Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Ole Jack Spittle

There’s an old trick in Ethiopia they pull on unsuspecting foreigners. They call it the Ole Jack Spittle. You are walking down a quiet street with few other pedestrians, presumably minding your own business, when a young man coming towards you hawks a loogie and lets it fly. Interestingly, it lands on you. No doubt a humanitarian, our culprit’s terribly troubled at having inconvenienced an upstanding citizen of the world. He immediately produces a scraggly old handkerchief and begins rubbing about at your pant leg, abdomen – even groinal region if need be – wherever that lingering trace of mucus might lie. In the process, he pockets your wallet and whatever else can be had in this awkwardly drawn-out but fiendishly insightful five-second exchange.

A tactician’s wet-dream, the victim is caught unawares on several fronts: a) he is not used to being spat upon; b) rarely do complete strangers touch you in those parts; c) seldom does anyone have the decency to admit when they’ve wronged you, however unwittingly. (Your correspondent once spat into the Chicago River on a windy day. The loogie shot down and hooked a hard right before flying back up and over by 50 meters, spattering against the shiny pink pate of an elegant old moneybags. Rather than introduce himself and apologize, your correspondent ducked into Union Station and bought a donut).

Off the cuff, the rapid-fire chain of soul-searching questions raised by Ole Jack Spittle is difficult to absorb: first, in assessing the element of surprise. Did that motherfucker just spit on me? Second are difficult questions of ethics and honor: do I spit back or merely scold him? Kick him in the knee or the shin? Smile and turn the other pant-leg, or act as though nothing happened? Presumably most victims plop for the latter because, however noncommittal one’s mood, at least three of the above involve direct socio-physical contact with the “other.” Having landed on a new continent and only left the airport ten minutes ago, one can be forgiven if not up for immediately throwing down.

Yet before you’ve settled upon a reasonable course of action (creepy smile followed by furious bout of coughing), the cunning of history strikes again. Before you can say, mahogany Muppet-faced Melungeon! Your man is wiping you down with a dirty rag, profusely apologizing for that remarkably accurate ten-foot slobber-pop he landed right on the little green alligator of your fanny-pack. Thus the second string of tumultuous questions: have we met before? And must we move so quickly? This time the bastard’s really upped the ante, and there’s progressively less room for our previous deranged brand of passivism.  

But what is to be done? Am allowed I bop him if he’s less than five feet tall? Will his boys jump in? Anyhow, what do I use? A fist? A book? My bag? (We don’t want to break that old camera). Maybe I’ll just be a good Franciscan sport and let him get on with it. After all, he’s only trying to do the right thing. And thus, like a Bunga Bunga courtesan on loan to Brussels, you close your eyes, clench your teeth and wait for it all to end.


Ole Jack Spittle works because he strands his victims in the bloodlands between cowardice and indecision. It’s the ace of trickery, the extra-Old World’s sweetest siren. The Spittle betrays us for who we really are: waffling yellow perverts with no idea what’s going on. It’s wonderful. On a random sidewalk in a strange new land, out of sync and starved of context, privileged 21st century man is revealed for the vast depository of muddled instincts and misguided intentions that he is, or has the potential to become. A perfect storm, Ole Jack Spittle only succeeds when an immoveable object (careless, dirt-poor, rambunctious and creative Ethiopian youth) meets an unstoppable force (rapaciously “open-minded” middle-class Western traveler).

(Spit on a Chinese, Turk or Serb and you mightn’t get the same results).

But what of our champion’s inner workings? Does he not suffer from the same tyranny of choice? Sure as eggs is eggs and Camel is king, each morning he awakes to a new and provocative pickle: to spit or not to spit? If so, where and upon whom? We mustn’t forget that even if unsuccessful in fuddling about your pockets, Ole Jack Spittle has already achieved the impossible. À la “too big too fail” and “stand your ground,” it’s one of the world’s craftiest win-win criminal procedures: either un-punishable when gone awry (“Hey man! I was only wiping my snot off your trousers!”) or un-prosecutable when successful. Just like a pantless breakfast-in-bed with Lloyd Blankfein, the victim is far too preoccupied with being spat upon and fondled than being robbed. Even in the Nine Circles of Neoliberal Traumzustand, physical sanctity and dignity still take the cake.

