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Embassy 2

The New Great Game

How the US, China, and Russia are competing and driving change in the Middle East.

Words: Hunter Williamson & Hantong Wu
Pictures: Hunter Williamson & Hantong Wu

Intro: New Era

It was a crude sound, unbefitting for the toasty lounge lit by the orange glow of a small wood stove. But Amar had to slam the door. Its jambs looked straight, but the frame was crooked. Spring sun hadn’t expelled the chilly wind from the Bekaa Valley, and the lingering winter chill creeped in as Amar entered. The guests cheered and the family laughed. He’d been expected. 

Amar shook hands with us customarily. A timid smile hung on his tired face. The heftiest of his siblings, he filled the space of the low-ceilinged room. While the outside of the salon was austere, constructed with plain white industrial panels, the inside had the feel of a make-shift cabin. Used plywood floors layered with artificial patterns, some of cedars and others of redwood, lined the walls — decoration added by Amar’s mother, Salma, after the family moved into the tent. A strip of waterproof mat, stamped with two large logos of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, made up for the small patch that the patterned rubber flooring could not cover. The stove stood in the center. Coffee boiled on it; the sizzling sound of water jumping out of the rakwe and evaporating on the metal surface filled the silent pauses in our interview as Amar tried to remember the day his father went missing in Raqqa. 

“We are all putting our hope in Amar,” Salma said. “He’s the only one that is going to help us to have a better life.” 

Next to his mother, Amar sat on the side of the salon without soft padding and cushions, and listened quietly. He is the only one of Salma’s four kids to still go to school. He is the chosen one. He is their future.

Amar School Photo
Amar stands in front of a middle school he attended in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley in March 2024. By Hunter Williamson.

Earlier that February day, gloomy fog covered the Damascus Highway as we cautiously drove over Mount Lebanon and into the Beqaa Valley. Every so often, a billboard emerged briefly out of the haze. Many featured a young girl with a message demanding a resolution to the ongoing displacement of more than an estimated million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. An occasional few showed Vladimir Putin, the Russian presidential incumbent then seeking a fifth term in upcoming elections whose face had suddenly sprung up on billboards around Lebanon. Some bore the slogan in Arabic: 

“A New Multipolar World”

Messages like these signal a changing world. What Russia calls a multipolar world is termed “an era of great power competition” by the US and labeled a “new journey” for China to build its “community of shared destiny for mankind.” These varying perceptions carry different world views and strategies for each of the great powers, but behind all of them is a common acknowledgment that global politics have entered a new era. The US is no longer the sole superpower. Russia and China have become influential powers on the global stage. With that comes competing ideas and interests for how the world should look. 

The convergence of great power competition and Middle East politics began just beyond the billboards of Putin, across the Beqaa Valley’s green fields and farmlands, and over the Anti-Lebanon mountain range that separates the eastern border of the small Mediterranean country from its larger neighbor Syria. 

In 2015, Russia intervened militarily in Syria’s civil war, coming to the aid of President Bashar Assad. Putin’s support turned the tide of the war. It put Assad on the offensive, empowering him to retake territory from the once US-supported opposition and Islamist groups like ISIS that emerged and flourished in the war’s chaos. Nine years later, the war continues, but Assad has effectively won. 

His victory came at a heavy price. Much of the country lies in ruins. Its economy is shattered. Some estimates put the total number of dead at half a million people. Another 12 million, roughly half of Syria’s pre-war population, remain displaced, some internally, others externally. At least 1.5 million fled to Lebanon. Many settled in the Beqaa Valley.

The ongoing displacement of so many refugees in a country with a population of some 5.5 million people has led to growing social tensions. Many Lebanese want Syrian refugees to return to their country, even as rights groups say it is unsafe for them to go back. The call-to-action billboards we passed on our way into the Beqaa Valley that February afternoon reflected the complicated reality of the issue. Amar and his family cannot safely return home, and even though they would like to, they can’t afford to leave Lebanon and go somewhere else.

This story is divided into three parts. Each tells the personal stories of people whose lives have been affected by great power politics. 

Amar Portrait
Amar walks through a mosque in the Beqaa Valley in late March during Ramadan. By Hunter Williamson

The first part focuses on Amar and his family (who asked to be identified by their first names only for protection). The Syrian Civil War — fueled by Russia seeking status as a great power, and the US pushing for liberal democratic ideals in the twilight of its unipolar era — upended their lives. Marginalized in Lebanon and trapped in the Beqaa Valley, they’ve yet to achieve the better life they came for, and it’s unclear when and if they will ever find it.

Batoul (right) and George (not pictured) conduct chemistry Experiments with children displaced from southern Lebanon during a US-funded community service project in February.

Part two looks at Batoul and George* (who both asked to be identified by pseudonyms), students studying on US-funded scholarships at a prestigious American university in Lebanon. Their lives were affected in different ways by the outbreak of the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, a conflict whose origin stems in part from a Middle East policy crafted by Washington to fit into its strategy for great power competition.

Fuji XT-3
In March 2024, Osama Miari posed at his client’s solar power station, where he took part in the installation.

The final part features Hassan Bazzoun and Osama Miari — a supporter of Iran-aligned armed groups in the Middle East, and a young Palestinian technician.

Fuji XT-3
Sayed Hassan Bazzoun, owner of Al Mukhtar General Trading Company for Wind and Solar Energy, poses in his house in Chehour, southern Lebanon in March 2024.

Bazzoun and Miari found themselves an unexpected livelihood in solar energy, bringing products of China’s emerging strategic sectors to the crisis-ridden country.

Each of these stories is distinct, connected only by the thread of great power competition and their place in Lebanon; each reveals the characteristics of the great powers’ policies; and each reaches into the long history of foreign interference in Lebanon, now accentuated by renewed bloodshed, and speaks to the wider regional impact of great power politics. The US, Russia, and China are engaging with the Middle East in different ways. While the US is focusing its foreign policy increasingly on Russia and China, it still remains the most active great power in the region, both diplomatically and especially militarily. Despite its taxing war in Ukraine, Russia remains present in the Middle East too, particularly in Syria, where it asserted itself as a key player and power broker in an ongoing civil war that radically affected the region. The Chinese presence is more subtle but impactful, especially in renewable energy, a sector that could give it significant influence in the years to come.


The fog cleared as we descended into the valley. The billboards of Putin and Syrian refugees gave way to small posters of Hamas’ iconic spokesperson Abu Obaida. A green headband, a red kufiya, a pair of piercing eyes, and a finger pointing up — the image was unmistakable, but with his face covered, he could be anyone. The Palestinian movement’s popularity has soared since the start of the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas in October. Posters like these had sprung up around the country, spreading the image of a group that had so radically shaken the Middle East. 

The Israel-Hamas war, the latest bloody chapter in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has cast the Middle East back into turmoil. In the months prior to the war, there were signs that the region was moving past conflict and toward relative stability. In an indication that Assad was here to stay, the Arab League voted Syria back into the regional pact, and his visit to China in September signaled another step toward post-war reconstruction. In Yemen, efforts to end the country’s catastrophic civil war gained steam after Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a historic rapprochement deal with the help of Chinese facilitation. While the photo of Saudi and Iranian envoys shaking hands in Beijing surprised the world, the US was seeking to bring together Saudi Arabia and Israel through a normalization deal that promised profound regional changes

The Israel-Hamas war upended many of these developments. Concerns about a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia were among the factors behind Operation Al Aqsa Flood, the official name for Hamas’ military attack on Oct. 7. It is now unclear when and if a deal will be reached. Furthermore, the Israel-Hamas war has expanded beyond the borders of Gaza in messy and complicated ways. Syria — a key ally of Iran, which backs Hamas — has come under renewed Israeli fire as Israel’s war with Hamas intensifies its shadow war with Iran. Fighting has steadily escalated in Lebanon between Israel and the armed Lebanese political party Hezbollah, flaring up fears of a full-scale war that could be even more bloody and destructive than the conflict in Gaza. The Houthis in Yemen have attacked commercial ships and engaged in battle with a US-led naval coalition. And Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria have clashed with US forces in the region. Once again, the Middle East is in turmoil.

Lebanese soldiers rush towards protesters demonstrating outside the US embassy in Beirut on Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Hunter Williamson
Smoke rises along the Lebanese-Israeli border during cross border clashes on Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
Protest 2
AUB students protest on campus on May 7, 2024, during finals period. By Hunter Williamson
Protest 1
AUB students protest on campus on May 7, 2024, during finals period. By Hunter Williamson
Arouri Funeral 2
A funeral procession for Saleh Al Arouri, a top Hamas official killed in Lebanon, makes its way from Imam Ali Mosque to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Martyrs Cemetery in Beirut on Jan. 4. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
A funeral procession for Saleh Al Arouri, a top Hamas official killed in Lebanon, makes its way from Imam Ali Mosque to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Martyrs Cemetery in Beirut on Jan. 4. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
A funeral procession for Saleh Al Arouri, a top Hamas official killed in Lebanon, makes its way from Imam Ali Mosque to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Martyrs Cemetery in Beirut on Jan. 4. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
Arouri Funeral 1
A funeral procession for Saleh Al Arouri, a top Hamas official killed in Lebanon, makes its way from Imam Ali Mosque to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Martyrs Cemetery in Beirut on Jan. 4. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
Funeral 2
Children part of the Hezbollah-affiliated Imam al-Mahdi Scouts march during a funeral procession for Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel on Oct. 10, 2023. By Hunter Williamson
Funeral 1
A funeral procession for Saleh Al Arouri, a top Hamas official killed in Lebanon, makes its way from Imam Ali Mosque to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Martyrs Cemetery in Beirut on Jan. 4, 2024. Photo by Hunter Williamson.
Funeral 3
Children part of the Hezbollah-affiliated Imam al-Mahdi Scouts march during a funeral procession for Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel on Oct. 10, 2023. By Hunter Williamson.
Ali Swaid, a 65-year-old resident of the southern Lebanese village Dhayra, points to buildings damaged by Israeli fire during border clashes on Oct. 11, 2023. By Hunter Williamson

In the award-winning novel “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday, one of the main characters, Amar, an Iraqi-American, shared an anecdote he heard from a journalist friend: 

“There’s an old saying, he said, about how the foreign journalist who travels to the Middle East and stays a week goes home to write a book in which he presents a pat solution to all of its problems. If he stays a month, he writes a magazine or a newspaper article filled with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ and ‘on the other hands.’ If he stays a year, he writes nothing at all.”

