Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

“When the party is over”

Posted by worriedlebanese on 22/10/2012

They say it’s an ill wind that blows no good. But this worried lebanese finds many reasons to be worried. Yesterday was undoubtedly action-packed, rife with unbridled emotions and wide-ranging misconducts. It’s actually extremely hard to sum up in a couple of words because of the multitude of arenas in which these actions unfolded and the mass of images they conjured up. Even the media was having trouble dealing with this profusion. The Lebanese TV channels that I followed in between calls had suspended their programs for the day and were struggling to cover and broadcast the day’s events. You  can’t expect them to be ubiquitous; drama was unfolding in most parts of the country: roads being blocked, neighbourhoods being claimed, rival party headquarters being attacked and even gunfire being exchanged. And there’s a limit to how much a television station can multiplex. At a certain point, the LBC screen looked like a CCTV surveillance monitor.

Three squares for one funeral: Between geography and iconography
As early as saturday, three important squares in Beirut were called to become the centre of the opposition’s protestations: The site of the explosion, the victim’s final resting place and the foot of the Prime Minister’s office & residence. As the funeral was increasingly presented as a political rally, the greatest challenge for its organisers was to smoothly link the three squares withstanding their conflicting meanings and the differing emotional impacts Friday’s car bomb had.
1. Sassine Square: A couple of steps north of the explosion’s epicentre. It’s the proscenium of Friday’s drama where you get a full view of the (physical) destruction. Sassine square is the heart of former “East Beirut”, the political centre of what became during the Civil war the capital’s Christian quarter (and Christian only neighbourhood). In this square sits a large portrait of President-elect Bachir Gemayel (prominent Christian warlord, founder of the Lebanese Forces and arguably the most popular of all politicians among Lebanese Christians, past and present), assassinated in 1982 two blocks south from where Wissam al Hassan was killed.
2. Martyr’s Square/Liberty Square: It stands right across Wissam al Hassan and his driver Ahmad Sahyuni’s final resting place. They were buried in the same precinct as Rafic Hariri, former Prime-Minister and founder of the Future Movement, killed by a massive explosion in February 2005, next to Beirut’s largest (Sunni) Mosque. The political significance of this square was resurrected in 2005 when the Lebanese opposition to Syrian occupation camped on this site and organised massive rallies in it. It is the symbolic centre and the main iconography of the March 14 coalition, its most physical incarnation.
3. Ryad al-Solh Square: This is where the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces (amongst others) called for a sit-in to pressure Prime-Minister Nagib Miqati into resigning. This square sits east of the Grand Serail, the Premiership’s offices. It became politically significant in 2005 where pro-Syrian parties rallied to counter the anti-Syrian protests. And it was given in 2006 another meaning when the most prominent shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal left the government and occupied the square with their allies in order to pressure Prime-Minister Fuad Siniora into resigning. 

Rerun, Sequel or Cover ?
Nobody quite knew what to expect from Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral. The Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces had made it quite clear that they intended to turn this funeral into a massive political rally. The preparations had actually begun on saturday afternoon in Martyr’s Square. Instead of a “consensual” funeral similar to the ones that were given to two other members of the security apparatus killed in the line of duty (François Al-Hajj in 2007 and Wissam Eid in 2008), Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral would be similar to that of a March 14 politician. Indeed, the funeral bore a lot of resemblance to Walid Eido’s. However, many different elements signalled  that this political rally would be more than a rerun of a March 14 funeral (March 14 had been the victim of 7 targeted assassinations and 3 failed attempts between 2004 and 2007). The political speeches that were heard on saturday and sunday were similar to those made in january 2011, surrounding the Sunni “day of anger”. But the most political and distinguishing feature of this funeral was the sit-in that was scheduled to follow it. On that issue, the Future Movement’s speeches were closer to the ones heard at the March 8th anti-governement sit-in back in 2006 than to those made on the day Omar Karame resigned in 2005.

A day of unbridled anger
During that long day, I personally didn’t venture out of Beirut’s central district. So most of the news I got about events happening outside this area was through biased television coverage. As expected, the Media played its usual political role, that of a resonance chamber. Reporters ditched reporting, and instead actively participated in the events through reframing and communicating faulty information. Switching from Al-Jadeed to LBC and back, you could count the contradictions in the their reporting by the minute. On the streets, emotions were obviously running high, and the most salient one was undoubtedly anger. The media concentrated its efforts on what was happening in Beirut’s central district, failing to analyse and comprehend that the most important dynamic was unravelling elsewhere, in Tripoli and on the major communication routes linking the three largest predominantly shiite areas in Lebanon.

Politicians obviously were not able to manage the anger they had provoked or nurtured.  They proved yet another time how irresponsible they are, by either adding fuel to fire or by failing to respond adequately to the situation. This is equally true for those politicians belonging to the “governing” parties than for those belonging to the “opposition” parties (both terms do not always reflect the reality of their involvement in politics). Sectarian politics being what they are in our republic of many farms, Sunni politicians and political groups were expected to manage the “sunni wrath”. But they proved to be completely incapable of doing it. Fuad Siniora missed the irony of his position, Saad Hariri failed to show up, Nagib Miqati decided to go on a pilgrimage… and Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani spoke knowing no one was listening… and when Nadim Qtaich, a journalist belonging to the Future Movement, called mourners to storm the Grand Serail, he became the official scapegoat of yesterday’s most photogenic event…
And while the political class failed to contain the Syrian crisis, and respond adequately to the many challenges our country faces, a new generation of street thugs, abadayeet, entered the political arena by forcibly claiming “their” territory. Their identity remains unknown, but they are filling up the political void left by the country’s ailing leadership.


