Occupational Hazards

You can learn a lot about a country from a night in jail

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Occupational Hazards
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

“You know,” the police officer told us, “you’d both be better off if you’d killed the man.”

Jdeideh Police Station lies in a somewhat gritty part of Beirut’s eastern suburb by the dramatically named River of Death (really a stream that meanders through garbage piles, if we’re being honest). At the time of my detention there, I was an avid amateur racer and was returning from a racing circuit north of the capital, Beirut, riding shotgun while my friend Abbas did his usual, maniacal driving. We sped through an industrial area blasting the obnoxious electronic music popular in Lebanon. By the time we saw the man sprinting across the highway straight into our path, it was too late.

The road from the racing circuit to Beirut happened to run through a part of Lebanon full of both Syrian laborers and locals who generally disliked them. We crashed into the hapless Syrian worker at some 70 miles per hour as he tried to sprint through traffic. The windshield exploded in my face and the man was thrown into the middle of the highway. I forced a disoriented Abbas to stop the car instead of driving off in a panic.

I ran out into the highway, trying to keep other cars from running the man over. While playing traffic cop, I heard a scuffle behind me and turned to see a small crowd stripping the man — they stole his boots, his jacket, and a calculator. Soon the local police arrived, but the raiders carried on unmolested.

Then came the police officers’ questions: Where were we from? Why were we in Jdeideh? Why was I wearing that ridiculous silver racing suit? I stammered my answers but Abbas, in shock, couldn’t speak. One resourceful officer, unimpressed by this lack of stoicism, snapped him out of it by putting out a cigarette on his neck. That did the job. We were bundled into an SUV, but they addressed us politely (the first sign that something was amiss). They explained that given the seriousness of the accident, we would be detained, interrogated, and held until the victim’s fate became clear. That could take a while, they warned.

The officer in the passenger seat could see Abbas was overcome by guilt and told him: “You have nothing to feel bad about. To tell you the truth, we’d all be better off if he’d died.” Abbas said nothing. Surprised, I asked why, and he said, “People here don’t like Syrians. You saw what they did to the guy — they robbed him. We don’t like them either. If you’d killed him, you’d have saved us all a lot of headache. Now our lives and yours will be on hold until we know the bastard’s fate.”

At the time of our jailing in 2002, Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s military and intelligence services occupied Lebanon and controlled nearly every aspect of public life. But the Syrian presence in Lebanon went beyond that. After the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Syria imposed several agreements forcing Lebanon to host masses of Syrian laborers. They came in the hundreds of thousands, attracted by relatively high wages in construction, agriculture, and industry. The combination of Syrian regime repression and labor competition was not popular among Lebanese.

I was not what you would call politically naive. I knew all about Lebanese resentment toward Syrians, especially laborers. I felt it myself toward Assad’s intelligence services. But I did not expect to hear this from the police in that context — I was supposed to be the object of suspicion, not sympathy.

And so Abbas and I found ourselves the guests of the Jdeideh Police, who walked us into the station and separated us for interrogation. I was seated across from a rotund lieutenant colonel wearing a sleeveless undershirt in an ugly, fluorescent-lit office. (Anyone who’s been to an Arab security office will recognize the scene.) To my surprise he opened with some warm banter about my family, his neighborhood, and the improbability of encountering a Muslim (me) in the largely Christian Jdeideh area “at this time of the year” — whatever that meant. It didn’t bother me — Lebanese don’t take offense at casual sectarianism, and I was on his turf after all — but this was all beginning to feel more surreal than tragic.

I also learned that the lieutenant colonel hailed from one of the prominent Maronite Christian political families that had fought Assad’s military in the Lebanese Civil War.

“I’m going to ask you a sensitive question, son: Did you boys run that man over on purpose?”

He must have read my confusion as nervousness and said: “Relax. If you say yes, we can skip all this interrogation hassle. I’ll write up a favorable report, we’ll get you out of here. You’re a young man with your life ahead of you. We expect young men to behave like idiots anyway. In any case, he deserved it.”

I laughed and said, “No, of course we didn’t do it on purpose. What kind of question is that?”

He looked a bit disappointed, but I was getting uncomfortable. I felt a bit insulted, but I also suspected the crafty lieutenant colonel was trying to trick me into a confession, lock us up for murder, and be done with the whole affair. It was easier than keeping us around until we learned the victim’s fate. His offer to let me sleep on a couch instead of in my cell — an offer I gladly accepted — seemed like another attempt to lure me into a false confession.

