Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Goat for Your Cucumber/Part Two

Watch the Cookie Crumble

Since 2008 insists on ending with cascades of howling, giggling images, I want to share with you a few more of these before final thoughts can take their place at the tail end of this year and perhaps—perhaps—that of an era. The surreal camera angles are not just snapshots of decay laced with black humor, they are markers of change, sly and yet far reaching.

Big words for such a small post, so let me tone down the drama by plainly stating that in the Middle East you can actually put lipstick on a pig. And we do. All the time. Every day.

In tomb-like Gaza, 500 to 600 secret tunnels link Gazans to Egypt and literally life itself. The border is so short and they are so many that barely a few centimeters separate one from the other. In the miserable old days, the goods that travelled through these tunnels went straight to the black market. But the more hellish Gaza became, the whiter they turned, finally becoming a very respectable, vanilla-white slice of its official, and officially, dead economy.

In recognition of their contribution to the struggle for Palestinian breath, the Ministry of Interior of Hamas has established a Tunnel Administration. The legal contracts between the property owners and diggers are called Underground Commercial Venues. This is how Hamas oversees the flow of material: “Typically, the government provides smugglers with a list of permitted items, regulates prices and collects taxes (fuel is taxed in kind). Hamas itself requests specific items, especially weapons, spare parts and medicine. The government films tunnel activity and posts monitors, who work eight-hour shifts…should smugglers cheat, they have to pay a penalty—‘or get shot in the legs’. Alternatively, Hamas might inform Egypt about the tunnel, which then would likely be destroyed.” (Crisis Group Report, “Round Two in Gaza, September 11, 2008, p. 14).

I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet that the tongues of the Crisis Group team were nowhere near their cheeks when they were writing this report.

The good news is that the tunnels are helping Gazans breathe. The bad news is that all they get to breathe is their own shit, millions of liters worth contaminating the Mediterranean Sea and fresh water reserves, infecting Palestinian hearts and souls along with them. I specifically mention the heart and soul because while the people may be respiring, precious air is fast seeping out of the education, transportation, health and private sectors.

I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet that Gazans are just dying to find out how Hamas plans to spin from an open, sewage-filled, hungry, work-deprived, unschooled, isolated, paralyzed, broken, warring prison--a free Palestine. Attaching adjectives to Israel and its siege is easy enough. The question is, how many of them is Israel happily lending to Hamas as lipstick for its own pig of a situation? I, like Ha'aretz’s Amira Haas, say a whole roast of them.

“The brutal siege…saves Hamas from having to cope with the contradiction between its platform (the liberation of all of Palestine) and its integration, despite its denials, into the institutions created by the Oslo Accords. If Israel jeopardizes the lives of premature babies and causes business owners, including supporters of Oslo and Yasser Arafat, to go broke, the Hamas government can present itself as resisting the occupation by its very nature. The extraordinary conditions of the extreme siege and the disconnection between Gaza and the West Bank (another intentional Israeli policy) have made the possibility of holding new Palestinian general elections a very distant one. Hamas can thus bolster its rule with coercion, wages, charity and the consoling power of religion. And perhaps that is exactly what the Shin Bet, Israel Defense Forces and government want?”

Batty realities in Gaza turn into embarrassingly laughable ones for us Lebanese. There they stood during Independence Day celebrations last Saturday: three men in silly white suits, pretending to be president, prime minister and speaker of parliament of a bubble pretending to be a state, saluting a collection of militarily clad men pretending to be an army and staring somberly at two 40-year-old jets that kept flying back and forth, to and fro, hither and thither, pretending to be an air force. All this for a mass of sniggering individuals pretending to be a nation. You couldn’t but feel nostalgic for that scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas, when Allen, exiting the dining room with El Presidente, turned to the balcony orchestra which had been playing without instruments throughout the whole dinner, and said, “Can you turn the music down? You’re giving me a headache.”

Of course, the whole of central Beirut came to a stop on Saturday in order for Lebanon to live as a fleeting figment in these people’s imagination.

Blood sister that it is, the absurdity that is Syria is no less absurd than the absurdity that is Lebanon. Recently, this self-professed beacon of Arab light has revealed itself, once again, for the very dark tale of whodunits that it actually is. First went the head of Hezbollah’s mercurial Imad Mughnieyh, then Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman gets it in both eyes while resting in his much-protected Chalet in Latakia, then two car bombs go off in Damascus. As usual, and very much in Libano-Syrian style, there are multiple plausible scenarios for these mysteries, each with winding, bushy, thorny roads leading to many winding, bushy, thorny paths to the future, by the end of which one is almost desperate for some of that Rumsfeldian prose.

As we know, There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know There are known unknowns.
That is to say We know there are some things We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know

Free verse that Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al Maktoum, the one-time visionary and current dunce of the Gulf, is probably reciting round the clock to reassure himself about his credit-fueled Dubai’s imperviousness to the financial meltdown. Who knows? The Sheikh might be under the very strong (and right) impression that Dubai has become too big, its debts too high and “services” too precious for its neighbors to let it down. And they most probably will not. But that’s not where the story is. When the dust has settled, Dubai, though trimmed and clipped and chastened, will still be standing; however, the pillars on which it was built will not.

