A wisdom interlude with Imam Ali: The Heart

وقال عليه السلام: أعجب ما في هذا الانسان قلبُه وله مَوادّ من الحكمة وأضداد من خلافها: فإن سخ له الرجاء أذلّه الطمع وإن هاج به الطمع قتله الأسف. إن عرض له الغضب اشتدّ به الغيظ وإن أسعد بالرضى نسي التحفّظ. وإن ناله الزع شغله الحذر وإن اتّسع له الأمن استلبته الغرّة. وإن أفاد مالا أطغاه الغنى وإن أصابته فاقة مسّه الجزع. وإن نَهِكه الجوع قعد به الضعف وإن أفرط به الشَّبَع كظته البطنة, فكل تقصير به مضرّ وكلّ إفراط به فسد.

 

And Ali (peace be upon him) said: The most wondrous part of the human being is the heart. It has elements of wisdom, and others that are quite opposite. If the heart is lifted by hope, ambition debases it; if ambition boils over, greed destroys it; and if disappointment takes hold, regret kills it. If aggravated, its rage runs rampant; and if made happy, it forgets to be circumspect. If fear takes hold, caution preoccupies it; and if safety is secured, heedlessness strips it away. If it gains property, wealth makes it a tyrant; and if poverty touches it, it panics. If hunger emaciated it weakness ensconced it; and if satiety is excessive, the surfeit oppresses it. Every deficiency harms it, and every excess injures it.

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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.

The changes in warfare

video-games-hd-gears-of-war-horde-267715According to a statistic about the US military, “more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat“. This is an interesting article to read, all the more interesting for me as it makes me think of the significant changes in the conduct of warfare that took place more specifically since the age of technological innovations.

Just like peace, war practices, were part of ways human came to understand their selves and their relation with other humans. Just like peace had rules, war too. And just like peace permitted the construction of ethics to develop forms of human dignity, war was a mean through which humans could learn about themselves, about their representation of an enemy, how to deal with that enemy through certain form of ethical conduct, and by ethical, I mean some form of human excellence at perfecting skills that benefit everyone. So in this sense, the skills of a Hitler can’t really count.

But today, with war being practiced more and more from a distance, protagonists don’t come to really “face” an enemy. Technology has permitted the creation of an abstract field were combat techniques take place. In this sense, video games are actually the real way in which war take place because soldier are living that fantasy situation all throughout, unless a severe disruption contradicts the familiar story and threatens to disrupt their mental, spiritual and physical stability.

I don’t want to extend on all the implications of what that mean in the way war is conducted (there is a lot written on that), but I just want to point out how pointless the “war experience” has become for these soldiers who are not only unprepared to face conflict situations, as they increasingly live in a fantasy of what war could be, as a game, but do not use war as a transcendental or spiritual experience for developing ethical excellence.

Thoughts from India II

Starting probably with Gandhi, but all throughout the twentieth century, it is my belief that Indian societies (not that I think India does not preserve some blatant forms of injustice) have been both judicious and clever in protecting the importance of ethics to maintain forms of social stability and power. By ethics, I mean social rules and regulations, practices and rituals, that dually constrain and open ways for the individual to act and engage levels of consciousness (I acknowledge that my definition of ethics is quite vague!).

Indians reveal how useful ethics are by demonstrating the logics behind them, their inherent “rationale”. In brief, they linked philosophy to ethics. Here I am not at all talking about a modern understanding of philosophy where people venerate and sacralize the act of Reason. Rather, I point to the use of philosophy in order to arrive at a place that goes beyond reason, namely, the practice of ethics or living harmoniously with other fellow human beings and living entities.

In other traditional societies that have witnessed this gradual mix of realities and practices, brought on by “modernity”, the original purpose of the premodern social settings was lost. Modernity came as bearer of lessons: you are backward, you need to change, and the first thing you need to do is liberate yourself from all such social obligations that seemingly did not make sense. Beginning in the nineteenth century, a huge storm swept towards the east and scrutinized social life in order to corner it as something that forced people to abide by rules that have no purpose, namely Religion, or at the very least that there existed other ready-made social recipes that would make people happier, or free.

