the interrogations of shamshouma

AfterImage: Perceiving the Collective Experience

I must have fidgeted in my seat seven times while watching AfterImage, Andrzej Wajda’s last movie. At one point I couldn’t hold still, I kept moving one leg in one direction, then in another, trying to get comfortable enough in my seat to face the bitter and claustrophobic scenario that the movie had created. I felt suffocated and I wanted it to be over. I rolled my eyes at the last scene, almost too performative and theoretical than I could withstand. There is no point in making such a claustrophobic movie, I thought. I used to like this shit, but now I really don’t.

After Image tells the story of the polish Avant-Garde artist, painter and university professor Wladyslaw Strzeminski, whose artistic vision and project were found to be anti-communist in the 1950s. He was dismissed from his work and made to starve under the Stalinist regime, with the rise of socialist realism in art taking hold as the conscientious and revolutionary form of expression. The movie follows Strzeminski in his primetime as a celebrated artist, when he was persecuted and dismissed with the progressive rise of Stalinist ideology in Poland. It shows in great and overwhelming details, the destitute and misery that Strzeminski falls into. While he tried to compromise his artistic vision to fit more into socialist realism, his attempts were all rejected and his art unaccepted under Stalinist regime.


There was something so stereotypically Polish about the movie’s characters, all utterly lonely and individualized, but also smashed by the collective.  Most of the women characters had none-existent depth, a mere extension of Strzeminski’s persona: his dying wife, his daughter and the student who falls in love with him. At one point in the movie, when Strzeminski loses his wife, his job, his artist membership card and his daughter left him to live in a girls’ dorm, an old man whispered to his wife next to me “tsk tsk tsk.Il a tout perdu”. It seemed that we all very quickly got the point: Stalinist and communism bad. Hegemony bad. Free Art good.

Yet, there was something very peculiar about the movie, something about Strzeminski himself, or his portrayed character. Wajda honors the artist’s theory of vision by making the film central to perception. We see Strzeminski as an observer of the rise in communist-Stalinist hegemony. He stares at his daughter as she slowly becomes ‘hegemonized’, practicing to sing Stalinist songs and marching in parades, and prophetically declares that “she is going to be miserable in her life”. He stares at his friends and colleagues and sees the winds of history changing the ways they teach and talk. Perhaps what remains the most haunting thing about the movie is this slow progression of hegemonic ideology that absorbs and engulfs all.


At the end of the movie, I became somewhat obsessed with a specific scene, when the minister of culture and the inspector holds a meeting with the academic committee members to dismiss Strzeminski from his teaching job. The vote is unanimous except for one person. One of the artist’s students dares to challenge the order, arguing that the artist is a great professor and an inspiration. The inspector then asks him: “Comrade, why are you standing in the way of the collective experience?”. Upon hearing this question,the student changes his vote and the resolution becomes unanimous: the artist’s art incites depression and confusion, and is not in the function of serving the collective good.

I found myself thinking about this question over and over again. It deeply terrified me. On my way back home, I took a service car and the man started making fun of an Ethiopian woman walking next to a Lebanese man. On my way to the cinema, the same thing happened, with another service driver and the Syrians. Was that the collective experience, here? I wondered. In both times, I found myself unable to get angry anymore, or to challenge and reply. I kept quiet. I tried to practice my “Strzeminski’s vision”, by observing the slow progression of ideology.  I wanted to observe like him, to just look at “the winds of history” pass us by,  before it swallowed everything.


Strzeminski’s theory of vision: history and body

“In the process of seeing, it is not important what the eye seizes mechanically but what man becomes aware of in his vision.”

His theory carried a tension between Marxist engagement in art and the autonomy of art expression as following its own inherent laws.

Agnieszka Rejniak-Majewska’s analysis of “the theory of vision”:

“Systems of vision are not passive reflections of social conditions, because apart from the social and ideological conditions of the time, they are also based in the specific physiological conditions of the eye. Vision‟s specific condition of materiality, its grounding in the body, grants it certain autonomy from socially imposed values and viewing habits. The viewing eye – especially the painter‟s eye that seeks a heightened “visual consciousness”, not only mediates and confirms a given historical reality, but can also actively extricate itself from it. The physiological basis of painting continues, to a greater or lesser extent, to shield it from immediate social determination and to afford it its own productive force.“ (Rejniak-Majewska. A curious materialist history: Władysław Strzemiński’s Theory of Vision and the forming of the senses).


Cheap living and the continuous erasure of death and suffering in lebanon

b5c6785ec962cc0c40157c91196df32c4ea09585  As all politicians & leaders are cleaning up behind yesterday’s massacre so diligently today, cleaning the streets, the blood, putting up flags, talking about conspiracy theories, national unity, martyrdom as if being blown up in the street while walking with your daughter r home is a meaningful death, a good death; as they try both ideologically and materially to wipe out every memory of last’s night massacre, of scattered flesh, of screaming people, of the sound of the second explosion that I cant shake off, as they seem to have been waiting for an explosion to reconvene into politics again, elect things and people and reshuffle the same political structure, as all this work is being done, I can’t seem to shake off one question that keeps coming back to me since yesterday: Is there life before death in Lebanon?

