The Lebanese Flag





From Yaron to Yale
by Carl Y. Saab* (May 4, 2005)

A case of misunderstanding
‘You have an accent; where are you from?’ is the typical question I’m asked when I meet someone in the U.S. I might even be asked next ‘where from in Lebanon are you?’ or ‘are Christians and Muslims still killing each other over there?’

I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, but my passport mentions Yaron as the town of my birthplace instead. That is a dominant Lebanese custom, to mention birthplaces by towns where one’s family seems to have originated from. I spent many summers in Yaron getting to know my village, my family members and my land. We played soccer most of the time and brought many soccer balls to the field that sits on a cliff. Whenever the ball fell off the cliff, we would quickly replace it with another. Attempting to retrieve that ball was out of the question; Israeli army would shoot you for trespassing.

I left Lebanon during the war and carved a path of resistance for myself, against poverty and ignorance, ending up somehow at the prestigious Yale University at one point in my career. Looking back at events leading to my immigration and academic achievements, I wonder how many southerners could have possibly followed in that same path, and what gigantic hurdles they had to surmount to break away from that cycle of poverty, ignorance and violence.

Yaron in peace
Yaron is a peaceful town elevated few hundred meters above sea level, to the very south of Lebanon, not far away from the Mediterranean sea. It’s a rural village on the borders with Israel. In fact, Yaron was occupied by Israel, with a bunch of other neighboring southern Lebanese towns. With a Jewish name in origin (just like Yale), Yaron is home to Muslims and Christians. Before being invaded by Israel, inhabitants tell stories of clashes between Palestinian fighters and retaliation by Israeli Jewish settlers and terrorist organizations against these fighters, with civilians caught in between. That is just engraved in the psyche of every Yaron villager.

Prior to military aggression, my family members in Yaron worked their lands from dusk till dawn. They, like most Lebanese southerners, ended their long days praying for rain and warmth to yield good crops, some to feed on, some to sell (mostly tobacco leaves), some to dry and ration for winter. Almost everybody depended on agriculture (and God) for survival. Nothing extraordinary I could sense as a kid in the religiosity of my family. Everyone basically prayed for healthy life, and decent end-of-life. Theology occupied center stage in the social fabric and as spiritual appeal to natural elements. Christians and Muslims celebrated life in comparable ways, and communicated with God in private and in public through one mosque and one church. Apart from occasional skirmishes over a broken sprinkler system or disputed water wells here and there, Yaron was truly at peace. Christians and Muslims were not killing each other.

Yaron in war
For many years, I could not get to Yaron freely. The homes and lands we own by inheritance there were occupied by Israel. The Israeli military issued special passes to few people only to visit the occupied towns under special conditions (I did however manage to visit elderly family members on their deathbeds for very short visits). Otherwise, our ties with Yaron were almost completely severed at different time points. Even telephone lines were cut off, or at best, if existent, were wiretapped. Yaron’s inhabitants suffocated, but the doors to immigration were open to them, or rather facilitated by Israel for a good reason: fewer people, lesser resistance to occupation.

As such, inhabitants of southern Lebanon, like those of Yaron, were mostly either occupied by Israel, or, even if not occupied, subjected to the wrath of the Israeli army in retaliation to resistance fighters. Yaron was suddenly caught in the crossfire, and cut off from the rest of the world, occupied by foreign forces, and drained from its manpower.

Guerilla tug-of-war lasted for years between Israeli soldiers and fighters including Palestinians (many factions thereof), communists, religious fundamentalists, the disenchanted and the oppressed. But another form of silent resistance was brewing and overshadowed by the heavy sounds of machine guns and cannons. Inhabitants of occupied villages occasionally engaged the occupier with kitchen knives or rallied peacefully. Although many refused to collaborate with the enemy, some did, and an Israeli-backed militia was born in southern Lebanon.

Free at last
Until one day the Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the civil war in Lebanon ceased. The reconstruction phase of Lebanon was initiated. Unfortunately, many Lebanese villages were still occupied. In addition, Syrian troops were still present in Lebanon under an expired mandate (to the point that many Lebanese actually viewed Syrian forces as occupiers as well). Notwithstanding, tug-of-war in southern Lebanon continued mainly between two parties: a highly organized, well-trained, disciplined and religiously homogenous group of fighters with modest military means against Israeli military might and its backed Lebanese militia.

At about the dawn of the new millennium, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon with the fighters leading the resistance claiming victory. The Israeli-backed militia disintegrated. More recently, Syrian forces also withdrew from Lebanon (ironically precipitated by the assassination of the Lebanese ex-prime minister responsible for post-war reconstruction).

The liberation of Yaron and the rest of south Lebanon seems like a classic tail of resistance, written in blood and many other significant sacrifices. However, some basic facts strip its liberation from the classic romanticism of post-colonial independence and liberation movements.

Occupied or free, but always abandoned
Prior to military aggression, Yaron had no sanitary planning, no telephone cables, no decent health care or major hospital less than an hour drive, no postal service, no local police (not even serious border patrol!), no reliable electricity, and no school. In fact, students had to travel to the neighboring village on foot, walking for hours everyday, to go to school. Other major Lebanese cities, however, did not share Yaron’s miserable fate. Pre-war infrastructure in Beirut and other northern cities allowed a life of luxury, reminiscent of Nice and Monaco.

Yaron was abandoned by the Lebanese government way before it was occupied by Israel, and offered to Palestinian fighters. For Palestinian fighters, the way to Jerusalem passed through Yaron, while the path to Arab nationalism shied away from Yaron. Only senior citizens lived in Yaron during the occupation, surviving on meager income from youths in the Diaspora.

