Mr. Lebanon

Anatomy of an icon

We’d just finished Saturday lunch, and Nawaf Salam, an author and professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, wanted to try out a theory about the assassination of Rafiq Hariri he’d been marinating for a few weeks. Already Hariri in death had vaulted not just to martyrdom — a “living martyr,” as Lebanon’s Future TV labeled him — but to national icon. Lebanese who once avoided the downtown space around Martyrs’ Square, who hated the opulent faux French mandate-era style that Hariri had come to represent, and found depressing the empty gravel lot around the Martyrs’ statue, walked day after day in pilgrimage with sacredly selected votive candles and flowers and messages of defiance and prayers. Like a religious icon, Hariri’s tomb and his ubiquitous photograph embraced every Lebanese longing and fear, no matter how contradictory. For what is an icon if it cannot encompass paradox and promise us the possibility of the impossible?

Nawaf wanted Hariri’s assassination to attain just that — to forge out of his life, death and afterlife a founding legend for Lebanon’s independence upon which all Lebanese could finally agree. “When you want to tell the story of American independence to your kids, you tell them about the Boston Tea Party,” he said. “Lebanon never had one.” Until now. Five days after Hariri’s death and tens of thousands of protesters later, the wall of fear was broken down, and the Independence Intifada was born. That would be the story.

We settled down among his books in the study. As Nawaf conjured his tale, weaving through a cursory roll call of Lebanese national figures who, though executed or martyred, had all failed to achieve iconic stature, I fixated on a small Dutch oil painting of Galileo — the quintessential symbol of scientific genius persecuted by religious tyrants. “We never had a Lebanese Joan of Arc,” he was saying, “Not one.” And I wondered about these icons we so crave. Pharaonic in stature, they allow us to imagine ourselves in history’s epic. Yet to bestow that dubious honor, we seem to need a story of suffering that softens our own. Or perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps this need to identify with our heroes, to find the flaws that make them more like us, is a western trope. Listening to Nawaf I began to suspect not.

Nawaf’s first victim was Fakhreddine, the sixteenth century emir of the mountain who united the Maronites and Druze against the Ottomans, created the first autonomous region resembling today’s Lebanon, and was executed by the Ottomans. A nearly perfect recipe, but he was Druze. Bashir Shihab, the nineteenth century emir who built Beiteddine palace, not only let the Egyptians into Lebanon, but was a Sunni who had converted to Maronite. “Heretic. Won’t work.” The martyrs of 1916 are close. Hung for plotting against the Turks, they’re memorialized by the Square and Martyrs’ Day, and ingrained in the collective conscious. (Nawaf’s grandfather, after whom a Beirut tunnel is named, was one of them but not executed.) However, they belonged to the aristocratic families, and they’d collaborated with T. E. Lawrence and the illegitimate Faisal crowd — too elite to grab the popular imagination as icons of independence. Nawaf’s wife, Sahar, a columnist for An Nahar, disagreed, but Nawaf was on a roll. We’d arrived at Lebanese independence and Bechara Al Khoury and Riyadh Al Solh, the first president and prime minister, whose brief expulsion ignited popular demonstrations and ended French rule. Though they qualified as founding fathers, they have been obscured by association with the National Pact — Lebanon’s savior and curse, which tried to evade the historic dispute about Lebanese identity by en shrining confessionalism in the state’s DNA. The prime minister, it’s said, will always be Sunni, the president Christian, and the speaker of parliament Shia. It took fifteen years of civil war, in which Beirut became a symbol for the car bomb and the hostage, before the warlords finally agreed that Lebanon could be a homeland for all its children (except the Palestinian refugees), that Muslims are committed to Lebanon as a nation state, and that Christians must accept a shared Arab destiny. Hariri pushed through these accords in Taif. But his first act of national reconciliation was fogged over by the next chapter of government-induced amnesia. How could you talk about the war or crimes or the disappeared when the perpetrators were now politicians? “So all this time the Lebanese national construction has been missing a hero,” said Nawaf as the afternoon spilled out.

