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.
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.
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.
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.
In the last few years, and quite visibly in this last year, Lebanese people have been, unusually, under a lot of pressure to regulate and control their body parts through drastically different types of techniques and institutions. Four main body parts emerged as the main new sites for Lebanese governance, some of them more imminent and problematic than others: The vagina and the anus, regulated through the infamous homosexuality and virginity tests that the police and intelligence state apparatuses are conducting on certain Lebanese subjects; the mouth through the smoking ban, and the breast through the national breastfeeding campaign that the ministry of health and World Vision launched this year. While some of these bodily regulations have not yet become a regular form of governance, others are implemented routinely in hiding.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. Is it a coincidence that the state police, state institutions, lobbyists, middle class activists and international humanitarian organizations are choosing to regulate body parts that are deeply associated with sexual pleasure? Of course it is not a coincidence! If there is any true conspiracy theory, it is this one!
I call ‘uncivil’ the vagina and anus regulations, and ‘civil’ the mouth and breast ones, not to put a moral judgment on these kinds of regulations but to highlight that the former is seen as an non-modern way to regulate a subject’s sexuality. Let us not be mistaken though, everybody’s vaginas and anuses are under scrutiny by institutional power everywhere. There is just a biopolitical way of regulating and controlling, through medicine, public health and psychology, and an ‘uncivil’ one, through the state’ police and intelligence apparatus. Arguably, one is less creepy than the other, but both gaze upon our sexual body parts to ensure a normal masculinity/femininity.
Why the Lebanese state would choose such an ‘uncivil’ way of “checking up” on our vaginas and anuses, and not a safe, public healthy, NGO-run campaign way, is, I think, something to register and analyze.
Let’s start with the ‘civil’ regulations since we all like health so much.
Banning smoking in Lebanon (or, how to govern the citizen “by the butt”)
On the first day of the smoking ban, I asked the “service” driver about it, do the taxis also get affected?
“They fine us the same amount they do for restaurants, 135000L.L. if they catch us smoking. If you smoke in my car, it is I who will be fined as well” .What did you think of the ban, I asked: “…I don’t know miss…it’s like…, I am sorry to be rude…but it’s like they are holding us by the ass. The state is holding us by the ass. I inhale fumes from cars all the time, the fumes that come from the Saida garbage mountain, I inhale that also everyday… you know?”
Holding us by the ass? Another body part?! I don’t think this post can handle any more!
But what the service driver is saying is really insightful. He is talking about the different kinds of regulations that the state administer. He is less against “regulation” per say than against the way the state has suddenly decided to govern us, ”by the ass”, by us upside down, and governing certain body parts that have no direct impact on structural forms of violence and oppression, like the Saida’s garbage mountain that is directly affecting people’s lives.
This is what biopolitics does sometimes. It puts the responsibility of life and health onto individual citizens by inviting them to govern their own behavior, to be responsible for their own health. By relocating the responsibility of health from the state to that of the citizen, other more structural forms of oppression are left unaddressed.
I get off the service and head to T-Marbouta in Hamra. Outside in the square, a concert is being prepared by AUB students and staff to celebrate the beginning of the smoking ban. A guitarist walks in the square with his cigarette in his mouth. Two people jump on him and plead him to walk away from the square and finish his cigarette then come back. Other AUB students are roaming the streets of Hamra giving out brochures about the ban “If you see anyone smoking in a public space, it’s your responsibility to report him/her”. Holy shit, I think to myself, as many terrified smokers were panicking at that time.
Smoking in public spaces has been a long-term cause for many activists, AUB academics and public health professionals in Lebanon. The fact that their lobbying worked in a country like Lebanon is really commendable. But it is important to also look at and think about the new spaces that were re-appropriated because of the ban, the “shared public spaces” that the ban created in bars, restaurants and “public” transportation (which are not really public). What kind of a public space is that? Who inhabits these spaces and who does not anymore? Do these spaces reveal structural forms of violence or do these structures become hidden and unnoticed in them?
