The fabric of Lebanese resilience
19 March 2018
Lebanon’s famed “resilience” is a source of pride at home and wonder abroad, as an explanation for the country’s ability to cope in frequent times of crisis. For the most part, however, such discussions remain abstract, invoking factors of stability that are ambiguous at best: a strong banking sector based on an ever-increasing and unsustainable public debt; a survivalist, entrepreneurial spirit through which citizens get by despite a do-nothing political class; and patronage schemes whereby political factions help keep people afloat at the cost of sinking state services. In fact, the true secret of Lebanese resilience lies elsewhere: in small-scale expressions of solidarity that are so pervasive as to be seen, by those involved, as nothing out of the ordinary. In other words, many Lebanese hardly notice those systems on which they depend above all.
As a result, solidarity among Lebanese remains a largely unstudied subject. Academic work has tended to focus on formal charitable activities and top-down redistribution via political, typically sectarian channels. What is missing is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle: the massive, albeit intimate and invisible, forms of support Lebanese extend to each other informally and horizontally, providing the elasticity they need to weather the shocks to which Lebanon is so accustomed.
Unsurprisingly, solidarity in Lebanon emerges most clearly among people enjoying strong interpersonal connections. Many such linkages are predictable, rooted in the familial, religious and social circles that structure much of life in Lebanon. Lebanese often rely on money sent by their kin abroad to cover health, education or housing fees, and this routinely involves distant relatives. Such networks are augmented by friendship circles, in what a young resident of Beirut described as a tacit division of labor: “One of my cousins paid the school fees of another second-degree cousin of mine. When you need larger amounts, as in university fees, you’ll typically ask friends more than family. Relatives can be more suited to smaller donations, and friends to bigger loans.”
Yet friends, too, will sometimes give generously, anticipating little or nothing in return. An actuary from a humble background in Zahlé recalled his university years: “A friend of the family once gave me 600 dollars to pay tuition fees. We were especially close because both of us were also communists.” Tellingly, the actuary made a point of reciprocating this generosity, sending back, years later, a gift worth the same amount.
The supporting rationale is very clear in the minds of many Lebanese: caring starts with one’s nearest and dearest. A Lebanese sociologist recalled a telling discussion within a study group: “as we talked about their respective life projects, a young woman said she wanted to go to India to follow the steps of Mother Teresa and help the poor. Everyone else was astonished, asking her why she wanted to go that far when there were people to help right here in Lebanon.” Some are quick to invoke a religious foundation, such as the Christian commandment “love your neighbor as yourself,” echoed by the Muslim saying “grant priority to those closest to you.”
As a result, conventional wisdom would have it that solidarity is mostly confined within communal boundaries. This is true to the extent that Lebanon is a relatively segregated country, where any given district typically is dominated by one of the nation’s 18 religious sects. Families also tend, with some exceptions, to be more or less homogeneous, increasing the chances that Maronites help Maronites, Sunnis assist Sunnis, Shiites support Shiites, and so on.
At the same time, however, Lebanon’s diversity creates plenty of exceptions to this overall trend. Indeed, it often seems that literal closeness—that is, geographic proximity—overrides social and communal differences that are otherwise well-entrenched within a highly segmented and largely bigoted society. Many Lebanese thus feel entrusted to take care of people in need they coexist with in their building, neighborhood, or village. The elderly, the mentally ill or the economically deprived often benefit from small gestures made by surrounding residents that add up into a social safety net of sorts. A Christian from Beirut described the widespread habit of supporting the building’s concierge, or natour: “All tenants help our Egyptian natour. We offer him extras for [the Muslim celebration of] Eid and grant him free access to the building’s electricity generator during power cuts.”
Predictably, this type of familiarity depends not just on physical proximity, but on time-tested relationships. Thus, even as long-established Syrian workers may be fully integrated into a Lebanese community (regardless of religious background), unfamiliar refugees may be aggressively rejected by the same constituency. Some villages have gone as far as to set up Syrian-specific curfews, among other forms of xenophobia and discrimination.
Interpersonal bonds lead even faith-based charitable organizations to routinely coordinate. The head of a Muslim charity insisted that sectarianism didn’t impede aid from reaching those in need: “At some point, our orphanage received help from [the Christian organization] Caritas, and we returned the favor with in-kind support during the Iraqi refugee crisis.”
Solidarity thus brings out an unsuspected yet essential facet of Lebanese society, which stands in perfect contradiction to some of its more visible traits. On the one hand, Lebanese themselves readily admit how distant they can be from each other, driven apart by forms of prejudice and individualism that tend to lock them into narrow, like-minded circles. On the other hand, small but meaningful acts of generosity, empathy and openness are widespread, discretely skipping over the fault lines that seem to define Lebanon as incurably stratified and sectarian.