Enter Rafiq Hariri
Act I

The third child of tenant farmers from Saida, Rafiq Hariri (like millions of Lebanese) leaves home to find his way in the world, works harder and faster and more efficiently than his competitors, and one day winds up the owner of the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud embrace the émigré and bestow citizenship upon him. He erects palaces for kings, buys mansions, yachts and planes for family and friends, sits aside presidents and emirs in the West and the East, and shares his riches with Lebanon’s poor. The Hariri Foundation sends close to 40,000 Lebanese students to university. He returns at war’s end to rebuild his country as construction tycoon and Prime Minister. That’s when the critics awake from their slumber. The intellectuals and Beirutis have a nemesis. They disdain his Gulf style and checkbook politics. He can buy anything — journalists, politicians, even problems. He is arrogant, doesn’t listen, swaggers, and runs his ministers much like a CEO. He enjoys the orchestration of image-making. He’s obsessed with Rafiq’s image, spends millions on it, archiving every clip and soundbite. The intellectuals don’t approve. They don’t like his taste either. His company, Solidere, they say, will destroy Beirut’s soul — gone will be the souks of gold, fish, cloth, the taxis, the cinema, the bustling downtown for rich and poor. It will be a glitzy, tourist attraction. It’s shameful, they say, a country just out of war witnessing so much pomp alongside so much poverty. To them, Solidere becomes a euphemism for anti-memory. They suspect Hariri wants to erase history.

But Hariri has a vision. While militia leaders make deals to enrich their fiefdoms, Hariri makes deals to show Beirut off to the world. The country has never seen such a doer. “As intellectuals we are happy with our modest city. But when I travel to Singapore and Dubai, I understand how Hariri thinks and the role he imagined Beirut would play in te region, whether I share his vision or not,” artist and archivist Akram Zaatari tells me one day over coffee. “He is proud to say, Solidere is the largest construction site in the urban environment. He invites all the star architects to Beirut. He is excited to bring everything to Beirut — Formula I, International Sports, Media City. There is no national precedent for this.”

The film, by Syrian auteur Omar Amiralay, begins here. A bulldozer’s maw overloaded with the mud, offal and rubble of Beirut’s Normandy dump moves toward the camera. Then we see a conveyor belt and workers’ gloved-hands weeding out the household debris for compost. The rest — the war-damaged homes whose owners can’t afford to repair them — will be landfill. The camera closes in on one worker’s eye behind his Planet of the Apes goggles and gas mask. He gazes directly at us as a voiceover says, “Too soon to forget, maybe too late to regret. The memory-cleansing machine is at work again in a Lebanon wounded by a recent civil war.” The title appears, The Man With The Golden Soles. The voiceover continues: “From behind the scenes of this war, a savior emerged: Rafiq Hariri. Entrepreneur, billionaire, now a controversial figure that a drama about the stock market and life cannot ignore.” As the steel rooftop of architect Bernard Khoury’s nightclub slowly opens up to the sky, we see the looming figure of Hariri. Amiralay asked Hariri if he would mind posing there for the shot. He didn’t mind. Even if the shot is meant to be ironic, Hariri understands its power. The film is another prop in the staging of Hariri, not by filmmaker Amiralay, but by master-director Hariri, who often refers to himself as Rafiq, or “he.” Vain and strategic, he has legacy on his mind.

Fearing he really has succumbed to Hariri’s charm, and the illusion of intimacy with power — filming takes time, time at home, at work, at rest — Amiralay lingers on the sleeping giant in his private 777 jet and calls on his Lebanese intellectual friends to save him. Samir Kassir, writer and historian, chides Amiralay. “What’s the point of filming him if it doesn’t lead to self-criticism?”

