You are a citizen, therefore you do not exist

Mohanad Hage Ali
Mohanad Hage Ali
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More than a decade ago, at the age of 25 to be precise, I left Beirut to work for the Al-Hayat bureau in London. What I felt there was a mixture of loss and curiosity. This was a chance to discover myself and the meaning to my existence, or even the lack thereof, in this “individualistic paradise” where family and society have no hold on you. On my first day, I met, at the entrance to the Al-Hayat newspaper in the Kensington District, a receptionist with Asian facial features. When I asked where she came from, she said: “I am from London, half-Filipino with a quarter Portuguese and a quarter British. What about you?”

“100% Lebanese” was a boring answer in a capital that doubles as a melting pot of nationalities, colors, and life. I had always viewed myself as hailing from a “mixed” family in Lebanon, as I am half-Shiite and half-Sunni with Maronite and Catholic branches in the family. Yet it wasn’t long before I discovered that national intermingling is infinitely more influential than any religious or sectarian mix. A nation is about joint history, symbols, languages, literature, traditions, and cultures, whereas religions and sects might intermingle and still remain a clashing mixture of rites and fairy tales that reconcile with one another only when one is a secular person, secularism being the natural result of such a mixture.

London is a charming city where one can find on a single street mosques, churches, synagogues, pubs, cafés, gambling houses, public libraries, bookstores, religious centres, sex shops… a multitude of different worlds encompassed in one. Communists, extremist left- and right-wingers, centrists, Islamists, Zionists, Palestinians, and all conflicts and divergences on the planet converge here. They disagree about pretty much everything but the vast majority would defend the other’s rights if they were to be violated.

The media in Lebanon belongs to power...Corruption and financial and political scandals are reported according to media loyalties and what a given politician wishes to leak to the media.

Mohanad Hage Ali

During my first year, everything was a source of astonishment, which left no room for nostalgia as impressions shifted on an almost daily basis.

I was most pleased with the British press – The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and others – and TV. One truly felt the fourth estate in action. Tensions were omnipresent between the media on the one hand and, on the other, power with all its institutions, parties, and political opposition. How did BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan dare to expose the British government’s forging evidence and reports in order to take part in the Iraq War? Investigative journalists flocked in with hidden cameras in order to expose the police and corrupt officials, the judiciary came into action, and officials, secretaries, and security commanders resigned.

Belonging to power

In contrast, the media in Lebanon belongs to power, as it is either owned by power gangs or a pawn they control through money and influence. The media is always busy with news of politicians’ statements and meetings. Worse still, media professionals are on politicians’ payrolls as counselors and portfolio holders, and this is held as normal. Consider, for instance, the ceremony inaugurating Al-Massira Magazine. The following is an excerpt from the news bit distributed to the media about the participants in the ceremony: “MP Boutros Harb represented by journalist Youssef al-Howayek, MP Sami Gemayel represented by media figure Joyce al-Hajj, Coordinator of the March 14 General Secretariat Fares Soueid, Future Movement Secretary General Ahmad Hariri represented by journalist Abdel Salam Moussa…” The journalist-politician identification is no coincidence, but rather the product of traditional practices in totalitarian and rentier states.

Corruption and financial and political scandals are reported according to media loyalties and what a given politician wishes to leak to the media. The agenda of March 14 media outlets thus implies criticizing the “Hezbollah mini-state,” the state within the state, Iran’s control over Hezbollah and the “Guardianship of the Jurist” in it, Hezbollah’s drive to monopolize Lebanon’s political and security system by the strength of its weapons, March 8 corruption, and the crimes of the Assad regime. In contrast, the agenda of March 8 media is about unearthing crimes committed by March 14 figures, their rampant corruption and financial violations, and their ties with Saudi and Qatari financing. Yet the problem lies in the fact that all of the above is true. One would wish for both sides to issue a joint newspaper that would expose their corruption and the history of their bloody relations and foreign ties. It is as though Lebanon’s politicians agree on saying, “We are all a bunch of criminals and corrupt people who meet once every thirty years to issue a general amnesty law!”

Of course, some might say that the priority now goes to building the state and ensuring its monopoly over weapons, which is an essential and pressing demand. However, following eight years of regional financing, coalition cabinets, and corruption, are we not entitled to ask about time? A key theory in the study of prolonged conflicts has it that political elites intentionally prolong a conflict in order to achieve financial gains, thus transforming – whether consciously or unconsciously – this conflict into a mutual commercial enterprise. How then would one convince me – in my capacity as the average citizen – that those who were spending time together during the war while their respective militias clashed, levied kickbacks from citizens and robbed their houses and shops have nowadays turned into angels yearning for the state of law?

After months and years of living abroad, a Lebanese emigrant – or “a diasporaji” as a colleague of mine refers to them – can hardly avoid the golden question, which has been rehashed and replayed to the point of boredom: How can the Lebanese live together abroad and score scientific, cultural, and financial achievements of which they are deprived in their home country? Answers were many, of course, but the most convincing one was provided by one of my teachers at the University of London, a native of Northern Ireland. He calls it the “leakage theory” whereby corruption and criminality are leaked from the top down across the whole spectrum of the ruling political class. “Had I stayed in Northern Ireland,” he used to say, “I would have become a taxi or lorry driver,” as a result of the British occupation and the racist Protestant hegemony that has become entrenched in society to the point where it has become difficult to achieve any class, political, or individual breakthrough. This holds true for the Lebanese as well: It is a case of rulers affecting those whom they rule, rather than the other way around.

Lebanon’s true image

In Lebanese media outlets where dinosaurs are not yet extinct, things are more of the same. If a young journalist joins a newspaper and writes an article criticizing the general situation, the article lies in a drawer for weeks and maybe months before being published with amendments and linguistic abstractions that strip it of both its potential readers and its original purpose. I have watched many friends and colleagues who refused to be anyone’s pawns while their enthusiasm eroded with time and their professional fervor dimmed as despair got to them until they jumped at the first immigration opportunity to escape our profession. Dinosaurs transformed those eager to embrace this profession into choir boys or scribes whose skills are limited to grammar and dictation.

The true image of our country is not represented by politicians’ suits, luxury cars, and linguistic and political epitomes, nor in the fancy new buildings downtown. Rather, it is best illustrated by a small tent near the Lebanese parliament building and in front of the fortifications of the U.N. headquarters in downtown Beirut. This tent was set up by the families of 17,000 individuals who went missing in Lebanon and Syria. This is a gathering of mothers and wives of all confessions and sides as they merely call for the right to be widowed or bereaved. I remember visiting the humble home of one mother who had an old TV set, the manufacturing of which stopped in the 1980s. When I asked her why she would not take advantage of falling prices to buy a new set, she said she did not want to see her husband’s kidnapper on TV. I sometimes wonder how the victims’ families live on as they see the killers reconciling, quarrelling, or turned in our media outlets into heroes and martyrs, whose posters, and those of their sons and sons-in-law who are taking over their legacies, fill our streets and TV screens. These images are following them to the grave as the insult of humiliation is added to the injury of injustice.

In Lebanon, you are a citizen; therefore, you do not exist.

This article was originally published in Now Lebanon on July 31, 2013.

Mohanad Hage Ali is a journalist based in London and Beirut. He can be found on Twitter: @MohanadHageAli

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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