Beyond simply influencing who is most inclined to help whom, these various forms of closeness also serve highly practical functions. Proximity is essential in identifying needs, in a country where individuals are reluctant to advertise them at the expense of compromising their status or self-esteem. “I met a man who borrowed a large sum of money to throw his own wedding party, but wasn’t able to eat regularly,” recounted a member of a church-affiliated association. “You wouldn’t know he was poor unless you knew him well.” Meanwhile, Lebanon’s absentee state lacks capacity to accurately ascertain poverty.
Needs assessments rely, therefore, on intimate, case-by-case knowledge, which tends to be accessible only to those within a given community. Neighbors, nurses and teachers play a central role in spotting signs of deprivation, and then trigger a response either via dedicated organizations or, as is often the case, informal initiatives. A former NGO worker depicted how social networks take over where institutions fail: “While I was assessing the needs of Syrian refugees, I came across Iraqis who complained about feeling abandoned. So, I organized a clothes-collecting campaign. Donations quickly started pouring in: People around me had been storing them for ages, just waiting for an opportunity to give to the poor.”
Closeness serves another indispensable function: building the confidence necessary for solidarity mechanisms to kick in, in an environment where distrust and indifference appear to be the norm. In effect, people are far more willing to help when they are sure that what they are doing is useful. Thus, they routinely donate through familiar, informal channels rather than professional, impersonal ones. A member of the Lebanese Rotary Club pointed out: “I wanted to distribute food parcels outside greater Beirut, so I asked contacts of mine in different regions–a Catholic nun, a club member who is Druze, and a Maronite priest–to set up lists of recipients. They have the local knowledge.” Solidarity therefore operates a self-reinforcing loop, flowing from a strong social fabric it further fortifies.
Another characteristic of these solidarity networks is their tendency to be non-hierarchical. Donors frequently remain anonymous or at least discreet, belying a Lebanese penchant for ostentation. Moreover, givers often go the extra mile to ensure that their donations do not demean recipients—by using the pretext of religious celebrations, resorting to intermediaries, or framing their gesture as a good-deed they could easily, in different circumstances, benefit from themselves. “It is important not to offend those we try to help,” stressed a member of an Islamic charity. “Our clothes bank, for example, is open to anyone. Clothes are on shelves and those who want something choose for themselves, like in a real shop.”
Relatedly, it is striking to note how often Lebanese lend a hand not just to those less fortunate than themselves, but to people whose living conditions and hardships they share. Solidarity largely revolves around life’s common challenges, such as the passing of a family’s breadwinner, a costly life-saving surgery, or a handicapped child. Merrier occasions can qualify too. A social worker gave the example of a relatively poor village in the Bekaa, where “instead of buying the bride and groom presents for their wedding, everyone contributes to a collective fund to help the family organize the celebration.” Givers and receivers easily behave as if their positions were interchangeable, which alleviates potential awkwardness in a status-conscious society.
Of course, solidarity is not exclusively horizontal, restricted to people of comparable means. Notably, it permeates the traditional partition between the poor and the middle-class—due in large part to forced proximity. Real estate prices have pushed middle-income families into popular, peripheral neighborhoods, while the country’s failing economy has eroded the living conditions of the vast majority of Lebanese. Nonetheless, an organization like the Lebanese Food Bank mostly relies on in-kind donations from regular Lebanese, collected in supermarkets. One of its board members grumbled about how difficult it was, comparatively, to fundraise among the elites.
Such organic, more or less horizontal mechanisms of support represent a striking and indispensable contrast with more institutionalized, top-down channels of redistribution. The latter tend, by and large, to contradict the very notion of solidarity, rooted as they are in highly unequal patron-client relationships. While various billionaire businessmen turned politicians—Saad Hariri, Najib Mikati or Mohammad Safadi, to name but a few—have set up foundations to deliver charitable services, these serve above all as a conduit for political patronage. Ironically, they also channel money that is not always their own. A scholar maintained that “these institutions have become very good at fundraising abroad, enabling their founders to contribute little themselves.” Political factions such as Hizbollah operate in much the same fashion, providing jobs and other benefits, but in a transactional exchange where loyalty is demanded in return.
