At the start of the year I set myself a non-fiction reading challenge. I realised that although I loved non-fiction, it was a genre I had neglected a bit. I set myself the goal to read one non-fiction title a month. It has not been going well! My January book, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, took a while to get through. My February book was Lebanon by Andrew Arsan, which I spotted in my local bookshop at the end of last year and bought on impulse. It was big and not cheap, so not the usual kind of book I would buy, so it was very much a treat to myself – I know, most people would go for a new lipstick or something!
There is a story to this. I had the privilege of visiting Lebanon about twenty five years ago. My closest friend at university was half-Lebanese and lived most of her life between Lebanon and the UK. Some of the time she was forced back to the UK due to civil unrest in Lebanon, but she always had a foot in each camp. At the time (the second half of the 1990s), Lebanon was relatively stable and I spend a wonderful few weeks there. The people I met could not have been warmer or more welcoming and I loved every minute of my trip. The history of the region is the history of civilisation and it is heartbreaking to see that that part of the world endures so much suffering and destruction today.
Lebanon is a tiny country, one of the smallest states in the world, but its strategic importance means it has a higher profile on the international stage than its size might suggest. Its population is though to be close to seven million now, but well over 1.5 million of these are thought to be refugees from the various conflicts going on nearby. Over a million refugees from the war in Syria are thought to be living in Lebanon.
I always knew that the country was comprised of a fragile balance of different religious interests, known as confessionalism. I also always knew that much of its political system was characterised by corruption and vested interest. I also always knew that it was a country whose people have endured the worst effects of that corruption and the factionalism. Who could forget the terrible explosion of out of date and highly combustible fertiliser at the Port of Beirut in 2020, which killed in over 200 people, and for which no-one has yet been held fully accountable? Lebanon is also a country that its other more powerful neighbours, particularly Israel and Syria, have sought at times to control. The story of Lebanon is fascinating if also rather tragic.
What I was expecting from Andrew Arsan’s book was a history of the country which would give me a more detailed perspective of its present conditions. I was expecting a textural narrative which would tell me more about the Lebanese people, their nature and character, and about the culture. That’s not quite what I got!
Andrew Arsan is a Cambridge scholar of Middle Eastern history, with Lebanese origins. This book is a work of great scholarship that focuses on the period 2005-2019 – the references alone run to almost fifty pages. The book begins with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the great political hope of the Lebanese people at the time. The Syrian government are thought to have been behind his killing. It triggered a period of political turmoil in the country that the author describes in great detail. I found much of this very difficult to follow. I suspect, however, that anyone with some prior knowledge of the country and its politics, or who was from Lebanon, would be able to appreciate this account more. The overwhelming impression that I was left with, however, was that the government is corrupt; it’s about who owes what to whom, is influenced by outside interests, and is more interested in itself than improving the lot of the population.
The second half of the book was more interesting to me as it followed many of the social developments in the period, the cultural changes, how corruption has compromised the basic rights of Lebanese people, for example, the extensive privatisation of beach areas, previously unowned public goods, to the exclusion of all but the wealthiest citizens. The very basics of life have become increasingly difficult – there are frequent power cuts, intermittent access to the internet, and there is a whole chapter on how government incompetence and corruption led to a months-long failure in refuse collection services, with predictable consequences.
The book is extensively researched – I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like it. It looks like the kind of book you would dip into, but in fact it is a book that is meant to be read as a single narrative work. It is extremely well-written, with dark humour as well as profound irony. It is a shame that it is unlikely to be read widely.
I could only read this book about ten pages at a time, so it took me almost two months to work through. It is not bedtime reading and it won’t be top of many wish lists, but it is the kind of book that deserves to be read and understood, because Lebanon is a country that deserves more of our attention and to be better understood.
The next book I read in my non-fiction challenge was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – much longer title, much shorter book. I listened to it on audio over the course of about three runs. Look out for my review next week.