I have to be very quick to mourn, cry and think about the dead. I have to do it very quickly, I have to process all this very consciously and intentionally. It takes a lot of work, it is not obvious nor impulsive or instinctive. Soon we will all forget. The state machine is working so hard and efficiently, probably more than I have ever seen before. So quick at erasing. I have to race it and mourn, and find my words, my  feelings and articulate them, try and find a space to grief and be angry. Reflect, think and remember.


Hurry up, mourn and remember before it is too late. Ask questions like how did we become so used to the possibility of being blown up to pieces by other humans? How can this become a habit? Hurry up, mourn and remember. Remember all the other explosions we have been instructed to forget, all the other massacres we had no space, ways, words to talk about and discuss. Hurry up. today is the last day to remember. No words, no music, nothing to say. Not even anger, not even surprise. What emotions to feel?  What to say? How to console one another? Just exhaustion. This is not living and this death is not meaningful, there is no meaning in this kind of death and no room for us to mourn it. Hurry up and gather your feelings and your thoughts.

Is there life before death?

We’re always at the edge of livability in Lebanon. Is this living? No electricity, garbage everywhere and dirty water. No health insurance, only bombs and guns. A cheap living and an even cheaper way to die.

Hurry up, mourn and remember. Mourn and remember before streets are completely cleaned up and the dead are buried. Before conspiracy theories, ‘the region’, ‘Al Midan’, WE, national unity, dialogue, the army, terrorism, condemnations, all hospitals will receive the wounded for free, the martyrs, it is the syrians’ fault, it’s the Palestinians’ fault.

I was walking here one minute before the blast happened…I felt it in my back

Hurry up, sit and remember.


Is there life before death?

How do we live like this. Is this living?  did we get used to it? Hurry up and mourn. They are wiping out the blood today. Soon we will all forget, we will laugh it off, be “resilient”. We are “used to it”.

memory is courage and mourning is love.

The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon: Competing economies of compassion

We might now be beyond the point of wondering why there is no real political, economic and social solidarity with the Syrians in Lebanon, not even a solidarity of sympathy towards the suffering they were exposed to both in Syria and Lebanon. A compassion that is at a level which, arguably, does not reckon a strong political affiliation of some sort or even intellectual work, but more of a human ability, impulse or emotion to recognize, acknowledge and show solidarity with the other’s suffering.

Not only that there is no solidarity, which the national discourse justifies by providing the economic situation as an excuse (and yes, even with the absence of the state, we still manage to produce and solidify a hegemonic racist discourse against the Syrians that everyone buys into, sometimes to the extent of uttering idiotic statements like “It’s appalling how the Syrians break the traffic law all the time!” which makes me want to punch someone in the face), there is a daily structural minute forms of discrimination against and scapegoating of “the Syrian” as responsible for all the historical and existing Lebanese problems.

This hegemonic discourse erases all violent Lebanese state policies against workers and public state institutions, and provides the frame through which animosity, rather than solidarity, is produced. the Syrian presence in itself poses a threat to the Lebanese identity (which now everyone seems to know what it is) defined in complete opposition to what the other, the Syrian, is in the Lebanese imaginary; to Lebanese institutions, which now everyone seems eager to salvage and preserve their “efficiency”, from education (for an important article on racist educational policies against “non Lebanese” see this), economic rights, up to traffic laws violated everyday by the Syrians.The Lebanese “culture” itself is now under attack, from the influx of foreigners with a completely different cultural traditions, norms and ways of bieng. It seems that the Lebanese define themselves in relation to their “other”, the ever so essentially different creature called the Syrian.

But still, what is most striking, at least to me, is the overgrowing discourse of de-legitimizing the suffering of Syrians, especially Syrian refugees, and sometimes even failing to see this suffering at all. This, I believe, is also tied to, and disruptive of, a certain political economy of suffering that exists in Lebanon, which makes even the ‘Syrian suffering’ a threat to the national discourse around violence and suffering in Lebanon.

