In his seminal history of Lebanon, A House of Many Mansions, Kamal Salibi describes a country caught between two founding myths: a Sunni merchant republic tied to the Arab world through its great port cities and a Christian mountain stronghold protected by France. This dialectic between "Arabism" and "Lebanism" took many forms--East versus West, verticality (the mountains) versus horizontality (the sea)--but it was always conceived as a negotiation between Sunnis and Christians. "Lebanon's 'special identity' had represented a compromise between the Maronite idea of the mountain and the Sunni heritage of the city," writes Fouad Ajami in his luminous biography of Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr, The Vanished Imam. "The Shia had to make their way between these two conceptions."
When the French appended the mostly Shiite hinterland to the newly independent Lebanon in 1943, the Shiites' numbers disrupted the delicate Muslim-Christian balance (Lebanon's government has not conducted a census for seventy-five years, afraid of what it might find). But despite their numerical superiority (which some of their adversaries dispute to this day)--and perhaps also because of it--the Shiites were always perceived as an inconvenience, Persianized outsiders, intruders in their own country.
They felt it. And that feeling of mahroum--of deprivation and dispossession--found powerful outlets: first in the Communist and pan-Arabist ideologies of the 1960s; then in political groups like Musa al-Sadr's Movement of the Deprived and its successor, the Amal Party; and eventually, after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in Hezbollah, which drew inspiration--and abundant support--from the Islamic Republic of Iran. With Iranian funding, the Party of God set up a parallel state that relieved the Lebanese government of much of its responsibility--military, financial and psychological--for its largest sect. They had their own clinics, their own schools and their own mosques, all in "their" neighborhoods. This autonomy came at a price: No matter how much power the Shiites attained, they were still unwanted, still the "grungy" peasants who belonged in the south or in "their" neighborhoods.
There was one place where everyone was welcome: downtown, especially the Bourj, as the central square was called (literally, it means "tower"). The Bourj was the vital center of Lebanon, the nodal point that linked the provinces to the capital and by extension to the rest of the world. Just as caravans connected to regional trade routes in the old preindustrial port city, the prewar downtown was a gathering place where all Lebanese could sample the pleasures of cosmopolitan life: They could watch movies, chase prostitutes, join in demonstrations, sell their tomatoes, buy used books or listen to a hakawati, a traditional Arabic storyteller, as Samir Khalaf writes in Heart of Beirut, a book infused with academic boosterism about the oppositional power of public space. (Khalaf teaches sociology at the American University of Beirut.) There were even informal coffee stands where Shiites from the villages along the Israeli border could congregate and drink coffee with other villagers, waiting for shared taxis to ferry them all back to their hometowns together.
The civil war, which turned downtown into the front line between rival militias, severed this artery connecting the hinterlands to the city. Instead of re-creating it, Hariri built something more exclusive: a playground for rich tourists, walled off from Lebanese hoi polloi by the plate glass barrier of money. Where Lebanese from all walks of life once bought secondhand clothes, luxury stores like La Perla now sold $100 thongs; instead of used textbooks, you could buy a Bang & Olufsen phone for $1,000. The new downtown still attracted visitors, but it filtered out the small-business owners and their customers, the unwashed masses whose "ominous influx," as Khalaf xenophobically describes the post-civil war refugees, had threatened the capital's delicate balance. Were it not for Solidere, sneered one of the company's board members, downtown property owners might have turned the area into "a kind of mega-shanty town."
Downtown is where all the fears and fantasies about this little country have always converged. You couldn't find a better symbol of the old Sunni-Christian competition, for example, than the gigantic Mohammed al-Amin Mosque. Always controversial, it was opposed by Christians because it overshadowed nearby historic churches. Today, it squats at the apex of a triangle, a holy trinity of church, mosque and megastore. When Hariri was killed, his family decided to bury him downtown, in a parking lot between the mosque and the megastore. Hundreds of thousands of mourners congregated at the gravesite. The result was an extraordinary popular uprising against Syrian rule, a semipermanent sit-in that sprang up around the gravesite and spilled over into Martyrs' Square, the historic agora where an Ottoman military ruler executed Lebanese nationalists in 1916. The "independence intifada" culminated on March 14, 2005 (not March 21, as Khalaf incorrectly dates it), in an enormous demonstration where hundreds of thousands of Lebanese cheered, waved flags and chanted, "Syria Out!"
The Western media made much of the demonstration's multiconfessional nature, but there was one sect notably absent: Shiites, many of whom had attended a Hezbollah-led rally on March 8 in a neighboring section of downtown. For most Shiites, downtown Beirut--and the ruling coalition that would take its name from the March 14 rally--had become a symbol of everything from which they felt excluded. Last summer's bloody war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which Israeli bombing leveled bridges, factories and entire villages, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese--mostly Shiite civilians--intensified the isolation of Lebanon's largest sect.