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Writing’s a pleasure. But it isn’t always easy—not for me, at least.

It’s downright vexing to be a writer. (Again, perhaps that’s just me.) Creativity drains. Energy runs low. Originality and truth struggle in the mind. A host of commitments interfere. Distractions—women, wine, and especially women armed with wine—do too.

And then there’s risk. All of us have ideas, opinions, or analyses. Writers share those, and their own secrets, with the world. Rarely secure in their own labor, they’ll face the disapproval, dissent, and scorn of others. Unsettling.

Many toil in relative obscurity. (Many of you, for instance, don’t know or know of me—and probably couldn’t care less. Anyway, you’re the lucky ones.) These writers relish experiment, words, and sparring (intellectually, of course).

Others also receive creative recognition and financial gain. The lucky become portals to the world, enjoying its charms and sharing their experiences with readers intimate and unknown.

A precious few risk much more: Life. Their voice invites praise. Their self-assurance attracts and alienates. And the weight of their words draws harm.

Gebran Tueni comes to mind.

The son of Ghassan Tueni, a titan of pre-war Lebanon, the younger Tueni inherited the family business in the early 1990s. (The indefatigable Ghassan died earlier this year, aged 86.) While others in a similar position inherited bakeries, law firms, and sovereign states, Tueni took over An-Nahar, a popular and liberal Arab-language daily based in Beirut. Generally unburdened by political responsibility, Tueni wrote brazenly about the illegal and unjust Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Behind the scenes and in public, Tueni was active in the Cedar Revolution that led to Syria’s withdrawal in 2005. On December 12 of that year, Gebran ignored the usual warnings and returned to Beirut from Paris, where he’d been in temporary, self-imposed exile. He never made it home.

Like many Lebanese of a certain view, Tueni died in a car-bomb explosion. At the time, half of Lebanon was high on the Cedar Revolution and the other half was cowering in its shadow. The critics were quiet.

In the years since, however, vultures have nipped at Tueni… His views weren’t shared by everyone. Sometimes rabid, he could lose a perfectly valid point in the excess of his expression. Though prestigious, his newspaper remains a family heirloom. And he ignored the warnings.

Irrelevant.

By historical accident, Christopher Hitchens—who died a year ago—also comes to mind now. His life a spectacle, Hitchens lived spectacularly. An atheist, rascal, and wordsmith, he provoked and grated—but was fun about it.

Hitchens had his taste of Lebanon in 2009, when he visited the country to speak at the American University of Beirut (AUB). While in Beirut, he bantered, drank, bought shoes, and took two beatings: One was figurative and appropriate; the other was literal and ultimately undeserved.

AUB’s crowd roughed him up first. Well, he roughed himself up. While fielding a question, Hitchens identified Walid Jumblatt—neo-feudal chief of Lebanon’s Druze and head of a centuries-old political dynasty—as one of the Middle East’s “true revolutionaries.” (Jumblatt does wear jeans, and did so even before the Soviet collapse.) He drew the appropriate scorn, effectively admitted he was wrong, and moved on.

Hitchens later suffered worse. Walking down Hamra Street, a bustling place that had by then recovered some of its old cosmopolitanism, he ran into the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Once a sophisticated political movement, the SSNP now merely consists of garden-variety thugs masquerading as members of a sophisticated political movement.

Hitchens spotted one of the many SSNP signs that dotted—and, last I checked, still dot—the area, protected by party partisans and allies embedded in Hamra since their assault on Beirut in 2008. Apparently, Hitchens didn’t care for the party’s insignia: the zubaiyaa. (The zubaiyaa’s basically a spinning swastika. However, party intellectuals claim it invokes the cross and crescent of Lebanon’s spiritual families. Never mind the party’s name!)

His sensibilities offended, Hitchens began defacing the sign. He’d completed the “C of a well-known epithet” before SSNP youths assaulted him—slapping, scratching, punching, and kicking him—and nearly dragged him away for questioning in broad daylight. Hitchens survived, but their intent was clear.

In a superficial way, those who take risks deserve their fate. Tueni probably should have stayed in Paris. He should have argued nicely. Hitchens should have researched Lebanon better before speaking at AUB. And he was arrogant—and plain stupid—to deface an SSNP sign in a neighborhood dominated by its thugs. Who could question that self-contained logic?

Nonsense.