To not let the complexity of the region humble us into silence was a decision, because it can and it did. The strategic clarity of slogans like Putin’s about a new multipolar world faded away in the stories of Amar, Batoul and George, and Bazzoun and Miari. Our words about great power competition changed and then retracted until — often — we stared at a blank page, and it remained so until we accepted that to be true to the stories was to embrace the messiness.

Amar 1
Amar walks towards a local mosque in the Beqaa Valley in March during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. By Hunter Williamson.

Part 1: The Great Power Competition for Syria 

Amar remembers his father’s face. Youssef’s parting kiss, his smile, and his beard are the last things the then 8-year-old saw before his father disappeared in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the summer of 2013. 

A few hours after Youssef left for work, the family says heavy fighting erupted between the Syrian military, the Islamic State, and opposition groups. An endless stream of rockets and shells flew over their home, exploding here and there and seemingly everywhere, mixing hellishly with the cyclic cracks of small arms and machine gun fire. Caught in the middle, Amar’s mother, Salma, decided that the family should flee.

One of Youssef’s best friends met them at their house. They got quickly into his car and in the broad light of day, drove even quicker out of the city and west to Salma’s family in Aleppo province.

Winter arrived shortly later. Youssef never returned. 

It is still unclear exactly what happened. For three years his family waited for him. They watched with agonized hope as other residents returned. Salma tried to inquire about what had happened to Youssef, but as a woman in a conservative society, she said she was limited in who and how far she could ask. The family longed to know something, anything. Was he in prison? Had he been killed? Knowing something would be better than the interminable uncertainty of knowing nothing at all.

“It was the worst and hardest years of my life,” Salma recalled. She heard that he had been killed, but she clung to hope that he would some day return. “I was so attached to him, because he was so good with me, he was so supportive. I think I was more attached to him than to my family. Because of that, I couldn’t recognize and understand that I lost him.” It agonized her to the point that she sought medical help. 

Youssef was Salma’s cousin. He was older than her, a pious, respected man with long black hair and beard and a medium build. His second child, Maher, would grow up to resemble him. The couple married in 2000 while they were both still young. They had their first child, Karim, about a year later. The rest of the children followed: Maher, then Amar, and lastly Iman.

They lived a comfortable and safe life in a small, rural village some 30 miles east of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub. They grew various vegetables and fruits around the home and had everything they needed. Youssef worked as an assistant for an engineer in a Saudi company. He traveled regularly to and from the Gulf kingdom, spending holidays and weekends with his family in Syria. At the start of every weekend, Amar went with him to the mosque for Friday prayers. He loved to go. The mosque was old but beautiful. Amar prayed with his father at home too. Though a deep devotion to Islam wouldn’t come until years later, Amar took an early interest in his faith. He started fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when he was six. He fasted only ten days that year. The next year, he increased it to twenty. By the time he turned eight, he was fasting the entire month. 

Education was also central to the family. Amar and his brothers excelled at school. They impressed their teachers and made their parents proud. Salma stressed to them the importance of learning. It took precedence over playing and having fun. She wanted them to do well and to have successful careers. Amar took a particular likeness to school. He loved learning, especially when it came to math. From a young age, he aspired to be an engineer. Youssef encouraged his sons to pursue the field. But for all his love for school, Amar wouldn’t be able to study past the 1st grade. As he completed his first year of primary school, Syria descended toward civil war.

Amid the Arab Spring engulfing the Middle East, the Syrian government, headed by President Bashar Assad, was cracking down on anti-government protests around the country, turning what had initially been peaceful calls for political reforms and freedoms into a nascent insurgency. The US and other Western governments supported the opposition movement, echoing its calls for Assad to step down and for a political transition. But while regional states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to armed groups, Washington took a more reserved position. It had participated in a NATO intervention in Libya that had helped rebels there overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, but President Barack Obama and his administration didn’t show a willingness to do the same in Syria. Obama had come into office promising to end America’s war in Iraq. In 2011, US forces withdrew from the country. The Obama administration hoped to eventually do the same in Afghanistan. Obama and his team saw Asia, not the Middle East, as the region most vital to US interests. They wanted to pivot Washington’s foreign policy focus accordingly. The last thing Obama wanted was to become entangled in another Middle East conflict.

Assad became increasingly isolated both regionally and globally as he continued to crack down on dissent and rebuff calls for a transition of power. Western countries and regional states imposed sanctions and cut diplomatic ties, but two allies stood by Assad’s side: Iran and Russia.

Iran saw Syria as a vital geographical piece of territory to its regional policy. Russia, meanwhile, had long standing relations with Damascus dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. Though not keen on Assad’s use of force, Moscow didn’t want to see him go, especially by forceful, interventionist ways. Moscow abhorred regime change. The last thing it wanted to see happen to its Middle East ally was a Western, unilateral repeat of Iraq and Libya. Russia saw the world as multipolar and believed itself to be a great power whose status should be recognized and interests and values respected.

These were the early days of Great Power Competition, a period when the US began to reassess the world and its foreign policy, and when Russia started to forcefully push for the world to recognize it as a great power. In consequential ways, Syria became a key arena in this competition. Caught in the middle of it were Amar, his family, and millions of other lives.

The civil war worsened in 2012. Opposition groups seized large swathes of territory, including the eastern part of Aleppo, beginning a long, brutal battle that would become known as Syria’s Stalingrad. The main opposition faction at the time was the Free Syrian Army, an organization of rebel groups initially endorsed as moderate and secular by Western governments. The rise of its green flag, in place of the red Syrian flag that it closely resembled, near Amar’s home was the first indication to the young boy that a war was starting to tear his country apart. Years later, he would look back fondly on the opposition and the free, democratic ideals that it initially stood for. “I was only a grade one student,” he said. “But I remember, there was something called freedom. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that our government didn’t like this thing.” 

Fearing that something might happen during his travels, Youssef quit his job. In 2013, he started working at a petrol station in Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria that would later become the de facto capital of ISIS. They had been living in their new home for less than a month when he went missing. More than a decade later, his disappearance continues to weigh heavily on the family.

“I’m still struggling and suffering,” Salma said.

Amar puts his socks back on after washing parts of his body for prayer – an Islamic purification act known as wudu – in late March 2024. By Hunter Williamson.

Salma couldn’t bear living in her home without Youssef, so she decided to move in with her parents and brother in a countryside house not far from the village. As the war escalated, the family avoided the brunt of the fighting, but not all of it. One day, a bomb exploded in the yard, pocking the walls with shrapnel. No one was hurt, but the incident unsettled the family. As they tried to process what had happened, Amar’s uncle sat on the ground and put his head on his hands with an air of defeat. The only option seemed to be to sit and wait for the war to stop, or to die.

International peace talks had failed to make any breakthroughs. The war worsened, becoming more brutal, more complicated. Russia and Iran remained committed to Assad. The West and regional Sunni powers continued to back the opposition, which was fragmenting and becoming dominated by Islamist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda. In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, rose above them all as it rapidly captured large swathes of territory across the Levant, including parts of Aleppo province.

While ISIS is renowned for its brutality, Amar’s experience with them was more positive, at least initially. After seizing territory in Aleppo province, Amar said some ISIS fighters came to their home.

“Where’s your dad?” they asked Amar and his brothers. (Amar said they wouldn’t speak with women.)

The brothers were crying, unable to answer. Their uncle stepped outside.

“Are you their dad?” the fighters asked him.

“No, I’m their uncle.”

“Where is their father?”


Out of a matter of policy, ISIS began supporting the family with food and money. In its effort to establish an Islamic State, ISIS carried out administrative roles and services in the territories it controlled. One of the services it provided was electricity. The community in their village, Dayr Hafir, was split on their opinions about ISIS, Amar said. Some hated the group, others loved them. But what Amar remembers them for was the security and stability they brought, which was formed on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. “They were like an actual government,” Amar said.

The rise of ISIS created the catalyst for the US to return to the Middle East. In late 2014, it began conducting airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria and formed a global coalition to defeat ISIS. In northeast Syria, the US partnered with armed Kurdish groups, providing them crucial air support as they fought a brutal and dark war against ISIS.

Roughly a year later, Russia joined the fray. Moscow’s stated objective for sending military forces to Syria was to help Assad fight terrorism. And though Russian President Vladimir Putin did certainly help his Syrian counterpart go after extremist groups like ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, Russia has been widely accused of targeting opposition groups and civilians too.

By the time of Russia’s military intervention, Amar and his family were accustomed to aircraft and airstrikes. The countryside home stood within viewing distance of an airport utilized by the Syrian military. It had become something of a dark game for Amar to watch the aircraft depart and then to count the number of bombs they dropped. But the airstrikes became worse when Russian aircraft filled the sky too. Russian strikes were more precise and more powerful.

“ISIS wasn’t the main problem,” Amar said. “Airplanes were. They hurt us the most.” He refuted Russia’s claims that it only targeted terrorist groups. “They say that they only went after terrorists. They were not hitting any terrorists — only innocent people, our friends, our families, and our cousins. Only they were dying.”

Russia’s military intervention changed the course of the war. After suffering a series of setbacks, it put Assad on the offensive. In the summer of 2016, the Syrian military began a six-month siege and assault on eastern Aleppo. Aircraft pummeled the opposition-held sector while rebel forces returned fire with mortars. 

