4 September 2008

Paradoxes, abstractions and indulgences: the myth of Lebanese joie de vivre

Posted in Comment, Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , at 8:39 pm by lilithhope

The notion that Lebanon is a country of brazen paradoxes is a commonplace conclusion arrived at by many foreigners who come here for any significant amount of time. So commonplace, in fact, that such contradictions have become the template for Westerners’ representations of this quagmire country in both the media and academia alike. The stark social disparity, in which up-market, glitzy neighbourhoods are situated a stone’s throw away from dirty, overcrowded refugee camps; the incomprehensible speed with which the nation goes from being on the brink of civil war to lapping up the vastly exaggerated, pop-star blessed and firework-christened festivities of a superficial band-aid of a peace deal; the relentless drive towards luxury and indulgence in the face of institutionalised marginalization and repression… This is Lebanon.

Often, these anti-intuitive, ill-fitting pieces are considered to be the root reason for why Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, wields such a powerful magnetic pull on all who stray into its sphere. Lebanon can be both heaven and hell, and this is a powerful source of attraction for those who, coming from outside, are privileged enough to derive cheap thrills by walking the precarious tightrope between the two universes. This ‘naughty-but-nice’ message resonates ironically in each and every tongue-in-cheek regurgitation of this countries’ well-meaning but largely vacuous mantra: “Welcome to Lebanon”.

The paradoxes of Beirut are all-pervasive, and manifest themselves almost all aspects of life in this city that inhabits the borderline between the sane and the absurd, the shining and the decrepit. It is not rare to perceive a bullet-ridden, blackened-by-smoke carcass of a building lurking in the shadow of a towering shard-glass luxury residence. Nor is it uncommon to witness the merging of the worlds of a fashion victim and a mine victim: a diamond- and gold-clad, collagen-lipped tummy-tucked breast-enhanced platinum blonde stops to buy a pack of Davidoff slims from a legless old man on a street corner. Not surprisingly, it is the former who is offered bank loans to ‘remedy’ her condition, while the limbless latter is extended no such compassion. The focus on extravagance in favour of post-conflict reconciliation or shared humanism has led many to ask why the Lebanese seem to have their priorities so skewed.

Several attempts have been made to reconcile Lebanon’s paradoxes, to understand how such unabashed pleasure flourishes so shamelessly aside such festering pain. The general consensus to emerge from academics, bloggers and journalists alike is that many Lebanese suffer from some form of ‘national amnesia’1, or as ‘Angry Arab’ As’ad Abukhalil would say, ‘Lebanonesia’, that drives them to forget their conflict-plagued past by filling themselves with the petty frivolities of the present. A similar diagnosis was recently echoed in an article published in The Times a couple of weeks ago, in which the author, Alice Fordham, claimed the existence of some “Lebanese tendency” to ignore troubles and focus on fun, which represents “a national psychological defence mechanism” 2. In a more patronising tone, the author continues:

These people have endured decades of internal and external strife and they live in a country where sectarian rifts are getting deeper and, very likely, storing up trouble for the future. If they focused on what had happened and what was likely to happen, they couldn’t cope. So, in Beirut at least, they go to the rooftop nightclubs or the road of bars in the beautiful, battered area of Gemmayze and make the most of the clubs that stay open no matter what the security situation… So if it is denial that fosters this charm, then it is hard to condemn it… Everyone here has deeply held affiliations, inherited and totally incompatible with the views of their friends. Who can blame them for skirting around the issue and thinking instead about society, style and about how great they’re going to look after their surgeon is finished with them? ”.

Yet while the middle and upper class Lebanese are good-naturedly chided and admired for their ability to put painful aspects of their national past behind them by focusing their energies on trivial pleasures, some of the darker characteristics of Lebanese society are glossed over.

In the effort to paint the Lebanese as victims of social and political conditions that precede them and choosing to frame their pleasure-seeking as a coping mechanism, their own role in aggravating the bottomless rifts that haunt this country and perpetuating other socio-political injustices is ignored. For while the Lebanese pride themselves with their hospitality, spouting the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” at the drop of a hat, they are simultaneously resolvedly reluctant to critically assess their own agency as causing the persistence of divisive sectarian identities and the lacunae in dealing with the ghosts of the civil war, both factors which continue to push the Lebanese into armed conflict with on-another. Perpetual escapism and denial can only lead to the exasperation of the causes of social and political differences.

Moreover, those Western journalists who romanticise and victimise the Lebanese predicament are also guilty of naïve abstraction. By excusing the middle and upper class’ superficial obsessions with physical beauty and material wealth as means of escaping the bigger issues around them, one condones their choice to not be part of the solution, and hence their role in deepening certain social divisions. Moreover, if one were to examine the fact of Western representation of the Lebanese more closely, many assumptions are taken for granted. Significantly, any vocal celebration of the apparent Lebanese ‘joie de vivre’, charm and hospitality is a selective reading of how outsiders are received here, most importantly because it tends to be race blind.

