“Foreigners” are easy to blame; oil conglomerates for the devastation of West African land, IMF demands for the impoverishment of Arab nations, Western powers for the invasion of Middle East lands and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Lebanon was always blaming foreigners for its tragedies: it was always the Israelis or the Syrians or the Americans or the UN who were the culprits. And all of the above is true. Many Lebanese still refer to their civil war as “the war of the others”.
But for once in the Middle East, it is a single Arab nation — Lebanon — which is solely responsible for the destruction of its heritage, its land and its mountains. The mass plundering of rock and sand to build monstrous high-rise apartment blocks and private villas, and the subsequent violation of the country’s landscape, the subject of an Independent investigation last week, is down to the greed and hypocrisy of the Lebanese — and the Lebanese only.
But what on earth produces this kind of mass insanity? Or mass national suicide? It’s certainly not exclusive to Lebanon. If we look closer to home, Brexit might be a good example. Or the election of a madman as president of the United States. The world’s willingness to overheat the planet for profit is a form of humanity-suicide if ever there was one, second only to the nuclear war with which we still threaten each other. But there’s something particularly poignant about little Lebanon’s case — with its history and castles and magnificent food, its rivers and lakes and its educated and gifted people and (more or less) its mountains — which put it firmly under the microscope of psychopathic behaviour.
This weekend, just a couple of days after The Independent drew international attention to the mass destruction of Lebanon’s mountains and ravines, it was suddenly revealed that one of the few still-unspoiled mountains ranges — in the north of the country around Akoura, with its precious crags and ancient forests of juniper trees — may also be torn apart by bulldozers and quarriers. Villagers thought they had prevented such plans until their own municipal council president, Mansour Wehbe, was reported to have said in L’Orient-Le Jour, the French-language Lebanese newspaper, that he intended to turn some of the mountainside into a “tourist lake” and a “sporting area”, that the rocks taken from the land — more than 1,800 metres in altitude — would be sold and that protesters were merely “distilling their venom on Facebook”.
Indeed, asked about a plan to sell rocks to a private company for possible use in a government dam, Wehbe was reported to have said that he had “the right to sell stones to whom I want” and, asked about details of the sale and purchase, apparently replied: “That’s none of your business.” One of the Lebanese ecological movements replied bluntly that the country’s forest laws were being ignored and that the project “was a free-of-charge suicide for Akoura”.
Another critic pointed out that “artificial lakes have no use at this altitude and no one has ever seen a sporting area at a height of 1,700 metres.” Wehbe, thinking perhaps that his earlier statements were a public relations disaster, then agreed that there would be a further study of the quarry project.
And so here we go again. Further study. More enquiries. A wider investigation. But when the whole of Lebanon is being consumed by the stone and sand merchants, who needs a “study” of the country’s act of collective suicide?
Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, another of those former “warlords” who have emerged as imaginative opponents of their country’s despoliation, responded to The Independent’s revelations by tweeting that “not only the mountains are endangered but natural [sea] shores are privatised and old buildings demolished… and rivers of trash are pouring into the sea. Fortunately Mount Hermon is safe because of war.” Hermon stretches down to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights — and it’s true that old front lines protect birds and wildlife and forests. Who’s going to quarry rock in a minefield?
Yet it’s the psychology behind all this that baffles me. Many years ago, in the kidnapping era of Lebanon’s civil war, I was approached at a post office in Tyre — where I was trying to send a report to London by telephone — by a huge and heavily armed man with a large beard. “Do you know what is the problem of Lebanon?” he asked grimly. No, I answered, all bashful smiles and obsequiousness. Then he boomed: “MR DOLLAR!”
And yep, I guess he was right. Wasn’t that what the first class passengers on the Titanic were discussing just before their ship hit the iceberg. But it’s something more than that. Many have an eye for the main chance, taking advantage of friends and neighbours for private gain — while still regretting the outcome of their own actions. That’s why everyone involved in the destruction of Lebanon bemoans the catastrophic consequences of their own actions. If only the laws were enforced, they implied, they wouldn’t be tempted to break them. Oil companies might say the same. If only there hadn’t been so much immigration (or if the Tory party hadn’t decided to wreck the UK to solve its internal differences), Britain wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU. If the elites hadn’t governed America for so long, a lunatic would not be in the White House.
What all this comes down to, of course — in Lebanon’s test-tube suicide pact — is that wisdom and morality is displaced by national self-harm when reason gives way to the basic emotions of race, anger and money. The Lebanese civil war was a sectarian conflict, detonated by political frustration and greed for other people’s land and property — “ethnic cleansing”, we would call it in Bosnia a few years later — and so Lebanon’s self-destruction today is in some ways a continuation of that terrible struggle between 1975 and 1990, but this time without the involvement of foreigners. That’s why only the Lebanese can be blamed for their folly today — and only the Lebanese can prevent their further self-destruction.
Take a trip to Damascus, by the way, and drive up the old international highway towards Homs as I regularly do. You’ll see even more cold-blooded quarrying and hacking and gouging at the great mountain chains on the eastern side of the anti-Lebanon range. Yes, there are foreigners aplenty in the Syrian conflict. But heaven knows what happens to Syria’s mountains when that war ends.
By arrangement with The Independent
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2018