The ban also created interesting and new spaces for smokers, like smoking on sidewalks in groups while drinking, and getting to know other people. The other night, smokers were given a “5 minute cigarette break” during a concert and head outside to smoke, with their drinks. I guess there was too many of us so the police stopped by and asked what was going on, “That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?! Now you deal with it!” screamed some people (well it was actually one person…and it might have been just me, and I might have just whispered it to myself). But there was this feeling of solidarity about it all. One guy came up to my friend, who is not a smoker, and started comforting him “don’t panic, it will only take a month, then everything we’ll be back to normal…this can’t go on like this!”.
People were genuinely surprised about the ban. Sometimes we over-exaggerate the failure and weakness of the state and its power to regulate us. But hey, strangers are getting together and talking during 5 minutes cigarette breaks, so, state you better watch out!
The national breastfeeding campaign: turning the breast into a natural right”
It seemed to have gone unnoticed, but the breastfeeding campaign ad that the ministry of health, “partnering” with World Vision (or is it the other way around?), broadcasted on national television is really telling of how much the breast is a crucial site for regulating women’s bodies in Lebanon.
The ad caught my attention because it is charged with gendered and moralist images of what a Lebanese woman should be. I screamed the first time I saw it really. I also keep my eye out for breast campaigns (be it for cancer, esthetic surgeries, or breastfeeding) because they can tell us a lot about how women are thought of and imagined by the state ( or Lebanese state/World Vision in this case).
If you have missed it, here is the ad
The ad, published on World Vision’s site, configures breastfeeding as a child’s right. “Support children’s right- choose breastfeeding”. The classical “you’re a horrible mother if you don’t breastfeed” message. As a good faith-based organization, World Vision understands breastfeeding as “pure goodness”. A woman who does not breastfeed is not only a horrible mother, but she is also “bad” and non-religious.
Let’s move on to analyzing the ad now. Different looking women, all middle class and pretty looking, are shot talking (more like lecturing) about breastfeeding. Playing with her children, playing a business woman, going to the beauty salon, playing a doctor, or being a good wife to her husband, all these scenarios were chosen through which the state/World Vision addressed breastfeeding through a one-sentence message each.
The message does not need a lot of deciphering: “if you love your child, no matter how busy you are, you should breastfeed him/her because the milk is good, natural and healthy. Breastfeeding also makes you skinnier and does not make your breasts fall down, so you don’t have to break any of the esthetic norms dictated by society and you can always remain beautiful and even skinnier than you are already are! You can’t ever say that you have no milk, because the woman playing a doctor in the ad says that of course you will have milk! Breastfeeding makes your kid smarter and healthier. Your mother did it, so you should do it too. And to top it all, your husband approves and has personally thought about the whole issue and figured out that breastfeeding is a “right” for you and a “right” for your child. Your husband has always your rights and that of your child on his mind.”
It is quite fascinating that the ad’s conclusive statement is pronounced by the husband/man. But then again, it is not really that surprising, is it?
This breastfeeding campaign seems to corner women from every possible cheesy way. Moralist arguments about breastfeeding and the pressure that women find themselves in, to breastfeed, is universal I am sure. And again, these kinds of biopolitical regulations completely undermine and forget structural forms of violence that Lebanese women find themselves in, especially in terms of always looking pretty and ageless.
By transferring all the responsibility of breastfeeding onto the woman, these kinds of campaigns abstract the breastfeeding activity from its social and cultural meaning and its effect on the woman worker, or the woman whose whole value relies in her perky breasts and looks. Suddenly, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed becomes an issue that individual women need to handle on their own, without challenging social rules and norms that pressure her not to breastfeed or without allying with women to negotiate these norms and fight them. Through campaigns like these, these fights become individual ones and are rarely talked about as a social problem.
If you’re into breast campaigns like me, you should compare our national campaign to regulate the breast with the Saudi’s national campaign for breast cancer where King Abdullah himself appears in person to talk to Saudi women citizens.
and read about it here
And now for the uncivil.
Gazing at the vagina and the anus (or, where did the state’s masculine power go?)
Let us not be fooled. All of our vaginas and anuses are penetrated by the state’s gaze. The difference is that “in Europe and developed countries”, gazing at the vaginas and the anuses becomes the work of the medical apparatus, and also of psychology and psychoanalysis. The medical gaze of vaginas and anuses is mainly focused on “health”, “hygiene” and “disorders”, which ends up regulating sexual practices and behaviors in the way medicine and psychology thinks of as “normal”.