Act II

In fact, Hariri has changed. He’s out of office. He’s lost for the first time in his life. He wants to understand why. “Money cannot buy souls,” he says, as if he’s absorbed the lesson of Lebanon’s complexity. At home, in his woolen abaya by a candle — miles from the Hariri who, when asked if he’s nervous about the camera, replies, “Me? How? I make the whole town nervous” — we get humble Hariri. “I went through a period of vanity,” he says. “A period I hark back to with my children and relatives. You lose all sense of reason. You lose control and begin to think — egged on by your entourage — that you’re a genius, a witty man, a great scholar, somebody exceptional and erudite.” All the things he fears he’s not. “Political action and the struggle for money makes you lose your soul. What happened to Rafiq Hariri? My conscience turned me back into the person I really am.” Here, in a stroke of genius, Amiralay cuts to show us Hariri in an armchair watching Rafiq’s confessional performance on screen. Has the filmmaker undermined Rafiq’s conscience? Which image-maker is winning? Amiralay says he’s disturbed by Hariri’s skill, by how this man of power has played on Amiralay’s ego by recognizing him as an intellectual. Hariri trying to control his image loses control. “You assume you are intellectual and I am not…I’ve been known to read a book a week. You don’t have a monopoly on culture. My recognizing you as intellectual doesn’t give you the right to cast me as the rich ignoramus.” We close in on the cartoonist’s vision of Hariri — the eyebrows. And then Hariri, stepping out of his car on the tarmac, says: “Do I look like a film star?”

Later, Kassir will tell me about an interview he has with Hariri. They sit for over an hour with MPs waiting. Kassir knows this is Hariri’s method of bribing him without money. Kassir is ashamed. But what does Hariri talk about for nearly an hour? The movie, and this word mouthaqafa. Hariri’s obsessed. He too is mouth-aqafa. Kassir explains the Gramscian concept of intellectuals. It’s absurd, and Kassir steers back to the interview. Hariri says he might not accept to be Prime Minister. “Don’t,” says Kassir. “Emile Lahoud” — president, Syrian stooge — “won’t let you work.” “No. No. I can manage him.” Later, Kassir will tell me, “He was always overconfident. He saw himself as Superman.”


Lahoud plays dirty to defeat Hariri and Hariri is swept into office. It’s the hero’s comeback. The people adore him. The mogul will revive the country. But Hariri knows he must be circumspect. His aides show him a state of the union address that reads, “This is the government that will ask for the implementation of the Taif — the withdrawal of Syrian troops.” Hariri puts it in the shredder and says, “You want to kill me?” He meets with experts and professionals and listens. He builds technical and artisanal schools. He wants to save Lebanon’s loping economy, alleviate the bulging debt (which is partly blamed on him). He convenes Paris II talks — the World Bank, the IMF, his friend Chirac pledges four billion dollars. He comes home resuscitated, triumphant. But the Syrians are threatened by his global size and influence. (He is, after all, the founder of a media and financial dynasty worth over six billion dollars). And they sick the sadist Lahoud on him. (So the story goes.) Lahoud and his cronies reject Hariri’s every move to privatize and restructure the economy. The Paris billions go to paying civil servants and the military. In the council of ministers, Hariri is sabotaged, sits with hands tied. The people’s sympathy swells. Even the intellectuals become nostalgic for the doer who irritated them in Act I.

Kassir now is under attack for his anti-Syrian columns in An Nahar. He is trailed by intelligence agents. His passport is confiscated. He’s taunted by Jamal Al Sayyad, the head of intelligence. Hariri in the background tries to protect him. And one day he invites Kassir to his press conference, for the first time in twelve years. Something’s up. When he sees Hariri, the Prime Minister, walk across the halls to salute him, the endangered writer, he realizes he’s being used, but he’s pleased. Hariri’s sending a message to Syria — “I am not your man. I am able to talk to someone considered public enemy number five by the Mukhabarat.” Cameras off, the king of images makes a joke to Kassir about his new book, Damascus Spring. “What spring?” he laughs. “It’s autumn.” Later, Kassir tells me, “Hariri had no belief in the possibility of changing the Syrian regime.”

