Extraits du livre des questions: A poetic interlude with Edmond Jabes

Je dois perdre l’habitude d’exercer ma pensée.
Un jour, je retrouverai ma plume, ma voix.
Saurai-je m’en servir?
La page blanche est page de patience.

Ombre gigantesque.
Ombre des ombres répandues sur le monde.
La nuit est une phalène dans la nuit des lampes.

Mes ancêtres m’ont rendu visite.
Je n’ai, avec eux, de commun
que la parole préservée dans les plis de la parole.

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The problem is the identity card not the sect!

There is a little clarification at the end of this post.

Some people voiced satisfaction over the idea that the sect was removed from the personal status register (it was already removed from the identity card). I don’t find this that extraordinary. If anything, this consecrates an even more irrational and ill-founded idea of ‘being Lebanese’.

I don’t see why people cannot be happy to be called Maronite, Sunni or whatever but must find it very normal and ‘just’, probably more ‘modern’ to be called “Lebanese”. I seriously wonder which tradition precedes the other and which has richer claims over “authenticity”.

The confessional narrative itself is not what is to blame but how it is used to advance political interests. Confessions like any other form of imagined belonging to a community (such as nationalism) will draw boundaries of differentiation but not especially create conflict. Differentiation can also mean respect for differences, curiosity and knowledge.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of confessionalism as a political framework to resolve conflict. It is the later creation of the “Lebanese State” that kind of dealt the most severe blow. Some Lebanese historians like to think that the confessional system itself is the real evil. I think that it is the creation of the Lebanese State which has solidified one political style of preferential confessionalism that has really messed things up. Were it for the creation of an Arab state or a Syrian one after the fall of the Ottoman empire, we may have seen a different outcome. But then again, colonialism and the ‘westernization’ of institutions in what was called the Middle East had already paved the way for a gloomy future.

So the solution is not to remove the sect from the identity card in order to conform more and more to a replicated version of European nation-statehood, more homogeneous and so more discriminatory to whatever escapes the liberal paradigm.

The solution is to reform the idea of an ‘identity card’, create other types of legal and institutional mechanisms that are more elastic in order to accommodate for the different sources of tradition. The idea of an Islamic state could go in this direction, but for now owes too much of its intellectual elaboration to Western conceptions of polity.

If the Ottoman system or any pre-capitalist Islamic system should be praised it was because of an elastic sense of ‘identity’, or naming not based on a system of rights but that of belonging to a community of tradition that has texts, ‘rituals’ (to use a Western terminology) and ways to create virtuous human beings. It does not mean it always worked in terms of avoiding conflict but it looks like it avoided way more clashes than in the age of nation-state, ‘human rights’, democracies, and being catalogued on an identity card.

Clarification: I did not mean to say that there is something more authentic about being defined by the confessional label. I just meant that one is not better than the other (the national one). In the first place I am questioning the problem of ‘definition’.

Walking through the Arabic book fair in Beirut (first glance)

Christians writing history

Around the start of December 2008, Beirut hosted a multitude of publishers from all around the Arab world and beyond (Iran). I went there practically everyday and noted down a couple of things that struck me for the beloved reader of this blog. Let’s start with an anecdote:

In the beginning of the month of November 1914, Turkey went into war alongside Germany and set forth the task of getting rid of acting minorities in the empire. The Armenians were massacred. In Lebanon, the genocide was much easier to execute. The Ottomans closed down the frontiers of the country after confiscating the provisions and capturing the vigorous men for the hard tasks. (my translation from French)

Now you would think that I am quoting the history essay of an 18 year old student, who may have well been brought up in a Christian area of Lebanon. Think again. This is written by a history professor at NDU (most probably because it is edited by their publishing house) and its title is “Abouna Antoun, the missionary hermit of Lebanon”. Abouna Antoun, some monk living in Tannourine, described by the author as “an immense village perched on the Lebanese mountain”, was most likely a modest person trying to go about his pious ways on his path to unite or at least experience God. So Imagine this, Abouna Antoun working on such a petty goal as being a national symbol, not least, the symbol of a nation that does not yet exist!

