Saturday, November 29, 2008

You said withdrawal?

“Frankly speaking, the agreement is very clear,” said Alaa Muhammad, a 29-year old journalist from Basra, shortly after seeing the ratification vote on television. “But some members of Parliament disagreed with it just to attract attention. They have no idea about what benefits the people. What I saw today made me feel I want the forces to stay longer, because without these forces we will eat each other.” (New York Times, November 29, 2008)

The agreements—a broad “strategic framework” and a more detailed strategic pact that were ratified Thursday by the Iraqi Parliament—set a deadline that critics of the war have long waited. They require that all American forces withdraw from Iraq no later than December 31, 2011, but they offer no timetable for withdrawals.

Should the U.S. withdraw by 2011? Would Iraq be safe enough by that time? The Iraq war was fought with the total indifference of the American population, whether those who were for the war or those opposed to it, as it all derived from cultural symbols that go back to the 1960s, the students protests and the intensification of the Vietnam war. Iraq was therefore not perceived for what it is—a failed nation-state—and for what it really needs—a chance to become for the first time in its troubled post-Ottoman history a nation-state.

Could American indifference, coupled with an immature Iraqi political system, give birth to the beginnings of a modern stable nation-state? Is that possible? Like the 29-year old Iraqi journalist from Basra, one of those territories that used to be controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, until they were ousted early this year by Maliki’s federal governmental forces, I’m suspicious about the 2011 deadline and wish the US forces would stay longer—much longer to be honest.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Hezbollah coup

People thought for a long time that a plausible solution to the growing Hezbollah phenomenon would be a political one: that, gradually, and in proportion to its Shii constituency in the south, the Beirut suburbs, and the east of the Biqa valley, the Hezbollah would be offered parliamentary seats and cabinet positions. With such a scenario the Hezbollah would transform itself into a manageable political beast, gradually giving away its stockpile of arms in favor of a common political life. Besides that such a scenario looks at the Hezbollah crisis as something manageable within the already dysfunctional Lebanese parliamentary system, it perceives such a phenomenon in terms of a “political anomaly,” rather than, say, a sociological crisis with deep historical underpinnings. Indeed, such an overt political optimism is part of a Lebanese tradition that perceives groups and parties in terms of political relations at home and abroad. The Hezbollah is thus a combination of Syrian and Iranian proxies, while regional pressures would only come to an end once more equitable solutions are found to the region as a whole, from Palestine to Iraq and beyond.

That Hezbollah thesis of a gradual absorption spectrum within traditional Lebanese politics was indeed an optimistic one. For one thing, it translates an inability to understand phenomena sociologically and historically, with an eye on social structure and its political implications. What is rather sought for is actually just the reverse: that all “anomalies” are an outcome of inside and outside political imbalances. On the other hand, as for the majority of Lebanese the Hezbollah phenomenon is a rather strange aberration, politicizing it would render it more comprehensible. A socio-historical rationalization would simply be out of reach.

But with the Hezbollah coup this past week political optimism has only witnessed its final breakdown—at least we hope so. It’s not the Hezbollah that’s being “absorbed” here into Lebanese politics anymore, but the party of God dictating its own rules to the Lebanese constituencies at large. That sudden reversal could be even compared to the various military coups that were common in the Arab world back in the 1950s: the Free Officers revolution in 1952, the end of the Iraqi Hashimites and the coming of Qasim in 1958, and Syria’s union with Egypt in 1958, all of which marked an abrupt end to the era of bourgeois middle class parliamentarism. Even though the Lebanese middle class is by far more robust, and better rooted and diversified, than its Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi counterparts, it is as if the specter of military politics has finally hit Lebanese doors—irreversibly as it seems for now. Not even the long 15-year civil war has brought into the picture what few hours had unraveled in west Beirut last week: namely, the militarization of political life, with a possible end of traditional middle class hegemony. All that happened with over half a century of delays vis-à-vis the likes of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. That Lebanon has survived that long, notwithstanding its successive civil wars (in particular 1958 and 1975), with a parliamentarian system that was willy-nilly democratic, could be ascribed to two major historical factors. First of all, a strong Christian middle class that held the reign of commerce (and previously land tenure and agriculture). Second, a rapid evolution from an agrarian Ottoman framework to a financial commercialism that was urban oriented. Moreover, what’s remarkable about such an evolution is that the groups that initially had made Ottoman politics, trade, taxation, and land tenure possible, were the same that pushed for its financial and commercial urbanization. So what saved Lebanon from its common Arab fate was the migration between mountain and city that occurred by the middle of the nineteenth century, which broke the common stalemate between poorly capitalized rural and urban spaces. Once the mountainous rural economy reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, in particular with the Egyptian withdrawal in 1840, the traditional élite was already looking for alternatives. The coming to an end of the politics of the notables, in conjunction with steam-boat technology and the growth of trade across the Mediterranean, are among the factors that had contributed to the sudden growth of Beirut by the end of the nineteenth century. By WWI Beirut had outpaced a much deeply seated city like Damascus at all levels.

What we’re therefore witnessing in Beirut and Lebanon right now may well be a delayed turnover to the kind of militarized politics and shut down of the liberal public sphere that swept core Arab countries back in the 1950s and later. Barrington Moore’s well known thesis that failed democracies occur when the interests of a monetized landowning class overlap with those of an urban commercial and financial bourgeoisie may be just about right for our purposes here. Even though the histories of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, have, in spite of their common Ottoman background, more dissimilarities than a solid common ground, it is nevertheless striking that their landowning classes grew separately from their urban financial and manufacturing classes. The landowning gentry, which protected itself from the commercialization of land thanks to the grant-like Ottoman land tenure system, was too fractured and weak to establish any cohesive “national” politics. In what became the urban political space of the postcolonial states, the interests of tribal chiefs, landowning gentry, and the urban commercial and financial class, mixed together in no coherent order. As they were all seen as remnants of the old order, they were soon replaced by various military régimes from modest rural landowning origins. What comes next is a closed political system, composed for the most part of army officers, landowners, bureaucrats, and remnants of the old urban bourgeoisie whose only left option was a political scene imposed by the military.

Lebanon for its part averted that kind of scenario precisely because its landowning class of central Lebanon (the mountainous areas of Kisruwan and the Shuf) transformed itself by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into a vibrant urban class. It’s that kind of self-transformation that gave Lebanon a democratic break for over half a century, which even the fifteen-year deadly civil war could not damage. That self-transformation of the Christian landowning classes, which in the process transformed the Maronite church itself, and thrown the Druze of the mountains and the urban Sunnis into a new unprecedented commercial adventure to which they were poorly prepared, is what saved Lebanon in the final analysis from the poor record of the militarization of politics that had swept the Arab world. In hindsight, the 1958 brief civil war and its aftermath—such as the politically immature and destructive 1969 Cairo agreement, and the 1975–1990 bloody civil war—were in combination tragic events that led the Druze and a majority of Sunnis to shyly “embrace” what they had labeled as the “Maronite state” of Lebanese capitalism and its pro-western tendencies.

But if central Lebanon, and parts of the north, have embraced a westernized turbo capitalism (without a much needed robust judicial system), the south was left pretty much on its own with its landowning and ulama Shii families and clans. The autonomy of the South—or more precisely what’s traditionally known as Jabal ‘Amil—was already there in Ottoman times: besides the tightly controlled port of Sidon by both the Ottoman authorities and the Shihabi emirs, much of Jabal ‘Amil and its surroundings was indeed left to a conglomeration of landed élites, ulama, and local chieftains. In colonial and postcolonial Lebanon the majority of the Shia in the south, north, and elsewhere were left to their ulama and senior families (the Himadehs, ‘Usayrans, As‘ads, and Bayduns, to name only few of the most prominent families) which were supposed to “represent” the Shia in parliamentary affairs and in Lebanese politics in general. As dissatisfied Shiis from the lower rural and urban classes soon began to join the ranks of various Palestinian militias, autonomous Shia movements of the lower classes began to form in the 1970s: that was the case of the Amal movement under the guidance of Musa al-Sadr (the vanished imam). Thus, even though the ulama movement, as was the case in Iran and Iraq, was in sharp decline in the WWI-WWII period and its aftermath, it received its jolt of reinvigoration thanks to paramilitary organizations of the likes of Amal in which the ulama played a key role in the eyes of the lumpenproletariat. Such a rejuvenation of the ulama was picked up by the Hezbollah in the 1980s, amid their reintegration within their militarized bureaucracy. The success of the integration, however, worked mostly in favor of the junior ulama, who managed to bypass the authority of the senior ulama, in a situation that resembles the formation of the Iraqi Da‘wa party back in 1957-59 by dissatisfied and alienated junior ulama (e.g. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr).