The final showdown with Syria and Lahoud is now part of every Lebanese’s historical memory. Syria wants the constitution of Lebanon amended to extend Lahoud’s term. And Hariri, they decide, will vote in favor. Politicians and intellectuals are enraged. They urge Hariri to resist. Kassir tells him, “People say you don’t have solid knees.” Hariri, who has clung to the dream of the panArab movement since childhood, tells Kassir that as an Arab Nationalist he cannot go against Syria. Tragically he still sees her as his ally, until August, when Damascus summons Hariri. Bashar Al Assad orders him in a meeting of humiliating swiftness — an unheard-of fifteen minutes — to amend the constitution. Hariri returns home, broken. “It was a Don Corleone scenario over there — an offer he couldn’t refuse,” recalls one minister. Hariri repeats Bashar’s threats to his friends. “Lahoud is me,” said Bashar. “If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon. I will break Lebanon.” A month later the UN ratifies resolution 1559. Syria must pull out of Lebanon. Hariri inches towards the Maronites and Druze opposition, giving them a Muslim umbrella for the first time. A few months later, February 14, Valentine’s Day, Hariri and his entourage are blown up by 250 kilograms of explosives.


In death, Hariri is transformed into legend, beloved even by those who hated him. The controversies slide away and the hagiography takes over. The morning of his death, newspapers ran stories of government accusations that Hariri was buying votes by buying up all the olives from Lebanese farmers and donating the resulting olive oil to Ramadan feasts. Hariri believed he was helping the poor farmers who must wait to sell their produce until all Syrian produce is bought up. He’s redeemed. Now it’s charity. On Future TV a new person who Hariri helped is discovered every day. A wrestler he supported. The dying Chess Club. The anonymous checks to twelve Christian organizations. The kidney for a cameraman’s brother. Someone suggests the Vatican should declare Hariri the first Muslim saint.

The mourners perceive significance everywhere. “Hariri was killed on the day of love, which is so him. He was killed five minutes from his TV station, so all the cameras could come in five minutes. Two minutes from his headquarters. Two minutes from his Group Mediteranne. Five minutes from his construction site. Now Future TV airs his personal life twenty-four hours a day,” says Akram. Symbolism takes over as if Hariri’s putting the last touches on his image. Men who sat in a cafe with him shortly before his assassination recall his prophecy: “I’m afraid I’m going to be part of 1566” — the UN resolution related to terrorism.

What sets an iconic figure — Galileo, Joan of Arc, Einstein, even Madonna — apart from the heroic or tragic is that they spark a paradigm shift in the culture. Their persecution in whatever form produces an alchemy that changes the way people think. That’s why Hariri may succeed as icon where Nawaf ’s catalogue failed.

First the wall of mental fear is broken. From all confessional sides and classes, people mourn Hariri, mourn Lebanon, mourn themselves. Then mourning shifts to anger, and Beirut sees the largest demonstrations in its history to oust Syria. Hundreds of thousands of nervous Shias from Hizbullah, though they mourn Hariri’s killing, stage an opposing demonstration in favor of their vital protector, Syria.

Taboos are smashed, the very taboos Hariri nurtured to keep the peace. History as recounted in schoolbooks stopped at 1950. Now students debate and swap civil war stories at Martyrs’ Square and university. The disappeared are another taboo of the past sixteen years, because the war criminals are in government. Finally the Committee for the Families of The Kidnapped are being heard, saying that it’s our right to know what happened to the 17,000 missing. (Most are assumed dead or in Syrian prisons.)