Racist attitudes towards those of darker complexion are very common in the Arab world. The word ‘abeed’, which means ‘slave’ in Arabic, is commonly and unquestioningly used by many Arabs to refer to individuals with black skin. My half-Sudanese half-Latvian friend stormed out of the 2006 African Nations Cup final in Cairo because a group of Egyptian boys in front of us were referring to the Cote d’Ivoiriens on the pitch using that very word and others of a similar lexical set. In Lebanon, the situation is compounded by the Lebanese tendency to see themselves as also superior to other Arabs, a consequence of their supposed Phoenician roots3 and lighter skin.

In Lebanon, this twin prejudice is clearly apparent in the division of labour, which fixes those of darker or more alien features (Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Philippino) in the most base jobs, including street cleaners and live-in domestic help (aka personal servants), while other slightly more coffeed Arabs, such as Syrians and Iraqis, form a large portion of the manual labour force. In fact, I would even go as far to argue that regardless of their political leanings and sect, upper-middle class Lebanese Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite and Greek Orthodox probably have near-identical takes on social justice issues, whereby they probably do not question the ethical implications of importing individuals from East Africa or East Asia, locking them in houses, controlling their movement by retaining their passports and paying them a (for lack of better word) shit wage.

Such racial prejudice is not restricted to labour, and is equally present in the realm of leisure, that sphere in which the Lebanese are so allegedly adept. While Lebanon’s many pleasures are praised by foreigners right and left, the extent to which one has access to the jilted universe of the privileged largely depends on one’s complexion. While myself, Fordham and other white Europeans and Americans are received with open arms, the same hospitality is often brutally refused to non-white visitors. A Kenyan acquaintance of mine and her compatriot were recently flatly refused entry to one of Jounieh’s plush beach resorts. No, the facility was not full, as others continued to enter unimpeded. The two girls were, simply, perceived of as being too dark to partake in Lebanese luxury. An Indian acquaintance relayed a similar story to me, in which the wife of the Sri Lankan ambassador was once chased out of a swimming pool at a mountain resort by to hotel staff amongst cries of “Maids are not allowed in the swimming pool!”

Those narratives indicate that the extent to which an outsider can access the celebrated Lebanese hospitality depends on skin colour. Ask any non-white foreigner in Lebanon about their experiences with ‘Lebanese hospitality’, and their narratives are worlds away from the charm that Fordham mentions. Her race blindness toward this issue is blatant when she states: “[Beirut’s] reputation for fun and the Lebanese reputation for charm and hospitality do attract visitors who support the many employees of hotels, shops and beaches”. She does not indicate the discrepancies in treatment of those who are ‘attracted’, nor does she question the extent to which employment in the tourist sector may also have a racial dimension. Therefore, while it is glaringly obvious that the revered Lebanese hospitality is tainted with a white Europhilic stain, such prejudice is glossed over by flattering portrayals of the privileged Lebanese as soldiering on in the bars, clubs, mountain villas and beach resorts despite violent clashes or the constant threat thereof. Such portrayals play into the image that many Lebanese wish to give of themselves, one of victimhood, which exempts them from questioning their past and present responsibilities in the continuing shambolic disintegration of this country.

The suffering that has been endured by the Lebanese people in over 15 years of civil war and foreign occupation is undeniable. But the solution to such suffering is not abstraction. Foreigners who revel in the open, accepting, welcoming image of the Lebanese should be aware of that those attitudes are, quite literally, skin-deep. Furthermore, representing the Lebanese as tortured by history and as passive victims in a confessionalist political system that precedes them chooses to ignore the ways in which they are responsible for exacerbating many of this country’s problems along class and race lines. By romanticising the paradoxes and forgetting the agency of many Lebanese in perpetuating social injustices, we only assist in hammering another nail into the coffin of this increasingly decaying nation.

1See Deeb, Lara (2006) An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, p. 67.

2 See Fordham, Alice. “Bombs and Botox in Beirut”, The Times, 15 August 2008.

3 For a critique of the Lebanese claim to Phoenician heritage, see Salibi, Kamal (1990) A House of Many Mansions. University of California Press

26 August 2008

Alternative in all but substance

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , , , at 2:54 pm by lilithhope

Last weekend was my penultimate one in Lebanon before embarking upon a “Beirut to Beijing” overland trip, which is due to begin in mid-September (I intend to document my travels on this blog, so stay tuned!). Appropriately, the occasion was rendered more memorable by a psychedelic trance music festival, Forestronika, that took place up in the Chouf mountains, at the (apparently) eco-friendly camp-site, Eco Village.
I had been looking forward to this weekend for a while: in my mind, it represented a last moment of indulgence release before assuming the responsibilities of packing my backpack and setting out on yet another nomadic ramble across this vast planet… (For some reasons, contrary to other times in my life when I have gone traveling, this impending journey does not seem like a release. Obviously, the prospect of traveling into Iran, and through Central Asia in order to cross into Xinjiang, China, is a highly thrilling one, but it does not fill me with as much giddy anticipation as one would expect… )

So this weekend: I imagined that Forestronika would be the Lebanese equivalent of Glastonbury, complete with organic food, wooden cutlery, rhythmic beats, live impromptu jams floating up from here and there… How far off the mark I was!

