'I can't believe that just one week before all this hell broke loose, all we cared about in Lebanon was the World Cup," said a friend of mine in Beirut, sounding overwhelmed.
Before the hostilities broke out on the border with Israel, Lebanon was busy showing off and enjoying its new look, fortune and success. Just 10 days ago it was almost impossible to find a vacant hotel room in Beirut, as thousands of tourists flocked the elegant city, enjoying all that Lebanon had to offer - style, fun and most importantly (especially for the tourists from the Persian Gulf), freedom.
"In Lebanon there is so much freedom, it almost borders on anarchy," a local journalist said while we were sipping frappachinos in one of Beirut's cozy coffeehouses in the center. "A person can do whatever he wants here. But he also has to face the consequences."
Laughing through tears
"Don't you wish your country were free like me, don't you, baby, don't you" - a young singer dressed in a tight T-shirt emblazoned with a Lebanese flag was dancing to the sounds of the catchy tune and singing to a large man dressed in a military uniform.
The dressed-up audience, sitting in the elegant hotel hall in Brumanna (a half hour drive from Beirut to the mountains), couldn't stop laughing.
The tense relations between free-loving, tiny Lebanon and its big Syrian "brother" are a popular theme among many Lebanese caricaturists and stand-up artists. So is the internal Lebanese crisis, which causes thousands, mainly Christians, to leave the country.
There were mainly Christians in the room, along with a few Sunni Muslims, I was told. The question of immigration inevitably touches every Christian family here, my friend said, as people do not see a safe future in Lebanon for themselves and their children anymore. Members of the family, scattered around different parts of the world, come here for family reunions, holidays and visits, he said.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not tell a Christian from a Muslim in the room, as all the ladies wear western - and often quite provocative - outfits, outshining each other with stylish hairdos and fancy jewelry.
The audience almost choked with laughter when the comedians made fun of famous Lebanese politicians and their chameleon-like behavior. Nobody was spared from the sharp darts of the comics, from General Michel Aun to Rafiq al-Hariri's son Saad ad-Din al-Hariri (the head of "Mustaqbal political bloc") to Druze leader Walid Jumblat.
The parody was strikingly sharp and exact, I thought to myself, comparing this outstanding freedom of speech to the high days of the perestroika in the Soviet Union, when it was suddenly okay to laugh about everything.
With one exception.
The secretary general of Hizbullah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, was left alone. Even in open-minded Lebanon, where sarcastic talk is almost a requirement of conversation, there is one taboo subject.
"They won't dare laugh at Nasrallah, as we all remember what happened in the beginning of June, when the LBC network aired a parody on him," my companion said.
The three-minute satirical sketch was basically an unthreatening laugh at Nasrallah's distinctive speech (he doesn't pronounce the Arabic equivalent of "r") and his dress.
A few buildings in Ashrafiya, a posh Christian neighborhood, were burned by angry Shiites, who were personally insulted by the parody, although it was neither offensive nor abusive.
At the time, there was a fear these attacks might start another civil war in the country. It didn't, but as many Lebanese told me time and again, the level of political violence has dropped sharply during the past few months. The political turmoil had come to a boiling point with the assassination of several members of the Lebanese cultural and political elite: minister of economy Marwan Hamada, prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, journalists Samir Qasir, Jibran Tweini and Mai Shadiak (a broadcaster of the LBC network who is still struggling for her life in the hospital) became victims of an unknown power who sought to destroy the freedom of press and speech in Lebanon.
Many here in the hall are sure this mysterious power is Syria, whose powerful ally in Lebanon - Hizbullah - is getting stronger by the day.
"The tension is felt not only on the political level, but in daily life, too, the level of tolerance in the country has dropped to zero," said Mary (name has been changed), a 27-year-old Christian who came to Beirut for a family visit from abroad.
She bitterly talked about Muslims attacking Christian homes, offices and churches during the caricature scandal this winter.
"Together with the embassies of Denmark and Norway, a few Christian targets here were assaulted as well, as if we had something to do with these caricatures," Mary said.
A date with reality
The show ended with another brilliant humorous sketch mocking popular Lebanese singers, TV stars and starlets. There were plenty of sexually charged jokes, provocative clothes and innuendos - and the Lebanese public just couldn't get enough of it.
