Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Archive for January, 2010

Lanzmann, the Holocaust and I

Posted by worriedlebanese on 21/01/2010

Claude Lanzmann in the early 1980s

I just finished watching the first part of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary on the Holocaust:  Shoah. I’ve been viewing it for the past 4 hours and a half. The full version runs 613 minutes, but Arte chose to show it in two parts. The second half will air next Wednesday, but I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to follow it.

This documentary is considered by many historians as a watershed in European historiography of the Holocaust. I had seen bits and pieces of the documentary on two occasions before. But this is the first time I see such a large chunk of it. I’m a bit frustrated because this viewing prevented me from finishing a report that I’ve been editing for the past two days, but I thought to hell with deadlines, this film could help me on another project that I’m working on, a socio-cultural peace project: how to discuss the holocaust in the Middle Eastern while the Arab-Israeli conflict rages on. Some work has been done on this issue, some material has been made available in Arabic, however I haven’t found them very convincing and I know they wouldn’t work very well in Lebanon. I’ll explain the reasons in a forthcoming post.

As I watched this extremely long documentary I grew increasingly uncomfortable with it. Caude Lanzmann’s approach wasn’t informative. He was conducting an inquisition. Sure, the director is a trained journalist, sure, this project took him more than eight years to realise. But his approach to “oral history” is a very disturbing one. Instead of letting people express themselves freely on a subject, he cross-examines them. He doesn’t listen to them, he makes them say what he wants to hear. His approach is extremely manipulative. His judgement is already made. What he’s looking for is the right footage that would express it.

In this documentary he uses no archive footage, no dramatic reconstructions. He insists on restricting the images he uses to contemporary shots of landscapes, villages and the sites of concentration and extermination camps. He defended this choice as an ethical one. He believes that the suffering in the camps cannot be recreated on the screen. So he leaves it to our imagination to recreate the actual scene by offering us very graphic descriptions of what happened, showing us the sites where these dramatic events took place and adding some suggestives images (such as factories with smoking chimneys).

He is quite present in the documentary. You see him on many occasions interviewing people. These interviews are actually cross-examinations. With survivors, he shows extreme compassion (which is only natural). With guards and local villagers (those who live or have lived in former jewish houses or next to the camps), his approach is very different. His long conversations with local villagers has one specific aim, to prove that they were either active participants in this barbaric process or at least passive collaborators in this crime against humanity (that seems to him to be restricted to Jews).

You hear Claude Lanzmann flattering the people he is interviewing and leading them on. While I watched him asking his question, interrogating the “witnesses”, I had the impression of watching a court room drama. I knew exactly what he was getting at, but the “witnesses” weren’t aware that they were dealing with a prosecutor. They weren’t aware that they were being cross-examined, that their weakness, their fragility was being exploited, that the interviewer was actually denouncing their complicity, getting them to express things that could easily be interpreted as anti-semitic, that he was actively participating in writing the “oral history” that they were expressing. He was imposing on them the Nazi racial division between Jew and Pole, Jew and German. He was refusing to acknowledge the suffering that Poles and even ordinary Germans endured because of the war and the persecution they encountered. He mocks their pride, and their national feelings, the clumsy strategies with which they deal with a painful past. These are  strategies that all humans would use. I’m not sure he’ll get a different kind of answer if he asked Israelis about the Palestinians who owned their house or  who lived in their neighbourhood before 1948.

Furthermore, he obliterates the presence of non-Jews in concentration camps (and their systematic persecution). He discusses the Chelmno concentration camp quite lengthily and mocks a German woman who lived next to the camp when she fails to give him the figure he wants to hear when he mentions the victims: “I don’t know, maybe 40 000” she asks… “400 000” he answers, to what she clumsily replies “I knew there was a 4 in the figure”. Well, interestingly enough, many historians think that the figure is closer to 160 000 and that it includes catholic poles, soviet prisoners and gypsies, three other categories of victims that Lanzmann doesn’t even acknowledge. He is too busy hunting down anti-semitic feelings and actions in the past… and in the present. For him, things are pretty simple: you have the survivors (Jews), the bystanders (guilty for not doing anything, and thus behaving inhumanly) and the perpetrators (monsters).