Posted in Communication, Intercommunal affairs, Journalism, Lebanon, Political behaviour, Violence | Leave a Comment »

Background Info on Israeli-Druze Delegation to Lebanon

Posted by worriedlebanese on 22/07/2010

Another example of Jumblatt's mastery of ME politics

So basically, Walid Jumblatt has been working this past decade on reinforcing his position as a cross-national Druze leader. He made a major step in that direction in 2001 when he organised a meeting between Lebanese and Israeli Druze in Amman. For more information on that meeting check out Tareq Ayyoub’s article in the Jordan Times: Lebanese, Israeli Druze leaders meet in Amman.

To be able to go ahead in his communal agenda, he has to do three things:

  • Secure the assent of Syrian authorities and Lebanese communal leaders who are hostile toward Israel, so as not be accused of “normalisation” or collaboration with Israeli authorities.
  • Give this communal meeting and the presence of this Israeli delegation a spin. This means selling it in a particular way to the media. The best example of this successful spin is Samer Husseini’s article in the Safir and Orient Le Jour’s article Druze from Israel succeed in breaking the blockade by coming to Lebanon (in French).
  • Reinforce his pro-palestinian credentials. He did that a month ago with the four bills he presented in parliament in order to expand Palestinian civil rights (more info on that here).

Posted in Communication, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Lebanon, Patronage Networks, Peace, Political behaviour | 1 Comment »

“Eclairages” sur le premier Congrès Diasporique Druze

Posted by worriedlebanese on 20/07/2010

En lisant ce matin quatre compte-rendus sur le Congrès Diasporique Druze organisé la veille au BIEL (Solidère), j’ai eu l’impression de suivre une leçon magistrale sur les malheurs du journalisme libanais. Il s’agissait donc pour les rédactions d’informer leurs lecteurs sur la tenue d’un congrès. Ce genre d’exercice journalistique peut-être conduit de différentes manières: la reproduction des interventions orales (intégrale, résumée, ou sélectionné), l’entretien avec une ou plusieurs personnes présentes, l’analyse de la thématique et des enjeux du congrès… C’est une question de choix rédactionnel (le journaliste choisit  un angle) et de culture journalistique. Observons ces choix et la culture journalistique qu’ils reflètent.

Al-Akhbar, sous le titre “Ouverture du premier congrès diasporique druze” (افتتاح المؤتمر الاغترابي الأول للدروز) nous propose une sorte de première dépêche de l’événement. L’information est claire et succinte. Elle est issue de la grande tradition des communiqués de presse arabes dont voici le format rigide: phrase introductive qui précise que l’évènement a réuni un grand nombre de personnalités; phrase centrale qui n’est autre qu’une citation d’un homme politique (en l’occurrence, Walid Jumblatt; phrase de conclusion qui “contextualise” (généralement par rapport à d’autres déplacements de politiciens) ou “évalue” (toujours une grande réussite) l’événement. Le seul élément qui pourrait titiller la curiosité du lecteur est le segment de la présentation des personnalités présentes qui mentionne “la délégation de Sheiks Druzes des territoires de 1948” (c-à-d Israël) avec la précision qu’ils sont “arrivés au Liban il y a deux jours en traversant la Jordanie et la Syrie” pour rassurer les lecteurs qu’on est pas en présence d’un acte de collaboration avec Israël.

An-Nahar sous le titre “Joumblatt à l’ouverture du Premier Congrès Diasporique Druze: “avec la Syrie, nous avons établie la formule définitive de l’entente interne” (جنبلاط في افتتاح “المؤتمر الاغترابي الأول للموحدين الدروز”:
مع سوريا وضعنا الصيغة النهائية للتسوية الداخلية) nous livre une variante de la première formule. Elle épouse les même règles que la première mais en plus détaillée, au lieu de trois phrases, nous avons droit à trois paragraphes: un paragraphe de présentation des personnalités, un grand paragraphe d’extrait de discours (de politiciens, évidemment), et un court paragraphe de “contextualisation” ou “d’évaluation”. Notons que dans le paragraphe de présentation, le journaliste Amer Zeineddine (عامر زين الدين) nous informe de la présence “d’une délégation druze d’Arabes de Palestine [عرب فلسطين] présidée par Aouni Kneifess” et lui concède un petit extrait de son allocution.

Le compte-rendu du journal As-Safir reprend la même formule “extensive” qu’An-Nahar sous un titre similaire  “Joumblatt à l’ouverture du premier Congrès Diasporique Druze: Nous sommes l’avant-garde de la voie arabe … Et les instants d’errance sont du passé” (جنبـلاط فـي افتتـاح المؤتمـر الاغترابي الدرزي الأول: نحن طليعة الخط العربـي… ولحظات التخلي انتهت). L’article de Jaafar Antari se distingue par un témoigne sur les interrogations et la speculation autour des résultats escompté de ce congrès: aboutira-t-il au “rassemblement des Druzes du Liban et de l’étranger” ou se contentera-t-il d’être “une plate-forme pour des déclarations politiques”? Evidemment, l’article ne propose aucun élément de réponse, mais il fait passer un commentaire sur la délégation druze “en provenance de la Palestine occupée” (circonlocution de circonstance), “arrivée au Liban via la Syrie” (gage de respectabilité). Le journaliste note en passant que la table à laquelle était placée la délégation est devenu le centre d’intérêt de la soirée et qu’elle a attiré vers elle à plusieurs reprises Walid Jumblatt qui venait par moment pour la féliciter et par moment pour la rassurer. Ce genre de phrase est dans le style journalistique libanais une invitation “à lire entre les lignes”, pratique qui au lieu d’informer ne fait que confirmer les préjugés du lecteur initié. Pour un article plus intéressant sur la dynamique

