March 16, 2005 | New York Sun

Lebanon Celebrates Freedom With Humor, Communication

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Along with Monday's landmark demonstration for freedom, Lebanese democrats are sending around by e-mail their own deck of cards, featuring the most wanted – or rather the most unwanted – of Lebanon's Syrian-backed regime.

Like the deck dispensed by America almost two years ago in Iraq, each card has a picture, starting with President Lahoud as the ace of diamonds, over the caption “Puppet President,” and including, as the insultingly inferior nine of clubs, Prime Minister Karami – who resigned last month under popular pressure, only to return to office less than two weeks later. Mr. Karami is labeled “Syrian Apologist.”

Unlike the Iraq cards, the further Lebanese twist is that this deck is incomplete and these characters are still maneuvering to stay in power – which makes the popularity of the item all the more daring. The deck first turned up on the e-mail circuit roughly last year, and some here guess it was put together by someone in the large Lebanese population outside of the country. In the fearful political climate before the assassination last month of former Prime Minister Hariri set off the current democratic uprising, the deck circulated briefly, then faded away. It's even possible the missing cards include Hariri, who after years of getting along with Syria began only recently to defy Damascus – and was murdered.

Now, as many Lebanese start to speak up, the cards (or at least some of them) are back, big-time. They are part of a tumult of jokes, cartoons, emails, and text-messaging cell-phone traffic with which the Lebanese are amusing themselves, boosting morale, and spreading the word – especially among one another – that they want to be free of Syria and its quisling Beirut regime.

Such gimmicks are the lighter side of a Lebanon trying to cope with deadly serious politics. Following a volley of demonstrations over the past few weeks, in which democratic turnout wowed the world and trumped terrorist Hezbollah, many players – both in Lebanon and abroad – are maneuvering for position in the uncertain times ahead. Up in the air are such vital matters as whether Lebanon's parliamentary elections will take place by late May, as required under law; whether Hezbollah will disarm, as required by United Nations Resolution 1559 and urged by President Bush, and whether Syria will fully withdraw, and by when.

And though Lebanon's people have spoken up vehemently in recent weeks about their desire for liberty and self-rule, the Cedar Revolution is not yet out of the woods. The folks here know that communication is one of their prime weapons. And it's a peaceful one. One of the chief tools of a repressive regime is to isolate and silence individuals, cutting off people who might try to share their discontent or try to bring about change. For years, stifling dissent in Lebanon was the job of the Syrian-infested secret police. The deeper message of today's traffic is that the Lebanese are less and less afraid to speak their minds.

On Lebanon's grapevine, feelings run high, and not all the gags make for family reading. Among the more polite is a text message now making the rounds, announcing that the Lebanese quisling regime is changing its emblem from a cedar tree to a condom, “because it more accurately reflects the government's political stance.” How so? The answer (slightly redacted) is that “a condom allows for inflation, halts production, destroys the next generation … and gives you a sense of security while you're actually being screwed.”

On a more come-hither front, one popular photo circulating at the moment shows a Lebanese flag painted on the cleavage of a buxom young woman in a low-cut tank top. So much for keeping patriotism under wraps.

Yet another favored cartoon, in which the Lebanese take a poke at their own social pretensions, shows a woman protestor in a plaid suit marching along with her maid beside her, both carrying Lebanese flags. The caption, speaking for the maid, reads: “Madam wants Syria out!”

In keeping with the cosmopolitan nature of Beirut, there is a fair amount of hip humor on display. Monday's democratic protest produced a poster that made the world news for its play on the Madonna lyrics “Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep,” a reference here to Syria's despotic dynasty: current dictator Bashar Assad, and his late father, Hafez Assad. Among similar signs in the crowd was one deriding claims that Hezbollah had turned out 1.6 million people at a recent protest: “1.6 million, yeah right, and I'm Elvis.”

Reflecting the interesting turn of an Arab people feeling free enough to blame their real oppressors, rather than defaulting to such time worn mottoes as “Death to America! Death to Israel,” the opposition here has focused its ire on Syria. There is an entire subset of Syria jokes. Asked for some examples, a group of opposition activists flip open their cell phones and began reading off some of the recent text messages:

Question: “What's the difference between E.T. and a Syrian?”

Answer: “E.T. *wanted* to go home.” (Or, in another version: “E.T. came with his own bicycle).”

Another joke offers a play on the self-help chit chat that abounds as much in Lebanon as anyplace else in the modern world – but with a local touch: “If you feel that nobody loves you, nobody cares for you, and everyone is ignoring you … maybe you should start asking yourself, am I a Syrian?”

Around a family dinner table, one young woman cites a gag that highlights both the state of Lebanon's cramped economy under Syrian rule, and the repression inside Syria itself. The joke runs thus:

A pollster asks an American, a Lebanese, and a Syrian the following question: “What's your opinion on electricity cuts?”

The American asks, “What's an electricity cut?”

The Lebanese asks, “What's electricity?”

The Syrian asks, “What's an 'opinion?'”

And while many of the jokes are, to say the least, unkind toward Syria, there was one that came my way this week, poignant and perhaps even prophetic – reflecting awareness among some Lebanese that most of the Syrians themselves suffer miserably under the Syrian regime. The details are too intricate to bear repeating in full, drawing on local history and names, but the bottom line was a play on the words these past few weeks of so many Lebanese demanding Syria get out of Lebanon. In this case, the punch line came down to: Once the Syrians get out of Lebanon, it's time to get Syria out of Syria.

– Claudia Rosett is the Journalist-in-Residence for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.



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