the interrogations of shamshouma

Archive for the category “rafik Hariri”

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.

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.

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