In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
Architecture is at the center of politics. We can see the truth of this statement amdist the controversy about post-war reconstruction of Beirut and the establishment of Solidere—the company created to redevelop the city. Reconstruction in Beirut does not mean simply the physical re-making and structuring of certain “sites of memory” scattered throughout the city. Rather, reconstruction is a political process parallel to the constant making and re-making of internal contestations of power and identity inside Lebanon since at least 1860.
The most important and widely studied case of reconstruction in Beirut is the famous Centre Ville or Beirut Central District undertaken by Solidere (discussed at length in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?”. Höckel points as well to the case of the southern suburbs and the Elyssar project and the role played by Hezbollah in different states of reconstruction, namely, 1983, 1996 and 2006. In this post, I look at the Elyssar project to develop Beirut's eastern coast and southern suburbs. The project has been mired in delays for decades and exemplifies the blurry line between political projects, architecture, and private interests in postwar Lebanon.
The designation “southern suburb” has a negative connotation in Beirut, and is often used interchangeably with Shi’a Muslims, anarchy, squatters, illegality and poverty. The “suburbs”—formed by a permanent flow of rural migrants and later by both urban and rural refugees from the war—are homogenous and impoverished quarters of Beirut, consisting mostly of members of the Shi’a community and comprises one third of the population of the greater Beirut area. At first the project was to be undertaken by Solidere but after political contestation on the part of the residents and the Amal/Hezbollah party, it was implemented by a public agency created after much negotiation as per Decree No 9043 of August 1996.
The project was criticized on the basis of being based solely on economic considerations and too ambitious (the area is five times bigger than the central district) even though similar plans had already been tested and failed in the Arab world. Yet, it remained largely unmodified. Other issues arose, such as difficulties in land expropriation due to the illegality of building and dwelling in the area, and speculation over land value, in which all parties – Solidere, the Prime Minister’s Office and the local Amal/Hezbollah – withheld and manipulated information, which led to a political stalemate that permanently halted the project.
The project area extends over 586 hectares from the Summerland Resort and Sports City to the boundary of Beirut International Airport in the South. From East to West it extends from the Airport road to the Mediterranean Sea and includes a large portion of coastline – another contentious point for development and speculation.
Elyssar’s plan included the execution of all primary and secondary roads, necessary infrastructure and public services; the construction of over 10,000 units of affordable housing over a 14-year period, manufacturing parks, warehouses and workshop centers. At the heart of plan was also the same scenario of urban violence and displacement in which residents from illegal settlements were to be transferred elsewhere.
The question of illegality and ownership in the area (and everywhere else in Lebanon to a certain degree) is complex and nowhere near resolution. In a 2007 case study by Nadine Khayat, she writes:
The Lebanese state has mostly continued to adopt a non-interventionist strategy toward these areas in Beirut; in fact, many describe the southern suburbs of Beirut as a state within the state, having its own conservative jurisdictions that may arguably be excluding factions and other communal groups present in Lebanon.
The state faced the question of illegal settlements in an area almost entirely controlled politically by Amal/Hezbollah, with the exception of a Maronite minority at the fringes. The hostilities between the state and the militias go back to tensions between 1983 and 1984, when President Gemayel ordered the demolition of illegal neighborhoods in the suburb.
Facing resistance from the residents, with the support of Amal, and what is considered a reminder of the state’s bad will toward the area, it turn led to yet another extension of the war.
The suburbs fall under the definition of ‘slums’ and ‘illegal settlements’. They have been a recurrent nightmare in Beirut’s reconstruction plans because of the absence of planning bodies, uncontrolled migration and growth, and lastly, the lack of appropriate mapping of the slums in purview of the political control of para-state bodies in the area.
Mona Fawaz and Isabelle Peillen’s 2003, “The Case of Beirut, Lebanon”, part of “Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements”, lays out the problem: “Given its complex history, the limited legalities in property rights, and the widespread violation in building and construction codes, it is difficult to adopt legality as a criterion for slum identification in Beirut.”
