Lebanese diaries

The filth

Leader of the Kataeb (Phalangist) Amin Gemayel said yesterday something like:

“Nobody gives us lesson on “Resistance”. We were the first to practice “Resistance” back in Tal el Zaatar”.

You mean the sadistic pseudo-nazi treatment you administered (before simply killing) against the inoffensive population (women, kids, disabled, and old people) of a Palestinian camp?

Update: The Ahrar “tigers” (another right wing feudally-controlled Christian militia group) responded to Gemayel by saying that the Tal el Zaatar “military operations” were done by them (the group of Dori chamoun, a guy later killed by Geagea. another right-wing criminal). So either the phalangists just randomly massacred after the real ‘military operations’, or the ‘tigers’ did both. In both cases, there is a competition between Christian groups to claim who actually did the horrors done in Tal el Zaatar. I’ll keep you updated…


Writing (or suggesting) history

Yesterday night, Al Manar aired a documentary on the history of Dahyeh (Beirut’s suburb area) that I could never finish because my friend Cara had some weird craving for a bloody mary at Evergreen. But I happened to watch enough of it to be able to formulate a couple of open ended ideas.

It may well be one of the few TV documentaries ever made on a Shi’a dominated region, especially marginal ones such as the suburbs. Even when Shi’as are mentioned, Lebanese documentaries if I may permit myself such generalization (judging from LBC’s productions) revolve around elites history, their families, their politics, and how this contributed to the rise of a particular version of the history of the country. Let’s call this, the elite version. Most of the time in the case of Lebanon it is a “confessional” history. Classical (or typical) histories of Europe and other parts of the world (that you learn in school) are about just that, Kings and their wars, important shift in political directions, and the rise of a nationalist vision that go hand in hand with the consolidation of a specific power.

Of course, today, in ‘developed’ countries you have what we call ‘social historians’ writing the stories of the people, their working habits, how this created dispositions, mentalities and forms of social consciousness, and ultimately how this is inscribed in a political and power-intrusive environment. Well, if I may permit myself, Manar TV was airing this type of documentaries. Of course, this was not a detailed archival work that described all of the above, but at least it gave a glance at how history could have been viewed by the average people who started arriving in these regions of Dahyeh. It was the history of a forming popular area that developed because of economic and social imperatives. It is a history of the different crafts present, the different jobs that people would practice, but also it is the history of changing streets and areas, the history of an olive tree field that disappears for a Souk to develop etc.

Once this description established, the documentary subtly introduces Lebanese elite politics from the back door. Once you are immersed in the daily lives of these people, then your reading of political decisions (such as demolishing houses under the presidency of Chamoun, or claiming others to the state etc.) will change. Something that to my knowledge has never been done by other TVs.

But above all, this is a new history because it narrates tales never told. These are the tales of the Shi’a. “They” actually “speak”. And this can come as quite a shock. The spoken, the “uttered” is a political weapon. it signals first the presence of “the other”, but also a whole set of logics that his discourse follow. When the other goes out of being this inert ‘thing’ and actually inscribes himself in a discourse, then its presence becomes more and more political.

This may be the most important function played by Al Manar TV.

Language difference in Radios as a symptom of difference in social consciousness

Let’s take the events of Nahr el Bared and the political deadlock as an initial environment from which media derive statements about modes of conduct.

First, an example of a program on Radio France 96.2
I have been listening a lot to this radio and this is a really representative sample of what it airs. Building on the ‘sad’ political situation in the country a hysterical radio presenter(ess) would go:
“On ne baissera pas les bras! On continuera à aller à la plage! à aller danser! Kool and the Gang vient au festival de Byblos contre vents et marées!
This song is played right afterwards: “Ceeeeleebrate good times come on!” And the presenter concludes: “Célébrer l’été, la vie, l’amour. Aaah, je suis de bonne humeur aujourd’hui!

Meanwhile, Sawt Lubnan 93.3 describes a completely different life:
The Nahr el Bared events become symptomatic of the general reluctance of public institutions to function properly. Instead of writing like L’Orient le jour that the battles are paralyzing fuel shipments in Tripoli, they try to address the question of how can the fuel trucks arrive in a more effective way to the factory of Deir Ammar in the north (The factory was hit by a rocket yesterday, although neither the employees nor the infrastructure was affected) as boats are landing on other ports (and by the way check this very informative article on why boats stay undischarged for months at Zahrani and Zouk, hint: Oil Cartel). On this station there are discussions of citizen’s demands from the various ministries. Denouncing corruption. Opened files such as electricity, water, etc.

One conclusion of all this is that there are no French media outlet (written, spoken, visualized), none whatsoever, that dedicates its program to real social issues. So no wonder that you have a francophone population that is mainly unaware or oblivious of such issues but very much vociferous about hazy concepts of “independence” and “rule of law” tainted sometimes by mild racism..

