Lebanon’s up and coming
Aya Fatima Chamseddine
Lebanese youth have it all… or so it would seem. The latest round of parliamentary elections, held in May 2018 after a nine-year hiatus, included fresh young faces beaming from billboards. One of Lebanon’s many political factions, the Phalanges, plastered the country with rebellious teenage portraits, under the title “The pulse of change.” Lebanon’s banks compete through packages with slogans like “Lucky to be young.” Government rhetoric prizes entrepreneurship and innovation, while foreign embassies each run their own “youth empowerment” scheme. From all appearances, the new generation is almost pampered by the old, which is eager to help the up-and-coming take over.
And Lebanon’s future is, undeniably, in the hands of its youth. There is no shortage of inspiring leaders to be: men and women who hold university degrees, speak at least two languages, enjoyed opportunities to travel and mingle, and anxiously look out for opportunities to thrive. Yet these young, ambitious Lebanese often feel anything but lucky. On the contrary, they feel oppressed and undermined by virtually every aspect of the system into which they were born, and which tends to propel them into stagnant political factions, or into exile, or else inward into their own manageable bubbles. In other words, Lebanon shoves its youth in every direction except the right one—that is, toward constructive, determined engagement with their country’s future.
This sentiment takes root in the household, reaching to the very core of young peoples’ identity. Although Lebanese in their twenties were mostly born after the civil war that befell their parents between 1975 and 1990, they are routinely defined by family environments that never had a chance to recover. They all too often are hostages to their parents’ brutal experience and, without realizing it, adopt beliefs and assumptions they cannot explain.
Few young Shia have ever set foot in Sunni Tripoli—the country’s second largest city, a hallmark of national heritage, and an 80 kilometer drive north from Beirut. Likewise, young Sunnis rarely venture into Lebanon’s mostly Shia south. All have been told by their parents that it is dangerous, although such concerns flow from old traumas more than present realities. Since the civil war is not taught, or even mentioned, in school curricula, parents assume full responsibility for teaching their children where they came from, what community they belong to, or whom to trust. If memory is transmitted at all, it is through cryptic allusions to unspeakable events, or through obsessive recollections of trials and pains. Each tendency, whether filled with collective taboos or personal fixations, fosters a climate of anxiety more than it helps make sense of the war.
Sara, a 27-year-old freelance researcher, provides one example of how the civil war weighs on young people who were spared actually living it. She operates out of a pristine common workspace in Beirut, whose atmosphere of creativity and revival is as removed as possible from the war’s long, heavy shadow. “All I seemed to know, until I was 20 years old, revolved around the fact that my father had fought with the Amal movement,” she said, putting out a first cigarette. “I wasn’t even aware that there were other factions aside from Amal and their enemies at the time, Hezbollah. I was told we should hate Hezbollah, but later they reconciled and I was told we should like them.” As many other Lebanese, she learned to accept such views without questioning them.
Strikingly, her father’s experience had much in common with hers. “He was told overnight that the war was over: he should pack his guns and go home. He couldn’t understand and certainly wasn’t given the time or the means to really exit the conflict. Today, 27 years later, he’s still living the war.” But times have changed, and so has the struggle. “Now he’s on social media all day long, looking for anyone who says anything bad about Amal, to attack them,” she scoffed—and went on smoking. “It was only when I started working, and got exposed to different areas and people, and read about the war by myself, that I came to understand why my father was so aggressive and sometimes violent as we grew up: War never ended for him.”
Strikingly her father’s experience had much in common with hers
One reason why experiences such as Sara’s are legion stems from the division of the country into administrative districts that are exclusively or predominantly of a certain sect, and which thus enclose citizens among like-minded kin. Childhood and adolescence are largely contained within these environments, limiting the horizons of many young Lebanese. Children and adolescents tend to receive a readymade identity that pits them against ghostly threats—namely other Lebanese, so near and yet so different. This latent sectarianism puts them constantly on guard around “others,” making many young people uncomfortable in most parts of their country.
This sense of insecurity is multilayered, with socioeconomic impediments gradually piled onto fraught collective memory. Reaching adulthood, getting a diploma, emancipating from home isn’t the obvious getaway it should be. Youth unemployment is high, at 20.6% by official figures. A credible university degree costs between 8 000 and 13 000 USD per semester, leaving 83% of students dependent on their parents both to cover the fees and continue hosting them. Graduates then take ten months on average to secure a job, and not necessarily the right one: 41% of people employed in Lebanon claim that their job is unrelated to their studies.