They further add: “To date, Lebanese public policies have never concretely addressed slums and their dwellers, despite a reasonable number of studies dedicated to the issue. Laissez-faire has been the rule, although punctuated by violent incidents of eviction.” The sole exception to this had been, of course, the Elyssar project (Public Agency for the Planning and Development of the South Western suburbs of Beirut). However, that failed time and again not only because of inappropriate funding but also because of the status quo of postwar reconstruction in which confessional fractions battle each other for power.
All the information relevant to the negotiations and contestations in the early phase of the Elyssar project are found in detail in Mona Harb’s “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations and Contestations in the Elyssar Project.”
Here it is important to highlight the role that Hezbollah/Amal have played in the contestations and negotiations between the Lebanese state and the suburbs. While they have significantly added to the political stalemate of the project, they have transformed the public space of the suburbs through an intricate network of surveillance, social services, political participation and cultural activities in a way that the Lebanese state has been incapable of offering, particularly in this disadvantaged area.
The characterization of Hezbollah in the Lebanese context is very difficult and while it is not the topic of this essay, the work of Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, (Know thy enemy: Hezbollah, terrorism and the politics of perception) provides a framework to understand the role of the group inside the urban configuration of the suburbs as a distinct territory of identity. It is important to note that understanding the group as merely a terrorist group or as a part of the Lebanese institutions are both flawed perspectives, which blur the heterogeneous nature of para-state actors in Lebanon.
The animosity between investors and government institutions on the one hand, and Hezbollah on the other hand, confirms Harb’s observation:
While urban politics present themselves as a means for development they are actually strategies for territorial domination” (see Harb’s “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: Parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”.)
The conquest of the public space and eventual colonization and closure of its history, and of what it is supposed to be found and remembered in it, is in Lebanon, the equivalent of political hegemony.
Architectural interventions and urban planning play a pivotal role in the configuration of the public space as the stage where politics appears, and here comes to mind Daniel Libeskin’s observation that “the public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.”
The general lines for a discussion of the role of politics in architecture and architecture in politics have not been drawn with the exception of economic considerations and the problem of technology – as a counterpart of history – in weakening effective participation in democracy through excessive technification and functionalism of labor. Nevertheless, the necessity for an architectural configuration of the public space in which the world emerges between people, calls for a review of what Hannah Arendt conceived as the “space of appearances”, in terms radically architectural.
Ronald Beiner writes in “Our Relationship to Architecture as a Mode of Shared Citizenship: Some Arendtian Thoughts”:
The fundamental categories of Arendt’s political philosophy, such as worldliness and public space or “space of appearances”, are architectural ones (one can see this in how certain architectural theorists and even practitioners respond to her work). Hence, precisely where one encounters limits in trying to apply her political philosophy to politics, one can perhaps redeem her political philosophy by applying it to architecture.
For Hannah Arendt, the world – the space of politics – is the only place where we can appear to others in order to act, and it is this action that constitutes the basic units of power – which is always political – and that redeems the world from both the biological – and mortal – cycle of life.
Beiner makes an interesting argument in this regard: the now popular notion of public reason from Rawls and Habermas operates on considerations of constitutional structure and political order which are relevant only to political elites. Whereas, public space is relevant to all citizens; accordingly, public reason is less important than public space.
Arendt was increasingly concerned with the durability of the world as a stable artifice, where human action gains some sort of immortality. As Beiner noted, “That this sort of immortalizing function is implicit in architecture as the creation of a lasting habitat and a more durable context for human activities is not a surprise.”
World-oriented experiences were at the core of Arendt’s thinking about the nature and possibilities of the political. Here we encounter an obvious tension between hegemony and worldliness, in that spatiality or space is not the determining factor in the existence of a public world, but the guarantee that it can appear. Beiner shifts the emphasis from the public space as a setting for episodic freedom, to a public good, in which civic experience can take place. This, based upon one notion of citizenship being that "public things matter."
The notion of cynicism that is so widely discussed in politics can also be found in architecture. Beirut is a first-hand example of what Andrew Benjamin calls, “architecture as annihilation” in the context of museumfication rather than reconstruction for the sake of reconciliation.
For as long as the public space in Lebanon will continue being the battleground of hegemony in jeopardy of power, urban architecture and planning will reflect that. Beiner explains, “If the effect of an ensemble of architectural creation is not the constitution of some kind of polis, at least ideally, then the idea of architecture as a source of citizenship is a hollow one.”
