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.

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.

From a conversation I had with a relative

–   Yes yes some of the things Hizbullah figures say I understand and can relate to, but other claims just give me the creeps.

–   Like what exactly?

–   Well for example their claim of a ‘divine victory’

–   So? What’s creepy about it?

–   The fact that they want to insert God in everything they do.

–   Maybe because they prayed God that he would give them the strength to fight and vanquish, and once it had happened they attributed this victory to the fulfilment of their prayers.

–   Oh but that’s exactly what’s wrong here. They should be fighting for patriotic reasons. The moving idea should be ‘patriotism’ and not God.

–   But if they are asking God to help them, it is for ‘patriotic reasons’ as they want to defend their land or repel occupation. Besides what’s nobler as an idea patriotism or God?

–  Yeah but that’s not how one should pray. I don’t mix patriotism and God.

–  Don’t you pray at night for your friends and people you love to have a promising future, to stay healthy? To wake up and still be on the same roof? Aren’t they doing the same thing adding to that they are asking God to give them the strength to fight?

–  Yes but I don’t ask God to give me strength, God cannot change things for me, I change them. I only pray when I can’t do anything about things, like when someone has cancer or something.

–  I don’t really understand here. Are you saying that there are certain things one can ask God but not other things? Strength and will, discipline, and perseverance are not things one ask God to give. But magical tricks are such as curing this or that person or creating affluence while staying idle. In reality everything is asked by God according to all religious traditions, you are just restricting your prayers to a very specific set of requests, those that fall in the category of “it is now in God’s hand” no?

–  I don’t know…  we just pray differently…

New moralists, that is what we needed

That is really funny. A Lebanese NGO is filing a lawsuit against Lebanese political leaders for “violating article 317 of the country’s penal code prohibiting incitement of violence”.

The accused include party leaders Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, Nabih Berri of Amal, Saad Hariri of the Future Movement, Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, Amin Gemayel of the Phalanges and Walid Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party.

Ambitious innit? Most important for me is that it is just absurd and ill-directed. See the reasoning:

“It’s not just about people going to the street and fighting each other,” said Rabab El-Hakim, another CHAML member. “It’s the inner feelings of people toward each other – the hatred between different sects and political parties increases after these speeches.”

I beg to differ with this NGOist. This jump from on one side, practical measures taken to incite violence to, on the other, creating feelings of hatred, is a sweeping step. Looking for “inner feelings” can be very perverse.

First of all, this assumption of ‘provoking’ hatred through a mere verbal statement undermines the capacity of people to think for themselves: if people pay attention to what leaders say it is through a more comprehensive approach to their discourse. People try to make sense of the overall. How it fits into the grander scheme of things through time, albeit through their representation of things. And evidently enough their representations of the others have also to do with their daily practices, their lifestyles etc. Confessional and other divisions in Lebanon are socio-economic. “Hatred” whatever that means has nothing to do with it. It is this urge to moralize the conflict that helps the segregating ‘differentiating’ process between groups.

The real issue at stake is that Nation-building going hand in hand with a process of moralizing, and thus framing notions that may be way more complex in reality. For the ethical nation to strive it needs culprits. Hatred needs to be defined and pointed at: “This is incitement to hatred”. Lawyers are here to back it up. There is a process of deliberation and interpretation in order to decide if this or that means incitement to hatred. Do you realize how vague the quest here is? We are not trying to know who killed or tortured or commanded such operations, but really if the statements made do incite to this vague sentiment called hatred. This is probably one aspect of fascism (or liberalism for that matter).

Do we need to remind ourselves that modernity is built on this constant strive to spell out, define, and categorize “inner feelings”, so to domesticate him better, make him more servile to the ‘rule of law’ to the dictate of the nation-state by the sole use of his own ‘consciousness’? Embrace the modern man.

Christians back at it

Muslims had the upper hand in this, but I guess this Polish priest understood how it works in the age of modernity-print-capitalism-economy.

Reflections on campaigning

Watching the heated start of the legislative elections 2009 campaigning-marketing initiatives I could not refrain myself to remarkzz a couple of points, although quite disarticulated here is a draft for those who are crazy enough to read:

1- Election campaigns have totally new techniques (as I said earlier much better imbued with advertising brand-empowering), away from the cult of the figure, and into the elusive world of concepts. The striking transitive example is Amal that has its own brand empowering (Al Amal Youwahid, Hope unites) along with a logofied picture of Nabih Berri. this kicking in of advertising techniques are really something compared to previous elections in that flooded the country with people’s faces. Portraits should start appearing now, although I am not in Beirut to testify.


2- Battles occur at the symbolic level where one idea of the nation prevail in reaction to what the other propose. At this level, and without taking actual intentions into consideration (meaning that I don’t care if these guys do ‘mean’ what they say), Hizbullah and Amal’s campaign are unifying symbolically, whereas LF and and Kataeb are reactive border-lining resentfulness. Tayyar campaign is a bit pompous I must say, looking overly confident and it kind of goes well with the projected character of its leader General Aoun (see here for an example). I say projected because it is how he is perceived that counts and because it mirror well with its Christian constituency social practices (Lebanon is the Switzerland of the ME, fashion, pubs etc.)

