If you thought Beirut was a complicated place in a complicated (made-up) country, in a chopped-up region, then wait until you travel to one of the Balkan territories where different religions, languages, tribal affiliations are stacked in territories formerly part of different age-old empires. Their entry into “modernity” is paved with tragedies: first joining the communist hemisphere, subsequently creating their own movement such as in the case of Yugoslavia, and finally ending up broken down to a myriad of countries eagerly waiting to enter the EU or NATO (which basically means the same there as the motive for joining is mostly security-related).

Yugoslavia’s Tito was surely one of the strangest instance of late nation building. Did Attaturk, with all the cleansing of dominant cultural Ottoman forms that he engaged in, have an easier task at hand in fabricating the Turkish nation? The answer is not so evident. Turks were as much an invention as the Yugoslavs, and the territory that constitutes modern Turkey is as much a random draw on a map by some bold general in the turn of the century as is Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and so many other parts of the former Ottoman empires.

Why did nation building “succeed” in Turkey when it failed miserably in the Balkans, or at least in former Yugoslavia. Nation-building seems to only work where it is fierce, violent, drastic and uncompromising. the more the cultural changes were drastic and even  I’m sure that many people proposed answers to the question of the failure of Yugoslavia. I mean what’s there to succeed really. But asked through this odd comparison, the question leads us to an interesting problem.

It seems that Tito was “kinder” than Attaturk where the main language, serbo-croat, could be written in several scripts depending on where you lived. In contrast, Attaturk not only imposed Turkish everywhere, a significantly different language from Ottoman but he also changed the script from Arabic to Latin. There is a language committee of some sort that, until now, annually meet and gradually remove from Turkish, words with Arabic origins and replaces them with words that older Turkic tribes may have used. Ironically the Croats have adopted this method to distance themselves from their Serbian compadres.

Another thing that got me thinking is that Yugoslavia was a collection of territories that were at the crossroads of so many different age-old empires: most importantly, the Austria-Hungarian and the Ottoman empire. The worst historical combination is cross empire failure succeeded by cross nation building. At the frontier of traditional empires seem to coalesce a rich mix of communities suffusing religion, languages, sense of history etc. But empires attract the concentration of communities as they are a center of prosperity. How ironic that one type of political system (empire) could bring communities to live side by side, even if for pragmatic reasons, as another (nation-state) tended to create ethnic-cleansing urges or authenticity quests. yet one system (empire) is mostly pre-capitalist where the other (nation-state) is the sine qua non of what economist believe was the take-off of prosperity for mankind.

But here are some random analogies between Zagreb and Beirut. So for example, the Croats were much luckier than the later called Lebanese as Zagreb seemed to be an important city for the Austria-Hungary an empire. The buildings are numerous and magnificent. In contrast, Beirut was a marginalized province of the Ottoman backyard (so much so for all the historians or just ideologues who claim that Beirut is such a historical place). In general, apart from Istanbul, the Ottomans did not really care for building much. They were mostly interested in collecting taxes through local magnates and let them decide on urban planning (sorry for the historical anachronism here but you get what I mean).

In any case, what strikes me the most as soon as I leave Beirut and step into any other country is how poor Lebanon is. And by poor I mean in the many ways you can use this term. Mostly though, in providing the basic necessities of life and in creating a space for people to interact as a community. Zagreb is a magnificent city, with huge sidewalks, parks, markets selling the best agricultural local produce in the middle of downtown. Imagine for one second this happening in our plastic Gulf occupied Beirut downtown, between a parking lot and another, between the Aishti and Prada shop. You do have an agricultural produce market in downtown, Souk El tayeb, but it only works every Saturday and where a cucumber is most likely to sell at 5$ a piece.

Also, just for posterity, if a country is between East and West (what a horrible appellation) it is more likely to be Croatia rather than Lebanon who’s well entrenched in the East if anything. This appellation was used by several Croatians. And when I said that I was from Beirut I got as an answer “Oh how exotic!”. So let’s push the boundaries of East further to the west.

The most memorable moment of my trip was when a Croatian guy drew some parallels between our two “civil” war torn countries. He told me that people who lived in war zones for a long time seem to think that they have a special or unique experience which makes them more special than the rest of humanity. “But as soon as you get out of your country you realize how the world is way ahead of you in every way”, he concluded. On this, I have to say, he is completely right.

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.