First of all, there was the tedious homogeneity of the music. Ok, yes, it was an ELECTRONIC music festival, specializing in psytrance, so obviously I didn’t expect anyone to be getting on stage with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. But on Friday, apart from a great drum and bass set, the mediocre and boringly repetitive psytrance beats continued unabated throughout the night, all the way into the morning, and by Saturday noon the diabolic pulsating was showing no sign of relenting! So, at 12 when I stirred from a 4 hour sleep, keen to munch some carrot cake and sip a coffee against some soft chill out tunes in order to recover from the previous night’s excesses, the hard core trash trance was hammering my already hammered brain into nauseous pustules of insanity… How NOT to cure a hangover?

Apart from the music, I was disappointed to see that no activities had been organized. With a venue like Eco Village, which boasts fruit orchards, rock-climbing, sandpaper toilets and other nature-friendly characteristics, one would think that, similar to other music festivals, the virtues of engaging in eco-friendly activities would have been promoted. I imagined workshops on how to grow your own organic fruit and veg, or information encouraging people to recycle at home (recycling is a quasi-alien activity in Lebanon: when my Significant Other recycles our glass bottles in the bins down the road, the nearby army personnel look on with a mixture of amusement and disbelief). However, instead of those activities, there were generators spouting thick, black smoke into the air, limited recycling, NO ashtrays, and more generally no attempts to fuse the alternative music scene with an alternative lifestyle scene (see here for a Daily Star journalist’s regurgitation of my ideas about this; yes, ‘tis I that vacuous “one partygoer”).

This joined in with a broader failure that left me dissatisfied with the festival: the sense that a potential platform for forging a deeper sort of alternative identity had been sorely missed. More precisely, I experienced none of what I would call the ‘festival ethic’, one of creating a fun, community- and learning-centred environment. An environment in which music is a driving force for not only partying, but also the nexus for being part of a larger group that attempts to disassociate itself from social norms in more ways than just loud music and long hair; namely, by imparting potentially ‘alternative’ values: ecological awareness, non-violent protest, direct action, communitarianism.

Obviously, the meaning of ‘alternative’ will change from one place to the next. The best example of this is the fact that Glastonbury, once a small-scale hippie bumpkin fest, is now the most popular weekend in the U.K., attracting well over 100,000 people. But although Glasto has made the shift from ‘alternative’ to ‘mainstream’ (like so many before it: Che Guevara, the kuffiyeh, punk…), the sort of socially responsible ethics that it is expounding would be quasi-revolutionary here in Lebanon, where only rarely are people capable of thinking outside the confessionalist box.

I suppose the crux of the issue has to do with the reluctance of the Lebanese who are active in the alternative scene to consider themselves as the basis for some sort of civil society that could potentially shift identity away from those of creed or sect that ruthlessly dominate here. Instead of seeing an attachment to underground music as a gateway to forging a different social identity, it seen as a complete escape from the factors that define Lebanese identity. Therefore, the potential platforms for manifesting social discontent or asserting a different sort of identity from the mainstream Lebanese quagmires are engaged in with a certain shallowness, a frivolity, a reluctance to push the envelope too far. That attitude could be summed up in a phrase that was included in Eco Village’s “Rules and Regulations” notice that was posted on the inside of our (kindly shared) mud cabin:

“Rule 1: No Politics”.

Literally, before any mention of sensible waste disposal, noise, fire hazards or other potentially dangerous practices, the activity that was prioritized as being of most threat was political discussion!

Admittedly, perhaps my own analysis is symptomatic of that relentless desire to link everything that occurs in Lebanon with politics (I have previously even linked the weather to politics… perhaps it is pathological. Those who party party hard hard hard in order to distance themselves from such an inextricably political existence could, legitimately, hound me for once again falling into the everything-under-the-lebanese-sun=politics trap. In my defense, I just wish to raise the question of why the Lebanese underground has not assumed counter-culture characteristics, as so many other movements have done in the past: the hippies with their civil rights and anti-war agenda, les 68-ards with their workers solidarity, the punks with their anti-establishment rebelliousness. Even the rave movement of the late 80’s early 90’s had an element of rejecting private property and reclaiming public space to it…

But perhaps it is me who has to modify my analytical lenses. Perhaps, in a country where every single aspect of life is mired in politics, the act of pure rejection of politics is in itself the height of revolt. In Lebanon, being a-political could be construed as the most brazen act of dissidence…

And maybe it is. But the feeling that I am left with after last weekend is one in which Lebanon’s nascent alternative community is spending too much time on the dance floor and not enough time creating a counter-culture identity that could be the beginning of solving some of this country’s problems. With a little less intoxication and a little more well-placed dedication, the potential for subversion is indeed fertile.




23 July 2008

Miniskirts, collagen and institutionalised disempowerment

Posted in Comment, Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , , at 9:32 am by lilithhope

The image of the stereotypical Lebanese woman is of one clad in a miniskirt and heels, with pouting collagen lips and long, flowing, immaculately coiffed locks, perhaps behind the whell of a shiny BMW of Hummer, or tugging a miniature designer dog on a leash, or socializing with a long thin cigarette in big big diamond-studded sunglasses while some South East Asian ‘helper’ takes care of the kids.

