Commentary, Lebanon

The tired foreign media narrative on Lebanon

A version of this article originally appeared on Now Lebanon.

The week of Lebanon’s Independence Day, Foreign Affairs published a commentary piece ominously titled “Beirut’s Center Cannot Hold: Lebanon Is On the Brink of Another Civil War.” The headline, a less-than-subtle nod to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” begs the question that has been debated time and time again by international media since 2005: what is holding Lebanon together?

Indeed, the problems faced by Lebanon at times seem so drastic they appear almost comical. ISIS launching attacks on one border, the all-powerful Israeli army across another, the presence of an Islamist group in possession of non-national weapons, a population divided down sectarian lines, the largest refugee crisis of modern times, and a deadlocked government unable to provide provisions as basic as electricity – to name a few. And yet, despite what may appear to be insurmountable challenges, Beirut’s center continues to hold. Columns predicting Lebanon’s imminent descent into civil strife published in 20102011, 2012, 2013 and yet again in 2014 have so far been proven wrong. Whether or not this seemingly miraculous fortune will continue is impossible to predict. But the repetitiveness of these claims, and the simplification of Lebanon into a tiny but beautiful country burdened with sectarian strife, represents a trope of foreign media reporting that is both misleading and harmful.

The second foreign reporting trope focuses on the juxtaposition of Beirut’s glamorous nightlife and precarious political situation, the beleaguered Paris of the Middle East. Vice’s most recent story on Lebanon, titled “Fighting for the Right to Party in Beirut,” documents the country’s struggles through an interview with a successful nightclub owner. While Beirut’s party scene is indeed a testament to the resilience of a country that has suffered disproportionate carnage in the name of causes it often did not choose, reporters who focus on Beirut’s glitz and glamour also misrepresent the city, presenting the Lebanese as a homogenous mass of affluent party-goers. Much of the Lebanese population lives far from Beirut’s lavish and indulgent consumerism, and are more concerned with meeting basic human needs than partying to defy instability. While journalists focusing on these stories may feel they are humanizing Lebanon by representing its people outside of the context of a conflict narrative, they actually objectify the population, acting constantly surprised that the Lebanese do what people around the world do every day: attempt to enjoy their lives.

Narratives that over-romanticize Lebanon’s liberalism also glaze over many debilitating social issues that affect the country in countless ways: the lack of basic human rights for Lebanese women, troubling legacies of racism and homophobia, years of discrimination against refugees, and backward political dealings that continue to be tainted by vestiges of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

Perhaps no story represents Lebanon’s warped identity quite as well as the tale of Lebanese hipsters mistaken for jihadists on account of their well-groomed beards – a phenomenon covered by both NPR and New York Magazine. In yet another paradox typical of Lebanon, the same week that the Foreign Affairs’ commentary piece was published, Beirut ranked as the world’s 10th most inspiring city, and Lebanon ranked 14th on the Global Terrorism Index.

This tendency to oversimplify the Middle East is, of course, not limited to Lebanon. A cover story for the Economist titled “The Tragedy of the Arabs” ambitiously attempted to explain the decline of the entire Arab civilization in fewer than 1300 words, all while failing to mention the western intervention in Middle Eastern affairs that has torn the region apart since the crusades. The stereotype of bright-eyed foreign correspondents explaining the struggles of exotic but conflict-ridden lands by quoting local taxi drivers has triggered a torrent of satirical responses on social media. In a 2013 David Brooks’ column for the New York Times, he asks whether Egyptians possess the “basic mental ingredients” for democracy. Later that year a Foreign Policy piece attempted to deconstruct the problems of the Middle East into five main causes, citing “narcissism” as one of them. “[Talk] to any Lebanese and you’d think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night,” the article postulates rather patronizingly. Most recently, Thomas Friedman’s latest op-ed un-ironically asks the apparently innocuous question of whether the affluent city of Dubai was the true cause of the Arab Spring.

With such oversimplified, often disparaging explanations of the Middle East, supposedly from top analysts studying the region, is there any surprise that foreign reporting on Lebanon so often misses the mark?

Lebanon is incredibly complex, and no word-counted byline can reasonably hope to properly encapsulate the knife-edge on which it balances. However, there has to be some middle ground between the Lebanon of Fairuz and Haifa Wehbe, the wasted bullets in the streets of Bab al-Tebbaneh and the discarded glasses on the bar at Decks on the Beach. Lebanon is at once all and none of these things – and the inability of westerners to view it as anything other than partying or at war represents a lingering orientalism that continues to mark much of our foreign coverage.

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