Mais le pompon revient à l’Orient-Le Jour avec l’article intitulé “Les druzes d’Israël parviennent à briser le blocus en venant au Liban“, franchit allègrement la complaisance de ses confrère et verse dans la propagande de style héroïque. Au lieu de quelques circonlocution politiquement correcte, la rédaction journal préfère l’emphase avec un désintérêt total pour la réalité décrite. Le titre annonce la couleur: Il parle de blocus, alors que ce qui empêche la visite de cette délégation druze sont deux lois identiques de part et d’autre de la frontière libano-israélienne: les deux pays interdisent le voyage de leurs citoyens vers un pays ennemi et interdisent aux citoyens de l’autre pays de se rendre dans leur pays. Donc en principe, ces dignitaires n’ont pas seulement “bravé l’interdit des autorités israéliennes”, mais également la loi libanaise. Mais on peut noter qu’il existe une exception à cette interdiction légale, et elle touche les hommes de religions: ceux-ci peuvent faire ce déplacement sans trop d’encombres… Et il le font. Les synodes maronites, arméniens et grecs-catholiques comprennent souvent des prêtres venus d’Israël (qui d’ailleurs sont parfois de nationalité libanaise). D’ailleurs, ce n’est pas la premières fois que des dignitaires Druzes de nationalité israélienne se rendent au Liban, ce n’est donc pas “une première”. Comme les trois autres journaux libanais, rien n’est dit sur la particularité des Druzes israéliens et de leur rapport avec l’Etat d’Israël, autre qu’une allusion de Walid Joumblatt sur “le courage” de cette délégation dont les membres ont “refusé de s’enrôler dans le service militaire obligatoire en Israël”. Allégation qui au demeurant reste à vérifier…

Posted in Communication, Discourse, Discourse Analysis, Israel, Journalism, Lebanon, Semantics, Version Francophone | Leave a Comment »

Hooking up: my month with Facebook

Posted by worriedlebanese on 17/07/2010

Well now I actually am.

I’ve been on Facebook for a little more than a month now, and I have to admit that I’m rather hooked. I still haven’t discovered all its possibilities, and even less engaged in them, but I do believe that this medium has an extremely interesting edge to it. Set aside its extremely limited language (where all people who are linked are “friends”, and all pages that you follow are those that you “like”), and look at its possibilities. It gives you the opportunity to communicate with people you know without having to knock at their door every single time. It allows you to work on your readership, nurture it, engage with it, interact on a personal level.

Like many, I heard through friends about Facebook. I learnt that it was a fascinating mutant interface that combines email/chat/blog/social networking. For a long time I was wary of its exhibitionistic and superficial tendencies, and wasn’t very comfortable with the idea that it would link the different networks I’m engaged in (they are not exactly compatible). So I resisted Facebook until a friend of mine (my number one fan and paragon) convinced me that it could be tempting and that I should give in. And so I did.

Truth to tell, I’m rather put off by the “personal” dimension of Facebook and decided from the onset to keep private things private: so no holiday pictures, no display of mood swings or details of my personal and social life (when I have one). No posting will seem to be torn off from my diary (one that I choose to share with others while I write it; that sounds very Tanizaki, doesn’t it). I’d rather share ideas, explore them as I write them, throw them around and see what bounces back. And instead of chasing info, roaming from one blog to another, it’s really great to find so many interesting things scattered around on my page every time I log in.

Tapping into the unexpected

One thing really caught me off guard: The process of creating a “friend list”. Here’s the catch, when you open a personal page with your name on it, you send an invitation to all the email addresses in your possession, and you’re sure that friends and family will accept it. And gradually, people you have met or who fancy you, or know you by name or you’ve lost contact with will send you an invitation. And that’s that. Well, things play differently when your profile is anonymous and you only deal with political issues. Friends and family are certainly among the least interested in your political prattle. So they’d probably refuse your invitation unless you revealed your identity… And even then, you’re sure they’d be the first to roll their eyes (and suck their teeth) every time you post something.

So here’s what I did. After activating the automatic search engine to find the facebook profiles of the people I interact with through mail, I started asking myself whether or not I should invite this or that person. How would (s)he likely respond? Would they be interested in my political rambling? So I started asking myself questions about my readership that never ran through my blogger’s mind. Why wouldn’t people be interested in my political prattle? Is it because it is political or because it is prattle? Could one interest them and how? As I wrote my second note on Lıbnéné Qaliq, I felt things were starting to change in my writing process. I wonder if it is noticeable.

Posted in Blogosphere, Civil Society, Communication, Personal | 3 Comments »

Back to Back: the Helen Thomas affair

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/06/2010

You’ve undoubtedly heard what happened to Helen Thomas! She resigned after making a comment on Jews having to go back to Poland and Germany. In case you haven’t heard the story, here’s the video that started an avalanche of reactions in cyberspace with some extolling her as a martyr of the jewish lobby, and others congratulating themselves for debunking an antisemite (or even a nazi) and applauding her disgrace.