Work conditions aren’t bright either. Minimum wage is 450 USD in a country where average rent in areas near Beirut is almost 500 USD, and even university graduates must often live off salaries hovering around 1000 USD. As a result, young professionals usually avoid moving out of their parent’s house: Rather than spend all their income on rent and food, they stay home and put on hold—often for years—their full independence and adulthood.
The more entrepreneurial, meanwhile, are forced to contend with Lebanon’s quasi-feudal social compact. Virtually every corner of the country and field of economic activity is considered the turf of some faction and political boss, waiting to cash in on—or else undermine—every profitable activity. Success, therefore, largely derives from connections within an entrenched, corrupt political system.
All this naturally gives rise to intense frustration, compounded by the fact that young Lebanese have gazed, on television and billboards, at the exact same set of top politicians ever since they were born. What few shifts occurred resulted from assassinations, or transitions from father to son, daughter, or son-in-law. The latest polls, despite a new electoral law, only confirmed this trend. Such stagnant, incestuous politics tends to poison any faith in renewal. This in turn fuels a vicious cycle, where disenchanted youth dismiss the possibility of solutions to the country’s mounting socioeconomic problems.
The factions in power invest heavily in irrational fears
Indeed, the factions in power, while paying lip service to change, invest heavily in the irrational fears of their constituents. Each sect is told that its existence depends on a struggle against other sects and external enemies seeking any opportunity to wipe them out—a certain outcome, held off only by the protection of their leaders. Without the latter, the country no doubt would be invaded, the civil war would break out anew, and the economy would crash. As a result, even apolitical youth fall victim to a system they loathe, but which permeates too much of their lives for them to reject.
No amount of energy and good spirits will wash that feeling away. Even someone as positive as Seema feels hostage to a fate beyond her control. “I love Lebanon, but I need to leave for a bit every once in a while, because it’s just too much to take in. War is constantly at the back of my head, and scares me every day.” At 24, she is already on top of her game, working as a consultant on sociopolitical issues when she’s not busying herself as an environmental activist. But even in the coziness of a familiar cafe filled with young leftists, anxiety is quick to surface. “I feel claustrophobic, with Israel on one side, Syria on the other, and then nothing but the Mediterranean.”
Nevertheless, youth tend to acclimate to something as fateful as the prospect of war, relegating it to some corner of their minds. When that happens, trivial pressures come to the fore. Conversations often gravitate toward scenes or events that seem trifling—and, indeed, are considered normal—but which add up to a profound sense of exasperation. What triggers outrage may be sitting in a traffic jam at an intersection, while the policeman meant to be directing traffic chats nonchalantly while eating peanuts in the shade. Characteristically, Seema gets even more worked up about the small forms of oppression than the bigger ones: “I wish war was the whole story. The bureaucracy of petty things is what really stresses me out. I can’t get something simple done simply. The only way is through anger and corruption.”
Blocked from all sides, Lebanese youth face a stark decision. Of the few options they have, none is ideal: In a nutshell, they may align themselves with a political party, leave the country, or retreat into some form of internal exile. The most obvious choice for young men and women who stayed comfortably within their family bubbles is to submit to the system. In such cases, the latent sectarianism that shaped them propels them on, as they embrace the political group most suited to their communal identity—either by engaging actively or more passively accepting its narrative.
Within the bosom of each faction, young people find everything the government is incapable of offering: scholarships, job opportunities, health insurance, and a sense of security, stability and status. As a result, they develop an intensely ambivalent rapport with Lebanon. On one side, they derive from their partisan environment a form of self-confidence, satisfaction, and even superiority. On the other, they get defensive about other sects, who—in sectarian partisan narratives—threaten both their existence and their best hopes for the country. Each party cultivates such communal fears to the point of making their supporters feel like strangers the moment they step out of their own little corner of Lebanon.