The family says that fighting worsened in the countryside too. The stability and security ISIS initially provided had collapsed. Violence flourished. It became too much for Salma to endure. She had stayed in Dayr Hafir hoping that the war would eventually end and that Youssef would return. But after three years, it became clear to her that war would not end and that Youssef would not return. In August 2016, worried about her children, she decided to leave Syria. 

Amar stands outside the sound room of a mosque as he and others prepare to break their fast during Ramadan. By Hunter Williamson.

Salma paid smugglers several hundred dollars to help her family reach Lebanon. ISIS and Syrian government forces weren’t allowing people to flee, Salma said, so the family moved in the middle of the night. They took nothing with them. Under the darkness, they cut across fields, beginning a 12-hour journey to Idlib province. Salma said she cried the entire way. At one point, her shoes tore, leaving her without footwear for the remainder of the journey.

In Idlib, they boarded an overcrowded bus that took them to Homs. The driver made Salma pay twice, telling her after reaching Homs that she had never paid the first time. From Homs, they continued to the border. They crossed through the mountains separating Syria and Lebanon at night, traveling by foot for another several hours. Karim stayed back along the way to help an elderly woman. After finally reaching a barn, they waited for another bus that would take them to the Beqaa Valley, where they would begin their new lives in Lebanon.

Four months later, Assad would capture Aleppo. Assad later thanked Russia and Iran for their support, saying they shared in the victory and success. But it was a victory that came at a heavy cost — east Aleppo sat in ruins, and there were an abundance of reported war crimes by both sides, ranging from summary executions to forced disappearances. Still, Assad had scored his greatest victory of the war. His conquest of Aleppo dealt a significant blow to the opposition, leaving it without any area of strategic importance. 

It dealt a heavy blow to their backers too. Assad’s victory came at the end of Obama’s presidency. Beyond its strategic significance, Assad’s victory also served a symbolic importance. It wasn’t just Assad who had won. Russia had too. Moscow’s man, backed by Russian military might, had triumphed over Washington’s fragmented opposition, an opposition that had begun with peaceful street protests but had morphed into something messy, divided, fragmented, in some parts radicalized, and accused of committing war crimes, betraying the liberal democratic ideals that it had originally sought. The war was still far from over, but its outcome had been determined. Russia’s military intervention changed the course of the war. It ensured that the opposition would never succeed in toppling Assad. 

Assad had won, and Russia had too.


The mosque sat quiet and almost completely empty. In the corner near the front, underneath the windows welcoming the final hours of sunlight, Maher slept, snuggled up under a blanket to keep warm from the cold that still lingered in the early spring. Further back near the entrance, his friend sat quietly reading the Quran. From the ceiling hung paper machete crescent moons and lanterns, iconic items commemorating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Amar walked into the space, his black thawb draping down his legs, and sat near the front. It was March 2024, about halfway through Ramadan. Amar hadn’t eaten or drank since sunrise. His mouth cracked with dehydration.


Amar loved the mosque. He spent more time here than at home. For the past couple weeks, since the start of Ramadan, he had woken up at 3:30 every morning to eat and pray at the sanctuary before sunrise. On weekdays, he returned home, changed, and then walked for half an hour to school. He preferred to arrive to class early before the teachers and students. He disliked the lines that teachers made students stand in before entering their classrooms. At 18 — soon to be 19 — years old, Amar is a few years older than most of his 10th-grade peers.

After arriving in Lebanon and settling in a refugee camp outside the small town of Saadnayel in the Beqaa Valley, Amar and his sister enrolled in school. As the youngest son, the family decided that it was best for Amar to go back to school. He had more years than his older brothers to study. A local school placed Amar in the fourth grade. He was excited to be back, but the first few years would challenge him.

When the family first reached the camp, they couldn’t afford to rent or purchase a tent, so someone offered for them to live in a renovated hen house. It reeked and was cramped, but it was all they could afford. To get a better home, the entire family worked, including Amar. In the mornings, he helped harvest potatoes in the fields across the Beqaa Valley. In the afternoon, he went to school. He did homework in the evenings. He would be exhausted by then, but he studied for at least an hour.

Halfway through the school year, a family member living in the coastal city of Tripoli became terminally ill. The family traveled to be with her. Amar’s absence from school caused him to repeat the fourth grade. Halfway through the second year, he stopped working and started attending a local community center where he received help with Arabic, Math, and English. He caught the attention of the manager, Nadia Rdeini, who saw in Amar a resemblance to her brother.

“The first day I saw him, I loved him,” she said. “We knew he was smart and wanted to continue school.”

Rdeini, a Palestinian who now runs her own NGO, Lighthouse Peace Initiative, in the Beqaa Valley that works with Syrian refugees, started to support Amar and his family. She first connected them with a friend from Europe providing clothes. Later, she provided them financial support for school and rent. Rdeini especially admired Salma. She appreciated her kindness, honesty, the way that she always welcomed Rdeini into her home, and the way she worked hard to support her family. “She is a role model for a great mom,” Rdeini said. “She’s still young and she sacrificed her life for her kids.” 

With financial help from Rdeini, Amar attended a school not far from his camp. He aspired to be an engineer just like his father had encouraged him to. When Rdeini opened the first center of her NGO in Zahlé, Amar joined her. He took classes in interior design and theater. He enjoyed interior design work. It seemed similar to engineering. He liked theater too. “I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t,” he said with a laugh. 

Amar continued to work hard at school, but he started to face bullying. Every day on his way home from school, he said that Lebanese schoolchildren verbally or physically harassed him.

“If they didn’t hit you, they would talk and bully you,” he said. The bullying wasn’t directed only at him but at other Syrians too. “I could only defend myself. But if there were 5 guys, I couldn’t defend myself. I was small. If they said bad words, I would ignore them. If I did anything else, they would hit me.” As a foreigner, Amar felt helpless. “The Syrian students can’t do anything, because this is their city, this is their country.” Beginning in grade 5, Amar started returning home by a different route. “It’s a long way, but it’s better than facing them,” Amar said. “It’s more safe.”

The bullying marked the start of Amar’s experience with the hostility and resentment many Lebanese feel toward Syrians. Relations between Lebanon and Syria were severely strained by Damascus’ occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, during which time Syrian troops would physically and verbally harass, detain, and disappear dissidents. Many Lebanese also accuse Syria of being behind the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The inflow of at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees — in a country whose population totaled somewhere between 4 to 6 million before the Syrian civil war — has increased tensions. Many Lebanese blame Syrians for taking jobs, putting additional strain on Lebanon’s crumbling economy, committing crimes, and more.

The bullying took a toll on Amar. It left him feeling down, borderline depressed. The feeling stuck with him, even as he continued to progress in grades and change to other schools. Then three years ago, while scrolling through TikTok and YouTube, he came across videos by imams talking about the inevitability of death. Their message shook something inside him. He started praying, reading the Quran, and attending the mosque regularly. He found peace at the mosque, and in prayer and the Quran. At the mosque, he met people who cared about him.

“When I started going to the mosque and praying, I talked to the imam and another person who studied Islam,” Amar said. “They make you feel like a good, strong person, like you are a human.” Both men were Syrian. Amar talked a lot with them. They helped him to process the bullying, explaining that the kids bullying him were jealous or projecting, that he didn’t need to take their words to heart and dwell on them. He was better and above what the other kids said to him and about him. Amar also made close friends he could confide in. “Before coming (to the mosque), I reached a point of not caring about the end of my life, my death. But now I care about it. I need to work to go to Jannah.”

The fact that his spiritual epiphany occurred during Ramadan makes the Islamic holy month even more special to Amar. “Maybe all Muslims like Ramadan, but I have a huge amount of love for Ramadan because it’s an important step in my life.”

Though he had grown from the bullying, it persisted now in high school. “The students make you feel that you are nothing in this school,” he said. “They say, ‘You took our chances. If you hadn’t come here, we would be at the top of our class.’”

In April, a few weeks after our meeting in the mosque, tensions would explode after an official from one of Lebanon’s top Christian political parties was killed, allegedly by a Syrian gang. Videos shared on social media showed Lebanese ostensibly beating Syrians at random in the streets or calling for them to leave districts of Beirut. But even before that incident, tensions had steadily risen. In 2023, the Lebanese government started cracking down more heavily on Syrian refugees. Amar and his family grew fearful. Having arrived in Lebanon in 2016, they could not be officially registered as refugees by the UN due to restrictions imposed by the Lebanese government in 2015. That made their presence in Lebanon illegal. As Lebanese security forces captured and deported undocumented refugees, the family went into hiding for a month at Karim’s workplace.

Despite the discrimination and challenges, Amar doesn’t feel animosity toward Lebanese. His best friend, who he spends a lot of time at the mosque with, is Lebanese, as are a number of other people who go to the mosque. “They are like brothers to me,” Amar said.

Amar pours water as he and others prepare to break their fast during Ramadan in March. By Hunter Williamson.

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Amar recites part of one of his favorite chapters from the Quran, Surah An-Nur.

The fading afternoon light filtered through windows on both sides of the mosque. Even as Amar opened up about his troubles and difficulties, he looked at ease. 

The future isn’t something Amar likes to think much about. The fate of the family is a lot for him to carry. Questions arise about where he will go to university, will he even be able to get admitted into a university? And if he is, what kind of engineer will he become? Where will he work? “Sometimes I can’t study because of this,” he said. “The pressure is a lot.” 

When the thoughts become too much, he stops, prays, reads the Quran, and prepares the mosque for the next scheduled prayer.

Salma hadn’t expected this life for her children when she came to Lebanon. Hindsight is always 20/20, but Salma wishes that she hadn’t come to Lebanon, that she had instead just moved to somewhere in Syria less affected by the war. Amid Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, which has thrown much of the population into poverty, Lebanese and Syrian alike, the family struggles to get by. Having injured one of his middle fingers while cutting wood, Maher is no longer able to work. That leaves only Karim and Salma to support the family. Last year, Karim made about $3 a day. Now, collecting scrap metal, he makes around $8. 