I will convey two recurrent stories here to make my point clearer:

We have suffered too/We have suffered more

The first story is quite a recurrent one. It is the story of a Lebanese encountering a Syrian. The Syrian is usually in this story silent, quiet and does not want to speak of what she has witnessed, what she has gone through, what she has seen. The Lebanese, by the mere fact of encountering a Syrian, say in a service car or in the lobby of a clinic, etc. , starts telling the Syrian about how and what she has seen is nothing compared to what he has gone through during the civil war. Story after story after story, from staying long hours in line to get bread, to hiding and running from shelling, to seeing dead bodies in the streets, to random massacres and losing loved ones, the Lebanese purges stories of his own suffering, stories that would probably not have been shared otherwise. Frantically, he recites his long and maybe hidden or forgotten stories, one story after the other, while the Syrian sits quietly, maybe not knowing what to answer, or maybe just appalled by the distastefulness of this recounting of the Lebanese suffering that gives it much more value and intensity than her own untold, but more imminent experience. I have heard this recurrent story numerous times. It ends with the Lebanese telling the Syrian that her suffering is nothing compared to his and what he has gone through.

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

No one ever gave us a stipend! : Economies of compassion and global recognition of suffering

The second story is a recurrent commentary on the stipends that the Syrian refugees get because of their suffering. These commentaries range from signaling that the refugees have money and keep exploiting the Lebanese economy to discussing in details what they are allowed to buy with this money. One person in particular was quite angry at the fact that a liquor store he saw had a sticker that says “we can accept refugee cards” (he is probably referring here to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)’s e-card system for Syrian refugees in Lebanon). “Do they get to also buy alcohol with their stipend”?! He says, in an angry tone, appalled that the stipend might cover something more than the refugees’ basic vital needs. Then he says: “no one ever gave us anything for our suffering in the civil war!..and we suffered so much more than them, but we got nothing in return”.

This “suffering envy”, or this jealousy over basically everything a Syrian possess from a story of suffering to a monthly stipend, is appalling, yes. But the point is that it also reveals a whole economy of suffering set by global humanitarian organizations that make suffering into a commodity that refugees have to perform, possess and show in order to get asylum and recognition. But also, this suffering envy reveals how unbearable the other’s pain is, and how it shakes and disrupts the Lebanese’s own narrative of violence and suffering.

Disrupting the Lebanese politics of suffering: The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon

The suffering of the Syrians is unbearable. It is a sudden reminder of the multiple layers of violence that the Lebanese have themselves gone through and that they have no national discourse or frame through which they are allowed to express, formally and to the world, how much they have and still suffer from injuries of violence. This absence of suffering has many reasons that I am still trying to understand. One of it is the dominant representation of Lebanon and the Lebanese as “naturally resilient to wars and violence”. These representations describe the Lebanese as indifferent to violence and war, tanning in a bikini while Beirut is bombed, where the geopolitical nature of Lebanon makes it “naturally susceptible to war and violence” (as if Lebanon naturally attracts violence and war which has genetically equipped Lebanese to become resilient and almost indifferent to war). Other reasons are of course post-civil war state ideologies of erasures through “reconstruction”, erasing all physical and semiotic presence of civil war violence form Lebanon, and with it any possible national discourse of suffering.

It is through these representations that the suffering of the Syrian is read. It is of course interpreted and appropriated by the Lebanese’s own narrative of suffering. This is how, I think, Syrian suffering loses any meaning in Lebanon, and does not register any kind of collective solidarity or compassion (of course people and individual sympathize but I am speaking her of a collective and political solidarity. Rather, it automatically signals the Lebanese’s own form of suffering, or to be more specific, its absence.

 The Syrian does not appear to be suffering in Lebanon. It is incredible how big a threat is this Syrian. Her suffering signals and threatens the Lebanese’s politics of suffering; her need for labor and work threatens to damage the whole Lebanese economic structure.

Stuck between humanitarian global market of suffering, manifested in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that UNHCR and hosting countries need to see and recognize in order to give a refugee status, and the Lebanese own privileged suffering, Syrians’ own experience of loss, violence and pain is left unrecognized, unaccounted for and forbidden to emerge in certain cases. If we think about it, the Lebanese and Syrian has gone through a lot of common experiences and have shared a lot of ordeals. It is quite sad to see that  suffering both shared and experienced by the Lebanese and the Syrian does not produce any kind of political solidarity or a political community that identifies this suffering as one.


“بدِك كاجو؟ تفضلي”

فجأة كيس ملون مليان كاجو صار بوجهي و السرفيس عم يطلع بالمراية ويبتسم بسمة كبيرة. كانت الشمس رائعة

 “يلا كلي..ما تكوني بخيلة”

استحيت منه، اول مرة حدن بقل لي اني بخيلة لاني ما شاركته اكلاته، بس اذا بتفكري فيها، كثير شي بخيل انك ترفضي تاكلي مع حدن عم يعزمك فأكلت كاجو

 “كثير منيح الكاجو للصحة، كثير منيح.. انا باكل شي كيسين بالنهار! هاها ها  “

كان ناصح كثير السرفيس، شاب من عمري و ضحكته بتسوى الدني كلها فصرنا نضحك ونحكي عن الكاجو والشمس ونضحك على اشيا سخيفة. يا ريت يطوّل ليوصلني على البيت، يعمل لي كزدورة..