Only last year, at a leadership conference sponsored by the London Business School, Niall Ferguson warned his audience that war in the Middle East was more likely than they thought. Asked to explain himself in full sight of the sparkling jewel that is Dubai, the historian retorted that he would not invest a penny in that tin city. Actually, there was a time—the early 1990s, to be exact—when one could trace the contours of interesting, bold possibilities in the desert. Soon enough, however, what looked like an intriguing vision morphed into the longest trip on LSD. When a few of us party poopers expressed skepticism about the longevity of a phantasmagoric city-state conceived by borrowed brains, financed by borrowed funds, constructed by borrowed hands, overseen by borrowed high management, run by borrowed middle management and floating on bubbles of hot air and a sea of angry contradictions, we were laughed out of the room as small people hooked on small schemes. Dubai was the future, and we were all about the past.

Well, the past has pretty much caught up with Dubai’s future, although it’s not clear whether the Sheikh and his men have begun to internalize the ugly facts. As things began to fall apart, Nakheel, a state-owned property development giant, announced plans at an event to build a one-kilometer tall building, which prompted a participant to stand up and finally—finally--ask the question that has long been on many a bemused mind: Why? The multimillion, star-studded extravaganza a few days ago to launch the appropriately named Atlantis Hotel was one very quizzical answer.

What the hell, this is sand country, and in the head-in-the-sand business we are pros: no people do it more or better. Our pain screams still, but rarely do we feel the direction of a headwind, sense an impending disaster, sniff an opportunity, catch the meaning of an absurdity staring us in the face. For those who feel like protesting right about now, I don’t want to rub it in, but I do have the urge to let slip 1967 by way of a teaser and, maybe for added flavor, bring in the latest shocker of how America ended up in Iraq and Saddam six feet under.

In closing this chapter, I suppose I could dwell for a while on the spectacle of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah holding forth recently on the need for religious tolerance and a dialogue between civilizations. But, frankly, we already know there is not enough lipstick in the world to smear on this one (I am talking about the Saudi initiative, not the king). Of course, good manners prevented attendees of the Saudi-sponsored Interfaith UN Conference from asking the monarch what genuine reforms he has passed as of late to address, oh, say, the delicate circumstance of women, or Shiites, or those who would like to worship the Christian way in his oasis. No one at the Conference thought to ask him either why Mr. Abdularahman al-Lahem, the lawyer of the Qatif rape girl was denied permission to leave Saudi Arabia, the very same week of the UN deliberations, for a Human Rights Watch gathering in London.
It could be that we Arabs seem little aware of the meaning of the weirdness that permeates our days because we really don’t feel it’s ours alone. We may have an abundance of moronic leaders and salivating Savonarolas issuing tragic-comic fatwas which obsess about all that threatens to moan and groan under the belt, but our chiefs are not the only ones who have perfected the art of appearing at their creepiest when they’re being at their most serious. It’s a straight, short walk that takes us from them to doggon-it, say-it-aint-so-Joe, Pentecostal Sarah Palin and the Imam-Mahdi-is-my-best-friend, I-the-divine, we-have-no homosexuals-in-Iran, alhamdulillah Ahmadenijad. And it’s literally no leap of faith (or nationality, for that matter) from that one to bring-me-70-Palestinian-corpses-a-day Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s minister of transportation and IDF Chief of Staff during the second intifada.

Deliciously ironic as well are the modesty patrols in Haredi quarters in Israel which are very busy bridging the “cultural” divide between the Jewish state and the neighborhood. Leave it to us women to bring together in perfect harmony mortal enemies everywhere else. And, for all their ugliness, Haredi patrols are hardly Israel’s most dire prospect. Of all the wars raging inside it, the most riveting is the one between two sets of religious fanatics, one as mortified by Jewish converts as the other is desperate for them. In this furious face-off, it appears that sex during menstruation for Israel’s Ultra Orthodox Rabbinical Courts is more than enough to declare not Jewish the errant converts religious Zionists are eagerly minting in their frantic race against the tireless energy of the Palestinian libido. According to the miffed Moshe Gafni of the Ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, “There is something more important than the state of Israel and Zionism… Unlike Christians, we Jews are not missionaries. If someone really wants to join the Jewish people, we're going to make it difficult for them." (WP, August 30, 2008). Here’s a piece of good news for Palestinians in a life of awful one!

In the midst of all this nuttiness, nervous Israelis might well be cheered by all the impressive statistics and ingenious qualities that tell them they are still different from, way better than, the rest of us sourpuss Arabs. Or they might want to mull over the infinitely more terrifying likelihood that they actually are not. So many little Israels, so many clashing visions, and such little room for all of them to play without wrecking each other’s sandcastles.

It all looks Middle Eastern enough to me.


Christopher Dickey said...

Brilliant screed! The riff on everything borrowed in Dubai sums up the situation there perfectly, just the image of the Lebanese national day ceremony suggests the essential hollowness of the Lebanese nationalism. I just wish I came across these posts more often.

Anonymous said...

Who knew there was so much lipstick in the middle east!!! And go figure, it's not the women smearing it on but - as suspected - the men...You'd think that eventually one would grow weary from trying to disguise the diminishing humanity made a gift to the Palestinians and instead of dressing up the awful maybe they could just wear it - as is!

Nadine said...

Meanwhile, over the past couple of days in Amman, the voice of reason burns a flag, calls for expulsion, wants to cut the cord, while the camera zooms in, weaving thru bouts of amnesia, a daily dose of anesthetic and life with ADD.

Where's that lipstick?!