At a deeper level, the surrounding environment—in Lebanon, a pervasive climate of permissive injustice that engenders and allows violent responses to expression—matters most. Writers and other dissidents aren’t the problem. Those who fight thoughts with bullets, confront words with bombs, and reward dissent with death are.

At AUB, Hitchens was in a public forum where he had agreed to speak and defend his convictions. (He later admitted, in a way, that he was fair game.) Tueni routinely engaged his counterparts on television screens, in backrooms, and in public squares. He won some rounds; he lost others.

By contrast, the thugs that killed Tueni and assaulted Hitchens used violence to gain silence. Tueni died because he, perhaps haughtily, said Lebanon wasn’t theirs. Hitchens was mugged because he, perhaps unknowingly, said Hamra wasn’t theirs.

Without an intimate knowledge of the Levant to burden him with baggage, Hitchens put it best: Those in Lebanon “who inconvenience Syria by their criticisms are bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view.”

Not much has changed since he wrote those words. Not yet, at least… In Lebanon, where the anthem celebrates the nation’s “sword and pen” as the “envy of the ages,” the sword all too often silences the pen.

Felix Baumgartner reminded us about the wonder of space. He jumped; we dreamed.

Growing up near Florida’s Space Coast, with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center a short drive away, I always thought space was my backyard. Each shuttle launch was magical and, yet, routine: a serene countdown, a powerful blast, an arc of light and smoke, a deft turn, a tricky release—mankind in unfettered ascent.

As we watched shuttle launches (and landings), my father would tell me about science and space; I was curious, and he was glad to dodge incessant questions about the sordid Middle East. “Here we are, in America, reaching for the stars,” he’d rant, with little provocation. “And our people are killing each other over a slice of land smaller than Connecticut.” Once, when the two conversations dovetailed, my father told me that Lebanon had a space program: “Before the war, some professors and students developed the Arz [Cedar] rocket, which could travel as far as Cyprus.”

My mind exploded with adolescent musings:

Was my Zahlawi father exaggerating? Was this space program just a bunch of drunks armed with bottle rockets?

How did Lebanon have a space program? I mean, we don’t even have a metro. And if we built a metro, nobody would ride the damn thing.

Why do we name everything “Cedar?Were we burning cedar planks to fuel these missiles? Seriously.

Does the space program prove we’re Phoenician? That spacefaring impulse must have emerged from a latent seafaring gene unique to the Eastern Mediterranean. Wait, the project’s godfather was Armenian? Well, he’s still not Arab! And why does this matter again? Whatever.

Why put Cyprus within missile range? Their hummus isn’t that good. Same goes for Israel, Syria, and—oh, that must be why the program fell apart.

In truth, the Lebanese “space program” was a fascinating story. In 1960, professor Manoug Manougian and students at Haigazian University began experimenting with rockets and rocket fuel. By the mid-1960s, the “Lebanese Rocket Society” had developed a relatively sophisticated missile program. The Arz 4 missile, for instance, reached an altitude of 145 kilometers (fellow geeks, that’s in the “thermosphere,” where the International Space Station orbits).

Of course, a missile program in the Middle East—at the height of the Cold War, no less—attracted foreign attention. The usual intrigue followed: “The” Israelis, Syrians, Egyptians, Americans, and Soviets each monitored the program and involved themselves to various degrees. The scientists eventually abandoned the project, though it’s unclear whether foreign pressure or resource constraints drove that decision.

It’s tough to be cynical about the Lebanese Rocket Society. The project epitomized a Lebanese Myth, that rare narrative shared by all communities: During its gilded age, Lebanon was a place to be—but the world could not let it be.

Few are under the illusion that pre-war Lebanon was free from corruption, elitism, sectarianism, emigration, economic imbalance, or foreign intervention. But many believe that the Lebanese—and, more importantly, Lebanon—once had a place under the sun. For all its faults, Lebanon provided space for aspiration; in turn, the Lebanese aspired for Lebanon. However, foreign interests and Lebanese acquiescence derailed the country, just as they derailed the Lebanese Rocket Society. The dream was lost.

Today, while many Lebanese excel around the world, they’re hard-pressed to aspire collectively. Decades of war exacerbated the natural consequences of large-scale emigration, driving entrepreneurs and enterprises abroad; decades of occupation drove nationalism and liberalism underground; and decades of corruption and incompetence kept Lebanon suspended.

Since then, national dreams have been more modest: stability, a representative parliament, an opera house, and—maybe, just maybe—a functioning power grid. And, so, their symbols are more modest too: a World Cup berth, an American beauty queen, and—maybe, just maybe—a plate of hummus.