Posted in Antisemitism, Communication, Discourse, Judaism, Memory, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Peace, moral stands and choosing one’s audience

Posted by worriedlebanese on 16/01/2010

You can't expect better from a phone with a disabled flash. Gideon Levy (left) & Eyal Sivan (right)

Gideon Levy is in France these days promoting his new book, a collection of articles he wrote on Gaza (from 2006 to 2009) translated into French and published by La Fabrique. He gave a lecture this thursday at Columbia University’s parisien address (an amazing compact campus).

Moral support for a marginal[ised] group
I’ve been following Gideon Levy’s writing on Haaretz’s english edition for four or five years now, so I’m quite familiar with his approach to the conflict. Nothing of what he said was new. He wasn’t actually here to inform the public on thing they didn’t know. Those who were present were quite familiar with the conflict. This was quite obvious from their questions. And it was quite expected because of the networks through which his lectures (and book signings) were promoted. His discussion of Gaza meant to explain his moral stand, one that he shared with the audience. His voice is a lonely one in the Israeli media. And those who were present at this little gathering also represented marginal group: jewish/israelis who were supportive of Palestinian rights (what’s left of the “peace camp”), pro-Palestinian individuals who still had faith in Israel… Each person seemed to be leaning on the other to feed the little hope they still held in their hearts.

A scandalous blond (and failed party pooper)
Many of the people in the audience were jewish, some were even Israeli. Next to our covert Lebanese group was a very conspicuous Israeli (ashkenazi) group.  And all except one person seemed to share Gideon Levy’s moral stand. This became quite visible when this person spoke out. She could have been Arielle Dombasle’s twin sister (who had seen another plastic surgeon). She confessed that she’d a bit nervous about coming here, and that she was hurt by the way the lecturer had portrayed Israel and Israelis. She said that Israelis too were hurt and were suffering, and he didn’t speak of that. She also added that Palestinians too were responsible of many wrongdoing and that he didn’t mention that either. As she was speaking her mind, you could feel the negative vibes radiate out of the audience. People were whispering to each other their contempt for her position… and they were expecting a strong reaction from Gideon Levy, one they could brush her remarks off and aplaude to. And that’s just what they got!

Gideon Levy saves the day
Our lecturer was quick to point out that her arguments didn’t hold because they called for an artificial balance in an extremely asymmetrical situation. He argued that you couldn’t be “balanced” when one side has one of the world’s strongest armies and the other under-equipped and untrained fighters… when one side is still the occupant and the other the occupied (an argument he developed during his lecture)… when one territory is the main battleground (indiscriminately)… when the death and destruction is so high on one side and so low on the other…
And as expected, the public applauded… for the first time in this Q&A session.
I obviously agreed with most of his arguments. And I understand why his reaction was so swift and razor-sharp. In many academic conferences and intellectual debates relating to Israel/Palestine, you increasingly have a group of well trained pro-Israel advocates within the audience who either disrupt the conference, try to destabilise the speaker or deviate the debate or the discussion. I’ve seen them operate on several occasions and they are extremely efficient. But Arielle’s twin was obviously not one of them. She shares with them the same point of view and probably the same sources of information, but she was here alone, to (somewhat) listen and to share her divergent point of view. She was one of those people Gideon Levy had been talking about, one of those people who support each and every Tsahal action, who believe it is the most moral army in the world (“couldn’t it be the second or the third?” asked Gideon Levy, “right after Liechtenstein’s?”)… and he obviously couldn’t reach out to her. She didn’t hear him and he didn’t know how to make his voice heard.

Here lays the biggest challenge of what is left of the Peace camp: instead of find a way to make itself heard, it should find a way to make people listen. Instead of talking to a supportive audience that agrees with all that it stands for, it should be seeking ways to reach out to another audience, THE other audience. And it can only do that by going through their networks. This will undoubtedly be a tough challenge… yet it’s probably the only challenge worth taking.

Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Diversity, Israel, Palestinians | 4 Comments »

And Hermes gazed at Walid J.