All this started in Washington DC, so why is it relevant to us, Lebanese? Well, Helen Thomas’s family hails from Lebanon… But that never brought Helen Thomas any attention in Lebanon. So how can one explain all the attention she got in our media? Let’s see what three editorialists have to say about it:

Michael Young, “Arabs shouldn’t weep for Helen Thomas“, Daily Star (june 10th): ” It’s never pleasant to see someone self-destruct”. The argument that “she was pushed out of her job because of criticism from the ‘Jewish lobby’” is “nonsense. The condemnation was universal, and rightly so”. The editorial focuses on Helen Thomas’ words: “They should go home” to “Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else”. He looks into their significance in an American, Jewish and Arab context.
Michael Young makes it clear that he is no fan of Helen Thomas, and he obviously has scores to settle with her for her adamant opposition to the neo-con worldview he shares with the previous American administration. His arguments are familiar to all pro-peace activists. But he never states the obvious, how hypersensitive the US is to anything that touches Jews/Israel. Had Helen Thomas said something similar about the chinese of Malaysia for instance, we probably wouldn’t have heard anything about it.

Badr al-Ibrahim, “Helen Thomas, the voice that cries in the wilderness of America” (in Arabic), al-Akhbar (june 10th): “When it comes to Israel, freedom of expression becomes a sin for which one is reprimanded”. The editorial focuses on “censorship”: “Free media is a slave to a corrupt political ideology, and it suffers in this case from the same ails than the media in the « Unfree world »: double standard, partiality, deviation from objectivity, and a rejection of intellectual diversity, as well as actively helping the government suppress opinions, criminalise them and force “expiation” on those who express them”.
Badr al-Ibrahim is far from convincing. Comparing the freedom of expression that is enjoyed in the US to the one that is prevalent in the Middle East is simply preposterous. Every society has “its issues” and can be hypersensitive when they are discussed. But that has nothing to do with state censorship, and is not always related to the existence of a lobby.

For more details about what happened, check out Hicham Hamza, The Helen Thomas Affair (in French), Oumma (June 9th) for whom Helen Thomas “resigned herself to leaving office because of the uproar caused by her radical critique of the State of Israel. Back on the underside of a timely political-mediatic diversion”. In his view, the affair is “a degression designed to divert the attention of the American public from the real issues of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis”, and he presents all the info he gathered in this perspective.
Sure, some people have pushed that issue as a divergence mechanism. But this doesn’t explain everything. Helen Thomas did say what she said, and it wasn’t even accurate (most Israeli Jews do not come from Poland and Germany, a larger number comes from the Middle East and North Africa). And this would have hit the cyberspace sooner or later making the same splash.

Posted in Blogosphere, Communication, Conspiracy, Culture, Discourse, Israel, Journalism, Lebanon | 9 Comments »

A Placebo storm in a teacup

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/06/2010

What I find most deplorable in the “Placebo affair” is the fact that it spawned a useless amount of opinion papers.  The concert took place yesterday without any problem, showing that there is a difference between “calling for a boycott” and “censorship”. But this did not prevented the Lebanese “French-speaking daily” to continue to publish editorials on this “affaire” (read Fifi Abou Dib’s take on it published today: Epineuses et cactées).

There is something decidedly quixotic in this fight against “the furies trying to slowly kill the Lebanese cultural scene”, and this call for “cultural resistance” (two closing lines of MHG’s article yesterday). Don’t people find something remotely ridiculous in describing an the cultural consumption (of a foreign product) an act of CULTURAL RESISTANCE?!

If only the newspaper had the sens to interview Brian Molko or reproduce his interview. As Lotus Weinstock used to say, “I used to want to change the world . Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity”. I wish L’Orient-Le Jour  took a couple of minutes to ponder on that thought.

Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Discourse, Journalism, Lebanon, Prejudice | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Mavi Marmara revisited

Posted by worriedlebanese on 05/06/2010

I’ll try to spill a couple of thoughts that have been whirling around in my mind.

Yes, sure, the Israeli commando was attacked on the Mavi Marmara. A quick look at the organisation behind the protest gives you a clear idea that you were not dealing with your ordinary “peace activists”. These people were here on a mission: Break the blockade, get through to Gaza whatever the cost!  And yeah, many seem to have an islamist background and amongst them there seems to have been several disreputable characters. But Israeli Intelligence knew all about those people and the organisation behind them since their departure from Turkey. Both sides knew that there was going to be a clash. It was expected. But that certainly doesn’t explain or justify the bloodbath.

Now let’s look at the dynamic the Mavi Marmara affaire triggered. One finds three types of media coverage, and one can fairly say that they were all biased, and their approach was teleological.

  • The pro-Israeli media was interested in whitewashing the Israeli army and justifying Israeli policy. And it used all the usual techniques: an agressive smear campaign against the victims of the raid, and a substitution of victimhood (the soldiers were presented as the victims). The only problem with this “defense” line was that it could only convince those who were ready to be convinced. Those who are not die hard supporters of the Israeli government and its policies could easily see the loopholes in that presentation and the manipulation of information. Watching some footage and comments reminded me of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. Another interesting twist is that the pro-Israeli arguments left the Palestinians out of the picture (as they usually do). It wasn’t about Gaza (that is always cynically presented as ok as long as it is not starving). It was about Israel vs Turkey (which is a rather melodramatic approach, knowing that  the military alliance is still secure, no Ambassadors were called back or off…).

