Random conversations in Lebanon are rarely mundane. People are not shy with their opinions here. Take our taxi driver at the weekend, who, on seeing we were Westerners (and therefore automatically Christian) wasted no time informing us that Arabic is not a Lebanese language, since the Lebanese are Phoenicians, and that Lebanese culture has been undergoing steady erosion for the last 5,000 years (read: under Muslim influence).
Compare that with our next door neighbours. We live in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a heavily Shi’ite area bedecked with Hezbollah flags and posters. Controversy currently rages over the disarming of the group and its relations with Syria, but most Lebanese grant the Islamic ‘party of God’ grudging respect for their struggle against the Israelis, finally ending the southern occupation in 2000. And for many Shi’as Hezbollah still represent their interests, as well as building fun fairs and restaurants and providing many social services to this often neglected and impoverished community.
As well as these neighbours, I’m also exposed to another even more neglected community here: immigrant workers. It is well-known that there are massive amounts of Syrians working in Lebanon, many as agricultural labourers, living in tents in the Bekaa valley, or making up the huge ranks of green-and-red-uniformed cleaners who try and keep the city presentable. But besides these there are migrant workers from further afield, especially from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and parts of northern Africa- Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and others. Many of these are also contract cleaners or work as domestics, often subject to unfair wages and conditions, or even abuse by their employers. The Filipina woman that lives beneath us had to run away from the family who employed her as a domestic worker because they used to leave her locked up in the house when they went out. Another Filipina friend of hers recently got picked up by the police for not having her papers and was thrown in jail. Scary enough when, according to our neighbour, the Philippine Embassy provides little protection.
But even more worrying are the reports that she was released from the police station at 3am and no-one has been able to speak to her since. Stories like this make you realize the power of holding a British passport. When we sit and talk to these immigrants there is a glaring difference between our experience here and that of those who come here out of necessity rather than choice. The wages we take are almost as low as some of these workers, which seems crazy to many of them who find Lebanon a hostile place to be. But we see a very different side of life here. We are constantly astounded by the friendliness and hospitality of the Lebanese, and are made to feel like honoured guests here. But, as you find everywhere, that reception is partly conditional upon considerations of race and class.
Our work here is with yet another community, one that is also impoverished and marginalised, but who actually have more attention and representation than some others: the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is the refugee problem here that is the prickliest of any in the region. Palestinians have been living here in camps- that have slowly grown into concrete slum towns- ever since 1948. With no citizenship, yet also denied the rights normally accorded to refugees under international law, the society within these camps is mired in social and economic stagnation. Without access to many of the decent professions, young men and women in these communities find it hard to be motivated about their education, and the organisation which is supposed to provide this and other social services- UNRWA- is itself suffering from a lack of funding, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and niggling rumours of corruption and nepotism.
Yet spending time in the camps, while it can certainly be depressing, is more often a testament to the warm and generous nature of these oppressed people. I spent this summer and last living in Beddawi, a camp in the north of the country, and- despite warnings from some Lebanese who would never dream of going anywhere near the camps- I can safely say I have probably never felt more welcomed anywhere. Now I am working in the office of a Palestinian organisation trying to make progress on the grounds of human rights. Some of the staff here recently met with Samir Geagea, the (Christian) Lebanese Forces figurehead who was just recently released from prison and looks set to make a politica comeback. While some (and I think I include myself in this, though I’ve still got a foot on the fence) see this as a bold and progressive attempt to bury some hatchets in order to lay the ground for more solid political progress, there have of course been others who have seen this as the utmost betrayal: it was members of the Lebanese Forces who carried out the infamous Sabra and Chatila massacres under Israeli supervision in 1982.
Common to all these disparate identity groups are several things: a desire for peace and stability; a sense of economic fragility; and a significant proportion of people looking to emigrate. The wealthier Lebanese, of course, are well-known for sending their children abroad to study and work, and there are huge numbers of others who have got their savings together to find a better life overseas. Those who can’t make it to Europe often end up in the Gulf. The Palestinians, also, are fleeing the camps in large numbers, often risking their savings and their personal safety to do so. And many of those who are left behind are keen to follow in their footsteps. Another very regular conversation piece for us here is “How do I get a visa for Europe?” This is more often that not accompanied by an inquiry as to why we would want to come and live in Lebanon rather than Britain. It’s hard to explain, but for those seeking to get an impression of the Middle East, Lebanon is a fascinating place to spend time. And we’ve not even talked about Mehlis…