By the time the Pax Syriana became the norm in the 1990s, the Hezbollah had emerged into a full fledged bureaucratic and military alliance of sorts. Its fascist nature stems from a combination of poorly developed groups among Shiis: landowners, overseas immigrants, merchants, ulama, and an uprooted popular urban class, have all come together in a broad and unlikely coalition, while the rest of Lebanon has avoided such a fate and taken a different turn.

Lebanon’s core problem is therefore socio-historical rather than political. We’ll be witnessing, however, in the coming years, constant attempts to solve the Hezbollah problems through political bargains: let’s give them a bigger share in government, let them have a bigger parliamentary bloc, and let them have what they want in decision making. But if the last week has proved anything, it’s that, politically speaking, the Hezbollah immediately hit a wall once its military “successes” were granted from day one. In all logic, the Hezbollah should have pushed further to transform its military takeover with political immunity: take the governmental Seray by force, and intimidate the leaders of the ruling majority of the likes of Sanyura, Junblat, and Hariri, if not force them downright into exile. None of that happened, however. It’s as if the Hezbollah, all of a sudden, could not figure out how to capitalize on its all too sudden military takeover of west Beirut and the Druze mountain: What to do next? The Hezbollah must have asked themselves: could we rule the two-thirds of Lebanon that doesn’t want us and is incompatible with our Islamic beliefs? In real life, however, people do not ponder on abstract questions in all their logical conundrums. As individuals and groups we’re always mourning our pasts, and in that process, the impossibility to coming to terms with our pasts pushes us towards more violence and hatred towards the other.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Marienbad

The French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died earlier this year and whose reputation rests for being the pope of the nouveau roman, published La jalousie in 1957. The title seems to play on the double meaning of jalousie in French: the first is jealousy, and the second refers to a vertical blind, or a Venetian blind, as it’s sometimes called. The nameless protagonist is here simply observing meticulously—every object, every gesture, every shade. Which is precisely what brings the double meaning of jealousy together: meticulous observation is neither free nor disinterested, as it is guided by a sense of obsession and rivalry towards an object, on one hand, and the invisible medium that makes observation possible and lucrative—sort of blind, where the observed cannot see the observer, or where the observer remains for the most part invisible.

L’année dernière à Marienbad, which was scripted by Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais in 1961, has now been released in a restored version in the US (and playing this week at the Music Box in Chicago). I saw it for the first time in a ciné-club in the early years of civil-war Beirut, when I was sophomore/junior in chemistry/physics, and didn’t make much of it. But when I had a second look at it yesterday, in its new US release, Robbe-Grillet’s jalousie kept creeping in to my mind.

Marienbad may be complicated or simple, depending on how much you make out of it. But one thing is certain: it is solely narrated from the viewpoint of a single narrator, a handsome middle-aged man with an Italian accent, and designated as X throughout the film. By contrast we hardly know anything of A, a slightly younger woman than X, except for what X phantasizes about her in his monologue. In effect, X’s monologue is obsessive, systematic, and precise in its target: A. X is therefore the observer’s guide: not only is he the one to obsessively observe A continuously, but we observe A, the château and its world, and its aristocratic bourgeois guests, through the eyes—and consciousness—of X. In other words, we’re trapped to the screen through his eyes and consciousness—perhaps more to the latter than the former. In short, the screen is X’s consciousness.

X’s obsessive consciousness runs twofold. At one level, and that’s the essence of the film, he is obsessed with A, her gestures, thoughts, body, posture, and the few things she has to say. One might think that it’s all driven by pure jealousy (hence my connection with jalousie), but, in the final analysis, what really matters is how you come to perceive a jealous act. Jealousy could be perceived as a simple rivalry over a woman, and there’s something to suggest that kind of direction: a mid-aged man, identified as M, positioning himself as a rival-lover-cum-husband, is portrayed as linked to A in some obscure relationship. But even though his relation to X turns sour, it does not seem to guide X’s obsessive lust. Indeed, X’s obsessive gaze seems to suggest that a man’s lust for a woman is jalousie tout court, whether there is a rival lover or not. That’s where jalousie and Marienbad come together: they both portray jealousy the act (feeling) per se, and the process (act) of observing the desired object. The two combined come to represent the consciousness of that main protagonist beleaguerer.

Marienbad is therefore all about seeing, phantasizing, and constructing a selective type of consciousness out of the fragmented images within the space-time continuum. X’s memory is therefore his consciousness, which translates as his obsessiveness with A. X’s gaze reconstructs in his consciousness A’s space-time continuum, as we only get to “know” through X’s jalousie. Otherwise, A’s attitude—confronted with X’s lust and perseverance—is callous at best, as she keeps begging him with the same supplice: “Mais, je vous en prie, laissez-moi!” That kind of leave-me-alone attitude only underscores her indifference, probably finding X’s insistence unattractive, and his character boorish. But whatever that may be, she does not have any memory: not only she can’t remember anything, but there is no “consciousness” of anything in her. Only those infested with that jalousie sickness—that is, who suffer for being who they are, and for falling prey to a beloved object—do enjoy that luxury of memory, and of space-time recollection. What in effect the film portrays accurately—in a documentary fashion—are X’s specific recollections, which are all related to A. Once we step “outside” what A may be doing, feeling, or thinking, we’re into the pure repetition of le même. In effect, X’s recollections of the château, its entourage and clients, are one of sameness: the same gestures, postures, bodies, and utterances, from one year to another. Memory seems here incapable of distinguishing anything—or rather of naming anything with accuracy—hence that infernal sameness: only A makes—creates—the difference. If A is différence (or différance), the others (les autres, including le château) are répétition. At the very end of the film, the château’s massive garden is described by the narrator as “typically French,” that is, without all the natural elements, like flowers and trees, that would make it lively, non-symmetrical, and without the infinite mathematical repetitiveness. In other words, the garden is like the château itself, its endless unpopulated corridors, symmetries, rooms, and guests: it’s all about good manners, mathematical symmetry, and bourgeois obtuse mannerisms. When X engages with M in a public “fight,” it’s through well ordered games like matches and dominoes.

Only X’s obsessiveness with A—his consciousness of her and her time-space—disrupts that enduring mathematical order. It is that obsessive consciousness of the observer who suffers which disrupts that order—in one’s mind—through an act of violence—that of intruding into another’s space-time. There are even few scattered scenes in A’s bedroom—scenes that A herself cannot or pretend not to remember—that do suggest that X was prying on her from an unknown location (through a jalousie? A Blue Velvet kind of voyeurism?): even in that seemingly “private” space it is indeed the suffering observer that remembers in a non-linear non-chronological space-time. As that kind of voyeurism verges on violence, there is a scene where violence is physically perpetrated, when M, the jealous lover-cum-husband shoots A. But, again, such a scene, like many others, is solely from X’s perspective, in that awkward reality-fiction combination that determines the assortment of events in a peculiar space-time configuration (and there’s no point in asking where reality begins, and where fiction ends). What’s interesting about that scene, where A is shot while lying in bed, is the physicality of violence, which in other scenes never moves beyond touching or fondling A. It has been reported that to Robbe-Grillet X’s attitude is that of a rapist, that is, one to which the erotic-sexual gaze receives its satisfaction only through (ritualized) sexual violence. Be that as it may, one can see that X’s type of consciousness is one of lust and suffering, which borders on violence, whether it consummates itself in an act of rape or not. But then X’s order becomes a mathematical order all by itself, like its surroundings, obsessively repeating its own gestures, appearances, and utterances.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Foucauldian musings

In Paul Veyne’s Foucault (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008, no English translation yet), “discourse” comes as a third medium layer between the subject’s individual consciousness and society at large. If most philosophical and epistemological systems have the knowing subject as epicenter (e.g. Husserl’s intentional phenomenology, or the Heideggerian Dasein), by contrast the social sciences took the side of society, ignoring the subject as a flawed subjective entity. What’s missing is that in-between “language” that tells us what to do and not do, and what to say and not say: in short, something that poses limits to our thoughts and makes every discovery rare and precious. That’s precisely what Foucault meant by discourse. Thus, for art, for example, there is the individual artist on one side, and society at large on the other, but what makes a work of art possible is that tertium quid that defines what is possible at a certain time in a particular society. Discourse would not, however, be able to concretely materialize within a spacio-temporal terrain without the apparatus (dispositif) that would make its very existence possible. The discourse of law in a particular society would not be possible without the various apparatuses of justice through which discourse would operate: the tribunals, the judges, experts, lawyers, and all the institutions that would make a legal case possible.

