The Revolution in Lebanon

16th November 2019

I’m writing this in Hong Kong, in the wake of the protests which have paralysed the city for a week now.  And I want to talk about protests – but not in Hong Kong, rather in Lebanon, and how they may reflect what is happening with wine in the country.

I’m prompted to do this by a curious confluence of movements in our cosmopolitan world.  A student of mine in Dijon, is doing an internship here, helping to distribute French wine in this Special Administrative Region  of China.  Roland is a trained winemaker, and his family have a domaine – in Lebanon – to which he will return shortly.  I wanted to use this opportunity to update myself on what is happening in the country in the light of protests that have been going on for the best part of a month now. Broadly (and crudely) speaking, the Lebanese economy is stuffed.  The population have risen up in protest.  This is unusual in a country which has 18 different religious identities and prides itself on being a confessional democracy. People’s primary loyalty is to their religious group and they don’t march together on political issues.  It happened just once before – in 2005 when the Syrians arranged the murder of a popular Muslim leader and both Christians and (Sunni) Muslims demonstrated together because they wanted the Syrians to get out of the country – but that was the only time, and even then the Shia did not support the opposition to Syria.  However, they’ve united again and, according to Roland, whereas last time the populace were united against something, this time they are for something: a new deal, and a new political settlement for Lebanon.  What’s more, it involves all the communities.

What makes this hard is a traditional intransigence based on a history of conflict. The Christians fought the Muslims.  The Shiite and the Sunni distrusted each other and often involved themselves in battles.  There were hardline Christian militias, the fearsome Shiite Hezbollah and entrenched working class Sunnis in Tripoli, some of whom even had some sympathy with Daesh when it was on country’s border.  Now, however, it seems they are together.  Apparently, although the town of Baalbek is 90% dominated by Hezbollah and the other Shiite group, Amal – yet 5000, maybe 10000 people have been on the streets there, demonstrating alongside the Christians in Beirut or Zahle.  There have been 100 000 out in the main square of Tripoli – where historically the disempowered Sunni were very anti-Christian – and all the pictures of their traditional religious leaders have been removed.  (Yet it is important to note that there are also established Catholic and Orthodox communities in the city – and all the confessions are now united in their opposition to the government).  The point being that the leadership of the militias or the varying religious groups, who share in the corrupt and entrenched shared government, really don’t want their communities protesting in this way.

I’m also told that the role of women in this self-described revolution is fundamental.  ‘They are the front line; they are showing natural leadership’.  Perhaps they have less to lose if traditional power structures are overthrown.  But the political leaders still have substantial military power, so can the politicians really be defeated?  ‘We have nothing left to lose.  I would rather fight to the end than be fucked …  More than 2/3rds of my friends, more  than ½ of my family don’t live in the country – they are all successful and they are not in Lebanon.’  Essentially they have moved to places where the economy is not destroyed and the political systems still function (so not the UK then.) 

But what has all this to do with wine?  Bear with me…  Since the end of the civil war governments have been entrenching the confessional communities as that allows them to retain the mutual benefits of their corruption.  My student is of a generation which wants to get away from the confessions – and now even his mother, who is a Maronite shaped by the civil war, wants that as well.  She says she wouldn’t mind a Shiite minister of agriculture (a post which that community traditionally holds) if that person will accept that wine is being made and it is in the economic interests of the country to support the industry.  So his parents’ generation is now protesting as well.  Crucially, however, the younger generation are changing.  My student has Shiite friends who are open-minded.  Some have done well, some are educated, some will drink wine (‘they are great wine tasters’!).  He would be happy to have a Shia leader if they were competent ‘if they were educated, liberal, secular (when it comes to their national duties) and respect me and my personal beliefs’.  For this generation, whatever the religion, wine is not so much an issue as it was.  There is a whole street of Tripoli with bars; despite its reputation for being strictly anti-alcohol young people go there and drink – they just never talk about it.  because that would be unacceptable in their community  There is a party every weekend.  ‘Let me be who I want to be and I’ll let you be who you want to be’.  There seems to be a rising mood of tolerance of diversity, alongside the intolerance of established political leaders.

Increasingly many of the Muslims who are farmers are willing to grow grapes.  Why, Roland is asked, in a Shia village, will half the population work for a wine producer?  More than half the people who work for his family are not Christians, but accept that what they do is part of their heritage as Lebanese people as well.  A Sunni Muslim in the village of Kefraya inherits land from his father and plants it with syrah grapes, and he knows it is part of his heritage.  A Shiite in other parts of the Bekaa valley is more likely to plant cabernet sauvignon or white grapes – the communities therefore even have different grape preferences though they probably will never drink the resulting wine.  The family’s own vineyard workers express preferences – despite the fact that they may not know what the wines are like’

In all of this upheaval wine is, of course, only a marginal issue.  Political renewal and economic revival are far more significant issues for the population than what they will or will not drink.  But perhaps the changing attitudes to wine underline the new sense of national community which is sweeping the country.  And maybe, we can hope, that sense of civic renaissance may allow the wine industry to return again to its position as one of the significant sectors of a crashing economy, helping to generate a bit more wealth for the people involved in it, whether or not they drink.