A couple of days ago there was a big fight in the street, just outside of my building. I heard screaming and a big commotion and when I went to the balcony, I saw about 12 guys going at it. Swearing and punches and a lot of yelling. I quickly moved away, as I thought that someone might be armed.
I looked around and saw all my neighbors in the buildings in front of mine in their balconies, just watching the “show”. No one seemed ready to intervene or even to try to call the police. And that’s when it hit me… There is no police to call in Lebanon.
I mean there is a police. And an army. And sometimes army guys stand outside private houses as guards. Or tell you not to park somewhere. While the police is coordinating traffic, but sometimes the army is. Listen, it is very confusing. I wouldn’t even try to understand who does what.
But that was what alarmed me the most. Without clear roles, in a moment of stress, I didn’t know who to call. The fight ended up eventually. But the feeling of vulnerability didn’t leave me. Who would I call? Who do Lebanese call?
I sat down for lunch the following day with a Lebanese colleague. I shared with him the experience and he just smiled. And then he told me “You call your uncle. He will call his friends. And in 15 minutes, you have 30 guys at your house ready to help”.
He continued “ In Lebanon you call your people when you need help. You don’t rely on the government, or on your neighbors. Your people are the only ones you can count on for your safety, for survival. “
As things get tense in Lebanon these days, these words resonate more and more in my head. That is probably what happened on my street that day. Two people had a problem, and they called their people for the fight. And when we see the ongoing fighting in this part of the world, although at a different scale, it is not that different. People fight for their own, and against the “other” because there is no common identity, institution or sense of citizenship that binds them together. My family, my friends, the people of my same religion, sect, tribe, group are my people. The other ones are outside. I fight for my own because if I don’t a) no one will protect the people I love and b) the group won’t be there when I need them.
Looking at it from this perspective, the conflicts that comprise the every day struggle of the Lebanese make a little more sense. And it also overwhelms me. Where do you start building unity? How can one trade a sense of group, safety and survival when no one else will have your back?