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Friday, March 9, 2007

Chapter Two: Piss

It seems appropriate to start with the loneliness of good sense in this part of the world.

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I am in Lebanon.

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Izza ardta an ta’rif matha fi al Barazil yagib and ta’rif matha fi Italia (if you want to know what is happening in Brazil, you have to know what is happening in Italy). These unforgettable words belong to the perpetually befuddled, cuddly Husni al Barazan. He was the clueless journalist in Sah al Nawm (Good Morning), the Syrian series that made the evenings of our extreme youth, in those very early seventies, hilarious. Without Husni, Ghawwar al Tawsheh, the clownish character around whom every episode and its endless plots revolved, would not have been as brilliant. Dead-serious satire, Sah al Nawm--for me, at least--is perhaps the most fluent commentary on Arab society to date. And those words of Husni’s were meant to be the opening sentence of an article he spends the entirety of the show trying to finish—and never does.

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And so it has been for us in the Arab world. In the face of chronic flux, we reach out for Husni’s izza ardta an ta’rif matha fi al Barazil yagib and ta’rif matha fi Italia, and stop there, like him, for what’s the use of seeking new meaning in the same old tired narrative. We like to pretend that our maladies are of the special kind, that the hurt is unique to us, its pain incomprehensible to strangers, even the sympathetic ones. But the truth of the matter is that there is no conundrum at the heart of us and this…Would that there were.
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I am a few months into the latest wrestling match in Lebanon. It did not take long for this country to stroll back to the gutter. Barely fifteen years after a seventeen-year civil war, practically everywhere you look people are resting their chin on one hand, index finger shot across the cheek to give the face a knowing look, eyes in a half-squint, the lips softly smacking and, just as the other hand executes a half-turn to express wonder, “Maa’oul!” (Is this possible!) issues from our collective mouth. We are shocked, you see, shocked that we are plunging into violence again, shocked that we have forgotten yesterday’s catastrophe and its agonies.
But, then, what did we think two decades of amnesia were meant to deliver for us if not yet another round?
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The civil war suddenly and miraculously comes to and end in 1992, and an era of bazzi’ w lazzi (spit and stick), as we like to describe our band-aid cleanups, follows. Peace is constructed on the same hopelessly sectarian edifice that collapsed seventeen years back. Syria wins the prize and plays patron and peace-keeper, ring-master and trouble-maker, business partner and sole negotiator, flag waver and resistance calibrator—roles inventive enough to mold out of a straightforward guardianship a labyrinthine occupation. Euphoria is artificially induced by Rafiq Hariri, a big man with big ideas floating on the hot air that filled them. A glimmering fa├žade slowly begins to impose itself on political wounds that were never treated, over a predatory sectarianism that continued to feed on the delinquency of the state, over a shameless, boastful corruption of institutions and leaders and ordinary people (never ever skip over these) that dared its opponents to speak its name. And the people started to believe the war was a one-off, a hick-up. Talent flooded back. The young let loose their energies and gave life to their ambition. The older ones went looking for their aborted dreams. Hariri, through his Solidere, reinvented the old downtown. The Gulfies attacked. Haifa Wehbe swooned on the stage, her men spent the nights crooning. The restaurants, the clubs, the bars, the shops, the architectural statements, the exhibitions, the beaches, the fun, the summer festivals, glanced back at the recent past and declared it unworthy of mention.
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Sure, the elections were always Syrian fixed and Lebanese rigged, and the old warlords became the new cabinet wards. Sure, newspapers, starved for cash, became little more their keeper’s mouthpieces, the best among them glorified word merchants. Sure, every sectarian leader created his own television station to give his agenda a jumpstart. Of course, Israel and Hezbollah went at each other every once in a while. Yes, the Syrians pillaged our resources to the tune of $2 billion a year. So what if Solidere was a private company for private profit, which confiscated private property whose value was determined by private committees set up and financed by that same private company? And is it really a big deal that bribes were always needed to grease big and small wheels? No denying that the absurdly high interest rates on the Lebanese pound were prolonged to nourish mega fortunes into a size that is hideously obese.
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We all understood that every-- and I mean--every sectarian zaim (chief)) was happy to draw strength from the myriad quotas, from the coffers, from the silence of this hear-no-evil-see-no-evil state. Every one of us saw the sea fill up with shit and other some such filth, its centuries-old shores fast running out of sand. But only a trickle of us would concede that the poor Sunnis of Akkar and the Beka’a were joining the Christians of Burj Hammoud and the Shiites of the South in an ever widening poverty belt, while Beirut, our jewel of a bride, was sucking the government dry. But this is Lebanon, they kept telling the party poopers: private enterprise a la libanais, be-and-let-be mercantilism, shatara, cunning, not theft, all this was, a solute to the glory of Beirut, a commitment to its cosmopolitanism, a necessary concession to neo-liberalism.
