Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?
Villainising the "other"


In this episode, we explore the deep religious fractures that have long been exploited by Lebanon's political elites to further their own power. Our guests tackle the notion that competing religious sects are doomed to clash, arguing instead that these divisions are often manufactured and mask a wider sense of unity.

We hear from farmer Ahmad Jaafar, architect and activist Nahida Al Khalil, and historian Charles El Hayek to get a sense of the reality behind the sectarian rhetoric.

"Lebanon: should I stay or should I go?" podcast is produced by Sowt for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform, and it is the story of a nation's collapse as told by its own people.

This episode was produced by Tareq Ayoub and Basant Samhout, hosted by Nazih Osseiran. Sound Design by Siham Arous. Editorial support by Rana Daoud. The show's Executive Producer is Nada Issa. Original score is composed by Firas Abou Fakher.

Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.


Nazih: This podcast was produced before and during Israel's military campaign in Gaza and South Lebanon.

Nahida: Many countries in the world wish they had the diversity we do. This kind of diversity leads to a sense of richness and culture and society. Unfortunately, we use it for division.

Charles: The different communities that make up what we identify as present-day Lebanon failed so far.

Nazih: Over the last four years, Lebanon, my country has suffered one of the biggest economic meltdowns the world has seen in more than a century. Our currency has lost 90% of its value. Our annual inflation in 2023 is more than 250%. As each day passes, people have less and less, while everything costs more and more food, medicine, electricity, even water. So, what are our options? Well, those who have the means to leave the country are leaving. And the rest of us. Do we wait and hope that things are going to get better? Or do we figure out how to get out of here for better opportunities elsewhere? What happens to those of us who can't leave or have nowhere to go? I am Nazih Osseiran Middle East correspondent for context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's digital news platform. And this is “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” A podcast about how this country's crisis is hitting its most vulnerable people, and how they are grappling with the choice of staying here or leaving?

Nazih: In societies that come under extreme stress, you sometimes see people retreating into what's familiar social or political groups, religious factions, tribes, and sects. Things that reassure them that they're not alone. But this retreat into familiarity could have another side, one where those who might be seen as different are excluded, even cast out. In this episode, we are going to talk about the deep divisions that have come to define this country and their role in holding Lebanon hostage to chronic strife and underdevelopment.

Nazih: Let me explain. Lebanon is a diverse country. For instance, there are 18 different religious sects. I'll name a few Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Alawite, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Druze, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Maronite Protestant. The list goes on. This gives our society quite a unique flavour. That might sound nice, but it often isn't. The 18 different sects are governed by tribal heads, almost like states within a state. And if you don't belong to one of these mainstream groups and choose to go against the grain, you often ostracized and targeted. Trauma from past wars fought along sectarian lines casts a long shadow on this country. In this episode, we delve into the rifts in Lebanese society and unpack what it means to live here and get a taste of what happens when you don't fit the mould. My journey starts with Ahmad Jaafar, an elder of the prominent Jaafar clan, one of the largest and most powerful in Lebanon. He is seen as someone with significant political influence in his area. He lives in the Hermel region, located 140km from Beirut and close to the Syrian border. The region is predominantly Shia Muslim and a stronghold of the Iranian backed Lebanese political party Hezbollah.

Ahmad: So if I go to Beirut, I don't belong there. So how can I build a prosperous future for my son? My son and daughter have both graduated, but I can't help find any jobs for them. If my kids can't find jobs, what else is left for us to do? We feel forgotten. And it's not just us, but the region too.

Nazih: I sat with Ahmad in the living room of his small villa as we sipped our coffee. He seemed to me like a man trying to provide for his family and community. I asked him about the divisions between tribes like his and the neighbouring towns and cities.

