Monday, December 12, 2011

Between Slaughter and Elections

A harrowing picture to add to the most memorable about 2011: a lone girl standing over a pile of death, some faces barely in their teens; some still in babyhood. The contortions of anguish, you think, as she registers the horrific sight that engulfs her. A family gone, perhaps; a life, hers, theirs, ended by unfathomable, unfathomable, you keep repeating to yourself, cruelty and madness.

You stare and then you click, desperate to leave her, because the moment is you at your most ridiculous.

Not that the murderers in Afghanistan who harvested 63 Shiite souls last Tuesday had it in mind, but the picture of a people dying there while another in Egypt were rambunctiously voting is sort of apt: a juxtaposition of yearnings, one for a nightmarish kind of silence, the other for a less painful existence; two orgies, of death and of life; a clean break between future and past…you pray.

I wonder if I am reading too much into these two events, drawing a line between them that’s not there, or even scrubbing out of them the messy realities that bind trauma to joy in this embattled region.  

In any case, it is early days yet. “Spring” is barely behind us, and already elections are being oversold as good behavior certificates. That’s the thing about elections: they’re so damned convenient. They could be the most visible manifestation of a people’s will or the easiest forgeries of it; they’re the quickest fix for revolution, or war, or peace…when it starts itching for tangible yields.  

And the yield in Egypt, as disheartening as it seems to many, is nothing short of enlightening. You’re too quick to the trigger if you think I am about to marvel at the Islamists’ win. As surprising as it is to those who must have been living on Mars for the past few decades, it is in fact the least interesting revelation about Egypt’s mood and our reactions to it.  

By way of the obligatory preface, let me stress that the motive here is not to debunk the ballot’s judgment in this first round, however imperfect the performance has been: the disorganization, the tricks, the miles-long lines, the money flooding in from some friendly folks in the area looking to elbow their way of life in... It is almost impossible to measure this imperfection’s impact on the final tally, although there is much benefit to the public good in harping loudly and frequently about the point.

And, yes, much can be (and has already been) said against a bizarre electoral process that defies—because, of course, it means to—all sense. In this, the Egyptians are not alone, although they do stand at the extreme end of electoral systems that insist on convoluted interpretations of the people’s intent.

But such are the current rules of this Egyptian game, such are its weaknesses and such is the upshot: the Islamists, combined, are almost sure to enjoy more than 60 percent of the vote and constitute the majority in parliament.

This is not, however, where I really want to go. The elections in Egypt are only a small part of a much bigger, still blank canvas of change. What they draw for us are just a few pieces of the final picture. It’s the trends that dance around them that are worth a lingering thought.  

And one very clear thought for the jubilant and the defeated is that victory should never beget silence—not when the soul of a nation is being negotiated between its people. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about these times and nothing ordinary about the winds that have converged to rid us of a certain way of politics and life. Even when we ought to nod to the ballot’s verdict, there is no tyranny that should attach itself to the fundamentals that will govern the space to which we all need to belong. Otherwise, elections become little more than shortcuts to dictatorship, the most dangerous chinks in the democratic edifice they are meant to protect.

In my last post about Arab Women and Revolution, a few of Islamism’s fans insisted that this is the time to let the winning side show its stuff in quietude. But consensus is never born in silence, it emerges only when the discussion remains vibrant. Track records, ideology, convictions, hope, indeed skepticism, have a role to play in plotting the future’s trajectory, because the future is for everybody, winners and losers alike. Otherwise, let your eyes never leave that lone woman.

Here’s another thought, for what it’s worth: In this first round, voter turnout stood at 52 percent, of which the Muslim Brothers’ party list won around 37 percent, the Salafists' 24 percent. Almost half of eligible voters in these districts did not vote. That leaves the MB and the Salafists with 31 percent (19 and 12 percent, respectively) of the entire spectrum of voters—respectable by any standard but nowhere near enough to put a halt to the country’s momentous discourse.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Now for the Women of Egypt?

We are barely through the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, having clinched well over 50 percent of the vote, are already rhapsodizing about the beauty of democracy which was to the Salafists—until, when was it, yesterday?--a Western concoction alien to the spirit and letter of Islam.

Many are already in a panic. And with good reason. Widen the lens to the larger Middle East and you will very quickly discover that, left to its own devices, Islamism is never in the mood to engage. Witness Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1989, Gaza since 2006… With a majority in parliament, Egyptian Islamists could easily decide there is nothing really to discuss. But what makes these examples uniquely revelatory is the one feature they all share: domination of the state and its tools of coercion by the ruling party. 

Egyptians fretting about their liberties should keep this foremost in their calculus. That, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood is having to argue its case all the way to the altar does suggest that Bayat’s post-Islamist realities have already started creeping into Egypt, but what it also reflects is the MB’s keen awareness of the imperatives of accommodation in a country in which it has considerable reach and influence but one which it does not control--yet. If only for this, Egypt’s future promises to be different from Iran’s or any of these other Islamist polities.

Juxtapose revolutionary Egypt and Iran if you like. You don’t have to peer too closely before the disparities begin to impose themselves. Note how the left quickly sublimated its beliefs to Khomeini’s, and watch the reticence of Egypt’s leftists and liberals, however disorganized they currently are. Register how Iran’s army was swiftly kicked out of the political arena in ‘79, and how Egypt’s very likely will retain much of its heft in Egyptian politics. Mark the fact that Iran’s youth gave all, in awe to the presence and charisma of the septuagenarian Khomeini, and how Egypt’s are just not buying in a marketplace conspicuously empty of such overpowering men.

But, most of all, remember that Egypt’s victorious Islamists will soon populate a government that has already incorporated quite a bit of what they preach, whereas Khomeini had to start practically from scratch. That’s the road Mubarak paved so nicely for his Brothers, and if things turn out badly, that may well turn out to be his most enduring legacy.

But if religious conservatism brings Iran and Egypt together in many social mores and legal codes, so do the years that have tested the solutions of political Islam itself. On that fundamental matter of piety alone, the sure rewards in Iran have been as mocked by burgeoning prostitution and rampant drug abuse as they have been by widespread sexual harassment in Egypt, where close to 80% of adult females are veiled.

The electoral results appear to argue against such talk; after all, how much skepticism can there be in a landslide? And yet, it would be pure folly to assume that the numbers confirm an outright, wholesale embrace of fundamentalist convictions. There is much to disentangle in this unfolding Egyptian story, and we are still on the very first page. What’s more, we all know that only a few of its authors are Egyptian and only some of the events likely to impact it will be homegrown.

As Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent piece, the electoral rise of political Islam may owe much to the Arab people’s deep comfort with Islamic principles as ultimate guidelines in politics as in life. But it doubtless owes just as much to a relentless, decades long hammering of civil society by oppressive regimes that cynically shored up Islamism at the expense of all other trends. 

In any case, we soon will find out, as Mishra puts it, “…whether and how the new Islam-minded rulers of the Arab world will enshrine [diversity and pluralism] in legal and political institutions as opposed to declaring that the Shariah contains all that you need.”  

Needless to say, the quintessential test will be how these rulers proceed on the question of us women. 


The moment, as unnerving as it is, calls for extreme vigilance and grit, not panic and fear.

The Egyptian revolution has forced the political playing field wide open. It is crucial that it remain so. Just as this new climate has already challenged the SCAF, it shall the MB and Salafists. How these three antagonists-cum-allies interact in this crucial stage is, of course, of serious consequence for the future of a democratic Egypt, but without control over the state’s tools of coercion and violence, the Islamists can neither unilaterally impose their will nor circumvent the judgment of future ballots.

