The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

Two Men, One War, Thirty Three Years On

Before I get into the title subject of this post, I think now is the chance to share some information about myself and my background. It’s rather voluminous, so feel free to just scroll down to the video below if you prefer.
For those who don’t know, I am second generation Lebanese and proud of it. I speak some Arabic, eat a lot of the cuisine, and was raised with some of the traditional values and customs. Otherwise, I’m pretty well assimilated into my country of birth (the United States), especially since my background – like that of most members of the Lebanese Diaspora – is Christian Maronite, a group that has long been westernized (my surname, for example, hardly passes for Arabic).
In fact, many Lebanese people don’t even identify as Arab. Though we share the same language, ethnicity, and some cultural elements, we arguably have much more in line with Mediterranean people – our food, dress, dialect, faith, and history are more tied with that of the Greeks, Italians, and other Southern European people. It’s partly due to these ties that millions of Lebanese live in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (where my mom was born), France, and other extensions of European-Latin civilization.
Indeed, many Lebanese trace their roots back to the ancient Phoenicians, who were based around present day Lebanon, and who colonized many coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea. I remember growing up and being told we were of Phoenician decent, and how the Lebanese peoples’ renowned financial and business acumen come down from them (they were prominent merchants and seafarers).
Of course, as with all matters of culture and identity, I must be cautious and note some disclaimers, not least of which being that I am speaking as a member of the Maronite Christian community. Identity is a malleable and variable thing – even within societies can be found more distinct subcultures, often far removed from the rest. So note that I am in no way speaking for all sixteen million or so Lebanese people around the world, especially since we’re far more divided than it might seem.
Lebanon is infamously split along sectarian lines, as it has been throughout history: most Muslim Lebanese, for example, don’t have as strong an affinity for the west as we do; however, even that depends on the sect we’re referring too: Sunni Muslims are far more similar to the Christians than the Shia are. Then you have the Druze, who are in a whole league of their own: depending on you ask, they are either an offshoot of Islam, a sect of Islam, or something else entirely.
Within the Christian community, too, there are denominational splits: Catholic Maronites are – or were – the traditionally dominant sect. Indeed, the French, who controlled Lebanon for several decades, favored them largely due to a shared faith and culture (this further solidified our westernization, such that French is a very popular language and we maintain strong cultural and political ties). But there are also various Orthodox, Protestant, and Apostolic Churches as well, and some of them resent this privileged position as much as the increasingly-majority Muslims do.
By now there are over thirty sects within Lebanon, each with variety of dynamics between one another. Some Christians ally with some Muslims; some religious groups try to stay neutral or build a multi-faith coalition; still others frequently change sides. Politics is messy, fractional, sectarian, and feudal: besides faith, family ties and political dynasties are the only other source of relative cohesion.
Religion is such a big concern that Lebanon hasn’t done an official census since 1936, for fear of shaking up the political status quote. Muslims are widely considered to be a majority now, yet the political process still remains set up in favor of the once dominant Christians. During their rule, the French tried to sort this out by helping to establish a unique form of government known as Confessionalism, whereby political positions were to be guaranteed for the main religious sects: Christians get the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Minister slot, and Shias the position of Speaker of the House.
Now Muslims are a majority, but Christians are by and large wealthier and better connected. Tensions are high and people are scared. Memories of the Lebanese Civil War remain fresh in everyone’s minds – that brutal conflict was a culmination of long-standing political, social, and religious grievances hat lasted two decades. It was so complex that to this day, no one really knows how exactly it started. It involved dozens of factions with mutable relationships to one another, as well as foreign powers such as Syria, Israel, France, the US, and the United Nations.
Anywhere between 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed; many more – including my father – left, and at least a million were maimed, half of them permanently. The country was so badly damaged that to this day, you can still see the pockmarks of bullets on some walls, and many buildings remain ghostly, gutted-out shells.
Before 1975, Lebanon was widely regarded as the “Switzerland of the Middle-East,” with its capital, Beirut, compared to Paris. It was the center of banking, finance, tourism, and the arts. It looked set to be one of the most successful nations in the region, a prosperous gateway between East and West. Now it’s a wrecked and only precariously stable country.
Hezbollah, the Shia militia backed by Syria and Iran, is a virtual state-within-a-state, leading Israel into a war in 2006 that reset much of the rebuilding that had been done. Assassinations and gun fights between militant groups continue intermittently. Like most developing countries, Lebanon seems perpetually perched between chaos and stability, progress and regression. We’re a largely resourceful and fiscally prudent people, and that may help trump our other legacy of religious strife.
That leads me, finally, the to the main theme of this post: a short video shot in 2008 by a cinematographer Eric Trometer that briefly and poignantly explore the civil war through the eyes of two men that fought it – on opposite sides. It’s great to see a more intimate and raw exploration of this relatively unknown conflict.
I must admit that this was very nearly a tear-jerker for me. I generally feel a lot of empathy with other conflicts and human dilemmas across the world, but seeing it with respect to the nation of my heritage is deeply impactful. It makes me want to go to Lebanon not only to visit – which I sadly never have – but to help make it a better place (I often wonder, half-facetiously, how well I’d fit into the faith-based political paradigm as a non-religious person).
Most importantly, however, it gives me hope. Amid all the squabbling and even outright fighting amongst themselves, some people – even former enemies – are looking to make peace and build the nation together. They saw first hand the horrors of human hated and stupidity, and want to make sure others never have to learn it the same way. It’s a story that pertains to so many communities across the world, and I sincerely hope it succeeds, even with the odds against it.
I’ll end this long tract with an image I also found rather touching and inspiring. Though it’s probably just an peripheral example, I still think it makes for a nice glimmer of well-needed tolerance.