Still an overwhelmingly win-win situation from our protagonist’s point of view. Even if Papa Urchin VIII doesn’t acquire your money, he gets the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slobber his will-to-power toward the top on every foppish foreigner he passes on the street. (A godsend in a starving slumtropolis that’s festering with thousands of hyper-remunerated UN bureaucrats).


Thus is Ethiopia, all and sundry will say, by far the ‘most peaceful country in Africa’. Which your correspondent will not deny. There’s virtually no violent crime, armed robbery, aggravated assault or anything more inappropriate than a good occasional groping (no offense, women and skinheads of Cologne). Its people are prudent, pacific, almost placatory. All day long, for years on end, they do things like perch under trees, fiddle with prayer beads and sit in fields. Perch under trees. Fiddle with prayer beads. Sit in fields. Perch under trees. Fiddle with prayer beads. Sit in motherfucking fields. It bludgeons the coked-up-I-is-the-angriest-birded mind, much less he who simply desires a maté and a good book to pass the time in this vale of tears.

Drive seventeen miles in any direction. A lifetime of bumpy gravel roads with neither vehicle nor pedestrian to speak of. A horizon as barren as Fiorina’s soul and Scott Walker’s scalp (if only the Chippewa had been responsible for that glabrous work of art, and not “banging his head on the cabinet”). Nothing but parched hills and fallow fields, sterile sweeps of crusted yellow earth. In a clearing is a flat and sun-stained plateau. Right in the middle, hundreds of feet from anything – the road, the nearest tree, the closest donkey – a middle aged mudasooka is simply posted up. What mean you, demand the eager masses: doing what? Just sitting there, since the dawn of time, in the middle of the hotdamn field. Not Indian-style, not contemplative, not i-motherfucking-ronic. Casually seated, as though a bus stop, a clucker’s park bench, the lower Manhattan arraignment room. For hours and hours and hours and hours and hours on end. Not quite sure what’s more riveting or relevant: the why or the how?  


Many put the Ethiopian’s remarkably peaceful composure and awe-inspiring ability to sit in a field for fifteen hours down their ancient Orthodox piety; the mysticism that thwarted a thousand years of Muslim invasions; the rock-hard stoicism they’ve inherited from Sheba herself; or simply the fatalism that numbs a country perennially plagued by famine. It’s undoubtedly a combination of them all. Yet among the would-be criminal (which lurks in the breast of every man), there’s a far more plausible explanation. Why resort to violence and pillage, fall prey to misery and despair, when you can spit on foreigners with impunity and take their money?

That’s why Ole Jack is so much more than a measly career, a paltry pastime, a gimmicky way to fund one’s khat-and-cold-beer routine. Nor, we must adamantly stress, is it merely a way of life. Ole Jack Spittle’s an ethos, a justice system, a Weltanschauung for the weak-pocketed-and-heavy-hearted. It soothes the grievances of the soul; it rights historic wrongs. Grandfather perish under Fascist reprisals? “I just spat on that Italian and he didn’t do shit.” Fresh to the capital from the drought-ravaged sticks? “I loogied all over that hooker-hounding, caviar-eating Kraut and he didn’t do shit.” And though ideal, your winnings needn’t come in monetary form. Also up for the grabs is any number of titillating wonders: whitey’s peanuts, lighter, passport or Piccadilly keychain will also do.

And let us remember: behind every catch, however meager, is a heroic tale of bravery, knavery, conquest and cunning, victory snapped from the jaws of defeat. The audacity of dope. “Christ may or may not have risen, but you see that Norwegian in the suit and tie? I just spat on that bitch and took his chapstick.”

Such is the brilliance of Ole Jack Spittle. A tactical maneuver combining the element of surprise and the speed of confusion, sprinkled with a divine spark of the absurd. It salivates with stealth, it vitiates with vigor, slobbering sublimity from the crooked timber of its rotting teeth. Good thing we’d read about it in the guidebook and jumped out the way as he hawked and took aim.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Whose can of worms? A Lebanese protest movement confronts apathy, trash and rampant corruption

For Lebanese over a certain age, the 2005 Cedar Revolution marked the biggest turning point in their (political) lives. A common refrain of many who participated was that this was the first time they felt truly Lebanese (as opposed to identifying solely or principally with one’s sect). Yet while the region’s first ‘velvet’ uprising forced an end to the 29-year Syrian occupation, the ‘revolution’ was stillborn. Within weeks of the Syrians’ departure, several of the civil war-era’s most prominent warlords whose ambitions Damascus had more or less repressed returned from prison (Samir Geagea) or exile (Michel Aoun) to try and finish in peace what they could not achieve in war.