She is the epitomy of a ‘liberal’ woman, freed from the confines of the conservative patriarchy that dominates in the region, as manifested by restrictions on dress, such as the mandatory hijab, or restrictions on social behaviour.

But, as mentioned in the IRIN report below, Lebanese women are systematically disenfranchised:

“Thousands of children in Lebanon are denied full access to education, healthcare and residency because they do not have Lebanese citizenship.

Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children and in the event of separation, it is the father who gains automatic custody, according to Lebanese nationality law.

Women were only present in parliamentary life twice between 1952 and 1962 and then not again until three female members of parliament (MPs) won seats in the 1992 elections.

“Women’s groups are demanding a 35 percent quota in representation in the government, which would allow for issues such as the custody and nationality law to take precedence,” said activist Roula Masri […]

A more comprehensive reform to the nationality law has become mired in the political issue of the presence of tens of thousands of Syrian workers and 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.Now, it is this last sentence that really gets my goat:

Some politicians have argued that to allow Lebanese women to nationalise the children they have with non-Lebanese, such as Syrians and Palestinians, would be to shake up the delicate sectarian demographic on which the country’s political system is founded.”


All these politicians out there who fear for Lebanon’s confessionalist system, that ‘delicate sectarian demograohic’… WHAT A JOKE!!

Lebanon is founded on a demographic of the 1920’s, when the Christains were a majority, and therefore that legitimised giving them all the political power. Post-civil war, the Taif accord did grant Muslims some comparative rights in the government, but those relative gains remain subservient to a system that is very out-of-date, simply because the Christians are no longer a majority in Lebanon.

Everyone knows that. Which is why politicians refuse to have a census: any proof that, as all social indicators (birth rates, death rates, migration) indicate, the Muslim community is infact larger than the Christian community would reveal that, in the name of history, Lebanon’s political institutions are weighted to the minority.

What politicians are calling ‘delicate demographic’, I’m calling ‘denial’. Denial that, for the sake of this country’s future, the political system need profound reform, and the festering confessionalist system needs to be done away with once and for all.

But, obviously, the stakes are sky high, and no one should hold their breath that any such acknowledgment is forthcoming in the remotely near future. But as a result of this denial, this belief in a romantic myth and this unrelenting grasping to an expired colonial mindset, it is the women that suffer. Women are being denied their human rights in the name of a corrupt political falacy.

And are we surprised?

18 July 2008

Still a ticking timebomb

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , at 4:15 pm by lilithhope

After Wednesday’s post=prisoner swap celebrations, things aren’t looking to perky out here in the land of the Cedars.

On one hand, the sh*t is kicking off again in Tripoli:

One person was killed and six people were wounded in renewed clashes overnight in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli.
News reports on Friday said a man died and two others were wounded when a car refused to stop at an army roadblock in
Bab al-Tebbaneh.”

On the other hand, in addition to threatening You Tube videos, telephone calls and text messages, an Israeli intelligence site just reported that Hizbullah are ready to shoot down any Israeli jets flying in Lebanese airspace, which is a violation that Israel often engages in… Sounds to me like someon’es on the offensive!

The only thing I’m curious about is which will happen first: Israel vs. Lebanon, Part 3; or Lebanon vs. Lebanon, Part 167…



16 July 2008

Decaying human bodies: the currency of post-conflict bargains

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , , at 2:28 pm by lilithhope

Finally, two years and over 1,200 dead later: the end of the 2006 Israel/Hizbullah war.

At 9 am this morning, a long-awaited prisoner swap began between Israel and Hizbullah. After much speculation as to their condition, the Israeli soldiers that were captured in July 2006 were returned in long black boxed, along with the remains of Israeli soldiers killed on Lebanese soil during the Israeli invasion that followed the ambush. In return, Israel will return five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese killed in cross-border operations over the last 30 years, most famous of whom is Dalal Mughraby, a 19 year-old Palestinian woman who was killed in 1978 in the wake of a highjacking of an Israeli bus that killed 36 (for a touching recent interview with Dalal’s family, see here).

Despite the fact that the exchange of decades-old body parts and certain individuals convicted of child murders,  namely, Samir Kuntar, could ever be anything but a dismal and grotesque ordeal, the exchange taking place in south Lebanon today strikes a particularly tragic note. Engineering such a prisoner swap was Hizbullah’s initial motivation for capturing the two Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, in 2006. Instead, the capture sparked the 2006 war and Israeli invasion, which left over 1,000 Lebanese civillians and some 160 Israeli’s mostly soldiers, dead. Essentially, scores and scores of human lives wasted in a war that acheived nothing, and the initial purpose of which is only being resolved today. If only, like has happened in the past, the prisoner swap could have occured without such bloodshed…

Out of all the various media coverage of today’s events, Al Jazeera makes one particularly inetersing point, which gets to the heart of the strength of Hizbullah as an armed resistance movement:

“The Hezbollah exchange has prompted the public in Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt – which have both signed peace deals with Israel – to question why their governments have not been able to repatriate the bodies of their soldiers.”

