Identities in Beirut: Who is an Arab?

Overlooking the street in Hamra from the balcony of where I lived
During my one-month stay in Beirut, I mostly walked and took the bus to the Arabic language institute Saifi in the area called Gemmayze. I lived in Hamra, which is towards the west side of the city. Although they are only three miles apart, they are vastly different. Gemmayze is an art district frequented by hipsters and fashionably-dressed tourists at day and party-goers at night. While Hamra is also known for its party-goers and tourists, the European / white Americans are less conspicuous. More locals patronize Hamra, which has also been known for its historical cafe culture. More pan-handlers are also visible in Hamra. It is also much more hustling and bustling throughout the day and night. In between these two areas, I would cross by heavily guarded Christian churches, poorer Shi'i neighborhoods, as well as the heavily gentrified / reconstructed Downtown area. 
Houses of a poor Shi'i neighborhood

Through traveling from the West to the East side of Beirut almost every day, I picked up many markers of gender, class, and sects in the urban spaces. While the class differences and high level of commercialized property in Beirut were more obvious to me, symbols of sects and discourses surrounding identity also came to me through my walks or chance-encounters. This is one of the experiences I have encountered; it is significant not only because the conversation was related to identity, but also because it was one of the few times the interlocutor was extremely vocal in regards to politics. I will write at least two more, featuring a Christian book shop in Hamra and a friend who lives in Dahiya.


On my last day in Beirut, I ordered an Uber car for my trip to the airport. Dani accepted my request and drove up in a rather large car. He could not help me move the luggage from upstairs, since he could not leave the car unattended, but he helped me load it in the car. I was very flustered because I packed most of the things last-minute and was drenched in sweat. I was also worried about the cab fare's payment option, since I was not very familiar with the Uber app. (The last time I used it was in eight months ago.) The east-bound traffic was also terrible. Dani noticed my stress and he was very eager to divert my attention to other things. He offered me water and mints and told me that even if the payment doesn't go through, things will be alright. I noticed that there was a wooden cross hanging at the rear view mirror as soon as I entered the car, and picked up that he was probably a Christian.

He could speak some sentences in English, such as praising the flavor of the mints or informing me the adequate time one should arrive at the airport for an international flight (3 hours, according to him, although later I found out that nobody really does that). I also used some Arabic that I learned over the summer course.  I learned that he is 42 years old and lives about 20 minutes away from Beirut (Either in the town of "Baouchriyeh" or "Bacha"). For more complicated conversations, we relied on the Google translate audio function on his phone, which was surprisingly accurate. Somehow he knew that I was in a very reflective period of my life. He told me in a heart-felt and philosophical manner that happiness is most important thing. "Money is not important. If you have a loving family and a house of your own, you will be happy," showed Google translate. He was curious about my deal in Beirut as well. At one point he asked me if I work for the US government (in a totally calm and natural way). I knew that many Americans in the region probably work for the government, so I said no without thinking too much about it. Then he asked, Why are you studying Arabic? I tried to express my interest in politics and history. He was even ready to settle for the seemingly unsatisfactory answer.  Then I landed on "hab"(which i wanted to use for a special interest in  cultures) but then he understood it as love in general. I also accepted at that point of the difficult conversation that the reason can be explained as for love. I said I have an Iraqi friend. 

"Have you been to Iraq?"

"Not yet. Will go some day."

I said that Beirut does not seem to be a very happy place. He did not disagree outright, but explained it through economic terms. He said that Lebanon has a lot of money. Some people have jobs and money, some people don't have money. Some people work a lot, and have three jobs. 

He complimented US society because it is the dream for a lot of people and is the land of opportunity. I did not know how to explain to him the various issues of race and economic inequality, so I just nodded along. 

Then he started to talk about how the politicians in Lebanon are corrupt. He said that Lebanon is using a multi-denominational system. There is no accountability because of this arrangement. I said that there will be a new constitution next year, so hopefully things will change then. He said that if they apply constitution, Lebanon would be the most beautiful country in the world. (In my opinion, it is already very beautiful, but I thought it is always nice to aspire to more as a public citizen, so I didn't say anything.) He also pointed out later that there is trash littered on the road to the airport and it hurts him to see it as such.

Then the conversation took a surprising turn. He started blaming Arabs. He said that 90 percent of Arabs are bad. I asked, are you not an Arab? He said, I am Phoenician (Fini). I did not need Google translate for this identity marker.  I already knew about the politicization of the ethnic marker Phoenician and it was also featured during a Father-Son dialogue in the film West Beirut. (It was also strangely similar--they started discussing problems of Lebanon and how the Arab world has made it worse, to which the son decidedly distances himself by declaring that he is Phoenician.) The last time I asked this question related to the Arab ethnicity was during the start of my Lebanon trip. A friend of my host, who I will call W, was giving me a concise version of his view of Arab historiography. His politics of Arab nationalism, which included a union of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, stemmed from his view of history. At one point I asked, if everyone is "Arab", then why different languages exist? And are you an Arab? W said that different groups of people decided to adopt the language, and that those who did adopt the language "became" Arab, like he did. The ironic thing was that he was a light-skinned ginger who has emigrated to Italy and often passes as an Italian.

Back to the cab ride. Dani proceeded to say something that astonished me so much I could only laugh: "The Arab was created to sleep." Google translate wrote. I was kind of confused until he clarified with gestures that he meant--Arabs were created to eat and sleep. He explained that Arabs take things for granted: "Thank you China, thank you Japan. Without the west we would only be on horses. No cars, no nothing (Ma fi shi)." I did not say much to that, because it was the first time someone was so honest to me about this issue. Later he helped me exchange my remaining Lebanese pounds to dollars, we arrived at the airport and I shook his hands goodbye. Behind this sentiment is a lot of colonial baggage (akin to intellectual and dissident Liu Xiaobo's statement that China should be colonized for societal progress) and also reveals the trend in which many Lebanese Christians have emigrated abroad. I am still confused how someone like Dani could be so attuned to societal problems and care for its betterment yet still come to simplistic conclusions. It is far too simple to say that Dani is "racist" or pro-Western: at least he has chosen to stay in Lebanon. He could see that religion is not only a practice but also an institution, since he knows that the multidenominational institutions in Lebanon systematically separate the people into groups so that the elites can divide the spoils. These were the same sentiments expressed during the 2015 "You Stink!" protests against the corruption of the Lebanese government. (Read more about the antagonistic relationship between sectarianism and government reform from the chapter "The Architecture of Sectarianization in Lebanon" by Bassel Salloukh in SectarianizationStill, I am hopeful that behind contradictory notions, there is also hope.