Cynicism is here embodied in the notion that in reconstruction it is only economic growth and prosperity what will bring peace to a country devastated by war. However, Hannah Arendt warns, “Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions it can either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence.”
“Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”
The last few weeks have witnessed the return of scenarios of violence to North Lebanon around the city of Tripoli where clashes have disrupted the fragile and tense balance of peace. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising last March, fears mounted that the violence would spread quickly to Lebanon, whose very fragile balance of power is deeply intertwined with the fates of Syria and a complex network of sectarian alliances that spread into Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West.
It would require an entire encyclopedia of Lebanese politics and history – which by the way, has never been written – to define all the terms necessary to adequately discuss the complex scenarios of postwar Lebanon and the players involved, but suffice it for now to say that the current political system was not only born out of the unresolved sectarian struggle of the civil war but hearkens back to the French edict of 1936 that made it obligatory to declare belonging in one of the religious communities to be eligible for citizenship.
Often it is assumed that conflict in Lebanon is limited to the tripartite division between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians but the “communities” established by the French aren’t exactly equivalent to the broader sect and the Lebanese constitution (promulgated in 1926) acknowledges 18 different religious communities – though the presence of Jews is almost none – and still, the National Pact (1943) that truly laid the foundations of the Lebanese state was indeed negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites.
These three sects – with their respective alliances at home and elsewhere – dominate the political landscape in an overtly complex system of offices, distribution that fails to account for the diversity of the political spectrum within them (at least in the case of Sunnis and Christians) and that was once conceived as an interim measure that remains in place to this very day. Tensions between the different communities and sects can be traced back to the 1860’s when Lebanon was an Ottoman province and remain still unresolved.
Tripoli is an exceptional example of the role that sectarianism plays in Lebanese life: one of the most impoverished and neglected areas with a diverse population of Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Alawites. The city has a Sunni majority and sectarian distribution is also geographical; the dividing line between the northeastern neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) along the Syria Street has been the epicenter of gun fighting.
Already in November 2011 Lebanon’s Alawite minority – mostly based around Tripoli – expressed concern over the situation across the Syria-Lebanon border long before the Syrian crisis reached the tipping point in Homs. Syria’s besieged ruler Bashar Al-Assad, belongs also to the Alewite sect, and the long-time Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended only in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution included Sunnis being massacred by the Syrian army in Bab al-Tabbaneh (1986-1987). The course of the Syrian uprising has paved the way for a renewal of old tensions going back to 1970’s.
In June 2011, seven people were killed and over fifty wounded in clashes between the rival neighborhoods following a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and then in February 2012, clashes erupted again that required the intervention of the often powerless Lebanese army. The situation worsened by May when a Sunni Islamist was arrested, and clashes erupted again between both neighborhoods. The fighting continued on a low scale throughout several days and over a dozen casualties were reported.
In the first days of June clashes erupted once again and with non-existing media coverage (different, for example, from the clashes spread from Tripoli to Beirut around Tareeq Jdeideh, another dividing line between Sunni and Shiite rivalries, even though this time clashes were between two rival Sunni factions, one of them being the Arab Democratic Party, with close ties to Hezbollah and to which many Alawites in Jabal Mohsen belong) citizens from Tripoli reported the clashes as the worst gun fighting since the end of the civil war.
The clashes resulted in at least 14 casualties and extensive material damage, in which civilian life was not only disrupted but there were also reports of non-combatants wounded, and as it was reported by pro-independence site NOW Lebanon, it is unlikely that Tripoli battles will end with the last shot fired. Following from the clashes, Alewite businesses were reportedly torched in the more affluent area of Azmi, closer to downtown, and the calm returned after the army intervened – with a spectacular delay – to impose a fragile and tense ceasefire.
The particulars of the unrest in Lebanon are too intricate to discuss here, but Emile Hokayem has provided all the historical background in his Foreign Policy piece “Lebanon’s Little Syria” , and Lebanese blogger Mustapha M. Hamoui has written an extensive analysis on what the arrest in May of a Sunni Islamist tells us about Tripoli, the state of affairs in Lebanese politics, and wider effect of the Arab Spring in Lebanon in his “A Phone Call That Shook a Nation”. Now, with all this in mind, we should turn our attention to some ideas on power and violence and the specific case of Lebanon.