So in a sense, campaigns are reactionary, and even more so, they stigmatize quite well who is ‘more at ease’ in the perception of his political presence on the Lebanese scene. It also represents quite well the different historical perception of the different confessions of the Lebanese state. Anyway, when Kataeb Insurance-product-like ads (al Barlaman silahouna, the Parliament is our weapon) make a clear allusion to Hizbullah’s weapon, Hizbullah has a rebuttal to Kataeb newcomers (Sami Gemayel and his Loubnanouna, on which I vented), with their “Loubnanoukom, loubnanouna, loubnanouhom” (Your Lebanon, Our Lebanon, Their Lebanon) barred and “loubnan watan wahid li jami’ abna’ihi” (Lebanon, one nation for all its people). The strong is all-embracing, not out of some murky sentimental love mind you but just out of his position of power, while the weak is isolationist and resentful. I did not invent that, the last guy to elegantly conceptualize this timeless fact is Nietzsche with his morality of master and slave.


3-So the fight is clearly conceptual. But that’s what advertising is all about. And the Lebanese advertising ‘community’ has been working on its slogans for decades now. These are the real nationalists. And its inclusion in the political ethical discourse is rather new in the Lebanese setting. But this goes hand in hand with the idea that TV, newspapers, ads, etc. are the new temples of this ‘religion’ called the Nation. And here friends and relatives, I just look from one angle of what the term religion could actually mean. These media devices are producers of morals, in the Nietzschean sense, they are the protectors of the liberal tradition: the idea that man as an individual is free and a utility-maximizer. This tradition can only exist when is erected through the new moral boundaries in which this freedom is incarcerated: “You’re free but you have to behave this way, consume this or that, be Lebanese, or Palestinian or French, etc.” My point is surely not that man could be free and is enchained once again. My point rather is that the liberal tradition has made people think they could be free in a rather novel way (from previous traditions), to conceptualize freedom as such and really believing that it is a worthy, if not the number one goal to achieve, in order to crystallize even more so the imprisonment of man in the capitalist-eco-technological-commodifying system whatever you want to call it of today.

4- I will glimpse on my last point and think about it for another post. Hizbullah’s biggest competitor on the Lebanese scene is tayyar because it is the only party that people defined confessionally as shi’a takes somewhat seriously. Here competitor can involve a constructive process. It is the challenge of the presence of Tayyar and its popularity throughout its Shi’a constituency, that will push Hizbullah to move more and more away from a politico-religious discourse, here religion means a specific reading of a  socio-historical tradition to a more national-political one. It does not mean that Hizbullah will do away with Islamic idioms, far from it, but this political ‘islamicity’ will develop quite differently (and has already been evolving in different directions for quite some time). I must say that whether you want to call the State “secular”, or “religious” or what have you, the important point that will never change is that the State is here to stay with its projected imaginary sense of a nation. Political slogans such as the liberation of Jerusalem, may well invite for new types of political solidarity pushes, but at best it will facilitate a drive to better regional integration (EU style) more than anything else. Breaking from the boundaries of the nation-state even for movements that emerged at the antipodes of it is going to be quite difficult. it does not mean that all local movements are ‘nationalists’ whatever that may mean. It just means that these group want to play the nationalist card because that’s what works and counts politically.

A Christian, a Lebanese French language newspaper, and a date to remember

Not long ago was the 13th of April. And in the age of nationalism, we celebrate particular dates that symbolize an imagined common, communal experience, inscribed in time, Lebanese remember in this case the beginning of the ‘civil war’, in 1975 of this date.

I have nothing to say on this date. I prefer to scrap dates, lose time markers once and for all. But nothing can make my ulcerous side boil up more than articles that profit from this occasion to remember their narrowly defined interests.

Not long ago, I have started with a friend a new blog, in French, to try to point out the neo-colonialist and socially distinctive practices of the French speaking (mostly Christian, if not Muslim turned gentiles) community in Lebanon. I have a special relation to that as I come from this environment and have fought ambiguous battles with the French cultural heritage in Lebanon (if not in any post-colonial political creation). I speak French and read sometimes passionately some French writers as you could see on this blog. But I deplore the fact that this language became a source of social distinction, and the advancement of chauvinistic views.

But let’s go back to the subject of this post, a Lebanese columnist, Fady Noun, writing in this pathetically elitist newspaper called L’Orient le jour (on the 15th of April 2009), in French about the 13th of April. I wrote a lot on L’Orient le jour media practices, previously. Noun writes about history as if it was Christian history. Lebanon is Christian imagined sense of belonging. Some people called Palestinians emerges at some point in this honorable history and caused disruptions on their haven site. Noun relentless asks for justice to made “rendre justice” as he says, for this noble cause that is a “free Lebanon”. But at no point does he explain how to do justice. Worse than that, after being falsely compassionate with the “Palestinian people” who got stuck in this swamp with the “Lebanese people”, we see emerging a third type of ‘people’ that subjugated the first two. But you should read him yourself:

Et puis, en sommes-nous vraiment sortis ? N’avons-nous pas tous deux été manipulés par un troisième peuple, qui cherchait à nous soumettre à sa volonté, à ses plans, à ses visées ?

Gee, I wonder who is this third category of ‘people’? Can it be that he means the Syrians? So the Syrian ‘people’ have a ‘will’, have ‘plans’, and ‘objectives’ my friends. Yes yes, believe it or not. It is a battle of people. In the age of nationalism, it is politics turned upside down. People carry out their destiny and they differentiate themselves in this fictitious and shallow way. The political process is inverted. People have wills and elites are merely complying with their goals. If we could theorize that ‘fascism’ as a cultural phenomenon exists, that may be an excellent example of this type of process, even though I don’t like using a historical phenomenon quite specific to European political experience in order to explain something in this region, but the parallels are striking.

