The Lessons of History: Thoughts on the events in Gaza (part I)

While Israel is pounding Gaza and killing in the hundreds, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and Hamas’ fight are taking place all around the globe. Of course this doesn’t reflect dominant public opinion in the West that still is apologetic of Israel’s actions. Not one official state declaration has condemned the Israeli attacks. If anything, the few who bothered to issue a statement reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself as it was perceived to live under a constant threat of rocket shower. Check here if you want to have goose bumps.

But there is one place where no demonstrations are in sight: the Arab world. Also, not one condemnation was issued by any Arab government, not one declaration. It is taken for granted that no Western government has condoned Israeli attacks either. But how can we explain this apathy sweeping the Arab region? Surely, they have their own problems all linked to one or other form of occupation. But this conflict used to be called the Israeli-Arab conflict for crying out loud!

A couple of centuries ago, the situation in the region looked very similar: the crusaders were well entrenched on the coast of the “fertile crescent”, and the rest of the Muslim world was completely paralyzed, accepting, if not complicit, in the status quo of occupation until Nur ad-din and his successor Saladin challenged the paradigm. This is at least what the history books say. Some of this dominant cultural apathy or nonchalance, the surrender and normalization, must have existed so that these two individuals and the movements they represented have gone down in the books as changing the face of history.

Modern Arabs have not used their historical consciousness as an agent of ideological change or political action. The basic nationalistic experiments that were fashioned by colonial encounters left Arabs struggling over questions of terminology and then categorizing history in one way or another. Devising points of reference and of origin. The crusades episode was barely glossed over (until now the only book that presents an interesting take on that episode is Amin Maalouf’s. That tells you about the state of the literature).

On one hand, Arab leftist movements were too busy looking towards a brighter socially more “evolved” future and being ashamed of their Islamic heritage, helplessly wanting to teach social and political “progress” of the West. On the other hand, nationalist movements were quarreling amongst each other finding all kinds of identitarian anchors to justify their causes (the Omayyad period was a favorite as it looked the most “secular”, but also anything pre-Islamic).

No one thought of approaching history as giving lessons for political practice. More recently but still a couple of centuries ago, the “Renaissance” Italian writer Machiavelli looked at the history of the Roman Empire in this particular vein as he hoped to provide advice to unite the various Princedoms feuding over Italy. Interestingly, Machiavelli was categorized as ushering a new era of thinking politics outside the scope of religion, a state that had lasted since the advent of Catholic Christianity in Europe.

In modern times, we have fallen in to the trap of categorizing Machiavelli a secular thinker as opposed to one that was just opposed to dominant categories of analysis that happened to be held at the time by the Catholic Church with its particular understanding of history. The point of thinkers such as Machiavelli was to say that the Catholic Church could not provide the needed leverage to create political unity. Ideologically speaking, there was a need to produce new categories of thinking. Machiavelli called for a new political science, one that does away with traditional categories of analysis, not because they were bad or “backward”, but because the institutions backing them did not have anymore the means to create new political realities.

All this is to say that Arabs have been obsessed with categorizing things as either secular or religious as intellectuals of all creeds desperately clung on to the categories of colonial heritage. How could they have done otherwise? The colonizer had also captured their texts and by this token had controlled the creation of knowledge emanating from these writings! The primary victim of this reversed Orientalism espoused by Arabs was historical consciousness. The past became a cumbersome process that was only used to create identities, differences and reactionary discourse and not be a repository for good action.

The rise of Political Islam was a direct reaction to this awkward and clumsy attitude towards history. Suddenly the past was all important. But what kind of past? For example, during the Lebanese “civil war”, the crusader episode was visited in history by various Muslim groups but only to identify them to the contemporary Lebanese Christians who they were fighting between 1975 and 1990. Even though one could retrieve lessons in political practice from these uses of the past they were also creating group differentiation (here Christian VS Muslims).

And every time history was revised it was to create identitarian differences. Such as fomenting trouble between Sunni and Shia denominated groups. Books and articles, talk-shows and documentaries, all proliferate on relentless questions and searches of authenticity, developing either an alleged Sunni or Shia take on the Islamic tradition. No wonder we’ve been busied away from other conflicts.

As I looked for what was written on Nur ad-din, most of what I found was how much he was a great Sunni leader who opposed Shia Fatimid Egypt of the time. In effect, this is not incorrect. But that’s not what the prevailing historians of the time want us to remember, at least in the aftermath of the defeat against the crusaders. The point here is not that the “right” conflict is looking for the right identity to conflict with. The point is to look at the location of forms of occupation, oppression, unjust violence, etc. and understand how to remedy that through the legacy of others who did before us. How can one create the necessary form of consciousness through learning from the past in order to produce community change?

