Between the nauseating reality of Donald Trump’s presidency and the nightmare of planetary ecological devastation, watching or reading the news has become too depressing even for a newshound like me. Just a few years ago, I could plow through hours of news reports, no matter how dire, because I still had a firm belief that there was always some way to make the world a better place. As a human rights activist, I followed daily news from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Israel religiously for decades. But over the last three years, hope has given way to resignation, fatalism, and even despair. Whenever I hear someone talk about what life will be like 50 years from now, I think “Well, that’s optimistic. I’m not sure humanity will still be here in 30, let alone 50, years.” As a university professor, I fear for my students’ futures and wonder if what I am teaching them will be of any use as they confront unprecedented challenges in the coming years. So, avoiding the news has become a prerequisite for maintaining some semblance of mental health, although it makes me feel guilty that I’m not doing my due diligence as a citizen to stay informed.
Last week’s unfolding story of the Trump administration’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine, not to mention Trump’s sudden and cruel decision to leave thousands of Kurds in northern Syria to the tender mercies of the Turkish Army, spurred me to catch up with the news of the world. Footage of the forest fires in Lebanon caught my eye and broke my heart. The next day, a Facebook friend in Lebanon posted a video showing more smoke, so I assumed there were new fires in the mountains. Then I looked closely and saw buildings, young people running, and military vehicles, and realized that Beirut was on fire, blazing with hope, anger, and joie de vivre. My first thought was “What took them so long?”, but my second thought was “When are we going to take to the streets here in the United States to protest the metastasizing corruption and greed in Washington?” I’ve been avidly following news of the Lebanese intifada for the last week just to feel joy and hope watching Lebanese of all ages and backgrounds come out to protest and party. Weddings in the middle of a demonstration, DJs playing music for protestors to dance to, face-painting, and hilarious posters have lightened my mood considerably, but also made me jealous that Americans are not out on the streets calling for the fall of the Trump regime.
I have to remind myself that the Lebanese have suffered much worse than Americans have over the last forty years. Civil war, massacres, mass emigration, a country in ruins, economic collapse, corruption, war criminals coming to power rather than going to jail, assassination after assassination, and the complete failure and breakdown of governance and infrastructure systems. I haven’t visited Lebanon for 14 years, and am always stunned when I hear from friends and family there about the ongoing electrical outages and garbage crises. In the immediate aftermath of the war, going without electricity and having to drive around mounds of garbage downtown were normal and to be expected. But how could the situation still be so bleak nearly 30 years later? The answer, of course, is corruption, which, refracted through Lebanon’s confessional system of governance, rewards the powerful and paralyzes the public.
I moved to Beirut in 1993, and lived and worked there until 1998. After getting over the initial shock of seeing pancaked and bullet-riddled buildings every day, I soon realized that the damage went deeper than what was visible to the eye. Corruption slapped me in the face no matter where I turned, from daily tasks like getting gas for the generator or having to wait in line at the Telephone Central to place a phone call, to dealing with a college administration that did not punish cheating and rewarded the obsequious.
Although my ex-husband had convinced me to move back to Lebanon on the grounds that it would be exciting to help rebuild the country and make a positive impact on a war-weary society, I soon felt frustrated and angry that Lebanon was so mired in corruption that people had lost all hope of any change. Whenever I complained about corruption, friends, neighbors, or relatives would shrug and sigh “hadha lubnan. shu bidna na3mal?” (“This is Lebanon. What can we do?”), as though the Lebanese were genetically incapable of fixing the mess their country was in, or cursed to endure corruption for eternity. I remember feeling self-righteous and saying “Americans would never stand for this! We’d roll up our sleeves and fix things and not let corrupt leaders stay in power.” After all, as a young teenager, I’d watched the political system of checks and balances work in removing Richard Nixon from power.
One of our neighbors, the Lebanese-Armenian painter Krikor Agopian, would listen to my ranting and smile patiently. One day he said “Come into my studio; I want to show you something.” I followed him, and he sat me down across the table from him as he poured water into a tiny glass and a large glass. He took his paintbrush, dipped it in the water, then dabbed it into black paint. He carefully placed a drop of paint into each of the glasses of water. “This,” he said, holding up the small glass, “is Lebanon.” The water in the glass had turned completely murky and opaque. “The big glass is America,” he continued. “Both countries have darkness in them, but look at how it disperses in the big glass. You can hardly see it, but it’s there. Lebanon has been through 15 years of hell. It will take at least 15 more years to recover.” Humbled, I nodded and stopped comparing Lebanon to the United States.
Now, though, the comparisons are hard to avoid. Trump is so corrupt he seems to be a caricature rather than an actual president. And, contrary to what that self-righteous 34-year old version of myself assumed, Americans don’t actually roll up their sleeves and fix things when they go haywire, nor, as it turns out, do we act quickly and in concert to remove a bad leader. Instead, we are trying to keep our heads out of the polluted waters of the Trump era, and can no longer deny how filthy it has become. Now I find myself hoping that Americans will follow the Lebanese example and rediscover the joy of resistance and the power of protest.