The next morning, however, I realized the good lieutenant colonel had sincerely tried to make my life (and his) easier. I woke to the scent of a divine Arabic dessert, knefeh. One officer had made an early run to the sweet shop and bought a large tray to share. “Lal shabeb il taybe!” he shouted enthusiastically — roughly, “for the wholesome boys!” We accepted the undeserved compliment and the invitation. An officer brought me a hot plate and patted my shoulder sympathetically. At that point I knew I would be okay as far as my jailers went. After a few hours of banter with the men — they had some wicked jokes about their lieutenant colonel — Abbas and I were released, days before we finally learned the poor man’s fate (thankfully and miraculously, he lived).

The police officers’ obscene attitude and the locals who stripped that Syrian’s smashed body reflected decades of intimate resentment between Syria and Lebanon.

That night in jail in Jdeideh was one of the many snapshots I carry of a particular Lebanese era — the Pax Syriana. The Syrian occupation had grown larger and deeper since 1976, reaching absolute domination from the 1990s onwards. The police officers’ obscene attitude and the locals who stripped that Syrian’s smashed body reflected decades of intimate resentment between Syria and Lebanon. Syria’s military left Lebanon in 2005, but the Lebanese are still wrestling with an often misunderstood legacy.

How to explain the ugly affair in Jdeideh? To start with, there is a “baseline” prejudice among Levantine communities against geographic, tribal, familial, sectarian, and religious outsiders. Beirutis look down on people from Tripoli, Aleppans on Damascenes, and so on. Sunnis and Shiites, Orthodox and Maronites — every pairing carries its own prejudices. They are real, but unless there is a war going on, they do not normally lead to total indifference toward human life.

Lebanese prejudice toward Syrians is darker and more complicated than the old prejudices of the Levant. It was forged in the 1970s and 1980s, well before the Syrian laborers, Syrian hegemony, and the enormous refugee presence today. In 1976, Hafez al-Assad invaded Lebanon to crush Palestinian-led Muslim militias fighting Christian ones in what would become a 15-year civil war. But the Christians, who had sought Syrian support against their Lebanese enemies, grew tired of Assad’s heavy hand. And so began years of fighting between the Syrian regime and Lebanon’s Christians, culminating in Assad’s destruction and invasion of Christian areas, ending the war in 1990 and solidifying Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

The Syrian regime’s relationship with Lebanon’s Sunnis was even more complicated. The Sunnis supported the Palestinian cause against Israel. In theory so did Assad, but he only tolerated anti-Israel groups he could control, and Lebanon’s Sunnis never forgot his control over them and their Palestinian allies. Throughout the 1980s, Assad fought a long war against Lebanese Sunni militias, crushing them even as he slaughtered Sunni insurgents at home. This became the root of Sunni bitterness toward Assad, whose forces killed or “disappeared” thousands of their young men.

Lebanon’s Shiites also experienced the Syrian presence in their own way. During the civil war, Assad supported the Amal militia that embodied the Shiite community’s rise as a serious political force. Today, Lebanon’s Shiites are associated with the Islamist Hezbollah and its alliance with Hafez’s successor and son, Bashar al-Assad, but these are relatively recent phenomena. Hafez had much less patience for Hezbollah than Bashar does. In fact, Hafez backed the non-Islamist Amal in a fierce intra-Shiite war against Hezbollah over Beirut. In 1987, his forces attacked Hezbollah’s headquarters in the Basta neighborhood, and his intelligence chief Ghazi Kanaan ordered the execution of dozens of Hezbollah fighters. (Kanaan would survive a Hezbollah assassination attempt and become Syria’s viceroy in Lebanon, regularly issuing orders to the party.) Still, by the time the civil war ended in 1990, Hafez was satisfied that Hezbollah had been cut down to size and allowed it to keep its arms to fight Israel. The party gradually dominated Shiite politics under the Syrian occupation, growing fond of a status quo dominated by Syria under Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000 and was much more accommodating toward Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, but I was too young to care. My Lebanon experience was defined by multiple wars with Israel but even more so by the Syrian occupation. This decade and a half until Syria withdrew in 2005 had an enormous impact on Lebanon and its ongoing descent into a moral travesty of a state.

After the war, Hafez al-Assad backed Lebanese Sunni billionaire Rafik Hariri to lead Lebanon’s reconstruction and government. Hariri in turn deferred to Syria on politics and security and cut Assad’s people a slice of the new economy. This complicated Sunni attitudes toward the Syrians, whom they hated but who had now given them a Sunni champion in Hariri. Lebanon’s Christians, marginalized in this Syrian order, increasingly saw the Sunnis as its main beneficiaries and partners with the Syrians in their marginalization. Of course, the regime was no one’s partner, and its local proxies killed Hariri in 2005 when he grew too powerful. The Shiites — whose politics were increasingly dominated by Hezbollah — kept their peace with Syria.

