Ill-imagined Lebanon

“Disorder remained the fate of many nations that had been insufficiently or too fervidly imagined,” wrote Pankaj Mishra in The Age of Anger.

And so, disorder has remained our fate in the Levant. That we have been insufficiently or too fervidly imagined is not the only source of our ceaseless pain, to be sure. But we would be unfair and disrespectful to our colonizers if we didn’t recognize the significance and durability of their handiwork.

In Lebanon, in fact, all our ruling elites have been doing since the country’s inception in 1920 is fighting over a terribly ill-imagined wee 10,452 km2 of the earth. Instead of trying to make whole and well a people behaving as factions and a nation functioning in pieces, we have been very busy making ourselves into ever smaller insufficiently imagined fragments even as we feud to win the biggest chunk of the state.

Can We Not Get Along?

Comes now yet another proposal to federalize Lebanon. The group selling it call themselves Itihadiyoun, the Unionists. Tongue-in-cheek? Would that it were. In their telling, the idea is to cantonize us according to our “geo-cultural” identities. Nifty new term, “geo-culture.” In a country, whose length and width is three hours by car, we supposedly have geo-cultural identities best kept apart.

In the commercial the Unionists–who, it has to be said, are Christians in the main–have been running on Lebanese tv stations, there are more euphemisms on offer: “federalism organizes differentness, protects diversity, and maintains our dignity and particularities…It also puts limits on the strong which controls the weak.”

In other words: we, as Christians, don’t want to be part of a state with Hezbollah, the Shiite resistance movement and political powerhouse, and their community. And anyway, we, as Lebanese, have long been living in masked separateness, they argue, so we might as well formalize the partitions, organize them, and devolve state power to each.

The “geo-cultural” brew, I suppose, is designed to insulate the Unionists from accusations of sectarian separatism and to reassure, say, anti-Hezbollah Shiites and likeminded Sunnis that they would be welcome to stay in or move to the Christian canton. Besides, their federal Lebanon, will still have one flag, one army, and one central bank. Apparently, then, according to the Unionists, Lebanon’s only ailment is a messy “geo-culturalism” that just needs to be sorted out.

Four Cantons But One Army

This is the gist of it. For the purposes of this post, there is no need to share more details on the group and its project, because the devil is not in these but in the sad truth that the scheme reveals about our predicament: how terribly ill-imagined we Lebanese are in this wee 10,452 km2 of a country.

And how heart breaking it all is to so many of us. Or is it?


On Another Note

You’re going to thank me for this. I recently came upon a new podcast, Past, Present, Future, hosted by the London Review of Books’ David Runciman. He is brilliant and the podcast is no different. Kick back every Sunday and give its episodes all the time they deserve.

I am sharing in this post Runciman’s talk with Ian McEwan about Italo Calvino’s The Watcher (1963), the “Novel that Unravels Democracy.”

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