Returning to Beirut isn’t easy.

Many people of Lebanese origin split their time between Beirut and other towns (anywhere you can find a Lacoste store). Folks in my cohort - single, male, Lebanese twenty-somethings with some disposable income, dual-residency, and a penchant for disregarding the old adage that “nothing good happens after 2:00 a.m.” – face a peculiar challenge: Adaptation.

The truth is, each city has a pulse, a preferred conversational approach, ritualized itineraries, and certain quirks. A young man must adapt to the city’s wants without losing sight of what sets him apart. (As Thomas Jefferson said: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand firm like a rock.”)

And we pray write…

The Flow: A Basic Introduction to the Concept of Positive Energy

Hopping between two cities is a bit more problematic than jet-setting. A jet-setter is in vacation mode for most of his life, shedding his inhibitions, reveling in anonymity, playing the tourist card, and skipping town just before “consequences” begin to materialize.

Meanwhile, dual residents must deal with all the cautions of home while enjoying only some of its comforts. Cautions: That pretty girl by the bar? She could know your sister – or worse, your ex-girlfriend. That random “Tuesday night” walking down your side of the street? She’s likely gone through a stable of your friends. That sweet innocent librarian type who won’t let you hold hands in public? One word: Chalet.

Comfort is trickier. When should we head out? Where should we start the night? Who do I know that can get me past security in my scuffed shell-toe sneakers? And how should I manage a conversation? By the time a man rediscovers “the flow,” it’s time to head back to the other city.

“The flow,” by the way, is an inner serenity arising from the knowledge that you’ve mastered a city’s quirks. A man who’s settled into a flow begins exuding what appears as confidence. That flow, or lack thereof, interacts with external elements – the city’s habits or patterns – to shape the night.

You may find yourself effortlessly engaging in banter that is somehow both casual and meaningful. You may suddenly find ladies smiling at your every gesture and laughing at jokes you know aren’t funny. Perhaps you’re telling ladies exactly what you’d like to do to them – consequences be damned – and discovering that they’re happy to oblige. That’s flow.

(Note: friends have suggested “groove,” “mojo,” “vibe,” “routine,” “game,” “aura,” “mystique,” and “interoperability.” Indeed.)

Conversely, if you find yourself awkwardly standing around, fiddling with your wrinkled shirt, interjecting at the wrong times, and mechanically plodding through every conversation, then you’d better go home. (We’ve all been there. Much like Lebanon’s political system, I spent about two years in a suspended state of dysfunction.) Not only are you not succeeding, but you risk thwarting your friends. The flow is a sensitive, nuanced energy. Don’t be selfish. Walk away.

Back to the Basics: Six Steps to Rediscovering the Game in Beirut

To play the game in Beirut, you must prepare for the PAS MAL test, a popular metric based on the following six issues: Profession, Access, Sema’a (Reputation), Mobility, Ambition, and Location. (Full disclosure: I spent far too much time figuring out the ‘S.’)

Muscle past the inevitable phalanx of fist-pumping male “friends,” most of whom couldn’t date her three years ago and now hover around to complicate your life. Talk to the female friends. They hold the key to her castle. (Beware. Usually, a woman will have two friends – or, two types of friends – that could undermine the whole enterprise. One will be jealous and judgmental. The other will be a flirty distraction.)

Once you’ve managed to earn some unstructured time with her, dispense with the intricate introductory routine – name, school, common friends, sectarian affiliation – and enter the labyrinth of her mind. Success: Having listened and talked to you for about twelve minutes, she gives you the “pas mal, pas mal” look. Then, and only then, order drinks.

Profession: Shoo btishtighel?

Be prepared to describe your job in fifty words or less. For instance: “I’m a doctor. [PAUSE, let it register.] I considered neurosurgery and pediatrics, but now I’m interested in plastic surgery.”

Dr. Anonymous accomplishes three things with that statement. First, by concisely describing his job, the good doctor demonstrates command of self. It’s natural to question, perhaps constantly question, your own path. But she doesn’t need to hear it all on the first night; it’s not her fault.

Second, in a subtle manner, the doctor’s checking the right boxes. By indicating that he could have been a neurosurgeon, the doctor is letting people know just how smart he is. By noting his interest in pediatrics, the doctor has endeared himself by showing how much he loves kids. (YAY, shoo cute!) And as a potential plastic surgeon, he’s offering a service in high demand – after all, he’s in Beirut.