Social and economic issues are indeed debated in Lebanon but mostly in Arabic. To some extent, you can find some voiced in English. This is why I would argue that the English-speaking community is already more aware of things. So some English-French speakers but most importantly readers, may be more in touch with what’s going on (Daily Star has some good stuff being written from time to time, although this hits a very narrow portion of english speakers, not those who don’t read obviously). There is no fully fledged English language radio station. I think radio is a very important media outlet especially among the average working class.

Language is of course a crystallizer of social difference, bringing to light different practices among different niches in the economy, or in symbolic capital (as Bourdieu would have it, and to please Al Haqid).

Another conclusion is that bulk of the population, I would speculate, the urban middle to lower class (if I may permit myself such simplifying categorization for the sake of this point) are fully conscious of what’s going on. Not only that but they engage in complex debates about the advantages and disadvantages of government and opposition groups. They are generally wary of politicians, etc. Now what’s the link between social consciousness and actual mobilization?

Lebanese diary (2)

I don’t want to post often but this is necessary because it touches on our “sovereignty” and our “liberty”:

We need to do something about the horrendous rates we pay for virtually everything! We need to break all of the monopolistic practices that plague our economy! We need to destroy all the structures that makes a government a virtual mafia, and an opposition being an accomplice of the government for the most part.

Yesterday night, I was watching the only interesting Lebanese TV channel New TV. They have a program called “Corruption”. They had Zuheir Berro the head of the association for the protection of the consumer. A guy you may never have heard of, but who has actually worked for your interest for the past decade or so, a guy who worked diligently to denounce any type of excess the government and its affiliated monopolies engage in. Basically a guy who is worth all of your politicians.

The moderator(ess) is everything but a moderator. She is wild and fiery and rarely lets Berro and co. talk of anything. But still she’s actually making a show that has no precedent in the history of Lebanon so is forgiven. I can understand her excitement. So a lot of bashing against the government but also nicely enough against the opposition who are sitting playing cards and tawleh in their tents while Solidere is building right next to them. Actually I saw the new building project: It is between Virgin and Annahar building.

By the way, I think the Annahar building is the main cause behind the downfall of the newspaper. They had to live to the expectation of its price! I loved the moderator who at some point decided to answer some criticism to the show voiced by a journalist in Annahar. After answering she said: “We as journalists are sad to see such a great newspaper (historically) go down to such low levels so as to cover for corruption and being apologist of the ruling monopolists”. So I thought “way to go woman!”

Another nice thing was to hear people actually calling from all over Lebanon. Now where do you get that on Lebanese TV? A guy from Bint Jbeil with a problem with fixed telephone lines. Another from Jounieh, etc. So many people calling to tell the “politicians” that they don’t have patience for political affiliation, they just want to see exploitation stop.

At some point the commentator called the Minister of Finance Azour but the latter could not take the call because his wife was giving birth! She congratulated him and asked him to get back to them when he can. Idem for the Minister of Telecommunication Hamade who’s phone was closed.

Now citizens of Lebanon, stay tuned for more anti-exploitation demonstrations. Turn off your phones when you should. Soon we’ll do stuff against the DSL robbery, and against the cartel for fuel. Oh and against the bank!! I’ll post more about all this.

Ayta Shaab: First impressions

As soon as you start moving away from Sour the last large coastal city of the south before the Israeli border, advertising billboards slowly disappear, and along with it, the English language. The only visuals displayed are those of Hizbullah fighters, flags, and texts related to Shi’ite symbolism according to the various politicized subjects. Amal (the other Shi’ite party present in the south) tends to rally behind Hizbullah with a couple of flags here and there and the pictures of some their martyrs probably killed in the early period of resistance work. But all in all these displays of political meaning are still less present in these rural areas than in cities (like Sour), or the main highway that links these cities to Beirut and the north. It is as if in these more remote areas, rallying practices are not really that needed, at least because there is no competition over political affiliation (which is not the case in larger cities).

Then you start going through the various villages destroyed during the war. Here international institutions, foreign states, and NGOs of all sorts try to reap the benefits of their aid by advertising their presence. From reconstruction donors (basically Qatar, and Iran) to anti-mines missions (UN various missions, Sweden, Switzerland I think, Norway, etc.), to the rehabilitation of god knows what.

The Iranians make themselves visible all right from billboards in villages they financed reconstruction efforts, to stickers on trucks and any piece of machinery used to that effect. Qatar has a different way of doing things: Only one or two huge billboards in the entire south with the ruling prince on it and an “I love you” type of note from Qatar. The process of naming here is crucial it creates political clout by referencing help. It is not just aid, it is aid from this or that party. Of course in can border the ridicule: The European Union for example has a sticker on each trash bin you can find in the south. But Winston Smith can tell you more about all that.