While we were waiting for our car to be brought by the valet service, I watched rich Lebanese step into their BMWs and Bentleys and thought about the impossible cocktail that is Lebanon today.
The casinos in Junieh and the discotheques on Monot Street in central Beirut close at about the same time that the muezzin calls for morning prayer at the Shiite-populated suburbs of the capital. Although this district, Al-Dahiya al-Janubiya, or "the southern suburb," has its own municipality and is governed independently from Beirut, technically they are the same city.
You cross an invisible line, leaving the beautiful, polished Beirut and within a few minutes you are faced with huge portraits of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Ayatollah Homeini. Women are covered with black clothes, their faces numb. A stranger is not welcome here.
This is the stronghold of Hizbullah, which is run like a small country within a country, with its own rules and laws. A journalist cannot open a camera here without a permit from Hizbullah authorities, and the yellow flags symbolic of the movement replace the cedars of the national Lebanese flag.
"Do you like our leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah?" I was asked by shopkeepers or passersby every time I entered the neighborhood. The admiration for Nasrallah among the population of the southern suburb is absolutely blind. He is worshiped no less then Ayatollah Khomeini was in Iran.
These Lebanese are very different from their compatriots who live just a few blocks away. They do not listen to popular local pop star Haifa Wagbi, they do not attend the festivals at Beit ad-Din and they do not shop in the posh Verdun and Ashrafitya districts.
"But all of us are Lebanese, and we don't tell each other how to live our lives," insisted Mahmoud Arnout, a student at the American University of Beirut. A Sunni Muslim who lived in Australia for a few years, Mahmoud was just as foreign in the Southern Suburb as I was.
"They are free to live their lives, as long they don't force their lifestyle on me," he said, jokingly adding that problems will start if Hizbullah tries to interfere with Beirut's nightlife. At the same time, Mahmoud, just like many other Lebanese, was sure that Hizbullah, a guerrilla organization, was not a religious fanatic group and actually played an important role in Lebanon's defense.
"Hizbullah shouldn't be disarmed, as it might be deterring Israel from our borders. The Lebanese army is still weak and is not capable of rebuffing the strong Israeli army," he said.
While in Beirut, it appeared to me that many Lebanese, no matter how foreign they were to the strict religiosity of "God's party," still saw Hizbullah as a Lebanese party acting in Lebanon's best interests. After all, it represents about a million Lebanese Shia, who now form the largest minority group in this land of minorities.
A country hijacked
Reading the numerous posts of Lebanese bloggers on the Internet today when the economy of the country is devastated and its once-rosy future is lying in ruins, it seems the Lebanese definitely didn't expect Nasrallah to mess up their country the way he did.
"I'm not going to post extracts from Nasrallah's latest statement because he makes me want to throw up. To quote a friend, 'If there is an AntiChrist, surely he must be it.' It's like the pleasant mask has fallen and now everyone can see him for the horrible, suppurating ghoul he is. PLEASE don't let him walk away from this," writes a Lebanese blogger under the name of "Cedarseed."
He or she moans the future of Lebanon in the next post: "Does anyone have any idea how many lives are being wrecked, how many newly started businesses are collapsing, how many are losing all they have, how many hopes are destroyed, how many years it will take to get our lives of five days ago back, after we already waited 30 years?"
There were numerous responses to these posts, most of them very emotional, talking about the distress of Lebanese youth, the generation that was born into the civil war with hopes of a better, more peaceful future. Most of these bloggers participated last year in "Intifadat al-Istiqlal" - the intifada of independence, demonstrating against the Syrian presence in the country.
Eventually Syrians were pushed out of the country, the US Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for the disarming of Hizbullah accepted; but in the vacuum that was left by the Syrians, Hizbullah entered with its vigor, energy and strength.
But if only last year the Lebanese showed they are capable of change, why can't they unite against a single armed political party that imposes its will upon the entire nation?
"We were united against Syria, since they are foreigners who do not belong in Lebanon. As for Hizbullah - they are Lebanese just as us, and we just couldn't turn against them, as we are still hunted by the ghosts of civil war," wrote a participant in a chat on the "electronic Lebanon" website this week by the name of Lubnani. "But the course of events makes me wonder - was Nasrallah really guided by national interests or was it just another exploitation of Lebanon, this time by his friends in Teheran?"
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