The strategic importance of Gandhi and the reservoir in which he picked his ideas and practices was how odd he must have sounded when ethics, “truth”, and other metaphysical objectives had been discredited by a mercantile and individualistic society. These western societies had replaced these forms of “spiritual truth” by “reason”, which they thought the Greeks worshiped. Nietzsche’s critique here could not be more visionary. Alas, Nietzsche’s fell into the trap of Orientalists when he put Indian philosophy in the same bag as European enlightenment. “Truth” for Indians was not at all the self-righteous model that Nietzsche detected in Western philosophy and which morality he labeled as the one of slaves.

And so when Gandhi lays down ‘the system’, this meticulous observation of countless ethical norms and practices, which seemed odd in the beginning, it becomes highly strategic as it empowers societies and thus political systems. I explained one drawback of this in the previous post. Fighting colonialism in this case involved working on the mind, the spirit. Even though the Indian political system is still heavily indebted to colonial practices it did escape to some extent another virulent form of colonization that other societies gave into.

Indeed, unfortunately, Islamic societies of, say, the Arab world that contained the exact same potentials as Indian society, fell completely for the worshiping of new liberal secular values brought on by colonial political changes. One implication of this is that ethics as in “religion” was something “bad” precisely because it did not have any “logic” to it. One should look at what is “rational” and her lies the most important point: the irrational element within (and thus the ideology behind) the “rational” recipe did not excluded most rules and regulations that these societies followed and so most of them were abandoned.

And even today, with the so-called “Islamic resurgence” and its emphasis on the importance of ethics in regulating the life of the individual colonial schemas, especially aspects of the liberal paradigm are taken for granted. To be continued.

The sexuality fixation of the left reveals its liberal nature

Following Jamal’s post on leftism and its concern with “nudity” I did some thinking (never enough) and I ended up circling around this idea that the left always contained the elements needed to provoke its own demise.

The left’s stance concerning the dispositions and use/techniques of the body (sexual freedoms sometimes narrowly defined) is supposed to go hand in hand with the idea that to fight oppression, one must be able to manage his body as he/she pleases. Society imposes all kinds of rules on these practices, this status-quo is called “conservative”. When you put into question these rules you become “progressive” or “leftist”. One of the biggest problem the left has with Islamic movements is their very disciplined, gendered type of politics.

Notwithstanding the fact that this aversion betrays a bourgeois contempt of the left towards the other, I think the left completely lost focus of what fighting the domination/oppression of the body really is about (surely not the narrow minded ‘sexual freedom’). The exact lines of power between the self, the body and society are not as clear as “i can have sex with whoever I want”.

First the contradiction: if one is supposed to cultivate a ‘free’ management of the body, then one becomes self-centered and with time loses his more social concerns. I think this is why Fascism and Communism are not just two sides of the same coin (two opposite extremes), they are the mirror image of each other. Both ask for the erasing of the individual into the overarching ‘social’. The left thinks naively (in a liberalist way) that the individual actor can do this and at the same time learn to do “whatever he wants with him/herself”. But this makes one fall into a narcissistic pseudo-destructive individualistic practice of the self.

By the way, the real challenge to the Liberal political system of state-forming Europe was Fascism, and not Communism. Because it challenged the very nature of the relation between the self, the body and society, whereas the left was more concerned with preserving the liberal legacy of the all-mighty individual actor. I don’t know to what extent fascism was truly a challenge to the liberal order because Fascism was defeated (as a grand project, but fascistic tendencies still exist in Europe and the Americas today).

This is what the Islamic trend really objects to: Communism and other leftist trends are part of the liberal legacy. Both legacies (leftist and its father liberalism) through their doctrines have poor understandings of the place the relation between body and self-mastery occupies in society.

Tchouang Tseu said

One has to accept everything as it comes,
Take account of people as humble as they can be,
Execute your tasks even without surveillance,
Formulate laws, even if incomplete,
Accomplish your duties, even if without enjoyment,
Respect the other,
Develop love for all creatures,
Follow rites without being constrained by them,
Know the just measure of an elevated conscience.