  • The anti-Israeli media was interested in celebrating the victimhood of the injured and the killed while denouncing the brutality of Israel. Everything that didn’t fit that picture was discarded… The activists on the Flotilla were shown as heroes not because of their own deeds (ex: they fought Israel), but through their victimhood and their courage in facing a brutish enemy. They didn’t speak of the militants fighting the commando. They did not insist on the psychological dimension or emotions (fear, panic…), as did the pro-Israel media. The anti-Israeli media was so focused on being anti-Israeli that it even repackaged the objectives of the flotilla: they became more anti-Israeli than pro-Palestinian. Actually, Palestinians were left out of the picture. It was more about “we” vs Israel.
  • Then we have the “neutral” media, mostly western (think BBC for instance) with its very ambiguous respons to the events. Probably because it was being (too) actively fed by both sides. The pro-Israel groups were working on the narrative : reframing the events, shedding a different light on the different actors of this drama, feeding the media “information” in an orderly way (even if the “info” was inaccurate). Pure Hasbara. The pro-Palestinian groups were also extremely active, but as usual, they focused on the emotional side. Instead of expanding the narrative, they reduced it to its most emotional content: they shot and killed us. Instead of insisting on the flaws of the Israeli argument, with its specific framing of the events, they repeated their mantra without backing it with more arguments. What the “neutral” media tried to do was denounce the outcome of the raid but it showed its discomfort with the identity of the protestors who were injured and killed, reminding the listeners/viewers that they were islamists.

    To sum things up, the “Mavi Marmara operation” highlights two important elements in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. One one side we have a country and a society that is becoming increasingly cynical and unapologetic with the violence it shows towards anyone non-Jewish. This has become quite apparent for most people except a majority of Israelis. On the other side we have a Pro-Palestinian movement that is growing more and more strikingly heterogenous, and its most vocal, recognisable and effective components are islamist (moderate as in this case, or radical as in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah). This dynamic is affecting the whole movement, making some people within it increasingly uncomfortable, and shifting the focus from “pro-Palestinian” to “anti-Israeli”, a shift that is both damaging to the movement and to the dynamics of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

    Posted in Communication, Discourse, Israel, Journalism, Palestinian territories, Palestinians, Prejudice, Turkey, Values, Violence | 13 Comments »

    Would a flotilla by any other name…

    Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/06/2010

    Like many of you in cyberspace, I’ve been reading extensively about the “Gaz Freedom Flotilla affair/raid/attack/massacre”.

    Trying to represent "evil" and missing the point while at it

    At first, I received an avalanche of such emails. Frankly, I was irritated by the tone of these emails. They all focused on “Israel’s barbaric acts” and “its monstrosity”.  This kind of commentary is shallow (how important is labelling), easy (it’s done by people who are hostile to Israel and/or its policies to start with) and useless (it’s intended for audiences that are hostile to Israel and/or its policies), and usually boders on Tourette Syndrom. Not only it preaches to the converted, but its language confirms the pro-Israel public in its own prejudice and paranoia. It mostly forgets that the whole issue is about GAZA, and not Israel. Take a look at Carlos Latuff’s cartoon and try do imagine how a supporter of Israel would understand it.

    Then I started reading blog entries about the whole affair. Trying to look beyond the praise, the condemnation, the victimisation and the accusations, I started processing some information:

    • What are the facts? If you think identifying the relevant data or “hard facts” is an easy matter, well think again. Check out the articles written, pick out anyone of them, randomly. Ignore all the commentary (accusations, justification, condemnation) and set aside the hard facts. You’re not left with much. Here’s a little quiz: how many boats did the flotilla consist of? How many injured were there (on both sides)? What do you know about the deceased?
      • What do we actually know about what actually happened? Nothing much. It’s more about “they did it again” or “they were looking for trouble and they got it”.
      • What are we being told about it? One could excuse the cyberworld for sticking to the emotions and emotional responses. But what excuse does the Media have for doing such a lousy job. I just watched the news report on the BBC, two days after the events, and all I got was two conflicting versions, one made by Israeli officials, and another made by activists from the Flotilla. Both versions were either unspecific or blatantly inaccurate, with more smear than info.
    • What are the contentious issues? There’s a bunch of them: the Israeli blockade on Gaza (is it legal, ethical, effective, productive?); the Gaza freedom flotilla’s attempt to break the blockade (is it effective? is it lawful? is it suicidal?); the Israeli army’s enforcement of the blockade and its capture of the boats (is it brutal? proportionate? hysterical? lethal? normal?)…
    • What are the frameworks within which the data is being processed and propagated?

    When whitewashing borders on paranoïa

    Next came the “pro-Israel” blogs and outlets. I wasn’t surprised by their reactions either. I’ve heard their arguments before, and actually expected to hear them. One could sum them up in three sentences : “we are the victims”, “they are the agressors”, “they made us do it”. The cartoon pictures here illustrates this perception perfectly. The argument presents itself in the following manner: it starts with an abstract apologetical formula that is not linked to an act but to an outcome (which is odd for an apology). Then there’s a quick recasting of the events in which are presented an elastic yet always humane “we” (that alternatively or hypothetically refers to the IDF, the government, Israelis or Jews) and an accusative barbaric “them” (in which those directly concerned are presented as a small sample of a much larger and threatening group). Any act attributed to “we” becomes a mechanical reaction to an act attributed to “them”. This transforms this “act” (and any act is by definition voluntary) into something of a “coerced” or “involuntary” reaction (think knee jerk reflex) which absolves the person who committed it from any responsibility.

    Finally, I started constructing my own story (compatible with my worldview, you’d argue), trying to verify some info, and comparing it with other affairs to try to make sens of it all. If one wants to strip the whole affair to its bare elements, the story is quite simple, and let’s not start arguing about chronology.