“امي دايما بتقل لي لازم آكل منيح بس شغلي هيك! وانا بحب لقوش كثير..مش منيح لصحتي وما بحب زعّل امي، الأم اهم شي بالحياة، ما فيه مثل الأم، ما فيه مثل هيك حب “

“معك حق!”

الشمس في كل مكان وعالم عم تمشي على مهلها، شو هالنهار الحلو، شو هالسما الزرقا


  ما انا..ما انا عذبوني بسوريا..انا سوري بس عايش بلبنان ، رحت مرّة على سوريا، قلت ما حيصير لي شي، وقفوني وحجزوني. وربطولي عيوني وصاروا يضربوني و يعذبوني ويربطوني من ايديّ. قالوا انو انا مع المعارضة، قلت لهم انا قاعد بلبنان، قالوا لي اعترف انك مع المستقبل”.

كل الوقت عم يضحك هوي و عم يحكي

صاروا يحطوني بدولاب..اهين شي صار معي الدولاب، بتعرفيه للدولاب؟ هههههه . بعدين حبسوني وصرت اسمع عالم عم تتعذب كل يوم بالحبس و انا صرت اكل قتلة كل يوم لحد ما قلت لهم شو بدهم يسمعوه، انه انا مع المستقبل و انه انا عندي دبابة و مخبى سلاح..سألني مرة: شو لونه للسلاح؟ قلت له ازرق فاكلتها قتلة هههههه شو بعرفني شو لونه للسلاح انا؟

“ليش عم خبرك انا هيدا الشي؟ عشان أمي. أمي برمت كل سجون سوريا عم تفتش عني، و ما كانوا يقولولها ويني. مرة اجت على الحبس يللي انا فيه و كذبوا عليها وقالولها اني ما كنت هونيك. ما خلت حدن ما حكيت معه. اصعب شي بكل هالشي، هي انه هيدا يصير مع امي. بعدين بالغلط طلعت من الحبس بعد 6 اشهر..صار فيه صفقة مع المعارضة و طلعت، ضليت بالتخت ما قدران احكي مع حدن، لولا امي ما كنت صرت منيح ههههه

ابتسامته من احلى ابتسامات شايفتها بحياتي

انا ليش خبرتك كل هالشي؟ شو عملتِ فيني لخبرك كل هيدا الشي؟ “

“يمكن كنت انت حابب تحكي..ويمكن لاننا اكلنا كاجو سوا”

“ايه يمكن (يبتسم) والله ما فيه احلى من الأم بهالحياة”

كانت الشمس فايتة بكل شي،حتى بحكايات التعذيب و الضرب

How to read the Syrian body: Lebanese racist ideologies and politics of difference

The story of the Syrian body as seen by Lebanese eyes is not a new one, it dates back to the time when Syrian workers migrated to Lebanon and became cheap labor, around the country’s largest institutional and urban development in the 1950s. And cheap labor, with time, cheapens the body itself and disciplines it. People then would speak of the Syrian worker as someone coming from dark places of Syria, unknown barbaric villages that manufacture people who were completely different from Lebanese. “Not all Syrians are backward”, the story went, “but these people who come to Lebanon and work in construction and other cheap form of labor, come “men wara al ba2ar”, they are dirty, ignorant and stupid”. Somehow labor exploitation disappears onto the Syrian worker’s body, thereby making it as ontologically different and alien, not just for middle and upper class Lebanese but for their fellow Lebanese workers as well.

I want to relate and analyze the racist ideologies embedded in two stories that were told to me about the Syrian body or on “how Syrians are”: one is by a Lebanese service driver trying to find a job for his son, and the other by a feminist scholar during a conference against torture for Lebanese police officers.

The Syrian worker: a non-suffering body meant for cheap labor

The first story goes something like this:

“I spent my whole life working as a service driver trying to put my children in school so they could have a better life. Now my son is almost done with school, he is very smart, and I want him to go to college. But college is very expensive. You know how it is in Lebanon. It is impossible for people like us to afford a good education. I also don’t want to spend too much money on him and spoil him, he needs to get a job so that he learns the value of money, like I did. I am looking for jobs for him but it is difficult. He went and talked with Barbar and they said he can work there. But I went there and saw the conditions of work, it is terrible (for more on the dire work conditions ta Barbar see this article). All the workers there are Syrian (which is not true), they work more than 12 hours a day, they are sweating all the time in the kitchen. They (the Syrian workers) can work under these conditions because they are used to it. Their bodies do not get sick from working under these awful conditions like we do. They are used to misery and disgusting conditions. They would eat anything and they will survive. But my son will fall sick on his first day, I cannot have him work there“

From all the racist signaling and stories I hear on a daily basis in Beirut, this was for me the most terrifying. It is revelatory of the engrained matter-of-fact racism against Syrian bodies who are read as naturally disciplined commodities of labor. It is a racist statement signaling bodies of Syrian workers who not only are nonreactive to diseases and abhorring conditions produced by labor exploitation, but are bodies manufactured, habituated and made exactly for these forms of labor.

