“Lebanon isn’t a country so much as it’s a place, full of people,” a Lebanese friend told me recently.
In your average country, the thinking went, citizens share a sense of national identity — not to mention a basic sense of common interests and purpose. The Lebanese on the other hand, my friend meant, seem thrown together at random: Their social and political views run the gamut, from sexually liberated supporters of liberal democracy to teetotaling partisans of Islamic theocracy.
Lebanon likes to celebrate its diversity. And it’s true: It boasts the Middle East’s largest Christian population, one of the largest proportions of Shiite Muslims in the Arab world, and a Sunni middle class that often appears more concerned with commerce than about Islam and jihad. All these disparate parts, however, don’t add up to a nation: Lebanese often spend their lives within a few blocks of each other and often remain virtual strangers clustered into neighborhoods or enclaves, and the country remains violently divided on the political issues of the day — most recently, the bloody 22-month civil war in neighboring Syria.
As a result of Lebanon’s sometimes comical, often tragic political scene, locals and foreigners alike often overlook that the country boasts perhaps the freest media environment in the Middle East. Like its famed religious eclecticism, however, media diversity does not translate into a melting pot — rather it just provides each side a foxhole from which to launch potshots at its enemies. The result is channels that reinforce all their viewers’ prejudices and biases in a manner that can make Fox News look pretty close to its comical slogan of “fair and balanced.”
While it’s not entirely true that you can judge a person’s background by what he or she watches on television, in Lebanon a pattern does appear to exist. Right-wing Christians have MTV and LBC, owned by businessmen with close ties to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist movement. Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims have Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station, and its more secular, trashier cousin, NBN. Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims have the Saudi-centric Future TV, a media appendage of a major political party owned by the Hariri dynasty.
The least bleak perspective can often come from New TV, a station that began as an independent voice in 2001, but one that leans toward a secular audience generally not fond of Israel. It’s usually the best source of journalism with the fewest number of forehead-thumping moments of absolute propaganda. And in my neighborhood, the Christian bourgeoisie looks to French satellite channels to remind it of the myth of its “Phoenician” roots and help equip them to make the often ridiculously racist argument that they are indeed not Arabs.
There are some moments of popular unity: Lebanon used the earlier part of the 2000s to pioneer reality-television programming in the Arab world. And during the month of Ramadan, which can feel like the old-fashioned “sweeps week” on American networks, miniseries draw strong attention from across the political spectrum, as do old Egyptian movies and trashy music videos of local stars. Hyperaware of the increased audience share throughout the Arab world, the plotlines often reflect the attitudes of the ownership but with a strong populist tendency toward Israelis as villains.
But beyond this, there’s little mixing of ideas. If you support the rebellion in Syria or don’t ache for the destruction of Israel, you’re unlikely to watch Al-Manar for very long. For the most part, pro-Syrian regime partisans don’t sit down in front of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have played a central role in cheerleading for the rebels. And Hezbollah members don’t really watch a lot of music videos and ribald soap operas — at least, in front of me.
It was with this — and the situation in Syria in mind — that I set off on a winter’s evening to watch the news with a couple of guys from Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. One of them (we’ll call him Hassan) is a midlevel Hezbollah commander from a small village in the south. His best friend, whom we’ll call Ali, is a secular Shiite with close family ties to Hezbollah and a history as a civil war-era gunman that gives him a strong dose of respect on the streets of the southern suburbs. Along with my friend who follows the situation in Syria closely and speaks near-native Arabic, we planned a night of watching Lebanese television.
But first Ali and Hassan had to pick me up from my apartment — less than two miles from where they’ve spent most of their lives.
We promptly got lost in the warren of one-way streets around my home. As I barked directions in my crude Arabic, everyone in the SUV began laughing at our inauspicious start. The lack of basic geographical knowledge wasn’t limited to my comrades. I can safely say that virtually none of my neighbors can find their way around the Hezbollah-controlled areas of Beirut either.
“I’ve been here before; I know where to go,” muttered the taciturn Hezbollah commander. He was quickly embarrassed, as he fancies himself slightly better traveled and open-minded than many of his colleagues. We blasted down yet another one-way street amid pissed-off honks from Christian commuters stuck in Beirut’s notorious rush-hour traffic.
I ventured that a civil war between Christians and Shiites might be difficult if neither side can find its way around each other’s neighborhoods, and even Hassan let out a small giggle.
“If there’s a civil war, I’ll be able to drive any way I want on the street,” he joked. “But there will never be a civil war between Christians and Hezbollah because our weapons are only for the Israelis and not to be used on the Lebanese.”
It was the first of many moments that began candidly and turned into a recitation of the straight party line. Hezbollah members aren’t really allowed to socialize with foreigners and don’t give interviews to the media. But Hassan and I have known each other for nearly five years, and though he’s comfortable in my company, getting him to say anything that isn’t more or less the official line of the self-described “Party of God” can feel like an ordeal.
And here’s the thing: Hassan isn’t lying to me or putting on a show. He completely buys into Hezbollah’s worldview. Outsiders tend to marvel at the military and psychological discipline of Hezbollah’s fighters, but ideological discipline is much easier if everyone involved profoundly believes the party line is The Truth.
“The captain of the ship doesn’t like getting lost,” Ali teased his friend.
“I’m not lost,” Hassan muttered. “Now how do we get to Hamra?”
At that point we were in downtown Beirut. Hamra, perhaps the city’s most famous neighborhood, was less than a mile away. My cheeky suggestion that we follow the signs that said “Hamra” elicited only a scowl. It was yet another example of this fractured country: Its divides are not only religious and political, but imprinted on the geography of the land.