More than a decade later, this class of septua- and octogenarian strongmen still dominates Lebanese political life. And rather than bring a hundred flowers to blossom, the Cedar Revolution triggered a relative closing of the Lebanese political mind. In its wake, two intransigent political blocks emerged (March 8 and March 14), each with heavily sectarian constituencies; backed by competing foreign powers; lacking much in the realm of ideas; and marred by perpetual volte face, personal vendettas and infighting tit-for-tats. (Sound familiar?) And if the 2006 Lebanon War greatly exacerbated tensions between them, the ongoing war in Syria has blown them out of all proportion.

At least on paper. Upon closer reflection, the war in Syria has also provided excellent cover for Lebanon’s political class to run roughshod over the constitution and conveniently ignore many of the state’s most basic responsibilities. Since April 2014, Parliament has failed to elect a president. And in November of that same year, that same body voted to extend its own mandate in office by an additional two years and seven months, delaying elections until 2017 with the swipe of a finger. It was the second time this group of lawmakers – elected in 2009 to ostensibly four-year terms – voted to extend their “stay” in office. The first was in May 2013, when they cited similar fears that holding elections posed too much of a ‘security risk.’ Nay, they have not given one half of two shits for many years. 

Thus do the Lebanese now find themselves with no executive; a corrupt, unconstitutional and self-serving legislature; and a judiciary whose penchant for trying civilians in military courts grows in proportion to the conflict in Syria.

Given the regional backdrop of chaos and counter-revolution, most Lebanese grin and bear it. After all, dysfunction almost always trumps destruction. This summer, however, things have taken a turn for the worse – or the better, depending on how Chernychevskian one is. After a ‘trash crisis’ that began in July in which much of Beirut was buried under mounds of rotting refuse, a rapidly growing number of people finally began to say khalas.


Thanks for this development should go to Sukleen, the waste management company that has enjoyed controversial monopoly rights over trash collection in Beirut and Mt Lebanon for the past 18 years. When an already much-disputed contract between Sukleen, the government and residents living near the company’s principal landfill in Naameh (a village south of Beirut) expired on 17 July, residents shut down the roads leading to the landfill. For Sukleen had also been ‘dancing on their nerves’ for many years, to quote a future Lebanese leader. What was meant to be a six-year contract from 1997-2003 and receive 2m tons of waste was (extra-extra-legally) extended by 12 years. It now contains 15m tons.

Once a picturesque valley, the landfill in Naameh is now a 650ft mountain. If winds are blowing from the west, residents cannot leave their homes until the evening when the stench has receded. A physician who founded the Department of Emergency Medicine at the American University of Beirut’s Medical Center found that local inhabitants had blood cancer rates four times higher than the baseline population. Of course, inhabitants of Naameh needn’t medical studies to know they are dying from a mountain of toxic waste snuck into their backyard (where hither they’d go hiking). One resident compared the landfill to the 1982 Israeli invasion, which also destroyed the village: “Either the landfill goes, or we do. There isn’t enough room for us both.”

When residents finally shut down the road to the landfill the day its contract ended in mid-July, Sukleen retaliated by simply stopping their garbage collection in Beirut and Mt Lebanon. Coinciding with a heat wave, the air in Beirut rapidly became noxious, and many of the capital’s inhabitants began suffering from skin rashes and respiratory problems (in a country where everyone already gloriously chain smokes, this is saying something). Visible for miles, a dark yellow haze hovered over the city as people took to setting fire to hundreds of mounds of plastic, shit and festering urban sludge – not only along its principal thoroughfares, but also on the corners of boogie tree-lined residential neighborhoods. It was sad and utterly dystopian, but strangely beautiful. Cormac McCarthy meets John le Carré, a front-seat for the end times – and they’re not half bad. At least the bottle shops still have electricity.  


A highly visible part of the city’s fabric, Sukleen has long since come under attack from the general public. Granted monopoly rights to collect the capital’s trash since 1994, the company embodies much of what is controversial about the rash of privatizations of public services that occurred in the 1990s in the Yeltsinesque free-for-all that followed the Lebanese civil war. Under constant fire for unauthorized dumping, failure to recycle, unsanitary and unlawful landfill practices, Sukleen has also long since been the object of public scorn for ripping off municipalities with rampant price gouging. Though Sukleen operates throughout the Middle East, the Lebanese pay far more for waste disposal ($130/ton of garbage) than their counterparts in Amman ($38) or Cairo ($20). Nor has Sukleen ever competed for any of these contracts: its owner is a long-time friend of former Prime Ministers Rafic Hariri (father) and Saad Hariri (son) and has long-standing ties to their Future Movement (FM) party and other leading cabinet members and parliamentarians.