Such hardship isn’t specific to just Amar and his family. It has afflicted virtually all of Lebanon, prompting many Syrians to look to go somewhere else. Amar’s family said that more than a dozen men from their camp have traveled to Cyprus, a common destination for people able and willing to make the treacherous journey by boat. But the cost per person is several thousand dollars, a price far beyond the family’s ability to afford. Meanwhile, returning to Syria isn’t an option for Amar and his brothers. 

Today, though the Syrian civil war continues, Assad has essentially emerged victorious. Regional countries once opposed to him have started to reestablish diplomatic ties, and last year the Arab League voted Syria back into their fold. Opposition groups, still mixed with Islamist factions, hold territory mostly in northern Syria, where they are heavily backed by Turkey, which continues to oppose Assad and acts as the real authority in the areas. But there is no indication that they can or are able to pose a further threat to Assad. In northeast Syria, the Kurdish fighters backed by the US in its war against ISIS have established a multi-ethnic, semi-autonomous enclave.

Amar is not hopeful that he will ever be able to return home. “It’s like a kingdom,” he said, referring to how the current Assad took over the presidency following the death of his father, Hafez, in June 2000. “When a king dies, his son takes leadership. When his son leads like this, it’s a kingdom. I don’t know why they don’t call it the Kingdom of Syria.”

Salma has previously returned to Syria to visit family, but for Amar and his brothers, going back to Syria means the risk of military conscription.  “I miss everything,” Amar said about his home. If he were to return, he would kiss the ground. But that thought is no more than a dream. “I like my home a lot, but not more than myself.”

Amar and other Syrian and Lebanese men pray together after breaking their fast during Ramadan in March. By Hunter Williamson.

As the light dimmed further, friends of Amar trickled into the mosque. Amar stood up and helped them prepare a tray with dates and glasses of water and ayran — customary food and drink for breaking the fast.

Near the front of the mosque, Amar opened a door leading to the sound room where one of the men delivered the call to prayer that rang from the minirate across the town and over the fields. Seated around the tray of dates and drinks, Amar and his friends broke their fast, rapidly consuming one date fruit after another, mixed with the cool quench of water and ayran. After a few minutes, they stood and gathered in a line together near the front of the mosque. They decided that a young Lebanese man would lead them in prayer. Amar stood behind him.

For those minutes in prayer, he found solace from his troubles.

AUB Protests
Students demonstrate in front of the American University of Beirut on Oct. 9, 2023 in support of Palestine. By Hunter Williamson.

Part 2: American Hypocrisy

There is a word in Arabic: mtamsah. Literally translated, it means, “to crocodile.” But in colloquial use, it might better be understood as making oneself numb and void of feelings.

Hunter first heard the word while meeting with Batoul, a 21-year-old psychology student at the elite American University of Beirut, in a small park in front of the main cafeteria on campus. She looked tired. There was heaviness in her eyes and an uneasiness in her body language. Hunter asked if she was okay, and she told him that she had barely slept. She had been up most of the night with her friend Nour at the emergency room at the university’s hospital. It had been a long night for sure, but that was not the only reason she was tired. 

Sitting down at a rusty, square metal table, she explained how earlier that morning, she had received a message about an Israeli airstrike on her hometown in southern Lebanon. She had not immediately known where it had hit, and she had been terrified that it might have struck her family’s house. Luckily, shortly after, she learned that it had hit another part of town, and that her family was okay. Still, the stress lingered.

“You need to be ready for anything,” Batoul said. 

For the past four months, she had been ready for anything. Sitting just north of the Lebanese-Israeli border, Batoul’s home village, Bint Jbeil, found itself caught in the steadily escalating border clashes between Israel and armed groups based in southern Lebanon. Already, several people she knew had been killed.

A large tree shaded the table. Around them in the park sat other students and faculty. Rain had fallen consistently on the coastal Mediterranean capital for the past several days, but that Wednesday was sunny. It was the end of February, still cold but beginning to warm. Seated there in the tranquility of the weather and the relaxed campus environment, it could be easy to forget that a war was gradually enveloping Lebanon, expanding beyond the Lebanese-Israeli border where it had begun in October to the eastern Beqaa valley and even Beirut itself. Each day carried the question and anticipation of whether the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese political party leading the fight, would escalate into a full-scale war. It was a full-scale war that no one seemed to want — neither Lebanon, nor Hezbollah, nor Israel, nor Iran, nor the US, nor anyone else — but one that seemed to be drawing closer. What had begun as a support front for Hezbollah’s Palestinian ally Hamas had expanded into something more, resembling its own low-intensity conflict, entangled with Israel’s war on Gaza yet also separate. Officials from various foreign governments, the US head among them, were shuttling around the region and between Israeli and Lebanese leaders, trying to contain and de-escalate the conflict but having little success.

Batoul questioned if it had been the right decision for Hezbollah to become involved in the conflict, but she ultimately believed that it had no other choice due to moral and strategic considerations. She saw Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as a deliberate act of genocide. Someone had to stand up for Palestinians, and no one other than Hezbollah seemed willing to do it. She also believed that Israel would not stop in Gaza. After completing operations there, it would turn its full attention to Lebanon and go after Hezbollah just as it was now going after Hamas.

Seated at the table, Batoul made her argument with sincere conviction, but it was unclear to Hunter how much her beliefs helped her cope with the stress and trauma of the war. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah affected everyone, but it affected Lebanese from southern Lebanon the most. It was their homes and villages taking the brunt of Israeli fire, their families and loved ones most at risk of being killed or injured. Batoul and her family had already experienced multiple close calls since the start of the war. One strike had left her high school chemistry teacher dead. Another even closer attack killed neighbors and shattered her home’s windows.

Such constant anticipation is hard enough on its own, but Batoul also had the added pressure of trying to complete six university classes in order to graduate by the end of the spring semester. And then there were the political and economic crises afflicting Lebanon, persistent, seemingly unsolvable issues that had dragged the country down since 2019 and which had already made daily life difficult enough for many people. 

The war exacerbated all these stresses, added a new layer to them, put an additional weight on already tired shoulders and breaking backs. It was a lot for most people, including Batoul. She was barely eating, barely sleeping, barely getting by. Under such pressure, the only way for her to handle it was to be mtames’ha, to feel nothing, to be numb.

AUB Protests 2
A protestor kicks his foot through a printed paper of the Israeli flag during demonstrations in front of the American University of Beirut on Oct. 9, 2023. By Hunter Williamson.

Hunter and Batoul talked a little while longer. Then they decided to eat lunch at the cafeteria. They both ordered chicken and potatoes and a bowl of lentil soup. After paying, they sat at a table. “This is my first meal today,” Batoul said. There was a time when her mom used to prepare meals for her, but not anymore. Partly because of war, partly because of her overwhelming schedule, Batoul wasn’t making regular trips anymore to Bint Jbeil on the weekends. During the initial months of the war, Batoul cooked for herself. But she eventually stopped. She found it tiring to constantly think of different meals to make that would meet her nutritional needs. It was also time-consuming. Rather than putting additional stress on herself, Batoul decided not to eat. She said it wasn’t uncommon for her to only eat one meal per day now.

A classmate passed by the table as Hunter and Batoul ate. Batoul invited her to join them. A few days prior, the classmate had been with them during a community service program for children displaced from southern Lebanon. She sat down, and the conversation quickly drifted back to politics. Batoul talked again about “the Resistance,” an honorific term used for the alliance of Hezbollah and other Iran-allied groups opposed to Israel and Western influence in the Middle East. More than 200 Hezbollah members had been killed since the start of the war. Many of the party’s members, she said, were ordinary people, including her high school chemistry teacher. She teared up a little as she spoke, and wiped her eyes. Anyone and everyone, she continued, could be part of “the Resistance.” Some members had even studied at AUB.

The classmate listened and then raised a critique about supporters of Palestine studying at an American university. Didn’t that make them hypocrites? 

Batoul refuted the argument. “If I want to understand them, I need to be in their environment,” she said. “If you are in an Islamic university, you would hear the same opinions, the same stuff that you know. However, if you are in an open university, such as AUB, you would get to hear all of the opinions, you would get to understand other people’s visions better.” She thought it futile to study at an Islamic university, an echo chamber where she would merely hear descriptions about America and the West. But as firm as she was in her belief, a part of her still seemed bothered by it. “Sometimes you hate yourself. And then you move on.”

AUB Protests 3
Students demonstrate in front of the American University of Beirut on Oct. 9, 2023 in support of Palestine. By Hunter Williamson.

Shortly before 8 am on a Sunday morning in mid-February, Batoul, and six other AUB students loaded onto a bus in front of one of the university gates to head to a community service project in the Beirut suburb of Dekwaneh for children displaced from the South by the conflict. The project was part of the civic engagement and leadership development requirements of the students’ US-funded Higher Education Scholarships. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded the scholarship, as well as the students’ community service project, providing $6,000, Batoul said.

The bus moved easily through Beirut’s narrow but quiet streets, the roads still empty as the city lay in a Saturday morning slumber. The bus sat quiet too for most of the ride. As it approached Dekwaneh, a couple of the students helped direct the driver to the destination: an old, water-damaged, weather-beaten building at the end of a road atop a hill. The sound of church bells rang along the hills of Dekwaneh as the bus made its way to the center. The driver parked outside, and the students disembarked with bags and boxes containing gifts and chemistry kits.

The interior of the center was even more dreary than the outside, but the students made do. They quickly set up tables and chairs and the microchemistry sets. Another student plugged a laptop into the wall and began to play music by the iconic Lebanese singer Fairouz.

The children soon arrived. To break the ice, Batoul and the other students formed them into a large circle and led two icebreaker games. In the first, each person jumped into a goofy position and shouted their name. Then, they took turns running to the center and saying something they liked. Others who liked the same thing ran to the center as well. Many of the kids were shy, but the games helped to develop nascent relations among the children and the students.