Fady Noun never clarifies his point instead goes into abstract consideration of, again, justice urged in order to save some type of blood spilled, etc. Needless to say that his Christian centered considerations makes me want to vomit. Come to think about it, the relation between the 14th of March culture of justice-seeking based on blood spilled (falsely  cross-sectarian because each community re-appropriates its martyrs) but devoid of actual social causes is highly reminiscent. A clear contrast is the nationalism of Hizbullah that has some form of social consideration. This becomes highly clear in the electoral campaigns as I will show in a coming post.

Fady Noun keeps on repeating that confessionalism is not the main problem behind the ‘war of people’ in Lebanon. While I tend to agree with the fact that confessionalism in itself as a concept is not something to be dreaded (especially compared to other forms of nationalisms), the Christian experience of confessionalism, in practice, has evolved from being very ugly (with the establishment of the state of Lebanon) to totally pathetic and pitiful today with the rise of other confessions as main players in the Lebanese artifact. The Christian argument is always reactionary whether Aounist, LF, Kataeb, or what have you. They all fall back to this attitude of “what can we do so that we remain special, as Christians”, or worse “what can ‘the other’ do to make us remain this prodigy child”. This perception of a lost prideful past, and this perception of a gloomy present or a bleak future will not take Christians anywhere.

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.

Gaza and the legitimation of killing: Lessons for History

Wars, conquests, collective violence, and all kinds of forms of domination and oppression are justified through specific rhetorical strategies, or ideologies.

Take a very recent epoch, the one that was dubbed the ‘modern age’ that starts roughly with European ‘enlightenment’ and is still unfolding today. This is an epoch that sees the development and consolidation of States with their invented National histories, an epoch where capitalist economic and social changing structures have been nurtured by evermore centralized poles of power and more rigid notions of self.  This epoch has seen the rise of a discourse of human rights, ‘rights’ people had, claims they could make on the past, on territory, and even on other people (teaching democracy for example).

Israel represents one little (but oh so deadly) experiment of applying national theory to practice from scratch. It is the quintessence of modern culture: believing in an idea that fathoms a history for a people, projects it on a territory and then consolidates State structures to the detriment of previous social and economic structures in place. In a way Israel is the Frankenstein of the West. It is the horrible result of an experiment where the idea that some ‘ideational’ link with some representation of the past can materialize in ‘reality’, indeed, should, or has a ‘right to’ materialize in reality.

In this sense another type of colonial practice is born with Israel. We could probably talk of a classical colonialism that Europe and to some extent the US practiced, consisting in occupying and seizing the means of production of a specific area (Latin America, Africa, India, etc.). But the new colonialism is one that exist side by side a perpetual condemnation of colonialism. The new colonialism exists in the age of NGOs, UN, and other international institutions that legitimates the occupation and oppression of the ‘uncivilized’. New colonialism is practiced mainly by the US and Israel today and consist in subverting the average person into believing that there are ‘security’ questions to address in order to protect the ‘rights’ of certain political entities.

Several times Talal Asad’s quote at the right top end of this blog has been criticized. But it still holds so well today. War by the ‘civilized’ is much more couched in a moral rhetoric that legitimates it and makes it more deadly. Trabulsi in Al Safir today argues that one such legitimating tool is the concept of “Security”. In this excellent article, Trabulsi showed how Israel and the US succeeded in imposing the notion of ‘security’ as a ‘reason of State’ in order to clamp down on any insurgency effort fighting their occupier. Trabulsi shows also how Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, caught onto this program and gradually switched from a discourse centralized on Palestinian (or say local population) demands to one of imposing security to the benefit of Israel so as to resolve and neutralize the Palestinian question.

I want to develop a couple of points Trabulsi makes in his article. The ‘security’ rationale is very perverse in several ways. First it ignores the fact that insurgents, fighters, resistance groups etc, have longstanding political demands which makes them do what they do when they do it. By this token it refuses to address these demands. Also, the Security rationale sanctifies (and goes fully in line with) a discourse on liberal values in the sense that it is only fair that Israel is a ‘legitimate’ entity that needs to ‘protect’ itself. Protection defined as such may justify the killing of civilians, in a different way than say ‘terrorist’ practices do. Terrorists have nothing to protect. They are out of a discourse of human rights. They are evil incarnate. Falling outside the hegemonic makes you unrecoverable.

A discourse of human rights sanctifies and makes it possible for this political Frankenstein to exist. The question to ask is when does the Palestinian question fall within a discourse on human right (which would then only make it a legitimate claim ‘respected’ by the West) and when does it fall outside of it? The politically dominant strives to push it outside of the ‘civilized’ discourse in order to legitimizes more killing while the world looks at it oblivious because it becomes ‘logical’ that Israel or someone else acts this way. You can kill much more recklessly when you are on the side of liberalism.