Ahmad: We're supposed to be a unified nation from the farthest south to the farthest north. The crisis was caused by the sectarian rifts fuelled by the media. Segregation created the crisis. This exacerbated the sectarian divides which created a disaster for all of us. The politicians we voted for are responsible. We have Sunni families living here, Christian families too. Even our Syrian neighbours from the Syrian border also live with us. Divisions between Shiites and Sunnis is relatively new. I am 61 years old now. Growing up, we never knew there were differences. Now all you hear is horror. Horror on Sunni this she read that Christian this and Druze that.

Nazih: Ahmad is distraught not only about the deepening sectarian divides in his country, but also about the future of his 35-year-old son, who is also helping in the family business. He worries about what kind of future he will have.

Ahmad: Of course 100% it makes me want to leave. If the situation allowed me to emigrate in the past, I would have done it. But now maybe I can help my son emigrate. But deep down I also can't bring myself to do it.

Nazih: Why is that?

Ahmad: Because he's my son. I want to be close to him. I want him to be with his family and in his country. But I'm conflicted because at the same time, I want him to have a better life. And I can't get that for him here. You're constantly stuck and conflicted. I'd like to believe I still have another 20 years in me, and in this time, my focus is on securing a comfortable life for my son and daughters.

Nazih: Back in Beirut, I met with Nahida Al-Khalil. Nahida is an activist who fought for equality and against corruption her whole adult life. An architect and a mother, she is an emerging voice in the conversation about Lebanon's divisions, one that brushes up against sectarian identity politics that have come to define this country.

Nahida: In a basic sense, there is no state in Lebanon, which means there can be no citizens. We're all subjects of this failed project. The meaning of citizenship is to have a country you can belong and be loyal to. A shared common identity. Instead, we belong and are loyal to tribal leaders. This is the root cause for all our problems in Lebanon.

Nazih: How do you raise your kids in an environment like this one? How do you teach them to be citizens and how isolated are you in your efforts?

Nahida: No, there are a lot like me. We all participated in the recent protests. Uh, more than a million people participated in 2019 and 2020. They went beyond sectarianism, beyond regionalism, and beyond genderism. No one thought about male, female, poor, rich, Christian Muslims.

Nahida: It was beautiful. All in all, it had its impact. And whoever says nothing changes is wrong. There are a lot of people who still want to persevere with time they develop. They begin to understand each other and realize that they're not different from each other, that they're all the same. The secular, the religious, the open minded. Everyone's free to be themselves. The most important thing is that there are no infringements on anyone's freedoms. This is what brings them closer to each other. This is what keeps us hopeful.

Nazih: But why do you choose to continue your fight? Personally, I might have to worry about how my son would be treated by society if he's gay or the treatment my Syrian wife could face when she needs to submit any paperwork to government institutions. These are just a few examples of the problems marginalized people face in this country. So, what makes you hopeful there could be a better future?

Nahida: You need to think positively what you're doing today. Your perseverance is leading towards change. But let me tell you, uh, I didn't want children who turn out gay because I knew the struggles they'd faced, especially in such an environment and communal setting. Why would I want them to go through such horrible experiences? I love children, I love them to death. It doesn't matter if it was your baby or mine, I love them. I have two daughters and they're both gay. When my friends ask me, what will you do with your daughters? Nahida, I respond, why? What's wrong with my daughters? When my daughters first came out as gay, I went into therapy. The psychologist asked me, are your daughters good people? I told him yes, they are kind and care about the world. He responded that he wishes he had ten children like my daughters. It's that simple. We had a prime minister who had a gay son, and this was the case for years. Did anyone pester him about it? We have a religious figure in Lebanon, a leader of a religious sect. His son is gay. Does anyone pester him about it?

Nazih: Do you ever think of leaving the country for a better future, for yourself or for your daughters?

Nahida: I don't ever want to leave. I love my language. I love my country. I have a cause, and I have a duty. You have a responsibility towards your country. What kept me going from 2017? We decided to work on the ground with grassroots groups. We initiated a pilot project and worked on it in my neighbourhood, where I lived for 24 years in Zuqaq, Al-blat. We believed in decentralization and the people are the centre of authority. The people need to participate. They need to ask. They need to develop and support each other. That's the only way we were able to build a strong, caring, developing community in Zuqaq Kleeblatt keep in mind, the neighbourhood lacks any kind of animosity towards the other, despite the fact that many sects share the area collectively. People need to speak out about what they want. They need to coordinate together to reach solutions, reaching the management they need by participating in local committees.

