Way beyond cars and football

Seen from Beirut, the fallout from the Syrian crisis illuminates the lasting interdependence of orient and occident

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It means one thing and one thing only when flags of many colors are hoisted on Lebanese balconies: football is imminent. Famed for one of the most consistent and largest shows of fandom for big football nations, the first diehard Lebanese fans of the Nationalmannschaft – a word which the most-watched Arab sport reporters here bark out with three exclamation marks as a mixture of a battle cry and endearment – have already put up German flags on their buildings in April, more than six weeks before the team managed by Joachim Löw will run onto the pitch in Lille for their opening game in Euro 2016.

These expressions of affinity recur with every World and UEFA Cup tournament and are as handy as they are rewarding when one seeks to illustrate the passion for the foreign in everyday Lebanese culture. One of the most attractive foreign identities during tournament seasons is the German one, even more so in tournaments where Brazil is not a contender. And it’s not just the football in its proverbial roundness which evokes such fascinations. More specifically, the affinity hangs together with the admiration for German cars and for living or wanting to live in Germany. When one discloses German nationality in a casual conversation with a Beiruti it is the exception that the Lebanese partner would not refer positively to any one or all three of these purported denominators of shared interest.

As a rule in such conversations, there will be praise of a German-engineered product, of a presumed German quality or virtue, and/or of Germany as destination or model of statehood and societal organization. Talk of the “ugly German” just doesn’t happen and any criticism of country, politics or people is almost frighteningly rare in Lebanese society – and what makes the approval even more poignant is the sharp contrast to the eagerness with which the Lebanese criticize their own state and the vigor with which people from all strata readily and openly agree that the one human being not to trust, ever, is the average Lebanese politician.

Shared concerns

But while it is easy to speculate that romanticized Lebanese views of Germany may include a considerable dose of wishful thinking to compensate for perceptions of defectiveness in their own socioeconomic structures and hopes that are juxtaposed with systemic deficiencies in the organization of the state, getting hung up on the infatuations with German cars and football and the craving for Germanness may also distract from some areas of mutual interest that deserve greater attention.

The secular take on the ‘destiny’ topic is of course the Syrian crisis with its far-reaching implications for European Union member states and for the EU’s entire Eastern Mediterranean neighborhood. As Germany’s ambassador to Lebanon, Martin Huth, emphasizes in an interview with Executive, the arrival of the Syrian refugee crisis in Germany in September 2015 came as a surprise and demonstrated how “in today’s interconnected world a crisis can happen in one part of the world and it almost immediately affects us in other parts of the world” [see Q&A here].

[pullquote]Talk of the “ugly German” just doesn’t happen and any criticism of country, politics or people is almost frightenigly rare in Lebanese society[/pullquote]

According to Huth, the current relationship between Germany and migrants and refugees has the three aspects of humanitarian aid, integration and control of people flows. The former two are a case study for how one should deal with migrants and refugees and the latter is a case study in the volatility of trying solutions to what many perceive as an impossible – or unsolvable – quagmire.   

If not by design or understanding but certainly by default, the crisis has put the German and Lebanese state actors into a joint venture situation of shared concerns. The same truth applies grosso modo to the entire community of European and Mediterranean states but the partnership of necessity between Berlin and Beirut reveals some very interesting behavioral learning potentials. That is to say, opposite characters in a team have to learn to work together.

And what partners dealing with high, albeit different, impacts from the Syrian crisis could be more opposite to one another than Germany, Europe’s economic power player and a key policy influencer, and Lebanon, which combines small size with a minimal role not only in regional policy making but even in governing its own affairs to the point of living in a sorry state of political self-impairment? Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who defined enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-induced tutelage (selbstverschuldeter Unmündigkeit), would not have approved.