All things considered, it is not that surprising that people have finally taken to the streets: clean air is a ‘commodity’ that even the most resolutely un-politicized, middle class pessimist still relies upon, and the Lebanese, notorious for “coping with any situation” to a fault, can be no more resourceful in the face of poisonous air than anyone else. Then again, as another associate starkly put it: “I haven’t got time for taking rubber bullets in the tummy. Nor do I for senseless protests. Assassinations will be much quicker and cleaner.”


Hence the curiously powerful new movement that has emerged in recent weeks as the single biggest challenge to Lebanon’s fractious and paralyzed socio-political system in a decade. Though more or less leaderless, unorganized and lacking any actionable platform, the YouStink movement – which began by targeting Sukleen and the politicians whose pockets it lines but since expanded to include a whole checklist of widespread grievances – has Lebanon’s normally complacent political class in its most serious bind in years.

Last weekend alone, more than 20,000 people turned out in downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square to call for the resignation of senior cabinet members such as Prime Minster Salal Tammam and the ministers of the interior and environment. Convening in front of the Grand Serail, the Ottoman-era Government Palace that houses the president of the council of ministers, it was not long before protestors were met with violence. Over the course of two days, more than 75 people were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters lobbed bottles of water and the occasional stone; police responded by firing live rounds into the air. (Which part of gentrified downtown Beirut the stray bullets fell is anybody’s guess). On one exciting occasion, an officer chased a young man with a parking meter wrenched from the sidewalk. The hoses were refreshing; the stones lobbed by the police back into the crowd of women, children and chicken-hearted American decidedly less so. Far more playful was the plastic chair that made its way back and forth between the demonstrators and the police. Political scientists are calling it the “beach-ball effect” and are saying it could work wonders in the rest of the region.


Meanwhile, the country’s leading politicians have been scrambling to respond in their usual Panglossian way: by supporting both the protestors and the government more or less in equal measure. The MP, leader of the Druze community and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt openly supported YouStink one day, before condemning it the next. A notorious turncoat for decades, he still occasionally outdoes himself. Not to be outdone, the two irascible Maronite Christians contending for the (vacant) presidency both claimed their ‘solidarity’ with YouReek. Even Prime Minister (and acting President) Tammam Salam, for whom protestors have reserved a great deal of their ire, expressed his sympathy. With characteristic magnanimity, he then added that everyone should be held responsible for the “excessive force [against] civil society and the [public].”

Unfortunately, the one leader who could not be reached was interior minister Nouhad Machnouk, then vacationing abroad. The very moment things started really heating up in downtown Beirut, a now-widely shared video surfaced of him dancing with young bikini-clad women at a beachside bar in Mykonos, laughing and sporting a ridiculous backwards cap. On Monday morning, however, he was back to work, bald and floppy in suit and tie, coordinating the construction of a concrete blast wall to fortify the Government Palace and put a physical barrier between the government and its mass of enraged citizens. Once it became clear this ‘wall of shame’ was only “enabling” the YouStink constituents’ artistic urges, it was taken down the following day.


For those too young to have partaken in the Cedar Revolution, the YouStink movement feels like a kind of turning point for many of the country’s young, urban, educated and politically discontented. For the first time since 2005, one hears people from every (religious not social) background exuberantly saying, “this weekend was the first time in my life I felt truly Lebanese.” Not only did those who protested represent a wide spectrum of Lebanon’s mosaic of 17 religious sects; crucially, there were no visible signs or audible expressions of loyalty to any of the traditional political parties or movements. And while people in the 30s, 40s and 50s were also highly represented, a large number of young families also brought their children to the protests, braving tear gas and hoses in the process.

