Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#30: The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

In my junior year of college, I spent a semester studying in the Middle East. My program was based in Cairo but we traveled throughout the region. By the end of the spring, we'd made it to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Even so, if I could change any one aspect of that semester, it would be to visit Lebanon.

As detailed in Michael Young's The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, the nation has an irregular heartbeat and constantly appears under threat of cardiac arrest. And yet somehow, democracy, or some semblance of it, insists on habitual self-resurrection in the area of the world seemingly most hostile to the democratizing impulse. History and the present, the liberal and the traditional, even the nation's dual languages, Arabic and French, serve as constant reminders of democracy's promise in a culturally diverse populace. Young, in recounting Lebanon's recent history (2005-present), writes, "What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country's sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society's parts are stronger than the state; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function."

In this interpretation, the same national character that so infuriates international observers is actually responsible for Lebanon's fragile peace. As the Sunnis bedevil the Shiites, the Christians ally themselves with the power of the moment, and the Druze follow suit, the collective political incoherence renders centralized governing nearly impossible.

Not that Syria didn't give it the old college try. On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated via a truck-bomb in Beirut. The Syrians were widely viewed as the perpetrators, and thus was launched the Cedar Revolution, a series of protests against Syrian intervention that eventually led to its expulsion from Lebanon.

This is, roughly, where Michael Young's national history begins. He recounts how, merely one year after the impossible became reality as Syria left Lebanon, the war with Israel threatened to reverse the year of progress; Hezbollah, acting in compliance with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, destabilized a country still reeling in the aftermath of al-Hariri's untimely death. Interestingly, Young takes this opportunity to chide progressive Western journalists and observers for their embrace, however tentative, of the self-described Party of God: "Lebanon loved the resistance, the statistics proved it, and the good word was beamed out to an unquestioning world," he writes, sarcastically describing the West's perception of Hezbollah's domestic standing during the 2006 war against Israel.

Young can be forgiven his zeal; as a Lebanese citizen he is justifiably nonplussed by incomplete international characterizations of his country. And yet, like many journalists dipping their toes into full-length books, he proffers a smorgasbord of ideas and counterpoints without progressing between themes in a cohesive manner. At times, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square reads like a 254-page op-ed column; I suppose that's the point. But in regards to this country that defies all description, I was hoping for a little less theorizing and a little more substance.

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