What is interesting in Veyne’s study are his historical and sociological digressions. As a professional historian of the Greco-Roman empire, Veyne is primarily interested, through his Foucauldian musings, in an epistemology of historical and sociological knowledge. As the sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron has argued, in a book that is subject to Veyne’s attention, we’re into, as far as the social sciences and humanities are concerned, a non-Popperian world: that is, we cannot think those sciences within the narrow categories of induction, deduction, and scientific verification. Passeron and Veyne opt for the Weberian ideal-type notion as a preliminary starting point, only to subject it to some insightful tweaks. Thus, ideal-types like feudalism, the Byzantine Empire, or the Tokugawa Shogunate, are semi-proper names (semi-noms propres): they denote something, and beyond that something that they denote, they have absolutely no credibility. What those names denote are the referents that are need for any historical and sociological denotation of social reality. The meaning of those semi-proper names are defined by the endless referents that denote it. We can call that process of documentation as one of indexation of social reality which would make the semi-proper name meaningful and understandable. We can additionally bring Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology into the picture here through the indexation that is implicit in the users’ need to routinely index speech in order to make one another’s utterances comprehensible. The Foucauldian discourse, through its various apparatuses, would therefore act as the medium through which the individual subjective actions achieve meaning.

Once we define historical and sociological epistemology along that line, it becomes more clear that various political idiosyncratic positions would only look for what they really are: as pseudo-epistemologies of the life-world. For example, the critique of orientalism falsely poses itself as a critique of western knowledge, while confusing in one go orientalism with colonialism and imperialism: one would act in conjunction with the other, or they would all act inseparably from one another. But that’s more of an unsophisticated and idiosyncratic political stance than a usefully genuine cognitive epistemological theory.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

this is not a war: summer 2006


Beirut, 07/17/2006

On the front-page of the London-based Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (07/17/2006), was a photograph of Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah. Not that Nasrallah hasn’t been portrayed enough in photos and videos around the world, and that his facial traits have become analogous with Che Guevara’s, but what’s unique in the front-page photo is that it was reproduced from a TV set located in Beirut. The newspaper’s headline warned that, “Lebanon is getting destroyed, and the political loop is becoming tighter on Hezbollah.” The accompanying photo showed a televised Nasrallah, speaking a day after his home and office were completely shattered in the southern suburb of Haret Hurayk, and telling his audiences that “we’ll continue to struggle, and now that there are no red lines anymore, we’ll hit our enemy even harder.” But the underlying message was, of course, that “even with all that massive air bombing, they couldn’t get me. I’m here alive and kicking!” The most interesting element though was not the message itself—what it said and its timing—but the composition of the photograph. As Nasrallah’s head occupied three-fourth of the frame, the remaining one-third showed what looked like black smoke from damaged properties in Beirut. Maybe the photographer had nothing fancy in mind—just a nice shot combining Nasrallah’s televised face with Beirut burning in the background. Or maybe he (or she) had something fancier. But whatever the photographer’s aim it clearly depicts the classical paradox of the framed image versus the unframed reality. The words and face of Nasrallah, as framed by the TV set, versus the reality outside. People tend to use language through repetition, creating more redundant than creative utterances, while politicians have mastered the art of redundancy even more so than others. The Hezbollah have succeeded at projecting an image of themselves as men of deeds, individuals who are working day and night and plotting for revolutionary action in the Middle East, and, indeed, in the world at large. The Hezbollah, however, is more image than reality, or the reality of Hezbollah is its image, and primarily its televised mediagenic image. Besides its own al-Manar television station, whose building has been completely wrecked by massive air-strikes (even though the station managed not to shut off completely), the Hezbollah image is transmitted all around through the well known Arab satellite networks, of the likes of al-Jazira and al-Arabiyya. It also benefits from the benevolence of millions in the Arab and Islamic worlds. In sum, Hezbollah is all words and images, or more precisely, it projects an image of itself all around the world in spite of a very thin layer of (military) action. Its best historical moment was presumably in the late 1990s, when Hezbollah guerillas were active in the then occupied South Lebanon, leading eventually to a shaky Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. But even Hezbollah’s claim for “victory” in the aftermath of the withdrawal has been recently more and more disputed on the ground that the Party of God had unlawfully monopolized all “resistance” as its own, forcing others, in particular “leftist” militias, not to participate. It also outmaneuvered a cowardly divided Lebanese political class by forcing the country into a war-with-the-enemy rather than diplomatic negotiation.

The likes of Hezbollah and Hamas strive from the process of protracted civil wars which are the daily bread of Arab and Islamic societies. As such societies have emerged from Empire formations that were poor at integrating their populations, the postcolonial modern state is either powerless as in Lebanon, or else, as in Baathist Syria and Iraq of the old régime, it manipulates under its habitual authoritarianism the various antagonistic civil groups.

Beirut, 07/24/2006

Time condenses. Not only does it bring memories of the past, but, more importantly, it tells us that on the essentials, we, our society and environment, are not changing. Time stands still in a particular fashion. The feeling that we are stranded in time, unable to exit, unable to even properly express ourselves, unable to find this other with whom to communicate, all of that fills us with weariness and disgust. I’m tired because I’ve come to expect all this debacle—not in its empirical happenings perhaps, but in that innate feeling of a general breakdown, another one of those broad catastrophic moves. When at 18 the “first” “civil war” broke out, it gave me a great deal of freedom: I had perhaps the same existential feeling as that of Sartre under the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s. “Never have I felt more free,” he said with arrogance—and disillusion regarding what French society was supposed to provide in terms of “personal freedoms” and the like. The hypocrisy of bourgeois thought and third-fourth-republic politics, Victorian sexuality, and Catholic and public school education, all came in new light with the Nazi occupation: no one is supposed to conform to such hypocritical values anymore, hence we’re freer than ever. Notice how an outside disaster, a totalitarian rule, are what triggers freedom in thought and behavior. It is as if one needs an overt political hostility to begin moving on his own. I still remember my joy at the 1975 breakup. The long sufferings that I had gone through in my first year at the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus materialized into an objectified conflict, one where the subjective sufferings met with external destruction. Surely, I must have thought back then, something was wrong with that society. It has always been my feeling that something was wrong—ever since I set foot in Beirut in 1965, and shifted schools from Aleppo to Juniyeh. At first sight what liberal capitalism brings to a post-empire nation-state is an atmosphere of decadence, which in effect is a combination of political, cultural, and sexual decadence. People’s “niceness” and “informal” practices hide the fact that, unlike, say, a genuinely liberal society like the US, individuals are not freely available to one another, meaning that you’ll have to find “your own place” through networks of friends, and networks of friends’ networks. Not only does confessionalism hinder openness, but, more importantly perhaps, closed societies, whose tribal and peasant origins are not far away, tend to be structured on a hierarchy of violence among and within the (confessional) groups, so that “lower” families remain “boycotted by the “upper” ones—for instance, in terms of marriage and inheritance, local politics, and labor (the former working for the latter). In such a relationship of employers versus employees, the employees will at some point find their route to salvation by doing politics outside the traditional channels: war as politics. Foucault once said that “Le droit est donc une manière réglée de faire la guerre,” which means that in a society with a judiciary system the law becomes an organized—structured—way to regulate conflicts. But when the judiciary is not there, the hierarchy of violence does it all, and politics as usual is war. The war machinery then effectively materializes into bloodier conflicts that bypass daily routine, attempting at creating another hierarchical order—a process that is generally prompted by the lower families.

In many ways, the 2006 war is by far deadlier than the 1982 invasion, even though most of Beirut—in its second war week—still benefits from regular electricity and water supplies, and has not been shelled for the most part. The level of destruction is, however, more intensive than 1982, as entire neighborhoods and villages are in the process of being leveled off. Israel’s problem with Hezbollah and Lebanon is not even political but technical. The weakness of Arab political structures renders political negotiations next to impossible: there is no politics simply because politics implies a state’s power over its population by means of investigative knowledge. In other words, it is not enough for the state—or sovereign power—to dominate, as this could be achieved, among others, by military power, but through modes of knowledge that in their essence are of an investigative nature. It is indeed the state’s knowledge over its population that provides it with that legitimate authority to monopolize violence. Otherwise, the state’s (legitimate) monopoly on violence, to use Weber’s most notorious expression, will follow the logic of the hierarchy of violence among groups.