It is probably worthless to analyze how many biases, historical fallacies, nationalist propaganda, anachronisms, bad style, superiority complexes this book is plagued with. You can already read all of that in this little paragraph. But alas I cannot resist! For example, the mention of how “Lebanon” was a “country” in 1914, with frontiers closed by ‘Turkey’ that also did not exist. I cannot but mention how a whole century of successive clashes with the Armenian community, boiled down to “The Armenians were massacred” in 1914. And why oh why would the Ottomans capture the ‘vigorous men for the hard tasks’. What are these tasks? And also, it seems that ‘Turkey’ had one thing in mind in 1914, to get rid of the ‘acting’ minorities. Well it does not matter anyway. Open any other history book by most Christian writers, especially those edited by Kaslik university, or NDU, and you will almost invariably find that minorities were persecuted whether, by the Ottomans, or ‘the Muslims’, the Mongols, and what have you.

After you ‘commit suicide’ they trade your organs

or how to surveil your kid.

One country after another is stopping its ‘nationals’ from coming to work in Lebanon, especially those destined to private homes. The new one in line is Madagascar as they learned that body organs were being traded after strange deaths were happening. Most of the time, official doctor autopsy declares ‘suicide’ cases. But according to a guy who has an agency ‘importing’ workers and with who I happened to have a little chat, it is known that suicide cases most of the time involve a caring helping hand pushing you out of the balcony for example. According to the same guy, it is the hospitals from where these autopsies come from that are involved in the trade of organs.

So now, basta, game’s over, you can’t play with bodies anymore. First Sri Lanka, then the Philipines and now Madagascar? Now where will the Lebanese look to keep them lazy and abusive?

Several thoughts here:

The situation is so sad that countries like Madagascar are taking political decisions based on a purported ethical choice. Countries who never really cared that much for its people (no country does) but mostly care about what the international community says about treatment of their people – something that could decide on whether money is sent in these countries or not – have decided to cut the flow of outgoing workers  even though they bring a lot of money home.

See girls who come to work in the Switzerland of the Middle East have “housemaid” written on their Malagasi passport as an identity marker. That is how Malagasy authorities actually issue passports. Next to that, having your sect listed on the Lebanese one is a blessing. There are two types of ‘citizens’ in Madagascar: the average local people and those who go to work outside as housemaid.

It seems also the case that Malagasy families perfect their little teenager girl’s education by delivering her to the good care of a Lebanese family and make sure the latter is watching her whereabouts. I heard from people who have an 18 year old Malagasy woman working at their place that her father calls practically every other day in order to make sure his daughter is behaving and summons its employer to keep a watchful eye on her. I remember seeing the poor girl being punished on new years and not being to go out with her friends for that reason.

Now on the Lebanon side of things, what brings us into this mess in the first place is not that human beings in this country are champions in unethical behavior easily rivaling with Israeli practices, but the actual system that makes all this possible. Lebanese law virtually gives total discretion to an employer over his employee by making the former totally ‘responsible’ over the latter.

Although home workers have some form of work-visas, they can only get them once an employer agrees to pay for a fixed fee to get the papers. The employer pays a fee, a sort of ransom and keep the passport of his employee under custody. The employer has all the economic incentive to control the employee: He is actually legally paid for the possession of someone. This is a form of slavery, and lest I would shock many of you if I said that I have nothing against slavery in principle provided it has an appropriate social setting, slavery in a capitalist system create forms of exploitation that have much greater excessive implications.

Waltz with Bashir

I finally watched the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, and I know that so many people found it really good, as it was “putting into questions things”, addressing longstanding issues from within Israel, and showing “the horrors of war”. Here, let me be very skeptical about what Israeli cinema can question, and knowing that this comes from the ‘left’ side of Israeli society, what Israel can ever put into question.

