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.

Raï in Jerusalem

Maronite-Cardinal-Beshara-Rai-Getty-1The new Christian maronite patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros el Rai, has been making some bold moves since the beginning of his mandate. First his visit to Syria in the midst of the conflict degenerating, and now his decision to visit Jerusalem as the Catholic pope has schedule a Middle East tour, all show that Rai wants to re-assert some form of power for Christians in the Middle East. Now I don’t know why everyone on the left side of the political spectrum (whatever that really means nowadays) lashed out at Rai, I think this visit is deemed to be considered as involving novel strategies that inscribes Rai as the most Arab of Christian Maronite authorities since the coming of the French in the region.

Rai kept on repeating, as he defended his controversial trip to Jerusalem, that he was going strictly for religious reasons. But then Rai added “I am going there to say this is our city, I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.” Now that’s cleverly said as it contributes in a way to challenge the sovereignty of Israel over this chunk of land. Holy land is not to be possessed by nation-states. But that’s the Khomeinist rationale as explicited by his Jerusalem Day commemoration. That’s probably why Hizbullah was not so vociferous about Rai’s visit, opposing it publicly but quickly silencing the subject at the media level.

In the land where “non-state actors” prosper with or without the support of official states, what better way of producing political leverage than to use the various institutional tools at one disposal. Rai seems here to have learned from Hizbullah who uses Iran to further the interest of their community in Lebanon, producing political actions that can spill over outside of Lebanon.

Rai’s power material and symbolic springs from two different directions. His constituency and the various implications of the confessional system in Lebanon, and his institutional affiliation to the Catholic church based in the Vatican. This means that if Rai wants to bolster his position he can act on both these fronts. His recent visit to Jerusalem is clearly an attempt at gaining leverage through the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially now that the latter elected somewhat of a “third world” oriented pope. And in so doing, Rai can gain more independence as a figure representing a community that is not delimited by nation-states (Maronites in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc).

By using the “religious” card, his institutional affiliation to the Church, Rai reminds contemporary societies that communities are still represented by institutions that transcend State boundaries (in this case Israel and Lebanon). Most importantly, they remind us that where State fail to provide solutions for communities, other institutions can be used. Given the type of power the Catholic Church has, this is probably the best political move they can do. And by saying that his motivation are non-political and strictly religious, these are religious motivations that are strictly political.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Rai’s move manifest an action that transcends the State, it is still framed by State-related political calculations, in this case, the power leverage Christian can get in Lebanon.

Confusion in the age of democracy

Today in Beirut, people are confusing an assassination that has clear regional causes and implications with very narrowly defined local demands, which may just worsen the current regional situation. The assassination of Wissam al Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces is clearly the consequence of a long cold war that has began 7 years ago when the former prime minister Rafic al Hariri’s convoy was blown up with similar material.

But just to skip a few chapters and focus on the latest events, since the outbreak of popular unrest in Syria, the militarization of the conflict has spilled over into Lebanon and in so doing has opened the door to all sorts of political opportunities for groups, local, such as the Future movement and its loose allies (such as Salafist groups) and Syrians (such as the defecting military units) to team up in order to challenge the Syrian regime.

People forget that Lebanese political actors are involved in regional gambles that assure their position in power in the first place, or at the very least inform the particular local strategies they choose to adopt. And today, people are asking for a political outcome that ignores these regional dimensions. When Wissam al-Hassan was heavily involved in these gambles, people ask the government to step down on the legal ground that it cannot ensure the security of the nation. Since when was al-Hassan working with the intent of ensuring the security of the nation? The “security situation” has never been isolated in national enclaves, and if anything the modicum of a government that people have in Lebanon is one of the last obstacles, albeit a fragile one, to total security breakdown.

This is one of many examples why “democratic demands” of a seeming “civil society” in Lebanon are terms that produce more contradictions than facilitate the search for an effective solution.

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.