Adapt unity to change, this is the Tao.

Terrorism and Democracy

I was watching the Battle of Algiers, a film on the Algerian resistance against the French occupation made in 1966, only four years after the actual declaration of independence of the country. A film most of you have probably seen or heard of but was completely unknown to me until yesterday!

Beyond the fact that the movie has many great subtleties at the level of its images, screenplay, etc I just want to point out from this film one underlying penetrating question that stayed on my mind. After the arrival of the “Colonel Mathieu” who is sent to destroy the terrorists FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and the start of the “interrogation” that is a facade word for torture in order to extirpate information from any suspiciously looking Arab, there is a very interesting dynamic at play that the authors (possibly not voluntarily) put in image. The film shows in a very raw and powerful manner how the world (here the UN) sat silently while thousands of people were tortured in order to dismantle the FLN:

The eyewitness reports and recently published documents leave no doubt about the brutality, extent and systematic use of torture in Algeria. Part of the daily practice included mass rapes, submerging victims in freezing water or excrement, and repeated use of electric shocks. Even in the Algerian hinterland where there was no electricity, electric shock torture was carried out using the so-called ” Gégène“, utilising the pedal-powered generation system used for the radio stations.

So to go back to the film, the Colonel holds a press conference after we learn that one of the leaders of the FLN have committed suicide in his cell. After several questions prodding indirectly the practices of the military, one journalist decides to directly ask about torture. And the colonel stops him short by saying that he and his military institution are no ‘fascist’, “a bunch of us fought in the resistance against the nazis” he says by adding something like “we are designed to fight and win, once YOU have decided that Algeria should be to France”. The directors of this movie are verbalizing the idea that the army was actually imprisoned of French politicking, and was kind of ‘doing its job’. But there is something much more important to this event, especially when you view it in light of the half a century that passed since then.

Beyond the French policies of the time, it is the French people and their ‘voices’, the intellectuals, the press, and others that are targeted here. Of course I don’t think the directors of the movie tried to make a value judgment imparting full responsibility on either the army or citizens or whoever. And I personally think we would miss in this way the real lesson learned from this very contemporary movie. I think there is a lesson to be learned in the age of mass-mobilization politics. What’s important here is that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between ‘terrorism’ and ‘democratic’ politics. People have probably written about this before, and no time here to refer and elaborate (but please advise if you’ve seen something written about it) but terrorism is kind of a by-product of democratic politics. Terrorism takes very seriously that it is the people at the end of the day – “in this day and age” – that are structurally linked to the decision taken to exploit, colonize, etc. other people.

But why are we horrified when civilians get killed etc. when most of the time it is civilian pressures that end up extracting political decisions? Of course we all know that when militants hit civilian targets, when they want to create “terror” it is exactly for that, to extract political gain. I just want to stress the fact that although this happens people are still horrified by militants not restricting their targets to military infrastructure. And beyond the fact that ‘terror’ is also practiced by the powerful to extract political gains or just for revenge (for example the Israeli in Lebanon in summer 2006), when we look at terrorist acts arising from an oppressive colonialist situation in this age of democratic politics, people cannot stand horrified at these practices, turning a blind eye at how decision-makers are actually representing them.

In western societies, people take pride in their revolutions, their ‘rule by the people’, the concept of democratic citizen etc. when it actually suits them. The revolutionary narrative (in America or France for example) is either a long gone metaphor that keeps the public at large self-imbued, satisfied by their ‘rights’ gained etc, or just a nationalist idiom that help create a collective imaginary. But when it comes to actual ‘dirty work’ on the ground performed by their military, there is some kind of disjunction. They are not linked to it. It is not them giving the orders. Structurally though it is. Actually the modern state and its democratic/capitalist practices permits this decentralization to the fullest. There is a fantasy in which the population of a country live in that is kept alive by the very institutions they glorify. But more on this later.