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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.