When I was little, I constantly heard my parents argue about one thing:
Should we stay or should we go?
It was the mid-seventies, and Lebanon’s civil war had just begun, raging at full blast. Like most people living in the capital Beirut, my family was not sure what to make of the violence.
Will it flare up? Will it subside? Will it spill over to neighboring countries? When will it end?
Should we stay or should we go?
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My parents decided not to stay, so we packed our things and left in a hurry. We drove under a barrage of gunfire, and I was pushed down in the back seat of our hired taxi to avoid the stray bullets. It was not until we crossed the Lebanese border into Syria that my parents breathed a sigh of relief.
Syria is where both of my parents were born and raised. It was stable and peaceful. We could hear the sparrows chirp, even in the hectic center of Damascus, where our home was located.
But Syria at the time was also a Soviet ally, heavily steeped in the handicaps of socialism. It offered few job prospects for those educated in the West, like my father.
So off we went to the only part of the Arab world that had both stability and jobs. The Gulf.
We settled in Saudi Arabia, joining tens of thousands of other Arab expatriates who had arrived at the same conclusion, trading the absurdity of war for the absurdity of life in a place like Saudi.
It was within the confines of residential compounds that modeled themselves after American suburbs in the 1950s that my family and I (and virtually everyone else we knew) followed the turmoil that was unfolding elsewhere in the Middle East.
The civil war in Lebanon continued for 15 more years, while Iraq and Iran went to war with each other for eight. There were high-profile assassinations, like that of Egyptian President Anwar al Sadat in 1981. There was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a decade later, and the subsequent First Gulf War. Then the second.
There were some good times, too, filled with optimism, even if it all seems false in hindsight.
There were the early 2000s in Syria, the so-called Damascus Spring, followed by a decade of relative prosperity, at least for those who were not suffering the cruel drought in the Eastern provinces. By 2010, Damascus had landed on Condé Nast Traveler's top 10 destinations in the world. Neighboring Lebanon also thrived with tourists.
But as we face 2014, optimism seems in rare supply.
In Beirut, a series of recent car bombings have ripped apart a sense of relative peace, and the illusion that Syria’s war might touch the north and the south of Lebanon with sporadic violence, but certainly not the middle of the country.
“Not here. Not Beirut,” I often heard Beirutis proclaim over the past couple of years. Their optimism reminded me of Damascenes who also deluded themselves as Syria’s uprising-turned-messy war etched closer to the capital.
“Not here. Not Damascus,” they said.
Not so, as it is turning out for both capitals, though Beirut is still relatively safer than Damascus, a busy pedestrian city where people dodge continuous mortar shells and rockets that kill or maim dozens every month.
Up until early last year, I used to hold my breath during my tense sojourns in Damascus, where I struggled to go to sleep amid the constant bombardment and air raids on nearby suburbs. I used to look forward to my breaks in Beirut, a much welcomed respite from the war.
But increasingly, my trips from Damascus to Beirut feel like jumping from the frying pan into boiling water, to use a local proverb.
The tired term “turmoil in the Middle East” used to refer to several simultaneous conflicts, like a civil war here, a cross-border war there and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backdrop.
Now, the backdrop has faded behind a full-fledged regional Sunni-Shia sectarian war that recognizes no borders. It slithers underneath the surface in Saudi Arabia, where the country’s tiny Shia Muslim minority struggles against the brutal oppression of the Sunni Muslim government. It rages in Iraq through car bombs and provocative political moves by the Shia-led government of Al Maliki.
In Syria, what began in March of 2011 as a grassroots protest for long overdue change has turned into a holy war, or something like a proxy turf war between the region’s two 900-pound gorillas: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On the one hand there are Syrian troops flanked by Lebanese Hezbollah militia, Iraqi Shia fighters, Iranian special ops and international Shia mercenaries. On the other hand there is al-Qaida and all the other Saudi-backed Sunni jihadists that come from all over the world.
Oh, and there are the Syrian rebels who started the revolution in the first place. But now they are a minority as they are killed or exiled while fighting against most of the above factions.
When I was growing up, theological differences between Sunnis and Shias were so inconsequential that people from both sects lived next to each other and intermarried and thought nothing of it. Longtime friends did not know to which sect the other belonged, and did not care.
Now, they call each other names. “Terrorist” today is apparently code for Sunni, “impure infidel” for Shia.
On Thursday, a local television station aired the aftermath of the latest car bomb that exploded in Dahyeh, a suburb south of Beirut and a Shia stronghold of Hezbollah. As the TV crew began to interview live a man who had just witnessed the blast, they must have had no time to bleep out his emotional outburst, which viewers heard loud and clear.
“We’re going to f--k the Sunnis,” he raged on camera before they took him off air. He does not speak for everyone, but certainly for enough people.
Just days into the new year, and there is no shortage of bad omens.
Recently, two of the strongest factions fighting the Syrian government made a promise in public. They are Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), both al-Qaida affiliates. They said they are bringing their holy war to Lebanon, an ominous warning to Hezbollah and the country’s Shia.
Hezbollah for its part vows to continue its fight “against terrorism” in Syria.
As if that were not enough, local psychics who traditionally go on air with their yearly predictions (which sometimes come true!) warned of more car bombs in Beirut in the months ahead.
It has been almost four decades since the Lebanese Civil War begun, and my parents started arguing what to do about it.
My father has long passed (from causes unrelated to any war or from arguing about it).
And in the past few years, hundreds of thousands of Arabs, mainly Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Libyans, Algerians and Egyptians have been killed in war-related violence.
Yet all around me, I still hear the same things.
Will the war flare up? Will it subside? Will it spill over to neighboring countries? When will it end?
Should we stay or should we go?