Over the past month of boisterous football frenzy, as Lebanese political flags were, for once, pushed into the background by the colours of other nations, a common refrain has been circling: if only the Lebanese could differ in politics as good-naturedly as they do in sport. Convoys of cars full of flag-waving, face-painted fans choke the streets after every victory, however minor, leaving passers-by deafened but indulgent, telling one other, So long as its not politics.
And yet, such comments are only heard because of similarities in the behaviour of football supporters and party advocates. For a start, the sheer number and the variety of flags in both domains are remarkable, and Lebanon’s fractured political scene could be described as a never-ending round of 16, save for the ever-changing alliances.
Both worlds involve the idea of claiming territory – not only by emblazoning their homes throughout the rivalry but also by overrunning the streets to mark a victory. A win on the pitch is celebrated with fireworks and sometimes celebratory gunfire; a political triumph gets the same reaction with the proportions reversed.
In reality, these two domains not only look alike but actually share a common basis: a deep-seated desire to belong to a visible community and to display one’s allegiance.
While supporters around the world drape their homes and vehicles in their team’s colours, fewer give their religious and political inclinations the same amount of publicity. I wonder what the many Lebanese expats in France think of the ostensibly secular ban on conspicuous religious symbols in French schools. Perhaps their incredible adaptation skills attenuate its impact somewhat, and of course Christians would be less affected than Muslims. But here in Lebanon the diverse communities are what can only be described as purposefully ostentatious.
Foreign money pours in to fund the building of larger, more central churches and mosques, each side seeking to dominate the capital’s centre and other key vantage points. Forlorn Jesus posters and ornate Allah inscriptions can be seen not only in private homes, but also plastered over public areas and shops; here money comes in various sectarian fragrances. Virgin Maries sit soberly watching the road in wall alcoves which locals keep lit by candles, even as the mid-afternoon sun melts the wax before the flame. Larger icons embellish balconies, where they have had to share the podium for a while with a flurry of football flags.
Like contrasting football kits, every car on the motorway is labelled according to community, with bumper stickers or charms on the rear-view mirror. A car is never merely a set of wheels, but also a vehicle for expressing one’s political and religious affiliations, one’s aspiring social status and – recently – one’s favourite World Cup team. These other nations’ flags temporarily became the fourth element of the mobile altar to materialism, divinity and political power.
Such devotion is in itself arresting but what steals the stage is the importance of the outward display. Practising believers and secular types alike, in a society which barely distinguishes between religion and politics, hunger after idols in their many forms as a means to secure their place in a clan and provide a feeling of belonging. In many areas of the western world, football fever may have been a welcome change from prevailing apathy and lack of community spirit; here in Lebanon where divisions are – without exception – communitarian and fervent, it provides light relief with a cathartic twist.