In his new work, Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf reflects on Lebanon’s current predicament. Published by Saqi Books, “Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground” is a work not about the convoluted and inscrutable workings of Lebanese politics, but about the ways the country’s citizens, more infatuated than ever with all the flimsy trappings of consumer society, go about their lives. “Lebanon Adrift” is an angry, yet clear-sighted, book.
For Khalaf, Lebanon has not simply lost any sense of direction, but also all moral compass. Its inhabitants, he argues, live day-to-day. Operating without any sense of long-term perspective, they forever postpone responsibility for their actions, neglecting to think through their repercussions. Scarred and bruised by civil war, and blunted by the forces of hyper-capitalism, they are citizens shorn of all sense of civility. As Margaret Thatcher once claimed of her own country, there is no society in Lebanon, only individuals.
Lebanon is also a country where the sacred has become profane, and the profane elevated into the sacred. On the one hand, religion has been transformed into just another form of identity, a badge of belonging rather than an occasion for communion with a transcendent being. On the other, the things of this world are venerated, the endless accumulation of material goods treated as a pursuit, if not an end, in itself.
Khalaf does not pull any punches. In scathing passages, he anatomizes Lebanese society’s rampant consumerism. This addiction to things, he argues, is costly – leading many who can ill afford it into debt in their efforts to keep up appearances, buying the latest flat-screen television or 4x4 on credit to avoid losing face with friends and neighbors. More than costly, consumerism is also a corrupting, corrosive force. By promoting ad nauseam an ideal of skin-deep beauty – nipped, tucked, and fitted out in the right designer brands – it has not just turned the human body into a commodity, lasciviously used on advertising billboards to sell everything from cigarettes to blue jeans. It has also led the Lebanese to forsake all moral and social commitments. Privileging the accumulation of wealth at all costs and above all else, they have come to neglect even the most basic of social niceties – as anyone who has driven down the country’s highways, or tried to stand in line in its department stores, can testify.
Faith itself has been commodified, and religious festivals have been transformed into little more than a series of opportunities to celebrate the material (and carnal) pleasures of ever-greater consumption. Occasions for conviviality and the pleasures of family, rites of passage like weddings and birthdays have now become ostentatious displays of competitive consumerism, in which Lebanese vie to outdo each other with tottering piles of food, fireworks, and booming music. Even charitable giving, Khalaf notes, has been transformed from a selfless act, into one for which individuals seek active recognition in the here and now, advertising their contributions to ensure that others don’t remain unaware of their generosity.
Khalaf believes this is an unsustainable situation. The transformation of Lebanon from the “battleground” of civil war into a “playground” filled with evanescent pleasures did not, in his view, put an end to the baleful consequences of the conflict. The Lebanese are as divided and dissatisfied as they ever were. Their restlessness fueled by a desire for the esteem of others – a respect increasingly dependent on one’s wealth and purchasing power – they live in a state of anomie, of perpetual alienation from each other and from the norms binding society together. The branding of religion, meanwhile, has perpetuated the sense of sectarian difference that blights the country, threatening to turn it once again into a battleground.
Reconstruction has also brought new problems. In particular, the property boom that has seized much of Lebanon, transforming busy Beirut neighborhoods and quiet mountain roads alike into dusty building sites, has pushed real estate prices sky high. While these developments all peddle much the same idealized vision of stylish, modern living, they have put comfortable accommodation ever further beyond the reach of most, leaving the bulk of the country’s population to dream of access to these exclusive – in more senses than one – residences. As Khalaf notes, this relentless appetite for the new is often satisfied at the expense of the past – a past that is often quite literally erased by developers who raze Ottoman and French Mandate-era buildings, or build over Byzantine or Roman ruins with little regard for Lebanon’s multi-layered heritage.
Khalaf is all too aware of Lebanese history. Aware of how Beirut’s 19th-century transformation into a trading hub, whose markets sold the latest European fashions, presaged the country’s current passion for consumerism, Khalaf is unabashedly nostalgic for the Lebanon he knew before 1975.
Revisiting some of the arguments he first made in his 2006 book “Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Burj,” his work on Martyrs’ Square, Khalaf describes in lyrical terms the cinemas, cafes, and souqs of Central Beirut, seeing in them places of civil conviviality and interaction, in which differences could be passed over, and people could engage together in the shared joys of public life.
Such passages bear testament to Khalaf’s deep affection for Lebanon and its capital.
Khalaf is the director of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut. Since early publications like “Prostitution in a Changing Society” (1965) and “Hamra of Beirut: a case of rapid urbanization,” with Per Kongstad (1973), he has devoted his long and prolific career to chronicling the changing patterns of life in Beirut.
Appropriately, “Lebanon Adrift” is also a love letter to sociology. It is studded with learned excursions into the work of a range of social thinkers, from Durkheim and Veblen to Bourdieu and Zygmunt Bauman. Far from digressions, these moments are central to Khalaf’s book, as he persuasively demonstrates the relevance of sociological theory to understanding Lebanon’s position as a modern place par excellence.
Marked by intellectual curiosity and energy, this is an important and perceptive chronicle of contemporary Lebanon, and of a population that can live only in the present tense, spending its time in pursuit of the fleeting pleasures of consumption. Perhaps most importantly, it is a work that never quite relinquishes hope.
Though moved by anger at the fate of his country, and his compatriots’ behavior, Khalaf remains optimistic. Surveying the stirrings of an increasingly active civil society, and the continuing vibrancy of a public sphere distinguished by its openness and argumentativeness, he closes his work on a hopeful note.
Civility, “decency and the joys of small delights,” as he puts it, may have been cast to the wayside recently.
But just as they have been forgotten, they can also be remembered. Indeed, there are already signs that they are being put into practice by NGOs, activists, entrepreneurs, and planners conscious of the need to conserve Lebanon’s rich environment and precious urban heritage, and to work for the common good. The social malady afflicting Lebanon is not incurable.
Samir Khalaf’s “Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground” (2012) is published by Saqi Books.