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And now ma’aoul is with us all over again. We are in genuine disbelief that an ugly bit of history is rewoven, willy-nilly, into the country’s present. That this history bursts into the scene with what looks like a new identity, a new set of friends and coteries, is making its return all the more frightening because the old trickster is not only back but he’s brought with him a whole new kind mischief.
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As its practitioners keep explaining to newcomers with the patience of the chosen few and the truly privileged, the politics of this Levantine morass is so very intricate--intricate in the way serious, life-and-death issues are chopped into the smallest calculations the minute they knock on our door; intricate in the do’s and don’t’s for the Shiite and the Maronite, for the Sunni and the Druze, for this part of town and that section of it; intricate in the unfettered sectarianism that wraps itself so easily with nationalist slogans or, with a straight face, declares itself patriotism.
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But who cares about intricacy, when a spectacle can say it so well and say it all.
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A few meters away from me, as I am typing now, is a picture unforgivably telling in its downcast drabness. In the tent-city that haphazardly grew around Riad al Solh Square and the periphery of Beirut’s center sit, with hubbly-bubbly in hand, the perennially idle, eternally bored, for a while terrifying but now ignored sentries of a revolt that, for a second there, roared like a lion before it fell, like a car crash victim, into a coma.
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Hardly anyone pays attention now to these men—a few Shiites, a handful of Maronites and Sunnis, a couple of Druze (yes, I am exaggerating for effect). Beirutis walk by and drive over this ramshackle town and its residents much like the way they distractedly uuphhh their way through the capital’s many daily nuisances, its ubiquitous eyesores. True, businesses are going bankrupt, the economy is imploding and a nation’s living is heading for the bottom in a freefall, but a political status quo stubbornly holds as its enemies flail on the edge of this battered heart of the city. As a Sunni prime minister overcomes--with not much difficulty, one has to say--a Hezbollah-led siege that may speak for half of the people but is Shiite in its numbers, Shiite in its yellow flags, Shiite in its muscle, the country’s very curious temperament comes to the fore: Lebanon itself may come to an end as this half fights that, but its long reigning atavisms can never be overturned.
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In the once crowded tent-city that has become a ghostly expanse; in the nightly silence that trails a grand opening of blaring music and fiery speeches that gave you goose-bumps or raised your hair depending on where you stand; in the makeshift booths selling disposable lighters that etch on any surface the image of Hassan Nassrallah when you flick on their light; in the disappearance of the barbwire and barriers that once sealed this most expensive real estate in town, in that bigotry that erupted into an epidemic of chatter about piss and its distinct Shiite odor, in the queue of shops and restaurants that closed down, in all of these you could read the entire map of this political battleground.
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Chez nous au Liban, you have to understand, the sect itself anoints and dumps the leaders it leases to the nation. In this confessional republic of ours, it is not for Shiite Hassan Nassrallah or Maronite Michel Aoun to topple Sunni Fuad Saniora, just like it is not for Sunni Sa’ad Hariri and Druze Walid Jumbulat to oust Maronite Emil Lahoud. Here, you need to know, political geography hyperventilates every time a sect steps over the red lines into another’s mental and physical space, so Shiite multitudes cannot descend on the so-called Sunni hub and shut it down. In this metropolis, historically drunk on its cosmopolitan exceptionalism, the crude, unpolished countryside cannot walk to the middle of Beirut and shake it out of its trance. With this screaming medley of communities, the push and pull of fragmented loyalties and clashing visions, in times of trouble, always turns into an incurable vulnerability to regional vicissitudes and a toxic addiction to foreign intrusions.
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If all this is Chinese to you, don’t be disheartened, even the brightest among us more often than not misread this country’s pathetically untidy picture. When totally lost, keep in mind two general rules: Don’t go rummaging in the lofty sections of our politics in search of explanations for our mudslinging, stick to the lower parts; and think big when you are outside Lebanon, think very, very, small when you come visiting.
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But, most important of all, keep your eyes on the spectacle because it says it so well and says it all. Right there between the empty tents and the scattered chairs, on the sullen faces that become defiant only when the camera begins rolling, is the tale of how this country works and how Nassrallah, once high and mighty, went local, aimed too high, fell flat on his face and became—well, what else? Tiny.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Pieces of Me in This (cont'd)