In "On Violence", Hannah Arendt established a crucial distinction between power and violence, and though her definition of violence itself comes only via negativa – by what it is not, she articulates a very clear notion of power as distinguished from force and strength. Whatever it is that we understand nowadays as power is the rough equivalent of force, that is, the uncontrollable forces of nature, and has little to do with power as a function of human relations: power as the ability to act in concert with others.
The meaningful distinctions between power, strength, force, violence, and authority have somehow evaporated in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and have been made roughly identical with each other. The emphasis of the shift from power to force implies the operation of natural forces that render human capacity for decision irrelevant ,and the shift from force to strength confuses the irreparability of the natural cycle with a trait of character or personal quality. Conversely, authority is not power or strength or force, but specific sources of power.
Violence, on the other hand, bears an extremely complex relationship to action rather than to above described elements of government – as distinguished from politics and as such, from human plurality – and here action is roughly identified with the human capacity to begin something anew, as if miraculously. According to Arendt: “Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new”.
It should be said however, that violence cannot be disqualified as a form of action – and in this regard, the Arendtian canon and legacy is very ambiguous – and there is such a thing as violent action, but it is a tautology to speak of non-violent power: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”
Lebanon’s relationship to both power and violence – which is nowhere better exemplified than in Tripoli’s violent history – emerged as it is, in jeopardy of power and excess of violence: born out of confessionalism and as a buffer zone of regional conflict in which every confessional faction sought to enter deals with players abroad to protect sectarian interests, the idea of power has been infinitely weakened as a birth defect. These particular aspects of Lebanese modern history have been discussed by former minister Charbel Nahas in his lecture “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, disorientation et dissension sociale” held on May 25th in Paris.
The criteria of religious affiliation have impaired participative democracy through a system in which the absence of violence is understood as an achievement in unity, but the immediate absence of violence – as exemplified by the National Pact in 1943 and the Taif Agreements in 1989 – does not immediately translate into consent to act (power) but simply into non-aggression.
The raison d’être of politics – and this is in a nutshell, all of Hannah Arendt – is freedom and not sovereignty, that I understand - particularly in the political philosophy of Fichte -as bearing a relationship to freedom based on free will and not on action. Accordingly, for as long as the terms of the debate are framed exclusively by territoriality – the sectarian geography of Lebanon comes to mind again – and the acceptable tension between national sovereignties (which in Lebanon means sect sovereignties and is far from any concept of federalism), the vacuum of power will remain. Consequently, every time that the terms for negotiation need to be laid, violence will be the only way to settle them.
In the absence of power, the government is permanently impaired to make political decisions – regardless of the coalition, whether March 8 or March 14 – and the powers of the state will continue to be handed to regional warlords, without whose consent, the army will remain forever incapable of restoring security, and the idea of national unity will be always preceded by a confessional affiliation within an abstract figure of power whose pillars are everywhere but in Lebanon.
Power is a terrible and incalculable force, whereas violence is predictable and calculable, and that is why power grows in between men, while violence is possessed by one man alone – even if the many act upon it, it is still possessed individually – and cannot be the foundation of politics because it is a means to something else that ultimately becomes identical with the means it utilizes.
Violence cannot be overcome through force or violence, because both are incapable of spontaneity – the hallmark of human action and plurality – and for as long as power will remain absent from the political, weapons will always set the terms of negotiations for Tripoli. It cannot be denied that violence is a form of action and a very human one at that, but the writing on the wall is crystal clear in Hannah Arendt’s writings: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
There is probably no question more debated in the course of Middle Eastern uprisings than that of the status of human rights. Anyone familiar with the region knows that the status of human rights in the Middle East is at best obscure. The question of why there was not a “revolution” in Lebanon is a very complex one, tied with the fate of Syria and with the turbulent Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war, and hence cannot be fully answered. In a vague sense it can be said of course that Lebanon is the freest Arab country and that as such it bears a distinctively different character.
