BEIRUT, Lebanon — Every November, I walk downtown with my husband and children through the holiday hush of streets closed for the annual Beirut Marathon. We pass Ottoman-era villas with arched windows, a Versace-branded glass tower and the bullet-pocked hulk that was a Holiday Inn until the Battle of the Hotels in the 1970s. We wave at the soldiers still stationed there, and at the teenage volunteers waiting to pass out water.
As a symbol of Lebanese resilience, the 15-year-old marathon is a bit of a cliché, like the list of Beirut contrasts — war-torn glitz, trauma alongside normalcy — above. The race’s explicit insistence on defying divisions and violence can have a whiff of protesting too much. And yet. When we reach the starting line and crowd into the corral to begin the Family Fun Run, it is impossible not to be moved.
There are balloons and Lebanese flags and people from every religion, class and political faction. The sense of community is literal; in this smallish city, where I have lived for five years with my family as the Beirut bureau chief of The New York Times, we inevitably find ourselves running alongside friends from school and work.
Some clichés are true: Holding a marathon in a place that many outsiders, a generation after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, still picture as a dangerous wasteland does count as an act of hope. At the starting gun of each race, an announcer shouts in Arabic, English and French: “We run for peace! For unity! For Lebanon!”
Once we start running, the race can be as much a tour of Lebanon’s problems as an antidote to them. Even the truncated 1K route that I jog with my 7-year-old takes us through the downtown that became a shattered no-man’s-land during the civil war.
It was rebuilt, controversially, as a playground for the wealthy, under Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who symbolized unity to some and corruption to others. The race ends up at Mr. Hariri’s tomb; he was killed in 2005 in a bombing that roughly half the country blames on the powerful militia and political party Hezbollah, and the other half insists was a setup.
Yet at this year’s races, on Sunday, the vision of unity carried new weight. The reason was a surprising one: a call for the return of Prime Minister Saad Hariri — Rafik’s son — from Saudi Arabia. He is no more a universally beloved figure than his father was.
But it was the eighth day since he unexpectedly declared his resignation from the Saudi capital, Riyadh. He remains stranded there, widely seen as a captive, literally or figuratively, of his Saudi patrons, a pawn in their efforts to isolate their regional rival, Iran, and its ally, Hezbollah. (He insisted he was “free” in a televised interview.)
When Lebanese politicians declared the marathon a rally for Mr. Hariri’s return, I expected mass rolling of eyes. An axiom of marathon day is that it is a time to set aside politics. But when young men handed out baseball caps reading, “We want our PM back,” many runners put them on.
Billboards showed Mr. Hariri running in last year’s race with the slogans, “We are all waiting for you” and “Running For You.” People snapped selfies with them. Other signs displayed an Arabic hashtag, #WeAreAllSaad.
It was not that people had forgotten that Mr. Hariri presides over a weak government and has failed to win concessions from Hezbollah through confrontation or compromise. Nor had they abandoned the widespread conviction that he and his rivals play on sectarian divisions to keep power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a tiny, largely hereditary political elite.
It was just that enough was enough. Generations of foreign meddling aside, the belief that another country had effectively kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister was the last straw, and people wanted to see the move backfire. As one commenter put it on Twitter, Lebanon was tired of outside powers acting like it was “not a real place.”
Somehow, a humiliating moment for Lebanon became an occasion for national unity, even pride.
Lebanon’s most earnest slogans are often their own parodies. A perfect example is the hashtag #LiveLoveLebanon, invented by the Ministry of Tourism.
Lebanese social media users quickly embraced it to comment on the country’s beaches (and their scent of sewage), its ski slopes (and mountainside garbage dumps), its wine industry (and hash factories), its swanky (and overcharging) restaurants and its cedar forests (what’s left of them) dating to the Song of Solomon.
The hashtag is used in posts about the country’s resilience and diversity in the face of efforts to divide it from within and without, and also to tag anecdotes about petty corruption and glacial internet speeds.
#WeAreAllSaad is much the same. By definition, politically divided Lebanon is not all Saad.
Even to his mostly Sunni constituents, Mr. Hariri has never matched his father’s charisma or effectiveness. One telling image, a faded poster on a road in the Bekaa Valley, shows him dwarfed by a translucent likeness of his father, a more imposing figure with a much more regal mustache, looming behind him.
It reminds me of Patrick Swayze’s spirit in the movie “Ghost,” hovering vaporously behind Demi Moore at her potter’s wheel.
Yet the fact that Mr. Hariri’s current predicament is seen by many Lebanese as somehow pathetic has not stopped him from becoming a symbol of Lebanese sovereignty. Even the flood of new jokes at his expense do not contradict the point.
Anglophone Lebanese cannot stop playing on “Saad” and “sad.” Journalists have drawn half-joking parallels to the disappearance of Moussa Sadr, the Lebanese Shiite leader who disappeared in Libya, believed kidnapped, in 1976.
After our race, my daughter and I followed some friends, fellow runners, to a cafe at Zaitounay Bay, a seaside development where dozens of gleaming, rarely used yachts are anchored. It is just the kind of glitzy privatization of public space that gets both celebrated and lampooned with the #LiveLoveLebanon hashtag, and an emblem of angst over the elder Hariri’s redevelopment strategy.
Our friend Imad Shehadi, who grew up watching his father run an emergency room in wartime Beirut and is no fan of politicians, explained over breakfast why the marathon meant more this year.
“It’s a mark of defiance against the forces of evil, against the forces on every side that want to interfere with Lebanon,” he said.
“To me it’s more resilience,” his wife, Carla, said. “The resilience of Lebanon and the Lebanese, who just want to live life, no matter what.”
We strolled home along the boardwalk, their boys and my daughter stopping to admire a lavish boat christened “Thanx Dad 4.” We passed the spot where Rafik Hariri’s motorcade was blown up. We followed the marathon route along the seaside corniche, past snack bars and fishermen and picnicking families, toward the place where the American Embassy stood before it was bombed in 1982.
The racecourse went past several civil war massacre sites and refugee camps and the vibrant neighborhoods that cluster at either end of a city no longer physically divided. Waiters at our favorite cafe, exiles from today’s war in Syria, high-fived passing runners. Near the finish line, a booth offered manicures to a subset of joggers in sequined velour.
The marathon winner set a course record, and a blind man finished the course for the first time. In the end, 47,000 people took part. It was another Beirut record.