One sad point here is that the Palestinian question will only acquire saliency when it fully complies with this discourse, something most western-educated Palestinians or pro-Palestinians strive to achieve. One will always look at Hamas with ‘reservation’ because at the end of the day Hamas is not inscribed in this discourse, neither through its claims (calling for the destruction of Israel) nor through its practices (hitting ‘civilian’ targets). That is the biggest tragedy. One cannot actually make a case that Israel as a political entity with the history it projects should be destroyed. Or maybe one can, but it will take a lot of other subverting strategies. And weapons, lots of them…

For now Islamic movements are not revolutionary enough at the political level. They have to extirpate themselves from a discourse of human rights. Their use of ‘religion’, and their practice of piety is a good place to start. We need to go back to a discourse of human ‘roles’. Away from morals and into ethics…

Democracy for you

What is mostly fascinating in Lebanon is that it presents an excellent example of the fictions of democracy. It renders visible the inherent tension between power/authority necessary for rules and decisions to be taken and people’s ‘bread and circus’ the democratic processes where unlike the Roman setting, here, we are made to believe that ‘everybody has an opinion that has to be taken into consideration’.

But authority discriminates inherently. State (and Nations) are built on this fundamental principle. Language, histories, territory, etc change based on this inherent violent founding act.

People are quite content to talk about democracy, liberalism, and the right to choose a leader, when the most basic violation has already happened: that people are defined by the very authority they think they are choosing, the very way authority is structured in the first place. In this case, people never choose, they are born and grow up in a conditioning state, established by the local legislative contexts and the relation to a history, a past they inherited from others before them.

Do you choose to be an American, a Lebanese, or anything else that authority sanctions before you are even born?

And in effect, Lebanon is a flagrant example of this because it has several layers of conditioning hierarchies while championing the discourse of democracy and rights et al. First there is the absurd positing of Lebanon as an entity with a State that barely functions. Today, no one questions this fact. Second, the confessional system which in the way it was established here (I will draw your attention to the radical difference with the Swiss case in a later post) precludes the possibility of building a State. Democracy here (the actual act of voting in the legislative and municipal elections) is set to strengthen this status-quo by renewing the acceptance of this newly conceived ‘society’, or ‘civil society’ (another absurd term), of the prevailing divisive and discriminatory system (to the different ‘confessions’ of the territory, and to who is conceived as ‘non-Lebanese’).

Democracy, in the case of Lebanon, has this added element that it fosters, year after year, the schizophrenia of people that must answer to the jurisdiction of that State.

Aoun parading in Damascus

Sometimes Al Akhbar becomes such a trashy Nationalist newspaper. Everybody has been commenting about Michel Aoun’s visit to Syria, some describing it as a visit to the devil (I’ll let you guess which media outlet) and others going as far as saying that it’s the most important post-Taef visit.

So the screams of the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman from Germany that only heads of state should make visits to other heads of State seems to have fell into deaf ear, because if one has to believe the account of Al Akhbar today, Aoun had a very intense love affair with Asad while threatening Israel that if they don’t let the Palestinian refugees return, they will ‘regret it’.

I should probably stop here and remind Aoun that the only dudes who can threaten Israel are Hizbullah, and even if he thinks he’s talking on their behalf or trying to look good in front of them, or worse if he’s trying to profit from this situation of ‘force’ in which Hizbullah got Lebanese into in order to advance Christian interests of seeing Palestinians go home, all this seems pitiful.

But to return to Al Akhbar, the journalist of this article explains to us how Aoun had ‘Arabic’ ice cream and strolled around the Omayyad mosque.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that what Aoun is doing since his alliance with Hizbullah is what every Christian leader should be doing, but let’s just calm down in terms of rhetoric because the contrast with the isolationists has never been that great. Stop nationalistic romanticism. Everybody has his own agenda, and although this can surely contribute to peace and stability if it is played out correctly, it does not mean that it is anything but that: different political calculations, and nothing to mystify.

But medias are the new priests (in the pejorative sense of the term of modernity. They want to educate, rewrite history or relation to history, and make people think that there is something called ‘The Lebanese’ or at least that it is in the making, a making they shape for them. That’s one aspect of Freedom of Speech for you: the creation of social, political and cultural difference based on an imagined sense of belonging.

Special dedication to Haqid who loves the practice of the raised arm

Following an intense conversation with EDB the one and only (who vowed to re-start the writing from the Banana republic), I thought that this scene pictured below showed that Hizbullah looked like a bunch of punks compared to these dudes. Discuss amongst yourself!


And this time haqouda, it goes hand in hand with the uniform! Funny that L’Orient le Jour puts the picture on its front page and does not feel that there is something fishy about it. Here is their caption: “Une foule monstre acclamant et saluant le chef des Kataëb au cours de la 2e commémoration de l’assassinat de Pierre Gemayel”. This is what I call internalization. Say, where are we with the plan of bringing down their offices? Ask Sean.

There is a good article in Al Akhbar on the changes undergone within the party and the merging of Samy Gemayel’s Loubnanouna into Amin Gemayel (his father)’s kataeb. We are marching towards a brighter future.


This post is undergoing severe re-Clarification! It is the writers opinion, following his enlightened readers, that the terms used obscure more than clarifies the meanings he is trying to propose…

It is not “religion” that makes people more “conservative” and sexually less “liberal”, but it is the capitalistic system, and the emergence of a bourgeois society. So Religion, or religious institutions in a capitalist system, religion under the watchful eye of the State can project more “conservative” practices.

