Living in a constant state of ‘pre-war’

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As a pre-war native of Lebanon, one knows their place at the bottom of the global and local food chains. We dress well, speak eloquently, remain ‘aware’ of a wide panorama of happenings to camouflage who we really are, and it works most of the time. We’re chic. Within our lowlife chicness, we climb over each other to make sure we’re at least above someone else. It makes for a great moral boost, trust me. Stepping on you elevates me a bit, knowing a foot is inevitably looking for my head. It’s a temporary reach we seem to need to accept, an improvised dance of our everyday lives, a social dabké of some sort that makes us feel normal. Don’t be afraid. We’re all in this together.

I call us ‘pre-war,’ because we always are. Post-war makes more historical sense, yet pre-war is who and what we are. It’s a term more true to our identity as a Lebanese people. All this stepping over each other’s heads will take us only to one formal war after the next. We know it. We’re afraid of it, but we never learn from it. Everything is too blinding. The bottom of the food chain is just too dark for someone in the 21st century, “so let’s go back to the 20th!” would be the most credible Lebanese response.

There is no rush anyway … 20th, 19th, take me anywhere. I’m sure that if we are ever to create a ‘National Research Center for Innovation,’ a time machine to throw us back into our Golden Age will be first on the list of urgently needed inventions. It will be a ‘full options’ machine, like all the pimped out rides disturbing the peace of this country. It will even have an option in its advanced settings that could also slow time down, making our uneventful lives appear normally paced. I bet a million liras that this time machine is actually what national security officials must be daydreaming of when they stop my car for their convoys to pass. I feel naïve to have blamed them all these years.

What was I thinking? Why would I mind? The war is coming anyway, and everything I’m working towards could only last as a relic in a CV in some embassy’s folder, so please, yes, let me just count dark green trucks holding bored men with rifles as they pass slowly in front of me or tinted glass four-wheelers housing others. Waiting is good, “Good things happen to those who wait.”

We’ve been waiting for quite some time. We must have been lied to! Good things happen to those who step on each other. Are you willing to do that? To live here, it’s the only way to go, it seems. This is a place where different scales of authority topple each other all the time. The most hurtful form, though, remains when the country officially steps on you via its loyal, testosterone-driven delegated officials. It’s hard to submit (and complete) a building permit, for example, without bribing someone – most probably overtly macho – along the line. These guys step on us, the same people who are supposedly building the country. In one of my projects, a government official refused to ‘see’ the road he was standing on next to a land I was attempting to get a permit for. Some hundred dollars would have cleared his glasses. He was a government official. I am a citizen. He wins. I wanted to shoot him, but I didn’t.

It’s a losing game. What am I trying to win anyway? It’s even hard to cross the checkpoint on my way back without feeling violated. It’s a very slow hundred or so meters that repeats itself on any given point on our growingly strategic streets. In such scenarios, one needs to surrender as submissively as possible. Your integrity depends on whether the soldier or equivalent armed official housed in that wooden hut painted red, white and green is a nice guy or not.

At that point, it doesn’t matter if the Lebanese army is a heroic institution or not. It boils down to the actions of one person to make everything crumble. It’s a very, very slow hundred meters embodying our self-image as Lebanese: emotionally destitute, scared hypocrites. I roll down my window, as he gets closer and closer. The music needs to be turned down. The mood, regardless of whatever is already happening, must slim down to neutral. I become, like all of us, in a psychological fetal position within the silence of an imaginary womb, cushioning my vital organs from what needs to step on me.

He’s ‘official’. I am a citizen. He wins. Every time I’m pulled over, it has either been my choice of clothes, my beard, my posture, my hair, my accent or something more mundane that allows an incompetent foot to step on me. He’s bored and prejudice, yet he still wins. We chat using whatever my ID can offer as pickup lines in conversations I did not ask for, “Yes, my family is in Tripoli;” “Oh, Raafat is my grandfather’s name;” “No, I don’t know Abdul-Majid Majzoub.” As I thank him for wasting my time, I curse this place. Pre-war Lebanon is a place where its people’s dignities depend on whims of incompetent others. As I drive forward, I drive from pre-war to war. It’s sad to fetishize a war just to be able to confront ‘official’ others, aliens that are supposedly my brothers and sisters, naked without the systems that give them leverage … based on nothing at all.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

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