25-year-old Layla epitomizes such alienation. Although she drives to work, travels abroad and frequently goes out around Beirut, it doesn’t take much for her to feel out of place. “The whole area from Zaytunay Bay to downtown is so beautiful. I always want to take pictures of the blooming trees and the big buildings by the sea. But can I imagine myself living here? I sure can’t.” She went on, a little confused by her own thoughts about a place so attractive and yet so alien—a 10 minute-drive from her home. “I like hanging out here, walking around with a coffee. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel with my people, and it is not the place for me. Even the traffic officers look different from where I live. I just prefer being in my neighborhood with my people and my party.”
The decision to emigrate is often a reluctant one
This feeling is common among Lebanese youth, who may feel queasy just a street or two from their own stomping grounds. That unease, coupled with Lebanon’s bleak economic prospects, leaves many young people suffocating, fantasizing about breathing freely elsewhere. The decision to emigrate is often a reluctant one: 49% of Lebanese aged between 18 and 35 hope they never will have to move abroad. For the other half, the impulse to leave usually starts with youth finding themselves incapable of even imagining a life they want to live in Lebanon. “Lebanon is a dream killer,” remarked an ambitious woman at the start of her career. Having given up on looking for someone to blame, she knew it was up to her to leave.
A common exit strategy consists in applying to foreign universities—sometimes randomly—to secure a student visa. Some students with bachelor degrees seek enrollment in graduate schools primarily to push off the pressure of wading through a dismal job market. In other words, they study to buy time away from somber employment prospects at home.
Nada was fired from her job in a company cutting costs. But she had her get-out-of-jail-free card at the ready: acceptance in a European master’s program. As she turned 23 and wrapped up her final year of graduate school, she dove into job-hunting with one goal only: anywhere but Lebanon. “It’s a shame, because I love Lebanon—it’s my home. I used to see so much potential and had so much hope. But that’s the problem, I had hope,” she lamented. “It’s been a constant disappointment, from the people more than the government. In 2015, I went down to demonstrate when we were literally drowning in garbage during the trash crisis, and for the first time I believed change could happen. But soon people went back to their respective allegiances,” she said, getting angrier. “In municipal elections, they all voted for their sects. As long as it is us versus them, why bother trying to change anything?”
Conversations bring up a dread of starting over elsewhere
In some circles, the urge to leave the country reaches such levels of desperation that young people ask friends with a foreign passport to marry them—usually half-jokingly. Nada herself stops just short of such measures: “I know a girl who won the green card lottery, and I will apply. You can laugh at me, but I have nothing to lose. I will apply every year, it’s a real thing. People can actually win! I will apply,” she repeated, almost in a frenzy.
The third option, indeed, is bleak. This group of young people neither jumps ship nor joins a faction, but rather stays in Lebanon while hating the system. Many do so out of a sense of duty toward their parents, but there is often more to it than that. Conversations also bring up a dread of starting over somewhere else, outweighing the drudgery of putting up with well-known realities.
Mostafa, who studies in a prestigious university, in a field about which he is apathetic, explained: “In Lebanon, I understand people’s humor. I can joke about something with my neighbor, and we understand each other. I speak Arabic with people on the street and in restaurants. I don’t feel like a complete outsider, as I would if I moved to another country. Even if they give me a passport, I will always feel like I don’t belong.”
Mostafa, as other like-minded youth, lucidly accepts that staying put means relinquishing chances for success and self-development. That is the price he is willing to pay for the pleasure and warmth of remaining in his home. Such resignation is frequently accompanied by wishful statements about leaving the country and never looking back, despite taking no steps in that direction. Staying in Lebanon while rejecting politics is a balancing act, combining the snugness of familiar routines, the disempowerment bestowed by the system, and the fading outlines of other horizons.
To stabilize this mix, Lebanon’s nonaligned youth resort to survival tactics. They learn to avoid breaking down typically by locking themselves into personal bubbles that shield them, to the extent possible, from the more abrasive aspects of their surroundings—bubbles where they can evade any creeping feeling of being sad or stuck.
This process largely consists in youth shrinking their aspirations and even the physical space in which they evolve—reorganizing their lives to bring them into line with the modest prospects Lebanon offers, rather than the grandiose images of fulfillment, entrepreneurship, innovation and empowerment the establishment callously advertises. For starters, most such people are quick to shed their share of responsibility for “fixing Lebanon.” The way they see it, they didn’t break it in the first place: They were born into it the way it is, can count on none of the factions to enact change, and spend enough energy already just learning to live with the ensuing difficulties. Older generations—not least individuals who “fought for something”—would like to call them “lazy” for not taking ownership of their future.