Though encouraging, these signs of cross-sectarian unity mask an underlying malaise. For any observer, one of the single biggest questions is that of socio-economic participation: the vast majority of people present this weekend were ‘educated’ – which is code for ‘middle class’ – i.e. code for ‘not from the city’s (Sunni and Shia) slums.’ As a leading protestor told your correspondent, the biggest challenge for YouStink’s organizers – apart from apathy, tear gas, rubber bullets and concrete blast walls erected around the Grand Serail – is finding a way for the movement to better connect with the ‘street’ – that is, the young men and women from Tariq el-Jdideh (a working-class Sunni neighborhood) and Dahiye (a sprawling, often-impoverished and mostly Shia area in the southern suburbs of Beirut under Hezbollah’s de facto ‘jurisdiction’).

Unless they can make common cause with Lebanon’s undereducated and truly disenfranchised, the movement will lack the mass base necessary to overcoming the caudillo curry of throwing peanuts at communal flunkies. One should remember: the impetus for the demonstrations was to protest not only the mounting trash crisis, but the fact there’s no president, perennial electricity shortages and chronic corruption all around. Bourgeois concerns? Not always: while Beirut has mandatory 3-hour daily power outages, the countryside has 6- or 9-hour outages. Whatever the case, YouStink’s organizers, one of whom is Druze and the other is Shia, must agree that the movement’s success is as likely to hinge on cross-class collaboration as it is cross-sectarian solidarity. Rubbish clearly divides people from their governments; but is it enough to unite Lebanese from widely differing socio-economic backgrounds?


The other looming question is the rash of conspiracy theories now making the rounds. Who stands to gain from the ‘unrest’? And which ominous puppet-master is pulling the strings? Many whisper that Hezbollah is tacitly behind them, since any opposition to the current government increases the odds of their ally and preferred candidate, former general and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun, of assuming the presidency. In any case, the extent to which Hezbollah has remained silent on the issue, neither condemning nor condoning the protests, has been striking. Its TV station Al-Manar neglected to cover much of the protests – though in all fairness, the left-leaning Al-Jadeed is the only one that did – and Nasrallah has remained intriguingly reticent as to whether or not he supports this deluge of public opposition to a government he has excoriated for years.

Oddly and ominously, the second major fear is the overwhelming consensus among demonstrators that Nabbih Berri, the (Shia) Speaker of Parliament since 1992 and long-time rival of Hezbollah, is behind the protests turning violent. As the man who holds the creaky parliamentarian system together, he stands to lose the most. Hence the appearance of dozens, if not hundreds, of shirtless rude boys showing up in masks, clutching sticks and stones, and donning 6-inch necklaces in the shape of swords.[1] In addition to giving hell to the police and army, they put the better-dressed protestors, many of whom were doused in perfume and cologne, very ill at east.

Whatever the case, most can agree that a step in the right direction has been made. The important thing, a thoughtful but pessimistic protestor told me, is to not lose sight of the broader struggle – the establishment of a secular democratic republic whose government is accountable to all its citizens. For in Lebanon, she forewarns, “Every moment in our lives is the illusion of a fake victory. Every time I take a shower and the water is hot, it’s a fake victory. Every time I hit the switch and the light comes on, it’s a fake victory. All our lives are spent in a poisonous cloud of fake victories.”

But many Lebanese now seem hungry for more than fake victories. In a little-publicized story, a young man immolated himself in Saida, Lebanon’s third-biggest city, in one of many copycat protests that broke out across the country last weekend. (For the bleeding hearts among you: police doused him with water before he could become a ‘martyr’). Another young man traveled all the way from the South to Beirut to take part in the downtown demonstrations. In a television interview, he explained how he had come to the capital explicitly against his father’s wishes; the latter preferred for his son to go and fight in Syria (for Assad). As he told the journalist, “Excuse me, father, but why would I fight in Syria when I can fight for my own people in Lebanon?”

They have called for even bigger protests this very afternoon – in addition to solidarity rallies being held in Berlin, Washington, Detroit and Montreal. I don’t know about you, but I gots a bus to catch downtown.

[1] A practice common among Shia to commemorate the death in battle of Hussein

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Death in Achrafieh

In the week prior to the sanitation strike that's left much of Beirut under mounting towers of garbage, virtually everyone in the city was aghast at the gruesome murder of Georges El Rif, a 40-something father of four who died from multiple stab wounds – and the three cardiac arrests they caused – after being attacked in broad daylight in one of Beirut’s calmest, upper-middle class districts on 15 July. A social-media death, his was not only filmed in real-time on smart-phones and various surveillance cameras but casually watched by dozens of bystanders on a secluded street in Saifi, one of the Lebanese capital’s leafiest neighborhoods. The Minister of Energy, Arthur Nazarian, is said to have watched the 3-minute carnage from the safety of his balcony only steps away.[1]

