Beirut—We are queuing at Starbucks. Documentary filmmaker Elyas Salameh asks me what I’d like and I ask him the same. To answer his question would have meant accepting his offer to buy me coffee. In the Middle East, it is important for people to get to pay for the coffee. Exhausted from a long and arduous trip from Syria, I give in. “Iced coffee,” I answer him and go to find a seat. It’s a rather chilly Saturday evening when we meet, but Elyas insists on sitting outdoors.
“Nasrallah is now making a statement about the war in Syria and says he is proud to have helped the Syrian army. This will surely instigate some sort of retaliation from the Sunnis,” Elyas says, referring to the Hezbollah secretary-general. We are interrupted by Josef Kaluf, another filmmaker. Handshakes and customary cheek-kissing done, we continue the discussion on the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites. “I can’t watch CNN or other similar nonsense. A ten-year-old in Lebanon understands the Middle East better than the experts who are consulted for analysis on the situation,” Josef says contemptuously.
A few hours later, riding in a taxi, the driver asks me if I mind him turning up the volume on the radio. The top item is about a Sunni suicide bomber who killed three soldiers in a town bordering Syria. The attack was carried out immediately after Hassan Nasrallah praised the success of his organization in Syria. Elyas was right. Ali, the taxi driver, a Shi'ite, is upset: “Those bastards are ruining Syria, Iraq, and soon also Lebanon. They let themselves be fooled by the US and others, so they kill their Muslim brothers.” By “those bastards,” Ali is referring to Sunnis.
That night I can’t sleep. I go down to the hotel bar; it’s empty but for the bartender. I need to understand. Why all this hatred? Why all this killing? In Iraq alone more than 2,000 people have been killed in sectarian clashes during the first four months of this year.
“This religious war between the two main streams of Islam has exacerbated [the situation] all over the Middle East. It’s worst in Syria and Iraq at the moment, but we fear it will intensify here soon, too. Some of my relatives and friends have already packed and left the place,” says the bartender in a hushed voice while pouring my drink. He doesn’t want anyone to hear what he says; this is a discussion between us, two Christians.
He continues: “Sunnis want to retake power in Iraq—you know, Saddam was Sunni—but they also want power in Syria and Lebanon.” The bartender sounds like a ten-year-old. I let him have his way as I try to appear the dumb European. “Sunnis are supplied with money and arms by Sunni states, such as Turkey, to kill Shi’ites. Shi’ites, on the other hand, get their support from the Iranian mullahs to kill the Sunnis and keep hold of power in Syria and Iraq. Here in Lebanon, they share the power but Hezbollah, which is Shi’a, has become the most powerful party.”
Back in my hotel room I keep reading about the power struggle in the Middle East. The bartender is right, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah—all are aided in their battle against the Sunni rebels. Josef thinks it’s simple; for an outsider, it’s all a big mess.
The next morning the same taxi driver picks me up. “There are several Sunni terrorist groups, and they are brutal. Bloody beasts, if you ask me.” He is not exactly impartial—the Sunnis are to be blamed for everything. He asks me if I’ve heard of Abu Banat. “Yes,” I respond. I want to indicate that I too, having been born in southeast Turkey, understand this affair. “Well, then you know how inhumane he is. His group cut off the fingers of people caught smoking a cigarette or the tongues of people caught swearing. To swear or smoke is sinful according to their interpretation of Islam.”
I try to object; Abu Banat, considered to be the most radical rebel leader in Syria, is not exactly representative of all Sunnis—quite the opposite. My comment has the driver relent somewhat. This reminds me of a recent discussion I had with an Iraqi Sunni, an ex-army officer who for many years served under Saddam. He believed that anyone who carried out an act of terrorism against what he saw as the corrupt Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq was a hero, and all evil in the Middle East was the fault of the Shi’ites. When I challenged him, pointing out that Sunnis have also committed acts of brutality, he became silent. He had himself killed many Sunnis—that is, members of his own sect—because they were, according to his political opinion, traitors against their own kind.
And then there are the Sunnis who fight with the Shi’ites, and the Shi’ites who fight with the Sunnis, and everyone fights everyone about who gets to pay for the coffees.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.