Alas, for Egypt’s women, the path forward will be full of pitfalls and setbacks and insults and assaults and groping... The violence that women have been subjected to in Tahrir Square before anywhere else stands as a sad marker of the misogyny that unites many an oppressor and revolutionary. But Egyptian women need only recall Iran’s in reassuring themselves that tenacity and ingenuity can beat even the worst of odds.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"NOT NOW!" On Arab Women and Revolution. Part 2

The Quest for Identity
Egypt and Iran

Touch us women, in much of the Middle East, and you touch the essence of life. This is how entangled our story has become with that of politics and culture and religion.  

Call it destiny, the way we find ourselves, willingly or not, at the center of our societies’ passionate quest for identity. In a century of existential struggles, large and small, real and imagined, we could be the clearest expression of a beleaguered people’s thirst for a sense of self. In times during which practically every argument of consequence has been with a much too domineering West, we could be at once a symbol of resistance to colonial cultural theft and a measure of resilience against its encroachments. Still more, we could be deployed by the conservatism that envelops us--or indeed offer ourselves--as the first line of defense against the very temptation of modernity. Such has been the importance of this fight that the narrowest interpretations of Islam would always be invoked to imbue earthly purpose with heavenly intent.

Colliding ideologies thus found common cause against a common enemy: the West. No less significantly, the pseudo-secular state and ascendant Islamists clashed over practically everything but agreed over the finer sex, the “weakest link” in embattled societies. Tradeoffs were sealed: politics in exchange for family.

The veil—imposed or freely taken up-- became the public face of this debacle. Multitudes of women covered up and “stood emancipation on its head.” But, in truth, the real high stakes were in the web of canons and precepts and customs and caveats that intertwine to define a woman’s position at home and out. For these, personal status laws became both shield and sanctuary. Meddle with them and you would be meddling with much more than the old way of doing things; you would literally be opening the backdoor to foreign conspiracies. Worst still, you would be challenging the word of God himself.

However diverse the histories of women in various countries of the area, this same story more or less played itself out wherever they lived. It did in Egypt.

Between 1919, when Egyptians revolted against colonial Britain, and 2011, when they rid themselves of Mubarak, is close to a century of activism for and against women’s rights. Every victory came with a pack of setbacks and a throng of accusations; and change, when it happened, was always hard fought and piecemeal.

As the 21st century drew its first breath, Egypt yielded some more and finally allowed its women to apply for a passport or travel without permission from a male guardian (2000), to give citizenship to children from foreign husbands (2004), to become judges (2008)…

Still, if you were to stack up the results, the tally, for those sympathetic to the cause, is sure to be very disappointing. The discriminations are not only spotted in the huge gap between the “in principle” and “ in practice,” but in the actual paper trail itself. Exceptions and conditions come with every established right. While Islamic jurisprudence qualifies the “equality” of women in citizenship, the penal code is no less bold about its prejudices even at their most ridiculous, as they are in Article 277 of the penal code which states that the “man is guilty [of adultery] only if he commits the act at his marital home, a woman is guilty regardless of where the act takes place.”[1]

To be sure, some aspects of this protracted struggle for gender equality echo others East and West against entrenched patriarchy. And yet, from the outset, here, in this angry patch of the earth, the issue has always been just as much about fortifying “Muslim” identity and safeguarding indigenous tradition against perceived Western assaults as it has been about preserving male privilege.  


It is in fact this shared sense of injury and indignation against an imperialist West that rallied Iranian leftists and secularists of most stripes behind Khomeini before the revolution—at last the dawn of an “ethical Muslim society,” they thought. Certainly, it is what rendered them mute when, immediately after toppling the Shah, Khomeini moved to topple the freedoms women had gained under him. Whatever was achieved under a despotic regime backed by the US became the kiss of death. As Janet Afary explains in Sexual Politics in Iran, “For the Ayatollahs, the modern woman was a source of ritual pollution; for the radical lay thinkers, the apolitical westernized woman was a duped agent of imperialist cultural hegemony…” (p.237). And hence, as Iranian women, in the tens of thousands, descended on the streets of Tehran on March 8 and 12, 1979, to protest Khomeini’s flurry of edicts and actions, the left demanded that they put their claims to rest. “Not Now,” was the message.

Khomeini issued his pronouncements, much like one ticks off a long overdue to-do list: On February 26, he suspended the Family Protection Law; on March 3, he put a stop to decrees appointing women as judges; on March 4, he deemed divorce solely the man’s prerogative; on March 6, he froze women out of the army; on March 7, he brought the veil to the workplace; on March 29, he segregated sports; on May 21, he banned co-education; on June 3, he told married women they could no longer attend regular high school; on June 13, he shut down daycare centers, admonishing working mothers to quit their jobs and attend to their households.

By 1981, the ground rules were all set. For those women who had hoped for a freer life, the new constitution and penal code coalesced as bars do in a prison. For those who enjoyed so little to start with, khomeini’s blessings and tokens, though few and miserly, were enough to win more legroom in very oppressive environments.  From the start, the revolution would crow about and rely on its own female cadre.

If Islamist Iran stood in 1979 as a spritely promise, in 2011, it stands as a feat with a few gray hairs in its beard: thirty two years as telling about the limitations of Islamism as they are about civil society’s own remarkable bounce.  

Today, austere as the regime still is, women are walking around with fewer shackles. In fact, they can pretty much tick off their accomplishments over three hard decades, much like Khomeini ticked off his strictures at the beginning of them. They are
ü  palpably more literate (88%);
ü  more educated, comprising 60% of university graduates and the majority of students in Medicine, Basic Sciences, Experimental Sciences and Humanities and Arts;
ü  more literary (in the mid-1990s, there were 20-30 female writers; in 2009 they topped 450).

Iranian women have yet to sit on the bench or run for the presidency but they are in parliament. By 1986, their participation in the formal sector fell to 9%; by 2010, it had climbed back up to 14%. In the 1980s, they presided over a trickle of publishing houses; in 2005, they boasted 100 of them.

To the state goes the credit for embracing literacy and health care, especially in the rural areas. Everywhere else, applause has to go to the tenacity of Persia’s women who ran with every windfall and opportunity: a devastating Iran-Iraq war that changed the dynamic of marriage and family; the harsh economic realities that made it easier for them to go out and earn an education and a living, a tired Islamist idea that gave way simply because it had to…

On their own, these strides may seem modest—and they are if measured against ambition and possibility. But they tower when compared to where it all began back in 1979. This, in an Islamist state that, as recently as 2006, declared with a straight face feminists along with “mystics, dervishes, devil worshipers, journalists, bloggers, secular students and intellectuals, reformists, as the main threats to the national security of the country.”[2]

At present, Iran may well be post-Islamist, as Assef Bayat describes it. You can tell by the constant jostling for space between system and   society that the ruling elite is well aware that after “a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism” have been “exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters.”

[1] Mariz Tadros, The Status of Women in Egypt: What Would the Post-Mubarak Era Offer Them, Freedom House, 2010, p.4.
[2]  Classification was made in a security report produced by the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Mentioned in Fatimeh Sadeghi’s Foot Soldiers of The Islamic Republic’s Cultural Modesty. MERIP, The Islamic Revolution At 30, Spring 2009, no.250, p.51.   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Not Now!" On Arab Women and Revolution

This is a long piece (please tell me I don’t need to apologize for it), so I have erred on the side of caution and split it into three parts which I will post over the course of the next few days.