As in many parts of the world, the saga began with a routine traffic incident that quickly turned sour. George El Rif had just picked his wife up from the airport, where she works as a security guard. Driving north along the airport road, he got in a right-of-way dispute with Tarek Yateem, who wanted to overtake them; this led to a minor accident. Though El Rif’s car sustained damage, Yateem sped away – an all-too-familiar routine the author himself has witnessed with alarming frequency. Rightfully if irrationally incensed, El Rif started trailing his soon-to-be-murderer across the entirety of Beirut, from the southwest suburbs near the airport to a secluded corner of Achrafieh in northeast Beirut, an exclusive and predominantly Christian sector of the capital.

In the meantime, his wife called the Internal Security Forces (ISF) to report the perpetrator’s license plate number and request their assistance in apprehending him. According to her, law enforcement said they were unable to intervene for lack of personal; the conversation ended to the sounds of her screams on one end of the line. Whether El Rif was bracing for a verbal or a physical exchange remains unclear, but scarcely could he have imagined that the detour to a quiet corner of Achrafieh was part of a broader ruse to corner him in a part of the city in which he could be “dealt with” with impunity. No different from most motorists in Beirut – a city whose drivers are too often consumed by a dangerous combination of callousness and impotence – El Rif was doing what so many are tempted do in similar circumstances: take the (lack of) law into their own hands. In a morbidly parallel sense, so was his killer. Whatever El Rif’s intentions, they backfired with such a cruel vengeance that they’ve left an entire country in shock.

What actually happened is too terrible to describe – a quick google search bears sad witness to that. Yet it is not merely the extreme violence of the situation – a man being stabbed to death in broad daylight on a quiet, leafy street in front of his helpless wife and dozens of apathetic bystanders, security guards included – but rather the complete defenselessness with which Rif is butchered, on the one hand, and the fact that we now witness his murder from the safety of the balcony from which it was casually filmed, on the other. As Sontag once quipped, “Wherever people feel safe... they will be indifferent.” Thus do dozens of idle bystanders – too cowardly, confused, apathetic or callous to intervene – become hundreds of thousands, the author included.

If only this tragedy ended with the death of Georges El Rif. In the days that followed, however, it became increasingly clear that his murder was but the tip of an unusually dark iceberg, the rotten cornerstone of the crumbling edifice that is Lebanon. Taken separately, the elements of Georges El Rif’s murder can almost be rationalized away to bad luck, cruel timing or somewhat typical personal character flaws of one kind or another: first, pride and endemic road rage – as elemental an aspect of Lebanese life as labneh and lemon and garlic. In a country scarred from a violent past, obsessed with cars, brimming with large egos and aggressive, risk-seeking vehicular habits, one can imagine how easily traffic a incident might lead to violence. But in a general atmosphere of impunity for big men and indiscriminate and disproportionate punishment for little ones, accountability rarely follows the crime. Equally sad, a bewildering amount of people seem willing to risk their lives on small stakes of honor. Hence the words of one popular blogger who questioned the victim’s actions:

If you try to out-za3ren (thug) an az3ar (thug), you get upset 9 times out of 10… [El Rif] should have just let the guy pass and put some nail polish on the dent the Picanto caused, not start a high-speed car chase with a villain when you have four kids and a wife to live for.”[2]

Second, the conspicuous absence of the police or Internal Security Forces (ISF) at the time of the frantic 3-minute phone call or the murder. In a country where no one pays taxes, the absence of law enforcement is tragic but not cruel, unusual or calculated. It would be nice if the state had a monopoly on violence, though no one in Lebanon pretends it does or ever has. Hence the proliferation of militias in poor neighborhoods and security guards in rich ones. The question that remains: who of the latter has more of a stake in risking their life to save yours? When push comes to shove, one doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the elderly, corpulent security guard making less than $600/month to risk his life for masters with whom he has little in common.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult and painful element of the murder to be rationalized away, is the cowardice, apathy or confusion of those who witnessed the tragedy but did nothing. Yet even that can be done – namely, by pointing out that the murderer was a very large man with a shaved head, covered in tattoos, wielding a knife and exhibiting a psychotic degree of energy, determination and complete disregard for what might understatedly be called “normal” human standards of behavior. Whosoever individually intervened to stop him from stabbing El Rif in the act would likely catch a coup de couteau or two himself. Why, one might ask, didn’t two people join forces to confront him? Alas, cooperation with strangers in life-threatening situations is far from guaranteed in a city that places extremely little stock in collective effort. As the above blogger depressingly concluded:

