Middle Eastern pundits often talk about Lebanese sectarianism through a top-down power lens, one that attributes the majority of our faults to the “divide and conquer” technique of our archaic politicians. Convince the people they need you, because the state can’t provide them with what you’re offering, and you’ll secure their devotion for three generations – or at least until one of their offspring marries someone foreign or finds a job in North America. Despite the romanticism and glorification typical of a New York Times description of the ‘miraculous’ coexistence between our 18 recognized sects, this top-down perspective holds true, albeit partially. There’s a mutually-beneficial relationship that exists between the *زعيم and his martyr: it’s one that that simultaneously destroys both the future of our state and the future of its youth.
I’ve always found it ironic that in a country like Lebanon, where parents compulsively scramble to secure the social and financial security of their kin, nobody addresses the entrapment of the sect – the do’s and don’ts that are laid out before any talk of menstruation or intercourse are even brought up. It’s the allegiance we never pledged, it’s the consent form we signed simply by inheriting the legacy of our surnames.
On Sunday, December 23rd, a demonstration that emulated the likes of France erupted on Hamra, a busy street parallel to the American University of Beirut and adjacent to the city center. The people dawned the latest Parisian trend–the neon yellow vest–and spoke into any microphone handed to them. The protestor was asked why they were marching, the passerby was asked why they weren’t. The former said that they must, the latter, whose responses were less uniform, replied that they didn’t have to because a) nothing would change regardless b) they were comfortable with their lives c) they didn’t want to risk anything.
Let’s dwell on C.
There is so much that I know that I cannot do when I’m back home. I couldn’t take to the streets during the demonstration because my mother didn’t want me to be caught on camera, protesting against the very government that she helped elect (of course, her other worries included my safety). The disagreement escalated into a fight because I couldn’t remember the last time she had denied me the opportunity to build the career that I’d always envisioned for myself. She retaliated by reminding me that she had her dues, and I had to respect them, whether I wanted to or not. For somebody that grew up in a family that never really addressed religion (other than when it was to remind my brother and I that we were hybrids of two opposing Islamic sects or to deter us from taking advantage of our parents’ “open-mindedness”), being denied the ability to report on the demonstration because of my mother’s allegiances was a slap in the face – a slap that I’m sure that many have gone yellow or orange or blue from.
I’ll get the chance to report somewhere else, but my friend Layla* is still looking for a job with an employer that her parents agree on; an employer that respects their dues, or, in other words one that “remembers who was there for them when nobody else was.” A British student’s job search typically filters the appropriate placement according to salary, location, and mobility, meanwhile, Lebanon’s sectarianism has refined searches according to political allegiance, thus eliminating entire areas and careers for the unemployed. Ironically, in a country where public debt hit $83bn this September, beggars can’t be choosers, and investing in a private sector that continues to be divided along religious and political lines won’t forgive that debt, either.
The perpetuation of allegiance neither begins nor ends at what line of work you go into or who you work for; our sectarianism runs so deep that even our operating networks, our banks, and our schools can be categorized according to religious and political stereotypes. This isn’t news. However, what we don’t talk about enough is the generational burden we are expected to carry for help we didn’t ask for–although we’re reminded enough that one favour or another is what elevated us into certain socioeconomic ranks. Just like you won’t go back on a friend that was there for you in your time of need, you don’t go back on your زعيم for providing your family with water, electricity, employment, or shelter. Maybe this is why nepotism runs so high in the country. It’s definitely why we’ve got a bad case of the brain drain: we have to run away from our home, our politics, and our expectations or otherwise the options open to our futures are severely limited. Very Bandersnatch.
*A زعيم translates into leader, but is typically used to describe the personal relationship and affection for one’s party leader
**Names were changed to protect anonymity.