After completing the games, the kids went to the tables and dawned surgical gloves and glasses to begin science experiments. George, a junior majoring in chemistry, led the experiments. The project for him felt both weird and personal. He came from the same village as all the children, Rmeich, a Christian village right along the Lebanese-Israeli border. With a population of several thousand, he knew some of the children attending the program. 

Hunter asked George how he felt about leading a project funded by US money to assist children displaced by a war widely perceived in Lebanon and the region as being enabled and sponsored by the US. Before he could fully answer, Batoul, who had been standing nearby, gave her opinion: “It’s really hypocritical.”

Community Service Project
Julie, a young girl displaced from the southern Lebanese village of Rmeich, holds a drawing she made during a community service project organized by Batoul and other students in February.

It was easy to understand what Batoul meant. The community service project offered a sort of microcosm of how the US so often seems to try and apply bandages to problems it creates. The war between Israel and “the Resistance” exemplified that well.

In the months leading up to Oct. 7, the Biden administration was pushing hard for the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration believed that such a deal would help de-escalate tensions in the Middle East and integrate the region. Such ends would allow the US to free up resources for what it perceived as great power competition with Russia and China.

In ways, Biden’s foreign policy continued what Obama started and then Donald Trump advanced. Though issues in the Middle East disrupted Obama’s Asia Pivot and remained an area of focus during Trump’s tenure, the administration of the latter president recognized just as their predecessors that the world had changed. The Trump administration saw China and Russia as competitors on the world stage and adjusted its foreign policy accordingly. So did the Biden administration. In its 2022 national security strategy, the administration stated that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” It emphasized that “the Indo-Pacific fuels much of the world’s economic growth and will be the epicenter of 21st century geopolitics,” and that “no [other] region will be of more significance to the world and to everyday Americans.” The strategy identified Europe as a second key arena, saying that the region “has been, and will continue to be, our foundational partner in addressing the full range of global challenges.” The paper called China “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” Russia, meanwhile, posed “an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown.”

The strategy gave less weight to the Middle East. It noted that for the past twenty years, US foreign policy “has focused predominantly on threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa. We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes, while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences. It is time to eschew grand designs in favor of more practical steps that can advance US interests and help regional partners lay the foundation for greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of the Middle East and for the American people.”

The new Middle East policy set forth by the administration sought to capitalize on partnerships and alliances to deter threats and utilize diplomacy to foster security and stability. A normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel fit this strategy, and seemed to be something both Middle East countries were open to. In early 2023, the New York Times reported Saudi conditions for a peace agreement with Israel: security promises, assistance with developing a civilian nuclear program, and less restrictions on arms sales. In public, Saudi Arabia remained critical of Israeli policy toward Palestinians and adamant that a Palestinian state needed to be established before it could forge formal ties with Israel. However, the New York Times cited unnamed officials who believed that Saudi Arabia would agree to less. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also seemed to downplay the challenge, telling an Italian newspaper that he believed “that the peace agreement between us and the Saudis will lead to an agreement with the Palestinians.” In interviews, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said he did “not view Israel as an enemy, but rather as a potential ally” and that his kingdom and Israel were getting closer to a deal.

All the while, tensions rose between Palestinians and Israelis. In late 2022, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history came to power. It was an alliance of hardliners who sought to expand Israeli occupation of the West Bank, ease the military’s rules of engagement in combat, and entrench control over Jerusalem. It was a coalition government adamantly opposed to Palestinian statehood whose guiding principles asserted Jewish people’s “exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel.” The new government also cut $40 million in funding to the Palestinian Authority. Amid such policies, violence in the West Bank escalated as Israeli settlers continued to seize and occupy more Palestinian territory. As early as February 2023, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, warned that the situation had reached “a very dangerous moment.” Biden addressed the issue too during a meeting with Netanyahu in September. Still, Biden stressed that US support for Israel remained “ironclad” and that “without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who is secure.” His position was clear: “Israel is essential.”

Community Service Project 2
Children displaced from southern Lebanon listen to the theme song for SpongeBob SquarePants before beginning a first aid course during a community service project organized by AUB students in February. By Hunter Williamson.

Batoul was in her dorm on AUB campus when the conflict began. In its early hours, she watched with astonishment the videos of Hamas fighters infiltrating Israel on paragliders. “It was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Batoul recalled months later. “Those Palestinians, who have no resources whatsoever, who are being killed every day, who are being oppressed every day, would come up with such a genius plan and just blow everything up and stand up for themselves.”

As the war between Hamas and Israel got underway, people in Lebanon watched closely, seeing what would happen next and how Hezbollah would react.

“I don’t know how wise it was. I’m not arguing that,” Batoul said about Hamas. She, like so many others, was surprised by the operation, and amazed that it had caught Israel’s renowned intelligence off guard. “But that was a very courageous move. And it’s understandable, because they have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, you will do that. When you are so oppressed, you will do that.” 

The events on Oct. 7 left some 1200 Israelis dead. The US and many other countries consider Hamas to be a terrorist group and its attack that day to be an act of terrorism. But Batoul and many others saw Oct. 7 in a different context, as just one day in a long history of bloody politics, oppression, and genocide that the US and West had created and perpetuated through their support for Israel. It was a history that Lebanon was also part of. In 1978 and then again in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to go after armed Palestinian groups based in the country. Following the emergence of Hezbollah in the 1980s, Israel entered into a years-long war with the nascent Shia group, continuing its occupation of southern Lebanon alongside a Christian-dominated armed group. In 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, but six years later it entered into another, month-long war with Hezbollah after the group kidnapped and killed Israeli troops. Batoul was a child during that war, but she remembers parts of it. 

“The fact that Israel actually bombed us before, killed us before, we know what it feels like to be subjected to this power,” Batoul said. That experience and history has earned Hezbollah legitimacy and respect from some but not all Lebanese, who see it as the only force capable of protecting Lebanon from foreign aggression.

But a feeling of concern still passed through her the morning after Oct. 7 when Hezbollah launched a rocket strike against an Israeli military post. The attack, though limited and seemingly more symbolic than strategic, opened a second front in what has essentially become a regional conflict.

“No southern individual with a working brain would be happy about (what Hezbollah did),” she said. “We’re all sad about it. We’re not happy about leaving our homes. We’re not happy about seeing our villages being destroyed. We’re not happy about having our safety taken away. But we accept it. We’re kinda used to it. We kind of know what it is to have Israel as an enemy.”

Hezbollah Flag
A man carries a Hezbollah flag before the start of a funeral procession for killed fighters on Oct. 10, 2023. By Hunter Williamson.

When the conflict first began along the Lebanese-Israel border, George thought that it would only last for a few days. He was used to such cross-border attacks. But as he followed news on WhatsApp groups about the increasing frequency of cross-border fire, he realized that the situation wasn’t like previous ones. A war was erupting. 

Before Oct. 7, George used to go every other weekend to Rmeich to see his parents. When the conflict began, his parents initially forbid him from coming. For three weeks, George waited in Beirut. Worried about his parents, he couldn’t focus on studying for his midterms.

“I just used to call my parents every second and ask, ‘What’s happening? Are you okay? Are they bombing now?’” The constant calling annoyed them, but he was concerned.

Finally, bored of sitting in Beirut, he told his parents he was coming to Rmeich. With his brother, they drove the two-hour trip south. That weekend, fighting was heavy, and George’s parents, though initially understanding, told him he shouldn’t have come. But George felt calmer in Rmeich than he did in Beirut. “My father was surprised because I wasn’t scared of the bombs,” he said.

George attributed part of that calm to his trust in God. Another reason was that he was finally with his family. “I didn’t really care about what’s happening, because I was there, I was with my parents,” he said. “Whatever happens to me happens to them, and vice versa. So I didn’t really care about what’s happening.”

That Saturday, George went to the barber to get his haircut. (George only gets his haircut in Rmeich.) As he was sitting, heavy strikes hit the nearby village of Yaroun, making a ferocious roar and shaking the earth. George stood up from the barber chair and looked outside. “The bombing was very heavy,” George recalled. “That was the first time I saw an actual bombing in my life.”

George returned to Beirut the next day. Leaving was hard, especially after seeing the reality of what his parents were living through, but he had to get back to school.

A man points to Israeli shelling on a hill top near Rmeich where rockets were seen being fired from minutes earlier on Oct. 23, 2023. By Hunter Williamson.

The past several months largely blur together in George’s memory. He became accustomed to the explosions that he heard and saw every time he returned to Rmeich. He admits that it’s a weird feeling, one that stems from how residents of Rmeich “are living in a war environment, but we are not involved in this war.”

A Christian village, Rmeich is unaffiliated with Hezbollah, which tends to have sway in the Shia villages that make up most of southern Lebanon. It has sought to distance itself from the conflict and has largely avoided Israeli strikes. In late March, residents of Rmeich accused Hezbollah of attempting to launch rockets from inside the village. George was in Rmeich that weekend for Palm Sunday, though far from where the incident occurred. After being intercepted, George said that the Hezbollah fighters moved somewhere else, reportedly to a pine forest, and fired rockets.

Many Rmeich residents oppose Hezbollah, and they accuse the group of dragging Lebanon into war. While Hezbollah and Israel had engaged in previous cross-border skirmishes prior to the current conflict, opponents note that Hezbollah was the first to fire after the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7. Nearly a month after the start of the conflict, during a highly anticipated speech, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said its efforts had supported Gaza. 

“I don’t think that it’s Lebanon’s responsibility to protect Gaza, to be honest,” George said. “We don’t have to get involved in a war just because of what’s happening in Gaza. Ok, everyone is sad about that, but the situation in Lebanon is not very good.”

Indeed, after more than four years of acute political and financial crises that have triggered waves of mass protests and one of the worst economic collapses in modern history, many fear that a full-scale war will completely destroy Lebanon.

Some people have accused Rmeich of collaborating with Israel, but while many Rmeich residents oppose Hezbollah, George is no friend of his neighbor either.