You live in a bad part of the world, full of bad people, where good people die when they try to be heroes, or go to jail because the police have no one else to put there. Don’t try to be a hero, nothing is more valuable than staying alive, as I’m sure El Rif’s loved ones agree.[3]

Or as another journalist lamented:

We have failed as a society and as human beings. Not only are we passive with our murderous, cunning government (or lack thereof) but we have also allowed apathy to seep into our innermost fabric, the fabric that once screamed empathy in the face of adversity, the glue that had kept our values alive throughout 30 years of war and the treacherous years that followed. I won’t go on to lay out the contents of my heart in terms of the current state of affairs of the country, for they will surely stop you from enjoying your [three-day] weekend. After all, we are the people who have traded empathy for a state of inebriation atop fancy sky-high rooftops, lest they compensate for our downfall as a nation.[4]

Of course, the murder could have happened anywhere: London, Chicago, Paris, Hong Kong. Nor does one assume that the average inhabitant of New York or Beijing would come to one’s rescue under similar circumstances. So why the gut-wrenching soul-searching over a single – if singularly heinous – murder? Because Tarek Yateem, who simply walked away from the crime scene and was only “arrested” after turning himself in the following day under pressure from his boss and political patron – one of the most powerful men in the country – is widely believed to go free.[5]  Hence the biggest question of all: who is Tarek Yateem and why does an entire country perceive him to be above the law?

A convicted felon only recently released from a ten-month stint for murder, Yateem had several outstanding warrants for various episodes of violence. In February 2010, he shot up a nightclub in Sodeco, also in Achrafieh. In 2012, he cut a schoolteacher’s ear off following a dispute over whether a child should be allowed to participate in school activities without her uniform.[6] When it comes to Tarek Yatim, the moniker ‘psychopath’ is not unfitting. So why wasn’t he still behind bars? Because, as chance would have it, he was the bodyguard (and widely rumored hit-man) of one of Lebanon’s most powerful men, the banker, businessman and prominent Lebanese Forces[7]-backer, Antoun Sanhaoui.[8]  

Made chairman of Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL) at the age of 35, Senhaoui hails from one of the country’s most powerful clans. The direct descendant of Emir Bashir Chehab II, the prince who ruled two-thirds of modern-day Lebanon on behalf of the Ottomans from 1789-1842, his father was a leading Greek Catholic businessman and his mother a celebrated Nietzsche scholar.[9] Apart from owning several upscale bars and restaurants in Gemmayzeh – not far from where Georges was stabbed to death in broad daylight – Senhaoui also founded the Oceana beach resort south of Beirut. On his personal website, he lauds his development in particular for its vision in bringing about the “Oceana Effect”: the privatization of most of Lebanon’s public beaches and accessible coastline “with countless resorts and hotels.”[10]

For two weeks an entire country has been bracing for the one phone call from Senhaoui that puts Yateem back onto the streets. According to police investigators, the killer himself expressed this much in body language, remarks and personal demeanor whilst in detention, even casually remarking that he’d do it all over if given the chance. In general, the investigator concluded that he more or less comported himself as though his release was automatic and nigh.[11] Yet as the stakes get higher and public calls for justice reach a fevered pitch, thanks in large part to “the power of social media” (which the author cringes in writing but cannot deny), there is a growing flicker of hope that only one of the two culprits, the murderer or the man who pays him, will emerge unscathed from the death of Georges El Reef.

Thus the real question: if Senhaoui caves to popular demands for justice – the most vocal of which are calling loudly for the death penalty – and throws his bodyguard and hit-man under the bus, will the latter quietly take it bending over? Or might he have secrets of his own that prove more damning than even the death of Georges El Reef? In the end, it is strangely difficult to tell who has more to lose of the two men. The sociopathic street-thug: his life. The banker: his reputation – and how much more? In this environment, bullets discriminate even less than dollars.  