While at face value, the statement is true, being “more free than” in the Middle East is simply understating a problem. Just to outline the basic issues, Lebanon’s record on human rights has been a matter of concern for international watchdogs on the following counts:
Security forces arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents and dissidents without charge, different groups (political, criminal, terrorist and often a combination of the three) intimidate civilians throughout the country in which the presence of the state is at best weak, freedom of speech and press is severely limited by the government, Palestinian refugees are systematically discriminated and homosexual intercourse is still considered a crime.
While these issues remain at the level of the state, in society a number of other issues are prominent: Abuse of domestic workers, racism (for example excluding people from color and maids from the beaches) violence against women and homophobia that even included recently a homophobic rant on a newspaper of the prestigious American University in Beirut. The list could go on forever.
The question of gay rights in Lebanon remains somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits explicitly homosexual intercourse since it “contradicts the laws of nature”, and makes it punishable with prison. On the other hand, Beirut – and Lebanon – remains against all odds a safe haven, for centuries, for many people in the Middle East fleeing persecution or looking for a more tolerant lifestyle.
That of course includes gays and lesbians and it is not uncommon to hear of gay parties held from time to time in Beirut’s celebrated clubs. At the same time, enforcement of the law is sporadic and like everything in Lebanon, it might happen and it might not; best is to read the horoscope in the morning and pray for good luck. A few NGO pro-LGBT have been created in the country since the inception of “Hurriyyat Khassa” (Private Liberties) in 2002.
In 2009 Lebanese LGBT-organization Helem launched a ground-breaking report about the legal status of homosexuals in the entire region, in which a Lebanese judge ruled against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals.
It is against the background of this turbulent scenario that Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud” (2011) came to life, putting together an unusual tale about friendship and love set in postwar Lebanon in which five friends and a girl set on a perilous journey in order to find their place in the world.
Though the plot of the film seems simple, underneath the surface lurks a challenge to the traditional morals and taboos of Lebanese society – homosexuality, the role of women, the troubled past of the war, delinquency, crime, honor – which for Lebanese cinema, on the other hand, marks a turning point.
This wouldn’t be so important in addressing the question of rights and freedoms in Lebanon were it not for a documentary, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, released together with the film that documents in detail the ordeal through which the director, actors and crew had to go through in order to complete this film.
Shot in Zahlé, in mountainous heartland of Lebanon and what the director called “a city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”, it is widely reported in the documentary that from the very beginning the cast and crew were met with the same angry mobs, insults, and physical injuries that their film in itself so vehemently tried to overcome; a commercial film about family violence, gay lovers, and the boundaries of relationships between men and women. A film not about Lebanon fifteen or twenty years ago, but about Lebanon of here and today.
Daboul writes: “Although I grew up in the city in which “Out Loud” was filmed, even I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a movie in a nation plagued by violence, racism, sexism, corruption and a lack of respect for art and human rights.” The purpose of “Out Loud” of course wasn’t only to make a movie but a school of life, in which the maker, the actors and the audience could all have a peaceful chance to re-examine their own history and future.
Until very recently in lieu of a public space, in Lebanon, any conflict was solved by means of shooting, kidnapping and blackmailing by armed militias spread throughout the country and acting in the name of the nation.
The wounds have been very slow to heal as is no doubt visible from the contemporary political panorama. Recently, a conversation with an addiction counselor in Beirut revealed the alarming statistics of youth mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction across all social classes in Lebanon, to which I will devote a different article.
Making films in Lebanon is an arduous process that not only does not receive support from the state but is also subject to an enormous censorship bureaucracy that wants to make sure that the content of the films do not run counter to the religious and political sensibilities of the state. In the absence of strong state powers, the regulations are often malleable and rather look after the sensibilities of political blocs and religious leaders rather than state security, if any such exists.
The whole idea of censorship of ideas is intimately intertwined with the reality of freedom and rights and with the severe limitations – both physical and intellectual – placed upon the public space.
In the Middle East, censorship of a gay relationship is an established practice in order to protect public morality; however what we hear on the news daily that goes from theft to murder to kidnap to abuse to rape to racism, does not require much censorship and is usually consumed by the very same public.