Let me start from a tangent. Anyone seen holocaust movies? Here is a list of Holocaust films from the 1940s on. I had this intuition that no major German movie has been made on the subject. And I was right, German movies really start appearing in the 1970s and only few of them relative to the massive numbers of foreign production. Basically the history of ‘horror’ has been written ‘for’ the German and not ‘by them’ establishing a harsher defeat, a cultural one.

According to a dear German friend of mine, most Germans don’t like these movies (especially the foreign ones) because they feel that they don’t really address the Nazi question in a satisfactory way. More interesting than that: they think that Nazism should probably not be dealt with in images because it would render ordinary and acceptable something that is just unacceptable. It seemed always weird to see Hitler being played by an actor whatever the angle played: Hitler was what he was, no need to ‘play him’.

There is none of that in Waltz with Bashir. In a sense it follows the general line found in Spielberg movie Munich (that is of course much worse), in that it engage the audience with a lot of self-loathing turned into conscience boosting and so in a paradoxical legitimating device. Israelis here are already “playing Israelis” making of them either heroes or anti-heroes which amounts basically to the same thing.

Here are the main ideas that can be drawn from the movie:

1- The real demons are the Phalangists, and the Israelis if anything let things happen. At most, they unleash the real beasts, those with no conscience. The Israelis have a conscience and are always wondering what the hell they are doing. Those with no conscience are the Phalangists. The ‘other’, the enemy has no conscience either, does never talk and Israelis are too self centered in the first place to ask questions about them. The enemy is invisible in any case.

2- There is no real reflection on or dialectical engagement with the enemy (the Palestinians) or the ally (the Christian). It shows how much Israelis is eager to learn about them. Knowing that in reality there were lots of interactions during 1982 and of course before that between the various parties.

3- The actual waltz scene (a guy shooting in the air randomly to the background of Bashir Gemayel’s posters) is quite revealing as it betrays a romanticist tone to the rebellious character of participating in a war. We see in the movie how this waltzer later becomes a practitioner of martial arts and is quite happy of what he has done all his life. It is a bit like American movies on Vietnam which ends up making the soldiers look like heroes because they actually ‘been through this’. The audience sympathize with these character. It is the anti-hero, the pop-culture hero.

4- The most flagrant thing is that at no point in the movie do you have this understanding that Israel was wrong to go to war for this or that political reason, at no point are causes discussed or anything like that. Everything stays at the basic level of condemnation of killing and repenting. We are told that soldiers are a bunch of pot smoking adolescents dragged into something they don’t really understand. It is morally charged for no reason. No reason means idealization. Idealization is apologetic.

But Israeli cinema has still hopes. Check for example the documentaries of a guy like Eyal Sivan. Izkor: Slaves of Memory (1991) is a great documentary on the Israeli writing of Jewish history that is taught to kids at all school levels . Izkor, which is the commemoration of the holocaust remembering, really puts into question the idea of Israel and its perception of ‘Arabs’. One idea I found extraordinary in this documentary is how Zionism actually impoverished Jewish multiple source of history, tradition, and relations to the past whether Arabic or other.

Update: Check this article on Hollywood’s (the Americans)  fascination with the Holocaust. Just this year there are already 6 movies out of Hollywood’s machines touching on the subject. I don’t think it is about Germans anymore, but about American culture and their relation to the different narratives exposed in this story. They are writing “the Holocaust” as a multiple story theme to illustrate their concern with death, torture, murder, politics etc. This is not anymore a German event but an American one.

Viva Erdogan

Read here the pathetic attitude of Israelis, and European officials, after Turkish PM Erdogan summed up Israeli realities to Shimon Peres at Davos:

According to one report, senior European officials said, “Erdogan wants to be part of the European Union, but now he can forget about it.”

But just for the history books, let’s remember together what Erdogan said to Peres: “Your voice is too high… it betrays a tormented criminal conscience”. This is what can be called “cutting the grass under your feet”. If you can take a masterclass in rhetoric with this guy I’d say don’t even think about it twice.

Nota bene: Amr Moussa! Ya Amr Moussa! Why didn’t you get up with Erdogan and follow him out of this room? Where are the Arabs! Ya allah!

And a quick Update: The Israelis show more wrath.