All the same, there are still voices of reason amidst the clamour for vigilante justice or reinstating the death penalty by public execution (which is on the Lebanese books but has not been (officially) administered since 2004 – by hanging, no less). A young Protestant cleric is calling for people to carry out the Lord’s work and forgive the killer.[12] In another widely publicized piece, “Lebanese Need Justice, Not Executions,” the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for depoliticizing the judicial system and strengthening the rule of law rather than resorting to a cheaper fix of bread and games in the form of state-sanctioned murder.[13] But clerics and humanitarians are not alone. As an aforementioned blogger put it:  

Every time anything happens, people pull out their knives and start sharpening them, championing the death penalty as if it’s not only justifiable, but necessary. It’s 2015, and I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to say this, but torture and execution is wrong, under any circumstance, period. I don’t care if it’s Ahmad El Assir[14] himself: no torture, no execution. Or else, what makes you better than Baghdadi[15]? The Saudis? Iran? Cheney? Tarek Yateem?[16]

Might this, then, be the silver lining? The peaceful, spirited, democratic debate over how a broken state and a shattered society should respond to a particularly heinous crime? Can the death of Georges El Reef be the unexpected impetus for reforming an incredibly corrupt legal system, a non-existent judiciary, an unresponsive police force, and an embarrassingly solipsistic society? One can only hope so. As the editor of the country’s largest newspaper put it in a recent editorial, so long as things remain the same, “The murder of George al-Reef in broad daylight is not an ordinary crime, but rather “a rehearsal” for crimes that can be committed everyday as long as things like this continue to go unpunished in this country.”[17]

Nothing less is at stake, the author concludes, than the legitimacy of the Lebanese state. Nonetheless, “it’s an unfortunate reality,” she bemoans, “where appeals may be futile.” Sadly, one wonders whether her call for “justice” in a conservative upmarket editorial is more than yet another futile appeal. If so, what are the Lebanese to do? In the short term, the blood of Tarek Yatem will appease many, though no amount of it can quench the larger thirst for justice many now violently harbor. One thing is sure: the status quo cannot endure much longer – or at least with far less of a straight face. As another leading newspaper put it in a startling – and startlingly unnoticed – editorial, “A Bloody Coup for the Sake of Lebanon,”

When people do not move to save a victim from the clutches of his killer, when people only care about expressing condolences, when the wretched sectarians resort to manipulating people's feelings... all of this means one thing: we are in a society that needs someone to teach it the basics of life anew… Lebanon needs for its people to wake up one morning and find things completely different from the day before. It's no problem if the one who undertakes the coup has no mercy in his heart for great or small, that he is cruel to the point of mixing arbitrariness with the application of the law, that he is also bloodthirsty when necessary. All the mistakes that the absolute ruler will make will not equal a quarter of the mistakes that continue to be made by all those who exert influence over people today in the name of money and sect.

What happened in Saifi is more terrible than all the horrors of the Civil War. It is the final indication of the country's downfall, the downfall of everything that makes it capable of reform through traditional ways. Even the reactions that exist until now will not cause us to insist on anything less than a bloody coup that will not allow any of those who have a connection to those in power today to remain, even if this requires committing mass murder against them and their gangs that are scattered in every direction.

Rare, of course, are those who share this opinion – at least aloud. But its indignation, rage and political resignation are a depressingly accurate barometer of the popular mood. What’s even more extraordinary is the fact that an editorial from a leading newspaper calling for dictatorship and mass murder of the country’s political class can go practically unnoticed. An extreme manifestation of that famous Lebanese “tolerance” and ability to endure trying circumstances? Or another sign that the current political status quo is living on borrowed time? As ever, both options seem to go hand in hand.

President Obama was recently berated[18] for a remark in his Charleston eulogy that the mass-murderer of nine churchgoers, Dylan Roof, was “being used by God” to “open [white Americans’] eyes” to the endemic racism that continues to the plague the United States. In Lebanon, one thing is sure: in the death of Georges El Reef, it has found its Kitty Genovese. Whether or not it has its Dylan Roof remains to be seen.

[2] The author himself once witnessed an instance on the highway when a man driving his wife and three small children in a very small vehicle actively provoked a larger and considerably dangerous motorist in a much larger vehicle. The two then proceeded to cut each other off amidst considerable traffic and along curvy mountain roads for the next 30 miles. Thankfully, cooler heads barely prevailed.
[3] Ibid
[7] A conservative Christian political party that began as a militia during the civil war and currently holds 8 of the 64 seats reserved for Christians in Lebanon’s parliament
[14] A Salafi extremist from the Lebanese city of Saida who has waged war with the army in an attempt to create an Islamic caliphate in Lebanon
[15] The head of ISIS