Third, by being brief, he’s giving her the chance to ask more questions, continue talking about herself, or begin ignoring him in a ploy to make him want her more. In any of these scenarios, the doctor can expend less energy on initiating conversation and spend more time understanding her.

If you’re not a doctor, engineer, or lawyer, some creative resume-building will help. If you’re a sales executive at a hotel, try “account manager specializing in hospitality and leisure.” If you’re a bartender, try “silent partner and mixologist.” If you’re a spy, try “journalist,” “political consultant,” or “development advisor.”

Speak the truth, with some seasoning.

Access: Yi, Ma’ak Passpooooort?

The term “access,” to be brief, is a euphemism for “passport(s)” and shorthand for “ability to get me the fuck out of here.” From a practical standpoint, of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking stability or prosperity. But women are increasingly blunt about their desire for this sort of access – almost as blunt as the men they deplore for their open pursuit of sex intimacy.

Fellas, the next time you meet a girl at a bar, just brandish your passport(s) – Lebanese, French, Canadian, American, or some combination thereof – and ask: “How you like me now?” If she slaps you, she’s a genuine girl. If she starts shamelessly pursuing you, just enjoy an “intimate” night.

Reputation: Who’s Your Daddy?

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, family ties matter. Lebanese men, having spent their twenties trying to plow through every girl in sight, typically want a girl from “a good family” or “good home.” The ladies simply want a guy who’s “connected.” On balance, that’s fair.

Mobility: Shoo Ma’ak Siyyara?

Like a scene from Swingers, young ladies may ask you whether you have a car. They’ll also ask you what type of car you drive. A friend of mine, having traded in his BMW X5 for a Seat Ibiza, was stunned when a date told him “she wished he had a bigger car.” (The way I see it? At least she wasn’t complaining about the size of his other “attributes.”)

Just be honest. You probably can’t buy a new car on the spot, but you’ll be able to gauge what type of girl she is. Information matters.

Ambition: What’s Your Five-Year Plan?

I’ll never forget the day a girl asked me what my five-year plan was. Initially, it seemed like a cute conversational foray on a typically tentative second date. However, she kept pressing for an answer, smugly informing me that men who stayed in Lebanon were simply “boring,” “unintelligent,” and “unambitious.” She didn’t want to date guys who “stuck around.”

She was looking for a ticket out of Beirut. And I was the fucking ticket.

To be fair to her, she was probably frustrated and a bit jaded. If men find it difficult to parachute into a city and connect with people, women undoubtedly feel trapped by what they see as the playground antics of dual-residents and the collective apathy of those who remain.

But this girl had no credibility. Here’s her plan (seriously): Spend days tanning at Lazy B. Spend nights drinking a hole in daddy’s wallet. Spend every waking hour prowling for a man who’ll buy her illicitly-gotten trinkets for the next fifty years.

I explained what I do for a living. Entering the semi-sarcastic phase that precedes rage, I also explained that “my plan” was to remain open to the “signals the world was sending me.” The subsequent events were marked by angry versions of a popular activity. And that was that.

(The general advice? Determine the nature of her inquiry on a case-by-case basis and respond accordingly.)

Location: Where do you live?

Don’t tell her you live in Beirut.

You’re just visiting, perhaps for thirty years or until your prospective kids “find their roots” and graduate from college. You’re a consultant in Abu Dhabi who visits twice a week. You’re a restauranteur in Johannesburg who’s bringing a Nando’s-Mhanna fusion concept to the Mediterranean. You’re a pilot for Etihad. You’re a journalist from Cleveland on a temporary assignment (but you’ve lived here for six years). You work for the U.N. (no way to actually verify that, so have at it).

If she asks whether you’d like to return to Beirut “for good,” be honest. If you’re not sure, be vague. (Don’t lie. There’s no telling what she thinks.) As discussed, many women would love nothing more than a ticket out of town. On the other hand, many others are charmingly hell-bent on raising their kids in a city that’s a New York Times piece waiting to happen. (Check the World page during war. Check the Travel section during peace.)

Anyway, the truth is none of us live in Beirut. Beirut lives in us.

(In the winter of 2010, deep within the confines of Gelman Library at The George Washington University, I was studying late into the night to make up for yet another four-month stint of procrastination – I believe the kids call these things “semesters.” Never mind that I was a law student and Gelman was undergraduate turf. Never mind that I was shamelessly listening to Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home.” And never mind that all these GW ladies were out in their patented (Or is it trademarked? Or copyrighted? Damn, a lawyer should know this.) “Sugar Swirl”-stamped pants.