But young people see the staggering challenges they have been bequeathed, and wonder where they are expected to start. One example of a seemingly unfixable problem is the rampant corruption on which large swaths of society depend. Indeed, were political graft and patronage to evaporate overnight, hundreds of thousands of people would lose employment, healthcare and other benefits, and struggle to sustain themselves. A more gradual transition from predatory politics to good governance would involve many players and layers of intervention. What can youth achieve with a little activism and a few demonstrations?
What can youth achieve with a little activism and demonstrations?
Roy, who is 27, maintained good spirits by developing his dark sense of humor. Convinced Lebanon is doomed to stay the way it is, the best thing he can do is joke about it: “I don’t think our generation can do anything to change anything. It’s a fixed system where everything is built to last. Our politicians have carved out empires for themselves, and will defend them at any cost. They will not go down without a fight, and a lot of blood.” While he does not embrace the status quo, nor does he expect to alter it: “My point is that it’s good to keep fighting the system, but it’s simply not healthy to actually hope for change.”
Taking responsibility for the country’s shortcomings, which have piled up over decades, would indeed be crushing. Not doing so compels young people to repeat to themselves that there is nothing they can do. Either way, the sense of powerlessness is grueling, partially self-inflicted, and conducive to the kind of passivity that suits politicians all too well. Many apolitical young people thus retreat into a space whose parameters they mostly control, which they can dissociate from their broader environment and where they preserve their peace of mind and joy.
In addition to lowering their expectations, young Lebanese tend to willingly restrict the physical space in which they evolve. A typical pattern of behavior may include going to work using the same road regardless of traffic, socializing only in familiar cafes and restaurants, perhaps investing in a hobby and then going home. This may be true in other countries, but what is surprising here is a stubborn unwillingness to attempt anything outside the comfort zone. In this bubble, unlike in Lebanon at large, nothing can go badly wrong.
Maguy stayed unemployed for almost a year, after graduating in architecture from the most prestigious university in Lebanon. By the time she kick-started her career, she had already perfected her routine, which revolves around publishing her striking photographic work on her Instagram page. “I try to keep myself busy with little projects that make me happy. And yoga! If something is walking distance from where I live, count me in. Otherwise, don’t. And I am working on my papers to move to a country far away from here.”
Many apolitical young Lebanese are more sectarian than they let on
As often, her motivation to leave is mostly about frustration with staying: “In Lebanon, you can be recognized if you are some sort of artist, because the market is very niche. But you are doomed to plateau and I don’t want that. I can’t quite imagine myself living abroad. But can I imagine myself living here? No.” She grew somber as she kept trying to describe her experience: “How can Lebanon make you sad and hopeful at the same time? It hurts. This country is like the abusive boyfriend you go back to hoping he changed, although you know he never will.”
It may be tempting to see a form of resilience in the fact that youth adjust to the most impossible circumstances, and find a way to live on. But this is part of the problem, too. Young peoples’ entanglement in the system and creativity in adapting to it amounts, in a way, to acquiescence—bolstering the status quo more than it strengthens new generations themselves. It also, moreover, makes it impossible for them to acquire any form of independent political education: A recent upsurge in “civil society” participation in electoral politics arguably represented a step in this direction, but it remained confined to a narrow subsection of the electorate.
Consequently, many supposedly apolitical young Lebanese turn out to be more sectarian than they would like to let on. Their ingrained biases are quick to resurface, regardless of how well-travelled and well-educated they may be. Alya, Hind and Christine, former schoolmates who stayed in touch—not least through a WhatsApp group busy with grumbling about Lebanon—played unwittingly, over brunch, a well-rehearsed act.
“It amazes me how even people from our generation feel so strongly about the civil war, without understanding it,” Alya said. “Why would someone my age hate someone else of our generation, but from another faction? Based on what?”
Christine pondered: “Yeah I was thinking about that. Among us Christians there is a lot of aggressiveness. It’s like it has always been there but no one knows why.”
Alya raised her voice: “And all our politicians are literally warlords. That alone should make us think about the war.”
Hind said hopefully: “They will all die one day. And their children, their ‘heirs,’ are not as guilty, no? They can’t be so bad.”
