Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Inside Beyrouth

A little bit of Lebanon in Amsterdam

By Sharida Mohamedjoesoef for the Amsterdam Weekly (issue 26 July - 2 August 2006)

Most people know him as the jovial owner of the Lebanese restaurant Beyrouth in the Kinkerstraat. And even now, while his country is being pounded unrelentingly by Israeli bombs and his own relatives are bearing the brunt of the wrath, he is still his usual charming self: Kamal Estephan, born in Beirut, 1964 and living in the Netherlands since 29 November 1989.

“To this date I celebrate my arrival to the Netherlands every year by drinking a glass of whiskey. I was glad to leave a country that was getting more violent by the day. Don’t be mistaken, I do miss Lebanon, its vibrant way of life in particular. Despite the war, we had time to have fun, go out and show off. In retrospect, it was a rather shallow way of experiencing life, I have to admit”.

The walls in Kamal’s restaurant are covered with various rugs, a detailed map of his native country and if you look even closer, there is a small picture of Mar Maroun, the fifth-century Lebanese hermit considered to be the father of the monastic movement now called the Maronite Catholic Church. But what stands out most is the posters of the capital Beirut before the civil war; a war in which the capital city image as the Paris of the Middle East was blown to smithereens by car-bombs and kidnappings.

Kamal was only 11 when he witnessed the onset of the civil war in Lebanon. Amidst all this turmoil he nevertheless finished high school and went to study medicine at the Lebanese University. Due to health problems, he was unable to complete his studies. “Looking back at my Lebanese days, I’d have to conclude we weren’t really in touch with people of other religious denominations” he says. “You must realise that we were in a civil war that was fought along sectarian lines. You just didn’t mix. Why? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Lack of objective education for instance, not one that was coloured along religious divides.”

Estephan goes on to explain: “The economic factor was another major obstacle. You have to realise that the Lebanese civil war was very much a battle between the haves and the have-nots. For a long time, the Lebanese Christians enjoyed greater prosperity, because they had smaller families and were therefore able to give their children a proper education. “The irony of it all, is that Lebanon was and still is a delicate tapestry of religious denominations. But only in Holland did I really learn about the various religious groups. Civil war is like an allergy, an allergic reaction towards the other.”

Estephan grew up in a country that was characterised by a peculiarly structured political powerhouse which also helped fuel growing unrest among the Lebanese. The president always has to be a Maronite Christian. The prime minister should be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia. This was fine, until the early 1970s when there was a gradual shift in the demographic make-up of the country. Christians were soon outnumbered by the Muslim population. Add to this the PLO-factor and you have all the ingredients that led to a bloody civil war.

“This war ended in 1991. But if Lebanese society is so much better? Mmm… I doubt it. Some of the problems that lay at the heart of the civil war, are still very much there. True, interreligious interaction has definitely improved. But nonetheless, it is still a far cry from what it should be. And with the war Israel is presently waging on Lebanon, some of this strife which I mentioned just now, has re-emerged in full force. It is a nerve-wracking experience, going through all the motions of war again. I am just terribly grateful that my parents, brother, sister-in-law and my wife are here in Holland. But my sister still lives in Lebanon and so do dozens of uncles and aunts. I am calling them almost every day. This whole situation is very, very stressful.”

Estephan is clearly distressed by what he sees happening for the second time in his life. He’s not afraid of apportioning blame, but sees fault on all sides of the divide: “Three words come to mind: guilt, aggression and revenge,” he says. “Let me start with the guilt: everybody, from Israel to Hezbollah bears part of the blame. As for aggression, the attacks of Israel are so extremely violent and so disproportionate. And last, revenge, ah well, to put it bluntly, in my eyes, this has to do with economic jealousy, because Lebanon was rapidly turning into tourist hotspot number one in the Middle East. And now, the country has been put back at least 50 years.”

Pride, history, a desire not to lose face, by meeting around the discussion table, all of these things are the cause of the most recent conflict, believes Estephan. And he knows the loser will be the ordinary citizen: “In the meantime Lebanon is losing its human dignity.”