From time to time you run across a UN military vehicle moving at full speed. Or you can see a couple of UN guys with flashy sunglasses taking poses on the road in front of their vehicles and showing off their equipments. UN people brought their food with them; they don’t buy anything from Lebanese shops. The previous UN mission was getting fed and dressed in Israel for example. Moreover, they throw their trash on the street or on the shores of the sea. They don’t even use the EU sponsored trash bins for this reason. V. has a couple of pictures of this. If you read this V. send me the pictures! I definitely need a camera next time around.

But I digress. I want to talk about Ayta. Ayta has been mostly destroyed during the war. It is one of the villages that gave the hardest time to Israeli troops and tanks. Most of the houses there have portraits of dead fighters hanged on their walls or on tables. A cloud of dust welcomes you as soon as you arrive signaling the massive reconstruction initiatives taking place. Ayta is being rebuilt because it is Qatar who is financing. And Qatar bypassed the government in order to make sure the money would go to actual reconstruction efforts. And in effect, the village right before Ayta is still in a pitiful state because its rehabilitation awaits government decision to proceed including unblocking the foreign donations given to that effect. Qatar chose its village strategically: Again, Ayta is one of the most famous in terms of heroic guerrilla practices.

Ayta’s main source of income comes from its agricultural output. During this month of the year it is tobacco. Laurel grows wildly and women traditionally make soap out of it (Saboun Ghar). But this production is restricted to local consumption. Friends have tried to work on promoting this rural activity by building awareness and giving them a chance to circulate these products. The idea behind it was to empower women by giving them decision leverage on some local production. The first people in Ayta I saw were those we asked for directions to find the president of the municipality: A woman and two men sitting on the floor in the shade above a tobacco field, choosing tobacco leaves for drying (most entrance of houses in the village have tobacco leaves hanged upside down). The woman was bear foot, legs outstretched, the leaves deposited in front of her, picking one leaf at a time. She looked at us while one of the men was giving us directions with the most beautifully sincere smile.

Texts displayed are written directly on the walls and are painted in bright colors with a nice Arabic calligraphy signaling shops or some craft center. Occasionally a Hizbullah flag is hanging down, or the picture of a martyr. Ayta has several ‘famous’ martyrs whose face are represented on a single poster as the “Ayta martyrs. Aynata has the exact same thing, and I’m sure other villages have that too.

Some of the people I met here are critical of Hizbullah. There are debates raging in many houses. Hizbullah is an open field there. From partisans to dissenters, people make their choices according to what makes the most sense to their personal stories. While Hizbullah tries to control the terms of speech, people are constrained by the given discourse and refashion a discourse of their own using the prevailing conceptualizations of reality available. But through Hizbullah there is a whole set of “modern” concepts and utterances that make their way, re-framed through the party’s speech. Talking to the Hizbullah president of the municipality I could get a lot of this discourse, but most importantly it was interesting to see what made sense to him, how he reworked it to craft his own consciousness according to his social position and past.

Ayta had a vibrant leftist resistance before Israel occupied the region. Most of Ayta’s population had to escape, some of it going to expand the suburbs of Beirut. Some people stayed and were forced to work with the Israeli. To collaborate. They are referred to as “the collaborators”. It is said that most of these collaborators have integrated Hizbullah ranks or at least have sympathized with Hizbullah. As for the early combatants some continued to feel that they belonged to leftist groups and did not work with Hizbullah, most of the time accusing Hizbullah of stealing their agendas, while others just joined Hizbullah. This process is truly interesting because it has mostly to do with the complex circumstances these people found themselves in at a particular social political and historical juncture.

During the last war, people left Ayta and found refuge in the nearby Christian village Rmeish. Rmeish is exactly the same as Ayta (economy, architecture etc.) except that it is Christian. From an outsider’s perspective, three things make you guess that it is a Christian village: the crosses, the non-veiled women, and no destroyed houses. Both villages are very connected because they deal with the same type of agriculture (tobacco that is). Most of the people of Ayta stayed in schools and churches if not at friend’s place in Rmeish during the war. Rarely, you can see a little LF flag (Christian right-wing group more present in the north, who worked with Israelis) and some 10452 graffiti with LF tagged crosses here and there. I don’t know much of the history of this party in Rmeish but I would tend to think that it is not very widespread. I need to check though.

It is interesting to notice that the few leftist in Ayta I met come from very pious background. Actually, most if not all of Ayta engage in strict religious practices. When I was in the house of N. (who’s a leftist, does not sympathize with Hizbullah, and mostly hang out in Rmeish it seems) his mom and his dad were praying with their masba7a as they sat with us. The mom was sad because they had just finished rebuilding their destroyed house and they were not that happy with it. She was happier with the old house because she could “see the mosque of the village from the window”. They looked a bit disarrayed, disturbed by the wave of destruction that fell on the village. The sister of N. came to say hello and before we left as we said goodbye she asked me why I looked “fa’ir metlel folostineh” (humble or simple like a Palestinian)… I was just shy I guess!

