Some thoughts on Hizbullah since Mughnieh’s assassination

Don’t ask me exactly why but I changed my mind. I woke up this morning thinking about the blog. I thought that the beast could probably heal. For those who know me personally, they have seen how lunatic I can be. So I will start with Ms Levantine’s note. I will summarize what I think should be remembered following Mughnieh’s assassination. There are several events that need to be taken into consideration:

1- Hizbullah’s reaction to the assassination
2- Hizbullah’s reaction to how the assassination was reported, and how Mughnieh was represented in the press and through other producers of information
3- Israel’s reaction and US reaction

First of all, it is with few hesitations that I think that Israel carried out the assassination. By that I mean secret service cells working for the Israeli or Mossad in one way or another. Syria killing a guy of that stature for some hypothetical deal with the Americans especially with the given power configuration is just absurd. But let’s leave this consideration as an open question so that I am not taxed of dogmatism. However, trying to answer this question distances us from the more important political and social development happening on the ground, post-assassination.

1- Hizbullah has focused on its likely constituency. What the party calls its Mujtama’ el Muqawama, its “the society of resistance” (an interestingly changing discursive construction that scholars on Hizbullah mistakenly read literally, at its face value, more on that later). Mughnieh was quickly transformed into the greatest hero in the line of Ragheb Harb and Abbas Musawi. Billboards, ceremonies, and an elaborate discourse on martyrdom and how important it is to the community, was quickly deployed in all directions. This formidable production of meaning for events is in a way fascinating. It is not much different from any type of media production although here the narratives and the issues at stake are specific to the particular geography of the party. Dying for the cause becomes a triumph, a victory for the community. “the more you kill of us the stronger we become and the weaker you show yourself to be”. This is what Hizbullah constantly tries to elaborate. The blood of the Shahid is imagined to feed into this organic whole that nurtures the bond of the community. That is the modern elaboration and practical political use of the concept of Shahada. And although it is translated as “martyrdom” I don’t think it refers to the same political dynamics. Just check the recent history of state formation in Europe, nowhere is there something resembling this culture of the Shahid. This I think is one of the particularities of Post-Colonial State-formation, i.e. in the backdrop of occupation and prolonged oppression. But the end-result of these political discursive articulations are probably the same in the age of the “nation”-State (again nation here is not in its European meaning): Strenghtening the sense of belonging to the same imagined community.

This is why, most importantly, the campaign of Hizbullah is geared towards its own constituency, and here it gets tricky because Hizbullah is trying to maneuver between a discourse aimed at the Shi’a constituency and one that targets all the “Lebanese”. So now Hizbullah adds a “nationalistic” dimension to its construction of the community. If you read the (constantly proliferating) publications of party members, intellectuals, etc. Like the vice-secretary general Naim Qassem, or simply the last couple of speeches of Hassan Nasrallah then you can clearly see that (and especially post july 2006 war) the resistant society is not just the ‘downtrodden’ but all the segments of the “Lebanese people” (on these discursive shifts I will write more later on). The party is trying by all means to push forth this ‘unitarian’ version of resistance. There is this idea that “we lived it this way. we know it is possible to lift ourselves from the opressed state, and so you can do the same”. Although resistance is based on Shi’ite idioms, the cause now encompass all those who think that Israel is not the invincible enemy that it was once supposed to be. Hizbullah wants to spread this idea also as a fighting force against ‘confessionalism’. People come from different religious backgrounds, but everyone should be concerned with the political problems this country is facing, and understand the big issues being played out in the region.

2- Western representation (and through that other “Lebanese” representation) have been stupidly concerned with the question of whether Mughnieh was a “terrorist” or not. Hizbullah has been arguing vehemently the contrary making the argument that there was no centralized Hizbullah organization in the beginning of the 1980s, which is totally true (although Hizbullah ideologues try paradoxically to push forth a very coherent image of the organization across time, so it really depends on the situation). What’s truely remarkable is that Hizbullah is not justifying as much as it was doing before. Probably for the simple reason that it has lost interest in what “the west think”. So the focus is completely on the ‘national’ constiuency, the region (Arabs and others), and the Israelis. This whole discussion is making Hizbullah loose a lot of time and Western medium to stay biased and wrongly moralistic. I participated as a discussant at a conference that was supposed to ‘shed light’ on who the hell was Mughnieh (in vain, nobody said anything new amongst the brilliant speakers we had which is rather promising for those who want to write about Hizbullah!). Moreover, the debate turned to be focused on these ideological concerns, geared for a western audience that needs to distinguish between the bad guys and the good guys, or probably help their policy makers define the bad guys in order to aim better next time they shoot.

