Spectacles of Jadeed TV

safe_image.phpThe date of this event is not relevant anymore as it is just a template for similar recurring events in the land of the Lebanon. Crumbling under the weight of her make up the talkshow host of “للنشر” (for publication) bullied for about 20min a Syrian woman nursing a baby. The woman turned out to be a beggar who we are told fakes being handicapped in order to get money on the streets of Beirut. The contrast between these two women was striking. The beggar was dressed in rags holding her child whose skin was blackened by Beirut dusty and filthy streets while the TV host shined with her jewelry, her fancy clothes. The contrast went hand in hand with the domineering and judgmental attitude the TV hostess has as the discussion quickly turned into a general critique of the beggar’s way of life. At some point her child started crying and she said that she needed to breast feed him to which the hostess rushed to kick her out of the stage. This episode of the show was immediately followed by a series of ads about glittering jewelry!

After this consumerist interlude, the hostess welcomed with a radiant smile her next guest Miriyam Klink who related in great detail her intrepid misadventures with priests who allegedly “spanked her ass”. The conversation went more smoothly here. The two women looked alike with their plastic faces. Klink is a Lebanese pop singer who parades various parts of her body as she chants her tasteless songs. This is usually enough to get full media attention as Klink is invited for occasional moaning on all Lebanese TV channel talkshows. Unlike the first part of the show, pseudo-journalist here is talking to her alter ego, her partner in the industry of media spectacle. The judgmental tone is replaced by an “échange de politesses” hiding a nonverbal imploration, a “please tell me how did I succeed in the business of female empowerment the Lebanese (plastic voyeuristic) way”. And Klink seem right out of her latest surgery as her face showed less and less expressiveness that could translate any possible emotions left by the priest’s misdeeds.

This in a nutshell is Lebanese TV, ongoing social class affirmation – in this case one aspect of it which is women “emancipation” – paraded as spectacle in order to extract a profit.

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Food in Lebanon

A recent scandal has been added to several previous scandals about food quality in Lebanon. But as in the previous cases, the focus was on meat products that are imported and stored in the worst conditions. Few people seem to understand the true extent of the catastrophe that runs deep into a general economic and cultural rationale as old as the state’s short existence.

During the twentieth century, these territories that became lumped into something called Lebanon moved from surviving on their own local economies to becoming net importers of almost all basic food products. For example, this frenetic consumption of meat was a rare privilege as cows did not really exist (there is no place for cows to graze in hilly, mountainous landscapes). Most people rarely ate meat and when they did, it most invariably involved lamb. Today, most of the meat consumed originates from Australia and South America and after a journey of who knows what kind, are parked in the most horrible conditions once they reach Lebanese ports. The periodic smell coming from Dora in Beirut is a constant reminder of their arrival.

But this obsession with meat has left the question of other food products unanswered. The manoucheh Lebanese pride themselves on is made of nothing homegrown. The flour used comes from Canada or Turkey, the sesame seeds are sold on international markets but probably originate from the US, the thyme from Jordan and Syria, the oil has for a long time been sunflower oil (not olive oil like some romantics may think) and is sold on international markets from multiple origins (Latin America, India, etc). It is very clear that none of these products originate from that little chunk of land known as Lebanon.

But that’s just one example. Take another: Hommos! The chickpeas come from Mexico for the most part, the smaller sized ones from Turkey. The Tahini is manufactured in Lebanon (sometimes in low quality ways) yet as mentioned earlier, the seeds come from outside. Only the lemon comes from Lebanon (and judging from the level of pesticide used on any agricultural product in Lebanon, you’d rather have lemons imported as well!) Now what about the lentils for the Mujadara? They are imported from the US.

Two points here: Some people might object that importing products is not something inherently bad for an economy, a society, or a culture. After all, a large proportion of what is consumed in the UK for example originates from imported merchandise. This is true from a purely economic perspective but not so if we look at certain social, cultural, or simply ethical implications.

First, the Lebanese economy is made up of a few cartels controlling most of what comes in and out and very little of that is produced locally. Some economists think that this is a good thing given the small size of the market and the capacity of few players on the arena to produce “economies of scale”, an economic concept to legitimize huge profits in order to produce, in principle, cheaper products. But that’s possible when you are actually producing something, not when you are just acting as a medium in a transaction. Also, this is possible when you have a particular institutional structure that protects consumer interests (usually involving a state, something Lebanon does not really have).

As shown in the recent scandals around meat, there is no quality oversight over what gets to be imported. And this is without mentioning the disgusting way in which animals are treated, how they are shipped to Lebanon and then preserved here. Now when you import something you really need to make sure when it was produced, if it has traveled well preserved, when does it expire, etc. Have you ever noticed that eating bread in Lebanon always tastes a bit dry? That’s not just because the flour that we import is of the worst quality traded on global markets (I heard once that we get the powder that remains in flour factories), but also because we have no idea when it was produced and how it was stored.

