Skandar Keynes: Week 2

This week, SKANDAR comes face-to-face with a machine gun in an attic – but he still feels safe.

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skandarkeynesDriving across the Beqqa Valley on his way to prime hunting grounds, window down and rifle out, a cool morning breeze under the rising sun, a friend tells me, “Lebanon is much better than any European country. Here we are truly free.”

The lack of an effective state is often singled out as the source of Lebanon’s ills – be it the political insecurity, rolling blackouts, rubbish littered roadsides, or even heavy traffic. Another consequence is that people flagrantly flout the law. If the arm of government is struggling to crack down on the marijuana fields, it’s hardly going to be able to stop people hunting in those same fields.

In the cities, traffic lights merely seem to suggest when it might be sensible to cross at a junction rather than setting down exact rules. Indeed, it’s not a rare sight to see a police car run a red light through the streets of Beirut. And I’d love somebody to remind taxi drivers that they can no longer smoke in your face. Alas, my British sensibilities forbid me from doing it myself.

Guns are omnipresent in Lebanon. Through its urban landscapes, the yellow streaks of Hezbollah’s gun-toting flags flutter in the wind. Beneath, children run up and down the side streets firing BBs from their latest purchase at the local corner shop. Hunting guns are advertised to streets on billboards and to living rooms on televisions. The policemen and soldiers manning checkpoints and keeping watch throughout Lebanon invariably have a rifle dangling by their side.

Coming from a country where guns only break through into the public consciousness via the medium of action films, this can all seem a little strange. But what can really astound the foreigner in Lebanon are all the badly kept secrets that are tucked away inside. Some hosts can be rather forthcoming, inviting you to check out the French sniper rifle taking pride of place on top of their wardrobe. Others take a bit of convincing before taking you up to see the Belgian heavy machine gun swaddled in a grubbied cloth in the attic.

I have even witnessed a fully stocked “secret room”, storing a collection large enough to arm a small militia. As I mentioned in my first post, I now know not to be alarmed when someone waves a pistol in your face. Nonetheless, as my attempts to teach an eight year old about gun safety are laughed down, I still find myself on the other side of quite a wide cultural gap.

I can’t help but feel however that Lebanon has escaped some of the worst traits of a ‘failed state’. Counter-intuitively, there actually seems to be order despite an obvious disregard for the law. Constant fear of being mugged or stabbed doesn’t stalk you through the empty streets late at night as it might in many European cities; and while weapons are deeply ingrained in Lebanese culture, having your car stolen at gunpoint is still less a concern here than it is in, say, South Africa or Brazil. Societal pressures and restraint seem to keep rampant crime at bay – even though many areas are stricken by rampant poverty.

The social bonds inherent in the communities deprive youths of the anonymity that criminality ultimately thrives upon. I vividly remember a woman losing her temper upon discovering a young man had spoken “inappropriately” to her eight-year-old son, demanding to know the man’s family name from a witness so that she could take it up with them. By way of contrast, neither my parents nor I ever managed to track down the bloke who had called me a **** in a passing car in London.