Indeed, this leaves us reconsidering the effiectiveness of Hizbullah’s tactics, most importantly the use of force, in acheiving their goals when compared to superficial diplomacy. It makes us question the extent to which measured violence directed at certain targets is or can be a legitimate tool for acheiving political ends… To say which is not a call to arms, nor a condoning of indiscriminate violence against civilians, but only to say that the tactics of armed resistance should not be immediately dismissed as “terrorist” or “extremist”. Infact, what this incident shows us is that Hizbullah’s initial ambush acheived more than those who blindly follow the path of diplomacy, while simultaneously causing significantly less damage than the responsive use of force by the Israeli government, which was deemed more legitimate because it was conducted by a nation state, an army, not some “rogue” or “guerilla” group.

Violence has always been and remains a legitimate way of pursuing political ends; the contestation revolves around WHO uses the violence, rather than the extent of that violence. Hizbullah is continuously demonized because it is a non-government actor who uses violence to acheive its war-time goals (Hizbullah and Israel are in a defacto state of war, and have been since 2000), even though its pales in comparison to the hell-fury that has been unleashed by the Israeli’s on both the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples over the last 60 years…  

In conclusion, maybe what im about to say contradicts the non-emotive analysis that i just offered, and betrays the resolute humanist in me: today’s prisoner swap strikes me as particularly morbid purely because it is in the currency of broken, decaying human bodies that the debts of this ongoing conflict are being paid.

After all the bombs and fires and burning and screaming and bitterness and revenge, this is what it all comes down to: pieces of shattered bone, fragments of formeldahyde-soaked flesh, perhaps some mutilated organs or gangrene-infested limbs, contained in shiny, black boxes, baking in the stifling summer sun.

16 June 2008

Are you a high-profile government official? Join in the trend and stop over in Beirut to show your support for Lebanon’s functional democracy while you can!

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , , at 3:35 pm by lilithhope

Condoleeza Rice: one of the few lucky people who can take a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Beirut.

After meeting with reps from the Israeli government yesterday, in which she was brave enough to wave a patronizing finger and say ‘shame on you’ to her hosts for the unbridled settlement expansion in the suburbs of occupied East Jerusalem that has planned the construction of 1,300 new houses, she is following in the footsteps of other high-profile Western politicians such as David Milliband and Sarkozy and is dropping by Beirut to  “express the United States’ support for Lebanese democracy, for Lebanese sovereignty“.

This trail of famous personalities has left the Lebanese breathlessly wondering who will be the next to visit their superficially and temporarily healed country.

Rumour has it that Madonna might make a special appearance at this year’s Baalbeck Music Festival in July, but that story has sparked concerns amongst the hundreds of thousands in Lebanon’s refugee camps, who fear that the Princess of Pop may perform a child-snatching act in order to add another impoverished, disempowered mouth to her gaggle of third-world adoptees.

Apart from the 12th Imam, other high-profile personalities whose presences are hoped to grace the land of the Cedars in the coming months include Nelson Mandela, Bono and George Galloway, who has apparently received a personal invitation to Lebanon from Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s Foreign Minister.

30 May 2008

Hizbullah’s existential dilemna

Posted in Comment, Lebanon Diaries tagged , , at 11:27 am by lilithhope

Nasrallah’s speech only reaffirmed that Hizbullah cannot find an exit to its existential dilemma, other than to coerce its hostile countrymen into accepting its armed mini-state. Very simply, the days of the national resistance are over. The liberation of the Shebaa Farms does not justify Hizbullah’s existence as a parallel force to the army, and it does not justify initiating a new war with Israel. After all, the Syrians have a much larger territory under occupation and have preferred negotiations to conflict in order to win it back […]

Nasrallah has started peddling what he thinks Lebanon’s defense strategy should be. Hizbullah’s model is the summer 2006 war, he explained this week. But if the defense strategy Hizbullah wants us to adopt is one that hands Israel an excuse to kill over 1,200 people, turn almost 1 million civilians out into the streets for weeks on end while their villages are bombed and their fields are saturated with fragmentation bomblets; if Nasrallah’s strategy is one that will lead to the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure, the ruin of its economy, the emigration of its youths, the isolation of the Shiites in a society infuriated with Hizbullah’s pursuit of lasting conflict; if that’s his defense strategy, then Nasrallah needs to get out of his bunker more and see what is really going on in Lebanon […]

Nasrallah has a problem. Most Lebanese want a real state and most Shiites don’t want another war with Israel. Hizbullah, in contrast, doesn’t want a real state but needs permanent war to remain relevant. That’s Nasrallah’s trap.”


By posting this article I do not mean to participate in alot of the Nasrallah-bashing that has been going on over the past week, because I do think that the goals and means of Hizbullah need serious contemplation.

Obviously, Hizbullah’s resistance is not only against Israel, but the totality of American interests and agenda in the region, of which Israel is the principal proponent. And admittedly, resisting the global hegemon is a noble and worthy cause, to which Hizbullah has ensured the dedication of many souls.

