February 14

22 Feb
Hariri memorial shrine.

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been here almost a month now and it’s amazing both how much has changed and how little.  The government has collapsed; the Middle East in general is experiencing an enormous time of change; last Monday marked six years since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; the UN Special Tribunal is to release its verdict on Hariri’s death and is likely to accuse Hezbollah – the group who put the current PM in power.  Pretty big stuff going on.  The landscape has changed too – since I’ve been away, bridges have sprung up, blocked roads have been freed, buildings have been restored.  Even old choice nightclubs, like L-Bar, which last summer was one of Monot’s most popular clubs, have magically transformed into something new.  There’s the Lebanese love for the cutting-edge and contempt for stasis.  Anything that’s been too samey for too long becomes dull and uncool.  In the world of clubbing at least, tradition is a killer.

Apart from all of that excitement though, life goes on.  The most telling instance was last Monday.  It might have been Valentine’s Day for most but for supporters of Hariri it was a day of commemoration for a martyred hero.  Since 2005, February 14th has been the day for a mass show of support for the Hariri family’s political allies, otherwise known as the March 14 coalition.  Each year thousands of people gather at Martyr’s square, lament Hariri’s loss, proclaim their support for Saad and generally demonstrate enormous patriotism.   (Hariri is credited as the man who ‘rebuilt’ Lebanon and called for its independence.  His death, which many believe to have been carried out by Syria or by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, resulted directly in the expulsion of the Syrian forces in Lebanon – some feat, considering that Syrian forces had been around since the start of the Civil War in 1975.)  This year, although there was a ceremony on Martyr’s Square to mark the precise moment of the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others, the major event was a political rally in BIEL.

And what an event it was.  This year the anniversary was particularly tense because Saad is no longer PM and because the power of Hezbollah is more explicit and more legitimate than it has ever been before.  The impact of Hariri’s death, which has always seemed to have at least resulted in good – The Cedar Revolution, combined with the fact that Lebanon has gone from strength to strength over the last 5 years – can now be said to have lessened.  It is doubtful that the March 14 coalition will be a part of Mikati’s new government.  And for the first time since 2005, the PM is a March 8 candidate.

For these reasons then, the BIEL rally was bound to be fraught.  But it was not only fraught; it was emotionally seething.  In spite of the fact that most of the attendees were ardent supporters of both March 14 and Hariri, initially the atmosphere was filled with tension.  Simply getting in was a hassle.  There was pushing and bumping all the way through security.  Queuing is generally considered pointless in Lebanon so jostling is normal, but this was a whole new level.  The chamber was blocked off by doormen who insisted on keeping the glass doors shut.  Imagine, if you please, eight thousand people surging and shoving against firmly shut doors, all of whom are already feeling excitable and are not so much spoiling for a fight as bound to punch the first person who gets in their way as a point of honour (for who, after all, would dare to barricade you out of the room where soon will be speaking the son of the man you admire and mourn most?) Regardless of whether you are man or woman, suited or sporting the hijab, you too are smacked against those glass doors and left gasping for breath.  I met two Egyptian press photographers who had just left Cairo to cover the event.  They described it – and I quote – as “worse than Egypt!”; some claim, considering what was going on over there at the same time.

The doors were opened in sudden and short bursts, each burst allowing only about twenty people through, so the whole process took a long time.  Everyone rushed through at such speed that there was still an atmosphere of aggression when you toppled suddenly into the room.  But eventually we were in.  And at that point all of the tension and the trouble vanished.  The talk, of course, had by now already begun.  As you have probably gathered, organisation is not Lebanon’s strong point.  Heavily emotionalising something though, is.  ‘Talk’ is not really a sufficient word to capture what occurred over the next two and a half hours.  Each figure (speakers were Phalange leader Amin Gemayel, Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, ex-Minister Mohamamad Abdel-Hamid Beydoun and of course Saad Hariri) was introduced as though a legendary rock star and welcomed with raucous applause, the applause that might greet home-coming war heroes.  The appearance of Saad was hyped to an almost unbelievable extent.  Video footage of his murdered father was actually interrupted so that the screen could display his own zoomed-in image, shaky and teary.  Each time his name was mentioned a violent clapping, complete with shrill whistles and screams, took over the room, and the audience would rush to their feet.  Men repeated Saad Saad in ritual-like chants.  During Saad’s speech (which of course came last) most of the people around me were crying.  In fact, two bulky men who had earlier fought over a chair and raised their fists at one another clasped hands; one lent the other tissues.

The occasion was all about eliciting an emotional response.  Each speech was interspersed with video footage of assassinated political figures.  The footage consisted largely of a photo collage (of the figures and of the scenes of their deaths) accompanied by voice-overs describing the victims’ personalities.  Their loved ones were interviewed and their achievements listed.   As for the speeches, they too were highly emotionalised, thriving on their own rhetoric.  The names of other assassinated political figures were repeated as if magical – Pierre Gemayel, Gibran Tueni, Bashir Gemayel – and later became more intimate: Pierre, Gibran, Bashir.  It was expertly done.  Enormous portraits of the late Hariri and other slain officials were hung along the wall next to the screen magnifying the faces of the speakers.  At either end of the chamber was a gigantic cedar tree (Lebanon’s national symbol) which, upon looking closer, revealed thousands of photos of the crowds who gathered on March 14 2005 and led to the creation of the coalition.  There was a tremendous sense of the day as quite sacred.

Nicely mixed in with this was the typical Lebanese casualness towards all such events.  Once everybody was settled, the ceremony became an entertainment.  Snacks were produced; everybody sat back comfortably in their chairs and prepared to watch proceedings like a movie that one takes part in.  A row of women in front of me presented the stereotyped picture of girlish high spirits, each of them giggling throughout the speeches and at times having to hide their faces in one another’s coverings so as to muffle the sound of their laughter.  Their amusement was not insulting.  The day was far more about togetherness than grieving.  Above all, it was an opportunity to show solidarity – and that meant the mentality of the crowd in all its conceptions.  The man who earlier had had to borrow a tissue managed to interrupt a speech by yawning so loudly that everybody around him turned and laughed.  One woman shrieked joyously across to him to ask if he was tired.  People enjoyed booing Syria and Michel Aoun as much as they enjoyed displaying their adoration for Saad.

And at the end? Once Saad stopped speaking, people surged towards the exit with as much energy as they had earlier invested in getting in – despite the fact that a final video was being shown.  Cigarettes were lit and cigarette butts dropped.  Papers with the program were left dishevelled on the floor.  Had the two and a half hour rally made anyone think differently about the future? About the way Lebanon is governed? About the existence of coalitions like March 8 and March 14? My impression was that, for most, February 14 had been a day of entertainment.  As I said, life goes on.  And besides, by now it was time for the Valentine celebration.


For a translation of Hariri’s speech see here http://en.saidaonline.com/news.php?go=fullnews&newsid=25128


One Response to “February 14”

  1. Sammy Hawkins February 24, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Ems, this is awesome! (not just this article, but all of them). So interesting, such a great insight and so well written! I had imagined you were a talented writer but this just confirms it. Thank you for a great read.

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