“No one is with killing innocent people,” George said. “But I think that what’s happening now, one of the reasons is because of the existence of Hamas. I think that they use their people as a protection for what they’re doing. That’s my point of view. For sure, as a Lebanese, I’m not pro-Israel. But I’m not pro-Palestine either.”

Still, the war has heightened sectarian tensions. It bothers George, who remembers how before the conflict, relations were fine between Christians and non-Christians. “Now, everyone on TikTok and social media talks about what’s happening in Rmeich,” he said. “They are blaming us for many things.”

A child with a photo of Qasem Soleimani, a senior Iranian general killed by the US in 2020, on his hat marches during a funeral procession for Hezbollah fighters killed by Israel on Oct. 10, 2023. By Hunter Williamson.

In late March, Batoul returned to Bint Jbeil for the first time in three months. The village sat empty, “like a horror movie,” but “during the day, everything was normal, as if there was no war.” The constant buzz of Israeli drones — a familiar sound now in southern Lebanon — did not emanate from the overcast sky that day. All Batoul heard were the songs of birds. Spring bloomed with flowers and green trees. “It was amazing,” she later said. “It was so amazing.”

That night, while sitting with her family at home, Batoul’s father looked up.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “It started. It’s going to happen.”

“What? What are you hearing?” Batoul asked.

A few minutes later, they heard two consecutive explosions. Batoul waited a few more minutes and then opened her phone to news that two homes in nearby villages had been bombed.

“I was having a very emotional, beautiful day. And then at night it was ruined” she said. A couple days later, she returned to Beirut. 

Hunter and Batoul met again that Wednesday, at the same university garden as before. Throughout their roughly two-hour conversation, Batoul flinched whenever an aircraft flew overhead. Some were civilian passenger planes flying along a typical flight path over the university to the Beirut International Airport. Others were Lebanese military helicopters. It didn’t matter that none were flying in any sort of combative role. The sound of any aircraft triggered Batoul. 

AUB Protests 4
AUB students protest on campus on May 7, 2024, during finals period. By Hunter Williamson.

The attack that weekend night in Bint Jbeil was tame compared to some of her other experiences in the 2006 war and the current conflict. But it was also a perpetuation of a conflict that continues to escalate with no end in sight. Since October, US officials have shuttled around the region in an attempt to resolve the war in Gaza and prevent the clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border and elsewhere in the region from erupting into a larger conflict.

Batoul tends to wait until night to check her phone. When she does, she often sees news about casualties in villages in southern Lebanon that she has visited and spent time in. “I would cry for half an hour and then I’m just like, Okay, let’s move on,” she said. “We’re just moving on. I’m not dealing with my feelings. I’m not dealing with the situation. I’m just moving on. And that’s the only thing that you can do.”

This summer, she is slated to graduate from a prestigious American university with a Bachelor’s in Psychology. She will complete her studies with skills and experiences obtained thanks to a US government-funded scholarship.

“I have a responsibility toward myself and toward my family to graduate from this University with a BA,” she said that Wednesday afternoon in the park. “If I allow the circumstances to affect me further I would not graduate, I would not do my assignments nor my exams. The South would benefit nothing from a non-graduating Batoul. If the South needs something, the South needs a graduating Batoul with a BA in psychology. That’s what the South needs. so I just have to continue with my life. I just have to move on.”

Oftentimes, Batoul breaks down. But when she does, she remembers an Arabic saying that she likes: kello rah.

“Everything is just gone. Finished. Let it be. You move on.”

Fuji XT-3

Part 3: The Eastern Sun

On the top of the hill, the drone’s buzzing had given way to the chirp of crickets. The air was still, and the moon had not yet risen. At the end of the road, a porch light twinkled in a tungsten glow. Under the light, Hassan Bazzoun beamed with post-Iftar bliss. 

Inside, Bazzoun’s salon was elegant. Velvet curtains lined the windows, gently reflecting the light of the chandeliers. Near the window, a meter-long wood-covered Holy Quran was arranged on a table. Bazzoun has the title “sayed,” which he explained references his lineage as “a descendent of Prophet Mohammed’s family.” All around the room, Bazzoun had arranged antique paintings and collectibles. 

Colorful food was laid out on the large coffee table, remnants of the Ramadan festivities. Osama Miari greeted his boss with a hearty smile, and he added two bottles of Jallab — yellow and honey brown — to the assortment as a gift. Then, on the grand sofa, Miari, a young technician, and Hantong relaxed for a moment. After the eerie roads they had traveled, they enjoyed the comfort and composure of Bazzoun’s place.

Since Oct. 7, 2023, Israel has routinely deployed drones in Lebanon to attack and surveil, and for most of their drive, a drone circled overhead while they traveled from Tyre —the most southern city in Lebanon — to Bazzoun’s house in Chehour, a small village in the hilly terrain behind the coastal city. On carless roads, the drone’s clear buzz rang an ominous tone. 

That morning, Miari was just heading out for work at Bazzoun’s solar energy company in Tyre when an Israeli drone struck a car a minute’s walk away from the office. Israel claimed that the strike killed a “significant” Hamas operative. It also killed a civilian passerby. Miari continued walking as he saw civil defense, soldiers, Red Cross, and intelligence agents gather at the site. The car lay burned before him. Above him, the drone buzzed and circled the city. 

Bazzoun didn’t mention the strike that evening.  “We are used to it and we are ready,” he had said on another occasion when Hantong asked about the rumors of an Israeli ground invasion during Ramadan. Now, sitting upright on the grand sofa with a calming composure, he addressed Hantong’s curious glances scanning the antique collections. An anticipatory grin on his face, Bazzoun quietly got up and retrieved a candle holder by the fireplace. One by one, he rotated the arms, and when the seven candelabra were aligned, he placed it on the coffee table. There, for the rest of the 4-hour-long interview, a Menorah stood amongst the Ramadan snacks.

Fuji XT-3
In Bazzoun’s salon, Miari and Bazzoun examine the since-deactivated Israeli shell that landed but failed to explode near Bazzoun’s family house during the 34-Day War in 2006. Photo by Hantong Wu.

Bazzoun and Miari laughed at Hantong’s surprised look, and by going through the history of the menorah, Bazzoun elaborated his views about Eastern inclusion and Western imperialism. “If you are not with us, you are against us — this is how Westerners think. For us, if you are not with me, you are free but don’t come against us. This is the conflict between us and the West — that they are trying to control us.”

Enemy’s Enemy 

On a spring day in March 1978, 7-year-old Bazzoun rode away from his village on a tractor. Along with him were his and six other families. Altogether, thirty people clung onto the rumbling machine, and for sixty kilometers, the fat tractor tires rolled slowly toward the coastal city of Saida, passing by burnt cars and dead bodies. 

Weeks earlier, Israel had invaded Lebanon in “Operation Litani”, which it claimed was a response to the Palestinian attack that killed 35 Israelis on March 11, 1978. As Israeli troops approached the Al-Bezouriye area near Bazzoun’s village, his parents decided to move north. 

“This was when Sayed Musa called for resistance against Israel,” sitting upright on the sofa, Bazzoun spoke solemnly. He is an admirer of Musa Al Sadr, the Lebanese-Iranian cleric who founded the Amal Movement, the most prominent political and military organization for Lebanese Shiites at the time. Today, Amal is a main ally of Hezbollah in Lebanon and like Nasrallah, his face also dots the landscape on posters along the road. 

Four months after the 1978 Israeli invasion, Musa Al Sadr disappeared while meeting Kemal Qadaffi in Libya. Nobody knows the full story, but Bazzoun believed that his leader was captured because of his resistance to Israel. On the day of his disappearance, he joined people from his village in a demonstration. Without their leader, they walked together but not knowing where they were going, Bazzoun said. He said it felt like the end of time.

Eloquently mixing the subtle stateliness of formal Arabic with the gentle flow of his Lebanese accent, Bazzoun spoke of his wai3 — his political awakening. “In this period, my political awareness began developing: What is Israel? What is land? What is a nation? What is resistance?” 

Between 1978 and 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon again, Bazzoun started reading about Mao Zedong, the founding chairman of the People’s Republic of China.

“Listen, when you have a lot of enemies, you must have a lot of friends. So anyone who is an enemy to your enemy becomes your friend,” Bazzoun said of his early connection with Mao and China. Later in his teenage years, he became steeped in leftist ideologies, picking up Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Mao’s memoir, and “whatever the communists read.” 

Over the years, a mix of anti-colonialism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic resistance became his ideological foundation and shaped how he views the great power competition of today. He smirked at the catchphrase: “To be honest, you cannot call America a country. It’s a colonialist movement — as opposed to China, which is historically connected to its land. You can’t really compare these two.”

Four decades later, Bazzoun had tucked his books about Mao away in his parents’ house. While the chairman — “the red sun in people’s heart” — lingered in his worldview, recently a series of crises has brought him into a new career in solar energy and unintentionally folded his life story into contemporary China’s grand strategy.

A “Generator Mafia” Gone Solar

Bazzoun cruised down the corniche of Saida before turning toward the hills. With three people squeezed into the front seat, Miari was pushed into the door as the small company van leaned to the side. 

In the early spring sun, Bazzoun had once again headed to Saida in the shadow of an expanding war. This time, however, he’d traveled for Hantong as accessing parts of Tyre had become more difficult for foreign journalists.

When Hantong first met Miari in December 2023, Tyre was still lively. Where the cafe’s windows opened to the bustling streets, sea breezes mingled with argileh smoke. In the scents of mint and apple and coal and tobacco dancing in the wind, one could almost forget about the sound of drone strikes across the narrow bay. 

Swinging a long woolen scarf over his shoulders, Miari entered the cafe with an air of confidence. The 23-year-old was entrepreneurial. He wore a designer sweatshirt that he’d imported from Turkey in the hope of starting a brand in Lebanon. On it, small words in an artsy font said: “My heart was never pure. Quiet life.”