It’s been five years since Israel lifted its mighty grip off south Lebanon, enough time to launch reconstruction and build a hospital, a school, attend to farmers needs, provide agricultural loans, install border patrols, restore reliable electricity, sanitation and support the local municipality. Today, however, villagers in Yaron are faced with unfortunate disparities, once again, and utter negligence, verging on the conspiratorial.

Beirut woke up from war to be the world’s largest and most audacious reconstruction site, whereas Yaron woke up from occupation to a sad void, poverty, and identity crisis. With no manpower to work the land, mixed with controversial agrarian laws ignoring farmers’ rights and protection of local goods from foreign competition, villagers in Yaron face life with utter indifference; they can’t work their lands, and they have to pay for their food and goods with money they’ve got to earn from somewhere. But Yaron is not used to market economy, it’s just not made for import/export or billboards!

Identity crisis
Villagers of Yaron woke up one glorious day free from occupation, and into the arms of resistance fighters. No government official could be spotted anywhere in Yaron even five years through liberation. No government military personnel were deployed anywhere in Yaron. And since resistance fighters filled the power vacuum precipitated by the withdrawal, tension was running high in the first few weeks post-liberation. The fighters, albeit highly disciplined and acclaimed for their good deed and utmost constraint (no reprisal against ex-collaborators), represented a homogenous and extreme religious group threatening the fragility of a lightly religious and mixed social fabric.

Although these fighters did contribute to rebuilding, and basically substituted for the government’s handicap on many levels, their agenda was by default sectarian, confessional, and simply cannot sustain a viable enterprise without external foreign support (hence arguably foreign intervention as well). Arguably, in the absence of the Lebanese army, these fighters are seen as securing the villagers against potential Israeli threats.

Today, if you happen to be between 15 and 18 years old in south Lebanon, and serious about planning for your future, you basically have the following options: Either you turn to Beirut for a pitiable education if you got no savings (to later compete with graduates of private universities whom themselves are facing unemployment), you join the ranks of the resistance movement (unclear resistance objectives but you ultimately graduate as a martyr), or you beg at the doors of Embassies for immigration visas.

What is the Lebanese government waiting for?
If you lean toward conspiracy theory, you might assume that Yaron’s disenchantment was a devilish scheme to turn south Lebanon into a surrogate Palestinian homeland, while religious fundamentalism breads on poverty and lack of education (all responsibilities the government denies). Perhaps, but it is safer to assume that, even with such a conspiracy unveiled, Lebanese government still refuses even today a United Nations’ invitation to assume its basic humanitarian and military duties to a part of Lebanon that arguably expands over half of its sovereign territories!

Today, sectarian discourse ravages political life and risks dire economic and even military consequences in Lebanon. Theology alone cannot build a viable modern state. The youths should be offered models other than the exclusively religious, and feel welcome to the heart of Lebanese civic life, with all privileges and opportunities endowed to other fellow Lebanese. The tale of reconstruction of Lebanon is a tale of two cities; one is in Beirut and the less fortunate one to the south, north and east of Beirut.

The Lebanese government failed to live up to its mission to protect and serve the people, all the people. Israel made itself known to be the aggressor. Palestinian fighters cared less for Israeli retributions. Syrian regime hijacked parts of Lebanon to negotiate Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. But the Lebanese government initially set the stage for all of these players on Lebanese soil, mainly in the south.

Free our borders, decentralize Lebanese state powers
Leaving Beirut, driving in any direction will put you in Syria or Israel in less than 3 hours (unless you chose west for a dip in the Mediterranean). Almost invariably, all towns on the borders with these two countries (friend or foe) share the miserable fate described above, and identity crises similar or mirror images thereof.

It is time for major decentralization of state powers from Beirut outward in all directions. Prerequisite steps include extending full Lebanese sovereignty and authority over all Lebanese territory beyond rhetoric. Lebanon’s limbs are paralyzed and in need of rehabilitation. Lebanon’s borders should prosper for the whole country to stand on its feet and reach out with open arms to all its neighbors. We, Lebanese, are technically not at war with any other nation. It is time we live this peace, and spread this aura throughout the entire region.

While sectarianism dominates political life in Lebanon and escalating, especially with elections due soon, there is little hope of patching things up in the south. By patching things up, it is meant tackling the core issues of development on all levels, and a promise of a brighter future for the youths other than unemployment, immigration or martyrdom.

Democracy as road to peace
Who among the candidates running for parliamentary seats will propose a comprehensive agenda for sustainable reforms in the south?
What about the disenchanted eastern and northern Lebanese towns? It is time we recalibrate our compass to point away from Beirut towards our borders. Let’s send a strong message of peace and prosperity from our borders to our neighbors so we could eventually bridge between them.

Lebanon could well lead the entire Middle East towards peace and harmony through democracy, and democracy requires treating all citizens equally, wherever they are, even if they are at the borders, or thousands of miles away from home resisting ignorance and prejudice and extremism, abandoned to their own devices in a foreign land.

Today, having been away from Lebanon for 8 years, I share that same loneliness and disappointment with my family, who never left Lebanon, but Lebanon left them at the borders, and us abroad.

*Carl Y. Saab was born in 1971 and raised in Lebanon. He graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with B.S. and M.S. degrees. He then traveled to the United States where his petition for Permanent Resident was approved by the U.S. government in the category of ‘Alien with Extraordinary Ability’. He obtained his Ph.D. degree from the University of Texas and completed his three-year fellowship at Yale University, Department of Neurology. Carl was appointed visiting lecturer at AUB, School of Medicine, and currently serves as Assistant Professor of Research at Brown University, Department of Surgery, pursuing basic science research in the field of neuroscience.

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