There is no shelter here for those who see the trouble around us in color. We are homeless, disdained everywhere in this landscape that teems with every kind cheerleader and die-hard. Everywhere I turn, everywhere I am, I bump into a crowd of anecdotes, some silly, others chilling, that belch out the darkest of our tidings. For the first time I know not where these Arab ships are heading, although, at times, I swear I am able to make out the scattered wreckage of our lives.

It is a Friday in January. The new year has started. Saddam has just been hanged. The whole act, from its farcical beginning to its wretched end (the comical court proceedings, the verdict that skipped over decades of brutality and settled for the massacre of one-hundred-and-forty-eight Shiites in the Dujail incident, the panicky rush to the gallows, the sectarian taunts that ushered in the broken neck) showers on his executioners--Americans included--adjectives that had long described the victim himself, especially that one that arguably brought him to this finish: stupid. You’d think the need for pay-back would be tempered with the excruciatingly obvious thought that killing him the way he killed scores of them could only mean in with the new out with old, same ol’, same ol’.

Now it is weeks later. Do you know what al allass is? I didn’t till this very day. In this morning’s edition of Al Hayyat Newspaper (Saturday, January 20, 2007), one of the front-page headlines reads, “Iraqis knew it since the days of the British Occupation: al Allass, The Profession of Target Hunter for Kidnap and Murder Gangs.” Al allass, it turns out, could be a neighbor, a friend, a colleague at work, or even a cousin, who spies on you for a handsome fee from mafias on the prowl for lucrative victims. No need here for a sensitive take on Sunni-Shiite schisms, or the fervor of insurgency, or tribalism, or religious fanaticism, or the ugly legacy of colonialism, or the ignorance of self-described, modern-day liberators. This is Hobbes’s twin jungle out there in Nineveh and Sadr City and even the Green Zone in Baghdad. Sure, it can (and may) happen in many a miserable corner in many a miserable country, but how many middling company employees do you know who dare not step out of their house in the best neighborhoods of a country’s capital city without their thirty-five bodyguards?

More than the death of Iraq’s youth and young, more than the death of its hapless children, more than the death of every Sunni, Kurd and Shiite, more than the waste of wealth and talent and potential, under thirty-five years of Saddam, I mourn the death of this country’s values. I grieve for its tortured past but I wail and beat my chest—at least this once, in the best way a Shiite can express her anguish--for its disfigured future. For what people could hope to rehabilitate their collective self, let alone soar, if their values are dead and buried deep under?

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There is good theater now everywhere in the Middle East. Bland, mind-numbing stalemates, it seems, have become a thing of the past. The speed at which causes fly and crash, at which liberation turns into occupation, heroes become villains and villains become pin-ups, is making jokers of our pundits—not to mention theirs.

I am in a Thursday.

It is four years after the Americans swaggered into Iraq and three years and a half into their blood-drenched, humbling stay; four years into a Shiite ascendance in this jewel of the East; over three years since a hysterical Sunni-endorsed and financed vengeance; three years and some months after the first Sunni suicide bombing; two years and some months into every manner of dollar-seeking kidnapping and murder; a few months into a full-fledged, death-squad-driven fratricide.