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As they drove to see the solar energy project, Miari explained the context. “Because of the catastrophe of energy in Lebanon, there is some guys who is private distributors of energy. They used to use the diesel engines to supply energy for people that they sell to,” he rushed out his explanation. Taking a quick breath, he continued. “So after the solar energy rise in Lebanon, we installed like a 250-kilowatts station that covers the energy during the day and it’s synchronized with a motor.”

The project was the largest that Bazzoun’s company had done, supplying electricity to around 1,200 households in the surrounding area. The client also saw the project as a success. Since transitioning to solar energy last February, Abu Ali, the Palestinian power station owner, had saved around $120,000 in diesel, close to the cost of the solar energy system itself. “It’s good for the people, for him, for us, and for the environment,” Miari said proudly.

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Solar panels of Abu Ali’s first 125-megawatts solar station in the suburbs of Saida. Photo by Hantong Wu.

What Miari did not mention was that these private stations were technically illegal entities, owned and operated by what many call the “generator mafia”. Despite their illegal status, they openly operate a $3 billion market with diesel importers tied to Lebanon’s political establishment, according to Human Rights Watch. For years, generator owners have filled a significant capacity gap left by the state-owned supplier Electricité du Liban (EDL), a deficiency created by the same corrupt and inefficient system that brought them into business. Then, when Lebanon descended into a spiral of crises in 2019, the gap slowly became unbridgeable.

When the Lebanese economy collapsed in 2019, inflation skyrocketed and chaos filled Osama’s father’s minimarket. “Some products were still priced at 1,500 Lira to 1 dollar. Some products were at 3,000. Some were at 9,000,” Osama remembered what he saw after returning home for summer vacation. He’d received a full scholarship to study engineering in Cyprus after graduating with top marks from a school funded by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). 

For the next three years, he found Lebanon in a worse condition every time he returned. In 2021, he knew it had “come to a big crisis” when he saw “the government was helping people buy basic food like sugar and oil.”

That summer, as Lebanon ran low on dollar reserves to purchase fuel, the country descended into frequent blackouts. It became almost impossible for Miari’s family to get all the products for the minimarket. Sometimes, it took him a day to get a turn at the fuel station. Amid the fuel shortage, Abu Ali began paying double for the diesel to power his stations, and the hefty price tag was quickly transferred to his subscribers. 

Miari still felt the fuel shortage just a few months ago when his family received a “random” schedule of electricity from their generator owner, varying each week “depending on how much fuel they get,” he said. 

In the summer of 2022, Miari returned to Lebanon after earning his degree in mechanical engineering. He’d braced himself for the job market for a long time regardless of the crises. “Me, as a Palestinian—I can’t guarantee my career here. You always should be worried,” he said. After months of futile job search, Miari came across a poster for hiring from Al Mukhtar General Trading Company for Wind and Solar Energy. 

Bazzoun had opened the company that summer for financial reasons. For decades, he had enjoyed a prosperous legal career until the financial meltdown, followed by a nationwide revolution and Covid-19 lockdowns practically closed down much of the legal system, he said. “We need to continue our lives. We must live. You have responsibilities and family expectations, you need money. So I had to find an alternative job,” Bazzoun said.

After outperforming three other contenders, Miari joined Bazzoun’s company as a junior technician. Since then, the duo had ridden on the tide of a solar energy boom in Lebanon. Despite, or rather because of the crises, solar energy has become a popular alternative to buying electricity from pricy private generators, and its growth is quickly filling the capacity gap left by EDL. 

In 2022 alone, the installation of solar panels — mostly through household units — tripled the country’s total solar energy capacity. According to estimates by Pierre Al Khoury, who runs the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, the technical arm of the Ministry of Water and Energy, solar energy in Lebanon will grow to around 1,500 megawatts by the end of 2024. Based on this estimate, solar panels in Lebanon would soon generate over 80% of EDL’s hypothetical full capacity — what it would be expected to produce if it had somehow broken its decades-long curse and been given ample fuel. 

Three months after Bazzoun opened his company, his friend Abu Ali — a private generator owner himself — also decided to try solar, and after earning back the cost of the first two stations in about a year’s time, Abu Ali was eager to go fully solar. 

“The owner was calling us to make a third station,” Miari said. “We were contacting some suppliers in China for high voltage batteries so he can exclude the diesel engine—after he looked and found how much money he was saving.” 

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Solar panels of Abu Ali’s second 125-megawatts rooftop solar station in the suburbs of Saida.

“Made in China” for the Future

The dusty stairway darkened as Osama climbed up. When he turned on his phone flashlight, Hantong remarked on the irony of an unlit stairway that led to a power station. The residents in the apartment building did not buy Abu Ali’s electricity for the stairway, Osama explained. “Private is private,” he shrugged.

On the rooftop at the end of the stairway, Bazzoun absorbed the panoramic view of Saida while the hundreds of solar panels above him absorbed the late afternoon sun.

“Everything you see here is from China”, Miari had told Hantong when he first stepped into Bazzoun’s office. Here, in part to back up his statement and in part because he’d forgotten the manufacturer’s name, Miari pointed to the hand-sized stickers on the back of each panel. All in English, it spelled the name of the Chinese manufacturer in a stylized font, and in small words at the corner it read “Made in China.”  Subtly, the stickers marked the Chinese presence while silently, the panels spoke of a future envisioned by the Eastern power. 

Unlike most “Made in China” products, the solar panels are part of an “emerging sector with strategic value,” which is “basically the core linchpin of China’s plan to escape the middle-income trap,” says Brian Wong, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Hong Kong University and expert in Chinese foreign policy and geopolitics. According to Wong, as China finds itself no longer able to continue its growth through “real estate, digital e-platforms, and casual production and manufacturing,” it has sought the new fuel for its growth in the strategic sectors, which, in addition to renewable energy, include digital innovation, information technology, biotechnology, and high-end manufacturing. 

“EV [electric vehicles], the solar panels, batteries and all of these other nascent industries are a key dimension of China’s new industrial policy in creating employment, in shifting itself up the value chain in terms of supply chains of manufacturing, and in creating or co-creating new relationships with dependencies by other countries,” Wong said. 

The Chinese Photovoltaic (PV) industry has been particularly successful. Globally, China controls over 70% of the PV supply chain, and in Lebanon, China has supplied most of these solar panels and other key components like inverters and lithium batteries, according to Lucas Mo, who manages the Lebanon branch for CWorth Energy, a relatively small Chinese solar energy company. 

Mo, who had moved to Lebanon after Oct. 7th and planned to stay despite the war, spoke confidently about his venture in Lebanon. He had previously worked in another Chinese solar energy company that had been losing money until it began selling lithium batteries in Lebanon. 

“The sales went ‘zoom,’ Mo said, swinging his arm up and adding sound effects. The company’s battery sales in Lebanon alone brought over $40 million in revenue in one year, “practically saving the company,” Mo said with awe. Already, he was envisioning a plan to expand CWorth Energy’s Lebanon branch into a Middle East branch, starting with Syria when it becomes ready for reconstruction. 

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Lucas Mo, manager of CWorth Energy Lebanon branch, poses at its warehouse and office in Saida, Lebanon. 
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Lucas Mo, manager of CWorth Energy Lebanon branch, poses on the rooftop of its warehouse in Saida on March 14, 2024. Since Oct. 7, 2023, he had put up additional flags on the rooftop in fear that the warehouse could be mistakenly targeted by Israel.
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Unlike large Chinese solar projects in the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, which were partially driven by the governments’ interest in renewable energy, Chinese PV sales in Lebanon were mostly driven by the market demand through small projects and private companies like CWorth Energy and Al Mukhtar Company, according to Bazzoun. 

The Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation has received offers from Chinese companies to build large stations that generate more than 500 megawatts, said Al Khoury, but he found the rooftop market most ideal for Lebanon. “Whenever projects become bigger, they become more attractive to corruption,” Al Khoury said, ”So we try to keep it at a low level since the whole market is booming.“ In addition to the fuel shortage, Al Khoury attributed the surge to government policies in the past decade that prepared the market and, more recently, stopped subsidizing conventional fuel.

Bazzoun was skeptical, to say the least. “If the government could still supply us electricity like before, they wouldn’t let us have solar energy,” he said, “because they were making a lot of money.” 

For Bazzoun, rather than any Lebanese policy, it was an American one that catalyzed the solar boom: the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. Through the act, the US aimed to hold the Assad regime accountable by sanctioning those related to the conflict in Syria, but the American policy quickly had an effect on Lebanon. 

Diesel, while becoming scarce in Syria, was still subsidized in Lebanon. When the price difference met the poorly regulated market in Lebanon, where some political parties had vested interests in Assad’s regime, smugglers transported diesel in truckloads across the border, raising the price inside Lebanon. When the diesel price doubled, Abu Ali decided to go solar. 

Miari found the cause and effect ironic. “This is why Americans are dumb. They do something that gives the advantage to China,” Miari said.

On his latest trip to China in April, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken again complained about Chinese overcapacity in industries including solar energy. As the US tries to build its domestic capacity, China’s dominance has become an obstacle. On May 14, Biden announced a series of China tariffs “across strategic sectors” to “protect American workers and businesses”, a White House statement said. The tariffs on Chinese solar cells will increase to 50% in 2024. 

“No matter how the EU and the US tried to impose tariffs on Chinese PV products, they all ended up giving up, because they realized that ‘wool comes from the sheep’s back’, that we are really just exporting competitive product with high quality,” an executive from a major Chinese PV company who asked not to be named commented, denying that the industry is selling its excess capacity. Rather, he pointed out, that the products could remain competitive because of a well-established supply chain with complementary of Research & Development, intellectual property as well as economies of scale.

Bazzoun said that the Chinese solar panels that he sells are affordable and on par with European standards, but Miari’s view about Chinese products fell short of “good and cheap.”

“We say Chinese product is very bad. Don’t get it,” he recalled the common sentiment at his engineering school, “Right now, I can say, okay, these products are pragmatic for countries that can’t afford European equipment.”

