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Growing up in my neighborhood, what my dad called "Poverty Flats", I loved to daydream about “what heaven is like’. My mom said heaven was exactly what you wanted it to be. So I developed a very clear picture of it; me sitting on top of an endless series of sunlight-tipped, brilliant white clouds, with nothing else. Except a big refrigerator sitting in the clouds, all by itself, filled with watermelon and ice cream and the other building blocks of a well-rounded diet.
Flying into Lebanon Sunday felt like I had finally found that place We flew just over the tops of these brilliant clouds, then broke below them to find a deep blue sea, with the light chocolate hills of Jordan cascading down to meet the Mediterranean. We landed right next to the water, ensuring that all new arrivals got million dollar views of the waterfront.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we drove through Beirut, a city of 2 million people. I remember when we were remodeling our kitchen years ago, and describing the scene in my Christmas letter as “feeling like we are living in the war-torn streets of Beirut”. Well, you can forget that image now. What I have experienced so far is a modern, robust city, filled with small shops, a top-notch university, and friendly people. While in Israel, I felt a continual tenseness in the air, and sharp divisions among the various religious and cultural sects, here it feels more at-ease and fluid.
Yesterday I participated in a fascinating meeting of people interested in what is referred to a “civil society”. This is short-hand for folks who work to create more open, democratic, responsive public systems of governing.
It was a meeting of around 30 people, roughly divided between men and women, with ages ranging from early twenties to early 60’s. Five men sat at the head table and made a presentation on key reforms the group wanted to make: lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, ensuring that there was a “woman’s quota’ of at least 30% elected to office, giving the vote to those detained (in jail), promoting open meetings, changing terms from 6 years to 4 years, and most importantly, instituting Parliamentary Representation. (PR for short). Most seemed to favor the PR, French –style of representation, seemed to fit their culture better, with the multiple sects that all feel they need a voice so as to not be run over by others. This is a very real consideration, given the quite recent and very bloody civil war, in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and factional fighting in the past decade.
Lebanon currently is in its infancy of democracy, very fragile. It is described as a country that is half Christian, half-Muslim, but each of these halves are divided into many more sharp divisions of Sunni, Shiite, Palestinians, Armenians, and then further divided by families that lead sects within those. Most municipal meetings are not open to the public, but if you are lucky, they will post the results of the deliberations on the door when they finish.
So while things feel pretty good on the surface, underneath, we got problems…
As they talked, I marveled out how familiar this felt. This is how I imagined it was with John Adams, Ben Franklin, John Hancock and them sitting around for months trying to hammer out the US constitution. At least that is how Mrs. Elias explained it to us in 8th grade. But while I imagined America’s Founding Fathers as a very analytical, well-reasoned deliberation, the conversation I was in felt really ‘seat of the pants”. Everyone saying “we are late, this should have all been done yesterday. Let’s just draft something, anything, we can change it later, and get it in front of Parliament next week so we don’t lose momentum”.
Maybe that is how John and Ben felt too.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.