Crisis in the group

Well that does it for me. Speak no more. I just had the confirmation for what I always thought: People at ICG (International Crisis Group) could well join the rank of the phony ‘experts’ that make a living out of writing journalistic reports about a political situation but while giving it more credibility by issuing the report with an institutional ‘think-tank’ stamp.

Check the latest report of ICG on Lebanon. That’s the title: The new Lebanese Equation: The Christian’s central role… Just read the “executive summary” to get to what corner of mental derangement the guy can take you. No need to read the rest of the text unless you are interested in curious cases of insane imagination.

Stamp it, fix it, make it an axiom: The only central role (if you want to think with such a stupid concept as ‘centrality of role’ in this case) that one can see not only in Lebanon but in the region at large is the one played by Hizbullah. They are the biggest winner, and on all fronts. Now of course, no single actor/group gained a role, the situation is just very different for everyone, and there is no group called ‘Christians’ in lebanon, there are Christians loosing and Christians winning if you want to call them like this. Likewise Hizbullah gained on levels and is constrained on others.

This ICG article triggers other open-ended questions that could be researched:

1- Journalists/producers of information, foreigners, coming to Lebanon end up
adopting the concepts used by Lebanese themselves to understand a situation (confessional concepts for example), ‘Christians’ is an entity that ‘play’ a ‘central’ role for example.

2- Think tanks and pundits adopt the Hollywood-based train of thinking that you need to find something ‘catchy’ to write an article on the ‘situation’ in a specific country. You can’t just say that the various protagonists ended up resolving Doha in such and such a way after fighting on several fronts peaking with the Beirut demonstration of force. No, you need to find something good. Something Brussels would like, in this case, “Christians” are strengthening because well it is original, it is about the Middle East and it is not about “Islamists”, plus in the backdrop of Christians ‘not-strengthening-at-all’ in Iraq or Syria or etc.

3- The explosive rate at which the general industry of producing information grows is highly alarming. More and more people are making their living out of basically producing crap. They create institutions, start ranking themselves in them, from one type of expertise to the other. Academia is basically the same thing but has much more history and has the sanctity of ‘educating’ giving ‘diplomas’, etc which basically means giving a social position/distinction. I’m sure one day, with the growing ‘democratization’ and ‘globalization’ encountered by the various human creatures of this planet there will be think-tanks, hey, even bloggers, giving diplomas and certificates!

Lebanonisms: a quick retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

My point(s) here are:

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

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

Military codes and what have you

The day after the quick removal of Mustaqbal’s mercenaries from West Beirut, a Saturday if I am not mistaken, there were no cats on the streets. The roads from Hamra to Gemmayzeh were totally deserted. At the start of the bridge of Beshara el Khoury coming from Burj el Murr, the main road was blocked by big piles of sand, and one had to go through a little street to the right in order to cut through around the bridge and end up at the other side. After passing by a couple of smiling Amal kids with talkie walkies, I ended up facing from a significant distance the UN building in down town. The UN building in down town is the biggest masquerade ever. They are more guarded than guantanamo’s prisons. But that’s a different story.

Anyway, there were a couple of guys standing under the bridge, and judging from their clothes, they were Hizbullah militants. As I was a bit lost I approached my car from them and asked one who came forward to me: “How can I get to the other side?” The guy smiled at me and said: “What side are you talking about?”. And so because I am of the humorous type (as many of you have noticed), I said to him as I waved with my hand to the direction of “The East”, “you know… The Other side”.

And this is when he answered with a big laugh: “no, you have to be more precise! Are you scared? you know, even if you are a fan of Samir Geagea (min shabibet Geagea), I have a legal obligation (Taklif Shar’i) to do everything possible to get you safe where you need to go”. This last part was said with such pride that it was spilling over all the traits of his face. I quickly answered that I’m no fan of him, that I was just talking metaphorically, and that I needed to get to next to Gemayze. So he explained to me how to get there.

Why am I telling this anecdote? Many people heard of the “Taklif Shar’i” Hizbullah militants follow, and how it is connected to Shi’a legal principles etc. But I don’t find all these essentialist and culturally-narrow theories satisfying. I want to know in what way does this differ from any code, any disciplinary mode prevalent in military organization or any institution for that matter. What type of training other armies go through (the American army for example), and what are the similarities and differences in terms of crystallizing respect of authority and self-control? What’s the resulting relation between self, group, and organization? How is the carrying of weapon add dimensions to all that? I think it is a good starting point (not the only one by all means) to understand why is Hizbullah so well organized (compared to a chaotically disorganized Arab world).