BEIRUT — When the American battle ship New Jersey shelled Lebanon in 1983, Rob Mosrie was an elementary school kid in Florida.
Born and raised in the United States, he didn’t know at the time that his extended family in a Druze village was on the receiving end of a lethal missile fired by one of his country’s battleships.
“We had relatives who were killed by this American ship,” said Mosrie, 35, who has since moved to Lebanon. “But I only uncovered that after coming back to Lebanon, and talking to family about what happened during the war,” he added, referring to Lebanon’s brutal civil war that claimed some 100,000 lives (according to the U.S. State Department) from the mid 1970s until the early 1990s.
The Mosrie’s family story — the immigration flow between Lebanon and America, and the sense of simultaneous pride in being American and the feeling of being a victim of U.S. policy in the region — is a classic example of Lebanon’s complicated love-hate relationship with the U.S.
Mosrie’s grandmother, two aunts and an uncle soon followed, and are now U.S. citizens. They are a few of the tens of thousands of Lebanese who immigrated to the U.S. during the last century, and who currently make up America’s 400,000-strong Lebanese-American community.
Rob Mosrie went the other way — eventually returning to his father’s native country to work as the leader of an international aid organization called American Near East Refugee Aid. Despite the fact that his family was on the wrong end of American policy, and battleships, in the 1980s, the Mosries now belong to a portion of the Lebanese population that is politically pro-U.S.
“For most of the Druze community, their biggest fear is Shiite ascendance in Lebanon,” he said. “So the most common narrative I hear now is that Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah want to take over the country and declare an Islamic republic. So they kind of feel that America is on their side now.”
Lebanon has one of the most diverse populations in the Middle East.
It is composed of Shiite and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians. Although no census has been performed in the country since the 1930s, it is widely assumed that Christians make up approximately 25 percent of the country and Shiite and Sunni Muslims make up 70 percent, along with a sprinkling of minorities such as the Druze. To comprehend Lebanon’s relationship with America, you must understand the particular faith community you're talking about.
As Gilbert Doumit, who has worked to promote civil society across the religious divides in Lebanon, puts it, “America’s image in Lebanon depends on which Lebanon you ask, because there are 17 different Lebanons.”
One of the most influential and wealthy communities is the Christian community, which divides along the lines of Maronites, who are under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, and Eastern Orthodox. Throughout their history — from the Crusades to the present — Christians in Lebanon have looked to the west for support and protection. The two leading universites in Beirut, which are among the best in the Middle East, were founded by Christian organizations and they remain culturally and academically linked to the west.
The Christian presence in Lebanon is now and has always been part of the complex fabric of the place.
Here in Beirut church bells duel with calls to prayer. Nightclubbing is a way of life. Scantily clad Lebanese pop stars adorn billboards that vie for attention with political posters for the puritanical Islamist Shiite party and militia group, Hezbollah, which has members in parliament.
But Lebanese Shiites are also intimately acquainted with the U.S. In Lebanon’s Hezbollah-dominated south, several village mayors are U.S. citizens. Some of these villages have so many sons and daughters in the U.S. that Michigan State University football sweatshirts and New York Yankees baseball caps are not an unusual sight.
And around Lebanon, Americana is easy to spot.
American movies play at the theater and “Seinfeld” and “CSI” are on TV. In Beirut, Dunkin Donuts is known as a cruising spot for gay men. Several Starbucks locations are packed from morning until night, although recently the American coffee chain has been targeted by protestors. In January, demonstrators picketed a Starbucks in Beirut to protest the CEO’s alleged support for Israel’s Gaza invasion.
Lebanon has been intensely critical of Israel for its punishing offensive in Gaza, and Lebanese see the Palestinian battering as similar to the destructive campaign Israel carried out against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Much of the Arab world considers those Israeli offensives — in Lebanon and Gaza — as unjust and disproportionate, inflicting collective punishment on a civilian population. As Israel sees it, both conflicts represent the difficulty in countering its enemies Hezbollah and Hamas, which intentionally carry out attacks from inside civilian populations.
U.S. policy has been consistently supportive of Israel even when civilians suffer under Israel's campaigns.
Earlier in January, protestors at a Hezbollah rally in southern Beirut chanted “death to America” while a university professor named Yussef complained of U.S. support for Israel in Gaza. “It’s as if America existed just for the well-being of Israel,” he said.
Like many in Lebanon, Yussef’s opinion of U.S. foreign policy is low.
That wasn’t always the case. After the United States helped put pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005, effectively ending a nearly 30-year occupation, the U.S. had a 40 percent approval rating here, according to polling organization Gallup.
But U.S. support for Israel during its war with Hezbollah in 2006 caused public opinion of the U.S. to nosedive, and one in four Lebanese recently polled by Gallup said they blamed America directly for the war. Now, the Lebanese approval rating of U.S. leadership stands at 25 percent — still higher than the regional median of 15 percent.
Gilbert Doumit says this is partly explained by Lebanese having a multifaceted view of the U.S. “People who have a problem with the U.S. today, it’s political,” Doumit said. “They have no problem going to work or study in the U.S.," but, he explains, they have no respect for America's policy in the region.
Doumit hopes U.S. President Barack Obama follows through on his promises to “listen more” and “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world. Since 2006, the U.S. has given Lebanon more than $400 million in aid. But for Doumit, finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should be Obama’s priority.
“If the Palestinian issue will not be solved in a just way, we can play around, we can do peace building, conflict resolution, economic development in (Lebanon), we can do whatever you want,” he said. “As long as the Palestinians are not given a piece of Palestine, there will always be conflict here.”
The complexity of Lebanon's relationship with America comes through in just about every conversation here.
At Cafe Prague, a chic bar and restaurant, 47-year-old luxury brand manager Dina Zehr said she had lived in New York for 14 years and found Americans to be nice but "naive."
"They're worried with basic stuff: their home and their mortgage. They're much less sophisticated than Europeans," she said. "Europeans are better traveled, they read party newspapers, and discuss them. Americans don't."
At the same time, Zehr said she admired many aspects of the U.S., including the opportunities it offered. The U.S. has the "most-advanced meritocratic system that exists in the world," she said — a place where "you are accountable for what you do — even the president. If he lies, you get Watergate; he's accountable. Here in Lebanon, that's out of the question."
One of those to benefit from the opportunities in the U.S. is Jawad Trad, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. A Lebanese Shiite, he now has American citizenship. He dislikes U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East, but loves the life he's found in the U.S.
"You can start from zero and make something out of yourself," said Trad, on vacation in his home country. "Here, they crush your dreams. They don't like you to be better than them."
Like people in much of the world, Lebanese seem excited by the new U.S. administration. But they are not holding their breath that it will bring a profound shift in policy in the region.
Bettina Mahfoud, 42, an advertising executive, said that while Obama was a "dream coming true" for the U.S., she wondered, "will it solve anything for us? No."
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