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Anthony Elghossain

‘American Boy!’ Philosophical Fish, Dirty Water, and the Culture of Corruption

Image via ghalebcabbabe.com

“What do you think you’ve learned during your time here?”

 

(Nothing… nothing of note, at least.)

 

“Anthony?” she prods.

 

I’m here, unfortunately. I’m here at an exit interview—another of life’s extended and elaborate exercises in explanation. On the way out, I could care less about explaining myself—much less to two colleagues, with whom I’ve hardly interacted before, who seem to have cultivated a curiosity that correlates inversely with their relevance at the company and in my life.

 

“Anthony?!” she sings again, like a parrot unleashed on itself.

 

“Yes, present.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be about the law,” she smiles. “In fact, I’m sure someone like y—”

 

“A fish is better off in dirty water.”

 

“What?”

 

A fish is better off in dirty water, than clean air…

 

***

 

As you’re doubtlessly aware by now, Lebanon’s a dirty place—literally, proverbially, and increasingly so in both senses.

 

And it has been for quite some time. In 1992, my family and I visited the motherland for the first time—or, in my parents’ case, for the first time in a long time.

 

Lebanon smelled like... well, it smelled. After a childhood in sterile suburbia, I hit the wall after disembarking in Beirut: a magical mix of—if you’ll please allow me, a good asshole, to engage in self-referential writing—“Mediterranean mist, terra rossa, pine, tarmac, and a hint of sewage.” Outside, much of the airport smelled of piss and shit—belonging, I’m sad to say, to a couple of men sleeping on what seemed to be makeshift cardboard beds.

 

The air cleared up as we ascended the road to Zahle. Seeing snow for the first time, I caught a glimpse of the Lebanon I’d heard so much about… until my grandfather, swerving left and right on a road paved with potholes, nearly collided with a lorry racing our way. “Welcome,” he chuckled. “This is like a computer game, no?”

 

The coast north of Lebanon, my folks thought, would perhaps give us the first impression they so desperately wanted us to have. Like good Florida kids, we tried to hit the beach; but we discovered a Lebanese coast utterly littered with trash.

 

The water was worse. Indeed, we could hardly tell where the sands ended and the seas began: all bottles, bags, boxes, and—as far as I recall, though everyone else has conveniently erased the memory—half-used containers of prescription drugs floated all around… As I tried to wade out into our polluted piece of the Mediterranean, my grandparents practically collared me and reassured us all that Lebanon—the Lebanon they remembered, the Lebanon we’d yet to see or smell or taste or touch—would soon be resurrected, recovered, or restored.

 

“They’ll clean it up soon.”

 

***

 

In 1998, a peculiar rumor raced through the Lebanese-origin community in the United States. The Lebanese Parliament was about to elect a new president—in what was to be, in effect, the first peacetime election of its kind since 1970. Never mind that these elections were neither free nor fair. Never mind that the electors—in Lebanon’s convoluted system, members of parliament elect the president—hadn’t been elected freely or fairly in the preceding parliamentary elections of 1996. And never mind that the politicians that managed Lebanon’s post-war system, which rested upon the pillars of Saudi money, Syrian guns, and American acquiescence, were slowly strangling the vibrancy of Beirut—a vibrancy that had, somehow, survived fifteen years of war.

 

Caught up in the fervor, or perhaps paid a penny or two, the madman and maestro Melhem Barakat—my favorite, for the damn record—put pen to paper in honor of then-future and now-former President Emile Lahoud. His song went something like: “Head held high, yada fucking yada.”

 

“He’s a military man,” mused folks in my family, like other members of a collective class of psychologically distraught—and politically despondent—Lebanese misguidedly infusing their fading hope for their native home with values and perceptions adopted abroad. “He’s a man of the state. He’ll clean them up.”

 

***

 

In 2005, millions of free-minded Lebanese—Christians, Muslims; Gucci Revolutionaries, gun-toting retrogrades; professionals and intelligentsia, laborers and the illiterate—took to the streets and squares of Beirut to demand change. In the weeks before, moreover, thousands upon thousands of the Lebanese camped out every day, marched before or after work, and protested in between—or, yes, instead of—classes.

 

They descended upon their capital for a host of relatively particular interests: many Sunnis sought justice for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri; many Christians sought to rid Lebanon of Syrian troops, regardless of why or how; and many Shiites, while perhaps not then particularly fond of the Syrian regime, reacted with caution to a political frenzy that would doubtless threaten Hezbollah’s privileged position in Lebanon.