I suppose the question that needs to be asked, then, is: to what extent is Hizbullah’s own prioritizing of resistance domestically hegemonic? It is fair to say that the discourse of Islamic resistance has been and remains extremely powerful mobilizing force for anti-imperial operations. Therefore, as with any discourse, by virtue of its power, it does marginalize those who are not in agreement with it. Particularly in Lebanon, with its infamous, and often volatile, mixture of ethnic and religious groups, Hizbullah’s monopoly over the analysis of the present ills and its vision for the future, and its claim that resistance is in the interests of all Lebanese, should be scrutinized in order to reveal whose voices are being either silenced or usurped by that narrative.

If one accepts that Hizbullah has two main agendas, one to end the systematic disempowerment of the Shi’a in Lebanon and ensure their representation, and the other to combat the forces of Western imperialism in the region; then we have to question the extent to which these are compatible. Does Hizbullah’s preoccupation with the ‘bigger picture’ of resistance to the Shaytan America, and its willingness to sacrifice countless lives and livelihoods in pursuit of that ideal, negate its commitment to the well-being of the population it claims to represent?

One could argue that the root cause of Shi’a disempowerment is the colonial legacy which institutionalized Christian political superiority in Lebanon, and therefore that destroying the cause will remedy the consequence. However, one has to be wary of conflating the Western imperialism of 80 years ago with that of today: imperial power is not a timeless monolith, but the forms it takes from one place and period to the next change drastically. It is deciphering and understanding those ever-shifting forms that should lead to Hizbullah’s assessment of how to resist, which could mean, for example, as Nasrallah alluded to his speech, becoming involved in the resistance in Iraq.

But would that really be a way of serving the disempowered of Lebanon? Is ‘solidarity’ enough to want to enmesh a population in more suffering, more bloodshed? After 15 years of civil war, 10 years of occupation and another devastating conflict six years later, surely Nasrallah’s support-base is finally entitled to a period of calm that allows them to experience some degree of the peace that they have been fighting for. Moreover, with the increasing possibility of peace talks between Israel and Syria, the ‘threat from the south’, ie the possibility of another attack from Israel, could be significantly reduced.

Therefore in many ways, I cannot help but interpreting Hizbullah’s dogmatic dedication to anti-imperial rhetoric as a compromise of its more immediate goals (ensuring stability in order to allow the Shi’a of Lebanon to benefit from the political gains that the opposition can forge in parliament), in favour of bolstering its own interests as a regional power.

The balance between pragmatism and idealism is a delicate one and needs to be constantly readjusted. Too often, history has shown the latter to lose out to the former, with tragic consequences. Will Nasrallah forge a new path in that regard, or will we witness, once again, the lessons of history not being learned and returning to haunt us?

26 May 2008

Goodbye, Hizbullah Cafe

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , , at 4:00 pm by lilithhope

Written on 21 May 2008

Ten days ago, the lexical set that dominated descriptions of contemporary Lebanon was ominous in its bleakness. Phrases such as “on the brink of civil war”, “descending into chaos”, “reappearance of masqued gunmen on the streets of the capital” and “the rising casualty toll” riddled media articles about the state of Lebanese affairs. Indeed, rumours were circulating that Hizbullah’s show of force would compel the government to capitulate and resign, prompting apocalyptic predictions that ranged from the imposition of an Iranian-style Shi’a dictatorship to an American/Israeli invasion.

Ten days ago, I sat in the office of a Lebanese colleague as she held her head in her hands and alternated between softly sobbing and angrily cursing the seemingly hopeless state of her nation.

Then two days ago, staff at my work were formally told to return to the office for the first time since the fighting that marred the first week of May 2008. The atmosphere was tense yet excited: while the trauma of the violence had not yet worn off, everyone was nevertheless eager to share their stories about their experiences of the siege of west Beirut, from hiding in bathrooms dodging stray bullets to eating cereal for 5 days straight out of inability to leave the house. Returning to work was itself a marginal return to normality.

And today, whatever remnants of fear that still lingered were swiftly swept away by the monumental breakthrough of the Arab League talks in Qatar, which have been going on for the past five days. They stood there and listened to the official proclamation of the end of the political paralysis that has gripped the country for almost 18 months and claimed more than 80 lives (deaths in recent violence combined with the 7 dead on “Black Sunday” in January 2008, the violence at the Arab university in January 2007 and other similar incidents), aware that five days of negotiations in the air-conditioned comfort of the Doha Sheraton seem almost farcical in the face of destruction caused.

In an announcement that came as unexpectedly as a flash flood, Nabih Berri (Speaker of Parliament and leader of Amal, one of the parties in the opposition coalition) proclaimed the end of the sit-ins that have frozen downtown Beirut since December 2006. At those words, a large portion of my colleague who ahs been watching the statement live from a television in the conference room burst into shouts of joy and congratulation. Our office building sits at the edge of downtown and in the middle of the tents that housed the protesters, and therefore the cessation of the sit-in represented not only an end to the most recent bouts of violence and political deadlock, but a very tangible return to the “good old days” of leisurely lunches in the restaurants downtown and brief strolls in the small park in front of the building; more than anything, a return to not feeling like caged animals.