A Gift From the East

Another important aspect of China’s PV industry, Wong said, lies in its grand strategy in the international arena: creating a community with a shared future for mankind. “I trust that Xi genuinely cares about the environment, about tackling pollution, about also — as he says — the issues that would plague and afflict ‘the community with a shared future for mankind’,” Wong commented. According to him, “symbolic pride” and “goodwill” for the global south, which will be most affected by climate change, is one of the reasons behind the strategy. 

On Jan. 18, China showed its latest goodwill to Lebanon, announcing a donation of solar equipment to Ogero — Lebanon’s state-owned telecommunication operator. The equipment, which amounts to $8.5 million, will power 365 out of the 420 Ogero centers once installed, said the company CEO Imad Kreidieh. Although Ogero still needs to raise funds for installing and maintaining the equipment, which will arrive in summer 2024, the expected impact is significant. Since 2019, due to the fuel shortage, Ogero has seen more outages as local centers shut down. After partially transitioning from diesel to solar through the donation, Kreidieh expects to see a 40% cost reduction, or around $8 million. 

Kreidieh said he had hedged against any overdependence of Ogero on one country by keeping a diverse pool of suppliers, but he pointed out the company’s “very strong relation” with Huawei. “Huawei played a huge role in facilitating this engagement of the Chinese government with the Lebanese one,” Kreidieh said, “and we’re glad that it materialized in that way.” Following the announcement, China will procure the equipment through a tendering process, in which Kreidieh was sure that Huawei will participate.

While other countries, including Germany and the US, had shown interest in Ogero’s transition to green energy, none had materialized, Kreidieh said. After the announcement, the US Embassy asked him for a meeting. “I felt during the meeting that there is support for the telecommunications sector and for Lebanon, but it could not exceed this understanding,” Kreidieh said, commenting on what he saw as a cautious approach by the US toward the Lebanese public sector, “since there is involvement of Hezbollah in the political side of Lebanon, the US doesn’t want to initiate any kind of action that could be understood as support — if we can say that — to Hezbollah.” In comparison, he found the flexibility of the Chinese government and companies in commercial dealings “much more comforting”. 

Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist turned parliamentarian, is skeptical about foreign donations like these after decades of what she saw as abuse of foreign funds by corrupt Lebanese politicians. “We just finished a study showing how the government has cashed in 1.1 billion dollars to build wastewater treatment plants since 2012, and still there is nothing to show for,” Saliba commented, citing her work on accountability and environmental protection, “Of course foreign support from the international community is welcome, but I would like to know if the Chinese government has designed a mechanism of accountability that will ensure that taxpayers money will go to good use beyond the acceptance of the aid.” 

In addition to the “good will,” Wong sees that “in Xi’s estimation in 50 years time, the industries that really will dominate foreign policy discussions and drive forward international partnerships are industries that are needed for a post-climate change world, given the fact of irreversible climate change.”

In Lebanon, the environmental effect of diesel generators was visceral. New research indicates a 50% higher chance of cancer for Beirut residents because of the diesel fumes. 

Although diesel generators are not going away anytime soon, the solar energy boom has brought Lebanon much closer to its goal for renewable energy to make up 30% of the country’s energy sector by 2030. In 2020, it was trailing behind its national target with renewables making up only 12% of the national demand. Four years later, the country has reached between 20-25% and Al Khoury expects it to meet the 2030 goal well ahead of the deadline. 

In March 2024, smog hangs over the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by Hantong Wu.

The Eastern Ally

Standing below the solar panels, Miari read out the numbers from Abu Ali’s phone, where an application tracks the environmental impacts. The entire system had reduced about “98 million tons of CO2,” equivalent to planting “37,610 trees” in the past 6 months.

The most environmentally concerned of the three, Miari had taken an interest in renewable energy in engineering school and focused his graduate project on solar water heaters. Thinking about his future career, he said he would consider staying in the solar energy business. “It can be good. Why not? It’s a promising field and it can make me feel good because I’m helping the planet,” Miari said, “I care about sustainability.” 

For Miari, the feel-good factor and the learning experiences had been the most valuable part of his job. He could barely support himself with his salary even while living in his family house. The company hadn’t had projects for months, and Miari hadn’t earned any bonus for new installations. The slow sales was usual for winters but the escalating conflict had him worried that the situation would worsen for the company.

“When there’s work, there is income,” Bazzoun said, largely content with his career change, “That doesn’t mean that it met the standards that I was used to working as a lawyer, but it was enough for me to not rely on anyone.” 

His ideological affinity to China appeared only vaguely in the background when it comes to practical considerations. Lebanon exports few products, and its service industry — a main pillar of its economy — had recovered poorly since the financial meltdown. “So if I don’t work for the Chinese, I’d work for the French, the American, or the British. I’ll buy clothes made in Italy and perfumes from France and cars from America,” Bazzoun continued. “Now I prefer working for China over other countries in this case.” Ideally, he’d want to see a more independent and productive economy in Lebanon.


For Bazzoun, this turn of events — the Caesar Act, the solar energy boom, and even the ongoing war — would not create a shift in how people in Lebanon view the two superpowers. For him, Lebanon would always be divided into two camps.

“There is the camp against the imperialists, and from the beginning they turn to the eastern world, militarily, economically, and culturally. Then there are those who benefit from imperialism. This is how Lebanon is,” Bazzoun spoke matter-of-factly.

Abu Ali was quick to declare his allegiance: “I am against America all the way.”

The twilight sun softened into a faint violet, smudged on the clouds above Saida, but the last rays of brilliance had sneaked below the solar panels that covered the roof. A golden contour outlined Miari’s strong profile. His face had turned from a hearty smile to show a bitter resolve as the conversation turned political.

“Any difference between Palestine and Lebanon from geography?” Miari asked. Although he and Abu Ali were Palestinian, nobody at the power station had been to Palestine. The question was rhetorical. 

“They are not separated.” His answer was firm. 

Miari was born and raised in Tyre, but he always says that he is from Akbara, Palestine. The small village is south of Safed, a city in the Galilee, in north Palestine. It sat on the gentle slopes of the hills in the Limonim forest, surrounded by 12 pristine waterfalls. Miari’s family farmed the lands, where their sheep grazed between the olive trees. The village was “amazing” and life was “fun,” Miari’s grandmother told him, until the spring of 1948. The battalions of the Zionist militia Palmach attacked the area village by village after occupying and destroying the nearby village of Ein Al-Zeitun. Some young men stayed in Akbara to fight, but Miari’s grandmother, along with most women and children, went by foot and headed north for safety.

The distance between Akbara to the Lebanese border is 30 minutes by car for Israelis, days by foot for Miari’s grandmother, and three generations away for Miari. But as catastrophic attacks continued in Gaza, he didn’t feel any distance between him and his countrymen in Palestine.


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Miari becomes emotional as he reflects on his connection to Palestinians in Gaza on March 14, 2024.

Miari stood on the edge of the roof and looked out into the city. Three decades after Bazzoun’s tractor ride to Saida, Miari and his family also took refuge there in 2006, when Israel bombed the farm by his house, the streets he used to play on, and near the Palestinian camp where his family sought safety during the Israel-Hezbollah war. Miari’s family thought Israel wouldn’t strike the refugee camp densely packed with civilians but one night, Miari woke up and found himself in the hovering dust and moving rocks as the nearby bombings shook the camp. The war broke out following a Hezbollah operation that ambushed an Israeli military patrol and killed three and kidnapped two soldiers. After refusing a prisoner swap, Israel responded with ground-and-air attack. For 34 days, it targeted both military and civilian infrastructure in Southern Lebanon and Beirut, while Hezbollah mostly responded by indiscriminately firing missiles into Israel. The conflict killed 55 Israelis, including 43 civilians, and over 1,000 people — mostly civilians — in Lebanon, including Bazzoun’s friends. 

“Actually, look — there is a common narrative for us, which is that Israel is our enemy,” Miari later said, “The enemy of my grandpa who’s come from Palestine, the enemy of my father when they invade in 1982 and 1978, and they are my enemy when they fight in 2006 and 2023.” 

The sun had almost set. Miari, Bazzoun, Abu Ali, and Hantong climbed down the dark stairways in silence. A drone buzzed overhead as they left the station. 

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Under the solar panels he installed for Abu Ali’s rooftop solar station, Miari looks out to the city of Saida, where his family took refuge during the 34-Day War in 2006. Photo by Hantong Wu.

It was past midnight in Bazzoun’s salon. Lying back on the sofa, Bazzoun led the interview to its end with a brief account of his solar energy business, and he recalled his trip to China in 2018, when he toured commercial centers in the southern provinces, visiting factories and malls. His new commercial ties with China had added another layer to his affinity with the Eastern power, reviving his positive views about its political system. 

“The most important question I was asked after coming back from China was ‘Where is democracy in China?’” Bazzoun said contemplatively, “I responded with, ‘What is your definition of democracy?’ A person in China is housed, educated, with free healthcare, his work is secured, his safety is maintained. If all of this is available, what do I care about who is ruling? What is my motive for assigning someone to power? Isn’t it so they can secure all these things? Give me all these and I will not ask about if the ruler is Christian, Muslim, Buddist, what have you…” 

Bazzoun paused, with a familiar and convincing look of defiance reappearing in his eyes, he continued, “So democracy is a lie, my friend. It is a lie that the West used to involve itself in the business of others and to colonize their land.” 

Finally, speaking as a supporter of “the Resistance” again, in a tone that flipped between hope and exhaustion, Bazzoun concluded, “Today, We have Iran as a patron. We have two allies, and they are Russia and China.”

Hunter Williamson & Hantong Wu

Hunter Williamson and Hantong Wu are Creative Capsule Residents. Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He has covered war and politics in the Middle East and Ukraine. You can follow his work on X @hunterwilliam and Instagram @hunterewilliamson. Hantong Wu is a freelance journalist. He is looking to offer an independent perspective on foreign policy issues through humanistic storytelling. You can follow his work on Instagram @hantongwu.raw.

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