Yet “conservative” does not mean much, and the management of the body is a much more complex issue than being “free to do whatever I want”. Because “free” and thinking that one knows what he/she “wants” are conceptual illusions that blind you from seeing how enslaved one is by the power structures in place. And that’s the merit of the liberal system.

The politics of “the rule of law” and that of “God”

I am more and more convinced that there is no basic difference between what is commonly called “secular” and “divine” rule. And I’m stressing the political dimension of this. Its performative dimension. Of course religiously derived rule is “rule of law” too. But here I’m using the secular concept of “rule of law” as European enlightenment has convinced itself and convinced the colonized world that there is such a difference, between “human-based” rights, and ethics (turned into rules) derived from religious teachings. Secular rule derive legitimacy from the texts of men whereas religious rule (an invention that arose in reaction to the idea that ‘secular rule’ exists) derive legitimacy from the texts of God, and the words of prophets (let’s not even venture in the discussion that prophets are men).

But in both cases, it is the actual texts that authorize ruling (not men). Reading is interpreting and interpretation is always different depending on the historical context of the reading (if I want to summarize a very thorny theoretical issue!). Texts are read by men (of course ‘women’ too) and they assume a constant supremacy over them. Indeed the most important aspect of these texts at the legal level is this space where the text is held above men, which is the same in rules supposedly whether derived from men or ‘God’. It is assumed that texts change more often in content under a ‘man-based’ rule, and I’ll go with the assumption that it does, but the result is the same when the text is set during a specific period of time it is above immediate human judgment.

Now a little story that will illustrate only one application of what I am trying to say: If I cross the street in London when the green light is on for cars, taxi driver (those who probably are mostly used to follow ‘the law’ to the letter) would actually accelerate the speed of his car in a seeming attempt to hit you. In this instance, there is a brief time where the law supersede the ‘human condition’, where the possibility of killing is ‘ethically’ less condemnable because “he’s conforming to the law”. And in every human action the English system is mainly based on this all pervasiveness of the law. Every human action is sentenced by a rule, a role, that is made much more explicit and inscribed than in other systems of rule (my point is that the “God” predicament does not change much).

Actually most Nation-State’s rate of success (economically, socially, etc.) is measured according to how strongly the ‘rule of law’ is ‘respected’, to what extent it dominates human relation, over human’s ability to make instantaneous choices. The disciplinary extent of that can be quite pervasive: it is the flip side of the fictitious ideology of “Individualism”, “free will”, etc. So many times have I gotten the typical answer “Sorry we understand you, and although it is an exceptional case, we have to follow the procedure or else it will be against the Law”.

I would actually postulate that human-derived laws can be way more detrimental and ‘despotic’ than God derived ones at the very least because of this feeling of superiority that man has when he finds out that he’s the bearer of ‘the logos’, of the Verb. I will stop here so that it does not result in a long post. But these ideas will be developed at length in coming posts.

Sex, Sex, and Sex (now do your job search engines)

Some time ago NBN (care of Nabih Berri, leader of Amal) had a show on relationships between the sexes that quickly turned into a debate about sex before marriage. The show consisted of an audience of students probably in their twenties, put in front of one Maronite priest, one Shi’a sheikh, and a sociologist from the Lebanese university (or Balamand, not sure).

I want to comment on what came out of this show, because I think it demonstrated quite well the big questions around which ‘sexuality,’ as a concept, has been framed, at least, in this part of the world. And my aim is to be as brief as possible so that people might actually want to read the whole post. So here are my tentative claims:

When we talk of sex before or after marriage today we raise questions; we come to understand sexuality very different ways than say a century ago. The role concepts like ‘religion’ and ‘belief’, play in the way sexuality is understood or framed change overtime in the sense that the very ‘notion’ of ‘sexuality’ does not mean the same thing for different people at different point in time and space. My claim is that the way we ask questions about sexuality betrays a specific ‘modern’ understanding of it that we in turn project back to some ‘non-modern’ past. This was clearly present in the discourse of the people attending the show, with or without social status (priest, academic, etc). Again just to illustrate, sexuality in the ‘modern’ sense is framed along new categories such as ‘private’ and ‘public’, sex related choices are made by ‘individuals’ living in a ‘society’. Most importantly, it puts the individual in the spotlight as a taking decision, analyzing and making ‘choices’ based on ‘reason’ or reasoned thoughts (i.e. this is good for me because such and such, or bad because such and such). All this is rather new.

The problem raised by all these ‘individuals’ when talking of their notion of sexuality is mostly not one of ethics, or even ‘morals’, but one that resembles what we clumsily call ‘identity’, and that I would characterize for the sake of simplicity here as a problem of ‘projected tradition’. Of course, social actors in place do for some think that the nature of their question is ‘moral’ (or reasoned) and that’s the whole novelty of it, but one need to go beyond the moralistic claim as representing fixed ‘values’ each person borrows from a pool of eternal norms that here we call ‘religious’ and there ‘secular’, etc. And so by identity I mean a completely fragmented constant effort at attaching representations of the self according to different traditions, histories or narrative, different signifiers built on difference, while being subjected to the various institutions, ‘legimators’, disciplinary agencies that are put in place. One needs to understand the specificity as well as the banality of statements such as ‘I am a secular’ or ‘a religious’, a ‘Muslim’, or ‘liberalist’, etc.

