Welcome to Lebanon, where culture meets car bombs
This time, terrorism became a personal affair. The bomb that exploded in front of the Salam mosque in Tripoli on August 23 also blasted through the apartment of my in-laws who live across the street. They are two elderly people who made this apartment their home more than 40 years ago. Windows were shattered and furniture broken, but my in-laws were only slightly wounded. Luckily, they had spent their afternoon in the back of the apartment, watching TV or taking a nap.
Had they been sitting on the sofa in the front of the apartment, on the same sofa on which I have sat for many hours, drinking coffee and eating Lebanese sweets, God only knows what would have happened to them. It was strange and eerie to see a building that I had visited many times on CNN. A collateral damage of a bomb that had targeted the Sunni anti-Assad cleric preaching in the Salam mosque.
However, my in-laws had run a double risk living in this apartment. The building used to be called the “Kamelia Building,” but it was now commonly referred to as the “Rifi Building” in Tripoli. This because Ashraf Rifi, the former head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, lives there. Ashraf Rifi has many enemies.
I met Ashraf Rifi once, I shared an elevator ride with him. Despite an extensive security detail in and around the building, I was able to enter the elevator when Rifi was on his way home. I could have killed him then, it would have been easy. Although I was well known among the security personnel controlling the building, I could have been a sleeper terrorist waiting for the good moment to strike. Nobody knew that I was Victor Argo, the occasional contributor to Your Middle East. But then again: in Lebanon, murderers use car bombs, not knives.
Ashraf Rifi was a nice guy for the one minute I was riding with him. “First time in Lebanon?” he asked me in English. “No,” I said, “I was here many times before.” “Welcome to Lebanon,” he replied. Then the elevator stopped. And I got out.
Welcome to Lebanon. I perfectly understood then what he meant to say. Last Friday, I grasped Rifi's message even better. Welcome to Lebanon. One moment you fly. The next moment you crash.
Ashraf Rifi is still a nice guy, I hear. The day after the explosion, he went from apartment to apartment, inspected the damage and expressed words of empathy and consolation. That's all the Lebanese state will do for the victims of Tripoli's terrorist attacks. After that you are on your own.
Tripolitans have shown great solidarity with each other in the aftermath of the blasts. Dozens were calling my in-laws, to inquire about their health and to offer their support. Thousands have taken to the streets, to clean up the mess caused by the bombs.
Lebanese are really good at cleaning up the messes. However, it would be a great development if they would learn to clean up their mess before the events. Get your act together, Lebanon! I am inclined to shout. Avoid terrorist attacks, avoid sectarian tit for tats, avoid being drawn into the quagmire of Syria.
A few weeks ago I was reading an article in a psychology magazine that dealt with couples and how they manage to stay together. The main concept the author proposed was “differentiation.” In a relationship, every individual, every partner must preserve his or her own personality to make it work.
Differentiation is the heart and soul of the Lebanese character. Lebanon is a country full of differentiated individuals who hate to be alone and always manifest themselves in groups. At times there is so much differentiation inside the Lebanese people that they forget that they actually want to live together. It is an individualism born under fire, a personal survival kit, most visible during the dire times of the Lebanese civil war. Preserve yourself, preserve your community, then fight the rest.
Tripoli's pharmacies are now handing out sleeping pills in great quantities to relieve the stress of Tripolitans who can't sleep anymore after the ordeal they have gone through. But more than sleeping pills, wake-up pills are needed in Lebanon! Wake up and stop fighting the rest. The rest are your fellow citizens. The next civil war will make all Lebanese losers again.
After we had learned about the bombing, we were not able to reach my in-laws at first. It was tough to wait for the news that they were safe. During the wait, I had time to contemplate. It is only for a few years that I visit Lebanon regularly. But it seems to me that I have already gone through the whole spectrum of life on the front line. During the 2006 Lebanon War, I was very close to the attack site of an Israeli army chopper and had to run for cover in a nearby hotel. I once met a Lebanese general at a conference – François el-Hajj – who later was assassinated. And now people in Tripoli I knew so well were shelled and shocked, and their apartment partly destroyed, by yet another act of terrorism.
When you are married to a Lebanese, you are also married to the whole of Lebanon and its drama. Sometimes, a little more Lebanon and a little less drama would be just fine. Dancing on the volcano because there may be no tomorrow: when they cannot sleep, Lebanese party the nights away. After Tripoli, the next party will likely go down in Beirut, I am afraid. The wheel of violence risks turning increasingly fast. Since April, Lebanon lacks a government. Without responsible leadership, the country is heading for a hangover.
By Victor Argo