Nazih: Nahida's pilot project in Zokak Al-blat, a marginalized neighbourhood in central Beirut, was meant to propose to the municipal government actual solutions to the problems residents faced. They tackled issues from parking spaces to bigger concepts such as xenophobia and sectarian violence. It empowered the residents while creating a sense of community where everyone was heard and respected, regardless of their background. I asked her, how do you begin to implement this kind of approach on a bigger scale, when faced with a mountain of problems from sectarianism to corruption?

Nahida: This exchange and coexistence needs a lot of work and persistence. Some integration in schools and educational syllabi. There has to be a level of exchange, and it is crucial that we have some level of community services. There has to be a level of cultural exchange and communication sort of dialogue. Through this, along with phases of community services, we can reignite a sense of citizenship and a sense of belonging. When you are raised with a sense of belonging, you will develop a sense of ownership to the place you live in. You'll be active towards maintaining it.

Nazih: Sometimes history can teach you things that you can use in your present. I wanted to know how we dealt with our sectarian divisions in the past, and if there are clues in our past that we can use to fix our present. Charles Hayek is one of the most well-known historians in the country. I turned to him for some answers.

Charles: Keep in mind that the different communities that make up what we identify as present-day Lebanon failed so far to develop a common historical narrative that would give them a common and shared vision of who they are and of their identity. The Lebanese identity is more often perceived as a multitude of several identities, constructed on around three main pillars the communal religious pillar, the regional pillar, and the political pillar. And they both converge. Othering is key in constructing two things first, the self-representation of individuals and of the communities, and in consecrating the constructed sectarian geography. Framing is used to promote communal solidarity within the community. And this is something that we have been seeing on a larger scale recently in Lebanon. So briefly, there is no Lebanese identity that has been able to overcome the different communal identities that are constructed on the principle and notions of othering.

Nazih: It seems to me like the space for diversity is shrinking. The proliferation of state sanctioned violence against LGBTQ+ groups is the latest and most striking example. Do you recognize a crackdown on those going against the grain?

Charles: These are symptoms of an elite, ruling elite that doesn't know what to offer. They need to offer something. They have been constantly failing to deal with the crisis. Even though they are still very powerful. They still control the state, but they need to offer something to their public offering. The so-called ethical non-existent battle is one of their strategies. It's not the first time that they use these strategies. These are not linked to the concept of a common Lebanese identity. They are, of course, extremely dangerous. But for now, these can be the symptoms of a need that has nothing else to offer us, but the battle of so-called preservation of traditional values and ethics given and between brackets. Even if this is not the main topic. These ideas of traditional values are deeply rooted in misreading, misconception, and largely ignorance about the complex history and cultural heritage of this region.

Nazih: Many in Lebanon, especially the young generation, my generation and younger feel detached from their society. They're marginalized and they don't fit in, nor do they subscribe to the religious or political identities imposed on them by society. In this context, can their voices make a difference?

Charles: You need to keep in mind that the sectarian or political or regional identities are very old and very strong. Lebanon has at the same time, the uniqueness of having communities that can trace back their origins to late antiquity. It gives you a sense of belonging to a community. It gives you what the state is supposed to give you in terms of rights and duties. And it gives you also an ideological grounding for the political elite. They have been there for over a century, so they mastered the game of playing into othering and blaming and the communities, you know, the political system is based on communal solidarity, is based on clientelism. And this is a system that controls every aspect of the individual life. It's a very difficult circle to escape. So, for the political elite, the status quo is one of the reasons of their survival, and they have been striving to keep it alive.

Nazih: Do you feel like that they are clamping down on our freedoms and pushing more and more of us into our divisions? Is it because they think they're losing control?