Every claim is attached to different representations of what the body ‘means’ for the self along with its experiential testimony (that in any case is always reverberated by meaning). If I put a veil or I don’t do sex before the marriage it means that I decide to manage my body in a specific way that builds up my ‘individuality’ as attached to the different signifying chains I make. But this building up of ‘individuality’ is crucially modern and legitimated by very similar agencies of power throughout the world, namely Nation-States and what has been dubbed ‘the liberal system’, that I definitely don’t think the “Islamic” wave challenged, for the simple reason that the political apparatus prevailing is being used without being changed by “Islamists”.

Which leads us to my third idea: with the rise of the modern state as a massive redistributor, reorganizer, and mobilizer of resources, living entities and geographies, and most importantly, as an institutional challenger to other social arrangements that once prevailed, ‘religion’ comes to occupy a different social space. The ‘religious sphere’ is created in reaction to this weird invention, the ‘secular sphere’. There is no religion, at least as we know it today before the rise of ‘the secular’ (a perfect example is the word ‘Din’ that did not mean the European term ‘religion’ likewise developed through the emergence of the capitalist system). These are new understandings elaborated in the epoch of ‘modernity’, projecting in the past notions worked out in the present through a specific reading of history, another tool for creating narratives or stories of belonging.

Now let’s see how all three points meet:

So during the show, as every person deploys such concepts and notions depending on personal strategies, experience, background, lifestyle, dispositions, etc, the different protagonists battled their way through making sense of their different social positions. The sheikh kept on going back to the idea that ‘religion’ is still very useful to regulate the lives of the commoners and that sex before marriage is more a source of nuisance than anything else, especially with marriage as a contract and very flexible tool etc. Here for example what the Sheikh points out to be ‘the religious’ was once ‘the social’ (also as we call it today) if I can permit myself such an abstraction. But the Sheikh does not realize this or let’s say that even if he did he’s nonetheless constrained by this hegemonic notion of the religious I am myself trapped in as I presently write.

The priest tried to articulate a concept of “love” which various significations could help the individual confront the realities (read as ‘choices’) fragmented families, teenagers and young adults are exposed to, and in turn could be used to strengthen their relationships. Knowing how to love creates types of union etc. The priest was in this sense way ‘weaker’ than the Sheikh, a sign of the more enduring autonomy of Islamic institutions in legislating lives and so adapting to changing meaning of words. This is understandable in the sense that the priest (along with Christian ecclesiasts of the Orient) internalized the western discourse on religiosity, an effect of the influence of Christian western missions to Lebanon that completely changed local Christian understandings of ‘Christianity’, and created an unbridgeable schism between enduring local social practices that are very similar to Islamic ones and are alien to practices that emerged in the ‘secular’ world, and the actual language that derives from the latter world.

One obvious example of this is when one guy quite sarcastically said that he was already in his mid-20s and kind of had difficulties managing his libido, and could not get married for obvious socio-economic reasons (changing realities we live in), and that he asked for counseling. So the Sheikh immediately answered him that he had the choice of zawaj el muta’a, while the priest kept on turning in circles diverting from the very banal issue of the guy until he said in an exasperated way “I have no solution for him”. The priest is left with the ‘secular’ version of Christianity, one that has no social solution in itself, but needs the backing of the all powerful State and its disciplinary institutions. Both the Sheikh and the priest though are trying to find answers to questions modernity asks.

The sociologist was a bit useless, stating obvious things such as attraction exist and that ‘statistically’ when two people are attracted and they are in the same reason there will most likely be some type of contact, you can avoided etc. This is probably a mark of the weakness of academic institutions in this part of the world in creating predominant worldviews (ideologies) and adapting discourse to local particularities without copy pasting Comte, Weber, or Gidden’s Sociology. Again this reinforces the authority ofwhat are today called ‘religious’ instances.

At some point a veiled woman in the audience answered a guy who’s been arguing for sex before marriage, explaining his argument by saying: ‘You are a secular, and I am a motadayineh’ the latter translates roughly as ‘religious’, in any case nowadays. But I think this claim is one that aims at drawing imaginary and so political differences (whether they exist in a ‘hard’ reality or not). They don’t exist as ‘sign’ that’s for sure. The question of identity that I tried to get around before is probably at work here. Then she adds quite interestingly “there is no difference between ‘making love’ and ‘having sex’ except for the emotions involved” and so for her, “marriage is for sex”. Indeed, for her, the system which encompasses what she calls ‘religiousness’ includes the social practice of getting married, legitimating, rendering ‘just’, in order to have sex. This choice she makes is akin to the one some women make when they decide never to have sex on the first night, or any other disciplinary practice that has the function of managing ‘sexual’ activity, or of course the total opposite which is to be ‘sexually liberated’ to choose to have sex whenever she wants.

But to go on a tangent here (already somehow explored in another post), one of my main ideas is that when we invoke the concept of the Secular we either refer to an institutional arrangement or a ‘State of being’. In the first case, the modern nation-state makes it very hard for alternatives to secular arrangements to exist (for example even if Iran as a political system claims to divert from secular governance, it is still institutionally very much a secular state where ‘religious’ authorities always have their legitimacy challenged by other political actors). In the second case, we are in a totally different place, we are referring to an imaginary sense of being (any sense of being is imagined I am just stressing the ‘imaginary’ part of it), that resembles more nationalist discursive elaborations, appealing to a historical tradition, a narrative that makes sense differently to each individual, although the process itself is the same (for ex claiming to be ‘religious’ or ‘secular’).