That night, a piece of reading got me to writing.

You know how it goes… International human rights law leads to tangential reading; tangential reading brings you the case of South Africa; the case of South Africa, while compelling, reminds you how much you love Rugby League (not Union, you twats!); thoughts of League lead you to watch Youtube clips of Aussies, Saffers, and Lebos clubbing each other; clips of great hits and brawls remind you that you’re cooped up in a Burgundyesque “glass cage of emotion.” Then, suddenly, you’re watching Invictus for the millionth time! Of course, Invictus closes the circle by reminding you that neither Morgan Freeman nor apartheid is a joke and that you probably should start reading again.

And that’s when I wrote “Confessions for a New Lebanon,” a list of twenty-five truths to commemorate my twenty-fifth birthday. Now a dusty ol’ twenty-six, I’ve decided to add a confession a year until I croak. Or until I develop carpel tunnel syndrome. Whichever comes first, right? Anyways, with a few minor edits, I’ve kept the original confessions and just tacked one to the bottom. Humor aside, I wish more folks would do this – even in laughter, you’ll find out quite a bit about yourself when you write shit down.

Yalla, hope you enjoy!)

——————————-

A central part of post-apartheid South Africa’s journey in from the wilderness involved the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a non-judicial body empowered to bear witness to and remedy the crimes of the preceding era. Because of Lebanon’s blanket amnesty measures, which have held strong despite less-than-equitable implementation, such an open process of reconciliation seems doubtful.

Perhaps that’s for the best, considering that more than twenty years have passed since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. But in the interest of transparency, and as a step towards a better tomorrow, it might be useful if all the Lebanese folks offered up a list of confessions:

Here’s my list (U.S. law enforcement officials, I only note that all these confessions relate to sentiments, actions, and omissions that occurred in the Republic of Lebanon.):

  1. I did not take a driving test to obtain my Lebanese license;
  2. I have driven dangerously – too fast, too drunk, too angry – and have allowed others to do the same;
  3. I have (probably) insulted you in traffic;
  4. I have repeatedly taken the Lord’s name in vain, and have also:
    • Taken your Lord’s name in vain;
    • Cursed your “family;”
    • Cursed your “village;”
    • Cursed “the road that leads to your village;”
    • Cursed “your ancestors;”
    • Cursed “your harem;”
    • Cursed “the ‘person’ who gave you your driver’s license;”
    • And so on and so forth (I’m from Zahle, give me a break);
  5. I voted blank during all student elections, except for one, at the American University of Beirut:
    • (Note 1: I still resent some of my friends’ blatant political jockeying.);
    • (Note 2: To the attractive young lady of my sophomore year, your smiles and sass did not actually convince me to vote for anyone. I did appreciate the attention, however, and thank you for that. Stay classy.);
  6. I occasionally enjoy electronic music (it took about 10 years in Beirut, but it’s happened);
  7. I have not visited my family as often as I should;
  8. I believe Hizbullah should be disarmed, and do not share its vision for Lebanon;
  9. I believe the Future Movement has botched things up time and again, and must learn to accept criticism of the late former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his son, current Prime Minister Saad Hariri;
  10. I believe Walid Jumblatt is a man of many regrets, but probably does not regret enough;
  11. I believe Lebanon’s various Christian parties are stuck in the past, have no present, and fear the future;
  12. I do not believe money should be spent on a “National Dialogue” that is nothing but a glorified sham;
  13. I do not believe that secularism is a cure for Lebanon, but I’m not sure there is one;
  14. I would kill to defend my country, village, family, and friends, but sometimes question whether I am willing to die;
  15. Women often annoy me;
  16. I fail to understand how Lebanese men wish to enjoy their twenties, but insist on marrying virgins;
  17. I unabashedly support the hummus war between Lebanon and Israel (food fights never killed anyone. That said, I think we can all agree that Lebanese hummus is better!);
  18. I do not like baba ghannoush and think falafel are overrated;
  19. I have never partied at BO18 (see Confession #7);
  20. I have judged Francophone Lebanese based on the mere hint of their voice;
  21. I never focused in French class, but still list French as a language on my resume;
  22. I immersed myself in Arabic by listening to Melhem Barakat, my father’s Zahle twang, and my mother’s refined Beiruti accent, all of which explains my failure to communicate with 99.7% of the general public (98.6%? 89.7%? What’s the Tyrant Standard Vote these days?);
  23. I love watching Don’t Mess With the Zohan.;
  24. I do not like being called an “Arab,” but I do not know how to navigate, sail a boat, write without vowels, work with glass, or dye cloth purple. As such, “Phoenician” doesn’t exactly fit either. If you insist on a label, “Lebanese” will do just fine. Fill in the blanks as you see fit;
  25. I wonder, sometimes, whether Lebanon is worth the pain;
  26. I openly and notoriously drank a beer in Sidon, Lebanon, last year.