It is five years after the Americans drove out the Taliban and did Iran a huge favor and four years after they removed Saddam and did Iran an even bigger favor; three years since Sunni-Shiite rancor strolled out of the closet fat with flesh, canines showing, heart alive and ticking.

It is two years since Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s charred corpse collapsed over a sham Lebanese peace knit together by fifteen years of unsavory deals; close to two years since an implicated Syria was forced to bid Lebanon--its backyard and front lawn, its amputated limb and significant other, its cesspit and cash cow--farewell; seven months after Israel roared into Lebanon and six months after its humiliating rebuff; seven months after Hizbollah’s masterful performance against Israel on the battleground and barely four months into their blunder-full political audition in the Lebanese arena; seven months after what the US thought was going to be an Israeli-administered spanking of Hizbollah and, ipso facto, Iran; six months after Israel and, ipso facto, the US, got a thrashing from Hizbollah and, ipso facto, Iran; six months after a heroic, black-turbaned Shiite Hassan Nassrallah climbed his way up an avalanche of frenzied accolades in every corner of the then nationalist Arab world; over one month since Sunni Saddam was taunted, then hanged, then martyred; nearly one month after Nassrallah began his dizzying climb-down in every corner of the now outraged Sunni Arab world; over a year since Hamas won in the last US-encouraged parliamentarian elections; over a year since the US, Israel and the rest of the world have been punishing an increasingly impoverished Palestinian people; over a year since the emergence of the most buffoonish collection of Palestinian leaders yet—Hamasis and Fatahawis alike; three months into what increasingly looks like a Hamas and Fatah-sanctioned Palestinian civil war; a few days into a Saudi-brokered lull.

It is months since the Israeli enterprise, for the Israelis themselves, began to lose much of its gloss and sheen; months into faint whispers and loud shouts that something truly ill and ugly lurks inside.

It is four years after the first UN Human Development Report, authored by Arabs, told us we are failures in every category of progress that counts; three years into a booming Gulf economy fueled by high oil prices, an obscene abundance of cash and post-9/11 fear of Western frozen accounts.

It is five years since Arabs began seeing the name of Sudan on the front page of their newspapers, one year since they heard of Darfur for the first time, and still not a clue in their mind about the trouble with the first and the tragedy unfolding daily in the second.

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Ironically, all this tumult is because we are still swimming in a decades-old stasis that has joined hands with a centuries-old rot. It was close to a thousand years ago that the Shiites lost Egypt, forsaking the last of their precious Arab crowns. It was close to one-hundred-fifty years ago that the Arabs thought they were on the cusp of a renaissance, only to discover, some years after, that they were actually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was eighty-eight years ago that sickly states were wrenched out of a deceased Ottoman Empire and an entire people were stillborn. It was fifty-nine years ago that Israel won the first war against the Arab armies. It was fifty-nine years ago that the Palestinian plight officially began. It was fifty-eight years ago that, one by one, Syria, then Egypt, then Iraq, then Yemen, then Libya, replaced an old, feeble order with a new, ruinous one. It was close to fifty years ago that imposters took on, one by one, the identity of secularism and republicanism and liberalism and progressivism and harassed the real thing out of town. We call this last condition khamkhameh, years upon years of a couch-bound, shower-less, political stupor, from which oozes the stink of snoring regimes that age and crumble while their aimless children regress and falter.

It was forty-one years ago that Israel won another devastating war, turned in its badge of underdog and took on the official responsibilities and title and face and color and moral corruption of an occupying power. It was close to thirty-five years ago that political Islam, for long one among many currents, started, from the mosques, the radios, the television sets, the cassettes, the schools, the universities, the ministries of culture, religion and education, to dominate oppositional land.

A bit simplistic? Of course. How can one not be when shoving the many twists and turns of a sorry history into a few lines? And yes, a hundred years in history is nothing, but it is an eternity in my lifetime.