With technological revolutions and every single group or individual having a media channel of his own this ideological rallying is an immense challenge. It is ironic that Arabs are said to be closer to democracy or accountability given that they don’t even pressure their government to do something about Palestine. Is this a sign of apathy, a change of heart, or just a failure to understand and return the debt to the past?

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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.

A Christmas Lesson

In Christian festive times, Al Manar TV uses such rituals in order to focus attention on a political cause either pertaining to internal Lebanese issues (Jesus and messages of co-existence), regional (usually related to the Palestinian cause) or even international. On Christmas Eve for example, the seven o’clock news broadcast has most of its content devoted to the celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem and the various political performances around that event: Interviews with Palestinian leaders, review of the history of Palestine and specifically Jerusalem as center of Muslim and Christian co-existence. As a comparison, if there is a mention of some Christian symbolism in Christmas, and not just the usual global-market-legitimated consumerist style in the event of Christmas, it is in general simply about abstract concepts of love and tolerance that Jesus is supposed to have upheld. How many times have we watched on LBC and other Christian affiliated channels the different Hollywood productions of the life of Jesus and other figures of his time? When was this guy born? Bethlehem? Where is Bethlehem? In occupied Palestine. Where did Jesus make his most important appearance? Jerusalem. Where is Jerusalem? In occupied Palestine.

Why haven’t Lebanese Christians, so proud of their “Christianity” never made this link when celebrating Christmas? Whenever focusing on Christian related rituals or when simply referring to Jesus’ legacy, Hizbullah’s related media operationalizes these concepts in order to derive political engaged statements about certain forms of injustices in the world. When “Christianity” isolates itself in Lebanon by becoming a localized, privatized, and a-historical form of thinking ethics, some ways of re-thinking Islamic heritage shakes Christianity out of its torpor and tries to put it back in one of its historical continuum.

Grand, petty concerns, and other electoral events

I am soon going to write a comprehensive post about electoral campaigning in this place that came to be called Lebanon. But I can’t help myself not to send you previews such as the one in the last post. It is quite amazing how far imagination can take one to uncharted territories.

Check for example this potential independent candidate in Jbeil:

bechara-abi-younes

So as you can see, Mister Abi Younes, apparently an environmentalist, has a very interesting electoral program. First, Abi Younes wants to plant trees all over Lebanon. Great. Second, Abi Younes wants to “revive the memory of Adonis and Ashtarout”. Now, what that is supposed to mean, except for being a call to paganism (which I rather like in a sense) is I fear going to be forever lost in translation. So for those who don’t know, Adonis is a character from Greek mythology, and this wikipedia page enlightens us quite further on a very interesting aspect of Adonis’ story:

there is no trace of a Semitic cult directly connected with Adonis, and no trace in Semitic languages of any specific mythemes connected with his Greek myth; both Greek and Near Eastern scholars have questioned the connection (Burkert, p 177 note 6 bibliography). The connection in cult practice is with Adonis’ Mesopotamian counterpart, Tammuz: “Women sit by the gate weeping for Tammuz, or they offer incense to Baal on roof-tops and plant pleasant plants.

Regardless of the fact that there may be no connection between Adonis and Tammouz (Alas for the Phoenicians), reviving the cult of Adonis could explain why Abi Younes would want to plant trees ‘all over Lebanon’. He probably should think of planting trees from here to Mesopotemia if he is really serious about reviving the cult. And here for Ashtarout.

Third, and here is the most problematic point of his campaign: Bringing back the sarcophagus of Ahiram to Byblos.. ahem.. Jbail. Now, you would excuse my ignorance, but I did not know where this sarcophagus was. For a second, taken by a semi-nostalgic semi-nationalist fever, I browsed the net to find out who were the bastards (surely some colonial power) that took it from us. It seems that the sarcophagus is actually in the national museum of Beirut. So Abi Youness wants to plant trees all over Lebanon, because he’s a nationalist you see, but he needs Ahiram to rest in Jbail. He needs his Ahiram in his little provincial city. He needs to revive the cult of a figure only discovered less of a century ago by some French archaeologist who for some reason left it in Beirut (Maybe he did not feel that it was worthy enough for it to be paraded in the Louvre or some other post-colonial voyeuristic place in the West). There you have it, colonial powers whether they want to or not end up messing things up!

I have called this the politics of grand, petty concerns, because it situates itself between a complex mythological history encompassing vast geographies, people, etc. (Hebrews, Mesopotemians, Phoenicians, Greeks and what have you), and a very narrowly defined, petty indeed, city-state, canton-style, lubnanouhom type of politics.

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.

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?