Around noon yesterday, at the zenith of the sweltering summer sun and the desiccated weather of the Lebanon’s in-land s, my 9-year-old son’s bicycle was stolen from my in-laws’ house garage where he invariably sets all his outdoor miniatures. As reported by a 10-year-old witness who lives next doors, an 11-year-old limping Syrian boy, let’s call him Kamel, darted into the garage, grabbed the bicycle, and wheeled down to the next village “Al-Nabaa” located on the outskirts of Majjdel Anjar, which is adjacent to my in-laws’ village Al-Sawiri in the Bekaa of Lebanon.
Instantly, after we discovered the incident, I queried the Syrian tenants above my in-laws’ house who told us of the young culprit’s physical features. Later my wife’s grandfather told us the he asked a Syrian refugee framer,who works on my in-laws’ land, to seize limping Kamel as soon as they see him, as they claimed they encounter him passing by their two-room house everyday.
My mother-in-law told me that my father-in-law knows how to get hold of limping Kamel. My father-in-law has lived in the area all his life, he is known and highly revered by all people in the surrounding villages, and he is a member in the village (Sawiri) municipality council. After returning from work in the afternoon, he put the word out to catch limping Kamel. Later in the day, he was informed where limping Kamel lived. He went there with my son, and my son’s same-age cousins, and one of the Syrian farmers, Abou Younis. Knocking on the door where limping Kamle lived, they were rebuked by his mother on the grounds that she does not open the door for men. Still later, around 10 p.m., Abou Younis came to my in-laws’ house seizing limping Kamel, caught him as he passed by Abou Younis’s two-room house. My father-in-law asked him about the bicycle, but limping Kamel denied stealing it. His words were consequently followed by two slaps on his face, yielding an instant confession of the deed and offering my father-in-law and Abou Younis to show them where it was.
Limping Kamel took them to Majdel Anjar through a labyrinth of intertwined alleys and side-roads that had my father-in-law , Abou Younis, and his friend (who joined in later for the quest of the stolen bicycle) flabbergasted at the intricacies of the unbeknownst roadways to those who lived more than half a century in this area. Finally, they reached a car salvage yard, car and bike breakers. Knocking on the door, limping Kamel was let to solely speak for fear the man inside won’t open the door if he heard strange voices outside. Limping Kamel said, “It’s me!” whereby the door opened to reveal a taut Syrian adult worker. An intense conversation ensued with the Syrian worker. When the Syrian denied knowledge of the bicycle, he was threatened with the police coming by to investigate. He seemed terrified at the notion of the police coming to his car breakers and speculated that his superior was there at the time when limping Kamel came in with the bicycle. They went to his superior’s house, a Lebanese living in Majdel Anjar. They suspected that the Syrian worker warned him on the phone while they were on their way to his house, for his Lebanese superior said,” Oh, welcome. The boy got the bicycle and we knew it was stolen because it is to expensive for him to buy. We were looking for its owner”. It turned out limping Kamel sold the 200$ bicycle for a petty 2$. In the end, they got the bicycle back. Limping Kamel was threatened and scolded not by his parents, but by strangers to never to steal again.
My son wanted to know all about what was done to limping Kamel as a punishment for his mischief. It turned out that limping Kamel’s father was not there. His mother claimed that he (questionably) lived in Saudi Arabia. We were also told that limping Kamel was always out on the streets all days, and nights. In retrospect, Limping Kamel appeared at my in-laws’ house days before, during Eid Elfitr. He asked for some money and was given some. He was also observed peering into the garage, as if looking for something. He planned the whole thing in actuality, studying where the bicycle was set in the garage, and the best time in the day to steal it.
We offer them food, we give them money, sometimes even a plot of land to erect their tents. However, we do not give the Syrian refugees the social acceptance and psychological help: a warm welcome, a kind word, a genuine smile; simple gestures with majuscule reverberations. What chance does limping Kamel have for self-improvement as he grows up in his squalor, parental negligence, societal rejection, and lingering exploitation?