If there is one thing here that one can learn from Hannah Arendt about freedom of speech is that as Roger Berkowitz writes in “Hannah Arendt and Human Rights”:
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”
Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act –to be effectual and meaningful in a public world – that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
While these ideas might seem oversimplified and rather vague in a region “thirsty” for politics, they establish a number of crucial distinctions that must be taken into account in any discussion about human rights. Namely:
1) The failure of human rights is a fundamental fact of the modern age
2) There is a distinction between civil rights and human rights, the latter being what people resort to when the former have failed them
3) It is the fact that we appear in public and speak our minds to our fellowmen that ensures that we live our lives in a plurality of opinions and perspectives and the ultimate indicator of a life being lived with dignity.
Even if we have a “right” to a house, to an education and to a citizenship (that is, belonging to a community) if we do not have the right to speak and act in public and express ourselves (as homosexual, woman, dissident and what not) we are not being permitted to become fully human. Regardless of the stability of political institutions, provision of basic needs and security, there is no such a thing as a human world – a human community – in the absence of the possibility of appearing in the world as what we truly are.
“Out Loud” – both the film and the documentary – are a testimony of the degree to which the many elements composing the multi-layered landscape of Lebanese society are at a tremendous risk of worldlessness by being subject to an authority that relies on violence in lieu of power. Power and violence couldn’t be any more opposite.
Hannah Arendt writes in her journals:
Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a terrible force, but it is there precisely that its eminently human character lies. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If power is seized, power itself is destroyed and only violence is left.
It is always the case in dark times that peoples – and also the intellectuals among them – put their entire faith in politics to solve the conflicts that emerge in the absence of plurality and of the right to have rights, but nothing could be more mistaken. Politics cannot save, cannot redeem, cannot change the world. Just like the human community, it is something entirely contingent, fragile and temporary.
That is why no decisions made on the level of government and policies are a replacement for the spontaneity of human action and appearance. It is here that the immense worth of “Out Loud” lies; in enabling a generation that is no longer afraid of hell – for whatever reason – to have a conversation, and it is there where the rehabilitation of the public space is at stake and not in building empty parks to museumficate a troubled past, as has been often the case in Beirut. In an open conversation, people will continue contesting the legacy and appropriating the memory not as a distant past, but as their own.
The case of Lebanon remains precarious: Lebanon’s clergy has recently united in a call for more censorship; and today it was revealed that the security services summon people for interrogation over what they have posted on their Facebook accounts; HRW condemned the performance of homosexuality tests on detainees in Lebanon, even though this sparked a debate and a discussion on the topic ensued at the seminar “Test of Shame” held at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Lebanese Medical Society held a discussion in which they concluded those tests are of no scientific value.
In a country like Lebanon, plagued by decades of war and violence, as Samer Daboul has said in his film, people are more than often engaged at survival and just at that – surviving from one war to another, from one ruler to another, from one abuse to another, and as such, the responses of society to the challenges of the times are of an entirely secondary order. But what he has done in his films is what we, those who still have a little faith in Lebanon, should have as a principle: “It’s time to live. Not to survive”.
“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.
Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.
The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.
Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.
Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.
All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.
During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.
The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.
The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.
The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.
The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.
The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.
Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”
But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.
At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.
Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.
Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.
Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context of Tajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.
Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.
She writes in The Human Condition:
The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.
This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.
One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.
Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”
The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.
On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.
Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.
But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.
It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.
A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”
Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”
Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.
Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:
Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.
The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.
Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
The question of post-war reconciliation brings up a number of issues that were addressed in a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida established by Cláudia Perrone-Moisés in her “Forgiveness and Crimes Against Humanity: A Dialogue between Hannah Arendt & Jacques Derrida”, providing us with a framework to understand why initiatives like “Another Memory” are issues of the first order of relevance for Lebanon and any post-war society.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.
During a conference organized in her honor in Toronto, Hannah Arendt was asked by Hans Morgenthau, to categorize herself as such: “What are you? Are you a conservative? Are you a liberal? Where is your position in the contemporary possibilities?”
Arendt replied: “I don’t know and I’ve never known. And I suppose I never had any such position. You know the left think that I am conservative, and the conservatives think that I am a maverick or God knows what. And I must say I couldn’t care less. I don’t think that the real questions of this century will get any kind of illumination by this kind of thing.”
It is precisely in this spirit that one should read Jens Hanssen’s recent paper “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East: Preliminary Observations on Totalitarianism, Revolution and Dissent”.