Charles: Given that the political context in the last 20 years have been deeply characterized by stagnation, poverty, you do have extremist ideas that are rooted in misconceptions about traditional roles and traditional values. Society in Lebanon now is mostly conservative in a society that. Is not well informed, and they are instrumentalized in terms of othering, to promote the sense of a danger that is facing a certain vision of a society. This allows the political and religious elite to pose as the protectors of the traditional values, and to reinvent themselves. After failing to deal with the economic crisis as the absolute leaders and protectors of their communities and their traditional values.

Nazih: So what do we do? Do we start teaching our kids about community and neighbourhoods, rather than allowing sectarianism and tribalism to take root?

Charles: First, Lebanon has the legacy of an extremely complex educational system that is at the same time rooted in what we call public schools that rely mainly on Arabic as a vehicle, as a language of education. Second, you have the Francophone school, the oldest web of schools after the religious schools. This segment is divided into secular francophone schools and Catholic religious francophone school. And last, you have the Anglo-Saxon schools, whether they are also schools established earlier by Protestant missionaries or secular missions.

Charles: These schools usually exclude other communities because they don't get enough exposure into the cultural and communal diversity in Lebanon. To understand the diversity in Catholic schools, you find Catholic or Christian students who never been into a Muslim neighbourhood, and Muslim schools you find Muslim students who have never been into a Christian neighbourhood.

Charles: And this adds to the tragedy of an extremely diverse society in terms of religious affiliation, but without the proper tools where they can understand this uniqueness and this richness and live together. So, schools in Lebanon are part of the offering context. This lack of understanding promotes stereotypes, and stereotypes can easily transform into prejudice, and they can easily justify violence in terms of us and them. It is alarming that we have more and more misunderstanding that is being promoted either on media, on social media and education in Lebanon, instead of promoting not the romantic, outdated vision of tolerance of Muslim and Christians living together, but actual understanding of the history and cultural heritage of each and every community to be able to live together.

Nazih: I feel that there is a growing number of people who don't feel a sense of belonging to the country, and for many, this drives them to leave.

Charles: There are many levels in your question. First, the question of leaving the country because of the violence and crisis. This is of course understandable, but also I might seem a little bit too idealistic, but a country will not fix itself with its most dynamic element leaving it. One of the aspects of the crisis of Lebanon is the aging population.

Charles: An aging population is never a population that is open to change in. The youth are leaving, and it's totally understandable to claim that this is a Lebanon where they don't find themselves, that the youth that mainly leave are upper middle class or middle class that are not really exposed to the economic realities. Lebanon, where the majority of the population live under poverty line. We are a country that hides its poor, but now it's becoming more and more difficult. So, the problem is not here. The problem is that some political parties are using ethics and so-called traditional system of values as a tool to control society, and they are using cultural, also elements to promote a deeper control of the cultural life in Lebanon.

Charles: Change is happening. Let's focus on that. Lebanon is part of the Levant. The Levant is all about diversity and whether it is religious diversity, linguistic diversity, ethnic diversity. We need to understand more cultural heritage and history of the region. That was way more open minded. History can liberate us from these ideas and give us the tools to slowly counter this violent repression, not only on personal freedom, but on the notion of cultural life. Life and violent narratives cannot coexist.

Nazih: Thank you for listening to this episode of “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” Special thanks to our guests for sharing their experiences. If you like what you heard, subscribe to our podcast on your preferred podcast or music apps. Tell your friends and family about us, and don't forget to leave us a rating on Castbox and Apple Podcasts. This episode is written and produced by Tareq Ayoub and Basant Samhout. Voiceover by Rana Daoud and Bisher Najjar. Sound design by Siham Arous with music by Firas Abu Fakher. Nada Issa is our executive producer. “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” is a production of context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's digital news platform and Sowt Podcasts. If you want to send us feedback, you can email us at contact@Context.news or follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @ContextNewsroom. I'm Nazih Osseiran from Beirut.