All the commodities I just mentioned are staple foods that are the most basic ingredients for surviving: Grains and pulses. But I mentioned these also because they are most of the products that regions such as Lebanon produced locally until recently and have mostly stopped producing. Economically what happened was that food production passed from the hands of a few feudal lords controlling peasant families planting for them to a handful of oligarchs controlling the trade of primary commodities. Such oligarchs import the lowest quality of produce because there just is no incentive or pressure for them to do otherwise. There are no state controls over quality, and no economic competition for them to bring different qualities of products.

In comparison, although the UK is a country that imports a large chunk of its food produce, its agricultural sector does supply for the main part staple foods that it traditionally produced for centuries: oats, wheat, barley, and so on. That means that the flour that is used in many types of food is homegrown, and even the cheapest one is still fresher, and a better quality than any type of bread related product you will ever eat in Lebanon! And everyone knows how much bread (or simply dough) is important for the Lebanese belly. This is beside the fact that Britain still produces the majority of its milk, cheese and meat products for consumption.

There is also an important cultural dimension to this catastrophe. The Lebanese have experienced a drastic shift in their relation to nature and land, and meanwhile to the most basic resource for their existence, food, while being completely oblivious of this process. Lebanese pride themselves on eating in Italian restaurants that serve refrigerated food all imported from the lowest quality produce of Italy, unconscious of the fact that they are living in an undignified way. What is more important than food for the quality of life in creating an ethical community? But Lebanese have been sitting on this disaster for decades still thinking that they have become more affluent because they can buy all these things that come from a different corner of the earth.

Thoughts from India

Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy did not mean much without in its backdrop a highly clever strategy of recapturing the means of production (silk, cotton, steel, salt, spices and so on) of the Indian economy from the hands of the British empire through large scale mobilization and ritual celebrations of all sorts. Once it was just logical (ethical) that indians should control their wealth (and that the appropriate measures were taken to do that), making this point could be done without resort to violence. The contrast with how Arabs dealt with colonial presence can’t be overstated: Arabs chose not to grab anything but to “copy the West”. They busied themselves with intellectual masturbation as the path towards “civilization” with no tangible socio-economic empowerment which could have in turn propped up their traditions-as-preservation-of-ways-of-life. That is why “colonialism of mind” in the Arab world was way more detrimental than in places like India.

Womanhood and the absence of Politics

My article in Al Akhbar on Nadine Labaki’s movie “Where do we go from now?” The arguments made were a bit more developed but it seems that the text was cut for the sake of adequate newspaper presentation.

Good Friday or Cow Day

Yesterday night, Christians commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus. The streets of Beirut saw hundreds of people in their best clothes flocking towards churches, in little groups of three or four. Big speakers played chants from the top of churches and moving cars.

People remembered the death of someone as a symbol for human sacrificing, suffering and overcoming.

But that was also that time of the year when hundreds and hundreds of cows hit the shores of Beirut. Cows from northern Europe or Latin America? Packed and squeezed in dark containers, they travel for weeks and months to end up being butchered in the slaughterhouses of Beirut.

I knew this and everybody in the city knew it. In every street corner, in every room of every house, in every district of Beirut, the smell imposed itself and stuck to our noses. Everybody knows that there is this day that comes two or three times a year when “The cows arrive”. It is as if the cows send us their strong smell so that we also remember that act of violence.

But to what cause are the cows being sacrificed? Will they be remembered? I propose we commemorate that day for both Jesus and the cows who every couple of month arrive to Lebanon in order to feed for some time the greed of the pious people of Lebanon.

Jews, Jews, where art thou?

Back in September 2009, after listening to a speech by Hizbullah’s SG Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, I wrote this post that was left unfinished. I thought of proposing it today.

On the 18th of September 2009, Hizbullah celebrated what Khomeini had instituted as “Jerusalem Day” (that takes place every year on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan). It was as usual an incredibly interesting speech that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave, an accumulation of fine-tuned reading of political and social history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict passed through a lens along with the gradual Arab disinterestedness in the question. Notwithstanding, the enlightening ethical advice that a cleric of this stature is bound to give, especially during a month of fasting.

After saying that Jerusalem day should be an occasion to be celebrated by Muslims and Christians as well, Nasrallah poses the question: “Well one could ask, aren’t there any holy sites for Jews?” And he quickly answers quite enigmatically: “What the son’s of Israel have done historically to their prophets, their selves, their tribes, their families and those who oppressed them did not leave anything for them there”. That’s it, territorially at least, Jews have no tradition they could claim as would the Muslims and Christian can. Why? Simply because they have been oppressed and have left. Today, they are a bunch of heterogeneous groups coming from various remote spots of the planet.

