With the support of the Abbasi Program, I spent seven weeks in Lebanon during the summer of 2015 pursuing Arabic language study at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and conducting exploratory research on the relationship between political institutions, ethnoreligious identity, and local public goods provision. Though a full course schedule and reviewing new skills kept me more than busy, the two months I spent in and around the nation’s capital afforded me a new perspective on the intersections between politics and the structure of everyday life.
The summer language program at the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at AUB was every bit as intense and rewarding as I had expected. Classes began with several hours of instruction in Lebanese ’amiyya – peppered with popular expressions taken from French and English, much to the amusement of foreign students of the language – followed by a full day’s’ worth of grammar, reading, and oration classes in Modern Standard Arabic. Classroom lessons were interspersed with trips to several bookstores within Beirut’s storied Hamra area, the Beirut Central District’s gorgeous Al-Amin mosque, and the downtown headquarters An-Nahar, of one of the oldest national newspapers. Though the day of classes usually wound down by late afternoon, a full night of homework awaited us as our instructors, as per the program guidelines, swiftly moved through a week’s worth of lesson plans per day. Predictably, the cafes and shisha lounges along Bliss Street, adjacent to the AUB campus, were filled each night with summer-term and full-time students scrambling to finish the day’s work.
Though our study regime was intense, I was able to see quite a bit both within and outside Beirut – ranging from the capitol’s trendy Mar Mikhael area to a largely deserted island just off the coast of the northern city of Tripoli. Having previously visited Lebanon in 2011 allowed me to gain new perspective on the ways in which the conflict in Syria has reshaped the nation as it struggles to deal with an influx of millions of refugees and the continual threat of violence spilling over its borders. Relatedly, the also gave me an more intimate perspective into how Lebanon’s system of power-sharing, unusual in both its complexity and scope, both enables and constricts its ability to adapt to the challenges posed by rapidly changing domestic and regional circumstances.
As a Ph.D. student in the political science department at Stanford, my research centers on the relationship between political institutions, the politics of identity, and the ability of states to effectively and equitably provide vital services to their constituents. As the events that unfolded in Lebanon this summer amply demonstrated, the failure of governments to deliver upon promises to distribute goods as basic as clean water, electricity, or waste management can spark tremendous outrage directed (with reason) at political institutions perceived as weak, corrupt, or biased. My current research project looks specifically at the electricity sectors of various Middle Eastern nations, and being in Beirut allowed me to interview academics, activists, and those involved directly in the power market, all in the context of a critical national debate over the role of the state in providing basic services to its people.