the interrogations of shamshouma

“Ma32oul?!” Tracing the conditions of possibility for politics in Lebanon

Let’s face it. The Lebanese Moghtarib, or the Lebanese returnee, is pretty annoying. She nags about everything that is wrong with the country, she relentlessly points out to you all the problems, as if you didn’t know them already, and she’s always shocked by how things are ‘here’. As if she never lived here before and suffered through “the pollution”. It’s not that she is not right, but she annoys us because she points to things that we have gotten used to over the years and are learning to deal with on a daily basis without losing our minds.

One of the benefits of being a Lebanese returnee however, is that particular cultural shock that you experience when you come back home, however annoying it is for the locals. You begin to look at everything from a different perspective, and, as a result, you are genuinely surprised at the way things are. After all, culture is much less about norms, traditions and rituals than about common sense; all these behaviors, embodied gestures and ways of being that are taken for granted as “the way to be” .

The Lebanese returnees are then  bound to break many more of these embodied norms and behaviors, and be faced by indignation and protest from the locals, especially with the Lebanese expression “ma32oul?!” (is it possible?!). But this does not just apply to the Moghtarebeen, a lot of Lebanese communities and groups are faced daily with the “ma32oul?!”, as they strive to make sense of what is a possible way of being-in-Lebanon.

So l thought it would be a good idea to start following and recording the different “ma32oul?!” I have encountered both as a local and a “returned Lebanese”. These “ma32oul” encounters, although quite innocent in appearance, holds a lot of meaning and inscriptions of what is considered a possible political action in Lebanon and what is classified outside of the realm of the possible. By recording these “ma32oul?!” encounters, we can map the conditions of possibility for politics in Lebanon. I am using only a few encounters here for the sake of illustration.

Throughout these incidents, I am sparing you my own angry reaction to all the “ma32oul?!!” that I had to suffer through. It’s probably my own attempt at understanding why these particular behaviors that I did were so appalling to others and not other forms of gestures and behaviors. here are some of my “Ma32oul?!” experiences..i am sure you have many of them yourself if you think about it.

1- I bought a dress for my cousin’s wedding from Mango around three years ago. As I was trying on the dress, I noticed it was too long. And since I am short and don’t really wear heals, I thought the dress would look pretty if I shorten it enough to show my ankles and a small part of my legs. I communicated that to the tailor who went absolutely nuts: “ma32oul?! You want to shorten the dress that much?! But it’s a wedding, you can’t do that!” I insisted but she was not happy. She made me feel like an idiot. The next day, I get a call from the tailor herself “are you sure you want to do this?! Isn’t it for a wedding?! Ma32oul?! It’s too short? How tall are you?” the dress looked awesome by the way, at least i thought so.

2- I saw these really cool sticky notes in Canada that were poster size. My friend was using them to design her research project and since I was going back to Lebanon to start my own research, the first thing I did was go to Fairco and ask about those sticky notes. “Hello, do you have those poster size sticky notes? ..or A4 size?” the salesman, who is around 18 or 19, literally starts screaming at me : “POSTER SIZE STIKCY NOTES?! MA32OUUUUUL?! THERE IS NO SUCH THING” I made him swallow the small sticky notes…in my mind.

3- So I am good citizen and decide to go protest for improving wages in Lebanon. The demonstration was around 10am and I wanted to prepare a protest banner. So I woke up around 9 and went straight to the bookstore next to my house to buy posters. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to also ask if they had small sticks I could use to hold the poster with, which made the sale’s lady figure out that I was going to a demonstration. She was happy I am participating, but still: “ma32oul?! You are buying and preparing your banner an hour before the protest?! Why didn’t you prepare it yesterday?! Ma32oul?! You should always give yourself time to prepare your protest banner!” I was speechless for this one. I thanked her, apologized for being so late in preparing my protest banner, and left.

4- One of my personal favorite “ma32oul?!” story dates back to around 2007, when I first entered my mother’s barber salon. I mean I had of course cut my hair before and all but I had not done it too elaborately, if you know what I mean. So the “coiffeur” comes in and as he is taking care of my mom, he asks me what I want to do with my hair and if I want a “brushing”. “shoo ya3neh brushing?” I ask him, as his face turns completely pale. He never answered my question. He just stared at me and was silent for the rest of my stay. The shampoo guy however did not hold back “ma32oul?! You don’t know what brushing is?! You’ve never done brushing before?!” I built up the courage to ask some friends what brushing was a few years later and it turned out to be about straightening your hair (if you didn’t know and was afraid to ask, like me.)

5- A classic “Ma32oul?!” that I am sure we’ve all experienced one way or another: The AC/heater handyman is appalled by the image of me bringing the ladder to him. “Ma32oul you’re bringing the ladder to me?! Ma 3endik we7deh (don’t you have someone, ie a maid, ie an object/robot that you can make do everything?)

These are a sample of “ma32oul?!” encounters that have marked me over the years. A quick look at them reveal the rigidity and importance of certain gendered Lebanese ways of dressing, protesting and consuming that are not to be challenged or resisted. The conditions of possibility of being a Lebanese woman are very well-defined and strongly demarcated in this case. Perhaps Bourdieu’s work on taste, knowledge and social class in Distinction can be a first attempt at analyzing these regimes of being. As Bourdieu argues, all these encounters implies a specific form of knowledge about dressing, taste, aesthetics and social relations that are accessible by a specific social class who themselves start defining what is possible and what is not, what is tasteful and what is not.

The rigidity of these everyday actions in society is a marker of an influential and well-established social class in Lebanon Their rigidity in my opinion is striking, especially when we compare them to the realm of the possible in Lebanon; ie the behaviors, ways of being-in the world and action that do not elicit a “ma32oul?!” emotion.

One very immediate example can be the tragic collapse of the Achrafieh building two days ago. Mohammad Nazzal’s article on the building collapse in Al Akhbar traces the set of normalized processes, techniques and behaviors through which politicians, officials and the Lebanese in general brought the collapse of the building into the realm of the possible, by taking away the shock and the tragedy and turning the event into a normalized and possible incidence, into “ma32oul”. The collapse of the building was not the result of Israel’s bombing, but of a worn down building and “there are a lot of worn down buildings in Beirut at risk for collapsing” as the president of Beirut municipality Bassel Hamad stated in the interview.

The normalization of the event takes it away from the element of shock and makes a traumatic event possible and mundane, thereby distancing it from the forms of social protest embedded in the emotion of “ma32oul?!”. After all, “ma32oul?!” is an expression that carries in it fundamental forms of social action that determines what is socially possible and acceptable. It seems striking that “ma32oul?!” encounters in Lebanon emerge as a way to mark and reinforce privileged class knowledge of aesthetics and consumption, but is less established and rigid in situations of violence and disaster. The collapse of the building was of course shocking and distressing for a lot of people and have elicited i am sure a “ma32oul this happened?!” emotion, but not an institutionalized and rigid one like the one expressed by the Sticky notes Fairco sailsman.

By making violent events possible, and making certain micropolitical behaviors rigid and impossible, the conditions of possibility for politics in general becomes more and more restricted in Lebanon.


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