Sunday, October 11, 2009

Recently I spent three weeks on a road trip which took me through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, very briefly to Israel, and then Egypt. I won't count my time at the Emirates, which I will refer to only in passing. I was not new to the region by any means. I had visited some of those countries before and had also spent time in other Islamic nations from Iran to Qatar. If you asked me what I saw and if I were to answer truthfully I would have to answer: misery, tyranny, oppression, extreme poverty, religious fanaticism and political manipulation. This in no order of importance.

The degree of political contempt displayed by most Arab governments towards its population borders on the ridiculous. Let's put Lebanon, an unmitigated mess beyond repair, to one side but let's take the plight of the Palestinians who reside there after 1967. There are 13 Palestinian refugee camps in the country. The immense majority of the 'refugees' were born and bred in Lebanon. They live in squalor, I visited a couple of these camps and was appalled beyond measure. It is easy to solely blame Israel for this but the crude reality, and a reality which is hardly published, is that the Lebanese detest the Palestinians in general. Despite being born in Lebanon Palestinians are denied employment, and of course citizenship. They cannot be gainfully employed (can only work for themselves). They are treated like pariahs in their country of birth because Lebanon confers no rights on them. As a matter of fact, Lebanon's citizenship laws are abhorrent: citizenship passes through the father or grandfather. If a Lebanese woman marries a non-Lebanese citizen and has children in Lebanon, those children will not be deemed to be Lebanese and will be foreigners subject to visa residency laws.

Palestinians suffer the same unequal treatment or worse. At least two Lebanese women who I chose at random offered the following (and same explanation) to me: `'how can we employ them?" If they do something, they run away to the camps, the police and the army can't go in there, they have their own weapons, why do they have their own weapons, to fight who?" When I gently pointed out that the vast majority of them were born in Lebanon, I always got the same answer: "They are not Lebanese!" "We received them with open arms and look at what they did to our country..." I traveled through the Baalbeck valley which is dominated by Hezbollah. Hezbollah's flags, the pictures of their leaders, their music and even their own T shirts dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. I even had a driver who was from the Hezbollah dominated district of Beirut and was playing out to me incesantly Hezbollah's martial songs in his car over and over again.

Hezbollah has the weapons and despite losing the last June elections dictate to a great degree what happens in the country. I asked a Hezbollah supporter when they would finally cut a deal with PM elect Hariri `(who holds the majority of votes but not an outright majority). He laughed me off: Who cares about Hariri? We can get rid of him in 15 minutes. We can control all of Beirut in a day. We are here to fight Israel! I felt inclined to ask why this is since Israel never expressed any wish to occupy any part of Lebanon and only intervened militarily (devastatingly and arguably disproportionally) when Hezbollah fired misiles at them from inside LEBANON. But I didn't. The country is now going through a fragile political truce which is at least bloodless. It will probably not last for much longer. The local media runs regular anti-Israeli articles in the press. but only a fool would seriously believe that Lebanon's mess is exclusively a by-product of Israel's policies.

The poorest, most backward and saddest country I visited in the region is Syria. Its misery, decay, and political oppression can be smelled as soon as one crosses the border in a taxi from Beirut. Damascus is only 130 km west of Beirut and it is only a short drive away. The contrast (even with a country as poor and destroyed by war as Lebanon) is shocking. Syria is still a cold war country. There is some joy about life in Lebanon's tragedies but there is certainly no joy to be found in Syria. It is very difficult to describe through words the dusty, polluted hote that Damascus is today. The few tourists that venture there may find the Old City's market picturesque. It is indeed but what some tourists may find picturesque others may relate to abject poverty. Syrian's average salary is about $100 per month.

Where others may find picturesque, I found it depressing.
(to be continued)

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