While Lebanese spend an incredible amount of time everyday trying to shape their bodies, skin, postures, accents and clothes to resemble and pass as the coveted European and American body, the Syrian body, a constant reminder of what they actually resemble, becomes so threatening to their modern and civilized aspirations that it needs to be recreated and reproduced as essentially different from the Lebanese body.


Syrian workers wait at a crossroads in a Beirut suburb for someone to hire them for daily work. [Nohad Topalian/Al-Shorfa]

The service worker, arguably coming from modest means and is exposed to oppressive working conditions himself, cannot relate to the Syrian worker at all, and cannot sympathize with his labor conditions or see himself in his shoes. On the contrary, with this narrative, he produces a Syrian body that is ontologically different from his own, an unfathomable threatening body who is unresponsive to disease and pain.  While he comments on the high prices of schools, he is not able to read the labor exploitation that marks the Syrian body but, instead, reads it as part of the body’s nature.

This narrative is not restricted to Syrian bodies in Lebanon. One constantly hears such stories about the awful conditions foreign domestic workers can handle without any problem. The joke goes “what happens when a Syrian worker marries an Ethiopian domestic worker? Their child will be the superman worker, he will be able to work 24 hours without rest or food”. And now this narrative is being transferred onto Syrian refugees who do not need that much attention, aid, blankets or food since they are used to poverty and misery. Becoming a refugee has been the best thing that has ever happened to them, apparently.

The absence of motherhood in Syrian women refugees

The Second story was at a week-long conference on torture for the Lebanese police that I attended for my research. During lunch, I sat down with two police officers, a feminist academic and a Palestinian UN representative who were both lecturing at the conference. The feminist started commenting on an incident that happened a week before, where a huge storm had flooded refugee tents in the Eastern side and a less than a year old baby was lost and died in the flood. Her narrative went something like this:

“How can this happen? Is this possible?! What kind of  mother would neglect her baby this way? This is appalling! Some people have no understanding of motherhood and how to take care of their children. I am disgusted and angry at these people, they get kids and then throw them away! How can she let go of her baby like that?” while the police officers kept politely quiet, giving room for “experts” to discuss, the UN representative suggested with a lot concern that awareness campaigns needed to start in the Bekaa on similar issues.

I still remember staring at my empty plate, holding my knife so tight, slowly directing it in the direction of the proclaimed feminist. It was one of those rare moments where I was completely taken aback, probably, if I am to be honest about it, because I never thought a conversation between a UN representative and a feminist academic can get so racist and goes unchallenged as a valid and normal anecdote. I then forbid myself from screaming and told myself that I will write about this, that my job is to write about things like these and not cause an angry scene. After all, the lunch room was full of police officers, and even if the conference was against torture, I can totally see the feminist screaming “SEIZE HER” while policemen gather around to beat the shit out of me. So I kept my mouth shut.

And I regret it so much. This particular story gave me week-long migraines and back pains. Sometimes, it is just best to scream and point a knife at someone, especially at them racist feminists and UN representatives. But I did not. So all I am left with is my ability to analyze her story and see what this normalized and terrifying racism against Syrian refugees can tell us. And how to counter it.


A Syrian refugee boy makes his way through flooded water at a temporary refugee camp, in the eastern Lebanese Town of Al-Faour near the border with Syria, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

 Okay, so when “experts” and UN representatives who produce legitimate and formal knowledge about feminism and the situation of women in Lebanon and the Middle East are capable of uttering such racist logic, that tells me that the ideology and the politics of difference are successfully engrained and embedded within Lebanese ideological institutions, and are taken for granted as normal and casual understanding of Syrian bodies. Syrian women refugees lack the natural instinct of motherhood and need humanitarian awareness campaigns to learn how to be mothers and how to take care of their own children. The fact that the Lebanese government would not allow refugees to stay in something other than a tent, the fact that no one prepared any form of protection against the storm, were completely omitted from the narrative. The blame fell utterly and completely on the uncivilized body of the Syrian woman who simply lacks the ontological and essential skill of motherhood. Perhaps making her “aware” of her disability might help, adds the UN representatives.

Summary: how to counter Lebanese racist ideology?

These two stories coming from two Lebanese representing different social class, experience and authority reveal how successful and hegemonic Lebanese racist ideology is. Anyone who is still nagging about the absence of his Lebanese state can take a look at the state ideologies of racism against Syrian refugees who are now blamed for everything wrong with Lebanon including absurd things like traffic and electricity cuts. Our state seems to ideologically be very present and powerful.