3- Hizbullah quickly entered in a psychological war with Israel. It does not mean like many have said, that Hizbullah will attack Israel. It just means that it tried to quickly achieve a symbolic position of strength in the face of a hypothetical US, Israeli attack. This comes at a time when Cheney was arriving in the Middle East, the Gaza murderous adventure was a total failure, and in the advent of the Arab summit. Hizbullah is always trying to convince the rest of the Arab States that Israel is not the threat it was, that Israel can be beaten or at least neutralized politically and diplomatically, that Israel could be forced to compromise and accept a fairer settlement of the Palestinian question. The most important way this was done at the symbolic level (the most virulent and for me the most interesting) is to elaborate the argument that Israel as it is today cannot last. Nasrallah makes sure in his last speech to say that beating the “Zionist project” is not a “Lebanese responsibility” but that it should be its “culture”, that Lebanese “awareness” should be geared towards this evidence. In all his last speeches, Nasrallah argued this idea forcefully. Many Hizbullah members and people around the party are avid readers of Israeli politics and society. Nasrallah speeches contained a wrap up of these analyses. I will write more on Nasrallah’s recent speeches, and other key party members’ discursive articulations.

Samir Kassir

Has anyone seen the new statue erected right next to the Al Nahar building in downtown representing Samir Kassir philosophizing with one hand in the air? I just want to point out one thing: Apart from the very bad selection of sentences from his work that are inscribed on the large stone that is next to the statue, there is a little biographical note that mentions Kassir as a Lebanese journalist. What? The guy is Palestinian! Or let’s say that he was born as part of those people that came to be called Palestinian and not as part of the population that came to be registered as Lebanese. Well, probably the fact that he was Christian, anti-Syrian, married to a Lebanese Force sympathizer, and living in Ashrafieh would qualify him to become some sort of “Lebanese” you tell me… Maybe they thought they were doing him a favor, lifting him up a step on the ladder of social recognition. Sad ending to the story. Even sadder than his actual assassination.

Creating disgust based on projected cultural and class differences

In a couple of years, the history of the recent ‘upheaval’ years of this country that came to be known as Lebanon, will mainly be remembered through this dark spot that is the history of the Mustaqbal movement. It will probably be the first and (hopefully) last Sunni chauvinistic movement in the history of the Middle East. I wonder to what extent will the Mustaqbal party succeed in producing a somewhat nationalist Lebanese discourse, given the pan-arabist antecedent of Sunni Lebanese movements. If it does it will be built on the hatred of the Syrian people and other sects (in Lebanon) affiliated with it. The politics of Lebanese-Syrian relations may change with the changing wind of interest and influence, but the worldviews and understandings of the Lebanese followers may well stay chauvinistic with or without a rapprochement. The days where most Lebanese thought they were either Syrians, or simply not very different from Syrians (and others in the region) are very much gone.

Now I’ve looked a long time to get a picture of this because for some reason they quickly removed that particular ad from all of Beirut’s billboard. I had to wait until I went to the Bekaa yesterday in order to capture some pictures of remaining billboards in the Dahr el baydar area.

This picture is part of the desperate campaign to mark the territory of what was dubbed the Cedar revolution. The objective here is simple: Do you want these ugly and dirty dudes to come back in our opulent backyards? Please, think a bit about this image. It is not a picture of the Syrian president, it is not one of any decision maker in Syria or even the picture of some murderous act the Syrian could have committed, but simply poor simple soldiers who look, well, “Syrian”. And the slogan says it all: “Come down so that they don’t come back”. Yes, this is the only reason why people should come down, because those ugly bastards you see in this picture could come back. Of course here, one can clearly see, beyond the works of the party, the actual efforts and morbid talent of advertising agencies professionalism in playing on people’s most obscure emotions, if not creating them and nurturing them. They excel at the task of crystallizing the idea that feeling of disgust must be associated with something you can now point out that is called “Syrian”. Certain extreme types nationalism (the fascistic trend of Europe for example) start out like that.

On another billboard ad, there is a picture of the 14th of March rally in martyr square and the following slogan: The field (al sa7at) is ours, and the martyrs are ours (al sa7at sa7atouna, wal shouhada2, shouhada2ouna). Horrible possessive exclusionary types of slogans. I think I don’t need to comment here, and that’s without mentioning how desperate this campaign looked, as I decided to only focus on the formation of differentiation based on feelings of superiority.

Un interlude avec Henri Michaux

Descends, oui, descends en toi, vers cet immense rayonnage de besoins sans grandeurs. Il le faut. Après tu pourras, tu devras remonter.

Henri Michaux, Pôteaux d’angles

Poésies sur ce blog:

Abul Hassan al Shushtari 1
Billy Collins, 1
Mahmoud Darwish, 1
Ounsi El Hage, 1
Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, 1
Ghérasim Luca, 1, 2
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

Another face of hegemony

Check out this excellent article by an Israeli PhD student in Cambridge on the politics of naming and labeling that is prevalent in the Israeli press. For one thing, it shows very well how standards to judge if a press is “free” should be put into question: it has nothing to do with what a ‘political regime’ allows or not, but with what a political system end up imposing as non-questionable, as hegemonic. So stop talking about the freedom of the press. Actually, stop talking about ‘freedom’. It is a word that does not mean much, and if you look at reality, those who use it as a sign of difference are most likely to be those who oppress the most.