Hanssen offers in his paper a rather detailed survey of how Arendt has been read – and misread – by the Middle East, beginning with Kanan Makiya’s World Policy Journal article (2006) “An Iraqi Discovers Arendt”, all the way to Israeli revisionist (and evidently critical of Israel) scholars such as Idith Zertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
The particular examples he brings up are paradigmatic of this already established tradition of appropriations of Hannah Arendt that though emerging from her political thought, have much to do with politics and little with thinking.
For example, the case of Kanan Makiya is interesting if only because of his controversial – and rather maverick – position in the landscape of Iraqi politics. This Marxist engineer-turned-neo-conservative political advisor (in Hanssen's telling) is apparently credited with being the first Arab author to apply Arendt’s phenomenology of totalitarianism to Baathist Iraq.
Makiya makes a case for Iraq as a totalitarian regime in Arendt’s terms, drawing a straight line from anti-Semitism and intellectual support for Saddam Hussein to comparisons with Nazi Germany. Though his book The Republic of Fear stands for many Iraqis as the greatest testimony to the sad state of affairs under Hussein, the analysis is at best a misappropriation in many respects and seems to fall within the line of warmongering that Arendt so vehemently criticized as McCarthyism: To use totalitarian means to fight – real or imagined – totalitarian enemies.
The most interesting reading he brings up however is Vince Dolan’s course at the American University in Beirut, “Contemporary Philosophical Reflections on the Use of Political Violence”, in the spring of 1983. Dolan tailored the course to polemicize Arendt’s distinction between power and violence – perhaps the most difficult in all of her thought – by first exposing students to Habermas’ evaluation of Arendt’s project and then bringing her into conversation with Popper, Adorno and Horkheimer.
While this practice is common among liberal academics, the integration of Arendt into the corpus of critical theory has been time and again debunked by serious Arendt scholars, of which I might bring only two salient examples:
First, Dana Villa (Arendt and Heidegger, 1996, p. 3-4) argues that although Habermas called Arendt’s theory of political action “the systematic renewal of the Aristotelian concept of praxis”, there is no one that would argue more vehemently against Aristotle (and the whole project of critical theory) than Arendt.
According to Villa, critical theory has immensely profited from Arendt’s renewal of Aristotelian praxis as opposed to the instrumentalization of action in order to highlight the intersubjective nature of political action, when in fact this renewal is a radical reconceptualization whose renewal is nothing but a renewal in order to overcome rather than to restore the tradition of political thought of and since Aristotle.
Second, Fina Birulés insisted in an interview from 2001 that there is a wide gap between Arendt’s radical theory of democracy and Habermas. According to Birulés, though Habermas is deeply indebted to Arendt, his theory of communicative action is hardly political at all and he reduces the concept of plurality to some sort of ideal community of dialogue.
Doubtless Hanssen is correct in pointing out that Arendt did not provide a concise definition of totalitarianism. Definition is a privilege of theory that Arendt’s story-telling didn’t embrace and she “merely” listed phenomenological elements. However he also indicates how Arendt insisted that only two forms of totalitarianism existed: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This distinction is crucial to understand the rest of his paper.
Nowadays totalitarianism – as much as the banality of evil – is a slogan in newspapers and politics, often lacking in meaning and intention and this brings to mind the whole post 9-11 discourse in philosophy and politics in which Islam and Islamism – among other things – take the place of the “old” totalitarian movements.
While it is true that in phenomenological and structural terms nothing since the collapse of the Soviet Union can be called strictly totalitarian, there is no doubt that there are totalitarian elements in many movements and policies not only in the Middle East today, but also in the democratic West.
Among other – far less influential readings of Arendt – Hanssen lists the translations into Arabic and Persian, providing crucial information about how and why Arendt informed certain – mostly – Arab authors.
Lastly there is an elaborate discussion on the use – and again, abuse – of Arendt by Israeli scholars since her “rehabilitation” in Israel that coincided with the rise to prominence of certain revisionist scholars.
Though Hannah Arendt wasn’t exclusively concerned with Zionism or the Jewish question, it is undeniable that her entire work was informed by her status and experience as a Jew in the Europe of the early 20th century.