In another house, one father asked me if I was Christian (after I told him I was from Beirut), and at the sight of my decomposed face (I never know how to answer this question) he started to laugh saying that he just wanted to show me a Christian masba7a. And indeed it was one, and he started reciting Christian prayers with it, and explained the difference of its working for Christians and Muslims. When I said to him that I was doing a PhD thesis and that I was going to work in the south and probably with the volunteers in the village for some time, he said that I should come and work with him in the land that I should work in the mud. He repeated the word mud several times. He said it was a delicious sensation. I answered that I completely agreed.

I just gave a very succinct picture of the language present in Ayta. It is said that people are pious way before Hizbullah came. It is said that people there have no religious lessons to take from Hizbullah. Hizbullah used this system and tried to present an economistic version for political ends. There are no new institutions created by the party in Ayta like those you find in the suburbs. The rural setting has remained untouched. No additional mosques, no associations, etc. Only the head of the municipality represents Hizbullah, and there is one “rabit” (literally, “link”) an elusive position to my knowledge from explanations given by inhabitants. The rabit serves as some kind of link then between the party and those who want to train and join the organization. From there, any individual can just present himself and follow the procedures to fight or be active in the party. First he has to follow the “ta3bi’a” (literally “charging” or “filling”), making Hizbullah party members to see if the guy is “ethically” ready to join. Once he joins he commits (yaltazim), which is a specific stage viewed as full of disciplinary rules of conduct.

In the case of Ayta at least, Hizbullah worked on an already prevalent social disciplinary setting in order to mobilize constituency. People may have joined other political groups in the past, but their narratives must not have needed significant modification. If a leftist is familiar with Marx and other leftist narratives it still resonated with his “shi’ism” (the latter being a constantly redefined narrative according to the social, economic and political milieu). Ideas and signifying utterances traveled easily from one particular movement to the other as long as the practices initiated and initiating these signifying structures were basically the same: For example, getting out of a state of marginalization and fight oppression (in this case occupation). The more fighting gave effective results the more identity as a Shi’ite of the south fighting and all the narrative this meant (of course in relation to each and every different individual) reinforced itself.

But in effect, one must look at the myriad activities the people of Ayta engage in, in order to understand the various discourses made conscious in a social setting, and ultimately to understand the evolution of “piousness” for example. These activities from cultivating the land to serving tea between friends, to the architecture of their houses and how they live in them, these activities that are daily impregnated by the text they read or hear, the discussions they have, reflecting the relative positions each one has at the level of the modes of production are those who I have to elaborate on those first impressions I had.

فصل شعري: حالة حصار

نُخَزِّن أحزاننا في الجِرار، لئلاَّ

يراها الجنودُ فيحتفلوا بالحصار…

نُخَزِّنُها لمواسمَ أُخرى،


لشيء يفاجئنا في الطريق.

فحين تصيرُ الحياةُ طبيعيَّةًّ

سوف نحزن كالآخرين لأشياءَ شخصيّةٍ

خبَّأتْها عناوينُ كبرى،

فلم نَنْتَبِهْ لنزيف الجروح الصغيرةِ فينا.

غداً حين يَشْفى المكانُ

نحِسُّ بأعراضِهِ الجانبيّةْ.

محمود درويش، يناير 2002، رام الله

فصول سابقة:

Billy Collins, 1
Ounsi El Hage, 1
Ghérasim Luca, 1
Henri Michaux, 1, 2
Marianne Moore, 1
Pablo Neruda, 1, 2
Sharon Olds, 1
Theodore Roethke, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Dylan Thomas, 1
Richard Wilbur, 1, 2, 3, 4

Lebanese diary

Today we had 4 hours of electricity all in all. We are in 2007. I use a candle to write a post although there is no war (well actually there is one in the north), no major Israeli attack destroying the infrastructure that is. And we are supposed to be the Switzerland of the Middle East. We also pay the most horrendous rates for well everything usable (from telecoms, to fuel, to etc.). This is a blasphemy to “Sovereignty”. This is the attack (par excellence) against our most cherished “Liberty”.

Today some Lebanese (I wonder how many) closed their cellular phones as a form of protest to the horribly high rates we pay. This was the first national endeavor noticed in the history of Lebanon. So I would like to record it. Inscribe it, give it ‘substance’. Oh, Naharnet does not even mention it.

If they insist on doing national propaganda, maybe Leo Burnett and Saatchi should do an ad of people throwing phones by the window or anything like that (I’m not the advertising creative type so find the suitable scenario), instead of doing an ad of people holding the military salute and walking like zombies in the street (fascists?) at the sight of a Lebanese army soldier.