In their third and fourth weeks, the Israelis will have only one goal: to destroy as much as possible of the rocket launchers. This is not a political aim, as much as a pure military strategy and civil concern, where the wellbeing and safety of Israeli citizens in the northern half of the country (and possibly beyond that) is at stake. If that proves successful, then the deadly military machine of the Hezbollah would at least have been partly damaged, and a long painful process of grueling political negotiations would ensue. Israel would have locked Hizbullah for the next decade or two, but then the real challenge would be internal, within Lebanon itself, and at this level it would be unlikely that the Lebanese would know how to accept the logic of the modern state. It would be, in effect, déjà vu all over again.

A society that lacks statist power, or conversely, one where the state rules by sheer force, share their common lot of political névrosés. As groups and sub-groups are left struggling on their own, they will be permanently immersed in situations of war.

Undated

On ne parle pas aux gens. On les regarde juste de l’extérieur. C’est cette extériorité qui détermine en fin de compte nos relations aux autres.

Est-ce regarder veut dire connaître ? Toute l’emblématique photographique provient de ce connaître dans le regarder. Simplement regarder. Regarder sans connaître. Connaître à travers le regard.

Mon aversion pour l’écrit—cet ennui profond dès que je touche une page blanche—cette haine et peur de l’écrit—de ce que j’écris—provient du fait que je n’écris pas ce que je veux, comme je veux, d’une manière la moins structurée que possible. Jouer avec l’écrit. Prétendre que l’on n’écrit pas.

Beirut, 07/25/2006

The NYT has published this morning a cover story on besieged Beirut, describing the city as a terrain divided in two: the bulk of the city, we’re told, lives a more or less “normal” life, while the southern Shii suburbs—known as the Dahiya—are bombed on a daily basis, and have witnessed massive destruction and population exodus. In the first Beirut, the “normalcy” of life is presumably an expression of the ethos of people that aspire to go on with their lives, leave the past behind them, and heal the scars of the fifteen-year civil war by forgiveness and openness to others. By contrast, the second Beirut still holds the banners of death by armed struggle, revolution until victory, and where the awkwardly hasty Israeli withdrawal of 2000 is looked upon as a major achievement. If we were to trust the Hezbollah’s al-Manar, whose broadcasting studios have been reduced to rubble, this second group is showing no resilience. Witness, for instance, this young man, as videotaped on al-Manar TV, who “informed” the viewers that the 1982 Israeli invasion brought to death his first sister, and even though his second sister just died in her Dahiya apartment in an air strike, he is still fully behind the great leader Nasrallah. Now that video is cheap, and at the disposition of professionals and laymen (prosumers) alike, the covering of world events in the last two decades has reached massive—if not hysterical—proportions, only to be met with the total indifference of viewers to the conflict-as-image. In those “live” images, transmitted from around the world, what are we supposed to see? Where do we begin when we start piecing together “our” war “narrative”? What role is the image supposed to play? A Chinese anecdote recounts the story of a wise man who points to the moon with his finger, while the idiot sees only the finger but misses the moon. When we see the young man in his thirties, sweating in his black T-shirt, pointing with his finger to his demolished sister’s home, while stating how “proud” he was to have two of his sisters falling into the ranks of “martyrs” of Islam, are we supposed to focus on the demolished apartment complex, the pointing finger, or the uttered statements on martyrdom and the leader’s greatness? Or maybe all of the above? The Canadian communication expert Marshall McLuhan became famous for stating that the medium is the message. I tend to think that if we’ve become mostly indifferent to “live” broadcasts it is precisely because either the message is redundant, or else there’s no message. When I say “there’s no message,” I mean we’re not even given the opportunity to see an image from a particular angle/distance, as the video medium and the endless flaw of cabled images on a 24/7 basis, flatten every frame. Roland Barthes argued in his essay on photography that every photo has a punctum, that mysterious “point” that captures the viewer’s attention and guides him to other points within the photographic frame. The punctum could be anything from a person’s hands, lips, or a tree lurking in the “background.” But contemporary televised video, however, does not even open that possibility to be amazed at a frame’s architecture. The 30 frames that make up each second have become the flux-of-indifference.

The Lebanese have become accustomed at describing their never ending civil wars as “the wars of others on our land,” to quote the title of a book by a famous journalist. The current war is therefore no “civil war” but an outside war where Israelis are fighting Iranians and Syrians through their Hezbollah proxies. As usual, the drawback for such an approach is that it fails to see the essential, namely that internal conflicts, which in reality are either masked or sublimated civil wars, “translate” into regional or possibly international conflicts. In the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination on 14 February 2005, Lebanon’s di-visions became visible in their new-old configurations barely a month later, when on the 8th of March Hezbollah gathered its pro-Syrian supporters (estimated at one-third of Lebanon’s population) at the Riyad al-Solh square, and when the following week, on March 14, over a million Lebanese came to the streets in a broad coalition of “moderates” requesting that the “truth” be revealed on Hariri’s tragic assassination. The “center” of this “national” coalition was at the nearby Martyr’s—Freedom’s—square, only a block from Riyad al-Solh. Today those million or so are passively “watching” (through which medium? Which images?) the other pro-Syrian-Iranian-Shii third massacred, exiled, its neighborhoods and villages leveled down, and its properties destroyed, while its “leadership” is still claiming victory after victory. The two-Lebanon has emerged since then, and what we’re witnessing today is the actualization of such a di-vision through violence—certainly not its bypassing into a political settlement.

Now that we’re into the third week of the new-old war on Lebanon, and the never ending Lebanicized civil wars, the outlook is that it would be better to let the Israelis finish off the job at reducing and neutralizing Hezbollah’s military might. But even if such a démarche finally succeeds, the Lebanese will be left, in the final analysis, with the most essential task to come, namely another round of political and economic reconstruction. Besides asking the obvious question whether anything could still be added to the 40-billion dollar staggering debt from the “previous” civil war, does politics exist in Lebanese society in such a way as to open up for a “political consensus”? Did politics ever exist in the first place?

Jacques Rancière has argued that politics is inseparable from democracy, in the specific sense that politics, as a system of distribution of power relations, based in turn on the rule of law and individual rights, can only be democratic. Otherwise, we’re left to authoritarianism, administration, bureaucratic routines, and individuals trapped in their daily lives without much access to the public good. The problem, therefore, is certainly not the existence of confessional groups per se, but the “precedence” of such groups over “individual rights” and the “public sphere” at large. To use a well known formula by Bruno Latour, Lebanese have yet to learn how “to make things public.” The 14th of March definitely made few “things”—such as Hariri’s probe and the Syrian occupation—“public,” in the sense of having both exposed publicly while creating a broad consensus around them. It made those things as artifacts, or as matters of concern. More importantly, regarding Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, there was a movement that aimed at expressing such events in public, for instance, in photography shows, graffiti and banners, forums, and the use of space. But by the time of the parliamentary election of summer 2005, such a movement had already faltered into business as usual, meaning it all got back into the politicians’ hands and their electoral “lists” and insulting speeches.

The Lebanese sectarian and non-sectarian factions thus seem more at ease at blaming the enemy, whether it’s the Syrian, Iranian, Israeli, American, Zionist, or imperialist enemy, than at being able to look inside. Witness what’s happening right now: two-third of Lebanon is watching while the other one-third is systematically targeted, watching for the Israelis to finish off with Hezbollah’s arrogance, while at the same time praising the resistance against the Zionist enemy. Even if Hezbollah’s downsizing, and the pacification of the south through NATO-European troops, are both successfully achieved, the big internal problem of political reconciliation confronting the Lebanese state and society would be of such a magnitude that it would be difficult to handle. For one thing, with the indifference of the two-thirds who are more or less sleeping well every night with enough electric power to run their A/C machines, Shii ressentiment is growing faster than ever. The great divide was always there, but it received a new twist in the wake of Hariri’s assassination. Moreover, while the Sunnis have learned since the 1950s and 1960s that allowing armed militias in parallel to the Lebanese army only leads to an impotent state, the Shiis have yet to accept that fact. In short, the Sunnis’ embourgeoisement, their adopting of consumerist and exhibitionist postures, has yet to happen to the bulk of the Shiis.