What these two stories have in common is this terrifying systematic forgetting and erasure of the material conditions of labor and of being a refugee that Syrian workers and refugees are finding themselves in. This ideological forgetting, or this systematic inability to see what is quite apparent is what needs to be countered. After doing research for two years on humanitarian interventions and being bombarded with different “awareness campaigns” directed at different vulnerable groups in Lebanon, I find absolute pleasure in turning these campaigns towards the people who actually need someone to take off their ideological glasses for them to see. But the more I sit and argue with racist people by unveiling the material conditions of exploitation of Syrians in Lebanon, the more I am terrified at how easily they can simply turn their arguments somewhere else in order to sustain their racist ideologies.

Because, again, ideologies of difference and of racism are powerful in Lebanon, probably the most powerful ideology that everyone agrees on without it being challenged.

Because, if it wasn’t for these ideologies, Lebanese have to face the facts that the city of Beirut itself was built, developed, renovated and made into a cosmopolitan city by the blood and sweat of Syrian workers. Who built your city? Who constructed all your buildings? One by one with his bare hands? Who assembled Beirut’s entire infrastructural system? Who planted and took care of your trees? Your gardens? And your lands? How picked up your fruits and vegetables and transported them to the market? who fixed your cars? Who fixed your electricity? Who built your roads? Your high ways? Who cleaned them? This city stands tall over the shoulders of Syrians.

A doomed city that smells and stinks everyday, where evil is becoming normal and a matter of fact and where the ability to empathize and relate to the other (who is not really an other at all, but more like an embarrassing brother we wish we never had, someone so close to us that it scares us) has vanished, unless the other is European. Our bros the Europeans.

يوم بلا إنفجار

 . البارحة لم يحصل انفجار في بيروت. استيقظت على موسيقى الغراموفون، مشيت ببطء الى الجامعة الاميركية اشتريت قهوة من الدكان،  وكان التلفاز مطفأ.

البارحة لم يحصل انفجار في بيروت. أمضيت معظم النهار احتسي القهوة ،أكتب، وانتظر العاصفة من وراء نافذتي الكبيرة في الجامعة. أشعلت سيجارة في المكان المخصص للتدخين حيث يجتمع بعض عمّال الجامعة  لصبحيّتهم اليومية “إنت ولا مرة بتخلصي سيجارتك عمّو. شكلك ما بتدّخني كثير…بتعرفي قدّي انا صرل هون عمّو؟ إحزري! 20 سنة؟! اكثر..قدي عمرك؟ ايه اكثر بعد.47 سنة. بعد 3 سنين بطلع تقاعد، عندي جنينة صغيرة حفيق كل يوم و اشتغل فيها. خرّجت كل اولادي، لشو الشغل بعد؟ خلص..بعد 3 سنين..عقبالك عمّو”

البارحة لم يحصل انفجار في بيروت. دعتني صديقة لي الى كافيتيريا الدكاترة الجامعيين التي تطل على البحر. هناك التقيت باستاذي في الأدب العربي “أتذكرني؟ طبعا اتذكرك، انت كنت شاعرة، ماذا حصل لك، هل نشرت شعرك في كتاب؟ كان شعرك جميلا، هل تتناولينا الغداء معي الاسبوع المقبل؟

      البارحة لم يحصل انفجار في بيروت. بعد طول انتظار، وافق احد سائقي السرفيس ان يأخذني الى صف اللغة الاسبانية في ساحة النجمة. في السيارة، موسيقى قديمة لعمرو دياب من الثمانيات: ♫ راجعيييين، نعشق و ندوب ونعيش مع بعض حياتنا. راجعيييين ما يقيدش هروب من شوقنا ومن حكاياتنا، و تعالى تعالى تعاااالى يا حبيب العمر تعاااالى ♫ 

سائق السرفيس يغني ويضحك لنفسه، يلتقط ليمونة  و يلوّح بها لسائق سرفيس آخر امامه. يترجل السائق ليأخذ الليمونة “حبيبي. انا اصلا تاركلك القهوة على النار بسيارتي” يضحكان كالاطفال  “هذا معلّمي. هو علّمني صنعة السرفيس من 15 سنة” 

ضحكته معدية. “اتحبين عمرو دياب أيضا؟ انا احبه كما كان في الثمانيات و ليس كما هو الآن. لديّ صور له على هاتفي. انظري، انظري الى هذه الصورة أيضا، انه شاب مرتب و صوته جميل. . ههههههههه”. انظر الى الصور ونكمل الغناء سويا

و ♫ راجعييين

.البارحة لم يحصل انفجارفي بيروت

Hiking Lebanon: on the difficulty of disentangling violence and disease from nature

Every Sunday morning , many Lebanese head to specific locations in Beirut to catch appointed buses for their weekly hiking trip. The buses  gather around in Downtown’s martyr square and the end of Forn Al Chebbak. They wait for the hikers, who appear wearing their full-geared hiking clothes, except for those trying out hiking for the first time, stumbling around feeling a bit “under-dressed” for the trip.