Posted by worriedlebanese on 13/01/2010

You’ve probably heard of the last reconciliation spree Walid Jumblatt has embarked on. After meeting with second rank Hezbollah and Amal representatives in Choueifat, he headed to Rabieh to mend fence with Michel Aoun. Editorialists and other pundits have been commenting on what was said behind closed door (in truth what was probably said, but they’d never confess to have unreliable and second hand information), and trying to decipher the intent behind each word the two Zu’ama used in their public declarations following their meeting. I wouldn’t go into that because as Martin Gore philosophically wrote “words are meaningless and forgettable”. Even if they declared that the sky was pink, it wouldn’t make it any less blue now would it?

Reinforcing informal arrangements, communal representations & segregated space

What is important is to see how the politicians are expressing themselves and how they interpret their own acts. Following the meeting in Chueifat (that gathered ), Jumblatt declared that “the Choueifat reconciliation healed a wound which almost destroyed historic, humane and political communication between the Mountain, Dahieh and Beirut if the conflict had expanded” (بإتمام مصالحة الشويفات يختتم جرح كاد يدمر التواصل التاريخي والإنساني والسياسي بين الجبل والضاحية وبيروت لو توسع). His use of these three locations is quite interesting. Each term refers implicitly to a communal group and an area under the control of one communal leader. This reinforces the image of a spatial segregation between the three communities and the link between one leader that effectively controles the territory and the community that he supposedly represents.

  • The Mountain refers to the Druze, even though it is an extremely mixed area that is effectively controled by Walid Jumblatt.
  • Dahieh (which means the Suburb) refers to the Shiites, even though it is still somewhat mixed (with a strong presence of Palestinians and a residual presence of Christians, Sunnis and Druze), and it is effectively controlled by Hezbollah.
  • Beirut refers to the Sunni, even though they make approximately 35% of its inhabitants, and it is [in]effectively controlled by the Hariri clan.

With this simple coded reference, the leader reinforces an (inaccurate) image of communal homogeneity and confirms a (very real) informal spatial division of three easily recognisable leaderships. Let’s not forget that Dahieh and the Mountain do not constitute an administrative unity but each is formally divided into multiple municipalities that are regrouped together in larger administrative units (Baabda, Aley, Chouf). So the reference brushes away the administrative divisions and puts forward the limits of each leaderships territory.

Asserting supernatural powers

All these reconciliatory meetings are very nice social events in which the atmosphere is cool, everyone is optimistic and positive, and the coffee is excellent. The agreement that comes out of them never seems to translate into actions and nothing is done about the past grievances. The words are meant to wash everything away and what is declared is meant to take effect immediately. So in this case, when the communal leaders declare an intercommunal reconciliation is declared, then the intercommunal reconciliation is realised. Now how do they do it?

The answer is simple, through this declaration, they assert that they are first rank politicians and that they are communal leaders (a feature that the Lebanese institutional system doesn’t allow and doesn’t recognise… but that’s another story). Not only they are communal leaders, but they are the true representatives of their communities, so their actions (or pronunciations) are those of their respective communities. In other words, when they pronounce intercommunal reconciliation they assert that they are the true voices of their communities. More than that, they assert that they are the true representatives of their communities. What is fascinating about this is that this pretense is not backed institutionally, our institutions do not recognise such a quality (it actually uses many political and legal tools to avert it). But our politicians act as if they are accorded this legal fiction of representation that allows them to act for the public good even when their acts are opposed by those who they are supposed to represent. Walid Jumblatt showed this belief of his when he said “It is true that I’m loosing in popularity, but I want to achieve a true reconciliation” (وصحيح أني أخسر شعبياً، ولكن أريد أن نصل إلى مصالحات حقيقيّة). This statement is truly fascinating. He’s actually saying that he can achieve true reconciliation even if the group that he represents are hostile to his action.

What to bring as a present when invited to lunch?