Put a pen to paper. I’m sure your list will have a lot in common with this one, but if not… “You have your Lebanon, and I have mine.”

 

About a month ago, Christopher Hitchens, one of the great English-language essayists of our time, passed away. In the time since that unfortunate loss, a flood of obituaries has honored the man. According to the standard accounts, Hitchens was a writer, a rascal, and advocate possessing a remarkable talent for provoking and alienating others – even when he was right.

Hitchens had the unique opportunity (and responsibility) of providing people with a glimpse of the world. Writing for a spate of widely read publications, he tackled everything from “Why Women Aren’t Funny” to “The Case for Humanitarian Intervention,” controversially urging the latter before and during the American war in Iraq.

And his prose – erudite, elegant, and evocative – was remarkable. Simply put, the man could write.

Even so, Hitchens had two glaring weaknesses. First, like many intelligent people, Hitchens was too confident in his opinions. As a consequence, he was susceptible to cloaking ideological presumptions in the garb of observational commentary – a common charge, but true nonetheless. Second, though this may have been inevitable given the breadth and pace of his work, Hitchens was often wrong about the facts. So while he was a powerful observer, Hitchens could get in his own way.

Take the lesson of Lebanon, where Hitchens traveled in 2009.

Sponsored by a Lebanese pro-democracy foundation, Hitchens visited the tumultuous country to give a talk at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Like many others who’ve set foot in Lebanon, Hitchens took a beating (figuratively and literally).

AUB is one of the more prestigious universities in the Middle East, with a rich intellectual history including on-campus crises surrounding a late-19th century debate on Darwinism and a mid-20th century controversy over Arab nationalism and Westernization in Lebanon. In short, despite its dysfunctional administration, AUB has been a hotbed for debate and activism since its inception in 1866.

Perhaps unawares, Hitchens expected a friendly reception on campus, with the polite and deferential questions one might hear at a policy event in Washington, DC. The crowd roughed him up; he roughed himself up, really. Most disastrously, while fielding questions after his talk, Hitchens identified Walid Jumblatt as one of the Middle East’s “true revolutionaries.” Of course, as Hitchens knew perfectly well, Jumblatt was and is the neo-feudal leader of the Druze community and head of a centuries-old political household in the Levant.

Hitchens would later suffer worse at the hands of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a bunch of garden-variety thugs masquerading as members of a sophisticated political movement. Walking down Hamra, a bustling street that once was one of the more cosmopolitan places in the Arab world, Hitchens spotted one of the many SSNP flags and signs that have hung over the area, protected by embedded party partisans, since 2008.

As Hitchens details in “The Swastika and the Cedar,” the zubaiyaa – the SSNP insignia that resembles a spinning swastika, but which party intellectuals claim invokes the cross and crescent of Lebanon’s spiritual families – offended his sensibilities. He began defacing the sign, barely getting through the “C of a well-known epithet” before SSNP youths assaulted him and nearly dragged him away for questioning in broad daylight.

On the details, Hitchens deserved every beating he took. He was profoundly mistaken in equating Jumblatt, a survivalist par excellence, with the Lebanese activists at the heart of the Cedar Revolution or with revolutionaries that have emerged during the Arab Spring. And it was foolish and arrogant – just plain stupid – to deface an SSNP sign in a neighborhood dominated by its thugs.

At a deeper level, however, people’s response to Hitchens matters more. At AUB, Hitchens took an academic beating in a public forum where he had agreed to air his views and defend his convictions. In his writing, he practically admitted that he was fair game. In Hamra, by contrast, members of a political party (or gang) almost beat him to a pulp on a public street – a main thoroughfare, in truth – which they regard as their private playground.

The Hamra incident was symptomatic of a problem that Hitchens recognized, though he expressed it poorly. Despite lacking an intimate knowledge of the Levant, or perhaps because he was not burdened with such baggage, Hitchens saw clearly that “those [in Lebanon] who inconvenience Syria by their criticisms are bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view.”

