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Thursday, January 2, 2014

On a Very Foggy Day You Can See Forever


The dreaded “I see you’re not writing anymore…” From an acquaintance this time.

I protested, of course: what I wrote a century ago (a month and 20 days to be precise) still holds. I mean, how many different ways can one argue, err…it could be this and it could be that, and, by all means, any stop you’d like to take in between?

It’s a slate wiped clean on which you can scribble even the most errant scenario and make of it a half-way decent argument. And, frankly, it’s become too crowded a space. With bloggers and pundits and analysts, yes, but worse still, with those posts from deep in the dugouts. Tell the truth!--if not accounts of the ”absurdly painful,” (coined by a friend) how tweetable are the musings about the ho-humness of the days this close to the battlefield? In full view of these mega tragedies and their casualties, where does, oh, say, that entrepreneurship weekend about to be held in Damascus belong?

Which is it: resilience or breathtaking cluelessness that keeps us kicking as it props us up for even more pounding? And how many interesting juxtapositions can the curious endure? You know, those about the made-for-CNN violence that grips the surface of Arabhood and the stubborn vibrancy of life barely a layer underneath that mocks it. Or does it?

So, like it or not, we’re crouching for cover, again, in the Middle East (God help me, it’s the umpteenth time, I am sure, I’ve written this exact same sentence). Trenches, and its dark and ugly. The last time you looked up it was a storm of predictions and crises. Tears and chatter.

If you’re seeing straight, you’re cross-eyed. That used to be a Lebanese motto. Not anymore.

The squatting gets to you every once in a while…the dimness as well. For a bit of steadiness as you reach for the keyboard, you begin to search for perspective in the distance—what hints the mist can throw your way. But then your field vision is akin to a blindfold. You discover history’s your crutch, because--see!--it’s too dusty out there, and what do you know anyway? That’s why the experts--an army of them, local varieties mingling with foreign types—are here, at the ready, binoculars and tarot cards.

We Arabs are often accused of being suckers for the traps of the past. Turns out outsiders as well can do marvelous laps backward, and quite far. Late Antiquity is apparently upon us (courtesy of Robert Kaplan). You want more recent flashbacks, then via Jashua Landis, ethnic cleansing (read wholesale population transfers) much like that which caught the tails of World War II. You realize where that puts Palestine, not to mention the rest of us, don’t you? Where George Will and friends always wanted it: on the shelf under “stuff happens,” right next to that German-Polish catharsis that tidied up messy identities. True, Kurds aside, some hard work, making them apples pair with our oranges. Dunno, though? Let’s say we pull it off: Does that mean we will be Europe after all that sifting? Or do we get to mimic only the shitty parts of other people’s histories?

It’s not all such silly putty, thankfully. Sykes-Picot teetering on the edge: now, this I get! It helps that it’s been the topic of Arab conversation every other afternoon since 1921. But that other one about just you wait and see! Bashar is actually staying--on offer lately by indigenous diehards and foreigners who fancy themselves of the beard scratching kind--misses the point, pretty much like Bashar himself. A hint for you by way of a gem of a Southern Lebanese adage: Like a rooster perching over his heap of garbage.

As for the latest--part paranoid Arab conspiracy, part silly Israeli wishful thinking--making the rounds as I write, about Israel sitting back and counting its blessings: a little quick on the trigger there, compadre. I am not pissing on this rumor because I know what is coming, but because I don’t. And, all pretenses to the contrary, neither does anyone else.  

Details, by the way, in such sweeps of history, are for nags and nitpickers, or those who refuse to see the big picture. Trouble is, it’s in the small twists and turns that one experiences humanity’s wonders and miracles. Name one? Enough the face of a feisty Syrian child about to walk into his schoolyard.

Whatever! Above my pay grade all that, you sigh, as you flip through the scenarios the way you would Vogue’s September issue at the hair parlor’s.

For what it’s worth, my suspicion (and only a sneaking one) is that 2014 will bring with it what 2013  left us with: plenty of nifty little surprises and mammoth jolts, but, alas, no grand finales. My humble suggestion, therefore, is that you keep a body count, an inventory of the certainties that no one can flout. Think of them as buoys for the sailor in us.