Well, José Saramago’s Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Obviously! This is the book that Walid Jumblatt offered Michel Aoun when he came along with half of his parliamentary group to have lunch with him in his home in Rabieh. When asked why he chose that book, he answered slyly that he didn’t know. No one commented that such a book would have never passed by our state’s censorship (if they were doing their work effectively) because it is considered to be totally sacrilegious. And truth to tell, it is not much different from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses in its approach to religion (God is completely narcissistic and cynical, Jesus listens to the devil, the devil is shocked by God’s cruelty, Angels are replaced by drunken soldiers or a dream, Jesus harms unintentionally and has a prolonged affair with Maria Magdalena, he has a favourite sheep… one that the devil almost convinces him to have sex with for release…). Would Walid Jumbatt have offered Rushdie’s book to Saad Hariri or Nabih Berri? I wonder.

What do you think he meant to do (or prove) with this gift?

Posted in Communication, Discourse, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Religion | 2 Comments »

A Syrian approach to Judaism… a clear case of incoherence?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/01/2010

I dug up quite an interesting book in Damascus, unexpectedly. I was looking for a specific book on Palestinians and discovered this unusual book on judaism! Two sides of the same coin? Maybe.

The book is relatively new, it was published in 2008. Its author, Shamseddine Al-Ajlani, follows quite an interesting approach. Instead of focusing on one subject or following one hypothesis (like books usually do), he juxtaposes many chapters, each tackling a different topic relating to Syrian Jews. This 450 page book has an encyclopedic scope and brings together a great variety of documents: pictures of Syrian Jews since the 1920s, pictures of synagogues, and even pictures of Syrian Jews living in Holon (Israel). It tackles the participation of Jews in Syrian national politics and even blood libels in the 19th century.

If you read the chapter on the two 19th century cases of blood libel, you would find the author conspirationalist and antisemitic. He seems to believe that the charges were true and that those who were arrested were actually guilty and that they owe their release to the power Jews had over Western Europe. The author’s view isn’t surprising, it is the most dominant view in Syria today. But it is rather bewildering to find in a book that contains a very positive chapter on Jewish participation in Syrian national politics, and another chapter on the ties that remain between Israeli Jews of Syrian origin and what the author considers to be their homeland (Syria).

So when your “anti-semitism” siren blows, don’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing systematic in what is expressed. You will find other elements that will spark a totally different signal. The Middle East is not Europe. Intercommunal relations are viewed as being complex just as they are experiences. You will find acceptance and rejection coming from the same source. That’s probably why a synthesis becomes impossible. It will reduce all contradictions to one idea, one that would contradict the daily experience of each person, just as it would contradict the national experience.

Posted in Conspiracy, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Religion, Syria | 5 Comments »

A Shiite exception? (part one)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

"Dahieh for beginners", extract from Umam's exhibition: Collecting Dahiyeh

"Dahiyeh for beginners" from Umam's Collecting Dahiyeh

Is there such a thing as a Shiite exception in Lebanon? This is the theme of a heated debate I had with a friend yesterday… a debate that stretched for almost two hours non stop! And we could have kept going for another hour or two if I didn’t have to rush out to meet someone.

What is meant by Shiite exception? Is this community different from the 16 others that share the same land and make up the same national society? His answer was yes. Mine was no.

But what made it so different? What particular circumstances was it living through, what structural feature or socio-cultural dynamic did it have that others lacked? His answer was pretty simple: Hezbollah, a spreading culture of death, a political leadership that was clerical (a feature that makes it “untouchable”, shielded from criticism), and a mobilised community behind it.

I agreed with all his points but didn’t see what was exceptional about that. Most communities were mobilised behind their leadership (zu’ama). The culture of martyrdom is quite widespread, even the leftist group that this guy belonged to had transformed one of its members into a martyr and started a cult around him. Most politicians are backed by their clergy, and if they do not back them, they replace them with more compliant clerics (this has become the rule in three muslim communities for the past decade. The autonomy of the christian churches makes the relation between clerics and politicians much more complex). As for a dominant party with a strong social network that has an ascendancy on most spheres within one community, this is also true for the Sunnis (with Mustaqbal and the Hariri clan), the Armenians (with Tashnag) and the Druze (with Ishtiraqi and the Jumblatt dynasty).