We finally found our way back to Ali’s house. Turning on the television, we first watched MTV, a Christian station owned by the Murr family dynasty. Five pundits were debating which election law Lebanon should use in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
“There will never be peace in this country,” ventured Ali, as he switched the channel from the painfully boring debate on a nevertheless critical issue. “We can’t even agree on how to hold the elections.”
Hassan suggested that we should watch a coming special on Al-Manar — Hezbollah had promised to release a slew of new combat-camera footage from the 2006 war. “We will show our special forces are the best in the world,” he said. “Our special forces can throw rocks in the air and shoot them out of the sky!”
I asked him why Al-Manar and Hezbollah chose to release that documentary now, in light of the growing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis over the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah has thrown its lot behind President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while Lebanese Sunnis overwhelmingly support the rebels.
“It’s for Hezbollah’s supporters, to show the world that the resistance is not a militia but a noble cause,” Hassan explained. “We have begun a combination of a conventional army and guerrilla force. It will show what we were like when Hezbollah first started and what we have become today. And we want to show that our only target is Israel, not the Sunnis of Lebanon, not any of the Lebanese.”
But I didn’t want to watch Al-Manar with these guys — the point was to get them to talk about programs they would never otherwise watch. So I changed the channel to Al Arabiya, the Saudi-funded satellite channel that has been a vocal supporter of the Syrian revolution. The lead stories were on Syrian refugees in Jordan, the fighting in the southern Syrian city of Daraa where the revolution started, and incidents along Syria’s border with Jordan.
As Al Arabiya ran footage of a slew of dead kids and what it described as “civilians,” Ali got a little heated.
“This is normal in a war!” he exclaimed. “We’ve all lived through this, and there are violations of human rights by both sides every day. As Lebanese we know this from the civil war. In a civil war, people lose their minds.”
“That report was mostly lies,” said Hassan. “But it got one thing right: The Jordanians want to protect their border because the rebels are Salafi terrorists. Jordan makes sure to keep the [Free Syrian Army (FSA)] away from the borders because they’re worried they will eventually turn on them.”
I flipped the channel to Al Jazeera. It was the day of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and the Qatar-funded station was broadcasting live as the presidential motorcade drove down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House.
“Oh, look,” laughed Hassan. “There’s Obama, the president of the world!”
“Do you really think he runs the world?” asked my friend.
“Remove Iran, Hezbollah, China, and Russia, and he’s the president of the world,” remarked Hassan. “Outside of those four, America de facto controls the world with its policies because America has agents working in every Arab country.”
This was the prism through which Hassan saw the conflict in Syria: It was an attempt by the United States and its local allies to deal a death blow to one of the only forces that threatens Israel — one more example of Washington’s attempt at global domination. But according to Hassan, whose view of the world was shaped by Al-Manar, the Syrian regime was nowhere near collapse.
“Bashar al-Assad has never been more comfortable, and the Syrian army has yet to deploy more than 10 to 20 percent of its troops against the rebels,” he lectured. “The FSA does an operation with 100 men and 99 are killed. One comes back and goes on Al Jazeera and calls it a massacre [of civilians]. Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera are playing the biggest role in this war by playing to everyone’s sensibilities.”
The scrolling chyron on Al Jazeera announced that 89 Syrian civilians and rebels were killed that day by the regime’s bullets — but Hassan would hear none of it.
“Oh yes, 89 people are killed by the regime’s bullets,” he said. “But is the FSA using water guns?!”
“If Bashar promised to turn his back on Hezbollah and Iran and let Israel keep the Golan Heights, this war would be over in a day,” Hassan continued. “I think you will see big changes this year as Syria, America, Russia, and Israel come together to fight the rebels because they’re al Qaeda terrorists. Syria will end up the most powerful country in the Arab world, and Bashar will stay in power.”
Ali laughed at this idea, but then got serious.
“You can’t argue with these people,” he said in English, pointing at Hassan. “They truly believe this stuff in their hearts. They’re so religious and disciplined, there’s no room for anything else. He’s not trying to trick anyone; he truly believes this in his heart.”
The irony is that the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have not always been so joined at the hip. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, ordered the public executions (just around the corner from where we were sitting) of two dozen Hezbollah fighters in the 1980s in an effort to keep Syrian control over the Shiite areas in the face of expanding Iranian influence.
I asked Hassan whether he trusted the Syrian regime.
“Now I do,” Hassan admitted. “But before the revolution I did not. [Bashar al-Assad] made many mistakes at first — he was oppressive and handled it badly — but he fixed these mistakes. Now he’s OK with opposition; he just wants a clean opposition. And now everyone in Syria is talking about reconciliation between the rebels and the regime. This war is almost over.”
At that stage, my friend began debating Hassan about the situation in Syria with mounting frustration. Hassan would hear none of it. Despite speaking the same language, they couldn’t agree on a common set of facts — beyond that there was violence in Syria. After a few minutes of circular argument, I realized the experiment was over. TV would not bring us together.
It’s not just a couple of Hezbollah guys in the Dahiya Shiite suburb who refuse to let facts mix with ideology. My neighborhood is filled with Maronite Christians still in denial about decades of demographic change who virulently refute any notion of a Lebanese Arab identity. Thankfully, Lebanon does have a silent majority of reasonable thinkers who know that what they see on television is probably nonsense.
Ali and I eventually laughed at the two as they battled and decided to call it a night. As all four of us left Ali’s place for the ride home, he switched the channel back to Al-Manar before turning it off.