    1. Who: The flotilla brought together an international group of militants who want to break the blockade on Gaza as a first step towards getting it lifted.
    2. What: The blockade is imposed by Israel (with the complicity of many other international actors, including Egypt), and its alleged objective is “defensive” (to prevent the rearmament of Hamas). The result is punitive: collective punishment that transforms Gaza into a large prison and creates an informal economy completely dominated by Hamas and that is dependent on tunnels through which many things are smuggled including material that is used for weapon construction.
    3. How: The strategy is to force Israel into changing its policy towards Gaza, more specifically, to get it to lift the blockade. The key word here is obviously “force”. And it’s a tricky word and a complicated objective. Basically, you have a group of people who want to change a military strategy through non-military means… The Media is a central component of this strategy because it’s about “image”, symbolic steps and building pressure within and outside Israel to get its security complex to modify its strategy.
    4. Where’s the problem? Israel can no longer count on domestic pressure because its Jewish population is today totally unconcerned by Palestinians and insensible to their plight. Its only concern is to remain unconcerned, untroubled by them. As for international pressure, it is not strong enough to influence the Israeli government. So the Flotilla’s strategy didn’t have a chance to succeed. All it could do was encourage more flottilas to head toward Gaza and hope that this would lead to a snowball effect… and in the meantime keep the blockade on the global agenda (the international community has a very short memory span). It also could hope to get as much humanitarian aid through as it can. But that’s about it.
    5. What next? With its customary brutality and the death toll it leaves behind (that is obvious to all who simply look at the figures), the IDF might have changed things. The “Mavi Marmara” deaths have already started a new dynamic, just like the Cana massacres did in 1996 and in 2006 or the Sabra and Chatilla massacre in 1982. Sure, the story will be revisited over and over again, whitewashed as much as possible. But in the meantime it would have created an insufferable image for Israel that would force it to revise its strategy or at least refrain from doing the same mistake (while at the same time denying it was a mistake) in an immediate future. And in this immediate future the Rachel Corrie will be arriving, and probably other flotillas.

    Posted in Antisemitism, Blogosphere, Communication, Conspiracy, Discourse, Israel, Palestinian territories, Prejudice, Semantics | 2 Comments »

    Blogging: Searching for a better format

    Posted by worriedlebanese on 31/05/2010

    As many might have realised, I’ve been forcing myself to blog for many months now. And it’s not because I have little to say or don’t have an opinion on any particular subject. I’ve often come across as an opinionated person, and even an arrogant one, for a good reason. And it’s not because I lack the time for it; I struggle with every word when writing, but still:  when there’s a will, there’s a way!

    So what’s the problem? Frankly, I’m a bit bored and tired of rambling on the Middle East. I’m weary of hearing my own voice and knowing its inconsequentiality. This “regular” exercice isn’t really meaningful and certainly doesn’t bring anyone (including myself) much. As one of my (recently deceased) professors hinted to me years ago using Blaise Pascal’s terminology, I belong to the second category of people, the half-clever people (demi habiles): I’m blessed with the capacity to “discern” (perceive or recognise matters) but instead of working with that knowledge, I rebel against the order that I recognise as being flawed. Such an attitude is expected of a teen or even a young adult (or a socialist come to think of it), but it becomes ridiculous after a certain age.

    A quick glance at my posts should bring anyone  to the following conclusion: they are not informative enough to be journalistic, and they are not precise enough nor methodologically driven to be academic. This is quite normal for a blog, but I was trained as a journalist and I work in academia… so what’s my contribution to the blogosphere?

    I believe my posts do give an informed and non conventional view on matters relevant to the Middle East (and more specifically to Lebanon). But once you’ve heard it, how useful is it to keep on hearing it? The more it is repeated, the more it borders on ranting.

    I’ve seen bloggers use their blogs for academic purposes, and have followed others who used them for journalistic purposes. I’m not using this blog for any purpose other than blogging. And this type of blogging isn’t what we need in Lebanon. Most articles in our newspapers resemble blog posts. And the views you come across in the academic world are extremely conventional (and frankly detached from reality, at least as I see it). So my challenge is to find a way to make my writing more meaningful.

    As the title of this post clearly states it, I’m looking for another format, a new approach that would make my modest contribution meaningful and useful. Here are a couple of ideas I’m rolling around.

    • Create or integrate a collective platform that focuses on the Middle East or Lebanon. Does anyone know of any interesting existing platform? Or is anyone interested in participating in such a platform?
    • Link my blogging to the my involvement in Peace and Diversity education. I have been involved in this field for 4 years now. I have actually followed several platforms on Ning (Mepeace, Ipeace, PalestinianMothers) for 3 years to see what is done, how it’s done, what is missing and what can be done.

    Does anyone have ideas on that subject?

    Posted in Blogosphere, Communication, Culture, Personal | 4 Comments »

    Politics as an artistic performance or a happening

    Posted by worriedlebanese on 25/04/2010

    Three thousand participants. That’s quite a number for an artistic performance. And let’s not forget the viewers who saw images of this event on their TVs or in their mail box. The organisers should be proud of their achievement. I truly believe that this activity should have been integrated to Ashkal Alwan’s forum on Cultural Practices “Home Works 5” (more on that in the coming days). But how significant is it politically? what meaning does it have? and what does it say about our politics?