This triggered Alya: “I don’t see why their heirs , as you say, should represent us, just because of their ancestry. They represent the war generation that just won’t let go.”
Then Hind instigated a turn in the conversation: “Alright. In the coming elections, who should a Sunni from Beirut vote for if not [incumbent Prime Minister] Saad Hariri?”
Alya exclaimed: “Anybody else. In Beirut there will be new candidates, some sort of competition. The results are not pre-determined, like in the South, where you can’t escape the Amal-Hezbollah domination.”
Now Hind got agitated: “What’s good about that? Saad will probably win either way. All I would be doing, by voting for independents, is weakening him and therefore strengthening Hezbollah. Why would I do that? A Sunni from Beirut votes for Saad, full stop.”
Alya was dumfounded. Blaming other Lebanese for their sectarian reflexes was a recurring theme of their WhatsApp conversations. “This surprises me, knowing how often you and I have agreed that he failed as a leader in the past years,” she said.
“Yes, but who will protect the Sunnis if he isn’t reelected? The situation is only tolerable the way it is because he stands in the face of Hezbollah. If he leaves, Hezbollah is not going anywhere, and I would rather not have them on their own.” Throughout, Christine stayed on the fence.
Alya, Hind and Christine could just as well have been Hassan, Ahmed and Michel. Such scenes could involve most young Lebanese struggling to live a progressive life in Lebanon. The Lebanese identity seems to exist in a constant tension between opposites, often cohabiting within the same person. And just as it does not take much to bring out the sectarian in the secular, hope is fast rekindled among those who despair.
Lebanese people, old and young, are often incessant in how they criticize Lebanon. But they are also quick to turn defensive when an outsider indulges in such negativity. Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of all the bias, mistrust and hostility Lebanese feel for their country is how much love and pride it conceals.
By and large, youth feel an elusive but powerful sense of belonging that seems to anchor their personality. Even for those who leave, Lebanon is indisputably the homeland. Lebanese cuisine is irreplaceable. French bread pales compared to a manoushe from the neighborhood furn , or bakery. Lebanon’s spiced coffee or accented Arabic infuses Lebanese with their warmth the world over. The iconic singer Feyrouz, who somehow managed to embody a Lebanese identity without being stamped by a certain sect, produces the same effect.
Such sentiments are deep-rooted and reflexive. When asked unexpectedly what he liked about Lebanon, Georges was taken aback and smiled as he answered: “I love the people. I love that I can go out at midnight and still find a place to eat. European countries may be orderly, but they’ve lost that liveliness—not to mention family as an institution.” He conceded: “Yes, we need to change. We have everything we need to improve. And maybe we never will. But I’ll keep on loving Lebanon anyway.”
Marketing companies and Facebook groups are adept at tapping this Lebanese longing for some lost innocence. It is an essential link, for expatriates, to home as they want to remember it. For Lebanese who buy into the factional system, these symbols of unity form an indispensable lynchpin of whatever is left of Lebanon’s national project—all the more important the more divided the country becomes. For a stranded, apolitical youth, such emotional attachments represent quintessentially Lebanese lifelines when virtually everything else appears tied to one faction or another.
* * *
If Lebanon is, eventually, to change for the better, the catalyst is unlikely to come from those up-and-comers who have either bought into the system or opted out of it altogether. Nonaligned youth will thus be forced to step up and take ownership of their future. This is, of course, easier said than done, given the daily obstacle course which they must endure in order to live a normal life, and which makes it all too tempting to romanticize Lebanon rather than seek to transform it.
The shifts pursued by these young people need not be drastic. What is essential, however, is that they engage seriously with some aspect of their country’s predicament—whether the political system, the environment, equal rights, and so on. They may invest in learning about that topic and participate in activities supporting it. They may delve more seriously into Lebanon’s rich history and literature, rather than stay on the surface. Or merely go the extra mile, literally, to discover new parts of their own country. As long as they are not being passive, they will be spared having to look back and wish they had done things differently.
The elections held in May 2018 were proof of how much work the political elite and their parties put into making sure everything stays the same. The one thing young Lebanese can change is themselves. Only by shunning their elders’ worst legacy might they find themselves, one day, living in the country they dreamed of.
4 June 2018
Aya Fatima Chamseddine is a fellow with Synaps.
Illustration credits: Synaps photography / licensed by CC.