To be sure, there isn’t much in Lebanese culture that would prepare even an average layman to understand the political shortcomings of the system. My tenant-neighbor, with whom, as landowner, I’ve harbored a long-standing feud over his tenancy contract, told me the other day, as we were both in the elevator, that “every time we think it is the last time, something new comes up. But this time, I feel, it will surely be the last.”

07/27/2006

On sent toute sa vie comme fermée à jamais devant soi. Instant de mort. Le temps se condense plutôt qu’il ne se répète. Condensation plutôt que répétition. Un incident qui condense le temps. Tout y était déjà là : l’horizon politique bouché des régimes socialistes autoritaires, les frères musulmans, le manque d’une culture locale moderne. Ces gens ne sont bons que pour l’export-import. Ils s’oublient eux-mêmes. Ne savent plus qui ils sont, tellement ils ont traversé des continents et cultures, sans savoir quoi que ce soit à leurs modes de pensée.

07/28/2006

The massive Israeli onslaught on Lebanon since July 12 has brought considerable damage to the Lebanese economic and human infrastructure in general, and to Hezbollah’s capabilities in particular. Top Hezbollah officers, including its secretary general Nasrallah, have been telling the media that the swift and colossal Israeli retaliation at the kidnapping of its two soldiers was to be “expected.” If “expect” here means that we “knew” that the Israelis would begin retaliating as soon as we would kidnap their soldiers, and we “knew” that such an action would entail massive civilian and military damage on our side, then what’s the economic rationale for such an action? Do the likes of Hezbollah—nonstate militias with considerable societal roots and influence—have any “economic” rationale? Is there any economic rationality behind their actions? Either Hezbollah seriously miscalculated, or else its political and ideological stances have little economic logic behind them. But even if it did miscalculate the kidnapping of the two soldiers, its handling of the war in the last couple of weeks only points to further miscalculations, including its bombing of Haifa, Israel’s third largest and top industrial city, on a quasi-regular basis. The truth of the matter, however, is that Hezbollah did not miscalculate, as it knew exactly what it was doing. But how does then Hezbollah calculate, assuming, of course, that it did not mis-calculate? At face level, Hezbollah does seem, indeed, to be taken by its own revolutionary ideology—the kind of non-empirical and (non-?)utopian zeal of the kind “revolution until victory.” Such stances are presumably important to reinforce the normative values within the group by establishing purpose and cohesion. The revolutionary stance, however, should not have in principle distracted Hezbollah from any economic reckoning. Even the Party of God needs, after all, to perform some calculations for its investments and losses. The Party, which is routinely described as a “terrorist organization,” acts more like a hodgepodge of diverse social institutions—schools, hospitals, mosques, religious study groups, ulama networks, media outlets, and real estate and financial loans—which taken together are the equivalent of a social security system for the bulk of the Shii underclass (over one-third of Lebanon’s present population). It would therefore make sense that the Hezbollah, in spite of its military zeal, would like to keep up its civil networks at all costs, the latter should in principle be the raison d’être of the Party. But now that both civil and military networks are slowly and systematically dismantled, or have at least suffered enormous damage, did Hezbollah mis-calculate? The dismantlement of networks should make Hezbollah less popular among its pundits, as homes and business have suffered colossal damage. In the final analysis, either the population at large cares about its businesses and wellbeing, or else it will accept Hezbollah for ever—no matter what. In the latter case, there isn’t much of any economic planning and expectations (or disappointments). But actors, even if diehard Hezbollah fans, are also rational economic actors, and make their decisions accordingly.

It is impossible to understand Hezbollah’s modus operandi without taking into consideration the simple fact that its main benefactor and patron, The Islamic Republic of Iran, grants it up to a $100 million a year, and that the Syrians, from the Iranian cash influx, sell the Hezbollah Syrian and Russian made mid- and long-range rockets, which Haifa’s population has been receiving over its heads recently. The Hezbollah therefore finds itself in a catch-22 situation: if it does not satisfy its Iranian and Syrian patrons, it will lose its cash flow; and if it does, it would place a great deal of its military and civil infrastructure at high risk. The $100 million donation also explains why Hezbollah always snubbed local Lebanese sectarian politics, opting instead for dubious regional and Islamic alignments. In sum, had it accumulated its cash flow through local donations, both its sectarian politics and economic rationale would have been different. Had the Hezbollah been self-subsidized, it would not have bailed out from Lebanon’s sectarian system—only to be re-“integrated” in a humiliating way as an outcome of this war--and it would have been more responsive to the economic expectations of its Shii constituency.

07/30/2006

What we do not reveal to ourselves proves even more important than the few things we reluctantly admit. This seems paradoxical, since how do we “know” that which has never been revealed? There is revelation in writing, and another that remains purely mental, which absorbs us in our sleep- and day-dreams, but never reveals itself on paper. So, we incessantly have that awkward feeling that things are not coming together at the right moment.

Se bien sentir dans sa peau. To feel well in one’s body—and I never did myself. Those Lebanese bodies were unlike mine: I must have felt that discomfort in me for ever. Maybe the turning point was the move from Syria to Lebanon in 1965, and maybe it was not. Maybe the discomfort was always there, well rooted genetically deep into my body. In any case, “it” separated me from the rest of humanity: wherever I am, I’m not at home. Rootless, sexless, friendless, and always with a writer’s block. With age, I’ve learned to overcome the phobias of the past and to become a good company to myself—to myself only, without sharing my life with anyone else.

Beirut is not a city done for loners, pedestrians, and romantics in mind. There’s no genuine communication in this city for people that live anonymously, that do not know one another, as there isn’t much that gets people together anonymously. It’s a city of small networks, whether sectarian, secular, artistic, or political. The architecture, and the production of space and its organization, reflect a non-concern with the public sphere, of doing things together for the sake of the community, of making things public. It’s a city made for those who already know one another, have a place in society, and a space of their own. Not only the world at large does not exist, but obedience to the state is looked upon as pure nuisance, taxes are avoided, and even stopping at a red light is a burden. It is this blindness to the other that creates societies within societies that are totally insulated from one another, and that gives a party like Hezbollah free reign to endlessly stockpile weapons and rocket launchers in civilian areas. What time brings is the sudden relief of the “all too understandable” phenomenon: it happens suddenly after long periods of wandering in all directions, like looking at those poorly designed apartment complexes, with their narrow balconies and car parks, and whose uninspiring designs is already obsolete before even the inhabitants come to occupy their apartments. In my quality of flâneur, I’ve been pondering those streets back and forth—but without much joy, and with that naïve questioning as to why I feel so much “outside” all of this, as if I am deeply hurt that I’m not part of this society—that I’m not accepting “it,” and “it” is not accepting “me”—as myself, my own self.

Our memory does not operate by working out beings in a particular terrain, because as individuals we’re not anymore part of a terrain, but located within abstract networks of relations. That’s why the terrains we inhabit only inadvertently are constructed in such a dysfunctional way. Look at a typical modern Lebanese neighborhood, and it has that awkward feeling of a Syrian neighborhood planned “from above” in any of the Syrian cities, or of a village constructed in that ugly combination of concrete and white bricks, without much planning, meaning without much concern for people to connect, to love life, to love to be and act together. In those abandoned villages, where village life has ceased a long time ago, and where people “drop by” occasionally from various locations—the capital or nearby city, the Arab or western land or African continent, the mahjar, or a provincial town—the terrain becomes representative of bits and pieces of individualistic enterprises, a montage and collage of individual dreams and broken selves, which for the most part have not much in common: the brand-new villa of an African migrant, who once in a while checks on his “family,” the home of a retired general in the army who got fed up from the city’s slums, a small state-sponsored hospital, a school, shops here and there, and mostly empty lots, all in no particular order. We’re unable to escape that kind of empty order wherever we are, to the point that the old distinction between monde urbain and monde rural has vanished, and has been replaced by that quasi-continuous and intangible terrain. If we’re not interested anymore by what the quotidian has to offer us, and we’re permanently attempting to “connect” through our cell phones, fax machines, the internet, cable and the dish, it’s because we think it is of no importance. People remain “at home” and go out whenever necessary, opting for the comfort of their home toys, DVD machines, cable TVs, instant messaging, and dildos.