    The political significance of an artistic performance
    As expected, the 4 months of preparations weren’t enough to clarify the message and the demands of this demonstration. People joined with no contraints, no program, no structure… only one common enemy “al-ta2ifya”, a Lebanese catch-word that is used to describe everything that’s wrong in the country. Each person could bring along his or her banner, board or sign; shout the slogans we’ve been hearing for almost a century with the impression that something revolutionary and new was being done.
    This show-performance reminded me of those that I very willingly (and happily) attended in 2005: the midweek and the thematic sunday marches. They were less participatory (everything was prepared for us) and consequently more uniform (at least visually). But the feel-good atmosphere, the self-satisfaction that exuded from them was present today. But back in 2005, these performances enjoyed a large political support (i.e. they were sponsored by first rank politicans on both sides of the spectrum) and were organised with the help of Ad agencies (which made them visually very appealing and gave their cristal clear slogans a very sexy edge).
    But these demonstrations gathered hundreds of thousands of people and reached a million on several occasions. They gave people the impression that their voice matters and that they not only could express themselves freely, but that this public expression of opinion could have a significant effect. For a very long time, the Lebanese were prevented from taking to the streets. Rafic Hariri prevented any kind of social protest, and the Syrians banned all political protests. The 2005 demonstrations signified that things had changed. People could once again demonstrate, voice their complaints and even bring governments down (or is this restricted to governments headed by Omar Karamé, a guy who holds two titles: son of a Prime Minister like Saad H. and martyr’s brother like Bahia H.). The downside of these demonstrations was their numbers. They were so monstrously high that they dwarfed demonstrations of other kinds, making them politically insignificant. That was the paradox of the 2005 demonstrations. They opened up the public space to social and political mobilisation while practically restricting them to two players: Mustaqbal and Hezbollah.


    There is nothing wrong with artistic performances. Calling Laïque Pride by that name is in no way demeaning. Performances are mant to express something before an audience, something meaningful, to intrigue the public, to engage it. And that’s exactly what Laïque Pride achieved. It also showed the limits of political protests without big sponsors and ad agencies. It also showed that demonstrating against the most shared prejudice in Lebanon (الطائفية), the biggest political insult that is used against a politician or a system  (طائفي) can only mobilise a limited number of people. Could Laïque Pride have been anything more than an artistic performance? Probably not.

    Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Culture, Democracy, Discourse, Lebanon | Leave a Comment »

    Deconstructing March XIV®

    Posted by worriedlebanese on 02/02/2010

    March XIV® or February 14th? Tapping into emotions to fill a void

    This post is long overdue. I’ve been announcing it for almost a year now and Sunday’s Bristol meeting encouraged me to get it over with. Let’s go beyond slogans, mottos and other striking and memorable phrases that are used to refer to March XIV®; let’s look into what exactly lies beneath the label.

    In its most literal meaning, March XIV® refers to a specific day, March 14th 2005, in which an unprecedented number of Lebanese citizen took the streets, peacefully, to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Crowds from all over the country converged around Martyrs Square, where a temporary podium was set up from which politicians could harangue a relatively small audience ; probably less that 10% of the people amassed around the square could hear them. But that didn’t matter much. People were not here to listen, but to throw their weight behind a politician or an idea; they were here to make numbers, to assert that a majority of Lebanese was with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and supported an international inquiry into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

    This event was undoubtedly a memorable one, an estimate of 1 million people (about a quarter of the national resident population) converged to the city center…  but there were many memorable events during those months of 2005:  the assassination Rafic Hariri, his burial, the sleep-in calling for the resignation of the government, the sunday demonstrations, the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the political assassinations, the return of General Aoun from exil… Interestingly enough, only three dates are commemorated today: February 14th (commonly referred to as St Hariri day), March 14th (national folklore day), May 7th (Orange Tsunami day). The most iconic is undoubtedly March 14th. Why? The reason is very simple, it has become a national myth, one that reflects on two of the elements it refers to: the political coalition and the “public” that marched down to the city center on that sunny spring day.

    March XIV® as a national myth. National myths usually refer to a distant past with legendary figures and acts. In our case, we’re dealing with an instantaneous myth, one that refers to the present. This feature has become a rather common phenomena these days. We saw it all across Eastern and Central Europe in the 1980 and 1990s, the most iconic event is obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events share many things in common, they are extraordinary, they are supported by visual material, they were quickly branded and exploited by entrepreneurs, and they are considered as watershed moments. Their promoters believe that they represent important values and make an inspiring narrative that can serve as an important symbol (“lieu de mémoire”) that brings the nation together. One ingredient is essential for an instantaneous myth, and that’s emotion! Not only this ingredient must be present on the day of the event, but it should be nurtured and sustained.

    The massive demonstration of March 14th obviously has all these features. And the emotions that is aroused were nurtured throughout the year thanks to the political discourse and a servile media.

    Representing a crowd as a unified audience

    The public of March XIV®. One fourth of the resident population is quite a lot of people. And it becomes a very interesting audience to refer to because of its numeric importance and the fact that it shared the same “moment”. Tapping into that feeling can help any politician reach this audience and manipulate the people’s feelings, hopes, fears and expectations. It’s not actually the emotion that is nurtured or sustained, but the emotional response. The characteristics of the initial emotion is of no importance, what is important is to convince the audience that it is the same as the one that is being triggered, that what is being prompted is simply its actualisation (while in fact, it’s the other way round, the memory of the initial emotion is modified and the present emotion is projected onto the past).

    What is fascinating with instantaneous myths is that they are interactive. The audience is part of the production. It surely is the weakest player in this interaction, nevertheless it is still a player. Its collaboration is needed if the myth is to survive. This gives instantaneous myths a reflexive dimension. The participants need to think of themselves as participants and act accordingly. They have to nurture the myth socially and psychologically, even if it is by repeating a mantra. And truth to tell, there are a lot of mantras surrounding March XIV®. One of the most important one has to do with the participants themselves, the public of March XIV® or its audience جمهور اربتعش ادار. So you repeatedly hear about jamhour arbata3sh adar in the media, in coffeeshops and living-rooms. But is there such a thing as a March XIV® public. Obviously not. But like all abstract categories they work as long as people believe in them. But this can only work as long as there is an authority that supports this category, recognises it. And so politicians and the organic intellectuals actively supported this category, selling it as a cristallisation of the “majority of Lebanese” (annulling the other part), “the Lebanese in general” (insinuating that those who didn’t participate were less Lebanese) or the “Democratic Lebanese” (insinuating that those who refrained from joining were undemocratic), while it was an aggregate of individuals and groups motivated by many different things: personal initiative, group pressure, communal mobilisation, political mobilisation… Some people took their cars and walked to Martyr’s Square, others received calls inviting them to go, or were pressured or convinced by their socio-political network or several private TV channels that made a live coverage of the event, and regularly announced where one could take the free bus to Beirut. Many people wanted to participate in this event that was already being marketed and labelled as a groundbreaking event.

