Since I landed a week ago in Beirut, I have been taken over by a general feeling of weakness (one of the reasons why I did not write since). I’m sure that the humidity has to do with it, and I am ready to bet that Ibn Khaldun and other social theoreticians of the Arab world were right when they conceptualized cultural practices according to regional climates, but something else was weighing on my heart (liver and wit for the Chinese).
These first moments you experience when you arrive to the ‘home’ country after spending a lot of time abroad are the most crucial because if you keep your analytical faculties wide open then you can notice all kinds of anomalous manifestations taking place and made apparent from the quick change in environment. Human beings get used to a specific socially disciplinary mode according to different habitats. Once you settle in a place you internalize these disciplinary practices and tend not to be aware anymore of some of their structures.
The first thing that struck me was the blatant absence of public space in Lebanon. I want to show how this very simple and even cliché observation can explain why confessionalism and any other parochial form of affiliation are the only effective ones. Lack of public space is not only a metaphor for the fragmentation of state institutions in turfs. It is not just an image for the fact that all ‘public’ social interaction happen in either religious schools, religious NGOs, or at home with the family or the kin as well as the socially close friend (so same confession). It is also the case that architecturally speaking (if I may permit myself to venture in a poorly understood area of ‘expertise’) there is no public space except pubs and bars.
This explains why foreigners (especially from countries where public spheres are very prevalent) are always out and everywhere. They unconsciously make up for this lack of genuinely public space. And even with that in mind a lot of non-Lebanese or Lebanese who did not live in the country confessed to me that they were struck by this harsh environment that can be wrongly perceived as too individualizing. It can be individualizing once you did a conscious process of stripping yourself out of the social mold you were brought up in only to find that there is no available space for anything else. So you’re just alone.
To go back to pubs cafes and bars, people can still talk there about their various views on life, meanings and affiliations, but free interaction is minimized in these places because you have to pay to stay. This is very important not just because it stratifies people’s availability but also because it inculcates a specific culture of public interaction. Also, these places are a nest for determined social networks. Ask any of these places managers and you will see how clientèle is finely chosen even when there isn’t a rhinoceros waiting at the door. And this is notwithstanding the culture of voyeurism and other perverse dispositions in which Lebanese finds themselves captured through this social space as subjects.
I’m not saying that in other countries you have perfect social interaction (a concept to compare with the economic one of perfect competition). London where I was staying is a far cry from that actually. It is a city rigged with a stratified social setting, and elitist mentality all throughout with Wasta as we like to call it to make it culturally specific, with paradoxical racial undertones through pragmatic practices.
But still in London you have amazingly vast and developed public spaces where people of all ‘creed’ can just pause and rest. You know parks, public libraries, gardens, benches all over the place, etc. Especially and most importantly public transportation (buses and subways). Now bear in mind that public space in itself is not sufficient to create public interaction, but its absence is symptomatic of specific practices (or lack of certain practices that are conducive to public awareness). It serves to crystallize that the only genuine dialectical process happens at home, or in a church, a mosque, a school. Sidewalks are tight whenever they even exist, people are mostly in their cars, services (shared taxis) and buses are privately managed which means that crosses, virgins, Korans and icons of all sorts are hanging down the frontal rear view mirror, and thus specific routes are favored. For example, to go from Hamra to Tabaris I had to wait until a Christian driver came along. The first one that had a Hollywood Jesus mega picture on his window was indeed the one who took me and then took along with me successively a woman to Ashrafieh and two army guys to Dora.
Take Solidere’s reconstruction and real-estate plan. Winston Smith explained to me over the most divinely prepared Foul Medammas in Sour (Vince, a poster of Nasrallah and Berri, and my sister where there too) how Solidere, although devising gardens and green spaces in downtown have made sure they were heavily guarded by private security contractors so that ‘dodgy’ people would not try to sit there. So how public is that? But wait a minute; did ‘public’ officials think for a minute how a “privately” managed monopolizing real-estate company would actually deliver a “public” social space when they amended the constitution in order to let Hariri and co take a hold on public asset? You see, a private company will care for the ‘well-being’ of its investors and clients. ‘Well-being’ in real-estate means security. Security means militarized geographic space. And in terms of disciplinary practice, this contributes to a fragmentation of societies’ groups of all genres and the crystallization of huge inequalities through separated social classes.
One could cite a lot of examples like services, Solidere, pubs, institutions, etc. to show this pervasive manifestation of parochial social practices enmeshed in a façade of “modern” institutional framework. I want to stress the point that the absence of these public structures inhibits significantly any genuine collective initiative. It illustrates very well how opposition groups in downtown are simple salaried functionaries of elite party cadres. There is even a natour (concierge) with a table and a phone at the north beginning of downtown who stopped me after looking at me suspiciously and asked me where I was going. I said “what?”, and then he hesitantly carried on: “what are you carrying?” alluding to a cylindrical case containing my nays. I told him that these were musical instruments and so after a moment he let me go. These guys would stop bystanders walking in the city but they would not stop Solidere’s on-going projects, or besiege the Serail or something.
Why? Because they are functionaries of higher diplomatic quibbling. Because while their leaders are finding a way out where some type of exploitative structures can be preserved, they sit idle, smoke narguileh and make the lives of people walking, driving and working like hell. This is a direct consequence of a lack of genuine social initiatives at this scale. This is also the result of disciplinary practices. Although causes espoused by the opposition groups are more socially oriented than any of the ideologically rightist and chauvinistic 14th of March mobilizing drives, the practices of elite and constituency in this case is still similar to those of the ruling ‘majority’. And this is but a manifestation of disciplinary practices in the ‘modern’ Lebanon as created by French and local elites.
Social and political discipline in London and in most of Europe means rule of law, the efficient functioning of market institutions and certain key monopolistic economic settings. In Beirut and the rest of fragmented Lebanon disciplinary practices involves the absence of public space, through urban and rural specific institutional and architectural settings. But disciplinary practices are also discursive. So it explains very well why sectarian narratives are the most influential in mobilizing and forming the different Lebanese subjects.
Also there is an unbridgeable discrepancy between State and parochial discourse. What I am trying to say is that although there is a recurring ideas and metaphors fed by the state that Lebanon is as such discursively defined outside the scope of the sects, the daily practices do not mirror this fact. The only time Lebanese act as Lebanese is when they pay their taxes (of course not even during elections as they are confessionally defined), a negative way of defining your identity one could say. This last idea needs further studying through a close look at state, government official but also media rhetoric and symbols. If energy continues to go ascending then I will surely write more.