Not much has changed since he wrote those words – not yet, at least. In fact, the scope of dissent and countervailing violence has only broadened.

At home, where nearly a year of dissent has not swayed the entrenched elite, and in Lebanon, which the Assad regime still regards as a runaway coastal province, a Levantine clique of cabals fights thoughts with bullets, confronts words with bombs, and rewards dissent with death. Most troublingly, sandwiched between corrupt regimes and dynamic Islamists, ostensible Arab liberals – including Lebanon’s March 14 coalition – are increasingly compelled to accept the logic of violence.

Though he was often wrong and though he deployed an alienating sort of polemical fury, Hitchens died in his bed of illness, perhaps a product of his own excesses. He did not, thus, die at the hands of those he disagreed with.

It was a spectacular life and a quiet death. The converse awaits Lebanese and other regional public figures, as they live in fearful silence and self-censorship or die from violent acts engendered by disagreement. Until intellectuals, activists, and politicians are willing and able to live or die on their own terms, the Middle East – especially the perpetually unstable Levant – will not see a better tomorrow.

As if the advice and probing questions of “Guest” weren’t enough, I’ve had to sift through hours of tape to bring you the best of “Biggie’s” take on the region. While that’s not a problem from an entertainment standpoint, it’s a little frustrating to listen to successive barbs directed towards you in what amounts to a verbal spanking. (In the Middle East, or at least in my family, arguing is a lot like Gladiator. It doesn’t matter who’s right; what matters is that you “win the crowd!”)

Biggie has that stereotypically clear view of politics you might find in engineers, particularly any of Middle Eastern descent who’ve spent considerable time in the West. Take it as a rule of thumb, these guys are the backbone of the hard-line parties and of the hard-line factions within all political movements in the region.

In Biggie’s world-view, “politicians are crooks, citizens are fools, and regional and international players are conniving self-interested pricks. They’re all bastards.” And that’s that. Not that he’s wrong, or anything, but Biggie’s Christmas outlook is something like: ”Nuance Don’t Live Here No Mo!” This year, he was firing on all cylinders. (Look, a vague engineering reference!) In a series of blistering, beautiful rants, Biggie reminded us all just what it means to be a Zahlewi.

Here’s a (relatively) clean version:

“The problem in Lebanon is that nobody went all the way. We keep repeating the same mistakes: we fight a little bit, but are too scared to take the big risk; we make amends a little bit, but are too scared to trust each other fully. Make war, not feuds. Otherwise, just stay at home and let us live in peace.”

(Instantly, Biggie galvanized a debate on the history of political violence in Lebanon. The consensus, forged by Biggie’s sheer determination, was that the Lebanese have a tendency to settle for half-measures, even during apparently catastrophic wars. It’s a good point, though it’s obviously difficult to argue that the answer is more violence. Think of it as the Levantine version of the Powell Doctrine.)

“Forget Syria. You know Steve Jobs was Syrian. Would he have turned out the same had he not been given up for adoption? [Listens.] OK, fine, his family was relatively successful. Answer this: How many others like Steve Jobs might there have been had the place not been some oppressive shit hole?”

(Quietly agreeing with the observation, at least in essence.)

“And where do you think most folks here [the Middle East] send there kids to school, if they can afford it or otherwise get the chance? IRAN? SYRIA? No. They’re all in France, Canada, Australia, and – yes, oh, yes – the U.S. of A. I’m not saying those countries are perfect, but if we’re all honest it’s not even a close call as to where they’d want to be. So forgive me if I don’t buy this rejectionist shit!”

(Biggie’s made this same point, which I also believe to be valid, for years. Each year, he gets more colorful and animated. I can’t wait for 2015.)

“Who gives a shit about Hizbullah? Really. They’re like a rash that won’t go away.”

(A few people do care, though that’s probably what set Biggie off to begin with!)

“Lebanon’s a joke. Everybody here’s happy to have some politician stroke them. They’ll never learn…. What? No, ya Tannous, I don’t know who George Carlin is.”

(I spend the next ten minutes extolling Carlin’s virtues.)

“I’m suuuure he’s funny, but how does that help us here? Anyways…”

(At this point, I’m dejected. You can hear the silence of defeat on tape.)

“The Arab Spring? Now that’s funny. Do you think Qaddafi, Mubarak, and Asad – the whole lot of ‘em – came from Mars or something? We’re going to get the same bunch of folks with a new coat of paint to cover up the shit we’ve been smelling for decades. And when the oil runs out, the West will probably nuke this piece of shit region.”