He sort of agreed with me but insisted that the Shiite exception comes from the particularities of Hezbollah and the resonance it has in the shiite community (for structural and cultural reasons). Let’s check its particularities first: it is an armed, religious, communal party with a strong social network and media support. Now that’s a strong argument. The particularity of Hezbollah is that it combines the strongest features of  the most important parties and militias the country has ever seen: it is the most religious of all parties, it is the most powerful of all militias we have known, it has the most efficient social network, it is the most adaptive political structure we have seen, it has one of the most charismatic leaders the country has know… It’s a sort of “best of”, and all these features combine to enhance  its strength and appeal. What makes its strength is its coherence, internal and external.

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Religion | 2 Comments »

Bourne identities in cyberspace

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

Things sometimes are not what they seem. The net is quite a convenient place for “role playing”, assuming false identities and parading as someone else for multiple reasons, including political ones. When I was an active member of a ning-platform a couple of years ago, I noticed a couple of such obvious cases. There and elsewhere, I sometimes found myself wondering if the person I was chatting with was a fraud. Some thing in our interactions made me suspicious. I found inconsistencies in certain arguments, unusual (and I mean extremely atypical) positions and reasoning, strange use of words or spelling… something just didn’t feel right or sounded somewhat fishy.

Two weeks ago, I found myself on the other side of the magnifying glass. A person I was having an argument with told me outrightly “By the way I know that you are not Lebanese, I found that out from your writing and do not tell me how”… When I objected to her accusation, she answered, “Regarding being Lebanese , your arguments say otherwise, and your style of writing […] Even if you were born Lebanese you do not sound like one any more “. I heard this type of reasoning before, right here, on this blog. A year ago, a former reader accused me of being a fraud before slamming the door. And I realised that I had followed the same reasoning I described above on several occasions. This allowed me to uncover some frauds (judging from their reaction), but on other occasions I might have been totally wrong. Some people are incoherent. Some people are atypical and do not share the same ideas as “their likes”. What does one loose by giving them the benefit of the doubt?

Posted in Identity, Personal | 6 Comments »

Blogging resolutions?!

Posted by worriedlebanese on 05/01/2010

Yes, it’s this time of the year when you look back at what you’ve done and try to evaluate it. I ran across a dead blog today that sums things perfectly! It’s titled “Unnecessary, and not very diverting, musings”… and this tag line follows: “Much like other bloggers, I have the vanity to believe that strangers will want to read what my actual friends are not interested in hearing”. It cracked me up!

So here’s my plan for my blog’s facelift and body sculpting:

  • Less opinion pieces! many have slipped into agressive or humdrum  rants… and I’ve been repeating myself. It’s true that the risk of repetition is high in a country where things never seem to change (except for the main politicians’ alliances). So less commentary and more analysis on our preferred idiosyncrasies.
  • More reviews. I’ve been skimming through lots of blogs lately, and I think it would be interesting to write a weekly review on them, maybe take an issue and see how it’s being treated by fellow bloggers.
  • Renewed interest in regional matters. And I’m not talking about geopolitics. I do not care where the Egyptian government stands on such an issue or how the Saudi King wants to deal with his northern neighbours. I’ll focus on one country every two weeks. See what its press has to say about current issues it is dealing with.
  • Some interactivity. But you’ve got to help me out on this one. It takes two to tango and at least 10 to interact fruitfully. So please, throw the ball back instead when you see it coming towards you. For that. I’m going to try a couple of new tricks.
  • Improved linguistic skills. This will not show overnight, but here’s my plan. I haven’t read a book in English for years. Most of the analysis I do is in French (in real life that is) and my sources are mostly in Arabic. So no wonder my writing is so stifled. A nice book every now and then will certainly improve things.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

Posted in Blogosphere, Personal, Propositions | 6 Comments »

Updates and belated wishes

Posted by worriedlebanese on 02/01/2010

I’ve been travelling around for the past week, and didn’t always have access to the internet… So I’ll post four new entries under the date in which they were written.

          • The Arab book fair in Beirut… Discovering the Jassad
          • Christmas in Beirut… the nativity scene spreads over Eastern Beirut.
          • A day in Damascus… my impressions of the Ommeyad Mosque
          • Please don’t renovate St Vincent de Paul church!

For all those who still haven’t recovered from their hangovers, happy new year.

Posted in Blogosphere, Personal | 2 Comments »