Spectacles of Jadeed TV

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

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

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

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Security Guards and Valet Parking

In Lebanon, I’d say half of the population parks the cars of the other half. And when they are not parking cars, valet youngsters roam around the streets with scooter bikes reserving spots for potential customers.

You also have another sizable portion, serving as security guards for residential areas, political figures, and other “big projects”. Say, Saifi village, or very recently now the Sanayeh gardens. Imagine! Who would have thought that a garden needs a security guard? But in Lebanon all gardens (and there are maybe 3 in total with a maximum of 5 trees in them) have security guards.

But someone might ask what is the relationship between security guards and valet parking. I have to say it took me a while to find it but here it is.

Well, to start with, it makes streets a very unfriendly and unpleasant place to be. Valet parking constantly bully you as you attempt to park in a spot they decided to reserve to themselves. And security guards complain for anything they could invent on the spot in order to demonstrate that walking from here, or parking your car there, is a security hasard,  just to demonstrate that they have some form of power in the most Kafkaesque of fashions.

But most importantly, these are jobs that don’t produce anything socially useful, they don’t promote useful communitarian values. They cultivate relations of subservience of one class to another and reinforce whatever social structure are in place to define different communities (in the case of Lebanon read as the confession).

I’m not a “unionist” preacher, whatever that means, but Lebanese are divided socially and this is reinforced by the way streets are populated, the way streets are uninviting to any human individual who is circulating just to breath air or look around.

People are astonished that confessionalism is so deeply entrenched in Lebanon but confessionalism is in every social act you undertake from the moment you are born until the day you die (and afterwards). And Liberalism as an economic project goes hand in hand with this type of social structure because it makes everything security sensitive which constrains people to fall back on their communities.

Marx was not wrong to think that capitalism wrecks any traditional social system and erects new classes continuously. But liberalism which is the ideological backbone of capitalism is obsessed with security, with domestification, gentrification. It does not care about classes in a material sense but preserves a “culture” of social categories.

More on this later.

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.

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.

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.

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.