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Food in Lebanon

3583946554_d51368a19f_mA recent scandal has been added to several previous scandals about food quality in Lebanon. But as in the previous cases, the focus was on meat products that are imported and stored in the worst conditions. Few people seem to understand the true extent of the catastrophe that runs deep into a general economic and cultural rationale as old as the state’s short existence.

During the twentieth century, these territories that became lumped into something called Lebanon moved from surviving on their own local economies to becoming net importers of almost all basic food products. For example, this frenetic consumption of meat was a rare privilege as cows did not really exist (there is no place for cows to graze in hilly, mountainous landscapes). Most people rarely ate meat and when they did, it most invariably involved lamb. Today, most of the meat consumed originates from Australia and South America and after a journey of who knows what kind, are parked in the most horrible conditions once they reach Lebanese ports. The periodic smell coming from Dora in Beirut is a constant reminder of their arrival.

But this obsession with meat has left the question of other food products unanswered. The manoucheh Lebanese pride themselves on is made of nothing homegrown. The flour used comes from Canada or Turkey, the sesame seeds are sold on international markets but probably originate from the US, the thyme from Jordan and Syria, the oil has for a long time been sunflower oil (not olive oil like some romantics may think) and is sold on international markets from multiple origins (Latin America, India, etc). It is very clear that none of these products originate from that little chunk of land known as Lebanon.

But that’s just one example. Take another: Hommos! The chickpeas come from Mexico for the most part, the smaller sized ones from Turkey. The Tahini is manufactured in Lebanon (sometimes in low quality ways) yet as mentioned earlier, the seeds come from outside. Only the lemon comes from Lebanon (and judging from the level of pesticide used on any agricultural product in Lebanon, you’d rather have lemons imported as well!) Now what about the lentils for the Mujadara? They are imported from the US.

Two points here: Some people might object that importing products is not something inherently bad for an economy, a society, or a culture. After all, a large proportion of what is consumed in the UK for example originates from imported merchandise. This is true from a purely economic perspective but not so if we look at certain social, cultural, or simply ethical implications.

First, the Lebanese economy is made up of a few cartels controlling most of what comes in and out and very little of that is produced locally. Some economists think that this is a good thing given the small size of the market and the capacity of few players on the arena to produce “economies of scale”, an economic concept to legitimize huge profits in order to produce, in principle, cheaper products. But that’s possible when you are actually producing something, not when you are just acting as a medium in a transaction. Also, this is possible when you have a particular institutional structure that protects consumer interests (usually involving a state, something Lebanon does not really have).

As shown in the recent scandals around meat, there is no quality oversight over what gets to be imported. And this is without mentioning the disgusting way in which animals are treated, how they are shipped to Lebanon and then preserved here. Now when you import something you really need to make sure when it was produced, if it has traveled well preserved, when does it expire, etc. Have you ever noticed that eating bread in Lebanon always tastes a bit dry? That’s not just because the flour that we import is of the worst quality traded on global markets (I heard once that we get the powder that remains in flour factories), but also because we have no idea when it was produced and how it was stored.

All the commodities I just mentioned are staple foods that are the most basic ingredients for surviving: Grains and pulses. But I mentioned these also because they are most of the products that regions such as Lebanon produced locally until recently and have mostly stopped producing. Economically what happened was that food production passed from the hands of a few feudal lords controlling peasant families planting for them to a handful of oligarchs controlling the trade of primary commodities. Such oligarchs import the lowest quality of produce because there just is no incentive or pressure for them to do otherwise. There are no state controls over quality, and no economic competition for them to bring different qualities of products.

In comparison, although the UK is a country that imports a large chunk of its food produce, its agricultural sector does supply for the main part staple foods that it traditionally produced for centuries: oats, wheat, barley, and so on. That means that the flour that is used in many types of food is homegrown, and even the cheapest one is still fresher, and a better quality than any type of bread related product you will ever eat in Lebanon! And everyone knows how much bread (or simply dough) is important for the Lebanese belly. This is beside the fact that Britain still produces the majority of its milk, cheese and meat products for consumption.

There is also an important cultural dimension to this catastrophe. The Lebanese have experienced a drastic shift in their relation to nature and land, and meanwhile to the most basic resource for their existence, food, while being completely oblivious of this process. Lebanese pride themselves on eating in Italian restaurants that serve refrigerated food all imported from the lowest quality produce of Italy, unconscious of the fact that they are living in an undignified way. What is more important than food for the quality of life in creating an ethical community? But Lebanese have been sitting on this disaster for decades still thinking that they have become more affluent because they can buy all these things that come from a different corner of the earth.

Sunni politics in Lebanon

There are three main (intersecting) orientations “mainstream” Sunni politics perceives (or deal with) more radical militant movements such the brief hollywoodean movement of Sheikh Asir, Jubhat al Nusra or Da’esh (ISIS).

1- To secretly feel that they are scoring points against their more traditional political enemy that is Hizbullah

2- To despise them but have no long-term political breath to do much about it and to prefer adopt piecemeal approaches, co-opting these groups for popularity/electoral reasons

3- To practice ostrich politics or avoid looking at the elephant in the room.