Many Lebanese thus draw a careful distinction between genuine solidarity and service provision, the latter having been largely tainted in the Lebanese context. A volunteer for the Lebanese Red Cross recounted: “Once we took a man to the hospital. His brother wanted to give us money. So, I told him: ‘Keep your money, and, if you feel like it, once you go back home, donate to your local Red Cross.’ To me it’s important people know they can rely on us no matter what.” Conversely, in the absence of satisfactory forms of state-driven redistribution of wealth, many Lebanese perceive the top-down political support as their fair share of the national economic resources upon which the elite prey. A Christian resident of the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood summed up this state of mind: “At Christmas I receive 150 dollars worth of goods, handed out by a local politician, in a food parcel. I don’t need it, but why shouldn’t I make the most of it? That’s a free lunch that lasts the whole month.”
A distinct but related phenomenon revolves around elitist conceptions of charity which, while not so calculated and transactional as partisan service provision, are nonetheless too detached and condescending to be considered solidarity per se. A wealthy Lebanese lamented: “I am part of this network of rich Armenian women who aspire to help poor children. Last time, they collected money to take them to the theme park ‘KidzMondo’… Seriously? These kids don’t have shoes for winter and you take them on a two-hour tour of what they will never get in life?” Privileged Lebanese frequently attend and champion high-profile charitable events, many of which are designed as places to be seen as generous, with little concern for how much ultimately trickles down. Meanwhile, skyrocketing inequality has seen the elites take off, concentrating an ever larger share of wealth in a bubble far removed from the daily struggles of ordinary people.
More than domestic elites, elements of the diaspora have shown a capacity to feed into the low-key, grassroots ethos described above. The Ghazal Foundation, for example, provides half a dozen annual scholarships to support students at Saint Joseph University. LIFE, for its part, connects financial executives abroad with young talent back home. An American association of Lebanese women in Miami raises money every year to help fund public schools. The list goes on, suggesting that successful expatriates may be better suited to providing genuine support than elites with a more direct stake in the country’s mostly predatory political economy.
Solidarity networks provide an indispensable form of flexibility in a country where wealth is concentrated at the top, and where neither the national social security system nor taxation produce any meaningful correction through redistribution. The national social security fund (NSSF) offers a particularly counterintuitive and poignant illustration of the lack of genuine redistribution mechanisms, functioning solely as an individual bank account: employees enjoy the benefit of their pension scheme and medical coverage only to the extent that they contribute to the fund, thus eliminating any form of solidarity across generations or between the work force and the unemployed.
All told, at the national level, circulation of wealth from the rich to the poor is mostly anecdotal. The widespread understanding that Lebanese must depend on themselves, rather than expect help or change to come from above, is in part a consequence of Lebanon’s extremely rigid social stratification: mobility is so restricted that many youth feel compelled to try their luck abroad. The only alternative consists in pooling resources within ad hoc “communities of solidarity,” to recreate some level of economic elasticity.
Resilience, rather than some magical Lebanese attribute, therefore amounts to myriad, down-to-earth tactics deployed by Lebanese to make ends meet and pull through adverse circumstances. In 2016, an Oxfam study revealed, for instance, how local shops customarily keep tabs for their customers, who settle them on receipt of their salary. Such loans, usually interest free, are part of the plethora of mostly invisible means offering additional breathing space to families in need.
Through such contraptions, Lebanon manages to keep up the appearances of sporting a vibrant middle-class; look closer though, and you will see a collection of individuals running several jobs, chasing lines of credit, cutting back on essential expenses such as personal insurances, and relentlessly relying on improvised social safety nets. Only at the macro level does Lebanon appear to be a middle-income country.
That the middle-class is squeezed to breaking point is not a new idea. Arguably, this has been the case for decades. Yet it is being tested evermore. While the economy is stagnating at best, politicians are cutting back on state spending. Even patronage is shrinking, as the country’s factions find themselves running out of cash. “A decade ago, Hariri would cover your entire medical bill,” said an academic working on the city of Tripoli. “Today political patrons themselves face shortages of funding. What they can do is match-funding: ‘I pay half if you raise half.’ Local solidarity is filling the gap.”
* * *
Lebanon, in many ways, is a society built on extreme contradictions. True to form, it would seem that Lebanese can just as often be generous, sensitive, empathetic, humble and egalitarian in their social interactions as they can be self-centered, flamboyant, prejudiced and competitive. The political system is essentially built on the latter, with each faction playing on the insecurity of its base, at the expense of any nationwide interest.
What grassroots solidarity mechanisms tell us, however, is that with such distortion comes a counterweight—namely society’s ability to organize itself, to a surprising extent, according to the exact opposite values. As such, what holds the country together isn’t the fragile truce that unites the country’s aging warlords-turned-politicians, but how much Lebanese hold on to each other, one family, circle of friends or neighborhood at a time.
Illustration credits: Rubber band ball by Eeprom Eagle / licensed by CC-BY-BA-2.5.