Working harder and staying the same: how social class awareness, Rafik Hariri and secularism came together through difference in a taxi from Hamra to Jemmayze
I did not object to the double fees for the ride from Hamra to Jemmayzeh..after all it was Eid. But the driver immediately apologized: “I won’t find any clients in Jemmayzeh….this life is getting tougher and tougher..working harder and harder just leads to the same situation: at the end of the day, I am making the same amount of money”. This comment stirred a really interesting conversation on labor and social class in Lebanon between the driver and I. He compared his job to the job of his previous employers, “very rich people” who would do nothing all year-long, spend like crazy and take him with them to Cannes and Nice as their driver (“it was amazing, such a different culture, I wish I could take my family there one day!”) but then they would stop spending at the last month of the year because they were waiting for their financial investments to produce money “I work harder and harder and stay the same, and they do the bare minimum and get richer every year”.
What happened next striked me as nonsensical and unexpected. The driver moved directly from discussing the problem of classicism in Lebanon to praising the role of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s first prime minister after the civil war in 1990, a billionaire (multi billionaire? I can only think of billionaire as the most obnoxiously big number) usually critiqued for privatizing state institutions, putting the country in debt and owning 6% of Lebanon (or so the driver admitted), in improving the social classes in Lebanon. “I am not politicized and do not support any party but I disagree when people talk about Rafik Hariri as a thief. He had many projects and was always fought in the parliament because war lords like Walid Jumblat and Nabih Berri wanted things to stay the same. He also made his own money, he worked hard to become a billionaire”.
Wow, I thought, how did we get here? We were having such a nice Marxist conversation, and now we’re talking about how socially aware Rafik Hariri was?! To make things more complicated, the taxi driver concluded the conversation by announcing that the only solution for social change in Lebanon is secularism and the fall of sectarianism: “it is the only way for state institutions to function in a just way outside of the interests of sectarian war lords” .
Although I still don’t know what to think of this conversation, I realized that we Lebanese spend a lot of time trying to find people who think, argue and say the same things we believe are true. It is, I believe, a sort of “Lebanese” urge to find out where the other comes from (men wein men Beirut?), who she supports, in order to map out the in-group from the out-group, in order to form the “from us/not from us” (منّا او مش منّا) dichotomy. I think we all do it all the time, be it by categorizing people through their sects/religion, political views or causes they support, etc. But this service driver is a hybrid, he does not fit either the in-group or the out-group.
In Friction: An ethnography of global connection (2005), Anna Tsing, among many other things, looks at the friction produced by the traveling of global social projects in local sites. Friction, the connection between the global and local is a productive connection that comes not from similarity and commonness but from cultural diversity and difference. The coming together through difference is crucial for social change. Tsing talks about how local and national environmentalists, international science, North American investors, advocates for Brazilian rubber tapers, UN funding agencies, mountaineers and hikers, nature lovers, village elders, farmers and urban students, among others came together through difference and adopted a glocally (global + local…her word not mine!) produced a project and movement against deforestation in Indonesia. Don’t misunderstand her, the process was full of messy misunderstandings but they were misunderstandings that worked out and shaped the social project and movement. People from different social classes, interests, opinions, affiliations and causes create social change because they come together at one moment in time through difference.
Perhaps the failure of the campaign for the fall of the sectarian regime in Lebanon should be analyzed through these terms. The campaign systematically addressed people with similar ideas, class, opinions and systematically cut off other forms of Lebanese subjectivities with different backgrounds, interests and aspirations. The service driver and I finally came together through difference. It is this difference that made our “coming together” powerful and interesting and his call for the fall of sectarianism so meaningful. That’s why a future campaign for mobilization and social change in Lebanon should not be so restrictive and should strive to see beyond the from us/not from us dichotomy. Coming together through difference requires the breaking of this dichotomy.