In either case, this is untenable especially with more powerful groups such as Da’esh that are highly strategic in their movements and that, by looks of it, definitely plan to eat little by little the border “Sunni” region of north Lebanon.

This will require a political consensus that neither the weak army institution of the army nor the various political force could muster during the short but turbulent history of  the tiny republic of Lebanon.

So if I want to be completely pessimistic, I see that the consociational democracy formula, which is slightly reworked arrangement of the “strength of Lebanon is in its weakness” motto (Pierre Gemayel’s infamous statement), may pave the way for larger Sunni politics. It just happens that it comes (as is often the case) in a very violent and brutal way).

The War with Images

My article at Opendemocracy on the use of images in war situations.

ISIS and the West

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ISIS is the expression of different social and political phenomena that must be understood separately. One of them is undoubtedly the significant amount of “Western” fighters of which some elements are also at the forefront of their media campaign. By Western I mean people who have lived and were educated in Western countries (mostly Western Europe and the US) either as Muslim minorities or as recent converts (or who knows maybe just random Westerners with searching for a cause).

Most media article and think-tank papers (I haven’t come across any serious academic work on ISIS) have by now narrated the story of their success in Iraq countless time. Their alliance with Sunni tribesmen and former Baath regime establishment is what tipped the balance in their favor. This explains one particular victory but it does not really tell us more on the movement as a whole and on their different political visions and strategies. The easy answer here is that there isn’t one but many visions or strategies. Yet looking at the various media campaigns led by ISIS and the reaction to them coming from Western media outlets is revealing of the extent to which the struggle is framed along “Western” concerns and imaginaries (and subsequently somewhat alien to local Middle Eastern concerns).

I think that a lot of what ISIS represents is a war that a disgruntled minority from the West is waging against their respective host countries. The problem is that the battlefield is not theirs, it is a fantasized one that the West has imagined but could not provide for them. Moreover, these groups cannot wage this war within these liberal countries as they are tightly policed and where these types of political questions cannot be asked. Here is the dangerous dimension of ISIS: it is a movement that fantasizes about a territory (Arab world, Islamic land etc) it does not come from, using ideological toolkit that the West has provided through decades of Orientalist studies. The most scary aspect of ISIS is that it represents everything the West has stigmatized about Islam for decades, nurtured (whether consciously or not) in the suburban areas of European cities amongst Muslim minorities or even people in search for identities, and internalized by the Muslims themselves.

This also is proof that ISIS knows Western societies very well. It feeds it with what it fears the most: security breaches and pitiless slaughtering of human lives (something that has been already imagined in countless possible ways for decades in Hollywood movies). These members of ISIS grew up feeding on this culture of constrained violence (constrained in films and other cultural productions). Now they have a vast terrain to experiment on.

One drawback of this is that ISIS is one of the many instance that blurs the boundaries between what is Western and “Other” or even “Peripheral” in many ways. It emanates from a Center and tries to imagine a a type of living that was thought of in the center but as the latter thought of the periphery as it was exposed to a myriad of cultural material.

وفي الحديث

أن جبريل عليه السلام أتى آدم عليه السلام فقال له

إني أتيتك بثلاثٍ فاختر واحدةً، قال: وما هي يا جبريل? قال: العقل والحياء والدين

فقال: قد اخترت العقل

فخرج جبريل إلى الحياء والدين فقال

ارجعوا فقد اختار العقل عليكما

فقالا: أمرنا أن نكون مع العقل حيث كان

من كتاب السؤدد – ابن قتيبة

While Israel is pounding Gaza and killing in the hundreds, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and Hamas’ fight are taking place all around the globe. Of course this doesn’t reflect dominant public opinion in the West that still is apologetic of Israel’s actions. Not one official state declaration has condemned the Israeli attacks. If anything, the few who bothered to issue a statement reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself as it was perceived to live under a constant threat of rocket shower. Check here if you want to have goose bumps.

But there is one place where no demonstrations are in sight: the Arab world. Also, not one condemnation was issued by any Arab government, not one declaration. It is taken for granted that no Western government has condoned Israeli attacks either. But how can we explain this apathy sweeping the Arab region? Surely, they have their own problems all linked to one or other form of occupation. But this conflict used to be called the Israeli-Arab conflict for crying out loud!

A couple of centuries ago, the situation in the region looked very similar: the crusaders were well entrenched on the coast of the “fertile crescent”, and the rest of the Muslim world was completely paralyzed, accepting, if not complicit, in the status quo of occupation until Nur ad-din and his successor Saladin challenged the paradigm. This is at least what the history books say. Some of this dominant cultural apathy or nonchalance, the surrender and normalization, must have existed so that these two individuals and the movements they represented have gone down in the books as changing the face of history.

Modern Arabs have not used their historical consciousness as an agent of ideological change or political action. The basic nationalistic experiments that were fashioned by colonial encounters left Arabs struggling over questions of terminology and then categorizing history in one way or another. Devising points of reference and of origin. The crusades episode was barely glossed over (until now the only book that presents an interesting take on that episode is Amin Maalouf’s. That tells you about the state of the literature).