For couple of years now, I hear many Lebanese people iterating and recycling these expressions (sometimes with euphemism),”The Syrians have devastated our country’s economy and safety”. I hear horrendous accounts of Syrian refugees who steal, kidnap, prostitute, murder, debase, and commit a whole gamut of felonies; not that we Lebanese are doing better anyway. But I also know of many Syrian refugees who are very skillful laborers, pampering barbers, trustworthy aides, distinguished cooks, and successful entrepreneurs, amplified and honed by the dire necessity to survive and thrive in a land where they were forcefully transplanted. As a result, the lower-class Lebanese, and low-middle class Lebanese blame Syrian refugees for their spiraled dwindling income as the refugees have opened businesses, and extended a whole line of skilled labor that has eclipsed the low/middle income Lebanese skilled workers and small to medium sized businesses, typically the traditional businesses and fast food restaurants. This new and external competition has put the poor and lower-middle income Lebanese down: floundering small businesses and increased unemployment. We have failed to realize the role of competition in the market place to improve the quality of services however. We haven’t realized yet that instead of blaming the Syrian refugees for our hardships, we earnestly need to construe it as an opportunity to re-think our businesses, to leverage our business models, to learn from the Syrians, and to re-examine how we work and how our businesses perform.
I am not saying that the Syrian crisis hasn’t had an enormous socio-economic burden on Lebanon. Two million official Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with only 6 million is more than this minuscule geographic plot, with high concentration in urbans, can handle. Even with the help of the UNHCR, western and Arab countries, independent philanthropists and NGOs, the bloated population in a citified country (paradoxically the most bountiful natural location in the Middle East) will only result in “crashing people into each other”. However we Lebanese ascribe external factors to our incessant “failure to launch and sustain”. We single out the foreign “culprit”, the foreign limping Kamel as the source of our ordeals. We blame the “other”. This has always been our way. Since my childhood years, the Syrians, the Saudis, the Americans, the Iranians, the “other” are the source of our continuous learned helplessness to self-improve. We do not discern, or we do, that the “other” is within us, is with us, is around us, living on our hard work, cutting out from our money, and has always lived with us mostly since, although less prominently before, the days of Almoutsarfia in 1860, whereby the feudalists of Mount Lebanon and the merchants of the coast joined in hand to produce what was later known in the 20th century as Lebanese Warlords and the Dealers of the Temple, only wear a new garment in post-civil war Lebanon with the word Politicians, the oppressor, in the 21st century. This is the main internal “other”, the oppressor, that we need to blame, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Lebanese people.
Our oppressor’s masterpiece is one achievement, making himself covert, invisible, playing the role of a patriarch, but more so as a puppeteer. Because they lived amongst us for so long, we have “housed” the oppressor within us. We have loved him, cherished him and even though we sometimes smear him in our never-ending, futile, dialogues, we still love him through our actions. And so, because of this patriarchy, because we “housed” the oppressor, we are afraid to get free from the clutches of oppression. And those who loudly voice their opposition against the oppressor and the corruption are themselves the oppressors. Even the new revolutionary leaders, if you wish to call them as such, believe that they are leading a revolution for the people instead of lead a revolution with the people. Needless to say that this friction created by revolting-for-our-people leaders against the cogs of the corruption system will only cause the corruption machine to work more, yielding more oppression, as the liberation process is not done with the people, or to wear the cogs, if liberation is done with the people. The only thing needed now is that people should be ready for liberation. This readiness is usually started with awareness-raising to step back and look at the big picture. But awareness-raising is not enough. We like to talk about it than work towards it. There needs to be an action informed by the thought liberatory process. There needs to be a praxis by the people. This praxis should be applied consistently, not bound to a condition, or people, and should be applied horizontally and vertically. Only then will we stop limping.
I am ending this post to watch my son now playing with some Syrian refugees outside, all in joviality, all completely healthy, no limping.