As I stared out from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the sea of tents hat had defined my working landscape for so long, I remembered the beginning of the demonstration in December 2006, when I was visiting Beirut doing research for my undergraduate thesis. Three Hizbullah MPs and one Free Patriotic Movement (Christian opposition) MP had just left the cabinet in protest about electoral laws and their supporters were mobilized on the streets of downtown Beirut to protest against the government’s uncompromising hegemony. The demonstration was proclaimed to be the “the largest anti-government rally in Lebanon’s history” (Bakri, Nada (2006) ‘Hizbullah smiles on Arab League Plan, but Cabinet stays Quiet’. The Daily Star 12/12/06). On the day when an estimated million Lebanese took to the streets in protest, I was struck by the sense of exhilaration that permeated the air, with entire families out in the streets enthusiastically brandishing yellow (Hizbullah) and orange (FPM) flags; either one always accompanied by the image of the green cedar trapped between two thick, red lines, which I have always felt is an uncannily appropriate flag for the Lebanese nation.

I vividly remember the innumerable groups of youngsters proudly occupying the inside of their makeshift tents at the foot of Hariri’s mosque in Martyr’s Square, smoking shisha pipes and enthusiastic to share their reasons for their presence there, eager to express the reasons behind their revolutionary acts. I remember the contagious sense of conviction that their actions would make a fundamental difference to the misrepresentation that plagues Lebanese confessionalist politics.

Yet when I arrived in Lebanon one year later, December 2007, to start a new job and new life, the impatient magic of a nascent revolution had faded into a stagnant resignation, bred out of the realisation that change cannot miraculously occur through mere idealistic epiphanies, but must forced into being through sheer stubbornness and resilience. Hizbullah and the FPM had maintained their sit-in for a year without making headway in their demands. And as I walked past their encampments every day on my way to my office in downtown, I was always struck by the efficiency and tenacity of their set-up: they had run cables from satellites on a building on the other side of the main highway across the road and into the parking-lot that they occupied, bestowing them with television as entertainment in their seemingly endless task of protest. (By the by, this is not an uncommon process in Lebanon: every few apartment blocks share a single satellite dish and the cables can be seen running between the buildings. Our satellite dish is on our neighbours’s roof). They had porta-potties lined up on one side of the camp, and I never once smelled anything unpleasant from them. You could see the small puffs of smoke emerging from their furnaces in the winter, and after it rained, they would line up their foam mattresses and sleeping bags in the sun to air out and dry.

They also had set up a café on the sidewalk, complete with orange-juicer, coffee machine and comfy if slightly dilapidated sofas, the whole tent-structure topped off with a collage of images of Hassan Nasrallah. I used to call it the “Hizbullah Café”. Every morning I’d exchange greetings with the men who sat outside smoking shisha and drinking coffee while al Manar TV blared in the background, but I was too shy to ever purchase a juice or coffee. Maybe it’s because I never saw a woman there. But anyways, the Hizbullah Café always amused me because despite it being wedged between a tree and a road sign, despite it being made of sheets of tarpaulin slung over a precarious metal frame, it seemed so natural, so not out of place, like some quaint country pub that serves a village faithfully for generations. Furthermore, in the relaxed atmosphere that prevailed there and the politeness of the customers, it was such a welcome contradiction to the stereotypical demonization of Hizbullah supporters as AK7-weilding fundamentalist wackos.

Today, as I came out of my office at three o’clock to walk up the hill back home, I was shocked to see that the Hizbullah Café had gone, and all that was left were a few scattered chairs and a man rearranging crumpled pieces of tarpaulin. Although I had ventured out of the office an hour after Berri’s announcement, around 1pm, to join throngs of random spectators and journalists in watching the tents be dismantled with such unexpected rapidity and efficiency, I did not expect them to have already removed what was, for me, a recurrent passing outsider, the social heart of the protest. I gazed out over the parking lot that was once reminiscent of a fairground because of the small white tents that peaked up throughout it, and now all I could see were piles of foam mattresses and blankets, wooden crates, tables and chairs, various household cooking items, all being gathered up and put into the backs of trucks ready to take them to Goddess knows where.

In a previous post I’ve spoken about the surreal, almost mythological quality to the organization of the opposition, manifested in their swift removal of the roadblocks in Beirut last week. But the speed with which the tents were dismantled surpassed anything I could have expected. I’m still boggled by how, in a matter of a few hours, such a massive amount of manpower and mechanical resources can be coordinated and mobilized in that way. They truly are an Elvin army.

And as I stood there and took in all the commotion around me, all I could think of was that I had never gotten the chance to drink a coffee in the Hizbullah Café. It was there in the morning, and now poof, it was gone forever. While I mulled over a lost opportunity, I also realised that they had removed most of the barbed wire that had been surrounding the camp, leaving a trace of yellow, pebbly earth in between abundant patches of weeds and white and yellow flowers. I walked along that trail, turning to contemplate the TV cameras and satellite-topped vans perched on the bridge overlooking the increasingly empty lots, until I came to where the barbed wire began again. I diverted my path onto the sidewalk, and then stopped in front of another unfulfilled intention.