On one hand, Arab leftist movements were too busy looking towards a brighter socially more “evolved” future and being ashamed of their Islamic heritage, helplessly wanting to teach social and political “progress” of the West. On the other hand, nationalist movements were quarreling amongst each other finding all kinds of identitarian anchors to justify their causes (the Omayyad period was a favorite as it looked the most “secular”, but also anything pre-Islamic).

No one thought of approaching history as giving lessons for political practice. More recently but still a couple of centuries ago, the “Renaissance” Italian writer Machiavelli looked at the history of the Roman Empire in this particular vein as he hoped to provide advice to unite the various Princedoms feuding over Italy. Interestingly, Machiavelli was categorized as ushering a new era of thinking politics outside the scope of religion, a state that had lasted since the advent of Catholic Christianity in Europe.

In modern times, we have fallen in to the trap of categorizing Machiavelli a secular thinker as opposed to one that was just opposed to dominant categories of analysis that happened to be held at the time by the Catholic Church with its particular understanding of history. The point of thinkers such as Machiavelli was to say that the Catholic Church could not provide the needed leverage to create political unity. Ideologically speaking, there was a need to produce new categories of thinking. Machiavelli called for a new political science, one that does away with traditional categories of analysis, not because they were bad or “backward”, but because the institutions backing them did not have anymore the means to create new political realities.

All this is to say that Arabs have been obsessed with categorizing things as either secular or religious as intellectuals of all creeds desperately clung on to the categories of colonial heritage. How could they have done otherwise? The colonizer had also captured their texts and by this token had controlled the creation of knowledge emanating from these writings! The primary victim of this reversed Orientalism espoused by Arabs was historical consciousness. The past became a cumbersome process that was only used to create identities, differences and reactionary discourse and not be a repository for good action.

The rise of Political Islam was a direct reaction to this awkward and clumsy attitude towards history. Suddenly the past was all important. But what kind of past? For example, during the Lebanese “civil war”, the crusader episode was visited in history by various Muslim groups but only to identify them to the contemporary Lebanese Christians who they were fighting between 1975 and 1990. Even though one could retrieve lessons in political practice from these uses of the past they were also creating group differentiation (here Christian VS Muslims).

And every time history was revised it was to create identitarian differences. Such as fomenting trouble between Sunni and Shia denominated groups. Books and articles, talk-shows and documentaries, all proliferate on relentless questions and searches of authenticity, developing either an alleged Sunni or Shia take on the Islamic tradition. No wonder we’ve been busied away from other conflicts.

As I looked for what was written on Nur ad-din, most of what I found was how much he was a great Sunni leader who opposed Shia Fatimid Egypt of the time. In effect, this is not incorrect. But that’s not what the prevailing historians of the time want us to remember, at least in the aftermath of the defeat against the crusaders. The point here is not that the “right” conflict is looking for the right identity to conflict with. The point is to look at the location of forms of occupation, oppression, unjust violence, etc. and understand how to remedy that through the legacy of others who did before us. How can one create the necessary form of consciousness through learning from the past in order to produce community change?

With technological revolutions and every single group or individual having a media channel of his own this ideological rallying is an immense challenge. It is ironic that Arabs are said to be closer to democracy or accountability given that they don’t even pressure their government to do something about Palestine. Is this a sign of apathy, a change of heart, or just a failure to understand and return the debt to the past?

In Lebanon, I’d say half of the population parks the cars of the other half. And when they are not parking cars, valet youngsters roam around the streets with scooter bikes reserving spots for potential customers.

You also have another sizable portion, serving as security guards for residential areas, political figures, and other “big projects”. Say, Saifi village, or very recently now the Sanayeh gardens. Imagine! Who would have thought that a garden needs a security guard? But in Lebanon all gardens (and there are maybe 3 in total with a maximum of 5 trees in them) have security guards.

But someone might ask what is the relationship between security guards and valet parking. I have to say it took me a while to find it but here it is.

One thing this type of presence on the street do, is that it makes streets a very unfriendly and unpleasant place to be. Valet parking telling you off because you’re trying to park in a spot they’re trying to snatch, security guards complaining for anything they could invent on the spot just to demonstrate that they have some form of power in the most Kafkaesque of fashions.

But most importantly, these are jobs that don’t produce anything socially useful, they don’t promote useful communitarian values. They cultivate relations of subservience of one class to another and reinforce whatever social structure are in place to define different communities (in the case of Lebanon read as the confession).

I’m not a “unionist” preacher, whatever that means, but Lebanese are divided socially and this is reinforced by the way streets are populated, the way streets are uninviting to any human individual who is circulating just to breath air or look around.

People are astonished that confessionalism is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon but confessionalism is in every social act you undertake from the moment you are born until the day you die (and afterwards). And Liberalism as an economic project goes hand in hand with this type of social structure because it makes everything security sensitive which constrains people to fall back on their communities.

Marx was not wrong to think that capitalism wrecks any traditional social system and erects new classes continuously. But liberalism which is the ideological backbone of capitalism is obsessed with security, with domestification, gentrification. It does not care about classes in a material sense but preserves a “culture” of social categories.

More on this later.

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