07/31/2006

When in May 2000 Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, ending its 18-year occupation, the Hezbollah claimed all “resistance” and “victory” against the “enemy” all to itself. It constructed its ideology on the dubious notion that “resistance” must be pursued at all cost, until the “final victory” is met—the latter seems to be standing for an eternal jihad of all sorts. Moreover, the Hezbollah claimed all to itself the jihad and success against the enemy only by refusing the tacit cooperation of other “leftist” militias, some of which were eager to contribute in both material and men. More importantly, however, was the situation into which the Lebanese state was de facto placed into throughout the 1990s by the Hezbollah and its Syrian sponsors, which at the time were occupying most of Lebanon. Not only did the Hezbollah and Syrians forbade the Lebanese state from any negotiation with the enemy, but more importantly, the Israelis withdrew suddenly without any formal agreement with Lebanon. But because a withdrawal to the international borders without a formal agreement is no peace at all, the Hezbollah and Syrians (not to mention the Islamic Republic of Iran) got exactly what they wanted: a situation of permanent war, which in effect implied a protracted Lebanese civil war. In effect, the war with the external enemy implied pursuing a protracted internal civil war, the latter being the main locus to the former, rather than the other way round. Why would someone opt for a combination of internalized and externalized wars rather than civil peace is a complicated issue that cannot be tackled successfully here. Suffice it to say that in principle, namely, following common sense economic rationality, a rational actor (agent or user) would opt for a situation where he would enhance his economic well being—hence the necessity for peace, which implies diplomatic relations, open borders, trade, and cultural exchange. The Hezbollah for its part is an organization, which, even though enjoys substantial popular roots among the Shia, is nevertheless not self-subsidized, and benefits most from tributary capitalism. In effect, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a prototype of a rentier (tributary) state, which survives mainly from the rents of its oil fields, rather than from a systematic taxation system. Moreover, the popularity of the Iranian theocratic régime stems mainly from its distribution of some of the oil rents to its population, in particular the poor who benefit from all kinds of state services. In similar vein, the Syrian state finances half of its 5-7 billion dollar annual budget from the revenues of its oil fields in the north, close to the Iraqi border. The Hezbollah benefits, in turn, from the unusual “alliance” of interests between two incompatible states. This mariage de raison between Syrians and Iranians financially benefits the Hezbollah, thanks to an annual Iranian “donation” of $100 million. The Hezbollah also receives as additional bonus arm shipments from both the Iranians and Syrians, including the notorious medium- and long-range missiles, and the Katyushas, which have wrecked havoc the northern Israeli cities in the present war of attrition. As is well known, if jet fighters are the weapons of the educated and wealthy, missiles are the quintessential weapons of the poor and the dispossessed. But in its guerrilla war of attrition, the Hezbollah has only created enormous damage to its own civil and military infrastructure, not to mention the damages inflicted to its non-constituency, such as the bulk of Beirut’s and Mount Lebanon’s populations, all of which are not traditional Hezbollah supporters, even though they are not necessarily admirers of Israel either. In short, Hezbollah’s successes, if any, seem at the moment of a symbolic nature, whether inside Lebanon on in the Arab and Islamic worlds at large. But symbolic does not, however, translate necessarily into economic, at least not if you’re following the political strategy of Hezbollah, which does not seem to be linked to any economic rationale at all, but geared only towards symbolic benefits. Why should that be so? After all, Lebanon is a full-fledged capitalistic society, without even the traditional political and juridical boundaries that would limit the “damages” of capitalism, and you would thus expect that such a market logic would be ubiquitous among all sectarian factions. In an ironic twist, the Hezbollah is precisely benefiting from the logic of capitalism über alles. For one thing, in order to give free reign to sectarian divisions, the Lebanese have opted for a historic compromise of a weak and ineffectual state. Second, this weak state was only thought of in conjunction with poor or limited public services, so as not to mimic the autocratic structure of the État providence of neighboring Arab states, all of which favor the suspension of sectarian conflicts through a dominating state ‘asabiyya. Hence for Lebanon, since the economy cannot be a state-controlled bureaucratic enterprise (as it currently is, among others, in Syria and Egypt), it had to be capitalistic in its very essence, forgetting that the nature of capitalism, precisely because of its unfettered logic, requires a strong state and an active judiciary, both of which are absent in our case here. The Hezbollah benefits precisely from such weaknesses, while at the same time enjoying the benefits of unconstrained capitalism. Thus, when two-third of Lebanon was playing the import-export game, the Hezbollah, benefiting from the largesse of its Iranian and Syrian donors, was stockpiling weapons in some of the warehouses of the heavily populated Dahiya neighborhoods, and installed rocket launchers all over the south and the Biqa‘ valley.

08/02/2006

We must rethink Hezbollah in its internal Lebanese role, namely as a representative of the bulk of the Shii underclass. Without this relationship to the underclass, Hezbollah’s role would be totally misunderstood, for instance, it’s a terrorist organization that is a mercenary to Iran, to its foes, and it’s a revolutionary militia to its admirers. Even though it’s a bit of both, Hezbollah must be primarily perceived in terms of its social and economic functions—in relation to Lebanese capitalism, and its centers and peripheries. It seems therefore more than ironic that Hezbollah is looked upon as a “revolutionary” party, whose main would-be mission is nothing but the “liberation” against the Zionist “enemy.” That Hezbollah—and its “revolutionary” cohorts (e.g. Hamas)—need an externalized “enemy” in the form of Zionism, colonialism, or American imperialism, should not be that difficult to understand. Indeed, the externalized enemy, in the absence of a “strong” Hobbesian state, “prevents” the internalization of the conflict in the form of a direct civil war. Moreover, the externalization of the conflict, for the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas, only helps at maintaining an internalized masked (or sublimated) civil war. In sum, were it not for that fictitious external enemy, the internal damage would have been unbearable. How does then the dialectic between internal and external work? What is its logic? When the Other is your next-door neighbor, and you have strong qualms against him, you either express such feelings overtly, or else you proceed through a détour. In effect, such circularity is common not only to individuals and groups, but also to states. In other words, your live your antagonism (hostility) to the other that is close to you through a third party—or better still, a diminished other, what Lacan has labeled as objet petit a. Between the real Other (with a capital O), and the diminished other (small o), lies the true relationship of hostility, the battle for recognition, and the slave-master relationship. The naïve interpreters all over the world, by posing Hezbollah as the “legitimate” “liberator” of occupied territories, have misplaced the whole problem. The real problem in the humanities and the social sciences is when researchers read the actors actions at face value, thinking that in doing so they’re “objective.” Not only did Hezbollah not “liberate” Lebanon from anything, but it even drained that medium-income country, whose only resource is a service economy set within a barbaric capitalism without much political and juridical boundaries. The dynamic of Lebanese capitalism has set the seaport capital Beirut as its main hub. The transfer of powers between mountain and city occurred late in the nineteenth century, when the mountain’s economy proved too scarce to satisfy the restless desires of a fast growing bourgeoisie, in particular among Christians, when sectarian conflicts signaled a weakening of Ottoman power and additional concessions to Europe. As capitalism installs itself where it thrives best, Beirut became the hub of all commercial activity centered around the Mediterranean, while other regions in the north, east, and south, thrived less well. Mount Lebanon for its part became like a résidence secondaire for the new wealthy urbanites, giving the mountain a new unexpected accessory role in the expansion of capitalism. But central Mount Lebanon proves to be the exception that proves the rule all too well. When in May 2000, upon Israel’s sudden withdrawal from Lebanon, I visited the newly “liberated” south, I stood at the “gate” that separates Lebanon from Israel, known as Bawwabat Fatima, and was struck at the proximity of the two borders, a proximity that transformed the ritual of stone-throwing a journalistic feast. What I did notice, however, was what was on the other side of the fence. As we’re always separated by “civilizational” fences in this part of the world (e.g. the two Beiruts of the 1970s and 1980s), we can only “peer” at the other side from a distance—de loin. The settlement that was right in front me at the other side, and whose name I totally ignore (the Hezbollah guards were uncooperative in that regard), looked green all over: I cannot but overemphasize the greenness of the other side, so striking when compared to the dry mediocrity on “our” side. Since the early pilgrims-cum-settlers of the 1880s, who for the most part were Russians escaping the pogroms, or east Europeans escaping anti-Semitism, and even though both groups were not Zionists per se (the ideology was still in the process of formation), there was this notion of the settler as peasant farmer, which later became the main ideology of the kibbutz. Thus, even though those early settlers were financed by the Rothschilds, they had for the most part a hard time physically surviving, and the early settlements proved to be a complete failure. But then at the turn of the century, the flux and determination of new settlers, and the institutionalization of the kibbutz ideology, paved the way for the troubled period of the British mandate in which the “superiority” of Jewish culture and practices became obvious. It has since then became routine to regard every Israeli citizen as a peasant farmer—and there’s no shame in that. Moreover, as Israel adopted a system of liberal democracy and capitalism, the “socialism” of the founding fathers de facto transformed the Israeli state into an État providence. But even though Israel should have looked in par with other European states in this regard, what made this country so unique was indeed the experience of the kibbutz.