On our way back from Damascus

Yesterday I was in Syria. And before yesterday too. I liked how at the Syrian customs they have a poster of Imad Mughnieh that’s the size of Bashar Assad’s portrait, with Nasrallah stickers here and there on the windows that separate employees from the travelers. I also noticed that they have sidewalks in Damascus unlike in Beirut. And most of the Arabic language books they print in Beirut are sold there at half their original price because Lebanese are mostly busy reading in French and English.

But what I liked the most was this: On our way back they stopped us at the Lebanese customs and asked us to open the trunk of the car. I explained to the soldier that the bags he saw were musical instruments so that he does not go crazy and starts opening them randomly. After a short glance, the guy says that it’s ok and that I can go, but then all of a sudden another guy jumps from behind him and starts mumbling about the fact that we had to declare our instruments when we were leaving the country and that because we failed to do so, we should pay (the other guy who stayed silent the whole time) a little something and he’ll let the matter pass. So I told him that we had our bags checked on our way out and nobody told us anything about declaring. The guy answered that “maybe they thought you weren’t coming back”… But what kind of lie was that? I did not realize at first. So my friend who had no patience to argue took out a 10,000L.L. bill and paid the guy (who stayed silent). Very pissed, I looked at him and said “shame”.

But I wanted to know how things worked. So I went to a superior and I asked about the declaration and he said that it exist as a legal requisite. So, actually, given the fact that the custom officers that were there when we left did not ask us for anything although they knew we were coming back (we had to fill special papers of ‘return’), did that on purpose so that we fall in this little trap and pay a little ransom…

Anyway, a short while later once we finished checking our passports, the taxi driver comes back with the money and says that the officer returned it to him for some reason. We spent the drive back home questioning ourselves on the possible causes that prompted the guy to return the 10,000L.L. bill. We soon had a flat tire after falling in an enormous hole in the road (you know how it is), that took 2hr (I’m not exaggerating) to remove because the wheel was stuck.

Hegemony: an illustration

This just in: – JERUSALEM, Israel – Iranian missiles are making their way to Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorists via Turkey, according to intelligence reports.

Ok, let’s try something: – BEIRUT, Lebanon – USA missiles, cluster bombs, and uranium-rich weapons, are making their way to the Palestine-based Zionist terrorist army, via USA, according to intelligence reports.

Does it work? Does it make sense? If it does, it means you could escape dominant hegemonic discourse. If not, then you’re still unconsciously subjected to it. And don’t be too quick to say that it does, because you don’t know to what extent is the hegemonic insidiously ingrained in the very way you think. You’re never fully above it.

How to pass time

Time that passes has inevitably been at some point or another for each one of us a basic puzzle to address. Boredom, can be thought of the backdrop of life anxiety in the face of death. Now let’s try to think of what happens to a person that spends 5 years of his life in prison. But not any type of prison, the type that resembles those supervised by Israelis. The Khiam prison was one of those, before the liberation of South of Lebanon territories in 2000. Two days ago, I had a long conversation with one former prisoner. The marks of these five years are on his face. A prison with no bed but the cement, where when there is food, it is Israeli products that have expired two years before. A prison where there is no light, where, if you pass out because they’ve been hanging you to an electric post, standing on your toes throughout a winter night, they wake you up with electric shocks. A prison where during interrogation (interrogating about nothing they really want to know) they stand on your face with all their weight and their ringer boots and make sure they break you nose. A prison where you could be locked in a little cube of concrete where you can only fit in if you’re in a foetus position, for several days.

A prison where there is nothing to do. Nothing to do. So much so that you start rubbing olive pits on the wall and make rosaries and count the pearls endlessly. Or when you get cardboards as mattresses after two years because you pressured the ‘authorities’ in place to soften the impact of the cement, you discover that you can make needles out of the staples by rubbing them on the wall for a month or so so that they get sharp. Then by banging one side of the prison door on the needle for another month, you flatten its extremity and then can create a little hole for the string to pass. You can then pull the strings out of your shirt and with the needle saw all kinds of things. For example, do a backgammon with the cardboard, saw the triangles using different colors, then use chunks of soap that you wrap with cheese metallic-colored wrap (think of Picon for those familiar with Lebanese products) to distinguish players. You can become very good at this, according to this person, blending tastefully colors and shapes to create beautiful backgammon cardboard tables. Unfortunately nothing is left to testify of these aesthetics because as soon as the Israeli found out that prisoners found activities, they confiscated one after the other every invention these guys were coming up with. First the olive pits were counted and taken right after each meal. Cardboards were taken out, and prisoners were back to sleep on the cement.

Has anyone read The Player of Chess by Stefan Zweig? I read it a long time ago, you can find it in French, I don’t know if it was translated to English, or to Arabic. It’s the story of this guy who gets locked in a prison room that’s as big as the ones in Khiam and then has nothing to do for quite some time until he succeed, during an interrogation, to steal a book from the desk of the officer in charge. When he’s back in his cell he finds out that he stole a chess manual. He does not know how to play chess. and… Actually I’m not going to tell you the story, you should read it. This is one of my favorite books by far. When I was 15 or so I read it like three times. Zweig was an Austrian Jew. He committed suicide along with his wife in 1942 while he was in Brazil, fleeing from Nazi Germany.