How Sartre kept me awake
From 1976 to 2005, Lebanon was under occupation by Syrian troops, characterized by military and political domination, resulting in a total disrespect for human rights. In the midst of chaos, my next chess tournament and the new comic books I couldn’t wait to buy mattered more to me than having an independent representative government in place and living in a somewhat democratic country… Several events, on both a national and personal level, transformed me from an ordinary boy into an active citizen.
On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, along with 22 other victims in a bombing near downtown Beirut. Our first reaction was deep grief, but also bewilderment: Why would anyone want to kill a man who believed in peace, moderation, education and reconstruction in a country devastated by fifteen years of a merciless civil war?
Sadness soon turned into revolt, and for the first time, we, the people, had acquired a political conscience. Peaceful street demonstrations began taking place daily. Many, including the media, held Syria directly responsible for the killing, and demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops. On February 28, 2005, the pro-Syrian government resigned, and on March 14, I took part in the most massive demonstration in the history of the Middle East. I was thirteen then. On that day, the sounds of church bells ringing coupled with the Muslim minaret mosque prayers moved my mother and much of the crowd to tears. In a sectarian state which had suffered so much from its religious divisions, this event was very emotional and changed my relationship with my country forever.
However, it was in my bed that I as a citizen was truly born. The night I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, there was no way I could fall asleep. The sentence which contributed the most to my insomnia was: “Man is condemned to be free”. Basically, it meant there are no excuses, every human being must decide either to deceive himself and blame external factors for his decisions or to acknowledge his freedom and assume it. With every single decision I make, I create myself, my “essence”, and not choosing to act is a choice in itself. I understood that freedom is not just an inspiring word; it’s a condition we must reaffirm with every word and every action.
Nevertheless, aspirations and ideals can often be challenged by reality. On May 7, 2008, following a pair of governmental decision they judged to be “unjust”, fighters from the Lebanese opposition invaded the streets of Beirut, occupying half of the city and blocking the airport. I had never experienced such fear and such feeling of powerlessness, weakness, and humiliation.
Seeing my fellow citizens act with impunity and such bad faith left me hopeless. By using violence, the opposition had obtained its way, almost proving to me that liberty was an illusion and that bullets and bombs could shatter it at any moment.
I asked myself: why isn’t anyone fighting back? Not to kill, not to win, just to preserve our dignity…“Violence under whatever form is a setback”, Sartre wrote. Reading these words put an end to all my questionings: the guns had not prevented us from choosing or being free, they had just confirmed that non-violence is the right choice. I felt blind for not noticing the relation between what I was living and what I had learned about non-violence from great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the “Leadership and Conflict Resolution” course during my summer at Brown University. Soon, the feeling of dishonor and weakness was replaced by love and confidence.
Despite the death of all these innocents, the tears and the pain, love had to keep flowing, even towards the perpetrators, for fighting back or even just calling these people barbarians would have only increased the darkness they had fallen into. Instead, we were exhorting them to coexistence and their return to citizenship was slow yet certain.
In the end, not only had I found that the triumph of humanism, when fighting the right way and for the right cause, is inevitable, I also realized that I should never underestimate the impact of every single thing I learn on my everyday life, because knowledge and education are the only weapons capable of achieving the civilized and mature society I have always longed for.