When in a society every citizen is regarded as a peasant farmer, nature is radically transformed. By contrast, the border on the Lebanese side of Fatima’s “gate” looked as if it was left lurking under Ottoman times. In effect, the south, north, and east of Lebanon all share common misgivings, created by a rapid expansion of capitalism, and a weak state that neither protects its borders nor provides adequate minimal welfare services.

08/03/2006

La photographie comme art de la question rendue visible.

It has become increasingly difficult to even do few “banal” and “innocent” snapshots of my “own” Beirut neighborhood, which is not at stake and hasn’t suffered thus far any destruction or casualties. It’s ironic that these days you need a reason for a snapshot. I’ve got accustomed, even since taking photography seriously in the last ten years or so, of receiving from a passerby the casual question: Why are you doing this tree? This building? This highway? It’s like asking, Why do you do photography at all? What for? And to which there’s obviously no answer at all, or there’s a very simple answer not worth answering, because your passerby will anyhow not appreciate it, or it needs a very complex answer, perhaps in a book form. But then the question, Why are you doing this tree?, could, indeed, be even more complex than originally thought. Our interlocutor may not be asking about photography in general—people tend to be more realistic and practical than that—but why this tree, in that particular situation, rather than any other tree? That’s a much tougher question than asking about the raison d’être of photography in general. It’s the mystery behind each frame that is worthy of existence in its own right. I’m doing this tree simply because it is there, it exists as a being among other beings. What photography therefore targets is what some phenomenologists call the intentionality of consciousness: thanks to language, we have in our minds the notion of “tree” in general, so that the word “tree”-as-“sign” refers to a general and abstract notion of “tree.” But then my consciousness, through the organs of perception located in my eyes and brain, targets this specific tree out there, and to the phenomenologists this specific tree cannot be explicated by the general concept of tree. Indeed, it has an existence of its own that is unaccountable by the existence of other trees. Photographers seem to have captivated the charm of the existence of things and objects for their own sake, and with no other reason than the fact that they exist as such. The best photographers have framed “objects” in such a way that would point to the complexities of objects-in-space and of light. An object simply exists, hence its charm.

This afternoon, right after lunch, I went to buy the newspapers. Under the heavy white sun of August, Beirut is totally empty these days, with nothing happening—except the war, but at a close distance. Beirut’s dreary atmosphere, its humid heat, the non-paved streets, the people who move around in sealed air-conditioned cars, all that was pretty nauseating—but is it still? Empty streets, parking lots, and isolated objects, under a heavy sun that turns even the blue sky white, have become among my favorite topoi. They probably remind me of shadows of persons that could have been there, but are not there anymore. All Beirut is shadowy: the shadow of the Ottoman architecture, which is not there anymore; the shadow of the old downtown, which is now replaced by an anemically uncreative space; and the shadow of the Arab-Turkic-Islamic cultures, which have been replaced by a patchwork of westernized discourses.

Moving around in that anemic space is no problem as far as I’m concerned. Not only I’ve learned to accept it, and since 1993 been photographing it thoroughly, but in a perverse way there’s an element of Lacanian jouissance into it. As I walked for the nth time into my neighborhood streets this afternoon to buy my newspapers, I felt that lightness, a liberation from the burden of narratives, discourse, and language, which I feel in poorly designed slums and neighborhoods all over Syria. Broken pavements, empty lots, and buildings growing in no particular order, have become a comforting sight. What adds to the excitement these days is the fact that any snapshot of Beirut has become a risky business—even framing a trash can is risky! While framing a dead body, one of those bodies hit by Israeli military power is not. People still look at photography as providing evidence of a reality out there, while I tend to see it as the subjective perception of a single person, as objectified through the lens’s technological grasp.

Before going back home with my newspapers in hand, I decided to gamble, and make few snapshots of “my” neighborhood. There’s no real feeling of a neighborhood in this city, as people do not connect to space, or to a terrain that they would explore slowly and systematically. What they connect to are several dots in space. And what I myself enjoy most—quintessential Lacanian jouissance—is filling the empty dots in “my” neighborhood. Watching those empty lots with dried up grass and plants growing in all directions, and unimaginative apartment blocks where professional bourgeois have placed their lifetime savings, could have been, under the heavy August sun, a dreary experience. But my genuine interest in those locations transformed them into light things, which pushed me towards framing them with my camera. Maybe what I enjoyed the most this time—now that Beirut is risky business—is that I cannot solely protect myself with my compulsive habits. Within minutes I managed a dozen shots, mostly of empty lots and poorly designed spaces. Soon afterwards, a block from home, three young guys came to me, one was running, while the other two followed me with a motorbike. “Why are you taking pictures?,” asked the young man in English and Arabic, while the other two were following closely on the other side of the street. “That’s my neighborhood. I live there—right there!” “So what? What do you need all those pictures for?” “I simply love taking pictures.” “An old lady told us that you took a picture of her home and street. That scared her!” “Sorry about that. We’re all a bit nervous these days.” It’s always nice to enjoy the thrill of provocation: to take pictures for no reason at all!

This past weekend’s massacre at Qana, in which over 40 innocent individuals were buried in a quasi-shelter, half of them children, did prompt hundreds of photos around the world. As the Israelis stopped all military action in the area, in order to allow rescue workers to do their job, Lebanese and international photographers rushed in, bouncing their stuff all over. As in the first Qana massacre (Qana-1) in 1996 in the wake of Operation Grapes of Wrath (also staged against Hezbollah), the human disaster was “communicated” by means of satellite images, whether video or still photography. But even within a decade, technology in that area has changed so much that images are now made and transferred at much higher rate. Which is not necessarily good news when it comes to quality. War images pose a particular problem of their own. For one thing, they’re supposed to portray the suffering of others, and somehow looking at the suffering of others from the comfort of one’s safe home, laptop screen, or summer vacation in the Caribbean, could pose all kind of moral or artistic problems—at least if someone cares. But what is it that we really care about? What is it that we would like to see? What is it that we would like to re-present in the suffering of others? If re-present means presenting something that is an artistic representation—a duplicate—of an event or a thing that exists out there, then what is it that we would like to present? How should it be presented? Well known photographers, of the likes of James Nachtway and Salgado, have become known both for their “decency” and “artistry” at covering the sufferings of others. They both did most of their work in black-and-white, and they’ve been traveling the world at large looking for people’s sufferings. Even though their styles are pretty much different (we’ll see whether that’s an important element when it comes to war and suffering), opting for black-and-white flushes a classy tone in every picture—color would have flattened the “seriousness” of the black-and-white, and would have rendered each frame less “tragic.” In other words, as the black-and-white brings nostalgia into every frame, color may have something “tragic” into it, precisely because it flattens and disrupts the time distance that is needed to “appreciate” the image: if black-and-white is nostalgic, color is actuality, and the actual—the “real”—is flat. But should the sufferings of others have anything nostalgic to it? Should we reach for distance—or the artificiality of distance—in war and suffering? Why not the digital colors that most photojournalists use these days? Does a digital color palette betray reality? Or is it so real that it prevents us from creating that needed distance in order to fully appreciate?

In the wake of Qana, al-Hayat carried under the huge banner of “Qana-2: the massacre,” a large colored photograph of two 5- to 7-year old girls that were dead on a stroller (or what seemed like one). At the beginning I couldn’t even tell whether they were dead or alive. They could have been sisters, or next-door neighbors, or two girls who did not know one another. While death brought them together, photography pulled them posthumously to the world at large. The innocence of their dusty faces, their gaze, made them look as if eternally surprised.