Two episodes back-to-back--Alia Magda al-Mahdi’s nude stare beckoning a challenge to Egyptians and their uprising, and the beating of columnist Mona Eltahawy in the Interior Ministry that smacked of sexual assault—have thrust women back into Egypt’s burning arena after months of fade out.

Eltahawy’s is the very old and depressingly familiar story that Arab women have been living on the streets, at home, in the fields, at work, in jail...: sexual intimidation or violence for the specific purpose of humiliating, demeaning, and finally dehumanizing. Of course, this is an argument that almost every society has long had with its women; in some places the method is restrained, in others it is ferocious. But Arab society’s spat with its own comes with a nasty twist. Call it the female and the question of identity.  

Which makes Alia’s subversive act among the most provocative—and frankly weird--instants of the Egyptian revolt. If the attack on Mona jolts us backward, the unusual audacity of Alia is egging us forward. She might not belong anywhere in the political fervor of Tahrir Square, but she certainly has crashed the party and forced the supposedly revolutionary discourse to take notice.

She poses naked; her expression is neutral, almost childlike. There is no come-hither look, no call for quick love--just a nude model’s posture playing its part for the lens. Only the red hair clip and shoes are a concession to color in an otherwise black and white world, as if she is harking back to a forgotten past.

At first look, Alia’s mischievousness seems self-indulgent, distracting. And yet, the remarkable boldness of the photo and its author compel a second look. Hers is at once a statement against hypocrisy--“Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity”—and a combat-ready attachment to “freedom of expression.”

Through this photo alone Alia has reminded us of the very generous meaning of revolution--and our own very stingy definition of it.

Among Egypt’s liberals, there is as much rage against Alia as there is against the SCAF. And therein may lie her point. That sexual harassment has become a particularly acute problem in an increasingly conservative, if not downright Islamized, Egypt is one of Islamism’s most bitter and telling ironies. But there is not much to debate about female nudity with the Muslim Brotherhood. There is, however, plenty to mine and expose in a liberal’s fury. Alia transcends politics and reaches for Egypt itself. She is speaking to life’s many tyrannies, of which politics is but one.

I really doubt the saboteur in her will go far. Not now. Not here. Alas, she is way, way, ahead of her times, and with that, history has taught us, comes a very heavy price.   

These are the incidents surrounding Mona Eltahaway and Alia, and they are just the latest in a series that, combined, help tell the fascinating story of the modern Middle East and its women, a story that is at its most nervous in Egypt and its most daring in Iran.  


You could tell by the evening’s debris that Tahrir Square on that day, March 8, was not in the mood for liberation. Strewn here and there was the litter of a demonstration gone wrong. On some placards, the furious in the crowds wrote “Not Now,” on others they settled for shoe prints and the X sign. Had you been there earlier, you would have heard words and witnessed behavior to match the harsh verdicts on those posters.

Out in Tahrir, in rather small numbers to mark International Women’s Day and declare their cause a daughter of the Egyptian revolution, women activists were heckled, harassed and then chased out of the Square. A few were cuffed and sent off to jail. “Go back home and cook mahshi!” (stuffed Zuchini), was the stalest of the insults. A forced virginity test for the arrested single women was arguably the most alarming, not to mention demeaning.

The implication of the encounter was clear enough: yet again, women were called in for a people’s freedom and called out for their own. This revolution would leave her behind, much like revolutions before it. And, of course, because of who and where we are, no revolution is resonating louder to the skeptics today than the Iranian one of 1979. For the power of the Persian example lies not only in that initial inspired moment that brought the Pahlavi dynasty down, but in the three decades that came after it, a time as emblematic of radical change as it is of retreats and letdowns, none more so than for the daughters of Iran’s uprising.

So, now that it is our turn in the Arab world to flip the page, eyes look back at Iran as they look now at Egypt for any hint of what might come. Because serious as the differences are between the two countries—and they are serious—at first look the similarities are one too many, especially on that incessant question of women and identity.

Much is at stake here, and not only for Egypt’s female gender. As the pendulum threatens to swing everywhere in this East, nervous talk of counterrevolution is actually outpacing upheaval itself. Egypt is standing at the door of an Arab reformation as it has at that of every contemporary Arab cause--good or bad. The way Egypt goes, so very likely shall many in the region. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where Do We Go Now?

On Nadine Labaki"s film

I imagine a tiny village, a singing blurb, a fine painter’s sketch of that other mess that goes by the name of Lebanon.

I imagine this village simpler, earthier, more endearing than its larger agitated self.  

I imagine its knack for humor much stronger than its taste for cruelty; and if this last must be, then I imagine it bashful, apologetic, almost child-like in its expressions and intent.

I imagine it in the here and now and yet suspended in space and time, its hoary face practically intact, its connection to the world an old, beat up TV, its physical contact with it through a couple of teenagers and their rinky-dink motorbike.

I imagine its daily rhythms as Cinema Paradiso’s, its mood Il Postino’s, its chatter Il Mediterraneo’s. 

I imagine it split between Christians and Muslims. I imagine all its Muslim women veiled so that the viewer can tell them apart.

I imagine its men basic, stupid, one-dimensional creatures, ready to pounce for the silliest of reasons, to fist fight for the flimsiest of slights. And I imagine the war—yes, that war whose history is everywhere in mind but nowhere in sight—all theirs, the proverbial cross to carry around.

I imagine all the villages’ women wise, nurturing, funny, wily matriarchs. I imagine them--to a woman—free of all that taints their men.

I imagine the village’s priest and sheikh truly above the fray, even happy to exchange places on any given day.

I imagine angry scenes all of a sudden springing up just to prove a point; a few funny scenes to lighten up the pace; a few Ukrainian blondes to remind me of today’s Lebanon that lives somewhere, somehow beyond.

I imagine a single, tragic death, but I imagine it taking place far away, because who among these good people could be guilty of such an ugly act.

And so, I imagine a story about an atrocious sectarianism in an atrocious Lebanon, but I imagine narrating it with the sweetest of voices, because mine is the sweetest of visions.

There you have it: Where Do We Go Now?


You might imagine by now that I didn’t like Nadine Labaki’s movie, but actually I didn’t mind it much. She did well with the casting, she didn’t do that badly with the dialogue, and the sentimentality wasn’t over the top. There isn’t a single original idea in the entire script; still there is talent to be had, and that is good enough to applaud.

But who am I to talk? The movie is a hit. In Lebanon, people just can’t get over that fuzzy feeling that the country may yet be good, although everywhere you look it might look all bad. The people will get the message, some are no doubt thinking, although why a movie would do any better than 70 years of hatred and violence and death is, I guess, too cynical of a question to ask.

To her, I say bravo for turning something very real and hideous into something that we have it in us to overcome. That’s what I call suspension of disbelief in the service of a mighty dream. To the Lebanese, I say cheering a movie is not enough of an excuse or a pass. If you truly support the message, why are only a handful of you joining the actual call for all this to end?  

Then again, this might be asking too much and just to poop on everybody’s party and make a fuss. After all, surely the accolades in Toronto’s film festival—much like those idiotic puff pieces about Lebanon in the New York Times—should do the trick.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shoot Me, I am An Arab!

In gratitude to David Aaron Miller

That so-called week of Palestine at the UN back in September, it was like playing house or bus trip to Harissa (my favorite, but this is not the time to explain) back in the days; you knew it was all make-believe, you knew it would last only through the afternoon, and yet you played your part as if it were for real because it was all such fun.

In fact, for weeks before Mahmoud Abbas’s UN speech, they went at it—Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Quartet, Ban Ki Moon, the US, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy…--and, as usual, we the spectators were asked to suspend disbelief, many even downright giddy to be in on the thing.

True, much of politics is about pretense, but I doubt there’s a problem in this world that outperforms Palestine. And I really doubt there’s a problem that has to spin so much yarn in order to conceal what is so glaringly obvious. 

For it is glaringly obvious that Abbas presides over an entity (the Palestinian Authority) and controls the West Bank through an arrangement (the Oslo Accords) that allowed Israel to perpetuate an occupation on the cheap, increase the number of settlers from 116,000 in 1993, when Oslo was signed, to 530,000 in 2011, boost settlements to 121, outposts to 101, and incorporate around 40 percent of the land to service both the colonies and their occupants.  

It is glaringly obvious that Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman et al, contrary to all appearances, are actually ecstatic about Oslo’s achievements which have been instrumental in killing the two-state solution in the light of day and with plenty of political cover.

And it is glaringly obvious that the US has been happy to help sponsor, finance and put in place the administrative and security structures and frameworks that have helped the PA act as such an effective enforcer for the Israeli occupation. All done, needless to say, in the name of peace and prosperity and justice and moderation….

We can argue about the ugly details all you want. We can disagree about motives, point and wag fingers and try to sink the entire story in a morass of ifs, buts and maybes. But after all is said and done we would still find ourselves back in the company of these essential facts: 20 years of Oslo, 20 years of the PA, 531,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 121 settlements, 101 outposts and no less than 40 percent of the land to make them whole and the rest of the Territories a body of severed parts. Whichever side you’re on, whatever your convictions, these are the facts on the ground that have turned the dream of a Palestine, even on the 22% left after 1948, into yet another one of this saga’s victims.  

Point being? If Oslo were a cow, it would be emaciated, sucked to death, with not a drop of milk to offer. Simply put, the game is up! And more so for Abbas than for his two partners, because, two decades into Oslo, they can boast many gains for their side, while he cannot point to a single one for Palestine. Conversely, should Oslo fold, the two could well suffer serious losses (internationalization of the conflict, termination of security arrangements, upheaval, a prohibitively expensive return to the occupation…), while Abbas might conceivably breath a sigh of relief because of what turned out to be a horrendous deal. Love him or hate him, Abbas went into this partnership (he and his master Arafat) with the impression that it would yield a semblance of a Palestine, and all they have now is the ridiculous idea of it.

All of which explains why Abbas, the US and Israel’s man—another glaringly obvious fact which you’re welcome to condemn or applaud (but certainly not ignore) depending on where you stand--has decided to plead for statehood at the UN, and why Israel and the US are upset with him for not keeping up the pretense. He’s bankrupt and dangerously exposed at a time when an Arab leader would rather not be either. He’s lost pretty much everything, so where’s the risk, as things fall part, in carving for himself a bit of leg room in that deep hole that he fell, eyes wide open, into?

This is but one of many interpretations of this unfolding drama. As if to confirm it, however, Netanyahu himself delivered what Gideon Levy aptly described as a “giant blah, blah” of a speech, throughout which he displayed all the usual qualities that make allies recoil with infinite more horror than do enemies. Not to be outdone, Obama stood before us, a small man burping out small ideas.

Of course, Abbas had to pitch his tent somewhere else. And, frankly, for that bit of rude clarity, Obama deserves a badge of honor from the Palestinians no less sizeable than the one bestowed upon him by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

I, for one, am delighted with him, and I think him marvelous for making such little effort to jazz up the rhetoric—as politicians are wont to do--to compensate for dim policy. In a region long hobbled by external deceits and homegrown fantasies, mistaken conjecture about imperial purpose can have potentially devastating consequences. At a minimum, it can lead to dangerously misplaced expectations by writhing societies looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. Obama has made it abundantly clear that, in this current struggle for change in the Arab world, the US shall lead from behind—way, way behind—and for that we should be eternally grateful.

Now we—most of all the Palestinians amongst us—need not suffer fools gladly whenever they start peddling grand American plans and ideals. Obama’s speech was that rare occasion when positive spin actually highlighted the hard facts it so dearly meant to obscure: the hands-off attitude towards peace; the need to “draw down” after years of exuberant and very costly overreach; the absolute necessity of focusing attention inward during an unusually pressing circumstance; the very flexible policy towards the Arab revolts, depending on US interest and the party in power, but the constancy towards Israel regardless of US interest and the party in power.

This is a much-diminished president speaking for a much-diminished superpower. Surely we can take a hint and run with it? Thankfully, for the Palestinians, the smart choices are few and stark clear. Their quest for liberation, as Rashid Khalidi wrote a few days ago, “will have to return from a two-decade hiatus at a rigged negotiating table to its original and most representative form: popular, grassroots, nonviolent struggle on the ground and among Palestinians in exile.”

Right after Obama’s speech, Middle East specialist and onetime US negotiator David Aaron Miller blogged it out with political scientist Daniel Levy on Bloggingheads. During the conversation, Miller, for whom the bid for Palestinian statehood is “not the main issue,” pointed out that Obama owed it to those who elected him (Miller included) not to waste any precious political capital on an ungrateful problem, when the priority is to get reelected and prevent the country from slipping into—God forbid—the hands of Governor Rick Perry.

America is in a “slow bleed,” Miller cautioned, nowhere near well enough at home, nor “feared, loved or respected” enough abroad to make much of a difference anyway. Worst still, he added, little could be done for Abbas, “who sits on a Palestinian humpty dumpty”-- neither taking Israel to the “woodshed,” nor waging another futile diplomatic offensive, when the status quo had not yet become untenable for the Palestinians and Israel.  

I guess Miller hasn’t been out much lately.

Remarkably, in making all these presumably sobering arguments against muscular American engagement in the peace process, Miller ends up ceding the case to Levy, whose closing point is if the US is so exhausted by it all, why beat up on Abbas, that poor sod of a “humpty dumpty,” for trying to climb down that miserable wall?

At one point in the give and take, in a wonderful flash of candor, the ex-diplomat said, ”Shoot me, I am an American,” in owning up to his current passion for US politics and little else.

“Shoot me, I am an Arab,” I found myself whispering to the screen, before switching off and tuning out.

Dare we hope that this sentiment will prove a turning point in Arab-American history?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We’re Screwed! So Say Hussein Agha and Robert Malley

Done with the first draft of my post (Let’s Talk Turkey!) a few nights ago, I came upon the New York Review of Books’ tweet on Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s The Arab Counterrevolution. Theirs has been the very useful habit of dispersing the hot air on which every once in a while floats a new Palestinian-Israeli solution. So I thought, plenty of hot air around now, might as well read on for added insight from two judicious men before I send off my post.

Well, it must be the times, because I don’t recall I have come across such a confused perspective about the Arab uprisings written with such self-assured clarity, and by such normally fastidious analysts. It’s not Malley and Agha’s insistence on debunking the moment and its potential that’s bewildering—evidence abounds about a counterrevolution at work—but the sense the reader gets that even the flimsiest signs of trouble over the horizon would have been more than enough for them to doom the Arab revolts to failure. In fact, as far as the two authors are concerned, the “Arab Revolution” ended on February 11, barely five weeks after it had started. Alas, that’s when pristine turned to murky, and innocence—apparently, for Agha and Malley, a most essential prerequisite for a successful revolution--lost out to the Middle East’s usual medley of local hatreds and external plots.

There are many hints in the exposé about the duo’s dyed-in-the-wool skepticism about 2011 as a year with deep positive reach, but it’s this sentence that really clinched it for me: “The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm.”  In blunter words, none of this was supposed to happen, but since it did, clearly it will come to nothing. Or blunter still: since we didn’t predict any of this, better second-guess it than second-guess ourselves. 

So, on the one hand, we have a revolution that somehow has managed to topple two entrenched dictators and unleash a “complex brew” that threatens to overturn a decades-old regional order. On the other, this is actually nothing more than a spontaneous if genuine “public rebuke” by various amorphous groups, which is destined to sputter out and die in societies that are too traditional, too tribal, too sectarian and too religious to allow for the possibility of a new era that is in any way an improvement over the old one. Add to this mix, foreign busybodies, organized parties with hostile agendas and militaries averse to change as a matter of temperament, and you’ve got yourself a dud.

As for the conundrum as to how these groups, composed largely of “young demonstrators,” succeeded in overcoming such seemingly insurmountable odds and pushing history in a direction that these societies, by their sheer makeup, and these regimes, by their sheer repressive nature, and these foreign meddlers, by their sheer meddling, should not have allowed in the first place, Agha and Malley opt for the very original “revolutions devour their children,” at the end of eleven pages that expend much energy explaining why this isn’t a revolution. Besides, what’s to devour if you’re already dead?

Extraordinarily, Agha and Malley resort to historical precedence to demonstrate why nothing good will (not could, not may) come out of this fury, and identify none other than Gamal Abd al Nasser and the uproarious, ideologies-driven 1950s and ‘60s, to prove the point.

That this time around the Gamals are conspicuously absent, the army is not in “the vanguard” of change, the ideologies of old are in tatters and counterrevolution itself is walking around practically naked for all to see is acknowledged by the authors but certainly none of the lessons of the past. It’s never made clear why these differences don’t count for much, but Agha and Malley offer this at least by way of an answer: “Although the military was the vanguard then, the rebellions of 2011 arose from similar emotions and are inspired by similar aspirations.” See! Keep wishing for the same damned thing and you’re condemned to never achieving it.

It’s as if the two experts are saying we’ve been here before, but it doesn’t make a difference either way, because this is where we’re going to end up anyway. Why? Well, because we’ve been here before.  It’s sort of like being in the Amazonian jungles, this Arab world: it really matters where you’ve been, but then again, what does it matter where you’ve been if where your heading pretty much looks the same, even if it is an entirely different place?

As for what compelled the two to devote so much ink to making a truckload of insights that are so patently obvious, it is simply to make sure that we know what we already know: “Things are not as they seem.” Which is kind of funny because their article argues exactly that: things are bad, and they are just as they seem.

Now, if you wanted to have a bit of fun with this, here’s an additional small sample of wisdoms, with some comments in italics to guide you through the nuance:

·      It started out so nice but then it turned ugly. I guess that counts for a bad omen, because, for Agha and Malley, in order for revolutions to be good they have to be “peaceful, homegrown, spontaneous, and seemingly unified,” or they’re not—good revolutions, that is.

·      Old regime elements are resilient and will hang on. That was the biggest surprise in the piece.

·      There are “two relatively untarnished” groups--the army and the Islamists—which are poised to sweep the deck should they choose (or have) to, even if at times and in many places they act positively senile or stupid, because, for God’s sake, look at the rest of the lot.  

·      The Islamists, for one, stand to gain the most from this Arab Spring, but, come to think about it, the season may prove a little too nippy for them: infighting within the Muslim Brotherhood, and/or competition with Salafists, and/or tensions between hostility to and close relations with the West, and/or people’s suspicion and/or support…

·      Islamists are “the only significant political force with a vision and program unsullied, because untested, by the exercise of, or complicity in, power.” But wait, they know “the alarm they inspire at and home and abroad,” and they are on a mission to reassure.” Well, I mean, if they are untarnished, unsullied and untested, why in God’s name are they bending over backward to reassure, I wonder?

·      Oh, no, this is not happening in a vacuum--“interlopers are legion.” La?...Bala! (No, really?”), was all I could muster for that one.

·      This could be good or bad for each or a combination of the following: Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, America, you name it… Which, thankfully, narrows it down a bit.

For the record, I am not pissed because Agha and Malley have argued an Arab counterrevolution; I am pissed because they’ve argued it so badly. They should stick to woe-is-me Palestine, because—this is just a gut feeling, mind you—it “neatly fits [their] social and political” outlook.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Just in case some of us are still skeptical about the sheer audacity of these times, give this a try: rummage in your mind’s attic for the year 1956 and a picture of Gamal Abd al Nasser, dust both off, and then tack them on that busy clipboard of history next to 2011 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

(Aside: this is not a partial response to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha’s The Arab Counterrevolution in NRB; although we do touch on some similar themes, this post was written before I read the two gentlemen. In any case, my view on the piece will come in two days.)

Actually, I am going out on a limb here on regional winners and losers in this Arab Spring, however reminiscent of the past the future threatens to become.

Now tick them sixty years and their collapsing vistas off: the bygone days of military coups that could prance around as do revolutions; the general-cum-father-cum-savior; the roar of an Arab Umma on the rise; ideologies in their Sunday suits with the rhetoric to match; Islamism, present, certainly, but lurking much like that quiet, awkward kid in the corner of the class…Palestine! Real and graspable.

Turkey, Iran and Israel, three cubs nursing on the sidelines…The Soviet Union and the United States, two giants with plenty of zest and way early in the fight.

It’s hardly necessary to keep revisiting the harsh elements that reduced an interesting prospect into a figment of a people’s overactive imagination. Besides, there is no better tonic for the heart’s pain than fast-forward.  

So, a new century, a new Arab moment, a new painting in the making. It’s fascinating to watch the 21st century opting to pick up where it left off in the early years of the last and rejigging the old chosen path.  There was a hint of an Arab Awakening then rising in the shadows of warring empires—the Ottoman one dying to stay alive, the European one literally sharpening the knife.

And here we are, almost one hundred years after the fact, with a few of us seemingly resurgent again, battered and arguably all the more sober because of it--and with such uncanny if unplanned timing--helping Turkey to recapture some of that glorious past. But, frankly, even before the Tunisians first rose, Turkey in the three way regional race against Iran and Israel, was looking more and more like a stud: a country oozing with testosterone, while Israel acts like an overwrought menopausal has-been and Iran runs around grabbing its crotch.

Or think of it this way: Sunni in a sea of Sunnis; a “respectable” (as in we don’t do murder and beards) Islamist model in a world desperate for one; an economic powerhouse; a government with electorally validated popular appeal versus a seriously dysfunctional Jewish democracy and a seriously dysfunctional Shiite theocracy; a solid member of NATO; a strong ally of an overburdened US willing to cede some of the chores of empire; strategic location; all the right rhetoric on Palestine, muscle flexing with Israel like no Iranian or Arab can.

Or think of it this way: Erdogan is about to make a visit to Egypt and (last I heard) speak in Tahrir Square. Can you imagine any Arab or Iranian leader daring even to propose that outing without bringing down the house? Can you think of any power, say, China and Russia, trying to reach a deal with Syria’s Bashar in the absence of Erdogan? And, conceivably, if it ever musters the strength, a so-called Palestinian solution without Turkey as part of the plan?

There are, as with everything in life, the downsides: a far too confident Turkish leadership overreaching, an EU yet to put out the welcome mat; Iran and Israel outdone, joining hands here and there to overturn the cart; the Kurdish problem reasserting itself through Syria, Iraq and Iran… But all things are relative, and in this regional competition for influence, the era is certainly Turkey’s for the taking. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hezbollah’s Quandary

A friend of mine is a bank manager in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, Hezbollah’s own dominion in Beirut. Neither she nor I have any proof of it, but her appointment to that location most probably was a clear concession to Lebanon’s sectarian method. Well educated (an MBA from the very French USJ, Universite De San Joseph), tough and, yes, above all Shiite, her superiors must have figure she would navigate the terrain as “natives” would.

In Hezbollah’s playbook, my friend is a difficult number: a supporter of the Resistance against Israel and a skeptic everywhere else. She will, on many occasions, cut it some slack in the very confessional politics of Lebanon, but she will do it with eyes wide-open, ears perked up and a mouth poised to ask all the awkward questions. The iffiest kind of supporter, you might say, for an organization that prefers its lovers of the diehard variety.

I can’t be sure of this woman’s strength on the ground--most opinion polls point to strong Shiite support for Hezbollah, but none attempts to gauge the quality of it. However, I think I can get away with proposing that the nature and intensity of the battles the group often has to wage make her count. As prized as Hezbollah’s ardent supporters are, the Hezb knows only too well that loneliness in Lebanon’s sectarian wilderness is not exactly smart positioning, especially for a party whose ambitions are way grander than and too audacious for the country to which it presumably belongs. If Hassan Nassrallah indulges his quarrelsome Maronite ally Michel Aoun a tad bit too much, he indulges him precisely for that.

A while ago, my bank manager friend told me that her most annoying days at the bank are typically those that come in the immediate aftermath of a Nassrallah speech. Everything and everyone grows to sizes bizarrely larger than life—the muscles, especially those around the chest area, the swagger of peacocked-men into the branch, the demands for fee discounts, easier access to loans, bigger overdrafts… I am, so to speak, the shadow of my master.

None of that now. Of course, the theatrics of defiance are imperative for a group that always stands accused of (or is often up to) something, but listen harder and you will notice that the boys’ mood has in fact turned quieter. The indictments of four Hezbollah men in the murder of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 (“circumstantial” though evidence might be) and the trouble in Syria are conspiring to keep normally high heads down. And just because it’s such a delicious Gotcha! moment for its detractors, the air is abuzz with Hezbollah’s double standard in embracing revolt in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain while shunning it in Syria.  

No doubt, the sight of holier-than-thou warriors having to openly pick their way through the Arab uprisings, much like their hypocritical nemesis the West, is the perfect setup for a smirk. But as embarrassing as the nitpicking is to Hezbollah, the true source of its discomfort is more disquieting still.

For a while now, the Party of God has been wrestling with the headaches that attach to an enterprise that juggles, with insistence, its multiple identities as a military resistance, a political party and a social movement whose devotion to Persia’s Wilayat al Faqih (Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Jurist) is at once an unabashed show of supranational loyalties (normal among Lebanese sects) and an explicit statement about political orientation if not intent.  

Call it the heavy price of success. It is no small feat to start out fringe, Islamist and Shiite and grow within two decades into a military powerhouse with a track record of credible wins against Israel, a thriving local operation and region-wide appeal even in the staunchest Sunni quarters. Everything its progenitors dearly wanted it to achieve, Hezbollah did, for unlike Lebanon’s other sectarian bosses, its business, from the outset, was never really meant to be strictly Lebanese and, as unavoidably Shiite as it is, its concerns were never merely parochial.

But now, arguably for the first time in its 30-year life, Hezbollah is being forced to choose between its precious identities. Worst still, for the first time since its signature label—the resistance against Israel--won it faithful followers in ideological camps not particularly keen on any of its other titles, it’s being called upon to spell out the definition of this resistance.  

Rhetoric aside, the real tension between love of freedom and indifference to democracy is common among many a liberation movement. The nature of the battle compels it: the do-and-die climate, the feverish passion for the cause, the need for a stealth existence, absolute secrecy, unwavering discipline, total loyalty… For Hezbollah especially, it’s always been just as much about politico-religious beliefs as it is about the struggle itself.

But until the Arab uprisings, none of this really mattered: the Israeli menace--even after the 2000 withdrawal from South Lebanon--remained real to enough people, the region’s authoritarianism hard-wearing to enough people, Lebanon’s democracy a joke to enough people, society’s sectarianism agreeable to enough people, Hezbollah itself flexible to enough people… Although, mainly due to the party’s increasing potency over the past ten years, friction began to appear between its different priorities, the situation was more or less manageable—that is until the Arab uprisings.

In Hezbollah’s defense, a few commentators (not all sympathetic to it) have been arguing that the Arab rebels are asking too much from a force whose overriding mission is the fight against Israel. For all of Hezbollah’s pretensions and talents, these commentators add, democracy is one particular practice it was never interested in mastering, let alone embracing as part of its cause.

All true. And all irrelevant. However persuasive the fine points and nuances, Nasrallah never thought he would actually have to tiptoe around them. And now he has to—all the time. Finally, Freedom for Palestine, in Arab discourse, is no more an orphan. To love it is to love all its other long lost sisters--democracy, dignity, justice…—everywhere, for the sake of Palestine and us Arabs as well.

Hezbollah’s diehards don’t care one way or the other, but my bank manager friend does, along with all those who were happy to lend the Resistance plenty of good will in the name of Arab and Palestinian dignity.

The extraordinary irony in this singularly challenging regional circumstance is that the American-Israeli conspiracy, real or not, is actually tangential to this part of Hezbollah’s quandary. In fact, pretty much like Nasrallah, Khamenei and Bashar, neither the US nor Israel, each for its own patently obvious reasons, is particularly happy to see Palestine reunited with its sisters.

The indictments, Syria’s anguish and the threat to strategic depth and breathing space, the Sunni-Shiite fault lines in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s own delicate internal power politics, the emergence of Turkey and its   clever game plan for Palestine and the Arab revolts: all these make for an unusually demoralizing suite of challenges for Hezbollah. But the pressures on it to come forward and own up on the critical question of resistance, in its full, unbridled meaning, may yet prove the most daunting of them all.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Everything Up in the Air in the Arab Spring?

To blog or not to blog? It has been this kind of month. If your site is not in the business of archiving and commenting on the day’s happenings—or, as a friend volunteered, if you’re knitting your way through history--it makes little sense to join the hysteria. With the detritus of theories and scenarios clogging up the view and numbing the senses, you find yourself rhapsodizing about the wisdom of silence in the throes of frenzy.

I suppose it’s time for more knitting.

Moods here have this lull in their swing: the ebb and flow of euphoria as doubts accumulate about the uprisings’ ability to sustain their original sprint. The odds were great to begin with, they say, and now, after the initial shock, stasis and the many forces that love it are rebuilding stamina again, threatening to turn the race for deep change into a tedious push and shove game. Ironically, both those who are reveling in and squirming from the moment are sounding the same alarms, the former warning of sabotage, the latter rooting for it.

So, here we are, seven months into rebellion. Outrage still in Tahrir Square. Frustrated fury in Yemen and Syria. A not so quiet simmer in Bahrain, while Libya roils, as Qaddafi and the rebels, inch by inch, fight for precious terrain. 

Conspiracy talk, dire predictions, accusations from the left huffing and puffing about the West, rants from the right pissing on the brash audacity of the East are giving the uprisings the run around, by turns pumping them up and smacking them down. Adding to the noise are those with seriously offended sensibilities or wounded ideologies, who, like drunkards, are stumbling their way through events, at whim applauding or fulminating against the revolts.

And, pray tell, the skeptics are asking: Where do the region’s age-old maladies fit in all of this tumult? The sectarianisms that are supposed to divide us; the colonial legacies that mar us; the greed that stalks us; the feeble democratic impulse that cripples us; that religion that shackles us… 

Opinions are colliding, but the same overarching question wraps up almost every argument: Will we find ourselves starting afresh a few years down the line, or will we be stomaching more of the same under a different name? As in, is this for real, or is fate just pulling our leg?

Bizarrely, lost in the storm of words and actions is the heavy baggage that the uprisings have already dumped from the surface of these realities. True, the systems in Tunisia and Egypt were only too happy to decapitate tottering heads if only to save themselves; worse, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria—each for its own set of reasons--have yet to begrudge their people even this fleetingly gratifying gift. But a look back at the past seven months, however hasty, is enough to remind us that had the old narrative been that sturdy we wouldn’t be struggling for the ground in these tectonic shifts.

In 2007, Annia Ceizadlo, a correspondent with a remarkable feel for the region’s politics, wrote this: Once again, Lebanon is facing the oldest, saddest choice in the modern Arab world: between undemocratic religious militants and a greedy, corrupt elite whose biggest selling point is its dubious ability to keep the militants at bay.”
The revolts, nascent though they are, have already damaged much of the area’s political fabric, none more severely than this storyline by which we have lived and been smothered to near death in the last 40 years. And with it, the parts that have made it strong and whole are coming under severe pressure to evolve: the authoritarianism that enveloped it; the Islamism that was nurtured by it and thrived because of it; more recently the neoliberal economic policies that were supposed to shore it up but ended up undermining it; the geopolitics of the area that drew its rationale from it…

The impression among many is that the current fight is about how much of the old status quo can be saved, when in actual fact it’s about how much of the new one can be tamed and made to deliver.

Hence the rise in accolades waxing lyrical about the Turkish model that has married the least noxious brand of political Islam with the most believable type of democracy to the most robust market-friendly economy. Equally conspicuous is the distance between Turkey and the region’s other masters in capitalizing on the potential windfalls of the Arab Spring.

In Turkey’s growing shadow, you are sure to glimpse Iran’s nervous swagger in the hard knuckle race for regional influence. Not far from both are the tensions between a miffed and recalcitrant Saudi Arabia, with suddenly so much and so many to buy off and nothing to sell, and the US, which has caught the trend and is looking for the most effective way of sublimating it to its dynamic interests.

Witness the openness being expressed towards an Arab Muslim Brotherhood whose credentials appear most appropriate to the moment: their innate capitalist instincts; their strong fealty to the army and/or strong channels of contact with the powers that be; their strength in the mainstream and their eagerness to deal; conveniently, their newfound willingness to graciously (if always clumsily) give and take with society’s other constituencies

Note as well the pace and nature of dissent coming from within these movements in places like Egypt, which, for the first time in decades, are having to compete and reinvent themselves in a deregulated marketplace of political parties and ideas.*

Nothing about this emerging status quo is neat or even remotely irreversible, all thanks to the popular stirrings, which ironically were the ones to let loose the forces that made the previous one so indefensible. Nothing in the Turkish experiment—not the stubbornness of the state and army’s secularism, not the particularities and size of its economy, not the tactical and wily pragmatism of its Justice and Development Party--finds its likeness anywhere in the Arab world. Moreover, we have yet to figure out where to place in the looming panorama the extraordinary sight of a “democratic” Israel turning more illiberal and more bigoted still, law by law, settlement by settlement, Netanyahu by Lieberman, as its Arab neighbors, for the first time in recent memory, clamor for a freer future.

But if the details pack the devil in them and the contradictions and uncertainties are littering the path to the new order, the vision and intent, for those who like to think of themselves as the deciders, is this. And in their efforts to put together the nuts and bolts of the new Middle East, perhaps the biggest challenge will be the single most significant realization by the rebels yet: that their voice matters and it is at its most effective when it is relentless and ground up.

*  For some of the best reporting on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood follow Yasmine Al Rashidi in The New York Review of Books.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Being Lebanese

In this Arab Spring

If you have any hope in you, you would throw back your head in ecstasy as you read this description by James Wood of the role of Pat, VS Naipaul’s late wife, in Peter French’s The World Is What It Is:

Her presence in this biography is a hush around Vidia’s noise; her job is merely to hold the big drum of his ego in the right position, the better for him to strike the vital life rhythm.

Every once in a while, you come across a thread of words, a thought, or an image that thieve from a whole archive of wisdom to lay before you an epic of a tale. Very few approach Wood's absurdly beautiful turn of the pen, but they don’t need to in rendering suddenly stark clear and simple the tortuous tangibles of the act of living.

Even a passing comment can stop you in your tracks. Years ago, sometime in the late 1980s, a very famous Lebanese basketball player went to Jordan to attend the wedding of a friend. He was gracious enough, star that he was, to play in a show game with Jordanian players. As he entered the hall, he started chatting with an official who asked him if he is Arab. “Lebanese,” the famous one answered, prompting the usual, “Well, we’re all Arab, right?” from the official. The honored guest quickly shot back, “Yes, but we’re a bit faster.”

There, in a split second of a comeback, crowed that Lebanese specialness vis-à-vis the rest of the Arab crowd: to the hip, more with it and quicker; to the journalist, the standard for which all other Arabs pine; to the deal maker, more nimble and canny--to boot, way more suave; to the politician, more lightweight and all the better for that…

On and on, this story has played itself out, part real, part stereotype, part truth, part bluff, in every other drawing room in this city. The implicit identity here, of course, is Beiruti, the sense of belonging at once very particular and incessantly unattached.

Through turmoil and war, bedlam and breakup, debauchery and grime, the many precious years during which every special bit about this assaulted country gave in and then up, the impression has been that when other Arabs look ahead, they are sure to find us Lebanese, however roughed up we are. That is until this Arab Spring gave all this the lie, and we finally had to admit that we are very far behind.

All too predictably the laments have started. The novelist Elias Khoury let out a bizarre cry last week, “Why does Beirut commit suicide through silence?” as if Beirut’s children had not hushed it into stillness decades back. That was, after all, the point of the war, wasn’t it? Discovered only when the debris had finally settled and the profundity of the destruction was revealed to all. Silence! Silence to all the pretence--or hope for those who dared believe—that there was special meaning in being Lebanese.

But Khoury should be forgiven his wishful thinking, for never have a people been this rich with individual talent and this starved of collective enterprise. Never has a leadership been less aware of the destructiveness of political genius if not tempered by a sense of ethics and decency. Never has a country been this susceptible to success and this bent on failure.

Lubnan al Rissalah, Lebanon the Example! You can’t Google it, but it’s the cliché that our politicians always use to spin the ugliness. It’s the idea that our thinkers fall back on when they desperately want something to look forward to. It’s certainly the name by which other Arabs like to hail us when they want to lull our demons to sleep. And we have, indeed, become the example for Arab tyrants in their fight against an Arab people rising. Beware, the message says: with change, chaos; with chaos, anarchy; with anarchy, sectarian strife; with strife, disintegration. “Lebanonization” (labnant), then, is a short heaving moment away. Or to put it more simply, as dictators are want to do: “Is that what you want? Another Lebanon!”

A cautionary tale, that’s who we are: this is not the kind of nation you want to be, not the kind of state you want to have, not the kind of hate you want to feel, not the kind of politics you want to play, not the kind of business you want to do… Sure, Beirut is fun enough, especially after dark, but why be one when you can have your way with it and then fly back home to safety?

If the whole idea was for us to lead by example, we certainly have.

And so, we wait out this Arab Spring with barely anything on offer or anything to add. Or we react, each brood, of course, for its own sake. We wait for the Saudis to decide which way they want to play the Sunni card. We wait for bloodshed here should the Assads fail there. We wait for Iran to figure out how it might adapt. We wait to see how Hezbollah will mind its kneecaps. We wait for Israel to pounce. We wait for governments to form, and then we wait for them to fall. We wait for the summer to get hotter, for the mountains of garbage to rise higher, for the lights to go out, for the sea to get murkier, for our youth to pack up and leave, for the trees to become even lonelier…

But I’ve already written this so many times in so many different ways. Better wrap it up with somebody else’s words. Here’s Khaled Saggieyh’s for the road: ”Never has Lebanon been more washed out, more hobbled, more devoid of any meaning than it appears now.” (Akhbar Newspaper, June 6, 2011).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Towards a New Narrative

A mob of ifs, buts and maybes has been let loose in the region.

The Middle East hasn’t been this prickly since that grab fest at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire gasped its last and the Arabs were about to breathe their first. It wasn’t in the stars then, alas: new overlords, new states, nations, borders, flags, anthems…The 1950s, however exciting, don’t even compare. Tested as the colonial map was, it more or less held firm; only ruling heads swayed or fell.

But it’s not only dictators that are tumbling now. Entire landscapes, once tamed and mastered, want to rewrite the future as planned. The people, who had been pretty much deleted out of every power’s playbook, are making a dash for it with a long list of demands, and, frankly, neither they nor the systems they want brought down are familiar with this kind of tumult.

The furious tempo and nature of the turmoil have made a mess of things for forces that had long lined up across this area’s countless divides. Colliding interests are suddenly mixing it up and deeply held beliefs are having to contend with very inconvenient facts.

The reference here is not to the obvious. It’s always been hilarious but never extraordinary to catch feuding countries in one-night stands or even elicit tangles of the more passionate and lasting kind. Not that Hezbollah and Iran stumbling over Syria much like the US over Yemen and Bahrain is not worth a pause. But what deserves more than a passing thought is the way this upheaval has forced out into the glare of light the unvarnished pragmatism that has long held court among the Arab world’s supposedly die-hard camps. We are used to vilifying the US--and rightly—for putting narrow interest before lofty ideals, but it’s not everyday that we get to witness the most “principled”, not to mention righteous, of us Arabs owning up to and questioning their own handshakes with unsavory regimes.   

So far, this serious blow to the decades-old understanding between (let’s call it) the traditional resistance front and “rejectionist” states is one of the Arab uprising’s more interesting if underreported achievements. “‘Resistance’ against Israel [and the US] was for the longest time a pass for savagery against one’s own people, now it has become the very argument against it,” I wrote in an April post. What was deemed, for many in this influential front, a matter of priorities for 60 years has become a blatant contradiction in a mere five months.

Perhaps no intellectual symbolizes this break better than Azmi Bishara, the more thought-full among Arab nationalists and a former Knesset member, who was good enough to dwell on this hardnosed quid pro quo, at long last according the Syrian people precedence over all other considerations. Even journalists and pundits, like the staunchly populist Ibrahim Amin of the Lebanese Akhbar, who remain hopeful (and confident) that Bashar Assad will in fact champion change and lead it in Syria, have had to narrow the gap between their convictions and their politics, emphasizing the imperatives of reform while engaging in the usual conversation about conspiracy.

It is hard to overstress the extent to which “rejectionist” countries, and movements allied with them, relied on these sources of external legitimacy in covering for domestic cruelty and delegitimizing internal dissent. Now the logic no longer holds for those who helped such states make this case to the Arab masses.

Already the question of legitimacy is demanding answers beyond that of Palestine, casting an eye towards those of governance and citizenship. And soon, the discourse on resistance is sure to ponder a more meaningful definition than the longtime favorites of loud posturing and cynical belligerence, neither one of which was ever remotely credible in confronting the daunting challenge of Israel.  

Marrying the quest for freedom from occupation to that of freedom from oppression finally has become both urgent and feasible. To the Arab revolt goes the credit for bringing together two pursuits that should have never been apart.  

Extraordinarily, this momentous shift is taking place at a critical juncture in the Arab-Israeli impasse. Never has Israel suffered from such an utter lack of imagination, and never has it been so utterly wrong about its many existential quandaries. Never have the Palestinians’ grasp of the utility of nonviolent resistance been sharper and more sensitized to its pull. Never have the Arabs been more keenly aware of the power of their reach and the possibilities of a more dignified life.

But, remarkably, if the Arab Spring and the evolving Palestinian story are threatening to render moot Israel’s strategies of confrontation, they certainly have done the same to Iran and Hezbollah’s. It’s not only the Islamist movement and the Republic’s strategic depth that is endangered by the changing Syrian circumstance; their brand of rejectionism is quickly becoming less convincing as they pick their way through the Arab uprisings.

Hamid Dabashi said it in his piece on “The Dilemma of the Islamic Republic”: “This is the season of exposing hypocrisies, overcoming public secrets, opening the democratic veins of young and robust societies, exposing the clogged arteries of decrepit rulers bereft by their own moral senility.”

Which paradoxically takes us back to that essential matter of pragmatism in the way that we, as a coveted, embattled and now erupting East, deal with powerful forces, local and foreign, whose foothold and interests here are real, deep and pervasive.

Western analysts, Professor Michael Hudson argues, have to revisit their false conceptions of an Arab people who have defied stereotype and expectation. The pressure as well is on their Arab counterparts to move beyond the old paradigms that have placed foreign connivance and hostile encirclement as immovable screens in our interaction with those who mean and have the capacity to influence our region.

Talk of counterrevolution and conspiracy is rampant today, no doubt for good reasons, but we Arabs have just snatched opportunity from the jaws of history, and against such odds. Had we been doomed to a marionette-life, the last five months wouldn’t have been so damned riveting to live and inspiring to watch. One of the more instructive lessons of these revolutionary times is that we are capable of leading and forcing others to cede the initiative.

But practically nothing in the recent literature comes close to a reasonable proposition on how to take Arab aspirations forward in the context of an international arena that simply won’t take no for an answer. Beyond ideology, beyond the narrative of empire, which is as matter of fact as life itself, however dearly we wish it were otherwise, how do we engage with a world that is unavoidably intrusive? To this paramount question, we as Arabs need some serious thoughts that are as rich with nuance and skepticism as they are free of paranoid sloganeering.