During the show, the most important (in the sense of the most mentioned) argument against sex before marriage revolved around a specific understanding of femininity, of ‘the woman’, the ‘woman in the east’, ‘the east’ as opposed to ‘the west’, etc. Most of the students agreed that one of the main problems facing women is how they will be marginalized and oppressed if they have sex before getting married (‘the fault is always on the woman’ they repeated). The Sheikh and the others agreed with this perceived social status-quo, calling on the students to then take marriage as a useful tool to escape this danger.

But I was astonished to see the extent to which certain women internalize this status-quo. At some point, one woman says to a guy advocating sex before marriage: “At the end of the day, will you accept to marry a non-virgin woman”, and I don’t know why but the other guy did not answer, and the discussion went into another direction. But this woman takes very seriously this eventuality: being refused by men because they lost their virginity ‘to somebody else’. She was practically accusing the guy of even thinking getting a woman that is not virgin. This is not just ‘female subjection’ as would a classical feminist reading of this would go but also ‘man subjection’: She was calling on the man to fulfill his role as “man” in a certain sense as dictated by ‘eastern society’. When you define the woman you are defining the man, a subject always overlooked by those studying women’s condition in this part of the world.

So in a way this was an unconscious acknowledgement that there is no ‘essential’ moral problem with having sex before marriage, but that it had to do with a particular region (they do it in the West but they are ‘different’, again the identity argument) that creates specific understandings of what it is to be a woman or a man. By the way, all this stands in radical contradiction with (and actually incorporation of) the repeated claim during the show that ‘we live in another epoch today’, the ‘epoch of fast information, internet, etc’ where ‘everything is available’. This is basically sex in the modern age: A redefinition of roles, a re-ordering of the functioning of institutions whether called religious or secular, a remaking of differences, and in order to defend these differences, the flashing of hollow moral arguments that hides a re-ordering of perceptions of the body and what it ‘means’ to the actors involved.

Sense and non-sense about “Political Islam”

Those studying what is commonly refered to as political Islamic movements should know that the paradigm of the Nation-State is here to stay, and quite for some time and with all its institutional and politically practical consequences. The whole ‘secular VS religious’ debate begs the question. It is all an endlessly renewed effort to find a discursive envelope to the same infernal machine called the modern State with its projected population/territory/etc. It does not mean that alternative to the classical European narrative to the nation is not possible. “Islamism” is one such. And I’m not saying that the Nation-State cannot be challenged by “Islamists”. It can actually be challenged by any politically relevant actor/organization when the latter can challenge on a large scale the economic and cultural logic of the capitalist system and all of its institutional (legal for example) ramifications. Although “Islamists” branch out and create at times slightly different type of institutional structures they by and large stay very much fall prey to the cultural logic of the system no matter how hard they officially fight the ‘nationalist’ paradigm because their political calculations cannot but be national, geared towards using the structure of this pre-established colonial State.

Political maronitism strikes back, and other considerations

There are several media campaigns being launched by the Lebanese Forces and some Phalangist elements. It is big showdown before legislative elections. The slogans and images leaves one to ponder. Take this one for example that does not look like it is sponsored by the Lebanese Forces or else they would have made sure to have their logo on it:

“We are the Lebanese Resistance”

What the hell are they talking about? It reminds me of the type of confrontational stance we had when we were kids that goes something like this:

– I was the first to play Lego
– No I was the first!
– My dad is the strongest
– No MY dad is the strongest

The “We” is an implicit ‘answer’ to Hizbullah they think are saying: “NO it is we who are the TRUE Lebanese resistance”. Pitiful to say the least. But in a way it is true, until very recently Hizbullah never claimed to be a “Lebanese resistance”, but an “Islamic resistance in Lebanon”. I won’t digress on the ambiguities of such statements especially that today Hizbullah forcefully argues that its resistance is ‘nationalist’.

Moving on to an explicit LF one:

This billboard is about the announcement of a mass that will be given in the memory of ‘the martyrs of the Lebanese Forces”. The top liner says: “we were brothers in martyrdom, let’s be brothers in life”. So I’m still trying to figure out what they mean by “we” but if it refers to the martyrs of Hizbullah then it is truly interesting to see how this martyrdom language has picked up like fire across all parties, especially such antagonistic ones as the LF and Hizb.

It is quite interesting to see that historically when it was Hizbullah who emerged in re-action to Lebanese Forces practices all around the country (in the 80s), now the reverse: it is LF’s discourse that is overclouded by representations of Hizbullah and it seems to ‘speak’ to them.

On another note, martyrdom has become a category as important as sect to identify with a specific imaginary collective in this tiny little geography called Lebanon. If you want to be politically relevant (or named) then you better show some martyrs. In this case, the legitimating instance is the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir (good job sanctifying the LF) who’s going to give the mass in question.

So in a way the use of the dead for the purpose of distinguishing, separating, categorizing, and naming, is ironically used to reach out to the ‘other’. That’s the sectarianism system at its best: because we are different we need to reach out to each other. And also: Even in death when we resemble ourselves, what we symbolize by being dead permits us to live separate lives.