08/04/2006

Unsurprisingly, and even though most Beirut and a great deal of Lebanon is perfectly “safe” for now, the population at large has been quite “passive” to the unfolding events. You would expect that for a population paying all the bills for all those “liberation wars,” and for a middle-income country with a 40-billion debt from a previous civil war, and whose infrastructure is slowly being undermined day-by-day, that all such factors should have prompted a massive movement of public discussion and political awareness. But it didn’t. What some have labeled, without much thought, “the Arab street” is a pure myth that has no real existence. In order for a “street” to exist, it must do so in a combination of symbolic, political, and concrete urban terrains. A “street” must first exist concretely as part of an urban setting. For instance, suburbia with its sealed middle-class homes and shopping malls does not generally prompt for political action. One of the reasons is that people in such environments do not “come together” face-to-face except in sealed private spaces like shopping malls, and even movie theaters lose their traditional force of provocation by being encapsulated into such malls. And with the car being the most common tool of individual transportation, it has become synonymous with personal freedom, bypassing the luxury of daily interactions at a street level—and that of the patient flâneur. Arab cities have passed all too suddenly from the closed system of the Mamluk-Ottoman city to suburbia without much in between, except perhaps for the colonial city, which surrounded the old city, locking it like a belt. But that was a short-lived experience, which proved with no memorable consequences for later periods. In effect, the sudden coming of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, pushed urban planning to the cities’ peripheries, creating a mixture of poor and wealthy suburbia at the same time, while the old city, too costly to reform, and too archaic by modern tastes, was left to the popular classes and the usual flock of tourists.

Beirut lost its old city a long time ago, while the colonial city was irreversibly damaged during the 1975-1990 civil war. Another antiseptic and not-so-vibrant downtown was constructed in lieu of the colonial city, attempting to preserve in the meantime every building and shop worth preserving. But with all its restaurants and cafés, the downtown area is nevertheless not a place where people really meet. You could spend your lifetime in that space without meeting anyone.

When last year, in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, a million Lebanese flooded on March 14 the downtown area with their bodies, voices, looks, and flag parading, it was thought (at least for a while) that Lebanon was finally maturing into a genuine democratic republic, and that the Hezbollah-organized demonstration, a week earlier, showed the differences between a Lebanon that was “free” and another one that was under the dictatorship of the Party of God and its Syrian and Iranian patrons. But what observers failed to see was that in both instances the manifestations looked powerful for the precise reason that they acted as referendums to the ongoing political situation at the time: “groups” tend to come “spontaneously” on their own whenever faced with a combination of internal-external threats. The Lebanese, through Hariri’s assassination, were finally able to publicly mourn the fifteen-year civil war. What they now need is a memorial wall in the downtown freedom’s square area where they would inscribe the name, in alphabetical order, of everyone of those 150,000 or so who were slaughtered during the civil war.

But while mourning Hariri—and the civil war—the Lebanese also realized, to their great dismay, the old-new postwar di-visions. Now Lebanon seemed like poised to be physically divided into two Lebanons. The growing and perseverance of Hezbollah since 1982 has undoubtedly armed a third of Lebanon in an unprecedented way, while the other two-third has other projects in mind—and is unarmed. Needless to say, when the lumpen proletariat is armed to the teeth, receiving $100-million grants a year from an Islamic republic, we’re already into a masked (or sublimated) civil war. What capitalism did to the Shia, was uprooting them from their Shiism, displacing and fragmenting their ulama class, destroying their agricultural villages, while pushing them towards slum neighborhoods. The Hezbollah’s role was precisely to create a political umbrella for such a fractured community.

08/04/2006

Every society rests on a particular view of knowledge: its epistemology, history, sociology, or in brief its modes of organization and transmission. Lebanon, like the rest of the Arab world to which it belongs, does not have a modern knowledge that is its own, that is, created and constructed for the specific purposes of Lebanese society and its history. Instead, knowledge is composed of a patchwork of mainly western traditions, and, worse still, the Lebanese intelligentsia is neither aware of the problem, nor of its historical roots. People look for the most part at the Ottoman heritage as a question of professionalization in a dead area, and of bickering among professionals. What has created such an historical anomaly is the hiatus between the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Up to that period, knowledge was in the hands of the ulama class, its various schools and hierarchies. By the early twentieth century all that old order was already gone.

08/05/2006

Small fragments of Lebanon—not even the totality of Beirut—live a westernized lifestyle. Such a lifestyle, however, associated as it is with capitalism and liberal democracy, and even though “western” in its essence, differentiates itself from the latter in several respects. First, there isn’t much “continuity” between those westernized fragments and what lies outside them. Indeed, a great deal of this “outside” is beyond the reach of the capitalist centers. Think of Beirut’s Dahiya as an example of such fragmentation: even though the Shii suburbs would not have been what they’re today had it not been for capitalism, they’re a world of their own, outside state control. Second, those who benefit the most from the westernized lifestyle tend to live apocalyptically, as if doomsday is right next door. As the Lebanese system seems more and more fragile, and more prone to regional disturbance, the “end” of this system, if not its outright “impossibility,” are in everyone’s minds, or at least in their unconscious (understood as consciousness limit and terminal point). Third, the young live in that system without the material stability that characterizes core capitalist countries. In sum, it’s a capitalism that produces more marginals than other capitalisms, which explains why the Shia prefer Hezbollah’s rule over that of a powerless state. Finally, Lebanese capitalism is neither “protected” by a modern culture nor critiqued by a modernist (or postmodern) counter-culture that would be specific to Lebanon. Lebanese excessively consume the cultures of others, in particular the European and North American, which they mistakenly perceive as “universal” in their essence. There’s therefore no sense of a culture created in Lebanon for the sake of a “national” polity, which leads to a mediocre political class, and a professional middle class, but depoliticized and with no genuine culture to take hold of political life.

08/06/2006

It is undeniable that the present war on Lebanon is the first in a long series of wars. It has introduced Israel, the region, the US and the world at large, into unprecedented challenges, to a new type of guerrilla warfare, and to the regional and global risks that “cheap” but destructive weapons (e.g. rockets and missiles) could pose to civilian populations and a country at large. Because Israel has mismanaged the war, to the point of “losing” it, it will have to come back again—maybe a year, two or five years from now—and face Hezbollah in a new battle. The jihadic type of guerrilla warfare is not new to the Arab and Islamic worlds, and it even comes with variations (e.g. the Afghani, Iraqi, and Palestinian warfares), but that’s the first time that a guerrilla group has achieved such a high level of military organization, combined with a stockpile of cheap but destructive weapons, enough to put on hold the lives of 5 million individuals in a high-income industrial state. It is also the first time that, while the war is still going on, the future of the war is based on a balance of power: the long-range Iranian Zelzal missile, which can presumably hit the densely populated Tel Aviv, versus Israel’s ability to destroy Lebanon’s economic infrastructure. Ultimately, both could happen—and that would be the end of round one, and the beginning of the preparations for round two. Definitely, the real star in this war is not even the Hezbollah, or Nasrallah, for that matter—but the short-, medium-, and long-range missiles. Were it not for those missiles, Hezbollah’s military performance would have been unremarkable, similar to the low performance of the Palestinians. The existence of those missiles, which one day could be upgraded with chemical, biological, and nuclear heads, in the hands of a jihadic guerrilla organization is historically unprecedented, and, amazingly, the Europeans, now that they’re withdrawn into their hedonistic lifestyles, seem to either downplay the unprecedented threat, or ignore it completely. Now Europe and the US have to shift to new military and political strategies to take account of the weapons of the poor. A new era has just begun. Precisely because this era is new and has just begun, it has nothing decisive: we’ll have to first understand the new rules of the game, how to handle the newly acquired weapons of the poor, before moving into another (more stable) era. But that could be several decades ahead.

08/08/2006

Yesterday, as I was working on my dad’s insurance papers, the whole AUB world, in all its petty details, came back to haunt me. When in 1974-75 I was right in the middle of a personal catastrophe, I thought of the breakup of the “street wars” in 1975—at that time, I had no awareness of a “civil war”—as my revenge against an objectively corrupt and unfair order of things. This time, I see this war as another revenge—but this time I can see better what went wrong with me and with this society. As the body is the epicenter of life, my cerebral hatred towards the Lebanese—men and women—is primarily physical. It all begins with the body—le corps est têtu, the body is stubborn, said Barthes. The stubbornness of the body—of my body—places me with those damned Lebanese into the same situation all over again. Nothing has changed in twenty years, and nothing will change in the coming twenty years. It’s precisely those last twenty years—or thirty-two years, if I were to do the count beginning with my entry at AUB—that haunted me all day yesterday. I’ve been haunted by underachievement, lack of performance, successive failures, lack of motivation, not being at the center of action, not having enough women, money, prestige, status, and power, hatred of teaching and academic performance—and for being looked down upon, underestimated, and mocked, by practically every indecent person I’ve met. Which is fine, as long as I can still function.

Traîner avec son corps

The Lebanese are glued to their bodies.

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