There, tangled up in the barbed wire, was a ripped Lebanese flag. It has been there for months, and I cannot begin to count how many times I have passed it and thought that that image, that torn, dirty flag enmeshed in rusting jagged metal, was perfectly representative of the state of Lebanon: trapped, broken, faded, but nevertheless persisting, remaining alive, refusing to heed to disintegration. So many times I have told myself to capture that image on a camera, but despite its poignancy, I never have; either not having my camera on me at that moment, or being late for work, or just simply procrastinating that thinking that it will be there for my consumption tomorrow.

This time, I knew very well that the flag would not be there tomorrow, so impulsively I started to untangle it from the barbed wire, gingerly pulling at the frayed material so as not to damage it any further. Afraid that someone might attempt to stop me, as soon as I had wrenched it free I stuffed under my arm and hurried along the road…

I have no doubt that the pessimistic predictions of last week will be turned on their heads, only to be replaced with such dramatic flourishes as “a new era has dawned in Lebanese politics” or “peace finally graces this conflict-ridden land” or some other proclamation. And despite the fact that the forging of an agreement and the scheduled election of a president, in which both sides made concessions and compromises, are no small tasks, I can’t help but being sceptical about how long this seemingly happy ending will last. Not because I’m a cynic or a warmonger or anything, but because the situation in this country changes at such an incomprehensible speed, it’s hard to not to think that the tables won’t turn again unexpectedly. I mean, in the space of 14 days, we have gone from living in a strenuous stalemate, to a loud, scary near-civil war, then back to a healthy, functioning democracy. All that in a mere14 days?!

In the celebrations that will undoubtedly follow the end of the sit-in and the election of a president, what no one must forget is that it was the use of violence that got everyone to this point. Paradoxically, the guns brought the peace. And that is a very, very dangerous precedent, because can a peace achieved through violence last? And how long will it take before another person’s definition of ‘peace’ is to be delivered through the barrel of a gun?

Let us hope for the best, but nevertheless be wary in that hope.

Reality Check

Posted in Lebanon Diaries at 3:56 pm by lilithhope

Today, I spent the day sunbathing on the rooftop swimming pool of the gym near my house. From the roof, you can look out over Ras Al Nab’a below, but it is quiet for the moment. All afternoon, I lay under that glorious sun and debated about ‘what will happen next’, or how what has already happened should be understood, while the speakers around the terrace alternated between Siniora’s speech and house music.

Imagine the sheer surreality of the scene: sunbathing listening adds for the upcoming concert of “Ibitha’s fifth best DJ” on a building that had been sprayed with stray bullets only 36 hours before and amongst whispers of bold warnings of being on the precipice of a war. A paradox, yes. But not so uncommon in there parts; really, a very Lebanese scene.

The Lebanese: always eager for momentary amnesia, for sweet little luxuries that soothe the burns of a politics gone haywire. That terrace was a microcosm of that Lebaneseness that receives both admiration and ridicule: the ability to cover up blood-shed and chaos with a bikini and an almaza (‘the diamond’, Lebanon’s national brew).

Indeed, it is a very appealing way to deal in difficult times. I just can’t help wondering to what extent such feigned innocence, and that on my part as well as a foreigner reaping the luxuries of a country torn across class and religious lines, does not in fact contribute to the problems. Like trying to treat bi-polar personality disorder with memory-loss tablets.

the tempest

Posted in Lebanon Diaries at 3:54 pm by lilithhope

9 May 2008, 2:20 am

The dull sound of not-so-distant explosions awakens me with a jolt. Through the closed shutters, I see very large, bright flashes coming from Ras el Nab’a, where much of the fighting of today had taken place. Before going to sleep, we had sat out on the balcony, wine glasses in hand, listening to the fighting. We saw some flashes, only they were but dull sparks. Now, opening the shutters and peering out into the night, I see that the whole sky is being set alight.

What sort of weapons are they using now? I think that neither of the warring factions has an airforce, so I don’t think there could be ‘bombing’ per se. And the Israelis must be much to thrilled to see the Lebanese doing their dirty work for them while they celebrate their sixtieth anniversary to choose to intervene this early on…

A massive, unearthly crack interrupts my thoughts, and I feel like the skies above me are being brutally torn apart. Small pieces of debris being to fall lightly on the rooftops, on the street, and as they get progressively heavier and heavier, I realize that no, this is not the destruction caused by a shell, mortar or other twisted metal agent of death. This is a thunderstorm.

Never in my entire life have the sight of lightening and the sound of rain been so reassuring to me. Never had I thought that I would feel such relief at the deafening, bone-shaking rumbles of the clouds.

The winds picked up around me, the time between the sight and sound of celestial electricity became smaller and smaller and the drops of rain turned into hard pellets of ice. I knew that once again, the heavens were expressing their sheer disdain at the petty convictions of us mortals. What else could explain the bizarre phenomenon of hail in May, or the synchronization of human decay with natural disorder?

Surely, it must be the gods up there, cursing our lamentable condition, our inability to learn from the past. Surely, the thunder that appropriately replaced the sounds of today’s violence was their laughing at our foolishness…

And when they had stopped laughing, when the skies finally calmed, across the city the rifles and the RPG’s flared up again.

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