Whenever I think about my birthplace, Lebanon, I don’t think of danger. I think, “What if?”
What you might consider to be just another strife-beset Middle Eastern country, is home to every aunt, uncle, grandparent and cousin I know.
At age 22, I sit comfortably inside a temperature-controlled office in Melbourne’s CBD, seemingly untroubled. But I can’t help think, “What if Lebanon was not just where I was born, but where I grew up?”
Were I to call Lebanon my home, in the past year I would have experienced severe levels of civil unrest and everyday public protests verging on riots that have been erupting since October.
What started as a small cohort rallying against higher taxes on gas and tobacco has turned into a movement to overthrow a political system based on nepotism and sectarian identity. Lebanon has experienced shortages in government-provided electricity and water. Four years ago, waste lined the streets after a collection crisis emerged.
The protests have united hundreds of thousands of people who are demanding an independent government of experts to lead the country out of its financial crisis and call early elections.
This week, Lebanon’s parliament voted in favour of the government’s financial rescue plan, prompting further clashes been protesters and police.
When these protests started, I was in Lebanon to visit members of my extended family I hadn’t seen for almost a decade.
Even before rallies-cum-riots started, I was grateful for the comforts of home in Australia. I’d trudge along the streets in Lebanon, comparing it to my daily walk home from work.
In Melbourne, I stroll footpaths designed to keep pedestrians safe, while cars drove alongside me, orderly in their separate lanes.
The memory of home filled me with the kind of overwhelming gratitude you only get after almost being run-over. In Lebanon, footpaths and road rules are luxuries. It’s harder to say if being a pedestrian or a motorist was more dangerous: seat belts were very rarely worn, if ever. Using a mobile phone while driving was considered normal.
Before political unrest escalated, I was more concerned with not becoming a pedestrian fatality than ending up as the victim of a terror attack. But when they started, I opened Australia’s Smart Traveller website to read: “Terrorist attacks could occur anywhere, at any time, in Lebanon.”
Contrary to Smart Travellers’ advice to “avoid large gatherings and demonstrations, as they could turn violent”, I took my chances and attended protests to get to the heart of what people were fighting for. Road safety is the least of their concerns.
People were worried about how they were going to secure jobs, pay their bills, afford their next meal and find the money to pay for their kids’ education.
On January 21 – more than three months after protests began – Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a new cabinet of 20 mostly specialist ministers backed by Iranian-supported militia Hezbollah and its allies.
Mr Diab declared Lebanon’s new government “represents the aspirations of the demonstrators” and “will strive to meet their demands for an independent judiciary, for the recovery of embezzled funds, for the fight against illegal gains”.
But this has far from quelled protesters’ concerns who follow generations of Lebanese people that have become accustomed to being disappointed time, and time again, by broken promises and unmet expectations.
Lebanon, land of my ancestors and family, I fear your travails are nowhere near over.