Hiking has become a main attraction for middle class Lebanese and for foreigners, professionals and students alike,  who seek a day of promenade, exercising and dwelling in nature away from the polluted, noisy, disease-afflicted, explosive and violent city of Beirut. in the last few years, USAID took on the task of funding the project of creating hiking paths all around the country. well , in the “civilized” regions that is, with the exception of most South Lebanon whose nature was deemed too insecure and dangerous for hiking promenades.


Since this funded project, hiking established itself as one of the main Sunday attraction and leisure sports in Lebanon for people from different ages and gender. Becoming a hiker is not a simple endeavor. it is a inter-relational production of a middle class appreciation of nature as peaceful, healing, full of wisdom and knowledge, and as spiritually empowering. Nature is a shelter from the city’s sudden explosions and from the everyday terror that people experience as a result. Hikers are also those who scream in disapproval over littering in nature and bulldozers “eating nature’s essence”. However, in Lebanon, hiking is not just about nature. Everyone who has hiked with one of the mainstream hiking groups was able to notice that this activity is one of the main ways for “hooking up” or “finding a boyfriend/husband” in Lebanon that does not requires drinking and nightlife. Hiking in Lebanon is not a solitary dwelling in nature but is more of a socializing and romantic kind of getting together in nature.

However, being a hiker in Lebanon who can appreciate nature through specific modernized and civilized practices is very difficult. It takes a lot of  work to ideologically perceive, produce and imagine nature in Lebanon as esthetically beautiful, peaceful and healing while hiking. And this work requires building the ability to detach from, disregard and become blind to the signifiers and markers of violence that overwhelmingly inhabit nature in Lebanon and renders it diseased and in conflict. Producing the modern nature/culture dichotomy, separating nature from culture, seems to require an ideological process of “forgetting” and “blinding”  “things violent and diseased” that are so entangled with nature that they themselves become “natural”.


Hiking in the Chouf region on a Sunday morning, a good middle class hiker encounters many obstacles in his quest for natural healing and enjoyment.  Hiking peacefully, one first walks between lands entangled with explosive devises. Suddenly, one is surrounded by lands full of mines: “if it rains, one of them might explode all of a sudden” remarks a hiker to another in passing. “danger of death, mines” signs stand at the edge of the land, although quite far away. After crossing the explosive  nature land, one is exposed to a much more visible marker of violence: countless colorful hunting cartridges lie on the earth, entangled with its dirt and trees. Red, blue and green, they soon become part of the natural landscape and their violence  is forgotten


Walking further and further up, hikers next arrive to the middle of the woods. While they walk through, few notice three of four well-made and maintained stenches on the top of a hill and look at each other “is this..a trench?”, “perhaps it was used in the civil war…look how it overviews all of this area in Lebanon” others continue hiking, while commenting on trees and plants.

One of the hikers noticed a strange looking web covering small young tees on the side of the trail path. He horridly snapped the disease branch and threw it on the floor while stepping on it “look, all these trees are diseased, it is a kind of a worm that kill trees…” One of them comments: “it is diseased nature”, while distant gun shots are heard intermittently. But no one seems to hear them.

diseased trees

It is exhausting to hike in peaceful nature in Lebanon. One has to put on her ideological blind glasses in order to imagine herself in a healing natural landscape.

الحاجات والشغف

الحاجات والشغف

Lebanese suffering on STL stage: narrating violence for the international community

One can criticize many things about the special Tribunal for Lebanon’s, about it being politicized, somewhat meaningless and absurd in the light of the  weekly explosions that have become a matter of mundane occurrences in Lebanon. But what  undeniably interesting about this tribunal is that it offers Lebanese a humanitarian and international  recognition of their suffering by turning them into witnesses of violence.

For the first time in the history of Lebanon, Lebanese (granted, a selected few) are invited to sit and talk in a court of law, whether in person or through video teleconference, to an international and Lebanese audience about their suffering and loss from the 2005 explosion. While acting as witnesses of violence itself, and of their own suffering, the Lebanese are asked questions by both the prosecutor and the defense lawyers. This act of witnessing and narrating suffering invites Lebanese to frame their encounter with violence in an international discourse that (re)defines what it means to be human, what it means to suffer, how to prove your suffering physically and psychologically and how to speak about violence.

Not only that, the Lebanese, for the first time  (Although I vaguely remember a quite similar international “Remy Bandali” moment in the 80s), are getting a taste of what it means to have the international community, our Alma mater,  recognize, register and record, sometimes quite specifically and scientifically, their suffering, for the purpose, we are told, of attaining justice and retribution from violence.

