The Lebanese are shallow – or so say many of them about themselves: We are only interested in cars, clothes and having a good time. This also corresponds with the stereotypes commonly held about the Lebanese. They only live for today. And there is some truth to it, especially when the Christians are concerned. People here are dressed better than Italians – in fact they don’t only dress to impress, they dress to kill. And never have I seen so many brand new SUVs on the road as here. In fact, a lot of people live on borrowed money, spending more than they can afford. Beiruti nightclubs are indeed notoriously expensive, even for expats. Usually this ubiquitious hedonism is immediately explained with a reference to the war. You know, peope suffered so much and now they just want to have a good time. Also this has some truth to it. The memories of the war are still fresh and the scars deep. The only thing around which the fractured nation can come together is partying the night away, a kind of zen therapy: all that counts is the here and now because the past was so bad that it makes thinking about the future almost impossible.
I would like to offer a complementary explanation: The Lebanese live like there is no tomorrow because they hate themselves. Let me explain. Today Ale and me had a long conversation with the guy in whose shop we usually by the top-up credits for our cell phones. He is a nice guy and we usually get on well. He is also a Christian and hates Arabs. In fact he does not consider himself Arab, but Lebanese. In his oppinion Arabs are camels. Also, for him, being Muslim is closely linked to being Arab. This kind of stereotype about Arabs is largely congruent with the picture of the quintessential Arab painted by the Western media. A guy with beard, probably unwashed who locks up his wife(s), blindly follows the fundamentalist teachings of his religious leaders, hates the free world and supports terrorism or carries out terrorist acts himself.
The concept that the Arabs are some kind of irrational sub-humans, not quite in control of themselves and their chaotic societies is not new – it is called Orientalism. This term was coined by Edward Said who examined the literature of colonial Britain and found this: There is a widespread idea in the writings of travellers and anthroplogists of the 19th century about what Arabs are. It is the exact opposite of what we consider ourselves: rational, civilised, truth-telling light skinned, in one word, developed. The Orient, then, is the canvas on which the western imagination painted its own other – the dark Arab is subject to his own emotions which constantly override his rational faculties. Arabs tell lies all the time, their parochial customs take precendence over the rule of law and they are generally backward. Simply not quite on the same step of the evolutionary ladder as our enlightened selves. Or a bit like children that need a firm guiding hand in order not to harm themselves and others.
This idea is a functional one. It served, then as now, to justify the colonisation of Arab societies, their subjugation with military means and the extortion of wealth from them. The tragedy of the Lebanese, then, is that they buy into this propaganda. They actually believe this crap and they hate the Arabs. Now the problem is that they are Arabs themselves but don’t want to be. They deny their Arab idendity to the extent that some people don’t even teach their children to speak Arabic. They send them to French schools instead. People here are also collectors of passports – whoever can has French, Canadian, German, Italian or any other nationality. And there is a huge Lebanese diaspora. People really are very cosmopolitan: able to converse in at least three languages, knowledgeable about history and geography, and up to date with current events all over the world. And the Lebanese are great hosts, truly open to visitors. Unlike the Europeans, they are actually happy to have foreigners around, they like them. But the flipside of this internationalism is an all-out rejection of a part of their selves.
I think this explains why the Lebane are so crazy about showing off their cars, clothes and gadgets. That’s all they have. With the rejection of their idendity as Arabs they also threw all their traditions out of the window: their songs, their rituals, their celebrations and, most damaging of all, their stories. Left empty-handed, they strive to be like the Europeans and Americans they so much admire. So their empty selves take flight into what is perceived as western culture – consumerism. They replace what they lost by buying those SUVs and Armani suits. And this is how they really became like us Westerners who long lost our own traditions to urban techno-culture. Like us they shovel pre-packaged life-style goods into the bottom-less holes that used to be their selves in a desperate attempt to give some meaning to their stranded lives. This is how the Lebanese ceased to be Arabs and really became Westerners and this is at the same time the real tragedy of the Lebanese.
I hope my Lebanese friends will forgive me this piece of racist pop psychology. They may choose to read it as another exercise in Orientalism – another lost European projecting his own shadow on them in his travelogue.