The paradoxes of ‘globalization’

This morning, I could overhear from the window of my room a Philipino woman (who works in one of the flats of the building) teaching the young son of the Indian watchman of the building – who lives from where he watches – the Lebanese national anthem.

– Repeat after me: qulunaaaa lil watan lil 3ola lil 3alam!

It is in the music

There is a mass on LBC for some saint, and there is a choral playing the most horrible type of badly westernized melodies. Major and minor scales with little sharps and flats thrown in really awkward places. It is so ironic to think that a couple of decades ago you could still find traditional Maronite mass sung based on Arabic maqams. I loved the little part in Aramaic about the blessing of the bread and wine that was meditatively uttered in the maqam of Bayati. For those interested, in Arabic music there is no minor and major scales, intervals are much more subtle and based on smaller tonal changes.

You know how you can tell that Maronites were the most “Arabic” of all Christians in the Middle East? They were the only ones whose music was traditionally integrally faithful to Arabic musical modes. The only ones. And what a beautiful mass that was. Fortunately, you have good recordings of how it sounded. Not much different from any good Muslim inshaad or azaan. Alas, it does not exist anymore. The Maronite Church has completely altered the musical melodies/structure/lyrics (I don’t even want to talk about the new texts that are of such a bad taste), ‘westernizing’ the mood.

And rest assured, most of the songs composed by the “Islamic” artistic sphere among the Shi’a of Lebanon (and Iran) is following similar structures, although for totally different reasons. But will talk about that some other time.

Zionism’s symbolic struggle

I always find the best stories in Forward. Check this article telling the story of Israeli far-right political parliamentary members trying to push for a law that would actually strip Arabic of its official language status (alongside Hebrew).

Mixing up traditions

This reinforces my intuition that some Islamists mix up “traditions” they think are “Islamic” because belonging to local social practices with actual Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) – of which they are ignorant of – that escape proper territorial affiliations. It turns out that cutting the clitoris of young girls comes is an “African” practice that goes back to Pharaonic times, contradicting the Muslim brotherhood claim that it was “An Islamic matter”. It is counted as a crime today by Egyptian law.

This type of Islamists are simply trying to protect and fall back on “what we do in the community we identify with”. Simple conservatism? I’m not yet sure although definitely one type. But notice that, for it to be passed by law, it had to be proven that such practices are ‘unislamic’ imputing the blame on some alien ‘African’ ritual that has made its way into Islamic practices. Representation of the self in the Middle East will more and more be framed around what is Islamic and what is not, a mechanism that reminds one of European formations of what is the secular in the age of the nation.

Unearthing civilizations

How did the “Lebanese” discover that they had a Phoenician tradition? Or for that matter how did the Arabs discover that they had some past glorious tradition that was decimated by the Ottomans? Don’t we read Arabic history as one that stops around the Abbasid era, and that then picks up around the end of the nineteenth century with what is called the “Nahda” (a concept copied from the European “Age of Enlightenment“). This reading of history finds its most perverse account in the writing of people like Samir Kassir who longs for another enlightenment Arab style.

This is the unearthing of civilization, of golden ages. In his study Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani nation, Christopher Stone ( 2008 ) makes this argument forcibly. He draws on other post-colonial scholars like Chatterjee ( 1993 ) on India who argued that the “national” paradigm has been unescapable by present post colonial polities. Stone has an excellent way of formulating this dynamic at the heart of this “classicization of tradition”:

the same historical construct that paved the way for colonization could, ironically, do the same for independence: “You were once great and need our help to become so again,” becomes tweaked to read, “We were once great without you and can become so again.” (p.14)

I would argue, that Islamic movements are totally in line with this process of recuperating history, contrary to Chatterjee idea that ‘Islamists’ are breaking out of the ‘national’ paradigm. Wherever there is State, there is Nation or a discursive efforts at producing a historically continuous imagined community, or different attempts at justifying the presence of the State.

Of course, it does not mean that “Islamists” are conventional nationalists, quite the contrary, and that is the historically unprecedented aspect about them: How are they struggling to make sense of these discursive contradictions? Read Tariq el Bishri in this case for interesting conscious elaboration (especially this one) of state territory and tradition in Egypt. Hizbullah’s intellectuals is a completely different story, that I may tell later.

Lebanonisms: a quick retrospective

This needs to be thought over more clearly, but it seems to me that “Lebanese” history could be read as divided into four phases:

1- Before and up to the national pact of 1943 that established Maronite predominance and Sunni ambivalent pragmatism. Bear in mind that up until this point, there is much opposition to the creation of this narrowly defined State, whether from the Syrian Nationalist party, pan-Arab groups, and last but not least, ultra-Christian pro-French groups that preferred a constant colonial protectorate, etc. Lebanese nationalism is Maronite/Christian fantasies.

2- Tensions till ‘civil’ war period: This is the period I would call colonial remnants euphorias and pitfalls. Most colonial and post-colonial societies witnessed these characteristics of horrible economic and social inequality, crony liberal capitalism, unequal share of power, euphoria and social-distinction practices of the ruling class and its projected constituencies. A lot can be said on this part, and if you need more detail let me know.

3- The Ta’if agreement that settles ‘civil’ war scores by giving equal voice to Sunni Muslim elites, and to some extent Shi’a, and consolidate the sectarian character of the political system under Syrian security-related supervision but not occupation (The system resulting is a complex interplay of crony politicking and cross-national alliances). During this period we witness the slow rise of an unconscious Sunni ‘nationalism’, that culminates with the assassination of Rafic Hariri. Harirism is Sunni ‘nationalism’ meaning the discovery that this institutional option “The Lebanese State” is actually a useful tool for managing resources. Pan-Arabist fantasies are knocked down on the walls of the actual State edifice.

4- Post-Ta’if, insuring that most power factions have what they want. At this point, Hizbullah is pushed out of its closet. The Syrians are not washing their laundry anymore, they have to do it themselves. The perception of the State changes once more. Lebanese players try to restructure the rules of the game to no avail. The institutional efficacy of the sectarian power-sharing approach remains the best for everybody, as exemplified by the Doha Agreement. The Doha agreement is in a way the realization of this fact by all Lebanese players once someone found the way to explain: Royal hospitality in a several star hotel in Qatar.

My point(s) here are:

1- that the more we advance in time and we consolidate the term “Lebanon” (which acquires an abstract empty feel, compared to first phase of explicit Christian national ideological constructions) the more Sectarian practices enter the most minute aspect of life. It is important to understand this symbolic dynamic as a two-level inversed movement. More on this later.

2- the resiliency of the institutional system in place. I’m not saying they are efficient, but as long as there is no drastic occupation, toppling of powers, etc players bend their initial enthusiasm to the demands of the institutions in place. Here the post-colonial State and its affiliates (army etc) even if so many parallel structures have emerged since then. Also, more on this later.