Rome, avocados, and post colonial thoughts

Today we went to the ‘ethnic’ market (the place where liberal States frame their acceptance of the ‘other’, and let him sell his goods). Avocados looked nice at one particular stand but I was quickly repulsed by an etiquette saying that they came from Israel. Call it an ‘Arab’ reflex, this little chill down your spine when you something or someone baring the mark of ‘the Israeli’, but hey, can’t help it. How many countries produce avocados around the world? And its Israel who gets to have its avocados on the lucrative EU markets. I don’t think this is what economists call ‘competition’…

So why oh why do the Europeans import their avocados from Israel? Because of something called a ‘preferential trade agreement‘. There seems to be a petition to suspend the EU-Israel agreement (not that I believe in petitions but you could go sign it).

Anyway so I quickly stepped away from this vegetable/fruit place and went to another one whose avocados looked nicer. As I could not find a country of origin displayed, I asked the guy if he knew where these avocados were from. The guy diligently started looking between boxes until he finally claimed triumphantly pointing his finger to one label that they were from South Africa. I couldn’t help but think of the once prevalent Apartheid regime and all that, but then I’m like, the hell with it, it is still better than buying Israeli, and as I am paying the guy, he asks me where I am from, I answer him and return the question to which he answers: Bengladesh. And so being a bit surprised, judging from his light color of skin (forgive my quick stereotype here), I tell him that I thought he was Spanish or something. He immediately screams with a huge smile: Thank you!

Ok so what was this all about? Bengladeshis wanting to be Spaniards or anything else European for that matter. This is what it was all about. The ‘colonized’ wants to be like the once ‘colonial’ and today ‘European’. Antonio Gramsci (being in Rome I should refer to Italians) once explained that Marxist revolution in terms of the appearance of working class consciousness was not going to work just like that because ‘the poor’ wants to become ‘the rich’, to emulate him, to identify to the image he makes of ‘the rich’. This could be extended to any type of social distinguishing group (so instead of class we could thing of any ‘type’ of social group). The colonized/colonizing, first world/third world, us/them basically, given that ‘them’ looks more afluent or powerful, more at ease etc.

Autonomy, independence and other treacherous words

Even Fawwaz Trabulsi, in his new book, The Modern History of Lebanon, thinks that Mount Lebanon (The ‘Imara that is) enjoyed some ‘degree of autonomy’, since the 16th century. I have a problem with the concept of “autonomy”. I am reading the Arabic version of the book, that Trabulsi himself wrote (he originally wrote in English), where he uses the word ‘istiqlal’. First of all, if it is administrative autonomy we are talking about then yes, as long as you were paying your taxes and aligning ‘foreign policy’ (if that meant anything for confessional feuds) with Ottoman’s interest, you can call the rest of the bothersome task of making these people agree on things an autonomous process. But that’s without counting the numerous wheeling and dealings that Ottoman, French, British, etc. diplomats had to go through to make the system work.

Nothing different from Syrian ‘occupation’, or before that French Mandate and its sequels. The only thing that probably helped foster the “Lebanese” political model is the slowly crystallizing sectarianism that still changed in modes of action after the fall of the Ottoman empire.

But I want to go beyond that. No historian is able to go out of reading history without using present concepts. Instead of trying to locate a ‘starting point’ in Lebanon’s history, why not look at how the different imaginative spheres that created the idea of “Lebanon” or “being Lebanese” changed over time (according to changing political social and economic factors). Then we could probably fix this particular way of writing history. For me, evaluating ‘degrees of autonomy’ is falling in this trap because it emanates from a very present concern, a concern of justifying Lebanese statehood ‘now that it exist’.

My grand uncle passed away recently at the age of 101. There is a lot to be said about this man who was a diplomat and who saw the rise of the present political state, unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk to him and lately he was kind of tripped out. Everybody in the family directly affected by his heritage was eagerly waiting for this moment. He was the proprietor of a beautiful old house in Amchit built by my Great great grandfather (The grandfather of my grandfather let’s say). Anyway, now cousins and what have you are snatching their percentage share of the house. I went there two days ago to see an uncle who was packing stuff, and I stumbled on a picture of my ancestor with his Turkish tarboush, his Ottoman long mustache, his Sherwal and nice collarless jacket. He had this virile, piercing look while holding in one hand one of his kid and in the other, his wife, who’s semi-veiled by the way: the black long veil that Maronite women wore in villages.

This Great great grandfather had made a door inside the house with an Ottoman inscription and the Ottoman crescent and star on top of it. Now why would he do such a thing? Next to his picture, my uncle had put up a picture of his son (the son of the GGgfather, grandfather of my uncle), taken probably 20 or so years later, dressed in a European suit, with French style hair of the 1920s, and kind of a feminine allure. Between one epoch and the other there is the fall of an immense administrative edifice, and the rise of a new one, the nation-state.

How did my Great great grandfather think of himself? Probably that he was an “Ottoman subject’, a Maronite Christian, an Arab (?) whatever that signified for him at the time, a silk and salt trader who needed to be on good terms with Ottoman political circles and many many other things that reminds us that the concept of ‘identity’ is so phony. It does not mean that my GGGfather thought highly of the Ottoman empire, or maybe he did, and all that does not really matter. The point is that he was trapped in a completely different worldview, he was playing by very different rules of the game to ‘become’ what he wants to ‘become’.

So What did “Lebanon” mean to my GGGfather? Surely not what it means to Fawwaz Trabulsi or to any “Lebanese” subject today, including me. How can we recapture what it meant to him and how it was different from what it meant to his son twenty years later, during the French mandate?

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.