 

But they all went a step farther—a degree further—than they needed to, than their political puppeteers told them to… In addition to pushing Syrian troops out of Lebanon, they for a moment tried to push for a better Lebanon—a Lebanon that delivered on the details, even as they struggled over structure.

 

And, yet, more than a quarter-century after the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanon’s arguably dirtier than ever. (So much time has passed that it’s become increasingly difficult to refer to the war—or even the Cedar Revolution of 2005—with a straight face…) After years in limbo, Lebanon seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. It’s increasingly dirty in the proverbial sense; it’s increasingly dirty in the literal sense.

 

To be sure, I’m still—as I was—delighted by the random waft of thyme or sumac, the occasional puff of cologne or perfume, and the odd breath of lavender, wood, or wax. And, yes, Beirut’s not the only city on earth that smells of exhaust, concrete, and hot asphalt.

 

But Beirut reeks of sewage and trash and shit. It reeks of a culture of corruption—and an associated disregard for rules, even those ostensibly agreed to and shaped for the local environment. That culture of corruption permeates practically every transaction in Lebanon: marking the value of real estate; accounting for a company’s assets and liabilities or profits and losses; providing, or securing, power and water; engaging the digital world; arranging for non-Lebanese labor to enter Lebanon (which has the added advantage of allowing folks to circumvent rules relating to minimum wage and required benefits); participating in routine commerce, like buying books or software, in a manner that eviscerates the rights of intellectual property holders; standing in a line, or amoeba-shaped blob, at the bank or airport or valet stand; and so on.

 

Lebanon is, in many ways, worse than it was ten or even twenty years ago. It’s worse in relative terms, because war and occupation are reasonable excuses—or, at least, explanations—for the occasional power cut or water shortage. It’s worse in absolute terms, because although power has always been a problem the Lebanese and their state institutions did manage to get on with picking up and more or less dispose of the fucking trash.

 

Lebanon’s also worse than it once was in the deepest sense of all: perception. Successive generations of Lebanese have found themselves forced to engage in the environment as it exists. They have no memory, real or imagined, of Lebanon as it was before or even during the war. After all that has happened, on questions great and small, they and the preceding generations that are puttering along beside them just don’t believe that progress is possible.

 

 

They’ve lost their will to act like they speak—to do what they say, and what they would seemingly have others do. They’ve lost awareness, if they ever had it, of how to conduct themselves in a fair-minded and self-critical manner. And, yet, while they’re not blameless, they’re not to blame.

 

They'll bribe officials to avoid official fines and measures, sure, but those officials design, adopt, and enforce official fines and measures arbitrarily and capriciously. They'll launder money, run guns, or smuggle drugs out of every orifice of their crumbling state, sure, but generations of their leaders have made a pretty penny or two as money launderers, gun runners, and drug smugglers operating outside of, alongside, and within Lebanese state institutions. They’ll cut you off in traffic, sure, but you’ll cut them off up and down the road. They’ll throw their cigarettes and bottles out on the highway, sure, but their state and its esteemed contractors will dump tons upon tons of festering garbage in valleys, back alleys, ditches, and riverbanks round the country.

 

***

 

“American Boy!” he gasps, running around the counter to kiss my face and pat my back. “Wayn yo?”

 

Wayn?” I hesitate, the Prodigal Son of a Prodigal Son. “Wayn, ka zalmay?”

 

“How’s the family? One meat with spice, one bulghari with extra spice, and two bottles of pineapple juice… eh habibi?” I haven’t visited this bakery, or any other bakery up here, in about eight years. And the lovely, loving bastard of a baker—still red in the face, still serenading passersby, still sweating all over our breakfasts—hasn’t missed a beat.

 

Others complain. They rediscover their civic faith at the corner bakery… they’ve already paid, see, and they’ve been waiting a while. Look, they’ve brought their own dough, thyme, cheese, or meat. They’ve got husbands and wives and children in the car—or at home. They’re hungry.

 

Shoo, wasta?” they groan and tease. But the baker’s not about to clean up his act. “Tannous bi khos finna.”

 

For a few minutes, until a scooter hero starts blasting fumes in our faces, this fucking fish finds happiness. Dirty water never tasted so good.

 

Anthony Elghossain’s giving himself two weeks to enjoy the fucking show. He tweets @aelghossain

Image via ghalebcabbabe.com

“He’s a military man. He’ll clean them up.”