    Once the label of March XIV® and the Jumhour of March XIV® were well established, their use became quite practical to reorder the political landscape. Lebanese political groups or communities could be brought together or separate once needed by simply granting them the label or depriving them of it. In 2006, the politicians who controlled the label (most importantly the Future Bloc and Walid Jumblatt and his followers) took the Shiite component out of March XIV® in a process I call tighyib تغييب (making absent those who were present), at first this was implicit, but then it became very explicit (during the governmental crisis). The same thing happened to the FPM, an important component in the March 14 mobilisation, and the only party at that time that called for a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops (the Future Movement and the PSP at that time was ready to settle with a redeployment to the Beqaa valley). The same techniques were used to symbolically bring together people who had no ties with each other of any kind (political, geographic, communal) and put them under one label. The label was practical in blurring the sharp division one found in the crowds that gathered on March XIV®. A friend had qualified the event as a tribal confederation. And people were admonished to hide their true political colours. I actually witnessed several battles around political banners: people wanted to march under their own banners (party flags), but their leaders forbade them to do so to give an image of unity and because they were afraid that some banners would demobilise their own group (I remember several clashes with the Lebanese Forces when they showed their colours; at that time were considered political pariahs, and totally “infréquentable”).

    La quadrature du cercle: the leaders of March XIV... what do they say about too many cooks?

    The March XIV® coalition. One couldn’t think of a more heterodox group of politicians. Two things united them: their slogans, and their opposition to another group (either a rival within a community or a geopolitical opponent). A non-identifiable political object was created to support the “independents” (those who did not have a large or autonomous socio-political clientelist network): the secretariat of March XIV®.

    As for the strength or coherence of the coalition, I have written a dozen posts on it and wouldn’t want to bore you by repeating myself. The length of this post should do this job.

    Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Discourse, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Political behaviour, Politics, Semantics, Values | Leave a Comment »

    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 | Leave a Comment »

    On book fairs and naked bodies in Beirut

    Posted by worriedlebanese on 27/12/2009

    Less than two months separate the Francophone book fair (Octobre 23 – Novembre 1st) from the Arab book fair (December 11 – December 24) at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL), yet the two events are truly worlds apart.

    (Ramzi HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images)

    The Francophone book fair is at its 16th edition. Launched and sponsored by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Beirut as “Lire en Français et en Musique”, it meant to sponsor the French language at a time when French language was seen as increasingly threatened by the spread of English in Lebanon. In 2008, the organisation of the salon was handed to the Lebanese Syndicat of Importers of Books and was rechristened  “Salon du Livre Francophone”. This move was meant to have a dual effect: give the book fair a more local and global aspect by securing its Lebanese anchorage and opening it to the Francophonie. Withstanding these moves, the fair is still centered around France and its cultural production. It attracts a large Lebanese francophone public for which it represents an annuel rendez-vous, an important cultural event thanks to the presence of prominent french authors and the celebration of the local francophone production (mostly journalistic, but increasingly literary). Francophone books are expensive, most of them are printed in France… so it’s no wonder the public is mostly upper class, and unsurprisingly it hails from the Mission Laïque schools (that underwent  an importent expansion in the 1990s, and enjoys an increasingly muslim audience). The middle-class sectors of Lebanese society are also represented through young student groups that are brought by catholic schools.

    (Marwan Tahtah)

    The Arab book fair is at its 53rd edition. It’s organized by the Arab Cultural Club with the collaboration of the Lebanese Publisher’s Union. It’s not only older, but much larger than its francophone counterpart. It brings together some 176 Lebanese publishing houses (and slightly more than 20 foreign publishing houses). Most of the books you’ll find here are printed in Lebanon, a country that still remains one of the bigest publishing centers in the Arabic speaking region even though other centers have emerged and are now quite competitive. The prices are quite low, so it is no wonder the fair attracts a much large audience. You’re not likely to have a wine tasting contest over here or have a book stand offer you a glass of wine during the signing of a book (two things that are expected in the Francophone book fair). The organisers and the audience are mainly muslim and rather conservative. The number of veiled women seems to be constantly on the rise, year after year. And in the midst of all this, what did I stumble upon? Al-Jasad magazine.

    (picture taken on my kilim)

    Now this was quite a surprising find. Al-Jasad describes itself as a cultural magazine in arabic specialised in the body’s arts, sciences and literatures. Launched a year ago, this quarterly has just issued its fourth number.

    Check its website to have a clearer picture of this unexpected magazine. I have mixed feelings about it. It is certainly groundbreaking for a local magazine. In a region where bodies, especially female ones, are increasingly hit, this quarterly doesn’t shy from showing full frontal nudity, a woman holding a man’s erect penis, antique erotic art, a pierced clitoris. But all this seems rather tame compared to what you can find on the net with a simple google search in Beirut, Dubai, Cairo or Algiers. There’s a strange gap about it, don’t u think?

    Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Culture, Diversity, Journalism, Lebanon, Values | Leave a Comment »