First the dead, for clarity, and I’ll be quick about this because…well…just because:

·      Gone is the very notion that Islam and democracy can get along, aka the Turkish model. Check one. For this graciously fast breakup, you know whom to thank. And don’t salute only Erdogan, be kind and blow one at Mursi.

·      Gone as well is the very notion of the centralized postcolonial state, as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya, each in their own special way, become the nominal sum (or not) of their parts. Check two. Don’t fear the unknown packed into this one. Be bold! Ponder the opportunities.  

·      Gone, moreover, is the very notion of the Levant as we’ve known it since Independence Day (on loan for the duration of this blog post), with Lebanon already done for and Iraq and Syria disintegrating faster than we can say, ya Mohammad! (hope you get the meaning hidden in this last swipe). Point of caution here for our Jordanian friends: wipe that smug smile off your face. Way too early to phew! and thank your lucky stars.

To cap this section, I’d like to share a near-death experience. It looks like today we the people—peddlers, liars, hacks, alcoholics, heretics, heroes, traitors and thugs alike—are in full ideological disorientation mode. Pray that it stays strong and lives long.

Revolutionary enough for you all that, or would you still care to hazard a guess that it’s same ol same ol?

Next are the casualties that you want to keep your eyes fully fixed on if only because the squirming is so fascinating to watch:

·      You might think that Saudi Arabia, horror of all horrors, is acting like a mad woman, but, to be fair, whatever it is, it’s not hormonal. Fate, so kind for so long, has turned too mean and dirty. Oil, for the first time in a century, is no longer uppermost on the US’s mind. What’s more, thing is: all that money, those Looney madrassas, the pornographic fatwas, the Jihadis…more people are starting to suspect that wherever Saudi Arabia goes, life somehow goes south. Used to be that only we natives were clued in, but after, umm, the Twin Towers, Spain and London…catch my drift?

Besides, even in its own backyard, Saudi Arabia just can’t seem to get it right: Yemen is a goner, Qatar is unbearable, Oman is too ballsy and the UAE has always looked out for its own interest all rhetoric to the contrary. Nasty that handshake between the Emirati and Iranian foreign ministers over the Islands within a week of the interim P5+1-Iran deal.

Meanwhile, to the north, Iraq is too morbidly Shiite, Syria’s Islamists are not able to win one for the Sunnis and Egypt is turning out to be a real sourpuss. Which brings us back to the question that keeps buzzing like a mosquito in the head of the Wahhabi Kingdom: Now that Arab revolutions have been successfully derailed, why can’t everybody just behave?

No wonder the US and Iran could end 2014 as the Middle East’s newest hot couple. Turkey and Israel are already old sweethearts, so if it’s not these three countries—yes, yes, warts and all--managing between them the old region, who, for heaven’s sake, do you think it’s going to be?

·      In Egypt, the military and security apparatus, probably much later than sooner, will discover what the rest of us have known all along: guns kill, prisons too, but they’re terrible problem solvers. Meaning? The deep state, precisely because of the depth of its obtuseness, is in very deep trouble.

And now that we’ve reached the end of our tour, here’s the one trend-hell, I’ll just call it a fact--that will help me wrap it up for this season. The most livable cities in the Arab world are, in order of livability, Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Per que, you ask? It can’t be that they’re in the Gulf, or that they’re rich, or that they’re far from Levantine infernos—the mere mention of Saudi Arabia takes care of this one. Nope! The meanest irony jeering at us is that the good fortune of these city states is solely because of that one essential component that all three are missing: a local population big enough to spoil the fun.

Conclusion: the fewer Arabs in your neck of the woods, the happier you are.

I am not counting Bangladeshis and other some such nationalities keeling over in labor camps because they don’t count.

I’ll stop here. I’ve already hit page 4, and no blogger, especially an accidental one, should cross to 5.

I wish one and all a great and eventful 2014.