Of course, Hizbullah’s officials like to raise the tone with rhetoric of the sort just to anger the Israeli public. But this time it still sounds as if something is missing: There is something profoundly realistic about what Nasrallah is saying, yet also very sad. How did the Jews ‘messed it up’? But more importantly, and that is a question Nasrallah probably does not really ask: Can we Arabs, Muslims or whatever you want to call us, do something about it? My point is that the future of the conflict between Arabs and Israel may well depend on a particular understanding of Jewish traditions.

Indeed, weren’t there vibrant Jewish traditions in what has been called the Middle East? Why is there a total silence around that in the contemporary and politically-engaged intellectual elaborations? In the “Islamist” literature, speeches, media production, we don’t see the mention of Jews. They don’t exist. There are Zionists of course, but not Jews. Islamists call for an Islamic-Christian dialogue, and there is a lot published on the subject. Hizbullah’s media apparatus, books, speeches, all treat of the subject at length. Although this “dialogue of religions” smells liberal in its form, it is still a bit different, no need to go into this aspect of the question.

I find this glorification of Muslim and Christian co-existence so flowery and nice but totally void of content if one is not willing to push the argument further and include the Jews that originated from this region. These ‘co-existence’ dialogues should not be bound by national construction imperatives. Iran includes Jews in their discourse just because it has a significant number of them there. And then when does a significant number becomes eligible for political presence? It seems clear that the reason for mentioning this or that tradition is to create nations.

Now of course, the obvious answer to the omission of Jews from intellectual efforts is that it is the Jews themselves who chose this path, for most of them, by going to Israel. And let’s say that Arabic governments have not done much to stop this process. Indeed, where are the Jews of the East? Mostly in Israel and not really caring much about their “Arabic” background, or what could probably more accurately be called “Islamic” heritage. These Jews refuse to be called “Arabs”, they are “Israelis”. Most have even lost the Arabic language (at least those I had the joys to meet in other countries). There surely must be a sense of disarray amongst these Jews in Israel (see for example Eyal Sivan’s movie “Izkor”).

Isn’t it time to reclaim these Jews as belonging to this area at least at the symbolic level, preparing the ground for a long-lasting different vision of the region? Isn’t that a ‘strategic’ thing to do? Isn’t it time to include in the different efforts at writing history the presence of these Jews everywhere from Iran to Morocco and their once highly rich and complexly different traditions? Belittling Jewish history as taking place only in Europe, even though Zionism works on that, is I think highly immature, and as re-active as any petty European Nationalist discourse was when developing in the nineteenth century. It actually helps Zionism gain ground as a monolithic, nationalistic if not hollywoodean reading of Jewish past.

Now more than ever, when Israel’s existence as a Zionist expansive, chauvinist and violent entity can really be put into question and threatened by successful groups like Hizbullah, now more than ever, it is time to reclaim the Arab Jews and actually give back the European, American and other Jews their rich traditions. Hizbullah (and others) have done a lot in the direction of building a ‘dialogue’ with Christians: They actually re-invented a Christian – more socially conscious – tradition! Can we use this method in order to reclaim the Jews and probably outstrip the last bit of phony legitimacy Israel has? If the Jews of the world can re-embrace their diverse past affiliations, what will be left of Israel?

The main danger in the modern world is not how religion gets mixed up with politics. In any case, religion is profoundly political. Liberal privatized notion of religion (which is a religion/tradition itself) impose this understanding that there is a separation between politics and religion. The real danger, the catastrophic impasse is the use of a poor understanding of religions, traditions, reading of the past, in order to edify these rigid, intolerant, ethically empty, and territorially bound Nations-States.

A Christmas lesson (bis)

Listening to the Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Butros Sfeir giving the noon Christmas mass today in Beirut, confirmed what I was thinking of yesterday. At some point in the unfolding of the celebration, Sfeir tells the story of the birth of Jesus and so mentions his birth in Bethlehem. “In the city of Bethlehem, in Palestine, where he was born”.  He seems unperturbed, and swiftly moves to another subject. Worse, as he shifts his discussion to abstract concepts of love and tolerance (as noted, a classical rhetorical strategy amongst modern privatized Christianity), he manages to extract from it an even shakier concept of ‘love for the nation’. He then manages to mumble something like the birth of Jesus which symbolizes this message of love actually teaches us about how one should ‘love his nation’. Fortunately, he does not elaborate further. Bethlehem is a couple of kilometers away from where he is giving his mass. It is under the control of a political entity (Israel) that causes much injustice and oppression, and has probably no respect for Sfeir’s tradition (i.e. Christianity). To add insult to injury, a significant number of people from Bethlehem and from around it live within the nation that Sfeir wants people to love, although these people are neither loved by those people Sfeir is concerned with nor given any form of ‘love’ or ‘tolerance’. Well maybe if Jesus was the messenger of ‘justice’ it would have been better. Love as such stripped out of social realities is a monster-like fantasy causing more wreckage than healing.