There are many Hannah Arendts and to this effect Jerome Kohn writes in the introduction to her “Jewish Writings”: “In 1975, the year she died, she spoke of a voice that comes from behind the masks she wears to suit the occasions and the various roles that world offers her. That voice is identical to none of the masks, but she hopes it is identifiable, sounding through all of them”.
Something that is identifiable in her entire work – but not identical anywhere, is her concern with the young State of Israel in spite of the controversies into which she became trapped later on.
While it is true that Arendt was very critical of the Zionist establishment and of the course that Israel had taken, it is also important to remember that her writings (“The Crisis of Zionism” and “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East”) were anchored in an intense anxiety over the Jewish people regaining control of their own destinies and entering the realm of politics.
Julia Kristeva expressed this best in her speech upon receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize in 2006, making it clear how for Arendt the survival of Israel and the refoundation of politics in the West was part of one and the same task:
Thirty years after her death, added to the danger she tries to confront through a refoundation of political authority and which, as they get worse, make this refoundation increasingly improbable, is the new threat that weighs on Israel and the world. Arendt had a premonition about it as she warned against underestimating the Arab world and, while giving the State of Israel her unconditional support as the only remedy to the acosmism of the Jewish people, and as a way to return to the “world” and “politics” of which history has deprived, she also voiced criticism.
But Jerome Kohn writes also in the introduction to the Jewish Writings, “Already in 1948 Arendt foresaw what now perhaps has come to pass, that Israel would become a militaristic state behind closed but threatened borders, a “semi-sovereign” state from which Jewish culture would gradually vanish” (paraphrased from her “To Save the Jewish homeland”).
In her piece “Peace or Armistice in the Middle East,” Arendt laid out what is in my opinion a foundation for what could be the ideal of Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Middle East – including even a surprisingly rare background on Arab personalities that had lent support to the possibility of a Jewish settlement from Lebanon and Egypt – but the element of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism that have crystallized now in the Middle East couldn’t be foreseen by Arendt, or at least not to the extent that they were articulated by Kristeva:
Although many of her analyses and advances seem to us more prophetic than ever, Arendt could not foresee the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the havoc it is wreaking in a world faced with the powerlessness of politics to respond, and the apolitia, the indifference created by the omnipresent society of the spectacle.
Hanssen concludes from reading Arendt on totalitarianism, revolution and dissent in the Middle East that “one of the most powerful (in Arendt’s sense of power as consent-based), non-violent movements coming out of the Arab World today is the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestments campaign that Palestinian civil society groups have called for in 2005 and has now become a global counter-hegemonic phenomenon” and raises the question whether Hannah Arendt would have supported Palestinian BDS movement to bring about the end of Israeli occupation.
On the one hand he argues that “the intellectual merit of BDS campaign from an Arendtian standpoint is that it is not based on old and invalid hyperbolic equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.” On the other hand, he also says:
There is certainly ample room for this kind of non-violent action in her writings. For one, she supported the economic boycott of German businesses in the 1930’s and was furious when Zionist Organization in Palestine broke it.
Leaving the associations with Nazi Germany asides, it is vital to recall that it was Arendt who said that not even in the moon is one safe from anti-Semitism and that the State of Israel alone wouldn’t come to solve the Jewish question.
It is clear by now that BDS campaign has blended elements no doubt altruistic of non-violent struggle with elements from the old anti-Semitism, in which there’s little distinction made between Israelis and Jews.
BDS has come to include not only boycott to the settlements (as has been articulated with great intelligence by Peter Beinart and his book “The Crisis of Zionism”) but also academic and cultural boycott. In extreme cases, there have been boycotts of products not for being Israeli or produced in the settlements, but merely out of being kosher products produced in Britain and the United States.
While it is more than clear that Arendt saw and foresaw the risks and dangers to which Israel polity was exposed by its leaders, she also articulated with clarity that it wasn’t the Jews alone who were responsible for this sad state of affairs and whether or not Hannah Arendt’s ideal of a binational state is at all realizable at this point – bearing in mind the complexities of Arab Spring – what is clear is that an ideology fed on old anti-Semitism and prejudice as much as on uncritical views of Arab and Palestinian history is very unlikely to produce the Arab-Jewish councils (at the heart of her theorizing on revolutions) upon the basis of which a secular and democratic state might be founded.
"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”