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Story Publication logo February 11, 2009

Lebanon's Voices of the Future



Eamon Kircher-Allen, special to the Pulitzer Center

Eamon Kircher-Allen's contribution is the result of a partnership between the Pulitzer Center and the Columbia University course "Wired World," taught by Anya Schiffrin, Tom Glaisyer, and Jed Miller. Eamon is currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

I don't have any precise political affiliation," Zeid Hamdan told me. "But I can assure you that it has nothing to do with a battle of evil and good. There is not the evil Hezbollah on the one side and the good Christian and democratic parties on the other side. It's much more complex."

Hamdan, a 32-year-old guitarist and music producer who heads a musicians' collective in Beirut, is one of a handful of educated young people I interviewed for the podcast Lebanese Voices. Like others that I spoke to, Hamdan's view of Lebanon upsets the neat categories -- democracy, Islamism, pro- and anti-America -- that are the popular tools for explaining much of the Middle East in the United States.

The four voices in the podcast offer a window into the diversity of Lebanese society that flouts simplification. The interviewees have much in common. All grew up during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, though they did not necessarily spend their childhoods in the country. They are educated and successful. They have enough money and internaitonal connections that they could choose to live elsewhere, and join the 10 million Lebanese emigrants who are scattered all over the world. They share a pessimism about the possibility for peace in Lebanon's near future.

But for all their similarities, the political leanings of the four vary widely, and they are responding to the current situation in Lebanon -- which they see as a temporary stability -- in radically different ways. Hamdan plans a future in Lebanon and hopes his work will contribute to the tolerance that will make Lebanese society thrive. Basma Barakat, who works in the insurance industry, also plans to stay, even if strife remains the norm.
In contrast, Ziad Doueiri, the writer and director of the award-winning 1998 film West Bierut, which tells the story of a teenager living the civil war, is much more ambivalent about building a life in Lebanon. "I could leave tomorrow," says the deeply secular filmmaker, even though he loves the "warmth"of the country.

Then there is Mohammad Alabdallah, a Syrian human rights activist for whom Lebanon has been a home-in-exile for years. Alabdallah feels his life is in danger in Lebanon, and has recently been granted asylum in the United States. For him, the lack of security means there is no future in Lebanon.

A Critical Moment for Lebanon

The different relationships to Lebanon reflect the crossroads at which the country finds itself today.

There has been an uneasy calm since May, when warring Lebanese factions signed a power-sharing agreement in Doha, Qatar that ended the country's worst bout of violence since its 15-year civil war. The agreement managed to give the Hezbollah-led opposition a stake in government without alienating the largely Sunni and Christian anti-Syria bloc that had controlled government. The agreement also led to the election of Michel Sleiman as president, ending a political crisis that had left Lebanon without a head of state for six months.

Some observers see Doha as a turning point towards long-term peace. Others fear it is simply a stopgap, and that more fighting is in store as Lebanon's 18 official sects and tens of political parties jockey for position.

Recent history certainly indicates that stability will not come easily. Bouts of violence have plagued the country since 2005, when a massive car bomb killed Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister and a Lebanese business giant. There have been a rash of assassinations of politicans and journalists since then. In almost every case, the perpetrators remain unknown.

The years since those assassinations have been a rollercoaster for Lebanon's population of 4 million. A mini-civil war in May killed 60. In 2007, clashes between the Lebanese army and the Sunni extremist group Fatah al-Islam killed nearly 500 people. In 2006, 33 days of Israeli bombing -- in response to Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers -- killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese.

To lead them out of this wilderness of violence, Lebanese find themselves relying on politicians who -- on each end of the political spectrum -- were warlords or warlords' beneficiaries in the civil war. That makes it hard for young Lebanese like those I interviewed to know who to look up to.

"People know that, in the end, these politicians who are breeding sectarianism are really friends, and dining at each other's tables," Barakat says.

As Lebanon tries for a rebirth, the ambivalence, hopes and fears of young, educated Lebanese like Barakat could be deciding factors in success.

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