High politics, however, do not capture day-to-day life under the occupation. There is very little literature about this chapter in Lebanese-Syrian history, not least because the press was muzzled and social media did not exist. It was the occupation’s banal pettiness that weighed heavily on the Lebanese. My friends and I experienced it constantly, mostly from members or allies of Syrian intelligence services: shutting down my university after a student cursed another connected to the regime; beating a friend with a rifle for flipping off a convoy carrying Hafez al-Assad’s nephew; torturing a fellow student activist to death; ramming my car at an intersection then driving away; forcing bribes at checkpoints manned by agents wearing trademark Hawaiian shirts; and other things I cannot recall or should keep to myself.

Then there were the larger issues: farcical elections; property confiscated; funds stolen; laws broken; allied militias and criminals allowed to run amok; and, of course, the assassinations that continued well after Hariri’s killing in 2005 (all things that Syrians now experience daily).

None of this is to say life in Lebanon was uniquely terrible or worse than life in Syria. We preferred the chaos to the absolute despotism next door. And of course, the Lebanese had managed to destroy their country in 1975 without Syrian help. Still, the Syrian occupation in Lebanon, a prolonged obscenity in itself, helped to thoroughly corrupt Lebanon’s institutions, public life, public servants, and ultimately all Lebanese, even as it shaped the fate of the country’s politics and factions.

The Syrian military left Lebanon in 2005 in the face of protests and international pressure for killing Hariri — the hero of Lebanon’s Sunnis and object of others’ suspicion and resentment. While its soldiers had left, however, the occupation’s legacy hung over the Lebanese. No sooner had Syria departed than the next Lebanese rift emerged and, not surprisingly, it was about Syria. As Sunnis mourned Hariri and demanded his killers be brought to justice, Hezbollah organized a mass protest of its own to thank Bashar al Assad for supporting the militia in its fight with Israel. The Christians rallied behind one coalition or the other.

I have not spoken to a single Lebanese Sunni who does not either despise the refugees, want them out now, or both.

If Syria polarized the Lebanese, it also fed and exposed their neuroses. No group is more tortured by the complexity of its relationship with Syria than the Sunnis. Freed of the burden of their love for Hariri, who personified the Pax Syriana, they were once again free to hate the regime that had created and then killed him and sympathize with the Sunni-dominated rebels fighting Assad. But this sympathy for their co-religionists has hard limits.

Over a million Sunni Syrians fled that conflict to Lebanon, where they live as refugees. Outsiders frame the political implications in sectarian terms: with the Syrian refugees, Sunnis in Lebanon now far outnumber their Shiite rivals, and so it is assumed that Sunnis must favor the Syrian presence. Lebanon does have a Sunni-Shiite problem, but it’s not at all true that the Sunnis see their Syrian co-religionists as an asset. They are far more likely to resent the flood of cheap Syrian labor and will not soon forget the Syrian occupation and the workers associated with it. The Sunni “old families” of the city resent the Syrian “riffraff” and their perceived backwardness and criminality (the old Sunni families of Damascus and Aleppo feel the same way toward Sunni rebel fighters). I have not spoken to a single Lebanese Sunni who does not either despise the refugees, want them out now, or both.

Lebanon’s Christians still grapple with the Syrian legacy. It was they who invited the Syrian military into Lebanon nearly half a century ago, and who later led the resistance to it. The Assad regime tried hard to extinguish Christian political life during the occupation (though it had Christian allies too). But Syria’s departure paradoxically weakened Christian unity over the Syria issue and against Assad’s Islamist ally, Hezbollah. Instead, the community split over which was worse: the regime’s treatment of the Christians under occupation or the Sunnis who had accepted the occupation as the price for having Hariri? Should the Christians align with the broader Sunni Arab world and its Western allies (and therefore against the Syrian regime)? Or were Christian interests better served by an “alliance of minorities” including with the Syrian Alawite regime? They never answered these questions.

Only the Shiites emerged from their experience with the Assad regime more confident and unified, first under Amal and then Hezbollah. For now. They certainly see the 1.5 million Sunni Syrian refugees in their midst but, paradoxically, they seem less panicked about them — a product perhaps of their relative confidence and strong leadership.

The legacy of the Syrian occupation lives on. The Lebanese are brazen in their anti-Syrian prejudice and feel no need to justify it. In my experience (I am part Syrian), Syrians of all political stripes, pro- and anti-Assad, are more likely to feel indifference toward the Lebanese than hatred. Of course, it was not the Syrian people who occupied Lebanon but a despotic regime that did not seek their approval — one that is now killing far more Syrians than it did Lebanese. Still, Syrians do not always notice the parallel — partly because the occupation, despite its profound importance, has been treated as a historical footnote, but also because for most Syrians, Assad’s pre-2011 atrocities may as well have happened in an alternate universe given their own war.

The Lebanese can’t escape Syria and can’t be understood without their collisions with it. That includes Lebanon’s politicians, militias, me, and the friendly officers who wished we had killed a man so they could skip the paperwork.

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