Those connected to Hariri, and privileged by the Syrians (and there were many) are perhaps the most jostled. They enjoyed free passage across the military border, did their shopping on weekends in Damascus, and clung to denial, seeing in the violence and economic mischief, the Plot. But now, from Tripoli to Saida, the blinders are blowing off with recognition. Our allies, our brothers, are actually our foes, and killed our hero? Akram is one of many sporting such blinders. He clung to a pan-Arab dream, believing in the possibility of a borderless democratic Arab world. When he was 16years-old and the Syrians assassinated Bashir Gemayal, he was relieved because Israel lost a Lebanese ally. And he and his friends believed Syria was their savior for aborting Israel’s plan in Lebanon. Though the Syrians kidnapped, detained and assassinated more than anyone else, they considered Syria was stabilizing the country and supporting resistance. “We never imagined Syria would attack the country’s stability. Hariri’s killing was a slap in the face. It made all of us revise our understanding of Syria’s intervention.” One afternoon in a cafe on Place d’Etoile, Samir Kassir tells me, “Hariri’s death corrected and completed what he did in his life.” We are talking about Hariri’s power in death to amend the urban landscape. He’d made of downtown an island for the rich and Martyrs’ Square an empty meaningless lot. “Now it’s the melting place where Lebanese of all sides meet. The crowd conquered the place.” He laughs and says he used to find the Martyrs statue so kitsch, just like the gargantuan Al Amin mosque across the street that businessman Hariri, not devout Hariri, opposed. He didn’t want a religious emblem on Beirut’s postcards. To destabilize him in the Sunni community, Lahoud, the Maronite, promised to build the mosque through Saudi Walid bin Talal. “That’s why Hariri intervened to do it,” says Samir. “Sectarianism is so dirty.” He’s pleased that Hariri’s tomb-cum-shrine is turning the mosque postmodern, he says, just like the statue with her civil war shrapnel gashes. They are getting de-sanitized by living history. It is a gloomy afternoon. The Beirut car bomb has reared its head again and kept people away. Kassir is still optimistic, even exhilarated, to fight the Syrian detritus that will linger. Weeks later, when I hear the news that Samir, the voice of passionate reason, was like Hariri assassinated by a car bomb, I will think how prophetic was his summation of Hariri was: “He was the hero of lost opportunities.”


It is the habit of intellectuals to redeem loss in epic narratives and founding myths. It is not how most people experience events. Our capacity to digest life is slower than our capacity to package and disseminate history. And that’s uncomfortable for someone like Osama, a young lawyer educated abroad through Hariri’s foundation, who I met the night before I left Beirut. He didn’t sport the blinders of the privileged. Reality, he knows, is tribal and confessional. “At university, the Christians were always wondering ‘Are we Arabs? Do we belong to the Arab world?’” he recalled. “I am a Shia and so to them I am a Syrian and a traitor.” When he says that he saw how each party went with their confessional flags to Hariri’s funeral, people tell him, “You are pessimistic and destroying the national hero.” But no, he says, he’s just recognizing that fear unified all those people. “Maybe this is good, because now we understand that we need each other, and if we want security we have to compromise.”

Today as talk of a Syrian hit list consumes Beirut, I remember the compromises of Jean, a lawyer from a Christian village in the Chouf who I met on Easter Sunday. During the war, Druze militia massacred fifty-five of 120 residents in his village. One was his grandfather. He was sharing the holiday meal with a neighboring Druze family and the atmosphere was festive, loud. It wasn’t until we were alone on the balcony that he told me what had happened. His grandfather had protected the Druze from the French back in the mandate days. I asked him if he ever wondered, as he walked the streets, if he was greeting his grandfather’s killer. He said no. He doesn’t wonder. “I know who did it. My aunt saw everything and survived.” Then he motioned with his head to his Easter guests inside and said, “their nephew.” What’s more, the nephew was from the same Druze family his grandfather had protected. So how do you come back here, I asked. “In the beginning I had nightmares, but it is for the future that I force myself to come back and back.” Without people like Jean and Osama national reconciliation would just be gibberish. With all its mystical transformative power, the icon is also a deception. As it encompasses, it also dilutes complexity. Where, after all, is the deity behind it? Where reside all the intangibles it contains? In our imagination. And perhaps that’s enough.