Nazih Abou Rjeily  providing testimony via video teleconference about the death of his brother

Nazih Abou Rjeily providing testimony via video teleconference about the death of his brother in the 2005 explosion in Beirut

By narrating their suffering on the international stage of law, those few and selected Lebanese communicate the most intimate details of the loved ones they lost from the explosion. Whether they suffered unfathomably before they died, how their sudden death affected their family and kins, how long it took for the family to find the body, the types of psychosomatic diseases that afflicted them after their loss, صhow did they broke the news to their parents, how hard it was to grieve for them, etc… Watching one witness after another, I do not feel like I am intruding on their lives or that I am being a peeping shamshoumah, snooping around for dirt about their suffering. Their heartbreaking stories are familiar and close to home.  I listen to their stories and cry sometimes.  I look at them on their international “stage”, sitting between two STL flags, with their headphones on their heads, trying very hard to deliver “the truth” and answering the questions of both lawyers and judges.

These suffering narratives very quickly became quite uncanny. They were both simultaneously familiar and quite disturbing and unfathomable. Suddenly, I feel jealous of their cathartic speech . Why do they get to act out their suffering? I can’t shake this overwhelming feeling of jealousy. I start thinking about the other families from recent explosions, families who lost loved ones during the street fights of 2008, the 2006 war, or the series of explosions that hit Lebanon after the 2005 explosion. I think about the civil war and all the people who lost loved ones, all the injured, the mutilated, the trembling ones, and all the innumerable  horrid stories left untold and unrecognized . I am sure they are jealous too, I think..

It seems to me that in Lebanon, there is this unspoken cultural convention: talking about and narrative your own suffering from violence is not celebrated. It might be tolerated if one is going to admit that “everyone else has suffered as well”. Everyone has suffered in Lebanon because violence, although does not equally hit all social strata, is so entangled in our everyday life, is so constantly anticipated , expected and awaited, that we seem to constantly suffer with each other in silence.

While watching the witnesses talk about their brothers and fathers, and describe their mutilated bodies in the explosion scene, I could not remember how life continued after this explosion, I could not imagine how people picked up the pieces, literally and figuratively, and went on living. I could not remember how we all survived at the edge of life. But then again, we have been doing that for a long time. When the country is on the palm of the demon, its people must remain very very quiet. Their bodies must remain still, they must function the same way everyday. Everything must keep very still so that not to upset the demon. So we keep waking up and going to work, then go back home. We keep walking, taking services, eating, drinking coffee, drinking whiskey and chatting. As if nothing is the matter. We slowly forget previous explosions. there are so many now anyway. We must forget and anticipate  future ones.

it is the smart thing to do, when you’re on the palm of a demon.

كيف تعرفين أن ثمة انفجار في بيروت عندما لا يكون لديك كهرباء او انترنت

تسمعين صوت تلفاز الجيران يعلو فجأة وانت تقفلين باب بيتك للذهاب الى الجامعة

ترين رجالا يتجمعون وتسمعين احدهم يقدم تحليلات سياسة عن “الخطر” و “الحلّ”

 تمرين من امام عناصر من الجيش ولا يلطّشونك! بل تسمعينهم يقولون “انفجار..انفجار..كل يوم انفجار.”

هنا تبدئين بالشك الجدّي “هل حصل انفجار؟ ام انهم يحلّلون الوضع الحالي؟

تسمعين هذه الجملة تتردد على شفاه المارة “انا بالحمرا” ..”ايه انا بالحمرا” …”لأ انا بالحمرا

 تلاحظين ان هناك تجمعات امام محلات الخضرة والسوبرماركات، تسمعين صوت التلفاز يعلو لكن لا تستطيعين تمييز الكلمات، تحاولين ان تخترقي التجمعات لتري مايجري لكن قصر قامتك يحول دون ذلك

“اكيد انفجار..”

تتصلين باهلك لكن الخطوط مقطوعة

“…بلكي ماتوا؟ اكيد انفجار..”

فجأة تلاحظين ان المارة يحاولون مثلك ان يتفرسوا في وجوه بعضهم البعض، بحثا عن شيء ما. بحثا عن جواب

تلاحظين ايضا ان ثمة صمت غريب في الشارع. المحلات مفتوحة، السيارات تسير، الناس تمشي، لكن خطواتهم بلا صوت

ترين العاملين في بربر وفي المطاعم الصغيرة في بلس متسمرين امام التلفاز واصحاب المطاعم يحثونهم على متابعة عملهم

  تسمعين احد العاملين في الجامعة يصرخ “كس اختهم اخوا شرموطة” و آخر يقول :”مين يللي عم يدبح؟ مين يللي عم يقتل”

 تفكرين في سّرك “اختنا جميعا على اخت يللي خلفونا” و تصلين الى مكتبك حيث الكهرباء و الانترنت

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