The most oriental of all questions

The European identity has been entwined since antiquity with the cultural DNA that was found in the eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. Science, religion and culture of the two regions were linked inextricably and often it was European thinking and behavior that was fertilized from the Orient. Even after the power center of human development shifted to Europe, and during centuries when Eurocentric worldviews dominated historiography, the Orient was a canvas of dreams and a source of ideas. In the slightly more modern parts of history, for about the past 150 years, the Orient – understood from the European vista as the region beginning in the Balkans and stretching clockwise around the Mediterranean and into Asia Minor – became an area of increasing economic and political interests. The issue was known as the oriental question in the Prussian-denominated Deutsche Reich of the later parts of the 19th century, which German-Israeli historian Dan Diner described as the historical episode of the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the impact thereof on European power constellations.

Up to the 1890s, it was a paradigm of German exterior policy to have no stake in the ‘oriental question’, according to a speech by Otto von Bismarck that the entire Orient was ‘not worth the healthy bones of one single Pomeranian grenadier’. However, interests in commercial development, including armament deliveries and banking expansion, were growing and reflected in the establishment of German financial institutions in Palestine and trade depots in, among other places, Beirut. These interests were also evident through the humongous infrastructure project of a railroad between Konya and Basra in the Ottoman Empire (the Baghdad Railway) that traversed Syria and Iraq, with a link to Damascus, and which was implemented on the basis of the German-engineered and funded 1890s Anatolia Railway project between Istanbul and Ankara and on to Konya. As German historian Gregor Schöllgen pointed out, the dream of the development of German interaction with the waning Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century even included ideas of settling German surplus population in Anatolia and Mesopotamia along the transportation artery.

[pullquote]In Lebanon, youfind also the German teachings, technologiesand even theology[/pullquote]

Of course best-laid schemes have a tendency of going awry and the great railroad from Berlin or London to Basra by way of Mesopotamia was not a way to peace but an added trigger to the conflict that became known as World War I. This is of some relevance if one agrees with Diner’s essay from 1995 that the oriental question was playing out in the same spaces as the late-20th century question about the definition of Europe – and, one wants to add, it seems that this definition of two separate spaces and competing identities is still in existence in the 21st century but is neither a religious (Islam vs. Christianity) nor a political or social question but a question about two identities, each of which is multi-tiered.

To quote yet another truism, opposites attract, all the more if there are hidden underlying similarities and affinities. In this context, what German journalist Manfred Lüders wrote in an essay for weekly Die Zeit in 2012 about orient and occident may very well apply to the relationship of Germany and Lebanon. Despite their shared cultural roots in Abrahamic origins, historic exchanges and joint Mediterranean lifestyles, the interaction of occident and orient has become one of “twins who live in enmity”. Lüders also argued, “In the images that both have of the other, each of them discovers the oppressed subconscious portion of the own ego and reacts in fear, through cultural stereotyping.”

This is not to say that common economic ties are of no value. Executive did, in fact, discuss resurging economic activities with Ambassador Huth, and is happy to note that not only will the embassy finally move closer to central Beirut – after a hillside hiatus of several decades – but it is also planning to enhance the interaction of Lebanese and German business, as well as the activities of the German-Lebanese Business Council.

It is, to use the example of German cars, true that vehicles branded in Stuttgart, Ingolstadt or Munich today are not the most sold makes in Lebanon, at a total share of newly licensed passenger cars at about 10 percent for example in the first quarter of 2016. But it is equally true that these makes dominate in the segment of premium cars to the point that more than eight out of ten vehicles sold by importers of premium marques were German. And there is so much more: from Germany to Lebanon there is beer and socks made in North Rhine Westphalia, trees and sweets (for Christmas) from Rhineland Palatine and Bavaria, trucks, reciprocating engines and so on. In Lebanon, you find also the German teachings, technologies and even theology. The open question is if the future will see more of a mutual traffic of goods, services and ideas. But for the moment, while this leaves plenty of room to bring greater rule orientation to traffic in the Lebanese capital and to engineer a boom in adaptiveness of behaviors in Berlin, it gives hope that the wait for the first kickoff at the Euro 2016 tournament next month will be filled with (moments of) Lebanese-German Gemütlichkeit.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail