Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Farewell, Ghassan Tueni

You know the shopworn expression? A house is its master’s character! Well, there is no place quite like that sprawling abode up in mountainous Beit Meri, a 30-minute ride from Beirut, which lifts such banality into something close to wisdom.

The main hallway cascades down into a vision of the sea and the fireplace warmth of the main living rooms. Mid-stairs, the library hangs to the left, austere, majestic, inhabited. On walls, Byzantine icons intrude on modern art. The bedroom to the side of the library is ascetic-bare, and so is the dinning room but for a subtle elegance and ceilings high enough to render lone voices clangorous. The eeriness of the inner sanctums, where guests rarely were invited to tread, is softened only by the breeziness of the meandering garden. Up and down, twists and turns, lightness and whispers, a passion for the here and now, a longing for the gods.

That was Ghassan Tueni!  

He had a rapacious appetite for that cigarette, for nightlong banters, for early morning sweeps of the pen, for power, for self…

The public persona was colorful, dramatic. The private man was the same, his panache legendary, his personal tragedies Shakespearean. There was an unrequited love between him and life; he loved her unconditionally, recklessly; she was whimsical, sadistic, keener on those stabs of anguish than with her driblets of mercy.

Ghassan segued between politics and journalism, waltzing life away between two mean lovers. The performance was often flawless, but the trip ups were awkward and embarrassing. The dossier is not thick with evidence, but the episode that seared him the most was his stint as adviser to former president Amin Gummayyel, a man who, many agree, was very becoming of Lebanon but not of Ghassan Tueni.

His sword and shield was Annahar, for a long time one of the Arab world’s feisty broadsheets thanks to Ghassan and his remarkable ability to make his instinctive liberalism and his sponsors’ unrelenting conservatism cohabit. But the toll hung heavy, and well before the end, this delicate balance was no more.

About Lebanon he was unwavering, stubbornly magnanimous about its failings and absurdly rhapsodic about its specialness. His famous words, “The war of others on Lebanese land,” say it all. For him, Lebanon was almost always victim to every insult but its own utter lack of respect for itself. 

Ghassan fascinated, puzzled and infuriated his friends just as much as he did his foes. He was made for accolades—yes, he was. But every good quality in him flirted shamelessly with its nemesis.

He was brainy but careless. A resounding success and a disappointment. As capricious as he was gracious. Highbrow and hard knuckled. A wit with an inexplicable tolerance for bores. A giant with a weakness for dwarfs.  An enlightened man who was too ready to entertain the interests of those who preferred life at its dimmest.

It is vintage Ghassan that he should fade just as we Arabs are agitating to come out of our own slumber. But then he had grown quiet years ago. Long before a series of strokes banished him to a punishing silence, his pain had become immeasurable, his days sedate, his pulse faint.

In due time, much will be written about Ghassan and his era, a time when the Arab world turned every moment of possibility into a stupefying dead end, a time when Lebanon itself made of a presumably interesting experiment in consociational democracy a forbidding showcase of sectarian bloodletting. No doubt, much will be written about Ghassan’s legacy in this unforgiving trajectory.

But if the narrative means to illuminate and instruct, it would have to tell the story of modern Arab journalism in making this region’s downhill slide all the more inexorable. History is home to many a progressive journalist who either could not or would not resist the pull of power, for survival, for fear, for proximity to that proverbial ear. History is home as well to many who did resist and died a miserable death. Here, in the Arab world, these journalists’ dilemma was every good man and woman’s, who often were forced to countenance an existence stripped of meaning or principle.

By the turn of the 21st century, you were hard pressed to name a publication that was not outright owned by patrons—public or private— who were no longer content with mere influence. In Lebanon, once an arena of relatively intrepid speech, the practice, not coincidently, is still at its most unseemly.

We are now—dare we hope!--upon a different age. Extraordinarily, a new vigor promises to enliven politics, whilst the fourth estate of old continues to nibble on the extreme margins of dissent. But if the early signs are to be believed, Arab print journalism may yet enjoy its own revival.

You’re mistaken if you’re sensing judgment on this page. Mine are just fleeting ruminations about a pocket of Arab history that left most of us in lament about the terrible choices we weaved for ourselves.

Those who loved Ghassan—gems, warts and all, like me--will have no trouble tracing the man’s grace in a life teeming with brave stands, fortitude, wiliness, love, humor, sadness, lapses and contradictions.

Rest in peace, amou Ghassan. An eternity without pain—at long last!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Feeling Good and Bad about Umm al Dunya?

Thoughts on Egypt

It’s a sign of our extraordinary times that you could—and without appearing remotely stupid--feel at once good and bad about Egypt.

The frantic twists and turns of revolt jerk you between dread and anticipation. Adding to the frenzy are the many meanings that accompany every event and the many implications that haunt each one of them. There are those who suspect that Egypt is not in genuine flux and that this is all part of an elaborate show by the old guard to reclaim the initiative. The more plausible explanation is that it is, and what in fact we are experiencing is the tension borne out of a country on the edge which hasn’t quite made up its mind to jump.

Some would call this the inevitable tug of war between revolution and counterrevolution. That’s another easy one, neatly pitting two forces against one another and giving each its slogans and stark colors. The endless barrage of rumors, the intrigue that hovers like a mist over Tahrir, the many cards the SCAF is still holding close to its heart, the barely concealed eagerness of the Muslim Brotherhood to deal, the erratic temperament of the rebels, the it-could-be-this and then again it-could-be-that quality of the general political discourse… all these, they say, are the unmistakable symptoms of a stuttering revolt and a tenacious “deep state” reinforcing its dikes.

“Whatever!” as an Egyptian friend of mine has recently fallen into the habit of repeating like a mantra.

There is, of course, a very heated conversation going on in Egypt, but it is not between protagonists standing on opposite sides of the divide, but between the yearnings and dreams and fears and hopes that keep jumping camps, blurring the lines between enemies and friends and wreaking havoc even within the soul itself. Messy situations are the stuff of revolutionary tumult, one is tempted to surmise, but there is more to it than that. This is a furious people, no doubt, fed up with much of the past but very tentatively feeling their way forward.

This is indeed the changing face of Egypt, and its children haven’t quite decided how much of the new they want to take on and how much of the old they need to hold onto. There is nothing assuredly upbeat about this picture, but the visage is beautiful all the same. Egypt is in pain, traumatized, angry, and unusually defiant but still not free from its old masters’ embrace. That’s the idea, conspiracy talk might persuade you, and who wants to argue with ghosts and shadows? Anyone watching Egypt closely will see the keen turn of the pen of a people reimagining a future once deemed foreordained.  

I was in Cairo last week, right after the first round of the presidential elections. The results tickle and unnerve. Most pundits, not surprisingly, are churning out the easiest takes: the fast one that might have been pulled on the Egyptian voter, leading to a run off between Mubarak—yes, Mubarak!--and the Muslim Brotherhood, the same two old geezers that have dominated state and society for the last 40 years. Politics as usual, the evidence screams, is alive and well on the Nile. Even if you were generous enough to consider the MB’s strides as genuinely “subversive,” the stubborn continuities in the political scene seem to mock the pace and depth of the revolution. At first look, the choice today appears as ugly as it was before January 2011: “Despotism in the name of the state versus despotism in the name of religion,” as leftist candidate Hamdin Sabbahi aptly described it.

And yet, as muddied as the results were, intriguingly they do still tell tales about that changing face of Egypt. In its simplest version, the unfolding setting is of a perky if harried nation that has moved on and a pummeled status quo (the MB included) trying very hard to reconstitute the many shattered pieces of itself.

The politics, by turns volatile and predictable, fascinates. Discussions with friends and colleagues are like miniature impressions of a much larger patchwork. One boycotted the entire process; another struggled between candidates till the very last second, while her “capitalist” parents went with socialist Khaled Ali; a third voted for Sabbahi but will void the ballot in the final round; a fourth voted the same but will go for Ahmad Shafiq this time around… All are bona fide members of the Square, two are longstanding activists...--voters freely strolling up and down the electoral map.

Remarkably, while the elections’ many perceived flaws have further undercut the struggling legitimacy of the political system, they have nowhere touched the deeper trends revealed by these same elections. And, paradoxically, all that went wrong and right about the vote bodes equally bad for the two players that stand behind Shafiq and Mohammad Mursi, the first round’s two winners.  

While the SCAF has to brace itself now for possibly yet another resurrection of Tahrir Square, made more likely by the latest court verdicts that essentially acquitted the security apparatus, the Muslim Brotherhood has to contend with results that brought in Mursi first and last. Around 25% of a low 46% voter turnout and 10% of total eligible votes is a lousy return on an 80-year old investment. This after a grueling campaign as well that dragged God himself down into the muck of the political arena.

This unimpressive performance may not have immediate connotations for the MB’s ability to keep racking up political positions like so many trophies, but it does say plenty about the kind of influence it will be able to wield through those pulpits.

It might be sometime before we can fully discern the vote’s significance for the crucial question of Islam and identity that has harangued us Arabs for the better part of the 20th century. But at this palpably low level of enthusiasm for the Brothers and their plans--a revelation that is but one of many pointing to the challenges unleashed by the emerging political climate—we can more forcefully caution against the rush of ill-considered warnings about Islamism overtaking Arab life.

The primacy of Islam is settled, the argument has it, even among vociferous secularists. There are no ifs anymore in this contested realm, just the hows. One school of thought, different branches. One heaven, different floors. One hydra, different heads. One solution, different applications. The same plate, different recipes…

But, in fact, for years now, there have been clear signs that Arab identity—no less than the Iranian one--is infinitely more capacious than Islamism would like it to be. As Professor Assef Bayat argues, post-Islamist currents within many Islamist movements or regimes are in their essence a response to societies’ insistence on pushing the boundaries. In describing post-Islamism as both a condition and a project, Bayat proposes that its aspiration is “to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past.“ In other words, it promises the end of the Islamist experiment itself.

Presidential contender Abd al Muni’m Abu al Fotouh, dubbed a post-Islamist by many of his admirers, often declares that Islam has won as part of his message that it is time to close the file on Islam’s place in public life. In long evolving landscapes now finally accommodating and possibly nurturing a much more vibrant kind of participatory politics, we will have the chance to find out what Islam has won exactly. But the Egyptian election results tell us that, far from being over, the real debate over the matter of identity has just begun.