(Still dejected. Merry Christmas. Truly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.)

“All I’m saying is that Israel will not stand by and let Iran get the bomb. Does that mean Israel can prevent the Iranians from getting it? I don’t know. But it won’t be for lack of trying… The Israelis can’t but view this as existential. How long do you expect them to wait? It’s time to finish the job.”

(I can’t make up my mind. Part of me believes that Western, particularly American, pressure on Israel will keep things in check for the foreseeable future. While it’s true that Iran probably can’t block oil shipments for more than a few days, if at all, there’s no telling how the markets will react. Although the capacity to supply oil hasn’t been a problem for some time, global supply is – or is perceived to be – precarious. Alongside the sustained dollar devaluation and growing Asian energy demands, security premiums due to Middle East instability have been responsible for the past decade’s high prices. On the other hand, part of me agrees with Biggie. Sometimes, it’s just about survival. What will the Israelis do?)

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more later this week.

Year after year, “Guest” has entertained the family with his worldly take on politics and culture. He’s an experienced traveler who’s done business in all kinds of places.

In our conversations, Guest has developed a new international relations discipline that I’ll call “Realist Conservative Conspiratory Casual (RC3).” For the most part, his speculations are merely amusing, but he tends to predict Saudi foreign policy machinations in Lebanon rather well.

Perhaps that’s because RC3 is tailor-made for Beirut’s politics, where Gulfis substitute money for policies and the Lebanese substitute money for convictions. Anyways, here’s the best of Guest for Christmas 2011:

“Go back to America… Or Europe. Hell, go to Brazil! There’s growth potential there. Lebanon’s just a big resort; I really don’t understand how anyone would want to live here before he’s 50.”

(Same as usual, except last year “Vietnam” had growth potential.)

“The Christians here keep pussyfooting around. I remember when [former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader] Yasser Arafat first popped up on the scene here, wearing that damn kaffiyeh. Even Palestinians generally didn’t wear that thing at the time… At this rate, we’ll all be wearing Bedouin garb within a decade!”

(I’m not exactly a fan of Arafat’s style – or his substance, for that matter. I’d be a little more careful in phrasing things, but maybe I’m just “pussyfooting around” too!)

“Steve Jobs… Jobs… Jobs… Jobs! He was the number 2 at Microsoft, mish heik?”

(Not exactly. Same industry though. Kudos for that one.)

“I’m telling you, ya Antoun, [Lebanese Forces leader] Samir Geagea will be Lebanon’s next president. I said it last year; I believe it now. The Saudis want it, and with things getting out of hand in Syria, they may be able to put their man in place.”

(If you recall last year’s conversation, I was skeptical about this point. For starters, I argued then, Syria and its allies in Lebanon would never allow it. Moreover, many Lebanese Christians – the reservoir from which Geagea must draw – continue to detest the man, his party, the war-era legacy, and current policies. But who knows? With ongoing shifts in Syria and Lebanon, and with the impact of Saudi factionalism on foreign policy still uncertain, a Geagea presidency seems more possible now than it was last year. It’s a hard sell, though.)

“Have you met any nice ladies here? ***Listens, listens, listens*** No, I mean ladies – not girls, OK habibi? – that you can settle down with. ***Listens, listens, listens*** Yeah, you’re fresh out of luck kid!”

(Thanks. Not everyone is a transcontinental player with exceedingly distinguished grey streaks in his hair and a perma-tan to boot. Son of a…actually hurt my feelings!)

“Iran… So what?”

(Er, I don’t know what to make of that. This one happened verbatim. I wonder if Guest, who’s getting on in years, thought I was talking about that salty yoghurt drink you get with meat pies in the morning.)

“Merry Christmas? For what? When’s the last time you went to Church?”

(I’ve dealt with my share of Catholic guilt. Leave me alone. If you’re not of the faithful persuasion, take it as a fucking expression. You know, like “Bless You.”)

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading and happy holidays to all!

[NOTE: Apologies for the delay. I've had to listen to hours of conversations to organize each person's best comments. It's like the "25 Days of Christmas" all over again."]

[NOTE 2: In trying to capture the essence of this guy's humor in Arabic, I've embellished a little bit. The suggestive has become the bombastic... English is a slightly more reserved tongue, so forgive me. Don't file a lawsuit or anything.]

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