the Lebanese, not only because Lebanon currently hosts over one million Syrian refugees, and not only because many Lebanese continue to be tormented by 15 years of brutal and brutalising civil war, but also because of the profound untenability of Lebanon itself.
For three weeks now, the Lebanese have believed themselves to be marked, yet again, for invasion. On 4 November, the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia, citing assassination fears and Hezbollah and Iran’s “unacceptable influence” over Lebanese politics. Those close to Hariri repeatedly stated that the Saudis forced his resignation and then detained him. The Lebanese government and parliament took three unexpected steps. First they united, second they demanded their prime minister be returned to his country and third they accused Saudi Arabia of holding him against his will.
Less public were the Lebanese government’s efforts to mount an international campaign to pressure the kingdom to release Hariri. Seemingly in response, Hariri returned on Tuesday to mark the nation’s independence day and, within a day of returning home, Hariri put his resignation on hold. This lends weight to the theory that Hariri was forced to resign.
Ordinarily, the question here should be: how can one nation take another nation’s leader hostage? But not for Lebanon, as the integrity of its political and territorial borders are routinely and profoundly violated. The Saudis have warned that Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese government is seen as an “act of war”, not against the Lebanese people but against the Saudi kingdom itself. Ordinarily, this is an unacceptable turn of logic, but the Saudis understand that logic and international law do not apply to the treatment of Lebanon.
In all demeaning and facile analysis of proxy wars being fought out between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunni and Shia forces, what is silenced is who Lebanon is and how its people are struggling with yet again the threat of aggression, violence and invasion by external forces.
The Lebanese, like their Syrian counterparts, have survived a litany of war horrors, but their war and the numerous border incursions is still something the Lebanese cannot bring themselves to speak about. I suspect in addition to the trauma inherent to war, there is also a sentiment among the Lebanese, best articulated by a sniper’s graffiti preserved on the wall inside the Beit Beirut museum, “I want to say the truth, my soul has become defiled.”
This is a country of soul-destroying poverty and ostentatious wealth, as if one is not an affront to the other. Lebanon is a nation in which international film festivals are held, citizens speak three languages sometimes in addition to their mother tongue, while children pull on your clothes begging for food.
Everywhere in Lebanon new buildings rise up from the rubble; internationally-designed apartment blocks in Beirut make Australian apartments look like sub-standard, communist brutalist architecture. This is a nation literally being rebuilt, but even as they rebuild, the Lebanese know that at any moment their nation could fall prey to war and invasion.
This nation of six million has welcomed 1.5 million Syrian refugees. These refugees come from a nation that was an occupying force in Lebanon for 29 years.
You can visit the grounds of the International Fair of Tripoli littered with architecturally complex buildings designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. One of them was converted by the Syrian army when it was an occupying force to serve two purposes: to hold Lebanese prisoners captured by the Syrians, and to execute them against its outer wall by firing squad.
This is a moral complexity that the Lebanese are able to hold. It makes our own position of detaining and turning back asylum seekers morally untenable.
While racism and orientalism has changed and adapted to modern sensibilities around race, what hasn’t changed is the rhetoric that all that occurs in the Middle East is a function of culture and religion. Everything from war to civil unrest to economic decline is reduced to religious hatred and tensions over identity. The Christian-Muslim, Shia–Sunni divide has come to replace any meaningful analysis of the way in which complex global and geopolitics have wreaked havoc on Lebanon and the region. Little analysis is brought to bear on the ways in which globalisation of neoliberal economic policies have devastated the economic livelihoods of many in the region.
Middle Eastern nations know that their security and prosperity is beholden to the politics of the US and Russia. Right now, both countries have differing visions of the Middle East, and with their different allies brought to the fore. Saudi Arabia’s current threats of violence are not so much a failure of politics as its calibration.
Hariri was widely understood to be Saudi’s man in Lebanon. There is broad consensus among Middle Eastern media that his failure to replace Iran’s “unacceptable” influence in Lebanon with their own earned him a place among the growing number of individuals currently being detained by the crown prince in his efforts to consolidate his power.
Hariri’s return to Lebanon changes only the optics of the situation; it is unlikely he is a free man. The kingdom has rendered his Saudi-based construction firm bankrupt and his family continue to reside in the country. Hariri’s return to government doesn’t mean he will play a key role in their efforts to control Lebanon. The Saudis may well find another Lebanese politician to compromise. As it is, the kingdom now appears to be on a much more aggressive footing.
Any war rhetoric coming out of Riyadh is alarming. In pursuit of its political objectives, the kingdom has been accused of transgressing both legal and moral limits.
At present, the death toll is mounting in Yemen from the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign against the Houthis. Its current blockade of the country has resulted in seven million people being placed at risk of famine and a devastating cholera outbreak should render the blockade illegal by the international community.
The consequences for Lebanon of Saudi’s wrath are potentially catastrophic. The Lebanese have long understood that they lack the military and political might to hold foreign powers at bay. This is why so many Lebanese politicians become beholden to foreign governments. But this is surely when international law should most stringently be applied. However problematic Iran or Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon is, it is for the Lebanese to resolve, not for Saudis to demand.
Joumanah El Matrah is the CEO of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights and a PhD student at Swinburne University.