Virginity and homosexuality tests on the other hand, require quite a different gaze than one that is regulating health and prolonging life. It has nothing to do with the life of the subjects, and more to do with creating and maintaining specific forms of bodies, those with un-penetrated vaginas and anuses. These tests done by the police seems to happen as a way for the state’s muscle apparatus to check up on its own masculine power.
It’s really incredible that the state chooses to gaze at the subject and govern him/her through the anus and vagina. But it actually makes a lot of sense. The only form of state power and governance left in Lebanon is its hyper-masculine apparatus of police and intelligence; and even this form of power is being castrated on a daily basis by different social and political agents in and outside Lebanon. What’s left for this apparatus is to check for the masculinity of its subjects, manifested in sexual relations, as a way to check for its own masculine power
It remains to think about who is threatening enough to get these “tests” and who does not. Who is a good subject for the police and Lebanese intelligence and how is a scary one. The recent sexual harassment and beatings targeting peaceful protesters of civil marriage outside of the state’s own legitimatizing institution, the parliament, is in need for both legal action and social analysis to understand the workings of state power. You can read about the testimonies of the protesters here.
PS. Lebanese governance?!
I started this piece by assuming that it is the Lebanese state that is producing all these different forms of anatomical politics. However, it has become quite difficult to draw any kind of argument pertaining to the “state” in Lebanon. As many other countries, Lebanon government is influenced and sometimes run by international Non-governmental organizations, international aid money, be it through a country or a private donor. State institutions, municipalities and local organizations depend on their international humanitarian “partners”.
The ministry of social welfare, called MOSA in the NGO circle (it took me a whole to figure that one out!), seems to be a “partner” to all of the international humanitarian organizations residing in Lebanon! It is therefore difficult and problematic to talk about state biopolitics and/or non-governmental biopolitics, since the presence of a non-governmental organizations assumes the presence of a governmental one. All in all, the boundaries between an NGO and a state institution have been blurred in Lebanon, as in many other countries. What we have here is an NGO-State or a State-NGO form of governance, for the lack of a better and more theoretically enticing word .
This further complicates the analysis of current anatomical regulations. After all, power does work in mysterious ways, chez nous au Liban.
Bombs are not shocking in Lebanon. They are only so for the people who were walking from schools, from work or are hanging out in their neighborhood at the time of the explosion.
But it is very clear that “the bomb” has become a regular actor in Lebanese politics, even a shaker of otherwise quite stagnant and unproductive politics. Lebanese politics seem to rely on a thin line, balanced by multiple foreign policies and a local game that turns viciously onto itself in an endless form of tormented politics. Lebanon is one big chessboard, the only way to move forward is to take down the chess pieces, by a bomb.
Regardless of appalled and shocked statements by politicians and journalists, there is an established and normalized routine of handling, talking about, analyzing and describing the bomb. The bomb is not a destabilizing object, it does not create chaos, emptiness, hysterical outbursts. It only does in the community that hits it, in the neighborhood where it explodes. But who gives a fuck about the community? What the bomb “really” creates is predictable and calculated steps that are very much linked to what the bomb is saying and to whom.
What is the bomb saying? The social exchange of violence
The bomb does not create scattered bodies. It does not kill and create destruction, well maybe for a few minutes on NewTv. The bomb is a message. It is a global and political language exchanged between parties in Lebanon and their foreign sugar daddies. This is why many politicians’ only statements after the explosion were “the message has been received”.
The bomb is not random, it is not traumatizing and destabilizing. It is not an undecipherable ruptured event that disrupts the everyday. It sure did disrupt the hell out of Achrafieh and the neighborhood itself, but again, who gives a fuck? The bomb is a registered linguistic code that transfers political messages on scattered bodies and blood of Lebanese people.
What kind of bomb is this? Asks the NewTv correspondent, as the bodies and remains of people quickly turn into numbers and statistics and are re-appropriated by the bomb to show its strength.
“I am a strong and big bomb” says the bomb.
Bodies, remains, broken glass, people’s everyday walk, neighborhood spirit, cars, shops, people’s lifesaving, old women alone in their apartments, sons and daughters, all these actors are reassembled to be the bomb’s message itself. So they quickly disappear from politics and only the bomb remains.
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